'There's nowt so queer as folk' - Gender and sexuality

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Sex and religion. Why celibacy? Is homosexuality objectively disordered? Are gender differences important in religion? What is gender anyway?

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1 March 2007



Professor Keith Ward


If you say that you are going to talk about religion and morality, many people immediately assume that you are going to talk about sex. And I am. As a matter of fact I do not think that issues of sexuality and gender are the most important moral issues in the modern world. I would reserve that honour for questions of global justice and the proper conservation and use of the world's natural resources. But questions of sex do immediately affect every human individual, and religions have had much to say about the morality of sexual practice.

It cannot be denied that a great deal of what has been said has been negative. For many religions in the Indian tradition, abstention from sexual practice is a condition of living an advanced spiritual life. In the Abrahamic faiths, that is not generally the case, but sexual practice is nevertheless strongly circumscribed by slightly differing versions of exclusive marriage relationships, within which alone sexual relationships are permitted.

In the modern world rapidly changing social conditions and the development of means of birth control have meant that for many people sexual relationships have become wholly a matter of personal choice, and ancient religious prohibitions seem to them to be strangely restrictive. Is there anything to be said any longer for the institution of exclusive life-long marriage, and for the prohibition of all sexual activity outside of that institution? This is not just a dispute between religious and secular moral views. The opposition to homosexual partnerships, for instance, is based as strongly on deep-rooted human feelings of aversion as on any religious principles. Indeed, religious views, at their best, try to counteract the ingrained prejudice that encourages hatred of people with homosexual inclination and temperament. Nevertheless, there are major religious traditions that wholly forbid extra-marital sexual practice. Both traditional Islam and the Roman Catholic Church are best known for issuing such prohibitions. But to some extent within Islam and to a much great and more public extent in modern Christianity there is deep moral division about the extent to which traditional moral views may be appropriately revised in the changed social and technological conditions of the modern world. In my discussion I shall focus on the Christian discussion. I shall seek to explore the roots of the traditional view that all sexual practice must be within life-long marriage. Then I will examine the reasons that can be brought forward for challenging the traditional view. And I shall try to show what a revised morality of sexuality and gender might say, to provide a genuinely Christian view of human sexuality that is fully humane and liberating.

Traditional Christian views of sexuality have two main historical roots. One is the tradition of Natural Law, which I discussed in the previous talk. Appeal to natural law is probably the major resource upon which Christian theologians rely in matters of sexual ethics. I have held that such an appeal is wholly reasonable, but that it needs to be revised in the light of evolutionary biology. We shall no longer be able to talk of frustrating purposes of nature. Instead, we should speak of aiding the purpose of God in creating the cosmos as a realm in which personal life emerges and develops, a purpose which is still in process, and which humans can help to implement in creative ways, often by modifying or even frustrating the physical processes of nature.

SCRIPTURE. The other is the revealed Scripture, Old and New Testament, which seems to contain repeated condemnations of homosexual practice and of adultery - though it does not in fact explicitly prohibit either polygamy or all extra-marital sexual practices. Traditionally, specific texts condemning various forms of sexual practice have been accepted as binding rules for all time. But modern study of the Bible puts such uses of Scripture in question. It has become clear that most of the moral rules in the Bible have been modified considerably by Christians.

 The first and most obvious way in which this is the case can be found in the New Testament use of the Hebrew Bible, which becomes known as the 'Old Testament'. The astounding fact is that the New Testament abolishes Jewish religious law altogether for Christians. At the first Church Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15, 28), all the rules of the Law were abolished except for eating blood or animals that had been strangled - a remnant of the Jewish food laws. This is astounding because most of the apostles, including in particular James, the brother of Jesus, had supported keeping Torah, and Matthew records Jesus as saying that Torah should be kept (Mathew 5, 17). The decision came only after 'much debate' (Acts 15, 7), so it was plainly not a matter that had been conclusively settled by Jesus.

The Church took upon itself the authority to revoke Torah. Of course there was good reason for this, since Christians were now largely Gentile, and the decision was in effect that they did not have to become Jews before they could be Christians. Nevertheless, it was a decision of major importance. For Christians continued to accept the Hebrew Bible as their Scripture. Yet what Jews consider its major content, Torah, was henceforth regarded as the law for another religious group, not as such applicable to Christians. At a stroke, 613 commandments had been deprived of their binding authority for Christians.

Does this mean that all those commandments have no authority for Christians? In third-century Jewish thought, there was developed the idea of a Noahide Covenant for Gentiles. This was said to consist of seven laws - the establishment of courts of justice, the prohibition of idolatry, blasphemy, sexual immorality, murder, theft and 'the limb from a living animal'. There has been much debate as to how to interpret these laws, but the Christian prohibition of eating blood could be an attempt to go back behind the Mosaic law to God's covenant with Noah (recorded in Genesis 9, 4).

It was not long before the prohibition on eating blood (kosher meat) was also abolished, showing that the process of revising religious law carried on beyond the New Testament. We have to conclude that Christians are neither bound by the laws of Torah nor by the written decisions of the Church recorded in the New Testament.

Calvin attempted to distinguish between the ritual parts of Torah and the moral parts, and retain the latter. There is no Biblical precedent for doing that, and in any case Christians have revised or dropped some laws that seem undoubtedly to be moral. We do not approve of stoning our sons to death for drunkenness, or of letting the kin of murder victims kill their murderers, or of polygamy or concubinage, of Levirate marriage or of capital punishment for apostasy of witchcraft. We do not prohibit lending at interest, and we do not permit slavery. We may well not approve of capital punishment at all, and many Christians do not accept the Old Testament rules for divorce and re-marriage.

Many of these laws had been dropped within Judaism by the time of Jesus, by general Rabbinic consent. But the authority of the Rabbis is not accepted by Christians, so that cannot be used as a reason for amending these Biblical moral laws. Christians can regard the Church as having authority to revise or interpret Biblical laws. But that means that the principle of revisability is accepted, under some conditions.          

Some Christians (including Calvin) take the Ten Commandments as binding on Christians. There is no doubt that these commandments have a special importance, though significantly they omit the two most important commandments of the law, love of God and neighbour. But the first four commandments are not properly speaking moral. They prohibit worshipping other gods, making idols, misusing the name of God, and they enjoin keeping the Sabbath (not working, travelling, or lighting fires).

Jews, whose commandments these are, would probably say that Christians break at least two of them, for Christians have pictures of God, and they do not keep the Sabbath rules properly. As Calvin saw (In the Institutes, Book 2, ch. 8), Christians can only make these laws their own by ignoring their literal sense, and giving them a spiritual sense. That is a major re-interpretation. So again one must note here that Christians do not take all Biblical laws in their literal sense, but often look for a rather remote spiritual sense (as when the sabbath laws are taken, as Calvin took them, to denote a spiritual 'resting in God'. Calvin opposed keeping one day of the week as a special religious festival, on the ground that we should be religious every day).

Calvin also decides to interpret each of the Ten Commandments as not only prohibiting some action, but also as positively enjoining the opposite action. Thus 'do not commit murder' enjoins 'save life', and 'do not steal' enjoins 'give freely to others'. This is a very nice interpretation, but it is pretty obviously not what the Bible says. What it seems to involve is the extension of the laws by applying the principle of neighbour-love as widely as possible. Given such freedom of interpretation, one may have a very free hand with many Biblical rules.

JESUS' MORAL TEACHING. In addition to this fact of the rejection or spiritualisation of Biblical laws by the early Church and by many Christians, is another factor arising from the nature of Jesus' recorded moral teaching. I think it would be agreed that Jesus' moral teaching is found most crucially in Matthew's narrative of the Sermon on the Mount. It is virtually impossible to interpret this teaching literally, or even to be quite sure exactly what it is recommending, in many cases. According to Matthew, Jesus says, 'You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye'' (Mat. 5, 38), 'But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer'. This is a crucial case for how we are to interpret the ethical teachings of the New Testament. Is Torah, given by God, being revoked by Jesus? It seems like it - yet the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus' statement, 'Do not think that I have come to abolish the law' (Mat. 5, 17).

Perhaps, then, Jesus is keeping the law of retaliation as a legal possibility, but saying that his disciples should go beyond it, and turn the other cheek, give the extra cloak, walk the extra mile, and give to all who beg or borrow.  Even so, what can he mean by saying that disciples should not resist evildoers? That we should let criminals get away with their crimes unpunished? Or does he mean that we should give beggars whatever they ask for? There is a variety of suggested interpretations for such statements. One, which seems quite plausible to me, is that he is using exaggerated statements for effect, which it would be absurd to take literally, but which remind us that we should not be vindictive. We should not look for immediate retaliation (even if we are legally entitled to do so), but should practice restraint and concern for the welfare of others, whatever the provocation.

 This is just one possible interpretation. The point is that it is very difficult to find an interpretation that we can apply in our daily lives, and Christians differ in how they take the sermon. But it does seem to me that it would be silly to take these as rules to be literally applied by everyone. They rather seem to point to inner attitudes that should govern my relations with other people. But they do not say exactly what I should do in specific situations.  Most Christians seem to agree with this when it comes to at least some of the sermon. When Jesus says, 'Do not swear at all' (5, 34), Quakers take this to forbid swearing an oath on the Bible in a court of law. But most Christians do not take Jesus' remark literally. They swear on oath, and explain that Jesus really meant to recommend complete truthfulness, not to ban literally swearing an oath. In other words, most Christians do not take a literal interpretation, but look for an underlying spiritual meaning, which they think (rightly, in my view) is much more important. 

JESUS ON MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE. At last I come round to mentioning sex, which I have deferred for as long as possible. Jesus says, 'Anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery' (5, 28). The interpretation I prefer seems to fit this case very well. Jesus is talking about inner attitudes. We can interpret his statement (but it is an interpretation) as saying that anyone who inwardly desires a married woman has committed a sin which is a sort of adultery. But he goes on to say that if your right eye offends you, tear it out. That is certainly not literal. It is a hugely exaggerated statement to make the point that the nourishing of an active desire for a wrong (in this case, sex with another's wife) is itself a wrong.  Then comes a very mysterious passage. 'Anyone who divorces his wife (except on the ground of unchastity - porneia), causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery' (5, 32). Divorce is allowed by Torah, and it was relatively easy for a man to divorce his wife, for 'indecency' (porneia), which could be very widely interpreted to mean anything shocking or unacceptable, not just adultery. But now Jesus says that if the man divorces a wife, it is she who commits adultery. This could only be so if she marries again, and it seems to prohibit remarriage after divorce, even for women who do not want to be divorced, and who will be socially disadvantaged if they do not remarry.

This seems surprisingly uncharitable, if it is meant to be a rule. In some manuscripts, at Matthew 19, 9, Jesus says, 'Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery'. This formulation is found in Mark and Luke also. That makes more sense, and at least puts the blame on the man.

Matthew certainly represents Jesus as saying that divorce is a bad thing, arising from human hard-heartedness. 'It was not so at the beginning' (Mat. 19, 8). But is Jesus cancelling the Biblical permission of divorce? Or is he rather saying (by analogy with the 'law of retaliation' case above) that divorce is permissible, but disciples should not divorce their wives? If we follow the analogy of that case, however, we might expect that this is not a specific rule, but points to an inner attitude. Just as you are not expected literally to let evildoers do as they wish without resistance, so you are not expected literally never to divorce, not is a divorced woman guilty of adultery if she remarries. The point in the former case is to be non-vindictive, but what you are to do in specific cases depends on the situation. If the analogy was pursued, in the case of divorce the point would be to condemn an attitude of frivolity or lack of seriousness about marriage, and to encourage an attitude of loyalty to a partner 'for better or worse, until death'. Jesus would be pointing out that commitment to another in marriage is to be serious, life-long and genuine, not a matter of momentary inclination or convenience.

But he would not be saying that in hard cases (as when a man deserts a woman), she is condemned never to remarry.  Christian churches differ considerably in their interpretation of Jesus' reported remarks about divorce. The Church of England, strangely, has the harshest doctrine - that marriage is life-long and re-marriage after divorce is forbidden. Fortunately, perhaps, Anglicans rarely keep their own rules. The Roman Catholic Church also forbids remarriage after divorce, and holds that divorce is impossible, for marriage is indissoluble.

This is a strongly literal interpretation of Jesus' teaching. But the Catholic Church nevertheless annuls many marriages, saying that they were not genuine, so in practice people can marry 'again', even while children of the previous 'non-marriage' still live. The Orthodox Churches permit remarriage after divorce, as long as a public confession of regret for the breakdown of the previous marriage is made. Many Protestant churches permit divorce and remarriage, and so they are presumably committed to taking Jesus' words on this issue non-literally, as an exaggerated way of saying that ideally one should not divorce, and that one should do all one can to prevent divorce. But sometimes it happens, and we must then make the best of a bad job - and 'making the best' will often mean marriage to someone else.  This shows how difficult it is to interpret Jesus' moral teaching on this central matter of sexual ethics, marriage and divorce. My own view is nearest the Orthodox and Protestant view on this issue, and for three main reasons.

First, Jesus' moral teaching in general seems to be stated in very exaggerated terms that cannot be taken literally, but that point to the ideal moral attitudes that should govern human life (we might think of Jesus' statement that a camel cannot go through a needle's eye as such a case, pointing out the difficulty, but not the absolute impossibility, of combining great wealth and Christian discipleship). So if we try to take one consistent way of interpreting Jesus' moral teachings, it has to be a non-literal way, but a way which does not in any way undermine the importance of absolute moral commitment. The commitment will be, however, not to external acts but to inner attitudes. Such attitudes will normally issue in external acts of a specific sort. Life-long commitment will normally issue in no divorce. But in hard cases, the required attitudes of true care for another and respect for their wishes can remain, or even be strengthened, by making an exception to the normal rules.

Second, Torah permitted divorce, as did all the Rabbis of Jesus' day. The disciples may have been shocked at the severity of Jesus' teaching, but it was shock enough to them that he made divorce extremely difficult, when they were obviously expecting him to have a more liberal attitude (that itself is perhaps a clue to the general nature of Jesus' moral teaching. He was generally liberal or humane in his interpretations of Torah, arguing for healing and for picking ears of what on the Sabbath - both allowed by liberal interpretations of Torah, but contested by very conservative readings). And according to Matthew, Jesus did not mean actually to contradict Torah in his teaching.

Third, the literal interpretation of the divorce aphorism in the Sermon on the Mount would be uncharitable to innocently divorced women, and I cannot accept that Jesus' teaching was ever uncharitable. True love of neighbour will sometimes involve marrying, and taking care of, women who have been left alone through no fault of their own, or by a tragic breakdown of marriage. And it will sometimes involve letting a wife of husband go, when they do not wish to continue a relationship further. These are hard cases, and it would be a mistake to build a set of moral laws on hard cases. It is better to do as I, at least, believe Jesus did, and that is to set out the moral ideals that should govern human life, and leave hard cases to careful and particular consideration in often unforeseen situations. The underlying principle that I would find in the sermon with regard to sexual morality is that life-long commitments of loyalty and trust, for better or for worse, are of great value, and should never be intentionally undermined (5, 31 - 32). In addition, it is wrong to make such relationships merely instrumental to gaining momentary pleasure, so that personal gratification is regarded as more important than a fully personal relationship of shared concern and experience (5, 27 - 30). Both these principles are fully consistent with love of neighbour, and they spell out what such love implies. In the form in which I have described them, they do not mention sex or gender at all. They are about friendship in general. And that, in my view, is how they should be taken.

PAUL AND FREEDOM FROM THE LAW. Many other particular ethical rules cited in the New Testament need to be interpreted in the light of subsequent Christian experience. If taken on their own, in a literal sense, they can be very misleading. This is not to say that New Testament ethical rules are of no importance. They do give some very clear guide-lines to modern ethical decision-making. What I want to suggest is that in some important cases they do not give inflexible rules that cannot be amended, and that must be applied literally in the modern world. No church takes all New Testament rules in such a literal sense. Indeed, there is the highest New Testament authority for refusing to take them in a literal sense, as binding rules for all time.  That authority is Paul, whose views on the matter seem to be unambiguously clear. In the longest letter he wrote concerned with central issues of obedience to God's Law, revealed to Moses, he writes, 'Now we are discharged from the law...so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit' (Romans 7, 6). These are very strong words.

We are 'discharged from the law'. It has no binding authority for Christians, who are not bound by a written code.  It is important to see that the Law, for Paul, was the whole Torah, including ritual, purity and moral aspects - including, as well as the rules for offering sacrifices, the Ten Commandments.

We are free of all of it. That certainly does not mean that morality has no force for Christians. Paul does not mean that the old Law is not binding, and so there is no moral law at all for Christians. What he says is, 'Christ is the end of the law' (Romans 10, 4). Christ both negates and fulfils the written law, for he is in his own person the law (the Torah, the eternal wisdom of God) embodied. If we wish to know what Paul calls 'the Law of Christ', we must look to Jesus' life and teachings.  As we have seen, his teachings do not seem to lay down specific moral rules. But they lay before us a set of moral attitudes - of non-vindictiveness, truthfulness, respect for others, reconciliation and universal benevolence - that are rigorous and difficult. His life sets before us an example of healing, forgiveness, compassion, care for the socially borderline and kindness. All these qualities can be brought to birth in us by the Sprit, and the life of the Spirit is a life whose inner attitudes are generated and sustained by the Spirit of Christ.  The Christian moral life is one that pursues demanding moral virtues of character. But it is not one of obedience to specific written rules.

Paul writes that all the rules of Torah 'are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law' (Romans 13, 9 and 10). We do often need particular rules, but their function is to spell out in specific situations what love of neighbour requires. If situations change, we might need different particular rules, but their justification will always be that they serve better to show neighbour-love than the rules we are trying to revise.  Changes in circumstances, or changes in our understanding of what neighbour-love truly requires, may make revision of old rules morally necessary. 'If you are led by the Spirit', writes Paul, 'You are not subject to the law' (Galatians 5, 18).

The important thing, therefore, is to seek to be led by the Spirit of Christ, and then to ensure that our moral rules express this Spirit in the most adequate way. This suggests that the New Testament attitude to morality is most basically this: particular moral rules are revisable, but they must be revised to express the Spirit of Christ - of universal love and concern for others - more fully. If this is Paul's teaching, then we will naturally expect that, if Paul mentions any particular moral rules, it would be absurd to take them as necessarily binding for all time.

That would contradict and wholly undermine Paul's own teaching. We should certainly take them seriously, and try to see what sort of instruction they might have for own own lives. But in the end all such rules will be revisable, if a revision would enable universal love to be better expressed in different circumstances.  It turns out that quite a few moral rules in the New Testament have been revised in this way through the centuries of Christian existence.

Indeed, there a number of moral rules that seem, as they stand, to express a very imperfect and provisional understanding of the universal love of God as it is seen in the life of Jesus. It looks as though some New Testament writers had not yet fully seen the radical nature of God's demand for universal love, and were still hampered by some of the limited social conventions of their own day. Examples of this are: the failure to condemn slavery as an institution, insistence that women should not wear jewellery or visit hairdressers, the opinion that State authorities are ordained by God (even when Nero is Emperor?), and the subordination of women to men.

Just as understandings of the Trinity are very imperfect in the New Testament, so are some moral understandings. If that is right, we can call on the fact that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth (John 16, 13) by stressing that it may take a long time for the Spirit to get us anywhere near the full truth, and that the Spirit has to deal with some very limited and obdurate human hearts along the way. The New Testament letters give some examples of how human moral understanding, even when enlightened by the Spirit, was still limited and in need of further revision. The moral task is still incomplete, for we have still not understood the width and depth of God's demand for universal love, or what particular rules we need to express such an understanding. But the New Testament principle seems fairly clear - moral rules are always subsidiary to the principle of universal love, and we see better what that requires only as we reflect upon the life of Jesus and the active working of the Spirit in human hearts.

 HOMOSEXUALITY. Modern social conditions have transformed our thinking about gender and sexuality. Christians are faced with a new situation that the Bible never envisaged. Sexual relations have become separable from the procreation of children; women are not destined to a life of child-bearing; men do not have to be the protectors of and providers for the rearers of their children, who have to be enclosed to prevent their insemination by other sexually promiscuous men. We need to re-think our sexual morality in accordance with the principle of universal love, guided by the moral ideal of a life of joy in God, compassion, and realisation of the talents God has given us.  Important Biblical principles that remain are those of commitment to life-long loyalty in friendship, and to respecting the full autonomy of others.

Clearly there will be sexual sins. Intercourse with animals or young children is wrong, because it does not express love and concern for the responsible freedom of others. Adultery will be wrong because it breaks up partnerships. Promiscuity and pornography are wrong because they disconnect sexual pleasure from any fully personal relationship. Thus an important Christian principle is that sexual intercourse should express a fully personal, and not a fleeting or impersonal, relationship. This is because our bodies exist to express our personalities, and should not be misused by subordinating personal to purely physical ends.

What might be called the 'personalist principle' is that all our responsible bodily activities should serve to express personal excellences such as kindness, compassion, co-operation and creativity.  Further, persons exist only in society, so our personal relationships should be such as always to reinforce friendship, trust and reconciliation. Such relationships are very fragile, and so institutions like that of marriage build areas where we can be sure of fidelity and concern, whatever happens, and where children can be brought up in an atmosphere of love and kindness. However things can go very wrong in marriage, and for that reason divorce, while always regrettable, has to be accepted as the least bad option for marriages that become destructive of love and compassion.  If life-long friendships are good, and if procreation becomes divorced from sexual expression, and if there are people who genuinely are attracted to partners of the same sex, the way is open to the recognition of Christian same-sex partnerships. Homosexual sins will be, like heterosexual sins, those of promiscuity, unfaithfulness and pornography.

These are the sexual sins condemned in the New Testament. 'Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God' (Ephesians 5, 5). The Greek terms are pornos and akathartos, which might be translated as 'promiscuous' and 'dirty-minded'. If the body is the temple of the Spirit, it must always be used to express respect and love, and to build up those qualities of mind and heart that will cement and not destroy social relationships. Promiscuity and vulgarity do not do this, and so are considered wrong. Paul gives a similar list in his first letter to Christians at Corinth: 'Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God' (1 Cor. 6, 9 and 10). Here three more Greek words are added, moichoi, malakoi, and arsenokoitai, literally 'adulterers', 'soft people', and 'sleepers with males'. Adultery is plainly wrong, by undermining a long-term relationship. 'Soft people' may be those who are addicted to sexual activity, or (as in the NRSV translation quoted here) male prostitutes, condemned because they divorce sexual activity from personal relationship. It would be apposite to take 'sleepers with males' to refer to those who resort to male prostitutes, and to condemn their activity on the same ground, namely, that of sexual activity not conducive to building up personal relationships, and putting the pursuit of pleasure before the pursuit of distinctively human excellence. These are representative of New Testament texts that condemn homosexual behaviour. It is noteworthy that the homosexual acts referred to are condemned alongside greed, theft, drunkenness and libel. These are acts that use others are means to one's own pleasure or that are concerned solely with the fulfilment of one's own desires in ways that undermine personal responsibility. That suggests that homosexual acts are wrong insofar as they pander to personal desire, ignore the rights and human dignity of others or undermine social relationships and responsibilities. They need not be taken as condemning same-sex relationships that are responsible, and that express and help to reinforce and build up a long-term relationship of love. I imagine that such same-sex relationships of friendship and love existed in New Testament times, as they exist in all societies, and that the question of whether physical sexual acts were performed within such relationships was not raised.

Paul's concern was to oppose the pagan practices of sexual promiscuity and prostitution, and perhaps more widely to oppose the pursuit of physical satisfaction in an inordinate way, or in a way that undermined the pursuit of fully personal and social goods. In many modern societies contraception is practiced, gender roles have become more fluid, and biological knowledge has advanced to the stage at which same-sex attraction and the diversity of sexual preferences is acknowledged. In such societies I see no reason why same-sex love should not be accepted on the same conditions as heterosexual love. I doubt whether it falls under Paul's condemnations. I also doubt whether he ever seriously considered the issue in such terms. If so, then the acceptance of homosexual partnerships is less in contradiction to New Testament rules than is belief in the equality of the sexes. 

The real issue with regard to homosexuality probably lies in our genetic tendencies to encourage heterosexuality as conducive to procreation. This conflicts with a less prevalent, but still strong, tendency to same-sex attraction (because of the fact that sexuality is not an all-or-nothing factor, but covers a wide range of possibilities). There is a genetic battle under way, which sometimes even becomes explicit - a genetic tendency to abhor all acts that do not encourage procreation versus accepting that human gender covers a genetic continuum from male machismo to effeminateness, from female motherliness to tomboy temperament. As far as the rational control and direction of human genetic inheritance is concerned, the time has probably come to take sides with the more polymorphous character of sexuality, and seek to ensure that physical sex is always governed by the principle of Christian personalism, the use of the body in all its activities to be an expression of the distinctively human excellences of mind and spirit.

 CONCLUSION. There probably always will be Christians who regard the New Testament as preserved from error by the Holy Spirit, and who seek to apply its moral rules in a literal way. I have shown, however, that even then there are many ways in which interpretations may diverge, and that very few churches manage a wholly consistent application of Biblical moral rules.

 I then suggested that examination of the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament says something important about the character of Christian revelation. It is given, not in a written law, but in the person of Jesus. Jesus' teaching is cryptic and challenging, and seems more focused on inner attitudes than on specific rules. The letters contain passages which have not moved beyond conventional moral views, with all their limitations. We might expect continued reflection on moral issues to lead to deeper insights into what Christian love requires. Christian moral thought should refer to the Bible, but must make new moral decisions as new circumstances come into being, and is not wholly bound by literal application of Biblical rules. Such views vary from the more conservative - applying literal rules as nearly as possible - to the more liberal - seeing the underlying principle of neighbour-love, as exemplified in Jesus, as over-ruling some specific Biblical rules. 

The New Testament gives a very incomplete account of morality, failing to deal with issues of political organisation, warfare, issues of life and death and of human rights. For that reason alone, it is unsatisfactory to regard it as a complete moral system. So one may reasonably take it as conveying a set of basic principles, mostly concerning inner attitudes, which have to be worked out in new circumstances by personal moral decision. In that sense, Scripture would have authority as laying down the sort of human excellences God requires, but not as a set of moral rules one cannot revise or discard if necessary. Christian Scripture would not be a 'law of God'. It would rather be a set of witnesses to the revelation of God's nature and purpose in Jesus, and that would be complemented by the attempt to live in the power of the Spirit which comes through the community of disciples, the church.

The tension of ancient revelation and contemporary creativity remains, but the revelation becomes more like a matrix for a set of attitudes than like a set of laws. Christianity is distinctive in being a religion of the Spirit of the living Christ. Creative change is near its heart, and its main ethical principle is to seek to discern the Spirit of Christ, understood imperfectly even by the Apostles, in the very changed circumstances of the contemporary world. It has to be admitted, however, that not all Christians see it like that. The desire for unchangeable God-dictated laws is strong, and the need to rethink ancient moral rules is not easy to accept. My argument has been that a truly Biblical morality nevertheless is one that is open to, and that sometimes positively calls for, creative change. For the God revealed in Christ is a God who calls us to move beyond ancient rules into the creative life of the Spirit. Paul said, 'For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery' (Galatians 5, 1) - not even, we might say, slavery to the moral rules of Paul.

My argument has been that religious traditions do provide important moral insights into human existence and sexuality. They stress the dignity of human nature, the importance of long-term relationships of loyalty and faithfulness, open-ness to the long-term care of children within a loving relationship, and the necessity of a fully personal dimension to all sexual relations. Yet social conditions have changed considerably in the modern world, and the specific moral rules of ancient societies may no longer be applicable in our world. So specific rules must often be changed by consideration of what makes for true human fulfilment. But they should always be ordered by reference to seeing such fulfilment in relationship to a God of mercy, compassion, justice and love. Unthinking insistence on ancient rules may be an abandonment of the deeper religious principle of discerning the will of God for human fulfilment in a rapidly changing world. But the underlying principles of love, loyalty, fidelity and the integrity of the human person are the unchanging principles that it is the task of religious faith to bring to human morality.


                                                                        ©Professor Keith Ward, Gresham College, 1 March 2007

This event was on Thu, 01 Mar 2007

keith ward

Professor Keith Ward DD FBA

Professor of Divinity

Professor Keith Ward was the Gresham Professor of Divinity between 2004 and 2008.  He has a BA from the University of Wales, an MA from...

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