fake good news

Months ago, the bishops in the Diocese of Oxford sent out a letter to 1,500 ministers, setting out their thinking on LGBTI+ people in the diocese. I posted my response to it on this site.

Today, the diocesan eNews has informed us that some have replied, expressing grave concerns. The Church Times says 104 serving clerics have signed this letter - mostly evangelical. Fairly inevitably.

The original letter, the evangelical response and Bishop Steven's reply to that are all available via those links.

As I read these various writings, I find myself musing on Galatians. Especially as I got towards the end of the new letter and read this:
We would love our bishops to articulate clearly God’s love for us in helping us see both the attractiveness of deep friendships, but also the appropriate setting for sexual intimacy – namely in marriage between a man and a woman. However, if they are unwilling to do this, we would ask them to recognise the seriousness of the difference between us: advocacy of same-sex sexual intimacy is either an expression of the love of God or it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God. It cannot be both. The situation is serious. If not addressed, we would all struggle to support the leadership of our bishops in this matter and a number of our churches may want to seek alternative means of receiving episcopal ministry, in recognition that your position is seriously differentiated from theirs. This would be a tragedy.
The traditionalists argue that the Scriptures do not see being gay as sinful; only doing gay is bad. It is bad because there are verses that say so, and because the only place for sexual intimacy allowed by the Scriptures is the marriage of a man to a woman. And none of this matters one bit in my response here (though it does matter, and I have a lot to say about this, as you know if you've read around this site or have a copy of my book) because what really matters is that horrifically awful central sentence:
Advocacy of same-sex sexual intimacy is either an expression of the love of God or it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God.

Here's the question we need to ask: How do people enter the kingdom of God?

St Paul puts it to the church in Galatia in a startling and blunt manner:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is really no gospel at all. Gal 1.6
The Galatians had been called to live in the grace of Christ. Faith as gift. This is pure Paul. Grace (and its related 'gift' readings) occurs in the wider letters of Paul some 80 or so times. I know some of you will want to challenge me with a call to repentance - but you need to read your Bibles more. Paul only uses repent/repentance related words half a dozen times in all his writings. He could not be clearer - we have what we have by the gift of God in Christ, not by our action or merit, and we don't miss out on the gift of God because of our lack of merit or our failure to deserve such a gift. We don't deserve such a gift - we couldn't possibly! And that doesn't matter one bit.

The issue Paul faced at Galatia was that some folk were coming along and challenging this. No, they said, it's not just God's grace and gift and the same for everyone: you have to be circumcised, you have to do something to merit the gift, you have to wear the signs of God's love, you have to take on the law. Otherwise - chaos: it's just like promoting sin. Everyone gets to God by some kind of gift or grace alone? What kind of moral mess would that lead to?

Paul is not impressed:
Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard?...Again I ask - does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing in what you heard? Gal 3.2,5
Well, frankly, reply the very sound circumcising party, travelling from Jerusalem, advocacy of a 'grace-for-all' policy that ignores the basic Scriptural requirements of the law is either an expression of the love of God or it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God. It cannot be both. The situation is serious. If not addressed, we would all struggle to support the leadership of any so-called apostle in this matter.

Fine, says Paul. Let me be as clear as I can:
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing. Gal 2.21
This is the gospel: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:23. Gift, gift, gift. All have sinned - but sin doesn't create an obstacle to anyone entering the kingdom of God. We do not pull ourselves up by out bootlaces into the kingdom of God. We cannot. If we think we can, or think others should, Christ died for nothing.

"It creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God"

What kind of fake good news are these 104 mostly-evangelicals preaching in their churches? I used to worry that my dear conservative friends were tipping over into a Jesus-plus-something-else gospel, but I think I was maybe worrying too little. This fake good news apparently has no Jesus in it at all. Clearly I don't agree that being gay or being in a gay marriage is sinful - BUT EVEN IF I DID AGREE then Paul is still clear: there is no obstacle to people in such a circumstance entering the kingdom of God because all (quick word check - all means "all") have sinned and all (quick word check - all still means "all") are justified freely by his grace. Not by our behaviour. Not by our words. Not by our deeds. And we are not kept out by any of these things either.

Certainly not by our attitudes towards sexuality. Amazingly, correct attitudes towards sexuality are nowhere (quick fact check - yes, that's right, nowhere) in the Scriptures mentioned as a prerequisite for membership of God's kingdom.

So it's OK - you can disagree with me and think gay people are sinful and still be a Christian.

Of course! Because our life in Christ is the gift of God. But if you think that you become a Christian by agreeing to certain traditionalist attitudes on sexuality, then I don't know who told you that, but the Bible has much, much better news on offer.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Gal 5.1 
Any version of the gospel - any version of how we gain the glorious promises of God that are ours in Christ Jesus - that does not depend entirely upon Jesus and his gift, his grace, his death and his resurrection, his Spirit and his action in our lives is fake good news. Any version of the gospel that says you or I can miss of this life because we are especially sinful and especially unworthy is fake good news. Any version of the gospel that requires us to love Jesus plus some other standard or belief or additional burden is fake good news.

Can there really be 104 licensed ministers in Oxford diocese who have forgotten all this? Were they told what they were signing when they agreed to put their names to this? Did they realise that they would be making their whole ministries seem foolish? The bishops in this diocese have every right to demand they all come and see them immediately so that they might rescind those licenses - because whatever understanding these 104 may have of the gospel, it isn't evangelical in any recognisable form, it isn't orthodox Christianity, it isn't Anglicanism (article eleven, anyone, article thirteen of the 39?) it isn't Paul, it isn't the Bible. They are right on one thing at the end of their letter - it is a tragedy. These are good men (almost all men; just 6 women) who have in their passion gone beyond anything reasonable.

We all know that there are traditionalists who don't want the church to change; we all know there are conservatives in organisations like LivingOut who want their view of life to be the only acceptable one; we all read their words on 'the Bible says' and understand they mean 'I read the Bible to say'; we all know what they think and how they feel. What we all must remember as well is that for all our differences, this isn't the first time the church has faced disagreements, and it won't be the last. Paul faced down the circumcisers in Galatia who forgot grace and gift - and frankly it was a far bigger deal to the new church than we realise or like to admit as we face things in our own day. And yet, having roundly opposed them, Paul does not end by waving a flag of victory over those he disagrees with - and neither should we.
For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and  self-control. Gal 5.22-23
And again -
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything. What counts is the new creation. Gal 6.15
We all receive God's gift of life, and we therefore are all made new, and all belong to God's great family. His church. I will do my best to love those with whom I disagree, because by God's great gift we are the same. And I know there are enough times I disagree with my bishops to appreciate the frustrations of my friends who signed this letter - though I plead with them: don't ever sign away all you believe in again, no matter how frustrated you are. Jesus is surely more important than that.


  1. Marcus, it is interesting to hear your perspective on this...but I confess to finding your reading of Paul really odd.

    The fruit of the Spirit which you cite is listed as a binary opposite to the works of the flesh in the immediately preceding verses, which include amongst other things sexuality immorality--which of course for Paul would include the list of proscribed behaviours in Leviticus.

    In 1 Cor 6, Paul is clear that God's grace effects, by the working of his Spirit, changes in those who believe and enter the kingdom--so that the lack of those effects signals exit from the kingdom, and it is of course this phrase which the response letter draws on.

    In Rom 6, Paul is clear that resurrection life in Christ through baptism does not allow us to 'go on sinning'.

    All through his writing, Paul is absolutely clear that salvation is an unmerited gift--but it is not an undemanding one. John Barclay, in his acclaimed study of grace which has gained wide recognition and support, talks of grace as being unconditioned (in that it is offered to all) but not unconditional, in that its receipt will effect change.

    I am not quite clear why you are ignoring these major themes and texts in Paul. Any enlightenment would be great.

    1. Dear Ian,
      In part -see below.
      Barclay's work on grace is terrific, isn't it? The unmerited gift to the unworthy, the shock of grace. Pure gold. Your little Grove Booklet is a very helpful way in for those who can't face the whole thing. But this letter from the 104 misses by Barclay by a mile.

      I address the entry point; I don't go on to the life that follows, because the language of the letter before us is entry point language - 'it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God'. This is a blog post, not my seminal work on Paul (for which, we'll all be waiting for a very long time).

      When you go to 1 Corinthians 6 (I saw that some were doing that earlier) I felt a little bit like I was watching QI, and the screen behind you should be black, with '1 Corinthians 6' emblazoned across it, and a klaxon sounding.

      Why? Because the language of the letter sent by the 104 is entry language. Paul in 1 Cor 6 (in the context of a discussion on heterosexual marriage, of course) is talking about those already within the community of faith. It's not 'entry' language. Paul certainly doesn't talk about 'advocacy of same-sex sexual intimacy as an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God' - he talks about some within the community of faith who were (NRSV) 'fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers & robbers' and says 'none of these will inherit the kingdom of God' if they presumably hadn't changed - But they were washed, sanctified, justified.
      They received grace - that was their way in, and with God's grace they then began to live a new life.

      Where we really disagree is on a matter of discipleship, that 'prostitutes and sodomites' is an equivalent standard to 'people in loving, permanent, exclusive relationship'. Neither of us finds prostitutes and rapists an acceptable standard of Christian living. You (it seems) think this is the only form of gay living; I do not.

      I don't address that in my piece, and I state I'm not addressing that.

      Fake good news, a false gospel, is one that adds to (or replaces) Jesus. It's one that has works in addition to grace. The letter from the 104 contains such fake good news. You may put obstacles in the way of people entering the kingdom of God, you may find that some are not good enough - I will do no such thing. None are good enough - and for all, gift beyond measure.

      And for all - for all - life changed beyond measure as a result of that indescribable gift.

    2. Thanks Marcus. On the question of 'entry' language, it is worth noting what Paul actually says in 1 Cor 6.9:

      Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?

      So Paul is using future language--though I'd agree, changing the metaphor of kingdom as place which we enter into kingdom as treasure which we inherit. But it is future language because we receive/enter/share in the kingdom both now and not yet.

      So I'd be happy to tweak the language here to agree with you. But let's look more carefully at what Paul says. Following Jesus for Paul entails radical change, from the list of things here to the life that follows, being washed, sanctified and justified. In Gal 5 that you cite, it is the move from the 'works of the flesh' to 'walking in the Spirit'. And Paul is consistently clear that, if that change is not evident, then we have not moved from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. These changes are not the condition of entry, but they are the consequence of entry, so if they are not there, then we have not entered.

      Are you happy to agree with that reading of Paul?

      This is the other half of Barclay's contribution, though one you do not mention, and it is why he is careful to say that grace is unconditioned (since it is offered as a free gift) but not unconditional, in that you cannot receive it and stay the same.

      And if we agree on that reading of Paul, what are the kinds of things that we leave behind? Amongst the sins of greed and lying and slanderous speech, Paul includes sexual immorality and the language of Lev 18.22. In doing so he is entirely in line with Jesus teaching, where he lists sexual sins alongside the other things which make a person impure.

      And Paul's expectation that receiving the free gift will lead to change corresponds exactly with Jesus proclamation that you receive the free gift of the kingdom by repenting and believing. These are not 'works' but they are what we need to do to receive, just as I need to let go of what I hold on to if I wish to open my hands to receive a gift from a friend.

      So if we say to people either that they don't need to repent to enter the kingdom, or that what is sin is not sin, then we are indeed inhibiting their entry, are we not?

    3. On your second major point, you say: 'Where we really disagree is on a matter of discipleship, that 'prostitutes and sodomites' is an equivalent standard to 'people in loving, permanent, exclusive relationship'. Neither of us finds prostitutes and rapists an acceptable standard of Christian living. You (it seems) think this is the only form of gay living; I do not.'

      I am sure you must know well that Paul's language here avoids the language of exploitation, and is in effect a citation of Lev 18.22, which in turn avoids the cultic language available but instead refers back to the creation order of male and female.

      Paul is not condemning exploitation here; he is rejecting same-sex sexual relations of any kind, regardless of context, because they do not match God's design in the creation of sexually dimorphic human bodies.

      I am sure you are aware of this argument; you might think otherwise (and I'd be curious to know on what grounds). But you surely know that is what I believe, so your comment that I think prostitution and rape is the only form of gay living is a slightly bizarre slur. I don't really know why you said that.

    4. To reply to the second point first.

      No, I don't know that Paul's language in 1 Cor 6 "avoids the language of exploitation, and is in effect a citation of Lev 18.22, which in turn avoids the cultic language available but instead refers back to the creation order of male and female" - and nor, I think, do you. I fully accept that this is the school of interpretation that you follow on this text, but you don't "know" this. That's one of the problems we have, and why there's a lot of discussion. We both know that!

      I referred to the NRSV translation - so forgive me, I was using NRSV theology - perhaps you'd have preferred the NIV's current shockingly inept translation: 'men who have sex with men'? It seems to make your point, but it really bears no resemblance to text and allows for nothing but misunderstanding.

      The greater point - the one I'm making in this piece - however, is in your earlier comment.

      You finish by saying: "So if we say to people either that they don't need to repent to enter the kingdom, or that what is sin is not sin, then we are indeed inhibiting their entry, are we not?"

      There are two points here.
      1. You appear to define all gay love as Levitical sin. But within Leviticus 18 to avoid questions of idolatry (the chapter is framed with commands to be different to the worship of other nations), and to ignore questions of 'power' in a fallen world (what it means to use a man as a woman, and how women were used in Hebrew culture, along with issues of dignity and shame and personhood) means that 'all gay love' gains layers of interpretative weight that most straight relationships would break under.
      Again, as last time, I am going to agree that relationships that involve idolatry or rampant power imbalance or shaming or abuse of personhood are always deeply sinful. And I am going to point out that this is so (biblically, repeatedly) for straight people. So of course it is so for gay people.
      What I will question (as last time) is that these kind of relationships are the only ones possible for gay people.
      But every time we see such things, we unite in condemning them. Yes, of course. We condemn sin.

      Hmm. Only, for some of us, forgive me, it feels like it's difference that's also condemned, not just sin.

    5. 2. Thank you for quoting more of Galatians than I had space to in my short piece. Let me repay the compliment. You stop at the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Paul goes on:
      'Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.'

      In all Paul's letters he writes of fallible, human Christians who are working out their salvation with fear and trembling. People with treasure in jars of clay. We know this as we read every letter, and it is both comfort and challenge. We do not differ on the need for transformation - you and I will both tell stories of how God has saved us in a hundred ways, and, privately, allow for the thousand more yet needed. Change is not the necessary prerequisite of grace, but the inevitable result.

      What neither you nor I believe in is a gospel that requires us to improve ourselves, to accept and achieve a certain moral standard before grace works. The insurrectionist thief on the cross next to Jesus didn't reach that standard and neither did we when we came to faith. Gift, gift, gift.

      Now living this glorious life we try to keep in step with the Spirit, led by the Spirit, not under the law, but not living by the works of the flesh either. For sure. (Works of the flesh which Paul tells us include dissensions and factions - like, perhaps, alternative episcopal oversight?) So though I answer you comments, I beg your forgiveness because it is not my desire to provoke!

      It is my desire to say: (as I said before) we disagree on a point of discipleship. And mistaking that for a condition of entry produces a 'Jesus-plus-something' gospel which is something none of us should offer. The world deserves better than that from us.

  2. Rather wonderfully,
    I spotted on a conservative comment site that this piece has been picked up and there was a lot of huffing about my being an antinomian.
    Dear friends, I realise that we live in an age of name-calling, but anyone who seriously uses Galatians as a basic text cannot be an antinomian. We'll start with Gal 5.13 and read through a few verses, perhaps noting Gal 5.15 as we pass. Then, 'keeping in step with the Spirit' for Paul is always about a mark of spiritual standards. I hope I might be following Gal 6.1, and apologise if I fail in gentleness. But Gal 6.9-10 is clear - the path of discipleship is about doing good to all. In this, Paul sets out a path he will follow much more fully in Romans 12ff.
    This is not antinomianism.
    But neither is anything in Paul about a works-based entry to God's kingdom. My remarks above are pointing to the problem with saying that anyone - anyone - has to sort themselves out before coming to Christ. Paul is clear; when we have come to Christ, then we have a path of discipleship to walk. But we begin through his gift, through his grace. In our current wider disagreements, we are diverging on approaches to an aspect of discipleship. We ought never make this 'an obstacle to people entering the kingdom'. That's fake good news.

  3. Marcus, long time (1991?)! Be very good to catch up some time. I am at the Austin Farrer conference at Keble on Friday.

    I have to differ in general. I couldn't help but note that the present case is the main instance of something (doing same-sex, or in this case breaking the creation binary) that is seen as bad in the NT being now advocated as good within the church. No other interest group that might want to press for a volte face of anything like that magnitude in any other area has been indulged to anything like the same extent. Normally things that the NT was ambivalent about would not later be seen as good; the present demand is actually that something that the NT is negative about should be seen as a good. Precisely when it fits with social norms. So why are we not allowed to say that it is more particularly [some of] the clergy that did not sign that seem to have forgotten all they were taught - or perhaps won't or can't deviate from the cultural flow. All the 104 are doing is saying what people have said throughout church history - and that is an awful lot of great saints to write off. All us Aldate's folk love and admire Michael, and when he speaks we listen. But this time he is only stating what has so long and widely been seen as obvious.

    I'm speaking as someone who does not at all think that 'If the Bible says it, that settles it' - authority has to be earned - but wants honesty about what the Bible actually does (rightly or wrongly) say, since that is the present topic.

    God Bless

    Chris (Shell).

    1. Dear Chris - how lovely to hear from you. As you wander around this site, you'll see that I am very keen to work with what the Bible says. One of the issues we face on this topic is that the material is complex; and though I have very definite views about where the Bible leads, I also have a very strong Anglican ecclesiology that does not allow me to demonise those with whom I disagree. However strongly! But in this piece I haven't engaged with those arguments. If you haven't seen it, do look at my book, The Possibility of Difference - I'm not going to answer all the theological issues that raises here. What I will say is: my point in this piece was that the writers of the letter to the Oxford bishops forgot themselves as they wrote. They, in their passion, overstepped. Yes, we disagree. That's actually fine - it was ever thus on a hundred topics. Not just this. But where there are problems, we say so; we don't call them 'tragedies'; when we are tempted to excommunicate fellow Christians, we need to recall Jesus' words about logs & specks, and Paul's exhortation to win each other over with kindness and love; and when our gospel stops being about Jesus, we need to ask how authentic we are any more. The version of the gospel expressed in this letter is not, I am sure, what many of the signatories preach. But they have put their names to something which suggests a person may be too bad for grace. That is what I have called out, and I will keep doing so. We may disagree on issues of sexuality in the church, but on this I thought we were all united. And yet I have seen some things written this week which have indeed surprised me. However: God is good, and perhaps the current hysteria is in fact more typical of the world infecting the church than any other presumed thing. By his grace and kindness, we will get through this.


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