When a new book on sexuality and the Bible, or related topics, lands on my desk/laptop, it can be hard to sum up the enthusiasm to read it. Particularly when it has such a vacuous title as this one, ‘Love Means Love: Same Sex Relationships and the Bible’. But given that this particular book is published by SPCK, for whom I presently work on IVP titles and marketing, I’d been asked privately by a few people to share my thoughts. So here they are.
Runcorn is clear for whom he is writing: “Many of us find ourselves living with a dilemma. We are Christians for whom the Bible is read and reverenced as the guiding authority for life and faith. On the particular issue of sexuality, however, we struggle with, or are no longer able to accept, traditional understandings of what the Bible teaches on same-sex relationships. This is an uncomfortable place to be.” I have some sympathy with this position, particularly with regards to the importance of holding a position that has integrity. Runcorn is also right when he writes “Church leaders and their communities can be tempted to avoid the subject for fear of the conflict it causes, but this silence serves no one well… Silence does not communicate nothing. It can and does result in a steady loss of confidence in the Bible as a source of truth, guidance and wisdom“, though I think it is hard to argue that there is not much discussion, publication and a plethora of resources from both sides (And the various shades of sides) in this debate. So, dear reader, what is this book about? Why does it exist? Is it going to change anyone’s mind? This reviewer is puzzled, and thinks this is unlikely to change the debate, but the obligatory slate of endorsements from bishops and other leading Christians implies that this is something fresh.
Let’s dig in and have a look.
One thing that is worth noting is that I write as a relatively young evangelical – under 30, at time of writing, whereas David represents a different generation. This is an important point, and provides some context for some of the stranger moments, I think. Not least this:
“Two concerns often surface in discussions on this subject. The first is: will I be abandoning the Bible if I support same-sex relationships? The conviction of this book is that supporting samesex relationships does not involve any contradiction or denial of what the Bible teaches. The issue, as it always is, is how the Bible is interpreted. In the following chapters I offer examples of how the Bible can be read as supporting faithful same-sex relationships without bypassing the ‘awkward’ passages. I believe it is possible to read the Bible with integrity and in obedience, in such a way as to speak welcome instead of condemnation. The second concern is: will I be condoning promiscuity if I support gay relationships? The answer again is no. We might wonder where this question comes from. After all, sexual infidelity and relational fragility are endemic within heterosexual
communities, but no one claims that supporting heterosexual relationships means condoning promiscuity… For many of us, negative assumptions about homosexuality and same-sex relating have been formed through
powerful social conditioning, often from our very early years.“
As someone who has grown up through the 90’s and 2000’s, I’ve been aware of sexuality beyond ‘heterosexuality’ since quite a young age. I’d argue that David is showing a slightly backward approach to this topic by including this – though of course there are those who have slid down a slippery slope of affirming non-‘heterosexual’ sexual activity, and then endorsing polygamy, etc. It seems somewhat strange to bring this in so early in the book! Runcorn picks up on this in chapter 4, on the Bible and anxiety, in a way that is rather more self-aware: “Whenever we open our Bibles we bring our own worlds with us – for good or ill“. As one of those curmudgeonly orthodox younger folk, I must admit to being somewhat amused by his comment that “A generational feature to this debate has been widely noted. Research shows that many younger Christians simply don’t
understand the problem at this point. Of course they still have the task of thinking through their discipleship and theology in the midst of an unhelpfully sexualised society“. It is telling that the profound work of younger gay/same-sex attracted Christians like David Bennett, Jackie-Hill Perry, Ed Shaw and Rachel Gilson (to name but a few!) is not referred to at any point in this book.
From the second chapter onwards a major flaw is apparent in Runcorn’s approach to scripture. He writes that “theological and cultural divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers can be found running like an unresolved fault-line through the whole New Testament era. This was their equivalent of our present-day conflicts over sexuality“. This is integral to the shape of the book, with chapter 12 confidently ending “The Jewish/Gentile division was surely the early Church’s version of our sexuality debates. Perhaps they too wondered if ‘good disagreement’ was even possible“. This is an over-simplistic mapping of the Early Church’s struggles (in the context of existence as a movement!) to our present day conversation. It also fails to take into account the immense societal pressure for change in the churches teaching on issues of sexuality. Runcorn writes “At issue was the whole identity of the Church and its mission“. I wholeheartedly agree – is the church comprised of those following Jesus wholeheartedly, however imperfectly, or is it a gathering of people who don’t need to change too much to be part of something? This strange forcing of present-day disagreement onto the biblical narrative is a hallmark of this book. There is also quite a strange approach to the Bible more generally. Runcorn writes “It is notable, for example, that with very few exceptions the New Testament writers (and Jesus himself) never quote or allude to Old Testament texts without adapting or modifying them, literally and/or theologically. A continual theological dialogue is going on through which new understanding is explored“. This to me is quite muddled. A better way to understand what is going on in Scripture, I would argue, is to write about an increasingly knowledge of revelation, a gradual and universal uncovering of the truth about God. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 speaks about seeing now dimly, but pointing towards a full revelation. Jesus himself speaks of fulfilment, in himself, and to argue that Jesus himself is engaged in ‘theological dialogue’ is somewhat dismissive of his rather blunt ‘But I say to you…’ teachings, at least! For a book that purports to be about the Bible, it is my opinion that Love Means Love is quite selective in it’s treatment of the Bible, in a way that bears little resemblance to the evangelicalism that Runcorn and I both claim to belong to. His rather muddled approach to issues of ethnicity would benefit from a consideration of David Firth’s Including the Stranger. But I digress. Suffice to say that the way scripture is handled in Love Means Love is quite frustrating!
It’s worth zooming in on Jesus’ ‘But I Say to You’ teaching. Runcorn argues that “he also interpreted beyond the Scriptures“, as part of his argument that we need to do the same. The key word here is ‘beyond’. This is in my view to misrepresent Jesus completely. Indeed, the example Runcorn gives, from Matthew 5, is actually a tightening of the teaching of the Bible. Jesus affirms that murder is wrong, and invites his followers to a higher standard. To me at least it is hard to imagine Jesus saying ‘you have heard it said do not lie with a man as with a woman, but I say to you that is fine and you missed the point of the text’, particularly when his clarifying words on sexual ethics again point beyond the standard of the Old Testament to something different (Matt 5:27-28). To look at Runcorn’s engagement with the Old Testament texts is also an exercise in disappointment. He engages briefly with the work of Robert Gagnon, but singularly fails to really engage with any recent scholarship, let alone the magisterial work of Richard Davidson in Flame of Yahweh. Runcorn regularly accuses other writers of jumping over explaining an assertion – but he is guilty of that throughout. Runcorn writes of Leviticus 18:22 that “I think we have to be honest. This remains work in progress. There are clear grounds for saying that we do not have enough background yet to understand this verse: ‘The social and cultural significance of this verse within its ancient context is still waiting to be uncovered.’“. I wonder if perhaps the onus is on Runcorn to show whether or not, in fact, he simply hasn’t done the background reading to make his case iron-clad, given that it probably isn’t. This reviewer wonders if Runcorn’s exegetical and hermeneutical work is still in progress, and that there are clear grounds for saying that there is more to be engaged with elsewhere.
The treatment of Romans 1 – perhaps the most infamous of the texts that deal with same-sex sexual acitvity in the Bible – is also rather poor. The reason for this is seen above – in Runcorn’s appraoch to scripture. He rightly notes that Paul was writing ” a theological and moral critique of a shamelessly indulgent society where all moral order or conviction has collapsed” – and then seems to engage in special pleading on behalf of same-sex sexual activity. We are back in the aforementioned territory of ‘moving beyond the Bible’, but with no justification. When I read “Today, Paul would have the opportunity to meet couples in committed, faithful, and stable homosexual relationships that are growing all the fruits of love, joy, peace, kindness and self-control about which he wrote. He would probably still not come easily to this, but might he not be willing to reflect in new ways on how homosexual Christian people are best enabled to order and consecrate their desires?“, I’m reminded of the appendix in a recent Vineyard USA Position Paper on this issue, which notes that Paul likely knew of couples that echoed contemporary ones. Further, there is a stunning (if unexpected) chronological snobbery in assuming that Paul, upon reflection, would obviously change his mind. It is one thing to not engage with the vast body of evidence that Paul would have been aware of a wide range of sexual relationships – but quite another to suggest that ‘moving beyond’ for Paul would end up with Paul agreeing with a 21st century revisionist understanding. The discussion of ‘biblical marriage’ retains the classic, slightly tedious and tired, revisionist narrative that there is not one form of marriage. I’m still waiting for someone to show any positive biblical text about a sexual relationship that is not between a man and a woman in the context of marriage. The two chapters on gender, Genesis and creation are quite a muddle. They represent somewhat exasperating lists of assertions, with no real engagement with the wealth of literature out there.
One of the key questions that needs to be pondered in relation to discussion of sexuality and the Bible is of course around what marriage is. Runcorn’s definition is novel, then, “Marriage in the Bible is a vocation expressed in terms of recognition, choice, leaving and clinging, kinship and as a means to work for the care of creation“. I wonder if terms such as covenant, creativity, family and commitment might also be important. Similarly, the bizarre reading of Song of Songs grates against the text – Song of Songs is clearly about a man and a woman, and to attempt to make it about sex generally is to miss the point of the covenant faithfulness of biblical marriage, echoing the covenant faithfulness of Christ to his church, or, if you rather, of God to God’s people. At the heart of the biblical imagery of marriage is a foreshadowing of the ultimately unity in difference – the coming together of God and creation, of Jesus and his bride, the church. To de-sex this imagery is to gut it of meaning, and to begin to claim that creator and creature are not so different. Runcorn doesn’t do this explicitly in Love Means Love, but it isn’t clear that he’s understood or engaged with this historic view of marriage and sexuality.
One area where Runcorn is rather more careful, and indeed helpfully challenges contemporary mores, is regarding the origin of the word ‘homosexual’. Words are important – and it is important to note that neither ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ are ‘biblical’ words, but rather contemporary English words that do a lot of work in conversations around sexuality. His point that “All of this warns us that much more care is needed before
it can be claimed that ‘the Church has taught the same thing about homosexuality for 2,000 years’ or that the Bible ‘everywhere teaches against homosexuality’. The word ‘homosexual’ did not exist anywhere before 1869 and does not appear in any Bible translation until 1946. The word itself does not appear in the Bible at all.” is an interesting one. I would want to nuance this – perhaps by adding ‘the sexual activities commonly associated with homosexuality’- but fortunately the New Testament already has a catch-all term (That Runcorn doesn’t seem to be aware of) for sexual activity outside of God’s intent. Here, at least, is Runcorn’s clearest statement of what he thinks about the texts that talk about same-sex sexual activity: “The texts that are assumed to teach that homosexual relationships are wrong, in every case, describe forms of sexual subjugation through rape or violence, excessive lustful behaviour, patterns of coercive male dominance or a disregarding of acceptable norms of social and religious behaviour“. At least he’s clear in saying what he thinks!
Another key flaw in Runcorn’s book is the way that he uses the work of others. I realise that there is a risk that I will do this myself in reviewing Love Means Love, but it is worth pointing out. There is something somewhat disingenuous in quoting Oliver O’Donovan that “‘We have to be alert to the possibility . . . of doctrine being renewed out of Scripture in a way that takes the church by surprise’” without noting O’Donovan’s well known, conservative and compassion opposition to revision on questions of sexual ethics. Similar co-opting of N. T. Wright and Howard Marshall is also done in a way that perhaps doesn’t note the reality of their views. Similarly, Runcorn misrepresents complementarians by effectively suggesting that they are heretics, observing that “The conservative Evangelical tradition teaches the permanent subordination of women to men, on the basis that this reflects a permanent subordination of the Son to the Father in the life of the Trinity“. This is a bizarre statement, as he doesn’t define what or who he means by the tradition, or acknowledge that there has been intense debate over the validity or otherwise of this in recent years! This is, unfortunately, par for the course, as Runcorn manages to damn with faint praise when he writes regarding his quotation of O’Donovan in Marriage, Family and Relationships that “The surprise is also where this quotation is found. This thoughtful collection of essays comes from a group of biblically conservative theologians“. This sort of sniping is counter-productive, with the implication that conservatives don’t have anything helpful or thoughtful to say. These are relatively minor complaints compared to Runcorn’s handling of the text more generally, but
It is notable, to this reader at least, that at no point does Runcorn actually explain what love is. The book ends with a comment from an online forum, and the final words of this book are “Love means love“. One wonders if even a brief survey of commentaries on John’s gospel and epistles, let alone a skim of The Message of Love, which Scott McKnight had as one of his books of the year last year, might help unpack that. I’d direct readers of this review toward this interview with the author of that book for more about the meaning of love. This lack of theological reflection on the incredibly important word ‘love’, which is seemingly so fundamental to the book itself, demosntrates to me the problems with this book. There are a few things worthy of note here – Runcorn’s challenge to the church not to be silent is vital, as is his reminder about the made-up-ness of the word ‘homosexual’ (And also ‘heterosexual, etc, but that is for another time) – but overall Love Means Love is one of the weaker books in this area, and one of the most disappointing books I’ve read this year.
If you are wondering why a) I care so deeply about this stuff and b) what you could read instead, then alongside the things linked to in the text above, I’d love to point you in a few directions:
- DTLC: Sex – my wife and I led three evening services about this stuff at our local church back in 2018. The one about the Bible and sexuality is particularly relevant.
- Todd Wilson’s Mere Sexuality is a superb book about the what and why of sex. Recommended.
- Ed Shaw’s brilliant The Plausibility Problem takes seriously the practical challenges that revisionists often claim as justification for revising historic Christian teaching.
- David Bennett’s A War of Loves is a beautiful, painful book by a self-defined gay Christian. I think everyone should read it.
- I don’t recommend Vicky Beeching’s Undivided, but it is beautifully written. My review aims to gently show why it might not be the lightning rod some claim.
- Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is a better effort than Love Means Love, written by a younger gay Christian, but I think still unconvincing.
- Paula Gooder’s Body is a little book that more people need to read!
- Sam Allberry’s Why does God Care Who I Sleep With? is a helpful apologetic book in this space.