No Easy Way, no Hard Way, no Middle Way – only the Jesus Way

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 3

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested … the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21-25)

Good news! God is truly and amazingly good! We can stop striving and straining to get into his favour by good behaviour, because all of us, whether Jew or Gentile, have already blown that chance. St Paul tells us so in Romans chapter 3. We cannot earn our way into God’s kingdom by righteous living, because we have already failed the access test. Our goodness (such as it is) is insufficient: “…all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” and “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans  3:9 & 23).

“Pagan Pass” won’t get you through the mountains to God. St Paul proved that in Romans chapter 1. (See my previous post, A Tale of Three Passes). Nor will “Jewish Pass” take the descendants of Abraham through the mountains on any favoured basis, for God is impartial. “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 2:9-10). Actual behaviour will be judged, not lineage. That is what St Paul argued in chapter 2.

And now in Romans 3, he adds that actual behaviour will always be found wanting. St Paul reminds his readers that, back in the Old Testament, God had already pronounced his verdict on Jews and Gentiles alike: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). The Psalm itself makes it clear that this applies to the whole human race, whom the Psalmist calls the “children of man”, but in case a Jewish reader should somehow think him or herself exempt, St Paul underlines the point: “…we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).

Good news upon good news! Our own efforts at righteousness are futile, but God has not written us off and condemned us to live and die without him. He has provided a different righteousness and made it available to everyone who believes. He can give this righteousness to us because the blood of the Son of God, Christ Jesus, has dealt with the offence our sin caused (that’s what Romans 3:25 means).

God’s righteousness is a free gift. We can have it just by believing that God’s offer is true, but we must believe. The gift is received by faith. It is not bestowed on those who don’t believe. Why, then, do so many who hear the offer reject it, even if they would say of themselves that they want to live good, God-pleasing lives? St Paul’s words in Romans 3:27 suggest part of the reason, and that’s what I will talk about in my next post.

All Bible quotations are from the ESV, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Image:
Agnus Dei.jpg – by Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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A Tale of Three Passes

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 2

Imagine a mountain range, infinitely wide, and so high that even the known low points between peaks are higher than Everest. On the far side of the mountains lies the plain of right relationships with God – the plain of paradise.

Popular opinion has it that there are possibly two passes through the mountains to that place of glory. The first supposed pass we might call the Pagan Pass. Its followers believe that, if you set up idols in the names of gods and worship them in a prescribed manner, the gods will conduct you across Pagan Pass to the land beyond.

A second opinion is that there is a pass especially for the descendants of Abraham, the father of the Jews. Believers in that pass agree that Pagan Pass is a cul-de-sac, but that God’s covenant with Abraham, with the legal riders that God added through Moses, provides a sure way through.

St Paul’s purpose in the first three chapters of Romans (beginning at 1:18) is to show that those passes are illusory. They don’t and cannot get anyone through to the far side of the mountains. He provides those proofs in the section from 1:18 to 3:20, and then introduces the one and only pass that does go through: “For there is no distinction [both of those other purported passes are cul-de-sacs]: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22-25).

It is important to understand that this was the destination Paul was working towards and that everything prior was designed to support that conclusion. If we do not have that understanding, we are likely to misunderstand and misapply some of what he says when he closes off “Pagan Pass” in chapter 1 and “Jewish Pass” in chapters 2 and 3.

The Dead End that’s Pagan Pass (Romans 1:18-32)

Some Christians loudly proclaim that God’s wrath is being brought down on America, or New Zealand, or wherever, by homosexual activity or abortions, or suchlike. They are wrong. They have up­ended what St Paul teaches in Romans 1. Here is what St Paul actually says: ”For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:18, 21‑25).

St Paul teaches this sequence of events:

  1. Despite knowing Him, humankind stopped worshipping the one true God and started worshipping what was not God.
  2. Therefore, humankind incurred God’s wrath.
  3. Therefore, God removed his restraining hand and allowed sin to become rampant. The explosion of sin is evidence of God’s wrath, not the cause of it.

Yes, St Paul mentions sexual deviations first, but in verses 28-39 he expands the list to cover a much greater number of sins: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless”.

As John Calvin says in his commentary, “…though every vice … did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that everyone might separately be accused of manifest depravity.” If you are using Romans 1 to rank some sins as worse than others, you have missed Paul’s point. He’s closing off “Pagan Pass” to everyone, not just to those who commit a particular shortlist of sins.

If you want to trumpet God’s wrath in a way that is consistent with Romans 1, the people you should have in your sights are the university professors and intellectuals who use their platforms to teach contempt for the name or idea of God. Even if they happened to be opposed to abortion and old-fashioned about homo­sex­uality, they would be the ones – according to St Paul – to draw God’s wrath down upon a society. But, actually, I think your vocal cords would be better used to announce with St Paul that, though God’s wrath is evident (regardless of whom is to blame), the mercy God offers in Christ Jesus is greater.

By the way, if you are someone who believes that some forms of same-sex relationship are not sinful, I am sure you nevertheless believe that other forms are, so that discussion does not weaken St Paul’s argument.

The Dead End that’s the “Jewish” Pass (Romans 2)

The Jewish people were right that they were a chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6), but many were wrong about how that gained them, generation by generation, access to the blessings of God. There were two ways their thinking could go wrong. Some might think that blessing and salvation were theirs just by virtue of their descent from Abraham. Others might not count on descent alone, but added to it the condition of a sufficient obedience to the Law of Moses. St Paul’s words in 2:1 to 3:20 combat both those errors.

In 1:18-32, St Paul had shown that the pagan way of life and “worship” was evidence of the wrath of God. One can imagine applause for Paul from a Jewish reader who had read just that far. However, St Paul now turns the tables. He says “…you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1). We find out in verse 17 that “O man” is a representative Jew. Simply being a Jew by descent, therefore, is not enough to evade the wrath of God irrespective of quality of life.

St Paul doesn’t ask his readers to merely take his word for it. In verses 2 to 29, he makes an argument that is based on the judicial impartiality of God, and whose core is found in verses 9 to 11: “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

“There you have it,” St Paul is saying to any Jew who thinks that Jewish inheritance alone will shield a person from God’s judgment, “– it won’t.” And he adds, in verse 27, “…he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

As St Paul develops his argument, he makes a number of statements that can be (and often are) misapplied. This will happen if we don’t remember what St Paul’s overall objective is in chapters 1 to 3, and what his particular objective is in chapter 2. His overall objective is to defeat any idea that either the Pagan or the Jewish pass goes through to God, and to establish that the only viable pass is that of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His chapter 2 objective, however, is to demonstrate the judicial equality of Jew and Gentile before God. In doing so, he makes some statements that, if pulled from their context, would undermine the overall objective. Therefore, we can take it for granted that he does not intend them to be used that way.

Besides verse 10, which I have already quoted above, the passages in question are these:

Romans 2:6-8 – “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Romans 2:14-16 – “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

Those passages seem to open the door to a doctrine of works-based righteousness. Verses 14‑16 are also sometimes used to suggest an answer to the “What about those who have never heard” problem. (Confession: I’ve done so myself). However, St Paul’s chapter 3 doctrine is that there is one and only one pass, and he would never intimate that there was even the roughest, most ill-defined of an alternative way.

In the context of the judicial impartiality of God, everything St Paul says in those passages is true. What is unsaid (because it is not relevant to his chapter 2 purpose), is that no Jew or Gentile (excepting, of course, Jesus) has ever achieved a standard of obedience that is high enough to clear the bar. St Paul will deal with that issue in the first twenty verses of chapter 3, and I will follow him there in my next post, I hope.

Why Gentile Believers don’t need to be Circumcised

I haven’t quite finished this post, though. It’s worth noting that, as well as furthering progress towards his main objective, St Paul has also slipped in the answer to a question that might have been troubling any members of the church in Rome who were from Jewish backgrounds, or who had been Gentile converts to the Jewish faith. The question is “Why do Gentile believers in Jesus Christ not need to be circumcised?” St Paul gives the answer in verses 28 and 29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Note re “A New Perspective on Paul”

I don’t believe it is necessary – for the purpose of understanding the central teachings in his letter to the Romans – to decide between the classic and new perspectives on the view of Judaism that St Paul reflects in Romans 2 and Romans 3. However he saw the Judaism of his day, and however the Jews saw themselves, the arguments St Paul provides are sufficient to show that there is no Jewish “pass” that exists apart from the way provided by Jesus Christ.

 

All Bible quotations are from the ESV, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Not the Sister Benedict Option

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 1

A friend of mine, a Roman Catholic, attended a Catholic boys’ high school. From time to time, he meets some of his old classmates, but my friend is the only one out of them who has continued to believe.

His friends put the blame on Sister Benedict. She was a fierce nun whose disciplinary method was to assure misbehaving boys that damnation awaited them unless they repented and mended their ways. Assailed often by this testimony, all the boys except my friend decided that they were such incorrigible reprobates that there was no point continuing to attend church. Only my friend managed to see past the ferocious sister to the gospel and so continue in faith.

My church study group has just completed a detailed study of the first eight chapters of St Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is plain there that God’s method for encouraging believers to holiness of life differs dramatically from the poor nun’s disastrous scheme. What is more, God guarantees that his way will succeed, and that the well-intentioned sister’s will not, nor any way that is like hers.

Milestone Passages in Romans 1 through 8

There are four passages that serve as milestones in the journey on which St Paul takes his readers in the first eight chapters of Romans. I will quote and comment on them here. (All quotations are from the ESV). If my comments sometimes enlarge on St Paul’s precise words, it is because I am certain that the enlargement accords with St Paul’s prior or subsequent exposition of the topic.


milestone_tr2Milestone 1
at Romans 1:16 marks the start of the journey. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Here (as we will find out when we read on in his letter), St Paul names the themes that will occupy him throughout chapters 1 to 8. We are going to find out that the gospel is about our salvation; that our salvation depends on the power of God; that we lay hold of the gospel’s blessings by faith; and that it’s the same gospel for everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike.


milestone_tr2The second milestone
is Romans 5:1-5. By the time we reach verse 1, we are at the mid-point of our journey. St Paul has proven that justification is by faith apart from works, and so he states what that means for us. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then, in verse 2, he tells us two more things that flow from our justification, and what that can mean for our state of heart. “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Notice the certainty in St Paul’s words!

(i) We stand in a place of grace. We do not oscillate in and out of that place depending on how holy, or not, our behaviour is on a particular day. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who gave and still gives us access, not our success in living a godly life.

(ii) One day we will undoubtedly share in the glory of God. Someone might argue that, by using the word “hope”, St Paul is not asserting here that the glorification of all believers is certain. By the time we have read the final eleven verses of chapter 8, however, it ought to be clear that that is exactly what he does mean. Our hope of glorification is a “sure and certain” hope.

(iii) Because of this double certainty (we stand in a place of grace, and we will ultimately attain to the glory of God), we can live every day of our Christian lives rejoicing.

Verses 3 and 4 then tell us the practical result of living with such certainty. “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” The Sister Benedicts of this world (and there are plenty on the Protestant side of the fence, too) think that Christians need to be kept on the straight and narrow by warnings and threats and reminders of hellfire. The Apostle Paul knows that the true foundation of a vibrant Christian life (as far as it lies with the individual) is the joyful assurance that we stand in a place of irrevocable grace, and that the grace that has seen me safe thus far will indeed see me home.

Verse 5 rounds out the rich content of this milestone passage by introducing the real power that ensures that a believer stays attuned to godliness and makes progress in sanctification, notwithstanding any deviations on the way. “…hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

milestone_tr2The third milestone comes at Romans 8:1-2. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

In verse 1, St Paul repeats in different words what he said in Romans 5:1. “Condemned” is the opposite of “justified”, so “not condemned” has essentially the same meaning as “justified”. This time, though, St Paul doesn’t mention faith. Instead, he says that we are “in Christ”. In those words, he is reminding us of what he taught in chapters 5 and 6: that when we believed the gospel, God in some mysterious way united us with Christ. The only way to enter that state of blessing is to believe the gospel, so to say that someone is “in Christ” carries with it the necessary truth that he or she is a believer.

Verses 2-4 sum up what Paul hinted at in Romans 5:2 and began to teach in detail from that point forward. God will ensure that, as well as grasping hold of the gift of justification, every true believer will take the idea of holiness of life seriously and keep growing in that direction. Notice, too, how in verse 3 this progress is made to depend on the power of God: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.

Someone may point out that this progress depends on us walking in the Spirit and not the flesh. Perhaps our glorification is not so certain after all! However, in a later post, God willing, I will show that St Paul includes in the category of those who “walk by the Spirit”, everyone who has been justified by faith, and that this status is not changed even when a believer makes a deviation into fleshly behaviour. His certainty, therefore, is that the Spirit will bring them back on course in due time.

milestone_tr2The final milestone occurs at Romans 8:28-29, and marks the end of this section of the journey. “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” St Paul’s words resonate with the same joy and certainty that we heard in Romans 5:2.The Apostle has not lessened by one iota the certainty to which he encouraged us back then.

Incidentally, verses 38 and 39 are part of St Paul’s answer to the rhetorical question that he posed in verse 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” I don’t know if St Paul knew the parable of the sower when he wrote his letter to the Romans, but it is interesting to compare verses 35‑39 with part of what our Lord Jesus Christ said when explaining the parable: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21). Paul’s victory cry in Romans 8 shows that no one who has been justified by faith is a “rocky ground” hearer.

Sister Benedict and her fretful cousins, Catholic or Protestant, who beset their charges with scoldings and make them worry about their standing with God, are like Uzzah (2 Samuel 6) who put out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant. The triune God has fully under control the sanctification and ultimately the glorification of those who have believed. Yes, there is a place for pastoral and brotherly reminders and warnings. (See, for instance, Galatians 5:21, Galatians 6:7-8, and 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12). Sin can still trip any of us for a time, but such warnings are likely to be fruitless and positively harmful if they are not built on the foundation of the teaching of grace, and if they are not accompanied by the reaffirmation of grace. Passages that show the spirit in which effective correction should be given include these: Galatians 6:1, 1 Corinthians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:15 and Hebrews 10:25

In coming weeks, I hope to add further posts to support this one by summarising the assertions St Paul makes and the proofs he provides in the various logical sections within chapters 1‑8. During that series, or in a post at the end, I will also address the “But what about…?’s” that will probably be asked, citing passages from St Paul himself or the Lord Jesus Christ or other epistles that allegedly contradict what I have said in this post is St Paul’s doctrine. (Spoiler: they don’t).

St Paul wanted us to live rejoicing. Let’s cease doubting and live as he encouraged us!

 

Main image: By ludger1961 – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=305335

Milstone clipart: canstockphoto40726157.jpg

Repenting Over a Missed Opportunity

If you have not yet read my preceding post, please do so before reading this one.

Returning to Romans 1, how many preachers have inverted the order of events that is given there, and taught that homosexual activity draws down the wrath of God upon a society? They have failed to see that St Paul says that God’s wrath came first, drawn down by society’s wilful rejection of Him. Widely-prevalent homosexual behaviour and all the other signs of a society gone awry then came about because God, in his wrath, withdrew his restraining hand. (Secularists of course do not believe that there is anything “awry” at all about having an LBGT+ orientation and living accordingly. If you are a secularist, please read on despite that objection – I am taking conservative Christians to task here, not you, and so I am choosing my words accordingly).

“This was not my Choice”

Most LGBT+ people will testify that their orientation is not their choice – that they felt drawn in that direction even before they knew or thought about physical sexual connection.

I say “most” because of course some feminists are on record as having adopted a lesbian lifestyle as a deliberate stand against what they perceived as an oppressively patriarchal society – a stand taken even though they could have, from a merely physical point of view, enjoyed heterosexual relationships had they so wished. And others of both sexes have adopted a queer lifestyle as a deliberate rejection of the orientation that they felt society was trying to impose upon them. However, such stories are well outnumbered by the stories of those who felt they had no choice.

Those conservatives are wrong who see the gay rights movement as an attempt to legitimise and thrust upon society a promiscuous and orgiastic lifestyle which its proponents know to be perverse and wrong. Instead, the movement was quite rightly motivated by the inward knowledge that “This is not my fault; it was not my choice,” and fuelled by anger at the injustice of the treatment of anyone who departed from heterosexuality. Secular society, at least, has not been able to withstand the force of the testimonies and the evidence, and so gay relationships have been decriminalised by most jurisdictions in the western world.

Had the conservative churches been correctly exegeting and applying Romans 1, it should have been easy for them, too, to support this change and largely to rejoice in it.

Collateral Damage

I am not advocating some “revisionist” treatment of the text of Romans 1, just the insight to understand the passage as Calvin did and to apply it accordingly. Paul’s purpose here is not to highlight particular sins of particular individuals and blame them for the sorry state of the world, but to point out the apostate state of the pagan world and blame that for the explosion of individual sin.

A degenerate society exposes its children to far more “stumbling blocks” (temptations to sin – see Luke 17:1) than does a godly one. In the purview of Romans 1, whatever the particular sin to which someone is most vulnerable, that heightened vulnerability is a kind of collateral damage they suffer because of the state of the society into which they were born, and this applies to same-sex-attracted and gender-dysphoric people and to everyone else.

That fact doesn’t take away the responsibility we all have not to sin, regardless of the temptation, but it ought to put a stop to the practice of many conservative churches of singling out LGBT+ people as different and worse than others when weighed on the scale of God’s righteousness. It should also enable conservative Christians to listen with understanding when a same-sex-attracted or gender-dysphoric person says, “This is how I am; it was not my choice.”

A Missed Opportunity

Because of their mishandling of the Romans 1 passage and those others that I discussed in my previous post, conservative churches stridently opposed decriminalisation and have therefore lost the opportunity to be a moderating voice. How much better for the LGBT+ world might it have been if, for the last half-century, conservative churches had been saying, “Yes, we see the injustice you have suffered and support your fight against it. Nevertheless, as servants of Jesus Christ we want to counsel and urge you not to use your freedom to live in sexual promiscuity but for faithfulness and love, and we also want you to consider arguments for living a fulfilled celibate life rather than in a sexual relationship. However, that said, the most important issue for us is to see the injustice removed, and we are with you all the way on that.”

Almighty God has used secular governments and secular courts to undo an injustice that the church of Jesus Christ should have been at the forefront of undoing, but which they obstructed. It is high time for conservative Christians to acknowledge their sin and engage with the LGBT+ world in a way that makes the church’s repentance and compassion palpable and practical.

Rebut the ‘Basket’? Not so Fast!

Conservatives in a “Basket of Deplorables”?

Hillary Clinton charged that many of Donald Trump’s supporters belong to a “basket of deplorables” because of (among other possibilities) their “homophobic” views. Many contemporary, creedally orthodox churches are likely to say, in response, “Don’t include us in that basket. If any LGBT+ person comes into our congregation, they will find that clergy and congregational members will welcome them just as they are and not make it a project to change their orientation.”

Most would add a rider something like this, “We will continue to hold that only heterosexual relationships are ordained by God, and the only human partnership that can rightly be termed a marriage is a partnership between a biological man and a biological woman. But if you don’t agree with us on those points, that won’t stop us receiving you as someone who has all the dignity of one who is created in the image of God. We won’t make you feel like dirt.”

So far, contemporary orthodox churches, so good. God’s church must derive its understanding of right and wrong from God’s word. The U.S Supreme Court and Social Justice Warriors (so called) want the world instead to derive its ethics from a different source, namely, whatever seems right to each individual. Every person supposedly has the right not to be questioned or challenged on their life choices. The Church is right to withstand this idea.

However, I don’t think we can escape the “deplorable” label – in God’s eyes, I mean, not Hillary Clinton’s – as easily as that.

In a Redeemer Report article ( accessed 2016/12/12, emphasis mine), Tim Keller wrote,

“Vines and Wilson relate stories of people who were sure that the Bible condemned homosexuality. However, they were brought to a change of mind through getting to know gay people personally. It is certainly important for Christians who are not gay to hear the hearts and stories of people who are attracted to the same sex.

And when I see people discarding their older beliefs that homosexuality is sinful after engaging with loving, wise, gay people, I’m inclined to agree that those earlier views were likely defective. In fact, they must have been essentially a form of bigotry. They could not have been based on theological or ethical principles, or on an understanding of historical biblical teaching. They must have been grounded instead on a stereotype of gay people as worse sinners than others (which is itself a shallow theology of sin.) So I say good riddance to bigotry.”

Conservative Culpability

I hope that every conservative pastor and believer can respond to that “good riddance” with a resounding cheer of support. Nevertheless, Keller’s congratulatory cry doesn’t touch on the question of who was chiefly responsible for that bigotry which we must now discard. To that question I would answer, “In a large measure, conservative pastors of past generations and many still of our own generation.”

How many preachers have expounded Romans 1:18-32 as though Paul’s purpose was to give us a way of ranking sins from the least to the greatest, with homosexuality the worst of all? How many have failed to take from the passage the point that Calvin with his incisive insight makes in his comment on verse 28 (emphasis mine),

“…though every vice, as it has been said, did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that everyone might separately be accused of manifest depravity.”

How many preachers have made a similar mistake in their handling of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and singled out homosexuality as somehow pre-eminent in Paul’s catalogue of mortal sins, when in fact the unrighteous acts that Paul denounced in the preceding verses and that provoked his warning in verses 9 and 10 are acts of fraud and litigiousness – i.e., acts of robbery and greed. When preachers single out homosexuality for “trumpet blast” denunciation and are timid in their warnings against sins that the inspired Apostle rates equally vile, is it any wonder that congregations and society have been imbued with the idea that homosexuals are the vilest of the vile, and should be treated accordingly?

How many preachers have taken it for granted that the Hebrew word to`evah, translated “abomination” means something that causes a reaction of stomach-churning revulsion, and have projected that meaning into the scriptures and onto God? How many have therefore roared the word in their diatribes against homosexuality, building and confirming prejudice in their congregation? How many have failed to notice – or have glossed over the fact – that God uses the same word to describe adultery, graven images, and false balances? Those ideas don’t usually make our stomachs churn, and – anyway – God doesn’t have a stomach to be churned. Correct exposition, I contend, should use a definition that makes sense in all the contexts in which the word is used.

A recent docudrama on Australian television brought to light that in Sydney “in the 1980s and 1990s…There were 80 murders, thousands of assaults and 30 unsolved cases— the victims, all young homosexual men.” (Link accessed 2016/12/12).

Many of the murders were glibly written off as suicides and never properly investigated, police and public content with that outcome because, to their prejudiced minds, gay lives were of no consequence and the victims deserved their fate. I have no doubt that similar patterns – certainly assaults, and sometimes murders – could be found in many of the Christian world’s cities and towns.

My charge is that many “good” conservative pastors over many decades, in their blinkered and inept handling of what the Bible has to say about homosexual activity, have played a part in creating a milieu of bigotry and hostility whose outcome was and is such violence. We, the conservative Church and especially its pastors, have blood on our hands, even if, while we were mishandling teaching in regard to homosexuality, we were faithfully preaching, against vigilante action – “’Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Because of what was trumpeted and what was omitted in the teaching, it was like passing a live grenade to a toddler and feebly urging, “Don’t pull the pin.”

I don’t think it will be good enough in the eyes of God to say to LGBT+ people, “That was then. We’re sorry about it, but we’re different now. Come to church and see – we’ll put our arm around you!” No, I think that conservative churches, while standing firm in their commitment to the Scriptural revelation, need to come to a more profound and appalled repentance at the evil they have done. Only then will their outreach to LGBT+ people be truthful and compelling.

I will have more to say on that theme in my next blog post.

Trevor Morrison, 13 December 2016

My thinks to Clay Jones for permission to use his cartoon in this post. Please visit his website at https://claytoonz.com/ 

Two Ways Forward

Two ways forward lie before the Anglican Church in the province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. One way is to adopt the recommendations that have been made in the report of the Working Group that was formed in consequence of Motion 30 as agreed at the 2014 General Synod / te Hinota Whanui. To choose that way is to choose to divide our Church. There is not the slightest possibility that conservative parishes and clergy will agree to remain part of a body that had accepted the recommendations framed as they are in the Working Group’s report. Nor could any conceivable amendments make the recommendations acceptable.

The other way is to analyse why the Working Group has got it so badly wrong and to start again and do it right this time. I hope that that is the path we follow, and so I offer my own preliminary analysis here.

A Hopeful Starting Point

Reports from those who attended the 2014 General Synod / te Hinota Whanui say that there was a prayerful sense of unity among the delegates despite the extreme differences in views regarding the blessing of same-sex relationships. It was that feeling of unity, it seems to me, that paved the way for Motion 30. Two integrities were sensed, and a way was to be sought, if possible, to formally recognise those two integrities within the processes, structures and liturgies of the Church, as a common faith in Jesus Christ was acknowledged, and a common desire to serve his kingdom.

The ideal way forward for the working group would have been to begin with that foundation and work very carefully forward: “This is what we have in common; where does that lead us in respect of the charge that Motion 30 has given us?” Every part of the report prior to the recommendations themselves needed to be statements that could be affirmed by all parties. Such a process may then have led to recommendations that all parties could support. I acknowledge that even then it may not have done so, and that the recommendations might still have needed to be adopted by majority vote within the working group, but:

  • I am sure that the liturgical recommendations would have differed in significant ways from those presented in the current report, and have come much closer to something able to be accepted within the conservative parts of the Church.
  • The preliminary sections of the report would have given the General Synod / te Hinota Whanui a clear overview of the issues involved, as seen from both sides, so far better equipping delegates – and, afterwards, the diocesan synods – to evaluate the recommendations and accept or reject them.

Recognising Integrity Despite Diversity

When I say, “I disagree with my sister on this or that issue of doctrine or practice, but I believe that she holds that position in integrity,” it should mean that I have put on her moccasins and walked as far as I possibly could in them. I have started at a point where we were standing together and I have explored in all sincerity the processes of reasoning and the life experiences that have led her to her current belief, and I have asked myself at every turn, “Would God have me make the same decision here?”

Since we are talking about two integrities, we must suppose that at some point I have answered that last question, “No, my sister made a mistake at this turn; I can see why she made the turn that she did, but I cannot follow her.” Nevertheless, that deliberate process of having walked in her moccasins is what enables me to affirm with conviction that her position is one of integrity. An affirmation made on any lesser basis, merely some feeling of good will, is hollow.

And, of course, my sister has a responsibility to reciprocate, not perfunctorily dismissing my position because it differs from her own but understanding my arguments and journey and sincerely testing her own convictions against them. Only when she has done so will her affirmation of the integrity of my position be meaningful. “Let us not love in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth.”

Integrity in the Way Forward

The report that the Way Forward Working Group has produced contains some useful observations and findings. Nevertheless, it shows signs of the pressure of time under which it was produced. Its preliminary sections are one-sided, representing the view of the majority who are in favour of the blessing of same-sex relationships and failing to give respectful acknowledgment of the views of the minority who are not. If the Working Group’s recommendations are to form the foundation of the ongoing recognition of two integrities within the Church, surely its own proceedings and report should have modelled that very thing, but they do not.

The Emmaus Road

Page 5 of the Report handles the “Emmaus Road” passage from Luke 24 in a way that many conservative scholars would consider fast and loose, eisegesis rather than exegesis. I am not saying that the Report’s viewpoint is necessarily wrong. With fuller exposition, it might conceivably be acceptable. However, the Report presents its viewpoint as though it was accepted already on all sides and thus it discounts the other supposed integrity.  This is not a wise foundation to lay for the Report’s later recommendations.

Living “in the Now”

The first paragraph of Motion 30 uses the phrase, “in the now”. The Report (on page 5) has turned this into the question, “What does it mean to be human in the now?”  I believe that the instinct of most conservatives would be that this is the wrong question. The correct question is, “What does it mean to be Christian in the now?” Our first duty is to Christ. Observing Christ and listening to his Word, we learn best how to serve humanity. We do not firstly observe humanity for the purpose of learning how best to serve Christ, because – according to orthodox doctrine – humanity is fallen and not a safe guide as to its own best interests.

Again, I acknowledge that there is a debate to be had here, and the Report’s point of view might on deeper consideration turn out to have merit. My point is, it seems wrong and disrespectful for the Report to proceed summarily as though the debate had already been had and the result already agreed.

Complicated vs Complex

Indeed, “now we see in a mirror, dimly,” and “…I know only in part…” (Report, p.6) However, even while stating that, the Apostle Paul makes it clear in the surrounding chapters (1 Corinthians 12 – 14, in particular but also in the entire epistle) that there were clear solutions to most of the differences with which the Corinthian community was struggling. Conservatives will see in their more liberal brethren too great a readiness to appeal to complexity when, after all, the matter is merely complicated and can be solved with prayer and sweat, and consideration of the first principles of what it means to be in Christ.

By including this appeal to supposed complexity, the Report has weakened its chance of persuading conservatives to take seriously its recommendations.

Questionable Appeal to Hebrews

On page 8, the Report appeals to Hebrews 1:1-3a to support its assertion that, “So it is throughout Christian history that Doctrine had to be thought out, and lived out in the worshipping life of the church, with reflections and ongoing decisions made through Councils and Creeds.”  While the assertion may be correct, no conservative is likely to agree that it follows as such from the Hebrews passage. By prefacing that section of the Report with such careless handling of scripture, the Working Group has again undercut any persuasive power the Report may have had for conservative readers.

Unbalanced Bibliography

Other commentators (see, e.g., http://anglicandownunder.blogspot.co.nz/2016/03/a-way-forward-section-5-critical-review.html) have noted that the Report’s bibliography is unbalanced:

  • “…for the most part, recent Anglo-American liberalism and rather obscure” (Brian Kelly, March 31, 2016 at 8:07 AM).
  • “The strangest thing about this imbalance is that even those **evangelicals who favour SSM** have been ignored, even though these scholars are explicitly trying to ground their work in scripture and meet the objections of opponents. That is to say that working groups charged with seeking *a way forward* are ignoring the very works that are arguably the least polarising and the nearest to centre ground” (Bowman Walton, March 31, 2016 at 10:13 AM).

This omission subtracts yet again from the value of the Report, leaving the appearance that the Working Group has not adequately canvassed the options.

Incidentally, the conservative minority in the Working Group must share the blame here. I think everyone on all sides should be well-read in the full spectrum of views, but one would think that the Working Group’s conservatives should have been especially careful to see that the various conservative viewpoints were at least acknowledged in the Report.

Unacceptable Liturgy

Motion 30 upheld the Church’s traditional doctrine of marriage as monogamous and between a man and a woman. By entitling Form 1, “The blessing of the relationship of those who have entered a civil marriage,” and using the word marriage repeatedly in the Form and constructing the Form so that it can be used to bless same-sex unions, the Working Group has in conservative eyes de facto changed the definition of marriage. The adjective “civil” in the title does not alter that fact. The Form as proposed is unwise and another reason why the Working Group should be asked to start again.

Unity that Recognises Two Integrities?

On page 6 of the Report there begins a section entitled, “When we speak of ‘two integrities’ how can we also speak of the unity of the Church?” Although the section as a whole makes some useful observations, the opening paragraph ends with a question that detonates a petard that hoists the Working Group itself: “What would it be like if we as a Church committed to respect one another’s differences, held with integrity, in a harmonious way?”

How can the Working Group credibly hold that out as a hope for the Church when they have not modelled it in their own proceedings and product? I do not ask that question contemptuously but with a sad heart and the hope that the Holy Spirit might use it to bring conviction of sin. There is no shortcut to meaningful mutual recognition of integrity.

Two Integrities Regarding the Identification of Sin?

The “two integrities” section of the Report makes a distinction between first order matters (Māori tikanga) and second order matters (Māori  kawa or kaupapa). The Report hopes to find there some paradigm for recognising unity despite diversity. However, for that to be relevant to the blessing of same-sex relationships, both sides of the debate would have to agree that this is a second order matter. Clearly, that is not the case as far as conservatives are concerned. Sexual connection with someone of one’s own gender is seen as one of the sins that Christ calls his people to forsake, no less nor more than fornication or idolatry or adultery or theft or greed or drunkenness or swindling (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Conservatives have carefully examined and found unconvincing the case that some have tried to make that in those Corinthian verses Paul is referring only to a limited subset of homosexual activities and that others are not in view. Therefore, the only conceivable way forward is for both sides to acknowledge that this remains a first order matter and to seek on that basis to appreciate one another’s point of view. I am of the view that a cogent argument founded in orthodoxy can be found for the blessing of faithful same-sex relationships, an argument sufficiently strong that conservatives can at least acknowledge its force even if not finally agreeing with it. Only on that basis will two integrities be able to coexist in true unity.

The Immediate Way Forward

I said earlier that the Report contains useful observations and findings, but what I have written focuses on its inadequacies. For a wider overview that covers the valuable as well as the bad, I recommend Les Brighton’s paper.

Rev. Bosco Peters has made some suggestions as to how the Report’s recommendations might be amended to improve them (An Improved Way Forward?), and I appreciate the work he has put into devising and explaining his proposed changes. I wish I could believe that changes of this kind could resolve the matter, but as I have tried to show in this paper, the Working Group has failed to model the cooperation of two integrities in the production of the Report and in its content, and therefore if General Synod / te Hinota Whanui presses ahead and adopts it, even if amended along the lines suggested by Bosco, schism is inevitable.

I therefore conclude and urge that the only way forward that can preserve our unity is for General Synod / te Hinota Whanui to

  • declare that the Working Group’s report is inadequate for its intended purpose, and
  • commission them (or a new group) to start again.
Picture of a castaway on a beach

A Non-Slippery Non-Slope

Late in “What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?” Kevin DeYoung makes an observation which deserves to be placed on the study wall of everyone who is involved with this debate. He writes, “Nothing in the Bible encourages us to give sex the exalted status it has in our culture, as if finding our purpose, our identity, and our fulfillment all rest on what we can or cannot do with our private parts. Jesus is the fullest example of what it means to be human, and he never had sex” (DeYoung, 2015, p. 119).

I agree with that statement, but that does not stop me disagreeing with some of the other things that DeYoung says in the book. In this post, I will discuss more of those disagreements.

DeYoung says, “It would be strange for the prohibition against homosexual practice to be set aside when the rest of the [Old Testament] sexual ethic is not” (p. 48) . However, whether it is “strange” or not depends on one’s view of the fundamental reason for the ethic that God enjoins upon us. DeYoung believes that any sexual connection that is contrary to God’s original design for humankind is forever wrong and forbidden. I argue instead that the reason for all of God’s ethical commands post-Fall is to safeguard the presence and growth among us of the Kingdom of Heaven. An adulterous or incestuous or bestial relationship harms that objective just as much now as it would have done in the days of Moses, but I would argue that a faithful same-sex relationship does not. By my argument, there is a difference in kind between a faithful same-sex relationship and the other sexual connections that were forbidden in the Law, so it is not in principle strange if it should turn out to be the will of God that the Church should now treat the one kind differently to the others.

I agree with DeYoung that the New Testament writers would not have envisaged such a change, but – as I have written before – I believe we need to think through this controversy in the knowledge that we are on a different place in the arc of redemptive history than they were. We are not in a different place in the modernist sense that asserts that the growth of scientific knowledge compels us to leave behind some of the so-called primitive and superstitious ideas of the Biblical writers, but we are in a different place because the gospel itself has had a profound impact on the world, so a change of Church practice may now be possible that would have been dangerous earlier in the Christian age.

Understandably, DeYoung and other conservative writers believe that changing the Church’s standards with regard to faithful same-sex relationships would be the first step on a slippery slope. This concern can be seen for instance when DeYoung writes, “If the “is-ness” of personal experience and desire determines the “ought-ness” of embracing these desires and acting upon them, there is no logical reason why other sexual “orientations” (say, toward children, or animals, or promiscuity, or bisexuality, or multiple partners) should be stigmatized” (p. 111).

In that sentence, DeYoung implicitly sets two positions against each other, even though he mentions only the second of them. The first position is his own, that the entire sexual ethic of the Law of Moses is forever unchangeable because it is founded in God’s pre-Fall design for humankind, and the second position is one that argues from the “is-ness” of personal desire to entitlement to act upon it.

I have already argued above that DeYoung’s own position is wrong, and I would argue that the second position is also wrong. Yes, if the Church were to change its stance toward faithful same-sex relationships, it would be compassionately motivated by the “is-ness” of the anguish of those who feel unable to enter a successful heterosexual relationship, but it would have assessed that move against the whole counsel of Scripture and the need to advance the Kingdom of God and protect those who find shelter in it. That assessment would give the Church every logical reason to continue prohibiting its members acting upon the other “orientations” in DeYoung’s list. There is therefore no slope and nothing to slip on.

DeYoung shows the same error of thinking elsewhere. He says, “It’s strange that some Christians would treat homosexual activity as an imperfect but allowable choice or simply less than God’s best when we would never speak so dismissively about the sin of ethnic prejudice, economic exploitation, or violence against women” (p. 101). The difference, of course, is that those other acts damage the Kingdom and are indeed sins, but a faithful same-sex relationship, far from harming the Kingdom, can contribute to its support and extension and as such should not be categorised as a sin.

DeYoung also challenges the view that it is wrong to “…ask [homosexuals] without the gift of celibacy to live a life God has not called them to… Celibacy… must be a choice” (p. 113). His attempted rebuttal includes this: “If chastity is too much to ask of the person with same-sex sexual desires, then it is too much to ask of the person with heterosexual desires. What about the single Christian woman who never finds a husband? Or the godly man whose wife is paralyzed at thirty years old, making sexual intimacy an impossibility? Did these believers choose the gift of celibacy?” (p. 114) My reply would be, “No, they did not, and it is not in the Church’s power to lift that exigency from them, but it is in the Church’s power to do so for gay people who are able to find a life partner. It would be a strange kind of pastoral care that said, “We can’t bring this blessing to everyone, so we won’t bring it to any”!

Two other planks of DeYoung’s attempted rebuttal are equally rotten. (1) He says that the revisionist argument (as he calls it) depends on the assumption that “homosexual desires cannot change” (p. 113). In fact, it does not. It depends only on the assumption that at least some of those who experience homosexual desires will never experience a change in the direction of heterosexuality. DeYoung is able to provide an instance of someone whose desires did change to heterosexuality (and, indeed, I know of others), and DeYoung uses that as though it is proof that all can change and no other hope need be provided. His reasoning is not only logically invalid, it chooses to disregard the anguished testimonies of the many Christian believers who have struggled and prayed for change and have found that God did not grant it to them.

(2) He also asserts that the revisionist case “… overstates the sexual freedom found in marriage… Every married man I know still wrestles with some measure of not-to-be-fulfilled sexual desire” (p. 114). Well, of course—me, too! And I don’t believe anyone who supports the “revisionist” case imagines that allowing same-sex relationships will somehow deliver same-sex couples into a utopia that heterosexual couples have not been able to achieve. Moreover, DeYoung’s words imply that a homosexually-oriented person with 0% of their sexual desires fulfilled should be able to take solace in the fact that their heterosexual friends are not achieving 100% satisfaction. This second point of DeYoung’s attempted rebuttal is altogether mistaken and irrelevant.

His final plank of rebuttal concerns the meaning of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7, leading to the conclusion that it’s unthinkable that Paul … would now be suggesting that people with strong homosexual desires should be able to satisfy those desires if sexual purity seems too onerous” (p. 115). I’m sure DeYoung is right about Paul, but my contention is that the Church has the authority under the Word of God to now accept faithful same-sex relationships in a way that Paul could not.

At the start of this post I highlighted an excellent observation that DeYoung makes, “Nothing in the Bible encourages us to give sex the exalted status it has in our culture”. However, the debate about the acceptance or not of same-sex relationships ignores a vital element if it focuses solely on the sexual aspect of such relationships. The missed element is the longing for a relationship with another human being who knows you almost totally and loves and accepts you. When such a relationship is found—as I found with my wife—sexual desire for the loved one burgeons in a way that goes well beyond the play of hormones and pheromones. The sex is then an outcome of the love, not the other way round. If someone is not able to achieve that depth of relationship with someone of the opposite sex, and we forbid a deep relationship with someone of their own gender, we are committing them to a life of loneliness that even the deepest of relationships with Christ will not compensate for.