Thursday, 31 March 2011

Changing views on marriage raise important questions on evangelical truth

The article below is published in today's edition of the Church of England Newspaper:

In The Church of England Newspaper on March 4, the Rev Benny Hazlehurst, the Secretary of ‘Accepting Evangelicals’, set out his proposals for a ‘theology of gay marriage’. In the pages of the Church Times this would have been unremarkable, and letters of support would equally come as no surprise. This, however, was in ‘Britain’s leading evangelical newspaper’, and the many letters agreeing with him came, no doubt, from people who would describe themselves as evangelical.
That such a thing would have been unthinkable amongst the generation that gave us the 1967 Keele Congress, or the even bigger NEAC at Nottingham in 1977 is a measure of how far we have come in a few decades.
We must therefore ask, does this growing acceptance of same-sex relationships amongst evangelicals mark a stepping away from our earlier unconscious Pharisaism, as Hazlehurst suggests, or is it a declension from evangelical truth, as our forebears would doubtless have thought?
As we reflect on Hazlehurst’s article, one thing which particularly stands out is that the understanding of marriage he puts forward has no need for gender as such.
This alone surely raises difficult questions! Hazlehurst refers early on to the slogan that “God made Adam and Eve — not Adam and Steve”, and many of us would agree this is a bit too slick. Yet a few paragraphs later he has reached the conclusion that God might as well have done just that.
“Is it not possible,” he asks rhetorically, “that the yearning to find the one who ‘completes’ us is the same for everyone — gay straight, bi, or transgendered?” And he continues: “Is it not possible that God’s response to that yearning is also the same for everyone irrespective of their sexuality — the opportunity of marriage for all, with the person who ‘completes’ them, no matter what sex they are?”
Hazlehurst’s argument is thus that the need marriage addresses — the thing that prompted God to say, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) — is the need for someone to be, as we might say, our ‘other half’. And it is that arrangement which meets this felt need which ought to be defined as ‘marriage’.
It is an appealing argument, but the ‘genderless’ notion of marriage that emerges from this proposal is utterly unlike anything found in Scripture, or indeed in virtually any human society until the present time.
Hazlehurst claims that marriage is not fundamentally about procreation. Sexual attraction is fundamental to the desire, but sexual function is irrelevant to the definition.
Yet just what Hazlehurst rejects is actually intrinsic to the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, regardless of age or ability. “First,” says the BCP marriage service to everyone, “It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name”, even though, as the rubric notes later, “the Woman is past child-bearing”.
Admittedly that is not Scripture, but it is surely the BCP keeping the scriptures of Genesis 1:28 and 2:18 together, not dividing them as Hazlehurst does.
The biggest problem with Hazlehurst’s thesis, however, is not the ‘variable geometry’ of marriage that will result, but the fact that it is simply not theological enough.
Hazlehurst writes that, “In the account of Adam and Eve we find our paradigm for marriage.” Yet that is not true, as the Apostle Paul makes abundantly clear in Ephesians 5.
In verse 28, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 — a verse central to Hazlehurst’s argument. Yet he refers it not to Adam and Eve, as might be expected, but to Christ and the Church. And this is why he can say to husbands in v 25, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.”
He emphatically does not say, “Christ loves the Church as you husbands love your wives”, which he would have done if this were simply an analogy between a loving marriage and God’s love for his people. The application is ‘top down’, not ‘bottom up’.
Thus it is ‘Christ and the Church’ which is the paradigm for Adam and Eve, and for all married couples to follow. And the fact that the love between Adam and Eve was imperfect is no more a barrier to the Apostle than the fact that the husbands he addresses are imperfect. It is the paradigm, not its outworking, which counts.
Just how significant this is in Paul’s thinking, however, is indicated at the end of chapter 1: “And God placed all things under [Christ’s] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way,” (Ephesians 1:22-23, NIV).
To understand this, we must look again at Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth ...” (NIV, emphasis added).
In the LXX of the Old Testament, the verb for “filling” is the same as applies to Christ in the New — Christ is the one who truly ‘fills the earth and subdues it’. But he does not do it ‘alone’. Rather, as Eve was presented to Adam, so Christ presents the Church to himself (Eph 5:27) so that, as ‘one body’ with the Church, he may fill and rule over all things.
Theologically, then, Genesis 1:28 (sexuality for procreation) and 2:24 (sexuality for companionship) are held together, just as they point forward to Ephesians 1:23 and 5:27. It is no wonder Paul calls this a “mystery” (Eph 5:32), but it indicates that our understanding of sexuality in bodily union needs to be held together with our understanding of mutuality in marriage.
Thus human sexuality, according to Scripture, is not simply procreative, but neither is it simply relational. Rather, behind it lies God’s plans both for creation and redemption.
What, then of Adam and Steve? The modern world has coined the notion of ‘sexual orientation’ to explain the attraction between people of the same gender. In truth, however, we ought to speak of sexual dis-orientation, for such an attraction can never achieve a fully ‘sexual’ relationship.
In theological terms, however, the endorsement of ‘gay marriage’ would require us to say that ‘Christ and the Church’ can just as equally be modelled by two ‘Christs’ or two ‘Churches’, or indeed some other combination, since Benny Hazlehurst also refers to the bisexual and transgendered.
At that point we would certainly have left behind the traditional understanding of marriage. But I would contend that we would also have left behind the biblical understanding of Christian theology. And that we must certainly not do.
Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. According to the story, God really did make Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. But...Adam and Steve could have done exactly the same thing Adam and Eve did. Do a search: The First Scandal. Then click twice.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. I often read the letters page in "Church of England Newspaper" with a feeling of despair. I remember about 15 years ago the Evangelical Alliance's magazine did a gushing article about women church leaders, and I wrote in to predict that within a generation, using similar arguments (Paul was affected by the thinking of the day, politically incorrect Biblical passages are all due to "local circumstances", Jesus never said anything about it, the Church needs to be "relevant", etc. etc.) mainstream evangelical thinking would have no problem with same-sex marriages.

    I was wrong about it taking as long as a generation.

  4. Hi Mark. I've decided I have to delete your comments re Benny Hazelhurst as he is not here to represent himself.

    Also, though I know you comment regularly, they do not have a full name and location and therefore would not be personally attributable, which in the circumstances I think must be required.

    Do keep posting, though.

  5. P. Boswijk Zeist1 April 2011 at 09:07

    Thank you very much for this clarifying article, especially the top-bottom vs bottom-top approach is insightful. It is quit clear everything is turned upside down in our days. And I completely agree with mr. Pointer, that it are the theological arguments that count. I remember that this was also the exact argument by rev. Jeffrey John, who contended that those who were against same-sex marriages/relationships, should also go back to exclusively male leadership and a headcovering for women, because it are the same arguments.

    But I would like to add that these theological arguments are again imbedded in our view of what Christianity and the Church is. It strikes me more and more that christians in our days not only find the position of the Church in former generations completely irrelevent, but also don't care anything about the position of other christians in their own time. My conclusion would be that the Church is no longer viewed as a living community of all ages and places under Christ its Head who through his Apostles has delivered to that community the faith once delivered, but as some sort of a human philosophy which we can alter to achieve human goals in this world.

  6. Graham, you were prescient indeed (although not entirely alone of course - in fact during the days leading up to 11.11.1992 a number of evangelicals on Synod sought assurances from Abp. Carey that voting for that measure wouldn't lead on to SSM etc. Clearly they thought there was a link, or at least that many people see a link and act on that assumption.

    Any chance you still have to hand that letter you sent to EA? Care to post it here?

    PBZ - great post. Your concluding remarks can be summarised by saying that said "modern Christians" no longer believe in the communion of saints, and should therefore stay silent when that part of the creed comes up in church.

    Dan Baynes
    Barton Seagrave

  7. Rt Rev Dominic Stockford1 April 2011 at 15:12

    1. The article says, early on, "how far we have come". Surely it should say "how far we have fallen..."

    2.The first poster says: "According to the story, God really did make Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. But...Adam and Steve could have done exactly the same thing Adam and Eve did."

    No, they couldn't. There is no way that Adam and Steve could have had children. Sin or no sin that would have been the end of the human race, but God created it as He did for a reason...

    3. Even in an independent Reformed, Protestant Anglican style congregation like mine we think it prescient and sensible to occasionally remind people that, as Dan Baynes says, if they don't believe what is said in the Creed they should keep their mouths shut when it is said!

  8. Dear John
    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my recent article. Unlike a number of other responses, you have sought to address the issues and questions I raised, and I value that.

    I will get back to you with a response once I have time to reflect on the points you have made.

    God Bless
    Benny Hazlehurst

  9. Fair enough, John - I look forward now to Benny Hazlehurst making good on his promise here.
    I think my broader point still holds here (and I imagine you would agree with it), that the definition of "evangelical" has been so extended as to make the term fairly meaningless; so if someone describes himself as "evangelical" what does that mean today? There are numerous people, including several bishops in the Church of England, who came from a conservative evangelical (Anglican or Baptist) background, and might be thought of in those terms by those "outside", but their view of Scripture and the their theological method is really moderate modern liberalism, while their social and political outlook more often than not is real the guiding star of their pronouncements.
    To see people like Bishop Nick Baines (who claims the evangelical badge) commending David Jenkins (remember him?) shows how etiolated theology has becoem in the Church of England.

    Mark B.,
    West Kent

  10. Benny, I look forward to your contribution and hope others will join in - and therefore welcome back Mark B (any chance of a surname??)

  11. Dear John
    I have now posted my response to your article, a shorter version of which was printed in the CEN letters page last week.
    You (& others) can see the fuller version on my Blog.

    Let me know your thoughts...

  12. Benny, as it happens I sent a response to this to the CEN this morning. As it is a letter for publication, I will wait until their Friday edition appears before putting it online.