The Rev’d Dr Jonathan Tallon talks about teaching what the Bible has to say on sexuality.
Around one of the tables in front of me sit two students. One is a gay minister; the other comes from a conservative evangelical background. Other tables are filled with more students, male and female, from different denominations, traditions and countries.
I take an inward breath. I will need to tread carefully. I am about to teach on Paul, his letter to the Romans and homosexuality.
This is a situation I have encountered a number of times. I teach New Testament in an ecumenical theological college, which draws mature students from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds. Some are studying for ministry, and some are already accredited ministers.
This difference between students creates an exciting and challenging environment. We have Baptists and URC and Congregationalists and Moravians and Pentecostals and more. We have men and women from Africa and Asia and America.
We have people who are deeply conservative and others who are deeply liberal. The person sitting next to you is always likely to say "that’s not quite what we believe/do/think…".
Issues around interpreting the Bible and sexuality are emotive. Both lie close to the heart of some people's identities. For those within the evangelical tradition, anything which seems to go against scripture is going against God. For those who identify as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex or queer, an attack on sexuality or gender is an attack on their very selves.
Sadly, for many years the evangelical movement has generally seen an affirming position as unbiblical. The result? Your position on this issue becomes a binary test of belonging. But there are solid biblical arguments for an affirming approach, using familiar approaches that evangelicals know and use for other passages and other issues.
In my lectures (more like workshops), these are what I try to get the students to discuss and evaluate. Can we see the full range of arguments? Have we examined our own assumptions? How willing are we to listen to arguments about how to interpret the Bible – arguments that take the Bible seriously as the word of God?
And, as a recognition (and celebration) that we are Christians in diverse and different ways, how far can we recognise that others do interpret the Bible differently from us without deliberately trying to distort or ignore scripture, and can we live with that difference (as we do to various extents on issues such as divorce)?
How do I get on? Often, the response is positive. I do not mean that everyone agrees with me (much though my ego would love that). But when presented with interpretations that take the Bible seriously, those from an evangelical background can engage and move beyond the issue being a purely polarising one.
And I have found, over the last ten years, a growing openness to consider interpretations that are affirming - not just from students, but also groups of ministers and churches with whom I have worked. For many, it is the first time that they have been presented with a biblical case for an affirming position. And for some, it comes as a welcome relief.
So as a sabbatical approached, I decided to make some of this biblical case more widely available. And like Steve Chalke, video seemed a friendly medium for people to access.
The videos don’t capture the full complexity or arguments (on both sides) surrounding the Bible and sexuality. But I hope that they are at least an introduction to reading the Bible from an affirming standpoint.
The website offers more resources in each area, and an annotated bibliography which includes academic journal articles as well as more popular books and presentations.
I have met too many evangelical Christians who struggle with an interpretation of the Bible which condemns people who are LGBT+. They want to be faithful to God, faithful to his Word, but also loving to their family, colleagues (and themselves).
But when they look for material on the subject which takes an evangelical approach to the Bible seriously, they are most likely to find the same interpretations. My hope is that through this website and the YouTube channel, these Christians might find alternative evangelical readings of the scriptures.
Why do it? Because I think the evangelical tradition has no idea how much it has hurt and angered many LGBT+ communities and individuals. Because so many evangelical churches are not safe spaces for those who do identify as LGBT+. Because many evangelicals are desperately searching for a way to reconcile their love of the Bible with being loving to family, colleagues and themselves. Because it is a matter of justice and love.
The teaching session ends. The students are still animated – conversations and arguments will continue into coffee. But they have listened – to me, and to each other, and I hope also seeking to listen to God.
May we do likewise.