Why You Can Say Yes to the Bible and Yes to People Who Are LGBTQI+, Richardson Jones Press, 2023
This is a very significant book. It has been written by the biblical studies tutor at Northern Baptist College. It has been recommended by influential Baptists and by at least one tutor in an Anglican college. They claim it is the best book to read if you want to understand how an affirming stance towards gay and lesbian people is compatible with a high view of Scripture. The writer presents himself as an evangelical seeking to understand what the Bible truly says about the relevant issues. The book is easy to read and most of its arguments are easy to follow. References to academic literature are largely confined to the appendix. The author, who is an ordained Anglican, tries to show how and why he is both evangelical and affirming.
The book begins with some important distinctions. The Bible discusses homosexual acts, but it does not address the modern idea of being gay or lesbian as a sexual orientation. Furthermore, the writer claims that the specific acts condemned by the Bible are not, in their cultural context, to be understood as taking place within the contexts he wants to affirm, but were part of patterns of abuse, ritual prostitution and pederasty.
The author then discusses what he calls the ‘clobber’ texts. These are verses of the Bible that are used to defend the view that homosexual behaviour is wrong. He argues that these do not apply to loving, committed, lifelong relationships. They do not necessarily mean what we have often understood them to mean. Tallon’s argument is that the Church’s objections to homosexual activity are based on these specific texts and that if he can cast sufficient doubt on their interpretation then the non-affirming position will collapse.
Up to this point Tallon has focussed on demonstrating that the texts he discusses do not actually teach what many had thought. Towards the end of the book, he introduces a fresh argument that makes a positive case for being affirming. He claims that the Bible has a trajectory towards inclusion. He discusses the decision to recognize that Gentiles as well as Jews could be a part of the people of God and says that this is part of a movement within the Bible towards greater and greater inclusiveness. This should be understood to embrace those who identify as LGBTQI+.
Next the author takes issue with those who might label his views ‘revisionist’. He thinks this is inappropriate because he does not think the Church has thought seriously about these issues before and thus there is nothing to revise. Then, in a final chapter, he discusses what it means to be evangelical and argues that the views he holds fall within the accepted definitions.
The author has done us a useful service in presenting the biblical case for an affirming position in an accessible way. However, from my perspective at least, he has also shown the weaknesses of the positions that he advocates.
Firstly, while he is correct to point to pederasty as a major issue in the ancient world, there were also, as many historians have argued, examples of consensual and committed homosexual activity, and it seems unlikely that none of these were known to the apostles.
Next, Tallon treats the so-called ‘clobber’ texts as though they were the basis for the biblical case against same-sex marriage. No doubt they have occasionally been used that way. However, the biblical case does not rest on proof-texting but on the teaching of Jesus and the apostles that affirms heterosexual marriage – which is the context in which all the other texts need to be understood. The author tries to argue that the opening chapters of Genesis are intended to be descriptive rather than normative for human relationships. This might be plausibly argued if one were reading Genesis alone – though I think even this is a mistake. However, more significantly, both Jesus and Paul interpret these chapters as normative, and those of us who seek to follow Jesus and to be apostolic must surely treat them in the same way.
Thirdly, the ‘trajectory’ argument needs to be considered carefully. The material Tallon discusses is about overcoming distinctions – between Jews and non-Jews – that have their basis in the Law. It is not about overcoming distinctions found in creation. The texts are about the restoration of God’s original intentions and purposes for creation, and this is anticipated within the Torah itself. As Paul says, the Torah includes texts that ‘declared the gospel in advance’ (Galatians 3.8). This is not to argue that there are no insights to be found in arguments based on ‘trajectory’, only to point out that they need to be grounded in the Bible’s own expectations. Any other approach runs the danger of replacing its authority with our own.
Finally, the idea that the Church has not thought seriously about these issues in the past seems something of an overstatement. It may be true that we have not previously engaged with contemporary ideas about homosexual orientation but that does not mean the Church has not thought deeply about human sexuality. Some of the ways we have chosen to articulate this teaching has been profoundly unhelpful and this needs to be acknowledged. But the Christian tradition contains deep and profound reflection on the doctrine of what it means to be human and our teaching about sex and marriage is a significant part of that. It is there in the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It is present in the Baptist Confessions of Faith. Tallon is trying to change an established, coherent, and thoroughly biblical element of the church’s teaching and is therefore fairly called revisionist.
The Baptists emerged from a tradition that insisted both on the authority of Scripture and the conviction that God ‘has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word’. It is therefore important to remain open to the possibility that the Church needs to reform its thinking. And so, we should listen carefully to those who are making the case for change. However, having done so in this instance, I remain convinced that the argument for revision is deeply flawed. An attempt has been made to deal with a handful of texts but not to address the positive biblical doctrines about humankind, human sexuality, and marriage which are the basis for the Baptist Union’s current position.
Stephen Finamore has been a lawyer, led a community development project in inner London and worked for a rural development project in the Andes of northern Peru. Having trained for ministry and read theology in Oxford, he is currently Principal Emeritus of Bristol Baptist College. He has been elected to serve as President of Baptists Together for 2024–25.
Stephen has written a number of books, and his short commentary on Romans is available free with Bible Reading Fellowship: www.brf.org.uk/product/romans-unwrapped/