Robert Song, Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships (SCM, 2014)
As churches and denominations tear themselves apart over the ethics of same-sex marriage and sexual relationships, the search for a third way that will give everyone something to be pleased about and keep them together is on. In Covenant and Calling, Robert Song would seem to end that search by developing an unusual position that will be attractive to people across the theological spectrum in different ways.
Song argues that, in biblical terms, marriage must be between a man and a woman, and yet he also argues that same-sex sexual relationships can be acceptable to God and should be recognised and affirmed by the Church. These two positions would usually be seen as contradictory, but Song believes that a right reading of the Bible supports them both.
The book opens by making the case that biblical marriage is orientated towards procreation and so must be reserved for opposite-sex couples (chapter 1). Song then argues that the Bible’s eschatological vision – where there is no need for procreation because there is no death – relativises the importance of procreation in our present time when that vision – the age to come – has begun to break into the present age. This opens up the possibility for a third vocation alongside marriage and celibacy: the covenant partnership. Covenant partnerships embody two of the key elements of marriage – permanence and faithfulness – while being orientated towards fruitfulness in ways other than biological procreation. The distinguishing mark of covenant partnerships is that they are non-procreative. They can therefore be open to opposite-sex and same-sex couples (chapter 2).
Song then argues that covenant partnerships can be sexual because in the Bible sex is about more than just procreation (chapter 3). Turning to engage the biblical texts about same-sex relationships, he argues that the condemnation in each is rooted in the absence of procreation but then observes that the Bible’s trajectory on procreation opens up the possibility of non-procreative sexual relationships, including same-sex relationships, becoming acceptable (chapter 4). The final chapter explores various ways that the concept of covenant partnerships might be integrated into existing, legally recognised forms of relationship (chapter 5).
Covenant and Calling contains some rich and helpful theological reflection, especially on the place of procreation in the biblical understanding of marriage (pp.2-13), on procreation after the coming of Christ (pp.13-22), and on the necessity of sexual difference in marriage (pp.24-27). However, I think there are several fatal flaws in Song’s argument which undermine his case for covenant partnerships and the consequent acceptability of same-sex sexual relationships.
Song is right to find a trajectory on the topic of procreation, such that for those living after Christ, procreation is not presented as such a vital element of the human calling. However, he goes beyond what the Bible says in suggesting that this trajectory could justify covenant partnerships. The biblical outworking of the trajectory is seen in the New Testament’s positive view on celibate singleness.1 Song acknowledges this (pp.18-22) and yet still takes the trajectory to a different conclusion.
At this point we might ask, what gives us the authority to take the trajectory to a different conclusion, and also, why is a different, even if additional, conclusion even needed? Song admits that the New Testament endorses marriage as ‘a second best to celibacy’ (p.74). If this is so, why do we need to create a marriage-like alternative for those who don’t feel they can enter into a marriage?
Song suggests that the calling to a covenant partnership could be a vocation equivalent to the gifts of marriage and celibacy (p.29, quoting 1 Corinthians 7:7), but there is no indication of this in the Bible. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul seems to present the gifts of marriage and celibacy as a binary pair: you have either one or the other. There is no space for and no indication that there could be a third.
A second problem is the failure to consider some other key elements of the biblical understanding of marriage and sex. Song makes much of the link between marriage and procreation (although he then makes the case that sex itself is not inherently linked to procreation (pp.55-61)), but apart from passing mentions, he makes very little of marriage and sex as a one-flesh reunion of what was separated when woman was created out of man (Genesis 2:21-24) or of marriage and sex reflecting the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).
The overlooking of Ephesians 5 is particularly problematic. While Song does note that marriages are meant to represent God’s relationship with his people (pp.6-7), at no point does he consider the significance of the husband’s role being modelled on Christ and the wife’s role being modelled on the Church, and how this then links to the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride in Revelation (19:7; 21:9). Sex difference is central to biblical marriage because it reflects the difference between Christ and the Church. This means that, contrary to what Song says (pp.59-60), same-sex sexual activity cannot reflect the love between God and his people, because the key element of difference is not present.
Covenant and Calling presents an innovative defence of same-sex relationships and contains some good theological reflection. However, Song’s overall thesis contains fatal flaws. The eschatological age inaugurated by Christ has radically changed the position of procreation in the human mission, but rather than justifying deliberately non-procreative sexual relationships, this radical change has opened up the possibility of celibate singleness as a life-giving way of living before God.
- This position is well defended in Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness (Crossway, 2010).