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.