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.

Head and right shoulder of Rodin's Thinker

Perversity or Perplexity?

Should churches accept and seek God’s blessing for certain same-sex relationships, or should they not? This question is being hotly debated among Christians. Many conservative pastors and teachers think that the Scriptures in Leviticus 18, Romans 1, and 1 Corinthians 6 settle the matter with no room for doubt. They are right that those passages have all forms of same-sex relationships in view, including those that might have been consensual, committed relationships between people whose lifelong orientation had been toward their own gender. All such relationships were forbidden to the Israelites when God gave them the law through Moses, and were also proscribed by Paul when the New Testament church was established.

However, several circumstances have worked together over recent decades to stir many pastors and teachers to ask whether God would have the Church now lift part of that proscription. The first circumstance is that in many jurisdictions same-sex relationships are no longer outlawed. Consequently, it has become possible to gain a much more objective, statistics-backed understanding of the homosexual world. It has therefore become clear to many that same-gender attraction is not a wilfully chosen deviation from heterosexual normalcy but is something that the person may have felt from childhood, even before there was any element of sexual stimulation in it.

The second circumstance is that, except in the most red-necked of conservative congregations, professing Christians who feel same-sex attraction are more willing to discuss it openly with their pastor. Pastors are therefore learning three things:

  • Some people who have a credible testimony of faith in Christ and whose Christian lives are exemplary in every other way find their same-sex longings overwhelmingly strong.
  • Many such people testify that, despite their prayers and struggles, God has not given them the grace for a celibate or heterosexual life. Believing with standard church teaching that their temptation arose from Satan, they have attempted to resist the devil but found that he did not flee. Therefore, they have wondered whether same-sex longings were a sinful temptation at all, or something else in God’s eyes.
  • A response along the nouthetic lines, “Well, you just haven’t yet prayed long enough or resisted hard enough,” is a denial of the energy that many have put into their struggle and the agony they have felt.

Some pastors may have noted another anomaly, too, because Romans 1 teaches that the ancient world’s adoption of homosexual practices arose after societies replaced the worship of the creator with the idolatrous worship of humans and other creatures, because God then removed his restraining hand from them. Modern pastors, however, are meeting people who believe every word of (say) the Nicene Creed and who worship the Triune God who is represented there, and who affirm the goodness of God’s creation design, but who nevertheless find no release from their same-sex attraction.

It is valid to take from Romans 1 that the existence in the world of homosexual desires and relationships is a consequence of the Fall, but it is not valid to reason in the opposite direction and assert that everyone who experiences same-sex attraction or engages in a same-sex relationship is shown to be an idolatrous rebel against God. Kevin DeYoung is wrong in logic when he asserts, “According to Paul’s logic, men and women who engage in same-sex sexual behavior—even if they are being true to their own feelings and desires—have suppressed God’s truth in unrighteousness” (DeYoung, 2015, p. 52).

The question is therefore not resolved as simply as DeYoung and other respected conservative teachers believe it is. As I continue this series of posts I will, God willing, try to answer some of the other objections that have been raised against the idea of a change in the Church’s stance – for instance, DeYoung when he says, “It would be strange for the prohibition against homosexual practice to be set aside when the rest of the sexual ethic is not” (p. 48) and “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).

I will also attempt to show that

  • A change in the Church’s standards toward people in certain same-sex relationships would not run contrary to the doctrine of the unchanging simplicity of God.
  • The Church has a God-given responsibility and authority to consider and make such a change.
  • Such a change can be made consistently with a conservative view of the authority of Scripture. It does not require its holders to adopt a view of the kind that says that scripture is just the sum of believers’ imperfect and fallible testimonies to their experience of God.

What Does the Bible Teach about Everything?

Kevin DeYoung’s book. “What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?” (DeYoung, 2015) is an excellent exposition from a learned man who holds to a conservative position on this currently controversial topic. I agree with almost every point he makes en route to his conclusions but I think he falls at the final hurdle and draws some absolutist conclusions that are unwarranted. This post is the first of a series I will make, in which I will discuss those places where I believe DeYoung misses the mark.

Despite my disagreement with some of his major conclusions, I believe that his book deserves to be read by everyone who is weighing these issues.

What Does the Bible Teach about Everything?

The book’s introductory chapter is entitled “What Does the Bible Teach about Everything?” It is the right starting point and a brilliant one. DeYoung argues that the central plotline of the story of Scripture is, “a holy God making a way to dwell in the midst of an unholy people.” In this story, “[t]he Promised Land was a type of Eden” and “[t]he Promised Land was a lens through which God’s people were supposed to look back to the Eden that was and look forward to the Eden that was to come again” and, in the New Testament, “the picture of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22 is a portrait of Eden restored.” I think most conservative scholars would agree with him so far.

DeYoung cites further passages from the New Testament and correctly states, “The garden, the land, and the temple did not prefigure a day when holiness no longer mattered”. He also cites Revelation 21:8, “But … the sexually immoral … will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death” and therefore concludes that “determining what constitutes sexual immorality in God’s mind has everything to do with the storyline of Scripture.” That leads him to pose the question, “Is homosexual activity a sin that must be repented of, forsaken, and forgiven, or, given the right context and commitment, can we consider same-sex sexual intimacy a blessing worth celebrating and solemnizing?” The rest of his book attempts to prove that the answer to the first part of the question is, unequivocally, “Yes”, and to the second part, “No”.

However, I believe that DeYoung has already demonstrated in this introductory chapter some ways in which his perception is blinkered, and I believe that the answers to the two parts of his question are not as unequivocal as he thinks

His summary is too compressed when he says, “As often as God had made a way to dwell in the midst of his unholy people, just as often had they squandered their God-wrought restoration. So God sent his Son…” (p. 12) (emphasis mine). I am sure that DeYoung believes with the writer of Hebrews that the acceptability to God of the Old Testament structures and sacrifices was entirely dependent on the foreknown sacrifice that would be made by Christ. Every sacrifice, from Abel’s through those of the Job, Abraham, and the first and second temples was only accepted because of Christ. The old Covenants and even the people’s failures under them slowly prepared the way for the coming of the Saviour. Despite all the unfaithfulness of Israel, and against the background of that unfaithfulness, the pedagogy of the law prepared a people from whom Jesus Christ could draw his disciples. Those disciples, further enlightened by what Jesus taught on the Emmaus road, were equipped to take the gospel of salvation by grace through faith to the world. The time had arrived of which Simeon spoke after the birth of Jesus, “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”.

The storyline of Scripture describes a concave arc, down from Eden through the fall and the increasing depravity of mankind, and then upwards – despite the many grave failures of God’s called people – through the old Covenants to the era of the new Covenant and at last the new Heavens and Earth. This storyline includes the news that the kingdom of God has intruded into the world and has begun to change it – see Matthew 13:31-32, “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches’” and Matthew 13:33, “He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.’” We therefore live in a world where the kingdom is partially realised but not fully so, and where the degree of manifestation of the kingdom has changed with time.

DeYoung’s summary misses the element of what we might call God’s practical graciousness toward his people along that whole arc from the Fall to the present time. None of those whom God has accepted have been perfect in their repentance or faith or holiness or even in their understanding of what holiness ought to be, but their imperfection in those areas has been covered by the blood of Christ, just like any of their other sins. DeYoung concentrates on the end points, the perfection of Eden and of the new heavens and earth, but in Eden, the Fall had not occurred and in the new heavens and earth, its every last vestige will have been removed. What, though, of us who are not there yet? What does the gospel set out as the strategy for our sanctification, we who struggle against whatever stumbling blocks were put in our way by our birth into a fallen family in a fallen world, and our life in a still-fallen world?

By missing God’s practical graciousness and by failing to recognise that we are at a different place on the storyline than even the Apostles were, DeYoung has failed to see some possibilities that may be open to the Church in our present time that were not open in previous generations. I will enlarge on that in future posts, as I respond to other chapters of DeYoung’s book.


Pragmatism – or Something Else?

Peter Carrell has kindly made some comments at Anglican Down Under on my previous two posts, and I want to reply here to one of those points. My response to other points will follow in a later post or posts

Peter says inter alia that my post “opens up a possible way forward towards blessing of same sex partnerships which might, just might receive agreement in our church if we saw our way to a pragmatic, pastoral approach.”  NB: you need to read that sentence in its full context to understand Peter’s own view of the matter – don’t read it as an affirmation of my position. However, here I simply want to discuss the use of “pragmatic”, as it is not a word I would use myself in connection with what I have proposed in my posts.

I do think that there is a kind of pragmatism that is Biblical. For instance, Jesus tells us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves in our dealings with the world. We therefore need to weigh the biblical options and act in any particular situation so as to best serve the πραγμα of the gospel. Nevertheless, I would rather avoid using the word pragmatism in case anyone should misunderstand it to mean something sub-Biblical. Rather, I understand that it will be a momentous thing for the Church to make the kind of change that I have advocated, and, if it happens in a way that includes conservative Christians, it will be because the Holy Spirit has brought the great majority of us to that viewpoint. If that comes to pass, it won’t be as a capitulation to expediency but as a true, principled application of the Word of God.

I have already posted a review of Ken Wilson’s book, “A Letter to My Congregation.” Wilson is a conservative pastor who is troubled by the disconnect between what he sees as the gospel testimony and good character of LGBT people he encounters and the prima facie Biblical prohibitions of such relationships, and he is deeply touched by the anguish of soul they feel. I don’t believe he is the only one troubled that way. I think it is likely there are many thousands of conservative pastors and teachers worldwide who are similarly concerned. Is this just the spirit of this age working to deceive, if possible, even the elect, or is it the Spirit of Christ urging us all to revisit the matter and think it through again, bringing to bear on it the whole revelation of God? I think it is the latter, and we will come in the end to a common, Word-based understanding.

Prodigal Son_Eric Oberhauser

The Just Justifier

I believe that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.

I believe that the inspired Word lays out the story of God’s people as a concave arc, from the original paradise of Eden, down through the Fall and ever-increasing depravity of mankind, then upwards through Sinai and the Cross of Christ to paradise fully regained in the new heavens and earth.

I believe that no scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction or training in righteousness if it is interpreted in a way that wrenches it from its particular place on that arc. Careful exegesis shows that some scripture is always timelessly applicable, but that must be shown passage by passage; it must not be not be adamantly presumed. Yes – by all means make it a working hypothesis in your personal Bible study that any Scripture that you have newly come to is one of the timeless ones, but understand that deeper study may require you to change that understanding.

I believe that God intends us to engage our minds with his world and his word. The prototype for this is found in Genesis 2, when God brings the animals to Adam “to see what he would name them” – that is, how he would classify them.

I believe that our intellectual faculty was corrupted by the Fall, but that it shares in the restoration being brought about by God’s grace. While sometimes God has given his people a command and required obedience without explanation, as in the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, this is not the paradigm for our general relationship with his Word. A person who worships God mindlessly does not worship God as He actually is.

I believe that the prohibitions in the Mosaic Law and the New Testament against same-sex relationships allowed no exceptions, but that was because of the place that had been reached on the redemptive arc when those prohibitions were given. At Sinai, the Lord was setting up walls to protect the Hebrew people from the corruption of the surrounding nations while he prepared the way for the coming of Christ. In the New Testament era, the apostles were the servants of Christ as he began to build a church whose mission would include the task of cleaning the Augean stables of the pagan world. At both junctures, less than a total prohibition would have put the main objective at risk. Without it, we would not have come to the place of widespread grace where we find ourselves today.

On the basis of those beliefs, I believe that the time has come when the Church can:

  • Heed the testimonies of LGBT believers who tell us that their orientation dates from earliest childhood and that it was not wilfully chosen, and that supposed re-orientation therapies do not work for them, no matter how whole-heartedly they engage with them.
  • Heed their testimony that they are not able to form a meaningful, soul-satisfying heterosexual relationship, yet feel barred by the Church from entering a relationship with someone of their own orientation.
  • Hear their anguish at this state of affairs.
  • Recognise that a faithful same-sex union is not a threat to the Kingdom of God if it is welcomed and guarded with the same pastoral care as a heterosexual union.
  • And therefore declare that, while same-sex unions were not part of God’s pre-Fall design for humankind, faithful unions of that kind are covered by the grace of Christ in his redemptive plan and can be accepted and blessed within the Church.

The God who reveals himself to us through the Scriptures is a God of blazing light and overwhelming holiness. If we were to see him, our first reaction would be like Isaiah’s or John’s: “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”, and “I fell at his feet as dead.” But, just as he did for Isaiah, God has sent an angel – Christ Jesus himself – with a coal to purge our unclean lips, and Jesus himself lays his right hand upon us and tells us to “fear not”, for this God reveals himself as both love and light. Through the cross of Christ, he has provided the act of mercy by which he can remain just and be the justifier of everyone who trusts in Jesus. The mercy of his love is able to triumph over the judgment of his light without dimming the latter. It is the post-conversion work of the Holy Spirit that shows us where we must amend our ways so that they conform more perfectly to his light – and I do not believe that the Spirit any longer requires believers to foreswear same-sex relationships, but simply to ensure those relationships strengthen and bring glory to the Kingdom of God.

Dear faithful, conservative pastor-teachers, I appeal to you. Please lift your eyes from your systematic theologies and look unblinkingly at the God whom your studies should have revealed to you. Engage both your heart and your brain. Cease selling God’s love short by trying to make his judgment triumph over his mercy when you deal with LGBT people, by demanding of them what, after all, God does not. Recognise instead that, as Cranmer put it in his great Eucharistic prayer, God is “the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.” Be imitators of him, your Saviour.


I’ll Trust God’s Mercy and Grace

When religious leaders watched to see if Jesus would heal a sick man on the Sabbath (Luke 14:2-6), Jesus said to them, “Which of you, if you have a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?”

Those religious leaders had the Hebrew Scriptures. They had studied them minutely and were sure they knew, jot and tittle, what the Scriptures taught about Sabbath observance. They were wrong, but Jesus did not in this instance debate with them directly about texts. Instead, he pointed out something in their relationship with the world around them that should have alerted them that their book-bound scholarship had led them in a wrong direction.

Their consciences were clear that it was lawful to attend immediately to an accident that occurred on the Sabbath, even one that endangered just an animal. Scriptures such as Proverbs 12:10, Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 25:4 show us that God’s merciful concern extends to animals, and God’s people were right in this case to understand that Sabbath laws needed to be interpreted and applied in the light of God’s character. The same principle should have told them that it was right to carry out any form of healing of man or beast on the Sabbath, not just those urgently needed because of an accident. However, in their zeal for minutia, they had lost sight of God.

I have now read many stories from people whose testimony of Christian faith resonates as credible with me (see, e.g., John Shore, “UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question”), yet who testify of an overwhelming longing for same-gender relationships and inability to form deep heterosexual ones. When I read those stories, I do not hear the voices of people who are trying to stir up our sympathy so they can maintain a way of life they secretly know is sinful. In fact, I do not hear the voices of sinners at all, except in the general way that all of us are sinners. I do not see people who culpably chose to foster longings for kinds of relationships that prima facie belong in the set that God calls abominations. I hear the voices of people who are in distress.

Ever since John Boswell’s deeply-flawed book, “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality” was published in 1980, gay and gay-sympathetic Christians have repeated his contention that the Biblical injunctions against same-sex relationships are aimed only at those that occur in an abusive or idolatrous context, where people whose natural orientation is heterosexual wilfully enter into same-sex relationships. I agree with the many conservative scholars who argue that Boswell’s argument and subsequent variations on it by others all fail. The contentious texts in the Pentateuch and the letters of Paul do have all forms and contexts of same-sex relationship in view, including loving, faithful ones.

Nevertheless, the world is not the same place it was when the Old and New Testament Scriptures were written. The gospel has been at work for almost 2,000 years and it has changed the world profoundly. I believe the time has come when the Church collectively, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can recognise that the Scriptures prohibited all same-sex relationships because that was absolutely necessary in the days when the Mosaic law and the gospel were first delivered, but God has now brought us to the place where we can make a distinction and act on it.

In a previous post, I argued that we should not define the word “abomination” by our own gut reaction to some of those things that the Bible terms abominations. Instead, we should define “abomination” as any deed that by its nature fights strongly against the development or presence among us of God’s kingdom and the sanctuary it provides. With that definition in mind, I can see why the Biblical prohibitions against same-sex relationships allowed no exceptions. Surrounding pagan cultures included homosexual acts in their religious rites and cultural world, and – at least in the Greco-Roman world – youths were likely to be inducted into homosexual relationships by older men even though the older and younger men were capable of engaging in and enjoying heterosexual relationships.

These practices attacked the kingdom of God in at least two ways. Firstly, inclusion of homosexual acts in religious rites was an expression of the belief that inversion of the normal order was necessary to ensure fertility of the people and the land, and thus it was a denial of the good providence of God. Secondly, when homosexuality gains acceptance in society as just an alternative version of “normal,” that alternative “normal” can become a viable option for husbands and wives who are disaffected in their marriage. The gay neighbour can therefore become a threat to marital faithfulness and domestic accord that ranks with the seductress of Proverbs 5.

In the face of such threats, when God first called a people out of Egypt to be a holy people, and then again when he sent the disciples of Jesus into the world to proclaim the kingdom of God, it was necessary to prohibit same-sex unions absolutely. Only when the kingdom of God had significantly permeated the world would the people of God be able to rethink the matter of faithful same-sex unions without opening the kingdom to grave danger.

I believe that time is now. I know where I stand, but I am not claiming a special revelation, just the systematic application of the whole counsel of Scripture. And – yes – I acknowledge the large number of godly evangelical theologians to whom I saying, “With respect, you’ve got it wrong”.

It is a dangerous place to stand. If I am mistaken, I will be assuring people of their forgiveness through Christ when after all they cannot be forgiven unless they forswear same-sex relationships.  If I am right and keep quiet about it, I will be withholding the assurance and acceptance to which they are entitled. Nevertheless, at the judgment seat of Christ I would rather be charged with putting too much trust in God’s mercy and grace than to be like the people who incurred Christ’s displeasure in Mark chapter 3, where Mark records, “He looked around at them in anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.”

In order to anticipate some of the questions that would otherwise come in as comments, I now need to press on and make this post longer than ordinarily ideal for a blog post.

Welcome to the Battle!

When welcomed into the life of the Church, gay Christians will not find that they have thereby escaped ostracism and suffering. They will be subject to the same attacks as any other Christian who stands up for the kingdom of God against the secularism of our age, bringing down upon their heads the McCarthyist wrath of today’s illiberal liberals.

The blessings of the beauty and peace and safety of God’s kingdom can be seen foreshadowed (though imperfectly) in all cultures that have been deeply influenced by Christ. Many in the secular gay world and the wider secular world want to extend gay “rights” and other sexual “rights” in such a way that those blessings will inevitably be lost. The secularists fail to foresee that outcome, but gay Christians will be able to see it as clearly as any other Christian and will be called by Christ to raise their voices against it. They will therefore be flamed in the blogosphere and called bigots, and will face new kinds of societal discrimination – no longer for their sexual orientation, but for daring to speak out against the spirit of the age.

“Normal” as Regards Inclusion but “Not Normal” as Regards God’s Design

In the Urban Dictionary, the most-voted-for definition of “normal” is, “a word made up by this corrupt society so they could single out and attack those who are different”. From this point of view, there is no such thing as normal. Diversity is the good above all other goods, and there is no basis for discrimination against anyone else, no matter how extreme their difference. The knowledge of God gives Christians a different definition of “normal” and brings them into conflict with those who sympathise with the Urban Dictionary definition.

One of the arguments brought against same-sex relationships is that they are not “normal”. This is heard from both Christian and non-Christian opponents of such relationships. On a coldly statistical basis, the argument is sound. The majority of people prefer heterosexual relationships, so, statistically, the minority are not “normal”. However, the way society treats someone with a minority characteristic varies. It is not statistically normal to have six digits on each hand, but we do not exclude such people from “normal” society. They have all the same rights and freedoms as anyone else, and we do not expect that their hexadactylism will somehow invalidate or vitiate their ability to share productively in our culture. From the cultural point of view, they are as normal as someone whose characteristics are those of the statistical majority.

On the other hand, it is not statistically normal to have psychopathic traits, but society treats that minority very differently from people with six digits. Those who by violence or murder manifest psychopathic traits are not included in normal society but are locked away where they can do no harm. However, the number of statistically abnormal characteristics that lead to that kind of exclusion is small.

LGBT people have fought for a long time to have their distinguishing difference treated the same way as any other evident but benign difference. They have sought for this to be recognised both in law and in their practical interactions with the rest of society. They have at last succeeded, and I am glad for the removal of the pressure that has been upon them. Nevertheless, LGBT Christians will soon find themselves at odds with many who have been their allies until now.

From the secular point of view, the concept of what is normal is very broad and the only justification for discriminatory treatment is the likelihood of harm, and “harm” is just whatever they themselves define it to be. Christians, though, operate in the knowledge that we live in a broken world, one that was corrupted by mankind’s fall into sin, a fall that damaged the natural world as well as the moral one. The criterion for what is normal is God’s revealed original design, and the criterion for what is harmful is anything that hinders the restoration of that design. That perception should put heterosexual and gay Christians alike at variance with their unbelieving neighbours when the question of what is dangerous arises. Our perception of what is harmful is acuter than theirs, and we will continue to speak against many things that secularists consider harmless.

The secular world through its media presents serial promiscuity as the norm and as a good thing, a path to enjoyment of life. Heterosexual Christians who are sincere in their prayer, “Thy kingdom come” must commit themselves to a perfect standard of sexual faithfulness because anything less undermines the kingdom. Promiscuity may give short-term pleasure but it causes widespread and long-term harm. God who created the pleasure of sex for us sees the chaos brought about by promiscuity and commands faithfulness.

Likewise, gay Christians who are passionate to see Christ’s kingdom grow strong must reject many of the attitudes and much of the behaviour seen in the secular gay world. The way they arrange their lives as gay Christians must strengthen the kingdom, not join the secular attack on it.

Nor should they consider their same-sex orientation to be normal from the point of view of God’s original design. From that point of view, hexadactylism is not normal, either. Neither state is reason for anything but full acceptance within society, but neither state is normal in terms of God’s design. Under the banner of the rainbow, many in the LGBT community seek to canonise their orientation, and every expression of their lifestyle, as though these things were given by God or nature to enrich us all. I suspect that many LGBT Christians have derived a false comfort from that idea. When we measure ourselves against God’s design, not one of us is “normal” – we all miss the mark. Our one true basis for self-esteem is in God’s merciful esteem of us in the gift of Jesus Christ. Don’t look to any other imagined sort of specialness as grounds for self-acceptance.

Acts chapter 8 records the story of the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch, and says that after his conversion he “went on his way rejoicing.” I don’t think any of us suppose that the thought in his mind as he rejoiced was, “Hallelujah! It was part of God’s rainbow design for this world that some of us should be castrated against our wills and so made eunuchs. I’m someone special!” No, his joy was because he had discovered and believed that Jesus was the Lamb of God.

As a eunuch who was now a Christian, could he then bring unique and useful insights and sensitivities to the church? Of course he could. God is the one who in all things “works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). We live in a broken world and each person is broken in a different way. Thankfully, God can take whatever our wound is and turn it into a blessing, but if you have this God-centred view of what makes you different and blessed, you will be counted as an enemy by those who want their difference accepted on purely naturalistic grounds.

For a later post…

It would overload this post to explain in detail why I believe that the position I have outlined here is required by the inspired Word of God. I will leave that for a later post. In the meantime, for me, “God says it; I believe it; that settles it.”

May I therefore ask anyone who comments on this post not simply to quote some favourite anti-gay scripture as though that settles the matter against me? I think anyone who would reply in that way is interpreting scripture piecemeal and failing to see how each part fits into the whole of scriptural revelation.

Please don’t quote Jude 4, either regarding “ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness.” I do not find gay Christians advocating that in what they write and say, and I hope this blog post shows that neither do I. If you assert that every faithful same-sex relationship is nevertheless a species of licentiousness and that settles the matter, you have closed your ears to the possibility that you are wrong. Listen up!

Nor should you take this post as supporting the extension of Christian marriage so that it includes same-sex relationships. That is a different matter, and my personal view is that the Church’s historic understanding of a marriage as a union between a man and a woman is correct, for reasons that are not affected by the question of whether a same-sex relationship can be accepted and blessed within the Church.

I am publishing this post as a contribution to the debate that is swirling in the Christian world on these matters. I fully trust that the Spirit of God will lead the Church together into the truth. I expect that the Holy Spirit will so work in the compassionate pastor-hearts of every teacher he has appointed over the Church that they will one by one recognise that they have been out of step with God thus far in their pastoral dealings with LGBT people, and they will come to see that the Word of God, taken in its entirety, requires something altogether different.