THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 65
Some issues in Human Sexuality, Section 4.4.34
The other day I heard a Christian say that he was going to reject homosexuality on the basis that
‘Most biblical scholars think that the traditional understanding of the passages about homosexuality is the most convincing’.
He had made his decision that Christians should not accept homosexuality because of the Report by the Church of England entitled ‘Some issues in human sexuality’, and in particular, a quote taken from section 4.4.34. For him this Report, apparently, was to be the ultimate authority in the matter!
The more I have thought about this the more I have felt how mistaken his approach to the subject was, and I want to explain in this article why I think he is wrong.
The part of the Report giving rise to this view (section 4.4.34) reads: “At the moment, the traditional understanding of these passages [in Leviticus and the New Testament] remain the most convincing in the minds of most biblical scholars.”
So he was prepared to follow the majority of biblical scholars, as reported by a Church of England Report. And where one does not have the scholarship oneself, and one has not studied the texts sufficiently to come to a decision, then it may seem at first sight to be perfectly reasonable to follow the experts.
We all follow the advice and opinion of experts all the time. Where would governments be without their experts! They decide which way they want to go and then adopt the opinion of the expert who advocates that direction! You may suspect that I am a little cynical about experts – perhaps I have seen too many experts disagreeing to ever put a life and death matter into their hands. The recent case about child abuse by parents comes to mind – where a parent has subsequently had to be released after being wrongly imprisoned. I come from a position where I would rather trust my own assessment of the facts, after listening to all the expert views.
So who are these experts that have decided – or a majority of them – that the traditional view of sexuality is the right one? Well, they are respected academics. They have spent years training for their profession. And many of them have then spent years working in their profession. They know their Hebrew and their Greek. They know their history. They have often become highly respected people, and are sometimes awarded honorary degrees. Naturally, most of them are probably middle aged or older.
So here is our first question mark. Does their seniority, which might also be taken as an indication of their cultural background, affect their judgement at all? Are they dealing with a subject that is regarded as a science or an art? How many of their decisions are matters of opinion? If they are of opinion, how much are they affected by their cultural background?
I accept that their considered opinion is the only expert opinion we have got on the Hebrew and the Greek text. But how important is that in the total picture? Is this a subject where one must take other considerations into account than the opinions of biblical scholars? However important the Hebrew and the Greek text is, what else is important? And how important?
So here is a big area where the original statement (that one would follow the traditional attitude to homosexuality adopted by a majority of expert biblical scholars) is suspect. I find myself wondering about the opinions of any group of middle-aged people on this subject; their life’s training may well have inculcated in them an inherent aversion to homosexuality. After all, it is only in the last few decades that opinion has shifted radically on the whole subject of homosexuality. And it is interesting that respected experts disagree on the subject.
Then we come to the second reason I don’t accept the statement made. Did the speaker know how many experts the writers of the Report have consulted? Did the writers of the Report canvass all the theologians of the world? Or did they select their theologians – and did they take a fair cross section? And what sort of question have they asked them? Have they tried to get a carefully evaluated opinion or have they asked one of those ‘simple’ and bland questions that force the respondent to a yes or no answer? There is no indication of how many experts were evaluated. Did they just do a literature search? How representative would that be?
Nor, of course, was there any indication of how great a majority they produced. Was the ratio ninety percent for and ten per cent against? Or was it a fifty-five and forty-five ratio? We are given no indication. And how did those writing the Report weigh the answers according to the degree of expertness of the respondents? Some are much more worthy of respect than others! Did they take account of that fact? And whom did they call as an expert, anyway?
So the quality of the opinion given needs careful assessment. This is the second large area where I think the speaker was deficient in his decision to follow this statement from the Report blindly.
Then there is the question of how far the experts differed from each other. Do they disagree in some small regard or did they disagree on a major matter? In precisely what did they disagree? How important is their area of disagreement? How should we view their disagreement?
These are questions worth exploring - and, while the collation of these opinions was, I am sure, made carefully, we just don’t know what value to place on the results which are summarised in the words “most biblical scholars think that the traditional understanding of the passages about homosexuality is the most convincing.’
This seems to me to be a major deficiency in the Report and, consequently, in the idea that we ‘should accept the majority finding’ as suggested by the speaker.
Already the opinion of my speaker who decided to refuse to accept homosexuality on the grounds of the Report is distinctly suspect.
But now we come to another aspect of the whole affair.
When I searched through the Report to find where the quoted statement came, I discovered it was not in the final summary but buried in an earlier section. Not only that – but the next paragraph (4.4.35) started with the words ‘Unless this situation changes…’ which clearly shows that the authors of the Report were by no means definite about the conclusion on which my speaker rested his case. They envisaged that it was possible that the majority could swing the other way!
Upon reading the context of the paragraph relied on by my speaker (4.4.34), I then discovered that the section in which we find his quotation comes from only the first of two different approaches instanced by the writers of the Report. The first approach was based on examination of modern research about the biblical texts. But then there is a second approach (starting at 4.4.36) that examines the texts in relation to scripture as a whole.
My speaker made no mention that there was also this second approach in the Report – one that looked at the texts in a far wider way.
So his extraction of this one snippet of text from the Report, which turns out to be a comment on one aspect of the argument only, is decidedly shaky! It is selective in the extreme. It ignores other aspects of the argument entirely!
This is the sort of complexity and special pleading that one finds in the whole homosexuality debate.
But now I want to turn away from the Report and the quotation from it by my speaker, and look instead at a wider aspect.
If one is searching for a right attitude on a biblical subject and one reads a report about some group of experts in Hebrew and Greek, is one right to then totally abdicate one’s responsibility to them? I think that shows a wrong attitude to Scripture. It shows an unwillingness to rely on one’s own judgement. Indeed, it may show a desire to have a foot in both camps: one can always say, if one is proved wrong afterwards, that one was simply following the experts!
So what is at issue here? It is a question of the responsibility each of us bears in relation to the Word of God. And it is an issue that comes up again and again from conservative evangelicals who, understandably, want to protect the authority of scripture. Frequently one hears that the biblical text is to be the final arbiter in all matters of doctrine or practice for the true Christian. But what one then sees is a Christian who is afraid of getting it wrong and so seeks a literal interpretation for authority.
So my message to the speaker – and to everyone who hides behind experts, even biblical experts – is that God calls for us to come out from behind the barricades and accept full responsibility for our own understanding of the Word – with the help of the Holy Spirit. We must listen to the Spirit in our hearts as we read and reflect, and then speak out fearlessly about what we see as true.
It simply is not good enough to shelter behind the fact that certain ‘experts’ have said that the meaning of the Scripture is this or that. Each of us has to decide for ourselves what Scripture (as a whole) means to us today, taking everything into account. We have to accept responsibility ourselves for our own opinion. And we especially have we to do this in matters where – as shown by a full reading of the Report – there is a wide variety of views by different Christians.
So I decided that the speaker I had heard accepting the traditional view of the experts, was wrong, and wrong on several counts. Not only had he not enquired diligently enough about the procedure of those writing the Report – he also had abdicated his own God given ability to decide and discern a right view on the meaning of Scripture. Furthermore, he had either misread or misinterpreted (or misquoted) the Report, omitting to mention the qualification in the next paragraph. Finally, I concluded that he had opted to hide behind experts rather than give his own conclusion on the matter.
I don’t accept that what the Report is a fair representation when it implies that a preponderance of experts do adopt the traditional understanding of homosexuality, and so I would wish to dig a lot deeper before I accepted the rather bland statement in section 4.4.34. Some expert opinions I have read lead me to think that the traditional interpretation is distinctly dubious. And, after much study and thought, my own belief is that Christians should accept gay people into all areas of the church on an equal footing. Clearly much further thought and discussion will take place before, eventually, the church arrives at a final viewpoint. It will take time to squeeze the homophobia out of the system, but eventually we will have the chance of a balanced decision being made.