Reclaiming Marriage: What it is, what it isn’t, what it will finally be December 22, 2012Posted by Phil Groom in Advent and Christmas, Church, Current Affairs, Life.
Tags: Church of England, Equal Marriage, Faithfulness, Insane ramblings of a deranged Christian, Marriage, Marriage Equality
MARRIAGE: We’re hearing a lot about it these days as Her Majesty’s Government crosses swords and angry words with the religious right and the Church of England’s officialdom in particular, an ecclesiastical officialdom that appears to be increasingly out of touch with its own people, who are the Church. Whilst the government seeks to make marriage inclusive and available to all irrespective of gender and orientation, these self-appointed guardians of public morality seek to restrict it as an exclusive preserve of heterosexuals. Marriage, they declare, is sacrosanct: the government has no right to govern it. Marriage, they insist, transcends government: it is ordained by God, the union of man and woman, given by God to provide a stable family life in which children can be brought up.
To which God, to anyone prepared to listen, replies: balderdash and piffle! And does so in no uncertain terms as he begets a bastard to save the world: yes, Jesus, the bastard babe of Bethlehem, born to an unmarried woman in poverty, dependent upon gifts from strangers to survive as a refugee on the run from the authorities; and this child grows up, remains single, owns no property, befriends prostitutes and others outside mainstream society, ends up framed by the religious leaders of his day and gets murdered. That, my friends, is the true Christmas story: no fairy lights, no romance, no happily ever after as the hero carries his blushing bride over the threshold. Instead, God eschews marriage both as Father and as Son, and delivers a whole new twist to the meaning of “stable family life” — all our precious human conventions tossed aside as eternity breaks into time.
In engaging with humanity, God sets himself outside marriage, for marriage is a human institution, one of the ways that our society has developed — not so much ordained by as approved by God, God’s gift to humanity, like the Sabbath; and if we would but heed his voice, I suspect we’d hear Jesus saying, as he said of the Sabbath, “Marriage was made for people, not people for marriage.”
What, then, is marriage? To marry is, quite simply, to join together: it’s a term used in the construction industry, in carpentry, plumbing and engineering as items are bonded to one another. “I’ll marry up that joint,” says the carpenter. We don’t hear the religious right objecting to the use of the term in these contexts, only when it comes to human relationships. I wonder why?
And what is marriage about? There is an absurdity here: those who claim they want to defend the importance of marriage seem to want to reduce it to nothing more than a sexual union. Really? Is that what marriage is about? A licence to have sex? Of course it isn’t: marriage is about far more than what people get up to in their bedrooms; if you dare, ask any couple, married, cohabiting or partnered, what proportion of their time is spent having sex — I’ll wager few apart from newly-weds make it up to even 5% of their time, and for most it will be far less than that.
What, then, is marriage about? Above all, it’s about faithfulness, about commitment; about making that commitment under the terms of a covenant: a covenanted relationship. Faithfulness is what God calls people to, throughout the Bible. Faithfulness versus unfaithfulness is the constant, recurring theme of scripture: from the story of Adam & Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust in Eden to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane; in the Commandments; in the Prophets as Israel is lambasted for her unfaithfulness to God; in the New Testament as the church is called to remain faithful to God — and it’s this relationship with God that the human institution of marriage but faintly reflects. Again and again, God cries out to his people to be faithful. Go read those ancient prophets and experience the sorrow in God’s heart at his people’s inconstancy!
What makes a marriage is faithfulness; what breaks a marriage is unfaithfulness — and if marriage is in danger, if marriage is in disrepute, it’s heterosexuals who have done the damage and made a mockery of it. Seems to me God is now saying, “Enough! You people have disregarded my call, have betrayed my trust: you’ve thrown it away; but now I will give that trust to all people who will commit to faithfulness regardless of gender” — a repeat of what happened to Israel when Christ came and threw the doors of the covenant wide open to the Gentiles: no longer an exclusive covenant but an inclusive one, for all who will put their trust in God. Just as God once used an outsider, Cyrus, to restore Israel, it seems — irony of ironies — that God is now using the Conservative Party and David Cameron in particular to restore marriage.
Those people to whom I entrusted this gift of marriage have not honoured it, says the Lord, therefore I will find a people who will honour it.
So, at least, it seems to me. Many will disagree; and no doubt numerous marriages of gay couples will fail just as they have done for so many straight couples. No matter: because the story is not over until our hero carries his bride over the threshold. I said that in this story that didn’t happen, didn’t I? I spoke too soon, for the final threshold is death; and our hero, Jesus, tenderly carries his bride — the Church, his broken, bleeding bride, ravaged by her own self-harm and self-interest — in his own broken, bleeding arms over that final threshold into a place where marriage is no more, where questions of gender are set aside, because all are one in Christ and love wins.
Marriage: here we have the Church being precious about it, trying to put a hedge around it, and all the time Christ calls us beyond it to something far deeper — an eternity of love. Marriages are not made by church or state; nor are they made in heaven: they are made in the heart, forged in the home. Church and state, heaven and hell, can only look on in wonder at a covenanted relationship of love that culminates in God and, for those who will, in that glorious consummation between Christ and the Church, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
And what a party that will be!
I’d like to acknowledge the following, whose recent thought-provoking posts have helped to shape and clarify my thinking in this area. Those named, however, bear no responsibility for anything here written; that responsibility is mine, and mine alone.
- Gary of The Not So Big Society; specifically: Does God Need A Make-Over?
- Gillan Scott of God and Politics in the UK; various posts but in particular, Today is the day the Government seizes control of marriage and David Cameron, gay marriage and the betrayal of democracy
- Laura Sykes of Lay Anglicana; in particular: Let’s Cut The Gordian Knot of Language!
- Members of the Christians for Equal Marriage (UK) facebook group for thought-provoking conversations too numerous to list.
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…
Tags: Freedom of Conscience, Human Sexuality, Marriage Equality, Westminster 2010, Westminster Declaration
A note following on from my post a few days ago, Westminster 2010: Protecting freedom of conscience – but whose conscience?
Encouraging to see more dissenting voices emerging, specifically:
- Annie Porthouse: Westminster Declaration of Christian Conscience..?? (blog) and Annie Porthouse is NOT signing the Westminster Declaration of Christian Conscience… (facebook)
- Jongudmund: Why I’m not signing the Westminster Declaration
The beauty of it is we’re all coming at it from different directions: me, because I believe in marriage equality for gay and straight couples; Annie because she recognises the reality of our post-Christendom context and believes that attempting to legislate for Christian rights is wrong; and Jongudmund because he sees an outrageous hypocrisy in the stance taken against embryo-destructive research that fails to take the same stand against IVF — go read his post in full if you can’t get your head around my précis.
Good old dissenter and activist Steve Chalke got there before us, though, and his organisation Faithworks has issued a press release that lays out very clearly what is so utterly wrongheaded about this declaration:
Faithworks represents 22,000 Christians from a variety of theological and political backgrounds, our theology is inclusive and not imposing, and our purpose is to encourage people to express their faith through serving others without discrimination. In contrast, the Westminster 2010 Declaration sets Christians up on a moral high ground and implicitly creates divisiveness. It does this at just the time when the church’s morality has been called into question across the world.
And top marks to Lee Moore who got there ahead of Chalke: Why I Won’t Sign Westminster 2010 & Why You Should Read it Carefully Before You Sign
As I said before: Westminster 2010: would Jesus sign it? I don’t think so.
Now, beautiful people (by which I mean you, beloved reader), enough of what not to do. What positive action can we take to sort out this dysfunctional government of ours? Hang ’em. That’s what I say: hang the lot of ’em. If you’d like to see parliamentary reform, vote strategically for a hung parliament.
Update, 22/04/2010: Thanks to @Jon_Bartley at Ekklesia who got there even earlier, it turns out: Conservative church leaders launch anti-war declaration for general election (April 4th). His concluding paragraphs sum up the problems with WmD (thanks t’other Jon) rather well:
What it does show is the extent to which those putting the Westminster Declaration together are dualistic in their thinking, selective in their focus, and ignore some of the most central aspects of their faith that have something to say to the world around them – despite their claim to be ‘representing’ Christianity.
In their zeal to combat the ‘marginalisation’ of Christianity, they are actually doing a great deal to marginalise the faith themselves.
What what shows, you ask? Go read Jon’s full analysis.
Tags: Accepting Evangelicals, Freedom of Conscience, Human Sexuality, Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, LGCM, Marriage, Marriage Equality, Westminster 2010
My thanks to Eddie Olliffe for his post yesterday drawing attention to Westminster 2010, supposedly a ‘Declaration of Christian Conscience’ drawn up with what appear to be the entirely laudable aims of “protecting human life, protecting marriage, and protecting freedom of conscience”. Bravo indeed, good things, worthy of protection, and issuing a loud call to
all parliamentary candidates to pledge that they will ‘respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold and express Christian beliefs and act according to Christian conscience’.
But what exactly is “Christian conscience”? As I commented on Eddie’s post, I have no problem whatsoever with the ideas of protecting human life and protecting freedom of conscience … but I’m wary of the idea of “protecting marriage” and more than a little puzzled about how that fits in with protecting freedom of conscience.
Protecting marriage — from what and from whom? My experience is that most Christians who want to “protect marriage” want to protect it as an institution that excludes the gay community, which then presents gay people with a double whammy: they’re excluded from marriage but then condemned for entering sexual relationships outside of marriage.
Since leaving my comment on Eddie’s post I’ve explored the Westminster 2010 site a little more and it turns out — as I suspected — that this attitude is precisely what the Declaration seeks to protect:
We pledge to support marriage – the lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. We believe it is divinely ordained, the only context for sexual intercourse, and the most important unit for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all. We call on government to honour, promote and protect marriage and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage…
My response to that is no, no, no! It is a stance adopted by many Christians, but it is by no means the definitive Christian position that the declaration pretends it to be. I have quite a few gay friends — most of them Christians — and I’d love to see them free to marry, to see their relationships recognised by the wider Christian community. I am not alone in this, not by a long way: witness, for example, Accepting Evangelicals and the The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.
So I cannot — will not — in good conscience put my name to this declaration because it does not protect the freedom of conscience of those such as myself who have come to recognise gay and straight relationships as equally valid.
My call to all parliamentary candidates, then, is to tread very carefully around this declaration. Affirm your support for protecting human life (but do read the full text of what exactly is being called for); affirm your support for protecting freedom of conscience; but be wary, very wary, of supporting a call to protect marriage that sets itself so resolutely against today’s standards of equality.
Westminster 2010: would Jesus sign it? I don’t think so.