Tags: Church, Equal Marriage, Faithfulness, Gay, Gay Christians, Gentle Wisdom, Grace, Homosexuality, Human Sexuality, Love, Marriage Equality, Trace James
IT’S UNUSUAL, I GUESS, for a conversation to start with someone else’s apology to a third party, but that’s where this one started, courtesy of my good friend the Revd Kevin Ellis, who posted an apology to one of his fellow priests for the way that some evangelicals have treated her as a gay Christian: An Evangelical Apology
It’s a exercise in grace that many evangelicals would do well to learn from, rejecting homophobia, inviting dialogue, acknowledging difficulty. Kevin does not hide his personal discomfort with respect to his friend’s sexual orientation, but rather than allow that discomfort to control his attitude, he sets it aside and reaches out to build bridges; and whilst he does not spell this out directly, his post highlights the tragedy, irony and contradiction in the typical evangelical response to homosexuality: condemnation. The very people who name themselves heralds of good news — for that is what being an evangelical must surely mean above all else — have all too often become heralds of bad news as they seek to exclude those with whom they disagree, those whose lifestyles do not meet their approval.
I thanked Kevin for his post; a couple of others commented; and the following conversation emerged. My further thanks to Kevin and Stephen, my conversation partner, for their kind agreement to my reposting the conversation here. Obvious typos and misspellings have been corrected, but no other changes have been made.
Stephen J March, April 20, 2012 at 9:10 pm
Kevin, as is often the case, your grace and love are exemplary of the Christ we love and serve. However whilst your position has much to commend it fraternally, pastorally it leaves much to be desired. For those who give leadership to the Body of Christ, a clear position on this issue, making clear what scripture teaches is essential. Personal relationships can operate in grace-filled obscurity, leadership of a community of faith cannot.
For myself, regardless of how much I feel for my brothers and sisters who struggle with homosexual drives, I cannot see any way in which the practice of a homosexuality is posible unless we disregard completely the 7 or so biblical texts which clearly speak against it. For me there is no way we can re-interpret these texts without doing serious violence to the whole of the exegetical process. This causes me much pain, but I cannot believe that God is confused about what is best for human society. As I would stand against contemorary mores for a biblical view of marriage and heterosexual continence outside of marriage, I feel bound to do the same against the allowance of homosexual practice for those who wish to be followers of Christ. Certainly I deplore all hatred and oppression. I am also highly sceptical of mooted “re-orientation” programs. Human sexuality is something that still defies the best efforts of genetic science and psychology to come up with a globally comprehensive survey. So I am clearly aware that I am expressing an exegetical view that would require life-time celibacy for homosexually inclined Christians. However, I cannot disregard Scripture on this, or any other area. It is a hard teaching, but if we would be faithful to the love of God expressed in Christ we must be faithful to all Scripture – even those parts that hurt or cause confusion.
Stephen J March, April 21, 2012 at 8:46 am
On further reflection I am reminded that the first temptation of human-kind was to doubt that the limits placed upon their freedom by God, were for their benefit. Our proto-ancestors were convinced by the lie that God was acting thusly from an unworthy motivation. We know what followed.
However, this still remains the hardest temptation to resist. I cannot but class the contemporary movement to reject the divinely ordained limits on human sexuality – both in scope and type – as the same type of temptation.
Kevin Ellis, April 21, 2012 at 9:04 am
Actually, Stephen, I do not disagree with you. I was not offering a comprehensive theology; but responding (a) to a particular encounter and (b) to some extremely offensive comments made by some British evangelicals, who should have known better. For that offensiveness, I was offering my own small apology.
Phil Groom, April 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm
Grace knows no limits, Stephen. Grace steps over the lines that we draw in the sand and rewrites the rules: God’s radical action changes everything. Everything. Everything we thought we knew about right and wrong, about judgement, sin and the devil … it’s something Jesus’ opponents could never get their heads round when he went around upsetting their precious applecarts, touching the unclean, associating with prostitutes and tax collectors, gaining himself a reputation as a drunkard and a glutton … but seriously, what else should we expect from a man who starts his ministry by turning water into wine at a party where the guests had already had too much to drink? Hmmm…
Me, well, I’ve read those half dozen or so Bible passages that seem to damn gay sex; I’ve read all those others that condemn the seemingly endless variety of sexual misdemeanours that our dear old human species is capable of dreaming up; and the more I read the more I see one clear message emerging: God loves faithfulness. That’s the overriding context, the central message from beginning to end — from Adam & Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust in Eden through to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane, and everywhere in the Law, the Histories and the Prophets, right through the New Testament letters into Revelation: unfaithfulness sucks, kills and destroys.
The Bible simply knows nothing of faithful same-sex relationships: what it addresses is an idealised heterosexual world, and in that world, the sex acts it condemns are those which betray faithfulness in that context. But that idealised world never existed, hence, for instance, the concession of divorce; and at this point I don’t think I can say it better than Trace James in another, parallel conversation:
I think we can say without question there were things in the ancient society of Israel which fell well short of the creation norms for generous, fruitful, shalom-bringing practice which were outlawed in Israel. Some we understand clearly and others, not so much.
Mixing the threads of two cloths, say cotton and linen, in the same garment was among them. A teenager who refused to receive correction was also stoned and his body was left outside the camp as an example to others was another.
We probably all know we live under a different covenant from that of Moses and Israel and that what was so in the early chapters of the great story does not always work so well in later chapters, say, for instance, polygamy? So what can we bring forward from the earliest chapters of our story into our present time?
It is clear to me that the original norm for married life was one man with one woman for a lifetime. And we know creation, as it is, contains many broken situations. Some things, apparently, can be mended and others cannot.
I usually make everyone hate me when I say this yet I cannot see another way to say it, at least not yet: Homosexuality, like warfare, is apparently not only not a normative condition; it is also apparently not something which can be mended in the here and now. Perhaps we will see an end to war some day prior to the consummation of all things but it seems unlikely because situations do come to pass, such as despots like Q’daffi and Hussain, murdering their own people, situations which make war, after all other recourses have been exhausted, a better choice than the status quo. So I ask, are not committed unions between persons of the same sex a vastly more healthy circumstance than the deadly promiscuity of “the gay lifestyle?” While almost nothing is said about what we now call homosexuality in the Bible, a great deal is said about promiscuity and none of it is good. So, given violence, war may be better than some other choices. And given promiscuity, is not marriage a better choice for everyone than deadly intimacy?
The problem, of course, and the reason why most conservatives who have actually thought this thing through are so opposed to this “grace” solution in this broken situation is the knowledge that what becomes “lawful” becomes “normal” in the eyes of most (low information?) people. That is a circumstance which, I think, cannot be helped.
Of one thing I am sure: as Christians we are utterly disobedient if we continue to push God’s same-sex oriented people away from our fellowships.
– From a comment on Peter Kirk’s Hypocrisy and Gay Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage
Stephen J March, April 21, 2012 at 10:48 pm
I agree entirely with you Phil that grace knows no limits. I agree entirely that revelation is progressive and that we see at times God ordaining a model for patriarchial society in the Old Testament, both the beginning of the Old Testament and the New Testament reveal this temporary model as being far from ideal – but perhaps it was the best that was possible at that time. Certainly it was far more protective of women and children that any of the contemporary models for society.
I also understand your focus on committed faithfulness in sexual relationships and would agree with you that this is certainly what God shows as being crucial and the key criterion in heterosexual unions.
However you extrapolate God’s desire for faithfulness in heterosexual relationships to infer that God must consider that faithfulness in homosexual unions is preffarable to promiscuity and therefore God approves of such unions and (hence presumeably that the Church should recognise them and bless them with some kind of marriage).
I don’t follow the logic of your extrapolation. I don’t see that the forms of sexual perversion condemned in Scripture are so condemned simply because they express unfaithfulness. The texts themselves do not seem to me to make that connection. The texts themselves seem rather to state that certain expressions of sexual behaviour are condemned by God, presumably because they are not good for human beings – if we believe that God knows best (surely the baseline belief of those who would call themselves Christian).
Your remarks about some of the Levitical laws are significant. When we cannot see the logic of a divine interdiction it is important to identify the cultural context that it speaks to. So doing often reveals that many of the ‘bizarre’ (to us) Levitical codices are actually focused on refuting contemporary superstitious practices, or pagan religious practices of the surrounding nations.
In the New Testament, and in the practice of succeeding generations of Chirstians, it is clear that they have not felt themselves bound to follow these Levitical Laws because in the contemporary context those particular dangers no longer exist.
However Scriptural faithfulness calls us to look behind these laws and identify the principles which are eternally valid and still demand our obedience.
When we look at the condemnations of homosexual practice in Scripture, it does not seem in any way clear to me that we can treat these texts in the same way i.e. that the underlying principle concerns faithfulness and that it is this we should focus on. Whilst homosexual acts were sometimes a part of pagan religous practice, these texts do not in any way seem limited to this application.
I cannot find any way of treating these texts in this way without doing violence to the exegetical process that the Christian church has upheld and developed over 2000 years.
If we reject these texts, then it seems to me we are also able to reject any other biblical text that we find difficult to live with.
I feel the pain of this position. I regret the anguish that it wauses. I wish there were some way that I could say, don’t worry it is not serious, carry on. I do not see homosexual practice as more or less serious than any other form of human disobedience towards God. And I have enough of my own weaknesses to contend with, that I have neither the energy nor the the will to start telling other Christians how they should live.
But if we are to regard the Bible as God’s revelation of his will for humankind, which I fully believe, then our human sexuality must also come under the authority of that revelation. I cannot see how accepting homosexual practice, even in the context of life-long committment, can be coherent with God’s revelation of his will for human kind.
We either choose to stand above Scripture or below it.
Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 4:36 am
Alternatively, we stand alongside scripture, in that long, long line of those who have wrestled with, and continue to wrestle with, the ongoing revelation and our own experience of God at work. The Anglican tradition, to which I belong, has never embraced the approach of sola scriptura but rather looks to scripture, reason and tradition … and, thankfully, has shown willingness to change when tradition becomes folly!
I do not reject those texts, but I do not give them a weight that they will not bear in the overall context of my life and faith, which exists in the real world where I — like Kevin — see God blessing the work and ministry of gay Christians.
I find myself like Peter in prayer: but Lord, these things are unclean. I have never… but the Lord gently replies, What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
When the Lord indicates that it’s time to move on, who am I to disagree? We do not live under the authority of scripture but under the authority of God, from whom scripture obtains whatever authority it may or may not have.
Stephen J March, April 22, 2012 at 8:38 am
When God opened Peter’s eyes to see that Gentiles were now to be included in God’s grace, it was not in direct contradiction to what God had been saying for the whole of human history about the gentiles.
We see from God’s first encounter with Abraham that the Gentiles were to be included in the orbit of God’s grace. That the Jews had failed in their mission, or failed to comprehend their mission, was the issue. The Joppa event was God re-stating what he had already made clear to Abraham. He loves Gentiles.
So the argument that we can now disregard what God has said about homosexual practice is only valid if we can see earlier evidence in God’s revelation to man that would indicate the same mechanism at work.
Unfortunately, from the first reference to homosexual practice in the Old Testament, to the last refence in the New there is no difference in how homosexual practice is viewed. It is always deprecated and held up as something displeasing to God.
Your comment about God blessing practicising homosexual priests (I assume this is what you mean) can be answered by your very first response to this subject. Grace. God uses who he uses. This does not condone their lives, or even confirm their holiness (something I am very aware of in my own ministry). A survey of Scripture makes it very clear that God only uses broken and often rather dirty tools, to do his work.
Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm
… and those tools with which — or rather, through whom, because we’re talking about real people, real lives here — God chooses to work, let no human set aside as unfit for purpose; which, sadly, is what many Christians seem to seek to do.
The problem with your argument, Stephen, from my perspective, is that you’re still reading those texts through a heterosexual lens, from a perspective in which homosexual behaviour can only exist as an aberration: any engagement in same-sex activity can only constitute unfaithfulness, betrayal of what was regarded as normative behaviour. That idealised heterosexual society never existed, any more than the society in which all debts were to be cancelled in the year of jubilee existed … indeed, any more than the idealised covenant community, wholly compliant with all the statutes of Leviticus, ever existed…
We do not live in that society: we live in a society that has learnt — or rather, is still learning — the uncomfortable and painful lesson that same-sex attraction is a normal part of being human: whether people are born that way or develop that way is a moot point; but in attempting to force gay people to live outside the covenant community — when God has quite clearly welcomed them in — is to repeat the error of the older brother in the tale of the prodigal son.
The church puts gay people in a Catch 22 situation: you can’t have sex, it says, because you’re not married; and you can’t marry because you’re gay.
What is sin? Is it not that which harms another or harms oneself by driving a wedge between the self and God? Same-sex activity in the context of a loving, faithful relationship quite clearly does neither: it is sexual activity outside of such a relationship that does harm; that is the behaviour that scripture consistently condemns.
Last but not least, nor would I equate what the biblical writers say with what God has said: it is not a question of, as you put it “disregard[ing] what God has said about homosexual practice”, but rather of reading what the biblical writers say in its historical, cultural and social context, then asking ourselves, in the light of our own experience, whether or not those things can be applied to our situation. I guess that you and I have somewhat different approaches to the question of hermeneutics…
Stephen J March, April 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm
I am finding this exchange very thought-provoking and I want to thank you Phil for taking the time to share this with me. Your perspective is very helpful and illuminating and I appreciate it.
My perspective is that we should seek to choose leaders for the Christian community who best evince a life of holiness. Certainly they will never be perfect, but they should at least be honestly seeking to live lives faithful to the divine will for humankind as globally revealed in Scripture.
The comment you make about “lenses” is always a conversation finisher, because we can never be other than we are – no matter how hard we try. So am I a heterosexual – yes. Does that make it impossible for me to exegete Scripture – I cannot believe this is so.
Scripture must have a meaning that relates to its obvious reading – although certainly deeper and fuller readings may subsequently become evident. However those Scriptures whose obvious reading condemns homosexual practice, seem incapable of any reinterpretation that would read them as being in favour of it. Such as position, in my view would be illogical and undermining of any exegetical treatment.
Sin is disobedience to the revealed will of God for human kind. Sin is always primarily directed against God – the human aspects are always secondary.
It seems that if we wish to approve of homosexual practice we can do so either by so twisting and straining the very meaning of words to the degree that we destroy any possibility of exegetical science giving us access to God’s truth revealed in Scripture, or we must deny the divine origin of Scripture, in which case elements which “dérange” can simply be regarded as human ‘errors’ and easily removed.
I find both of these unacceptable, as for me they undermine the Christian faith at its most basic level. It has always been intrinsic to Christianity that God has revealed himself and his will for human kind in the revelation that we have access to in scripture.
But thank you again for your helpful insights and thought-provoking responses.
God bless you.
Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 5:51 pm
and my thanks to you, Stephen, for taking the time to engage with me here, for forcing me to think things through more thoroughly (and thanks, of course, to Kevin, for hosting the conversation).
I sincerely hope that recognising the lenses through which we see things isn’t a conversation finisher: it certainly wasn’t intended to be! To quote George Herbert,
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleases, through it pass
And then the heaven espy
That’s always going to be a challenge, of course, and none of us will ever see except as “through a glass, darkly” this side of eternity. I myself am constantly asking questions… and I’ve only reached the point where I am now after a long journey, constantly asking myself, is this right? I find myself like Jacob, wrestling with God through the night — and God smites me on the hip but.I.will.not.let.go. until he blesses me, stubborn fool that I am, and I walk away limping… limping but blessed by the encounter…
I agree: we need to engage with the text that we have; any attempt to force it to say the opposite of what it does is folly. Nor should we simply sweep difficult texts aside: that too is folly. We need to read with open hearts, ready to change … and that is so, so difficult when everything within us cries out against it…
On sin … I ask what is “the revealed will of God for human kind”? Is it not that we live in love? In faithful relationships?
Some journeys we take with our heads; others with our hearts. This, for me, is a journey of the heart, into the heart of the God who tells us, through Jesus, that ultimately these questions of gender, of who is married to whom, will be no more, for we shall be like the angels, whatever that means… but for now, we must live in the world we find ourselves in…
Perhaps I can leave you with a link to a piece written by my friend, Emma Jayne: Notes from a Gay Christian Woman
Blessings to you, too.
Stephen J March, April 23, 2012 at 9:17 am
You explain very clearly the reality of our struggle to walk with God, I like the reference to Jacob. I am very much in that place too.
Thank you for your blessing.
You are certainly correct that love is the fundamental calling of human kind – firstly to love God and as an expression of that love, and empowered by that love, to love our fellow man. That is certainly more than enough challenge for me to face in one lifetime. I’m a long way from having ‘cracked’ that particular nut. I struggle on…
I also agree that the future state of those who turn to God – whatever it may be – does not seem to be one in which gender survives. That is a mystery that I cannot get my head around, but I trust that the God who gave me this wonderful life – even in a body which is broken and marred by sin – will give me something far better when sin can no longer twist and maim his creation.
I have read the linked article. It seems an angry article. I assume that Emma has been horribly hurt by her Christian brothers and sisters. I can only feel for her and pray that she would know God’s peace and healing.
However her arguments are not convincing to me of her position.
She seems to infer that it is Christians who are making the rules about inappropriate sexual behaviour, that they have decided what is right or wrong and invented an Angry God, to stand behind these rules.
Christian faith is surely the opposite of that. It is a response to the God who has revealed to us the reality of himself (his total character – which expresses righteous anger, justice, mercy, love, compassion etc.) and the reality of human existence, in particular the reality of sin (in all its forms), with its savage seriousness. It is this sin that Christ comes to liberate us from, its corrosive effects on human life and disastrous consequences for the life to come – without Christ we were doomed.
Emma points out that Christ’s ultimate word on a specific situation where sin was brought to his attention was “Go and sin no more”. In the context that Emma cites, this word was addressed to the woman who was guilty of sin – not to the accusing crowd – which rather defeats her argument. Why the crowd dispersed is rather a mystery. Some believe that Christ started to write a list the sins which the individuals in the crowd were guilty of. The elder (perhaps less hot-headed and more aware of their human brokenness, were the first to get the point and to slope off, convicted and chastened). But surely Christ’s words to the woman are words to us all, to all Christians – of all sexual orientations – we are called to seek holiness, to be holy because God is holy. “Go and sin no more” is our daily challenge.
Perhaps moot question is “How is sin revealed to us?” Do we decide for ourselves individually what is wrong and right? Do we vote and let the majority decide?
The Judaeo-Christian tradition is one that holds that it is God who has revealed to us what sin is. Generally, it consists in opposition to God and to God’s will for mankind. More specifically the Scriptures, which Jews and Christians have always believed to be God inspired, give us clear examples of what God’s will is for human kind in the specifics of a middle-eastern patriarchal culture.
The challenge of the Church has been to seek to understand these texts and to obey them. Where their meaning is unclear, due to contextual differences, we nonetheless believe them to contain serious truth, because we hold them to be inspired by God. Thus we have developed tools, such as the ‘ladder of abstraction’ exegetical method, which help us identify and apply the eternal principles these texts reveal and then to apply these principles to contemporary life. Doing so we find that these texts still speak with a profound force because humanity hasn’t at all changed and we face exactly the same struggles and issues merely expressed in different forms.
My great obstacle in seeking to find a means that one might allow homosexual practice for those who would be followers of Christ, is that I cannot find any intellectually honest way of de-classifying homosexual practice as sin. The texts that speak of homosexual practice in the Bible do not seem to me to be obscure of meaning or application, or to be so narrowly culturally tied that they require massive reinterpretation – a reinterpretation which for a positive homosexual theology must reverse their original meaning.
That is my struggle.
Phil Groom, April 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm
I share that struggle. To me, however, it is not a question of “declassifying” but rather one of … and here I’m struggling to find the right word … perspectivising…
I refer back to my earlier comment, where I quote Trace James. The vast majority of Christians would agree that killing people is wrong; but sometimes warfare becomes necessary as a lesser evil and people — innocent people — are killed, and the church has developed a very convoluted “just war” theory to allow this. Jesus spoke very plainly about divorce: to marry a divorced person is to commit adultery; yet Christians have found their way clear to accommodate divorced and remarried people into the church — even into positions of leadership — without requiring them to live in celibacy or to split up. Jesus also specifically forbade taking oaths, a teaching reiterated by James: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” — yet the first thing the C of E requires of its ministers is to take oaths of allegiance holding the very book in which that act is forbidden! This goes directly against Jesus’ own teachings yet people do it.
Now we have a situation about Jesus said not a single word: same-sex relationships … and we have people living in faithful, committed same-sex relationships, something that none of the biblical passages under discussion — that no biblical passages — address.
Upon what basis do we accommodate soldiers, remarried divorcees and wilfully disobedient oath-takers, yet refuse such accommodation for our LGBT brothers and sisters?
And I am again driven back to that question: what, exactly, is wrong with the same-sex activity that the biblical writers condemn? It is precisely that which is wrong with all sexual activity outside of marriage; it constitutes betrayal and unfaithfulness: it is not the activity itself but that which the activity represents.
So I find myself with at least two reasons for supporting marriage equality:
1. First, I am not convinced that those biblical passages that appear to condemn same-sex activity do in fact condemn it;
2. Second, even if same-sex activity is sin, grace is greater, mercy triumphs over judgement, and I can see no justification for allowing grace in the cases of warfare, divorce/remarriage and oath taking whilst refusing it here.
To condemn same-sex relationships simply because they are same-sex relationships is to condemn an orchid as a weed merely because it is growing in the wrong place. We need to ask deeper questions: what is a weed? Is a weed really just a plant growing in the wrong place? Should we not rather take that orchid and plant it where it will flourish?
As for Emma’s story: it is a story to be read with the heart rather than the head; and as I read it, it is seeing Jesus turn things around, taking the anti-gay hatred into himself, the intentional reversal as he addresses the crowd rather than the accused with those words, “Go and sin no more”, that gives the story its power. Jesus refuses to condemn her; then neither shall I.
Stephen J March, April 24, 2012 at 8:15 am
Dear Phil, I do want to thank you for your response. It has provoked many hours of reflection on my part and I am grateful for that. If I can respond to you points in turn.
You talk about God’s command not to kill, and yet you rightly point out that Christians have nonetheless been involved in killing and have even developed a theology which supports killing in specific situations. It seems to me that your argument is rather – we can set aside God’s clear command not to do something when it becomes inconvenient.
If “thou shalt not kill” was the only word God speaks about killing then your argument might have validity. However, we find many other texts that speak of the taking of human life. God’s word to the Old Covenant community was that some sins were so destructive to godly community that death was to be meted out to those who committed them. God also sent his people into war. God also laid obligations of civil protection on leaders, who were required to put their lives on the line to defend their people – like a good shepherd to protect his sheep from predators.
Thus the just war theology is not a theological construct created to put aside the clear teaching of Scripture, but rather an attempt to take seriously the whole of Scripture.
Even so, as you are aware, the divine injunction on the taking of human life was from the start held very seriously by the Church. In the early centuries, with the reality of forced military service, many men would delay their baptism until after that service, for fear that they would be forced to take life unjustly, for such a serious (mortal) post-baptismal sin might jeapordise their salvation.
One might take issue with their theology but it certainly shows that they were still taking very seriously the divine injunction on the taking of human life. Even today many Christians would rather die themselves than take another human life.
Thus I don’t agree that this argument supports your contention.
Your second point tries to infer the same argument from Christ’s interdiction on the taking of oaths. Jesus said don’t swear oaths. We swear oaths. Thus we can disregard the clear teaching of Scripture when we want.
However, if we examine the case in point, Jesus was not addressing primarily the taking of oaths, but rather the contemporary issue of an endemic untrustworthiness of a man’s words. (One can’t but help thinking of contemporary ‘spin-doctoring’).
It appears that lying and false witness were so prevalent that a man’s words could only be counted on as even an approximation of the truth (of his testimony, or of his true intentions) if accompanied by the most serious of oaths whereby a man called down the most blood-curdling wrath of God upon himself should he be lying, or subsequently break faith.
Christ’s point is that a Christian should just speak the truth, period.
If you look at the sacramental vows, you find that we are required to make a promise, to simply give our word. We do not add any statements such as, “And may God put out my eyes, cause my entrails to rot inside my body and kill my wife and children, should I fail to keep my word”.
In effect we are obeying Christ’s command rather than putting it aside. Our simple word is our bond. Thus I do not agree that this supports your argument.
Your third point is the most moot in my opinion. You refer to divorce and seem again to infer – the although the Bible condemns it – Jesus himself very specifically – yet the Church has now accepted it. Hence, we can put aside the clear teaching of Scripture should we so wish to.
It is helpful to look at the history of this issue in the Christian Church. If we regard the history of the Church we see that it was Christ’s clear teaching that held sway at the beginning and for several centuries. Divorce was not allowed, period.
However, with the involvement of the Church with the human power structures there came pressure upon Church leadership to allow kings to put aside wives, often for the reason that they were no longer politically or militarily convenient.
In its weakness the Church acceded to these pressures and a new situation was created whereby those with wealth and power could, in return for appropriate favours/support, pretty much get their marriages annulled whenever they wanted to. In recent decades we have seen this willingness to recognise divorce extended to all, not just the rich.
It will be clear to you that I do not regard the acceptance of divorce as a positive development. For me Christ’s clear teaching is that “God hates divorce”. Jesus taught us that the Old Covenant allowed divorce only because human sinfulness made it the lesser of two evils.
Jesus further pointed out that marriage is not merely the physical union of two people (which can be broken), but also the spiritual union of two people (which cannot). Therefore whilst Christ, who again recognised that in the most extreme case of betrayal – adultery – perhaps divorce might be the least worst option. This did not, and could not, undo the spiritual union of the marriage partners. Thus re-marriage was not possible – the partners were not single spiritually thus any subsequent relationship, could not be regarded, or blessed, as a marriage union.
The driving force that has led the Church to accept divorce has not come from a desire to take seriously the clear teaching of Christ, but rather because the Church has found itself increasingly distant from the values and practices of civil society. Western civilisation, having abandonned Christian faith, is in the process of removing the laws and statutes that had their foundation in that faith.
So I think this is a very moot point for our consideration of homosexual practice. Should the Church simply jettison elements of its faith when they clash with the majority view of (a now lagely) pagan Western society, or should the Church maintain the biblical understandings, practices and beliefs that it has held throughout its history?
It seems to me that the Church has been so willing to bend over backwards to accommodate contemporary mores, that it has gone to the trouble of removing its own backbone. Certainly this has made us flexible, but at the cost of ever being able to stand up for anything anymore.
The Church has abandoned the Christian understanding of marriage as a life-long physical and spiritual union of two persons (and God), and taken on board the contemporary societal model, whereby marriage is a temporary contract, breakable at any time, by either partner, for no reason. I do not see this as something to celebrate or to take as a model for further action.
It seems to me that the Church needs to stand for the power of the gospel to transform sinful lives, not that the priority of the gospel should be to condone sinful lives.
I would like to suggest to you a thought experiment.
Imagine the 21st century Western Church transposed to the first or second century.
Faced with widespread persecution that entailed the loss of social position, the confiscation of goods, physical maltreatment and possibly even martyrdom, how do you think the 21st century Church would react?
All of this persecution is easily avoidable by the simple means of burning a handful of incense as an act of worship to Ceasar.
Is there any possibility that the 21st century Chrurch would stand firm to the teachings of Scripture and to the unique divinty of the person of Christ. Or do you not think that in a matter of minutes a theological construct would be developed and put in place that would validate and support the worship of Caesar? No doubt in return Christ would be assimilated as a minor deity into the Roman Pantheon, but the Christian faith would disappear. And you and I would not be worshipping Christ today, but Apollo or Diana.
Sadly, Western Christianty has chosen to accommodate contemporary mores rather than proclaim the historical Christian faith. We are more concerned not to cause offense to our surrounding culture in its rebellion against God, than we are not to cause offense to God himself.
“Speaking the truth in love”, has been abandoned for a policy of “agreeing with whatever society says”. This is clearly not an act of truthfulness, neither can it be act of love.
Sadly, I think it is your position on homosexual practice, rather than mine, that will win the day. A friend recently visited an Anglican seminary and found that 100% of the seminarians were practising homosexuals. This the increasing presence of homosexual clergy will certainly force the issue through, and sooner rather than later.
Once this battle has been lost, there will be an unending succession of others – perhaps the official adoption of pluralism, or maybe life-issues (euthanasia, or the use of foetus’ as ingredients in medical treatments, gene therapy). Once you attach yourself to a particular wagon, you go wherever the wagon goes.
I remember the (non-Christian) historian Will Durant’s reflection on human history. He remarked that no civilisation has ever survived the death of its gods. And I think this is where we are in the West. Our civilisation, having abandoned the Christian faith that was its foundation and support, is now in terminal decline – spiritually decline always leads inexorably to social and economic decline.
I am no prophet, I do not know if we will see a revival that will return the Church to historical Christianity and to life and health, to the power to transform lives and families and communities, the power to support a just and worthy civilsation. Or perhaps it will ba another faith will take the centre-stage. In this case it may be through the experience of subsequent persecution that the Christian Church will come to its senses.
I note the striking contrast between the Southern hemisphere Christian Church – which believes God’s word and proclaims it and is growing faster than at any other time in human history, and is transforming lives, families, communities and nations; and the Northern hemisphere Church – which abandons any doctrine or practice which proves at odds with contemporary mores and is in continual decline and increasingly irrelevant to its society.
I know which Church I would rather be a part of.
Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 10:17 am
Thank you, Stephen. You have indeed given this much thought and I hear what you say … especially about the church today, were we to transpose it into the 1st Century setting…
I cannot help wondering, however, whether that thought experiment can ever be valid: the church today exists as it does today precisely because it has grown from those roots, has grown through 2,000 years … in those first 300 or so years the church was a tiny seedling, an almost insignificant thornbush, a weed to be rooted out … a twist of history and it became a dominant force, a mighty forest in whose branches nations and states built their nests and under whose shade they fought their wars… and today, we live in an increasingly deforested world, where the church must once again take its place alongside the other trees, shrubs and bushes… are we now a hedgerow church, marking the old boundaries? If so, what are those boundaries? Do they have any relevance to the world today or are we simply marking them out for our own protection?
I guess in a way I’m asking Nicodemus’ question: how can a person return to their mother’s womb? And I hear Jesus’ reply:
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
… and what I see is my LGBT brothers and sisters coming into the light, not running from it… welcomed by the light, living in the light, shining as lights in the world where, so often, the so-called ‘straight’ community has done — and continues to do — everything it can to bend the light, to twist it, avoid it, evade it … to live in the shadows…
… and as I read your response, and I hope you’ll forgive me for speaking plainly, I see what seems to be more of that shadow-dancing as you seek to defend just-war theory and oath-taking as acceptable, yet deny the possibility of LGBT inclusion in the church…
the just war theology is not a theological construct created to put aside the clear teaching of Scripture, but rather an attempt to take seriously the whole of Scripture.
yet when I set out my argument that the whole of scripture points towards faithfulness as the key to understanding those few passages that abhor homosexual activity — abhorrent precisely because they could only take place as a betrayal of a heterosexual relationship in a society where a faithful homosexual relationship simply could not exist — you reject that argument…
And then, we come to the “slippery slope” … yes, there are slippery slopes out there, there are places where if we move a pebble, an avalanche will descend; but I do not see this as one of them. There is no reason to link acceptance of gay relationships to those other issues you refer to; this is no part of a bandwagon to throw aside all moral restraint. To the contrary, this a battle for faithfulness and restraint, for recognition of those who stand for integrity not only in their relationships in their own self-understanding — a battle against forcing people into lives of hypocrisy, into doomed relationships, into living in fear of who they are.
If it’s the church in Africa that you’re thinking of when you refer to Christianity in the southern hemisphere — a church where bigotry is rife, a melting pot where groups such as “The Lord’s Resistance Army” emerge, where bishops call for the death penalty for gays, where extremist fundamentalism leads to witch hunts and hatred, where the worst of the West’s mediaeval theologies are re-emerging — then I want no part of it. Because that, sadly, seems too often to be the grim reality of that growing southern-hemisphere church behind those vibrant colours and joyful singing…
For me, a church in which grace abounds, where outsiders are welcomed in Christ’s name, where sins are forgiven, where faith, hope and love touch and transform people’s lives: not condoning sinful lives but rejoicing in lives of integrity and faithfulness.
I guess that this is an area where you and I may never agree; but I am glad of this conversation, glad that we can disagree agreeably, even if uncomfortable with one another’s views. Grace and peace to you and to all who seek to live in the light; for I suspect that I too am a shadow-dancer: may we ever dance closer to the light and further from the darkness…
Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 10:41 am
Stephen and Kevin — with your permission, I’d like to reproduce this conversation between Stephen and myself on my own blog. May I do so, please? Linked back to here, of course…
Kevin Ellis, April 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm
I think Stephen’s permission is paramount.
One of the things that has struck me about the conversation that the two of you have had is that it has been seasoned with graciousness and respect. Part of the reason for my original posting was that I sense that such ingredients have been sparse in such dialogue; and that is true of Evangelicals as much as it is true of those who argue for a more “Inclusive” approach.
The problem with such a virtual debate is that as I have observed you talk; I have been able to hear the nuances of your speech; perhaps even more fully than the two of you have; given that I am fortunate that both of you are friends.
For my part, it is with the two of you whether it is reproduced. However, I would hope that others would act with same graciousness and respect as the two of you have done. Perhaps we could agree to delete the contributions of others who may indulge in insult and caricature? This is not censorship. It is have a sort of covenant that allows each other to be heard without rancour.
Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 2:16 pm
Thanks Kevin; and I’d have no problem whatsoever with deleting such comments: as the saying goes, don’t feed the trolls! And yes, of course: Stephen’s permission is paramount.
Stephen J March, April 24, 2012 at 2:32 pm
Thank you Phil for your thoughtful response.
Over these past few days I have found this dialogue difficult and stretching. The arguments you put forward for the condoning of same sex practices are full of deep Christian truths about the place of love, acceptance, humility, the awareness of mutual brokenness.
However, and this is my problem, to create a biblical construct which would support such an affirmation Scripture must either be put aside, or so twisted and tortured that its ‘revealed sense’ is the opposite of its obvious reading.
You cite Jesus’ text about men hating the light and preferring to live in darkness. Is that not about men choosing to ignore the will of God and instead live their lives as they please? Does that not speak to all biblical revealed patterns of behaviour that are called sin?
I do not hold up Southern hemisphere Christianity as the model of Christian perfection, I hope you did not infer that from my statement. The point I was trying to make was the vibrancy of that faith which tends to takes Scripture much more seriously than in the Northern hemisphere and its evident growth and power to transform lives, in contrast with the moribund, ever-decreasing and ineffectiveness of the Western church (globally measured).
Although deeply enriching, I have been troubled and disquieted by this dialogue and last night found myself lying awake in bed, way after midnight, still poring over these questions. In the darkness I decided to put on my ipod, which was on shuffle mode. As ‘chance’ would have it “If My People Prayed” by Casting Crowns was one of the first songs to play. Within 20 seconds of hearing this powerful call to stand by and to proclaim biblical truth, I found that I had my answer.
I remain confused. I am still searching for an understanding of how Christians should respond with Christian love and compassion to those affected at the deepest level of their being by this issue. I don’t have any answers, and I don’t think any easy ones will be to hand. I feel the pain and the hurt that this causes and I grieve over it.
However, in my confusion, I cannot but choose to stand on the solid and unchanging word of God as it has been understood and affirmed throughout the past two millennia. I must let Scripture speak to me in its own voice. I cannot take my stand on the shifting sands of mens’ theologies – regardless of their evident cleverness and obvious facility. In my confusion I must stand on the obvious reading of Scripture – whether or not I can understand it.
I am deeply grateful for this exchange. I emerge from it humbled and much more circumspect – which is always good. We are far too confident of our ability to know the mind of God.
If Phil wishes to copy this dialogue I give my consent and I hope that those with a much deeper knowledge of the Word of God than I might bless us with their insight.
Kevin Ellis, April 24, 2012 at 3:37 pm
The strength of this conversation has not only been the grace in which it has been conducted. Whilst it would be too tight to put Phil in one category and Stephen in another in terms of churchmanship. Knowing them both, their journeys cannot be pigeon-holed. I am reminded by the book produced sometime ago by David Edwards and John Stott, which seems to be a good example of courteous disagreement.
I will make further observations later. What I am sure of is that (a) Scripture cannot be dispensed and (b) Rhetoric should not set aside pastoral need
Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 3:17 pm
Thank you, Stephen. It’s not been easy, has it? I too am challenged: how is it, I find myself asking, that others cannot see this underlying issue of unfaithfulness and betrayal that has become so plain to me? Read in that light, there is no twisting of scripture to make it say anything that it does not, no denial that those ‘texts of terror’ are anything other than they are; rather, they are set in their historical/cultural context and we find a deeper, universal truth unveiled: God’s call to faithfulness. No special pleading, no shifting sand, just the obvious — to me, if not to anyone else! — reading of scripture…
Will leave a comment here after I’ve transposed the conversation, if WordPress doesn’t get here first with a pingback…
Beyond Postmodernity: are we post-Church? February 12, 2012Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church.
Tags: Christianity, Church, Lost in the Post, Postmodernity, Religion and Spirituality, Richard Greatrex
ARE WE POST-CHURCH? That’s one of the questions posed by my bookselling friend Richard Greatrex as he reflects further on his recent blog post, The Word: Written on the heart or wiped from the screen?, in which he explores some of the social implications of the rise of the ebook alongside questions of Christian orthodoxy:
But finally, in concentrating on post-modernity I may well have missed a crucial question, which it seems still remains unanswered – are we post-Church? Could it be that the work of the Church is done? That its role in God’s unfolding plan has come to an end? That where the Church has become a monolith, a global brand with a corporate hymn sheet, it has negated its own usefulness? Could it be that post-modernity is not one of the tools for the destruction of a broad-sweep Christian orthodoxy but a hammer to break open the institutionalisation of the Gospel? Might it not be, that in a world which seems dominated by both globalization and individualization in equal measure, Christianity will not survive in unwieldy ecclesiastical vessels but in millions and millions of tiny virtual and physical base communities each refracting the Faith through the prism of their special interests? If this is in any way the case then the role of the internet and all other forms of mass globalized communication will be very interesting. It could be that the internet will give each and every expression of faith the space to become a competing voice in a never-ending babble. Or it might be that it will draw all these many disparate elements together, stitching them into the web of a composite new over-arching orthodoxy.
What do you think? Has Richard hit the nail on the head with these questions? Given the church’s seeming reluctance to take issues of equality on board in the ongoing resistance of some to women bishops and the refusal of the House of Bishops to recognise gay relationships as a valid expression of human sexuality, has the time come to call it a day for the institutionalised church and start afresh?
Comments here are welcome, but I’d love to see the conversation continue over at Richard’s place too — so head on over there today, read the full post, and join in…
What is Church? A Calendar of Events or a Community of Disciples? How do we get it right? February 24, 2011Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Theological Reflection.
Tags: Christianity, Church, Church of England, Church Website, Fresh Expressions, Henlow, Henlow and Langford, Langford, Religion and Spirituality, St Andrew's Langford, St Mary's Henlow
Refreshing thinking from Fresh Expressions:
… but how do we rise to the challenge? I’m updating our church website at www.henlowchurch.org.uk and www.langfordchurch.org.uk (mirrored domains for two parishes in a united benefice to ensure that each church gets its own but can’t get away from the other!).
All suggestions welcome on how to avoid the Calendar-of-Events syndrome appreciated, please…
A Tale of Two Photos: Inside Outside October 24, 2010Posted by Phil Groom in Life, Photos, Random Musings, Theological Reflection.
Tags: After The Fire, ATF, Church, Darkness, Depression, Light, Shadow
TWO PHOTOS I TOOK after church this morning as I stood in the church doorway:
In the first, I’m standing on the threshold of the church, looking in, with the bright autumn sun streaming from behind me to cast my shadow into the porch. I’d wandered out and just happened to glance back, decided to capture the moment. Then I turned around to face the light and was struck by the contrast. Again, the autumn sun streaming in, now inviting me to go sit on that bench by the war memorial, my shadow somewhere behind me.
… I step up and onwards, and what do I see?
There’s a mist of darkness and it’s creeping up on me.
Many times before this road I’ve been,
But never alone, never alone, depression walks at my side again,
It’s creeping up on me,
I can feel it in my soul.
There in the distance, a tiny point of light,
It’s growing and glowing, and swallowing the night,
But I’ve still got darkness in my eyes,
I must turn around, and face to where the brightness shines…
I guess you can see why these pictures bring those lyrics back to me again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, when depression dogs your footsteps, to be able to turn around, and face to where the brightness shines? But life’s not that straightforward. Most of the time you turn around and it’s just as dark the other way too. And yet, and yet, and yet… moments like these: they’re there to be savoured.
I look back into the church and see the people milling around. They’re in another world, somehow. Did any of them see me point my phone and capture that moment? I turn around. The autumn sunshine streams through the trees. The war memorial stands there, mute testimony to humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. The bench is empty and for all the light shining, it too speaks of death, of a once proud tree now cut down and shaped to humanity’s convenience.
But the light still shines, and no amount of darkness can ever put it out. The light you think you can see at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train: it’s a man with a candle. He’s walking ahead of you. The reason the light keeps flickering is because he limps as he walks and his body keeps blocking the light; but every so often he holds the candle up high, beckons us on, and the light shines brighter than ever.
This morning was one of those moments. Savour it with me.
Broken Church July 23, 2010Posted by Phil Groom in Church, Theological Reflection, Watching and Waiting.
Tags: Church, Insane ramblings of a deranged Christian, Jesus
What is church? It’s people, broken people … pretending not to be broken … and that’s what breaks it…
… but things, maybe people too, are easily lost in the twittersphere, so I thought I’d say it again here.
I find church difficult: I love the fellowship, the shared communion, the sense (sometimes!) of common purpose, of being on a journey together; but then we get to the Bible readings, creeds, hymns, liturgy, prayers … and inside of me, just beneath the surface, there’s a voice screaming, “It’s not real!”
Or is it? Is there, somewhere amongst all the hype about God almighty, something real? Something deeper, something … transcendent?
People — myself included — talk about mission, evangelism, good news. But what’s good about believing fantasy? On what basis are we, is anyone, expected to invite people to become part of a community that so often can’t even see its own brokenness? What’s the good of lighting candles only to snuff them out? What’s the good of faking it for Jesus when Jesus reserved his harshest words for fakers?
And Jesus himself? Where are you, Jesus? Would we recognise you if you came to one of our services? Would you recognise our church services, meetings, fellowship groups — whatever we want to call them — as having anything to do with you?
Or would we find you sitting on the wall outside, having a smoke, broke and broken and wondering what it’s all about?
Tags: Abuse, Church, Fear, Hugs, Love
Christianity is a contact sport. If you belong to the Church of England you know that: the moment the priest announces the Peace, the pews explode as the people descend upon one another with whoops of enthusiasm — and deliver wet fish handshakes that make you feel like it’s a visit to the fishmonger’s rather than an encounter with a fellow pilgrim or a soulmate.
Don’t know about you but there are times when I need a hug, not a handshake. I need to know that the person I’m with is with me, not simply standing there in another private space. I need to know that we inhabit the same world under the same sky and share at least some of the same concerns. I need to connect, physically.
But that’s not allowed, is it? It’s not proper. It’s… too tactile. Too touchy-feely. Dangerous. Sensual. Ooh, now we’re approaching the nub of it. Can’t have Christians being sensual: it might turn sexual; and Christians don’t do sexual, do they?
They do, actually. It’s where the little Christians who mummy and daddy Christian bring to church with them come from.
But that’s not the problem, is it? The problem is fear. The same problem I highlighted in my last post about the BNP. Fear. Fear that the amazing, beautiful gift of physical contact that God has given us might . just . signal . something . else .
It’s a real fear, I’m not denying that. For those who’ve been abused by people who should have been trustworthy, by church leaders who’ve betrayed their calling, it’s a nightmare. But the greater reality is that such betrayals are not the norm. Let me say that again: abuse and betrayal are not the norm. Abuse is an aberration.
As followers of Jesus, we need to recognise that. We need to show that a better way is possible. We need to start from a position of trust. I’m not saying that’s easy. We live in a world of fear, where we’re constantly looking over our shoulders because the person behind us might be up to no good.
But in the church? Are we really starting from a position of distrust and suspicion? How can this be the body of Christ? Dear, sweet Jesus — is it any wonder you embraced the Cross with such passion? The pain of crucifixion has nothing on what your beloved is doing to her own body, tearing it apart week after week after week… repeating the words, “This is my body, broken for you…” but never seeing the blood spattered across her own damaged, beautiful, unearthly face…
And so hugs are declared too tactile. Too tactile. Too tactile for a community that follows an incarnate God … a God who walked amongst us and embraced lepers, who touched the dead, who spat on the ground and made mud that stuck to his fingers then gently, so gently placed, brought sight to the blind? This God of ours … this God who reaches out by coming down to meet us where we are, who dances with prostitutes and drinks with tax collectors … who turns water into wine whilst we do our best to turn wine into water … who celebrates the sheer physicality of life with barbecued fish on the beach for breakfast, walks besides us on empty roads … confounds our senses and disappears just as we begin to see him …
To those who think hugs are dangerous I say: my God hugs!! Let all the world in every corner sing: our God hugs! He reaches out, embraces humanity in all its wretched brokenness … and dies only to rise and say, put your hand here in my side, touch my hands, know that it is I …
This is God’s answer to the fear of physicality: incarnation followed by resurrection. No disembodied souls for our God but grounded, glorious down-to-earth physicality. We say: Do not touch! Do not walk on the grass! Do not pass go! Jesus says: Get out of jail free! Jesus frees us but we dare not be free. Jesus breaks down the walls but we demand barriers and safety nets.
And yes, sadly, we do need them. But first, we need trust. We need faith. We need hope. We need love: and perfect love drives out all fear. Perfect love leaves room for touch, cries out for contact.
Try it sometime. Break free from the wet fish handshakes and give your neighbour a hug.
Hating the Monster God March 1, 2009Posted by Phil Groom in Theological Reflection, Theology.
Tags: Church, Noah, Theology that sucks
Church this morning – sermon about Noah and the flood but it’s OK because God put a rainbow in the sky afterwards and promised he won’t do it again.
“Trust me,” he said, “I’m a used planet salesman: this one only had a few million inhabitants, so I wiped the hard drive and rebooted.”
Apologies for the mixed metaphors. I mumbled my way through the creed and fumbled my way through the Eucharist but didn’t exactly feel thankful as I thought about my friends who’ve been to hell and back and where was God when they – when you – needed him?
Went out for a walk across a derelict airfield that’s become a half-playground, half-wasteland, found a tree decorated with wreathes and ribbons in memory of someone called Martin… wondered what happened to him and why this particular tree…
Wanted to somehow hit out at this monster god who screwed up so badly, but he’s not the God I know… the God I know is love and weeps with me and the only floods s/he’d ever bring to the world would be floods of tears and sorrow… and sometimes of laughter when the sun shines and flowers break through the concrete…
And I pity the human race with its screwed up notions of God and the churches that propagate them and wonder why I remain a part of it when I want to be apart from it…
- Shortcut to this post: tinyurl.com/monster-god