We are pleased to publish this article from The Revd Dr Jennifer Strawbridge.
The Bishops’ Report and Scripture: A Missed Opportunity
Jennifer Strawbridge (Associate Professor of New Testament Studies & Caird Fellow in Theology, University of Oxford)
Proof-texting of Scripture is all too common in discussions of human sexuality, but its theological worth is rather limited. The more so, when it is done incorrectly. This is not what the recent publication by the House of Bishops – Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations – has done. In fact, this document makes explicit reference to Scripture only 5 times across its 19 pages of text. However, one of the Pauline passages used to introduce this report is based on an unfortunate misunderstanding of the Apostle. While this misunderstanding does not ultimately affect the content of the report, it does cast a shadow over what follows and represents a missed opportunity for how Scripture can be engaged in such conversations.
The first paragraph of the report states, “As St Paul writes, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me…’ (Galatians 2.19ff). For St Paul that meant setting aside even the wonderful privilege of Jewish identity and giving priority to the cross and resurrection of Christ. It is in this light that the Church of England has to consider the difficulties over human sexuality that have been a source of tension and division for many years.”
What this introduction misunderstands and misses is twofold. Firstly, in both his letters and in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is a Jew and identifies clearly as a Jew in the present tense. To state that Paul is “setting aside” his “Jewish identity” misunderstands Paul. Second, such misunderstanding in the very first paragraph means the report misses the nuance of Paul’s writings and the reality that he too is grappling with “tension and division” both within his communities and in terms of his own identity. To recognise such a nuance would make clear that questions of identity are not as simple as this report’s introduction suggests and that identity with Christ is not as simple as “setting aside” one’s identity at birth (which itself is a loaded and potentially harmful assumption in a report on sexuality and identity).
In Philippians 3.4-6, therefore, Paul writes that in terms of confidence “in the flesh”, he has more for he is: “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” Even if these “gains” are now regarded by Paul “as loss because of Christ” (Phil 3.7) and as “rubbish” (3.8), Paul’s Jewish identity is not solely in his past. This is made clearer in Romans 11.1 where Paul states in his defence of God’s promises that “I myself am an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul’s testimony before the tribunal in Acts 21 is even more direct, demonstrating unambiguously what the Evangelist thinks of Paul’s identity. Paul begins his defence with the words, “I am a Jew” and then repeats this same claim “in the Hebrew language” in Acts 22 (“I am a Jew”) after which he immediately recounts in the past tense that he previously “persecuted this Way”. Moreover, returning to his letters, Paul counters Corinthian boasting with his own in 2 Corinthians 11.22: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? … I am a better one.”
And here we encounter first-hand the tension in Paul’s identity. Paul is still a Hebrew, an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, in other words, he is a Jew. But he is also a minister of Christ; he is also one who suffers for the sake of the gospel. Paul’s identity is inextricably wrapped up in both.
Furthermore, such tensions can be perceived not only in Paul’s own identity, but also in how he understands the spread of his gospel. Paul over and over again, as “apostle to the Gentiles”, gives priority to the Jews even though he is clear many of them do not recognise Christ as Messiah. In Romans 1.16, he observes that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” And in Romans 2.9-10, Paul writes that God’s judgement and God’s glory fall on “the Jew first and also the Greek” for “God shows no partiality.” In fact, “both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (Rom 3.9), “for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to those who call on him” (Rom 10.12). This, of course, doesn’t mean that nothing happened to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 26) or when Christ is revealed to him (1 Cor 15.8; Gal 1.15-17). Neither does it mean that Paul’s language about Jew and Gentile leads to a vision of humanity as “one overcooked stew where all the ingredients taste the same” as Beverly Gaventa clarifies. For “Paul recognizes distinct histories of Jews and Gentiles” (Gaventa 2014, 103). But noting only the division in Paul’s life, as the start of the Bishops’ Report does, is a problem and misses the nuance and the gift of Paul’s wrestling with identity. Paul clearly remains a Jew. Paul clearly identifies himself as Jewish. But Paul has also reconceived who the people of God are after his encounter with the risen Lord. And this is the dimension of Paul’s identity struggles which might be fruitfully engaged by the Bishops’ Report.
Paul’s own words preclude the simple statement that he has set aside his Jewish identity for Christ. Rather, we must see that Paul is trying very hard (and we must acknowledge that he is not always consistent across his letters) to hold together his Jewish identity with the reality that he has, indeed, “been crucified with Christ” and Christ now lives in and defines his life. This tension leads to questions that dominate the Pauline writings: how then do Jew and Gentile relate? What happens to the Law? Does this mean God has broken God’s promises with Israel? And most importantly for this Report: How does Paul hold together the tension that one dies “to the law through the body of Christ” (Rom 7.4) while at the same time claiming in almost the same breath that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7.12)? How can Paul identify himself both by Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom 6.5; Phil 3.10-11) and as a Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew?
This grappling with understanding of law and of identity that we find clearly in Paul’s letters is evident throughout the Bishops’ Report, phrased explicitly in the stated framework: “Interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church” (§1.22). However, by beginning with a misunderstanding of Paul and his identity, this report misses a great opportunity to draw on Paul’s own struggles in a document that is clearly trying to balance both the obvious and the not-so-evident struggles within our Church. Instead, this report has given us a new scriptural text to add to the ever-growing list of those proof-texted, intentionally or not, for the purposes of debate concerning human sexuality. More significantly, the Bishops’ Report divides doctrine from pastoral practice and misses both the chance to wrestle with the “tension and division” inherent in Paul’s mission and the opportunity to ground a statement on human sexuality in theology and more than that, in the depths of holy Scripture.