Wednesday, April 1, 2015


When four-and-a-half years ago I shared the above link ("What Would Jesus Do If Invited To A Gay Wedding") on my Facebook page, there were two swift responses.

The more dramatic and consequential response was that I was presented by church leadership with an ultimatum that resulted in my withdrawal from preaching and music ministry. Normal service would be resumed in a another town and a more inclusive church a year or so later, but my rejection of the conservative evangelical hermeneutic is now more or less complete.

The more immediate and less disagreeable response was a gracious and intelligent attempt by a respected Facebook friend to challenge the underlying article. Ultimately I had to reject his conclusions, but he pointed out a rather simplistic aspect of the author's Christology: The Huffington Post article states that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. However, if Jesus is God and if God authored the Scriptures (both assertions that many Christians accept) then by a simple syllogism Jesus authored the scriptural passages that appear to condemn homosexuality along with all other sin. I have to say that I found this argument itself rather simplistic; it disregards the wide diversity and the integrity of the many individual biblical voices. But my friend's next point was harder to dismiss.

My friend went on to point out that Jesus certainly gathered together with sinners, but also dealt with their sin. So, in response to the question whether we should accept an invitation to a homosexual wedding, he responded that we should do so, as long as our goal is to love people and share the mystery of the gospel with them. This is a very sound and reasonable principle, but his practical application was quite disturbing: "Telling people about their lostness is really the most loving thing we could do." This was intended, of course, as a loving application of sound doctrine, and to some extent it tackles the stereotypical view of an Evengelicalism more concerned with slavish adherence to rules than with sharing the love of Jesus.

However, in my view there would be nothing loving about going to someone's wedding and using it as a means to an end - to preach to them about the sinfulness of what they are doing - which is what my friend's hermeneutics ultimately came down to. And it is not just pastorally insensitive but in my view theologically erroneous.Muslims regard the Qur'an in Arabic as the perfect word-for-word recitation of God's word to humanity, to the extent that even the best translation into another language distorts its intended meaning. In the late 19th century, initially in the USA, some Evangelicals over-reacted to the twin-pronged assault on their faith of socialism and liberal theology and developed a quasi-Islamic insistence on the literal truth of every jot and tittle of the Bible.

This was not the view of the early Church Fathers or the original Evangelical Reformers. Luther believed that parts of the Bible (especially the wonderful Letter of James, which he dubbed 'a right strawy epistle') were the result of errors by the early Councils that selected the canonical books. Saint Augustine of Hippo (the original source of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith and the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and perseverance) believed that passages of scripture can have up to five levels of figurative, symbolic and allegorical meaning. I actually think Augustine's approach is excessively influenced by Greek philosophy, but it helps us reflect on what Scripture is and what it isn't. To the writers of the New Testament, there is only one Living Word of God, i.e. Jesus. We have to regard the whole Bible the way they regarded the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. as a divinely inspired but brutally honest, mistakes-and-all record of how the People of God heard and responded to the presence of God in their midst in various times and cultural settings. It is precisely in that light that the N.T. most clearly represents continuity with the O.T.

As far as biblical morality is concerned, most modern Evangelicals accept that there are both permanent and culturally contingent laws in the Bible, including both the Torah and the N.T. (for example, few Evangelicals today would support stoning adulterers to death, although in some parts of the Middle East this is still the cultural norm). Clearly, the crucial question is how you differentiate the permanent from the cultural. And there are two common approaches that in my opinion are equally flawed: 
  • One common approach is to say (as some liberals do, even in quite serious pamphlets) that since we no longer have a taboo on eating pork or shellfish, we can no longer support a taboo on homosexuality. This is simply puerile: it patronises LGBT relationships and cultural identity in putting them on a par with dietary restrictions and discredits the strong theological cause that it claims to support. 
  • The other approach is to create an arbitrary distinction between moral laws (universally binding) and religious ritual laws (only binding on a particular community, e.g. food taboos).  I believe this is patronising to the coherence and integrity of the Mosaic Dispensation, and dangerously conducive to eisegesis (i.e. reading one's own beliefs and prejudices back into one's interpretation and application of the text).

Some kind of ordering of the various laws and moral teachings of the Bible is essential if we are to use it as a moral guide. But any such ordering has to do justice to a number of different claims: the philosophical unity of the Hebrew revelation; the related but distinctive integrity of the Christian revelation; not least the overarching message of the Bible as a whole, and the amazing oneness it builds out of seemingly conflicting themes (e.g. holiness/liberation, unity/diversity, tribalism/universalism, love/anger, justice/mercy).

We each have to make an informed and prayerful judgement on this, but I believe that one possible starting point is the oft-quoted and widely misunderstood Galatians 3:26-29.
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The crucial question is, which of the actions condemned as an abomination in Leviticus are actually sins, and which are simply social conventions (albeit useful ones in their original context)? Some are clearly based on moral or spiritual repugnance (killing, marital infidelity, blasphemy) while others (e.g. frequent  washing, with a taboo on potentially unsafe foods like pork and shellfish, and a prohibition on non-generative sexual lifestyles) are based on the needs of the early Yahwistic  community in its historic context. A tiny community of freed slaves in a hostile environment needs massive social cohesion, a high birthrate and a healthy populace. In other words, although I bridle at equating shellfish with Gay love for the reasons set out above, I do not accept that either is a sin but fully understand how they could have been seen as a threat to growth, prosperity, security or social harmony in post-Egyptian Israel.

In conclusion, while accepting that adultery and promiscuity are intrinsically sinful regardless of gender (involving as they do betrayal of trust and the use of other people as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves),  I believe that intolerance of stable, socially integrated LGBT relationships needs to be consigned to history along with many other (not just ritual) evils tolerated or even commanded at various points in salvation history, including slavery, genocide, blood feud, polygamy, the treatment of women as mere chattels, and the ban on commensality.

Finally, while proudly upholding the truth that Jesus is God, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is also God, and I am personally convinced (although each person has to make his or her own prayerful judgement on this) that the prevailing attitude of acceptance regarding Gay Christians is His doing. We tend to think of the individual as the basic building block of society. The Jewish and Christian communities of the Bible saw not the individual but the family as that basic building block, and would have seen the breakdown of family life today as the cause rather than just a symptom of the wider social collapse. We have to ask ourselves, are same-sex family units part of the collapse of family life, or a powerful restatement of family values at just the time when they are most needed? I think the latter, and I would gladly accept the invitation to a Gay wedding, not just to share the Gospel but also to receive it and to join in their rejoicing along with the Trinitarian God in whom all joy and peace and fellowship have their source.

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