All Christians have to grapple with the challenge of how the truth revealed in the Bible relates to the truth revealed in our experiences.
Over the years truths that are accepted in previous eras are challenged and church practice evolves. For example, few Christians still believe that St Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians mean that women should wear hats in church.
But it is not just the more trivial issues on which the Church has decisively changed its mind. There were few injustices more terrible than the slave trade, and yet Christian advocates for slavery were passionate in their use of scripture to defend it and attack other Christians who fought against it. In 1860, the eminent evangelical scholar Charles Hodge wrote:
“To call slavery sinful is a direct impeachment of the Word of God. If the present course of the abolitionists is right, then the course of Christ and his apostles was wrong.”
Here, Hodge stakes the entire truth of the gospel on his belief about this one issue. Undoubtedly he was highly knowledgable about the Bible but his words seem almost incomprehensible from a Christian perspective today.
In the rows today within the Church between those who affirm the legitimacy of gay relationships and those who don’t, both sides appeal to truth – but they are often drawing on different sides of this tension between scripture and experience.
This tension was well expressed in a comment by a 16-year-old girl in a discussion at a youth camp that I was part of last year: ‘The thing is, I love the Bible and I love my gay friends and I want to be true to both’.
The ‘truth’ of the Church’s anti-gay stance is being constantly challenged by the truth of people’s experience. And its clear that increasing numbers of Christians are changing their minds about gay relationships because they have got to know, care about and love gay people. Even without this direct experience many are finding that anti-gay teaching simply does not make sense in the real world where they are living and working.
It is this experience that makes Christians go back and read their Bible’s differently and emphasise the inclusivity in the life of Jesus and his gospel message. As ever, the road between experience and theology is a two-way street.
Lack of honesty
Whatever we believe, the key factor needed is honesty.
Until I was about 25, I had never knowingly met a gay church leader. But my work with homeless people took me into different parts of the church where I met many gay priests. All of them were working within a Church which formally did not accept gay relationships.
Balancing pastoral care and maintaining truth is incredibly hard but it seems that for generations Bishops and other senior leaders have chosen to turn a blind eye about the reality of the situation. A lack of honesty and truth had been institutionalised.
And even within the most conservative evangelical churches, there will always be a wide range of views on gay relationships from among those in the congregation. Whatever the line taken in sermons from the front, the discussions in home groups, and especially youth groups, will betray a wide diversity. This reality often goes unacknowledged.
All of this adds up to a situation where there is a gap between what is said and what is really lived out. It creates a lack of integrity. The Church is at its best when it is a place of honesty and openness, but when it comes to sexuality there has been many layers of untruth which have created resentment and hypocrisy.
Something everyone can do
So for all these reasons, I would encourage everyone to complete this online survey which asks you your opinion about the church and gay relationships, It is being run by Oasis, ahead of a conference on Church and Sexuality they are hosting in April. No survey is perfect but I think it offers the best opportunity to get behind the Church tribalism and actually hear what Christians believe.
It is time to be more truthful and this is a good place to start: Oasis’ Open Church survey
Monday 9th February: Rather unfortunately, I have just found out that Oasis’ Church survey closed today. Jon K
5 thoughts on “The Church, gay relationships and the truth”
Dear Jon, the survey is not working at the moment.
Re your article, the slavery argument only takes you so far. If you cite Hodge to show that a ‘bible -believing’ figure with a rather self-interested following can get his interpretation wrong and therefore everyone should show due humility and great care in interpreting Scripture then that would be valid. But to make such a radical departure from hundreds of years of Scriptural reasoning you have to show more evidence than the fact that some people can occasionally be wrong, even very wrong, about the bible. Bible-believing people have been wrong about all sorts of things but that doesn’t mean we should all cease believing what we, humbly and prayerfully, hear God’s Word clearly saying.
It is often proposed that slavery is an example of something Scripture seems to say is OK but we, now know to be wrong because we understand the bible’s ‘inclusive trajectory’,. From this comes the conclusion that even if the bible does speak against homosexual practice, we today should follow the same trajectory and take a more enlightened view.
There are at least two things wrong with this reasoning. First, it elevates human reason above scripture.
Secondly, a careful reading of Scripture does not give, and should never have given, any lasting theological basis for slavery. In the Old Testament, Israelites were commanded not to enslave each other because it went against the idea of brotherly love. (Lev 25 v39-43). Taking foreign slaves from those defeated in war was, it’s true, not condemned as intrinsically sinful (so Hodge was right about this), but it did carefully regulate the treatment of slaves and the intended result would have been a better alternative to a defeated enemy being killed or left to starve.
In the New Testament, the early church was not in a position of power to be able to abolish slavery, but slave traders are listed among the ungodly in 1 Tim 1 and in Paul urges Philemon to welcome back his runaway slave as a free brother in Christ. ‘Slaves obey your earthly masters’ was a scriptural command given to slaves for their well-being in Christ and their witness to their masters rather than a political statement opposing the future campaigns for the emancipation of slaves, and Spirit-filled Evangelicals in England were the first to see this, as against those who didn’t see the radical challenge the bible gives to economic and cultural vested interests.
Re homosexual practice, there are literally no examples of any favourable verses or passages, in the way that there are verses and passages (even a whole book – Philemon) which clearly undermine any proposed theological basis for slavery. As Robert Gagnon clearly demonstrates in his book “Homosexual Practice and the Bible’ the Scriptures from start to finish witness to the creation of male and female, the complementarity of the sexes, the mystical symbolism of one-flesh union. Any kind of sex outside marriage is held out to be sinful and marriage is clearly, by definition, a male / female thing. My own bishop, Alan Wilson, of course disputes this, but his book is a travesty of theological reasoning (even to those who sympathise with the ‘gay cause’) and relies essentially on extra -biblical arguments to do with the culture of today.
I know, love and care for many people in my work as an ordained minster. These include tax dodgers, drug addicts, gossips, pornography users, sexual fantasists, cross dressers, adulterers, people who are promiscuous, child abusers, violaters of the traffic laws, and those who are violent and have murdered. Some are church leaders. But all these things are sinful. Getting to know and love and care for these people might lead me to understand more about them and why they do what they do, or have done what they have done, but it does not change my beliefs about what is Godly and ungodly. If it did I would have little to offer them. It is hard to hold truth and grace together, but Jesus did it and we can, by the power of His Spirit.
with love, Martin
Thanks for your reply – it has made me again reflect on what a difficult issue this is. The reconciling of traditional biblical doctrine and my experiences feels almost impossible to me and that is why I have found this such a challenging issue for the last 20 years. I see your point and would agree that we need to balance grace and truth – but I also need to be honest about how I have acted over this time which is always to be inclusive and respectful towards gay people and not put them in a different category than anyone else. I have realised that I cannot subscribe in words to something I don’t practice in real life.
Sure, we are all sinners and we all feature on that kind of list you give at the end – I know I have been guilty of at least 5 of those things you list. But I know I cannot include sincere and faithful love for someone of your own gender in amongst that kind of list. Everyone of those faults and sins you list causes immense harm (apart from cross-dressing arguably) but we are talking about the opposite – about love for someone else,a love which I know for many gay people fulfils and liberates them – just as the love we feel for our partners does.
I need to continue to pray and reflect on how I reconcile this truth with what I read in the Bible. Thanks for reading and sharing your views, with love, Jon
Hi Jon, thanks for your reply too. Yes ‘all have sinned..’ but by the grace of God we are given a new life in Christ I would say that for many years I have tried to be inclusive and respectful towards people who identify themselves as gay, bearing in mind my own journey of grace and forgiveness for sharing at least some of the behaviours mentioned in my list (as well as others).
I would also want to stand with you in acknowledging all love between people as being good and right. For me the heart of the matter is distinguishing between what really are loving actions and what are actions tainted by ungodliness, impurity and self-gratification. The Enemy is notoriously subtle and deceptive in the area of sex, even persuading us that the word ‘love’ is appropriate for actions in the latter category. Worshipping Eros leads to a ‘fifty shades of grey’ culture. Instead of a commitment to letting the pure love of God flow through us to others we seek personal fulfilment above all else and this harms ourselves and others, even though we may not intend this. I’m called to love my brothers and sisters in Christ, my neighbours, my parents and my children and my wife. I can express my sincere and faithful love to all through acts of service, gifts, time, physical touch and affirming words, but only with my wife could sexual activity be really ‘loving’.
We all need community, intimacy, friendship, company and human warmth. I do not think it is wrong for people of the same gender to share their lives, live together, show physical affection such as hugging, kissing (other than than on the lips and sexual organs), hold hands in the street, recline on each other at mealtimes (this happens or has happened in other cultures and is not necessarily a sign of homosexuality). Even sharing the same bed might not necessarily be wrong. Two people of the same gender, whether they identify themselves as gay or not, could show remarkable love to each other in terms of kindness, faithfulness, understanding, practical and emotional support, which could give life-long blessing (even if accompanied by sinful activity). I also don’t have a problem with the law recognising covenanted friendships and giving such covenanted friends rights of kinship.
However ‘sex’ is a matter God designed for marriage only and marriage is by definition, a ‘sexual’ thing, which means a male / female thing. ( We use the words sex and gender interchangeably). Any ‘sexual’ activity which departs from this God-given design means a also a departure in some measure from the source of God’s pure love and will contain elements that are harmful and lead us and the other person, or people, away from God, even if it fees liberating, empowering, stimulating and fulfilling at the time.
This should be a hard message to all of us, not just people who identify as gay. It’s about dying to self and living a new life in Christ.