Monday 11 April 2011

Church, Tradition and the Bride of Christ

As the debate continues in the Church of England Newspaper about same-sex marriage, I am grateful to Rev John Richardson for responding to my article - 'Towards a Theology of Gay- Marriage?'  
In his article 'Changing views of marriage' in last week's CEN, he has clearly sought to engage with some of the issues and questions I raised, and he makes a number of points which merit a response.
He begins by noting that same-sex marriage would mean breaking with church tradition and the theology of marriage as outlined in the BCP (Book of Common Prayer). He then makes the argument that rather than looking at Genesis 2 as our paradigm for marriage, we should look to the marriage between Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5 as the ultimate paradigm.  This, he argues, places a clear limit on our theology of marriage within the context of men and women with the ideal of procreation.  (You can read the full article by following this link)
First of all, it is interesting to see a fellow evangelical beginning with an appeal to tradition.  He rightly points out that the theology I am suggesting departs from the BCP emphasis on procreation and a 'traditional understanding of marriage'.  This is indeed the case, and I readily accept it, but in the course of human history there have been many issues where we have changed our minds in spite of clear arguments made from both Scripture and tradition for maintaining the status quo - the abolition of slavery, and the church's insistence that the sun revolves around the earth are just two such issues that immediately spring to mind.
More importantly however, is the alternative (and indeed superior) paradigm he offers for marriage in the Bible - that of Christ and His Church.
While I am not convinced that Ephesians 5 supersedes Jesus use of Genesis 2 as the ultimate paradigm for marriage, the framework he puts forward does more to suggest a 'genderless notion of marriage' than to deny it.  Why?  Because the Church as the 'Bride of Christ' contains both women and men.
As the inspirational evangelical preacher FB Meyer puts it, in his devotional commentary on Ephesians - 'Redeemed men compose that bride'.  Here is the context to that quote:
Here is a mystery indeed. That scene in Eden is also a parable. It was not good for Christ to be alone. He needed one to love and to give love. But there was none among unfallen angels that could answer to Him.  And therefore God the Father sought a bride for his Son from among the children of men; yea, He took the Second Eve from the wounded side of the Second Man, as He lay asleep in the garden-grave.

Redeemed men compose that bride...  Then the Church shall cleave to Him forever, and He shall cleave to her. And they twain shall be one spirit.

The fact that the Church comprises both men and women and that this (according to John Richardson) is the ultimate paradigm for marriage, suggests that marriage is indeed 'genderless' - it has just taken the church a long time to realise it (like the abolition of slavery and the movement of the sun).
No-one, of course would suggest that there is a literal 'sexual' component to the marriage of Christ and his Church, but that further calls into question relying on this paradigm for our full understanding of marriage.  Indeed Paul says in Ephesians 5 that "this is a profound mystery".  It is a mystery which we are still unravelling, and perhaps we haven't quite got there yet.


  1. Thanks for this - really appreciate the point about Christ marrying the church which is composed of men and women.

  2. great point you've made here!

  3. Hi Benny,

    I'm not sure I agree with your theology of Eph 5 here, but to unpack it would take sometime (maybe later if I have time). Otherwise, my main question would be this:

    If it is still a mystery, as you so clearly state, why do you advocate so strongly the answer that same-sex marriage is OK? Surely if you are consistent with your own position, should you be advocating caution and reticence to declare any answer? It is not yet unravelled and we are not there yet - but this suggests that you feel you have got there, and you are so clear you have an answer, that you feel safe to promote an answer, even THE answer.

    This looks a bit odd to me.


  4. Benny, you say that no-one would suggest a literal "sexual" component to the marriage between Christ and the Church.

    However, I did see a video given by Peter Ould that comes pretty close to this. He finished his standard talk with the illustration (which I found pretty distateful I must say) that the ejaculation of sperm into the woman's womb was a metaphor for the entry of the Holy Spirit into the Church!

    As someone who is on the prayer ministry team of my church, I am frequently asked to pray that people are to be filled with the Holy Spirit (e.g. on Alpha courses) and I have to keep Peter Ould's rather explicit metaphor out of mind when doing so!

    How on earth he can justify this as biblical is beyond me.

  5. Hi Nathan
    In this Blog, I am responding to the article by John Richardson in which he makes the case for Ephesians 5 being the ultimate paradigm for marriage (as against Genesis 2).

    I don't agree with him on this (and so I don't rely on Ephesians for my developing understanding of marriage) but I worte this response to point out that even John Richardson's argument could be read in a way which endorses same-sex marrage.

    You might find it helful to read the background articles - there are links on the blog above.

    Thanks for commenting...

  6. Hi Iain
    That is indeed a distrubing image which I will also have to put out of my mind in similar circumstances. (Thanks for that!!!)
    God Bless, Benny

  7. Ahhh ... OK!

    Let me read around a bit.


  8. Benny, as I indicated on my own blog, I've made a response to your letter to the CEN, but will wait to see if that is published before posting it online.

    Meanwhile, however, I'd like to make two clarifications and ask a question.

    The first clarification is that I'm not arguing (nor do I think it is possible to argue) that Ephesians 5 in any sense 'supersedes' Genesis 2. On the contrary, it builds directly on it (Eph 5:31 quotes Genesis 2:24, and the quote from FB Meyer recognizes the same dependency).

    Rather (as with Meyer, I think) I am saying that 'Christ and the Church' are the paradigm, Genesis 2 is the 'anti-type' (as, eg, Temple is to Cross), and 2:24 embraces all future marriages in that same typology, which Paul recognizes in Ephesians 5 and elsewhere. (In fact, I think Paul's soteriology explicitly depends on it, but that is another matter.)

    My second clarification regards starting with the Anglican tradition. This was quite deliberate, and the point I am making is that the position I am adopting is not something I take alone.

    Of course, the Anglican tradition claims to be built on Scripture (see Canon A5), but Scripture, as you acknowledge, is open to different interpretations. The Anglican tradition is therefore a particular interpretation of Scripture, bound by a commitment never to require anything against Scripture.

    When it comes to an issue as contentious as changing our entire theology of marriage and sexuality, the tradition should be our starting point, from which departure should only be made after careful, serious and collective deliberation. Importantly, this is one of those cases where private judgement must not be allowed free rein.

    And that brings me to my question. You acknowledge standing outside the tradition (laid out in the BCP). But you are required to take the Declaration of Assent and stand under Canon A5, and I just want to know how you can do this. If you have changed your mind, fair enough, but should you not therefore change your allegiance?

  9. I thought I'd posted a comment here a couple of days ago. Did it go astray?

  10. Sorry John - I have found it in my auto-spam box for some reason (perhaps the length). I will check my settings, and thank you for alerting me.

  11. That's OK. It happens on my blog all the time and is really irritating!!

  12. Dear John
    Thank you for your clarifications and the question. Here are some thoughts.

    If Ephesians 5 builds on Genesis 2, then I have to say that your argument against my original article does not hold water. If that is the case, then Ephesians 5 simply uses the foundation of Genesis 2 to illustrate the qualities which God calls us to in marriage, by relating them to the image of the Church as the bride of Christ. Thus it says nothing on the issue of human sexuality. It is written to husbands and wives because those were the relationships that Paul was observing and wanted to teach on, not because Paul was seeking to specifically exclude same-sex marriage (which he had no concept of).

    My original article pointed to the purpose of God in addressing Adam's need for the one who completes him, in the same way that God created the Sabbath to meet a need in humankind. If that 'need' is present in the (pre-fall) Adam, then it must have been created by God. So my question still stands - what of those who find that the one who completes them is of the same sex?

    Your position is quite clear - that this longing is (in your words) 'sexual dis-orientation', and is at the heart of your argument. Others see sexual orientation differently, and many Christians who have tried to 're-orientate' people have discovered the dangers of such a theology and approach (see ).

    Your appeal to the tradition of the Church of England on the other hand, and your question is more than a little cheeky.

    As an evangelical, my faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ, my Saviour and Lord, revealed in the Scriptures and experienced in personal relationship with God, which Christ has enabled through His death on the cross and His resurrection.

    My primary source of instruction in this faith is the Bible, not the formularies of the Church - as I am sure you would agree. That does not mean, however, that I am at odds with Canon A5 or the declaration of ascent. In fact I would go further. Below is a quote from the "A Covenant for the Church of England" on the Church Society's website. It quotes canon A5 as follows:

    'We are committed to faithful biblical orthodoxy as defined by the classic formularies of our tradition. Canon A5 states: “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal”. The Preface to the Declaration of Assent declares that the Church of England professes “the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds.” This is what the Church of England confesses and true unity belongs in this common confession.' (

    I can affirm whole-heartedly that I would agree with all of this, but that does not mean that we stop studying the Scriptures, in the mistaken view that we have learned all there is to know about God and His creation. The mistake that the Church Society and others have made, is found in the next sentence...

    'It is departure from this common faith that is responsible for causing schism.'

    Evangelicals who are calling for greater openness on the issue of sexuality are not rejecting this common faith - rather we are continuing the tradition of the Church of England in being open to the fullness of Scripture, and not claiming that we know and understand everything that God has to teach us.

    It is perhaps, the unwillingness of others to be open to Scripture that is precipitating schism.

  13. Hi Benny,

    I have had a quick look through some of the stuff on your site and at A.E. - thanks for pointing me there. Many questions spring to mind, some of which you may have answered elsewhere, so forgive me if I am repeating something you've already addressed.

    One thing primarily struck me, which echoes into some of what John Richardson asked and your answer. You appear to have a strong emphasis in your story elsewhere on "You will know them by their fruits." At times your line of thought seems to be "Since their fruit is good THUS their theology must be correct."

    What is your criteria for judging the correctness of theology and thought? A recent post on Leviticus began with the implied idea that personal testimony in prayer attests to correctness of theology.

    It looks like the Biblical injunction that "There is nothing more decietful than the heart" has become "The heart is a strong and accurate source of inner testimony to right and wrong." Surely it is true that very nice people can have very wrong beleifs systems.

    The orthodox evangelical stance would be to have, alongside a central focus on Scripture, a strong regard for the heritage of the church, and where new theology profoundly contradicts longstanding views held and promoted by Godly and wise people of the past, one would naturally pull oneself up and say: "Am I on the right track? If I am contradicting this long historical Godly witness of wise people, who's lives have bourne great and holy fruit and who have based their stance on Scripture, then I should should stop and reflect before going further."

    I hope I have explained myself. I'm not sure quite where you finally locate truth and what controls are brought to bear upon that truth.

    Peace to you. Nathan.

  14. Benny, I think the fundamental problem in all this is our theology of sex (NB, I am not saying 'sexuality', which has become a 'variable geometry' concept of late).

    Sex has a fixity, biologically, which modern notions of sexuality do not. It is this fixity, however, which leads me to speak of sexual 'disorientation'.

    There are also issues here of function and form. In sexual reproduction, the genitals function in ways that correspond to their form. We have to ask, however, at what point form and function have been so left behind as no longer to have any proper correspondence with the action involved.

    I think the Bible does have a theology of sex - though it is not to the forefront of the biblical narrative. This position is open to discussion, but to say the least, I would be surprised to discover it did not.

    One fundamental issue must be whether 'one flesh' as envisaged in Gen 2:24 can be attained through man+man or woman+woman just as through man+woman. Beyond this, we then have to consider the 'union with Christ' of the believer. This is where soteriology comes into the picture.

  15. Golly. How do people view all the variations in form and functioning of genitalia and biochemistry as normative? At what point does reproductive capacity become more important than the functioning of the brain or, for that matter, the Islets of Langerhans?

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