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An Appeal To Both Sides Of The Christian Debate About Gay Marriage

I have changed my views in the sexuality debate.

If you’ve known me for many years, this post might surprise you. If the 1993 Methodist Conference debate on sexuality had approved of homosexual relationships, I would have resigned as a probationer minister. Had our Pilgrimage Of Faith report in the mid-2000s approved the blessing of civil partnerships on Methodist premises, I would have had a serious problem of conscience. I would have regarded such decisions as tantamount to apostasy.

So I’m now supporting the gay rights agenda? No.

Are you confused? Join the club, and read on.

The more I watch the debate among Christians since the Government announced its consultation on gay marriage, the more I am concerned about the tone we are setting. Honourable exceptions granted, this post is an appeal for the exercise of Christian love and respect between those of opposing opinions. This is the area where I am working hard to change, not least by spending much more time reading different opinions and befriending people with opposing views. There are several areas where both sides need to listen to each other.

Petitions

Both parties have launched petitions in support of their causes, and neither one deserves my support. Can we get past the sloganeering, please? The ‘traditional’ Coalition For Marriage begins with sloppy language:

Throughout history and in virtually all human societies marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman.

So they haven’t heard of polygamy, even where kings of Israel take multiple wives. I agree with them that marriage is the exclusive life-long union of one man and one woman, but it hasn’t always been like that, and a campaign that can’t get its facts right from the outset is dodgy. The Coalition For Equal Marriageis equal in sloppiness. It starts,

I support the right of two people in love to get married, regardless of gender. It’s only fair.

They don’t answer the traditionalist point about the legal equality to marriage that civil partnerships give. They don’t say why ‘it’s only fair’. The Reformed theologian Mike Bird, in commenting on the similar debate in Australia, wonders what distinctions rule gay marriage in and polyamory out. Please, then, can both parties think harder? Clear thinking and expression are important here.

Bible

In my native Methodism, the debate is tainted over thirty years by the ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ report that reached Conference in 1982 (I think). It listed six grounds on which Christians discerned truth, ending notoriously with ‘The spirit of the age’, which was then used to trump traditional interpretations of biblical teaching. It gave the evangelical movement in Methodism (and please note in the current debate it isn’t as simple as evangelicals versus liberals any more) fuel to claim that support for homosexual practice was opposition to Scripture. Therefore anyone who takes such a view is heretical. Still it is assumed by the great majority of evangelical Methodists that the Bible is clear on human sexuality: one man and one woman exclusively for life, and chastity outside of such relationships.

More widely, the public split ten years ago between the Evangelical Alliance and Courage made it look like the only ‘biblical’ position on this was opposition to homosexual practice.

However, what is different in the debate now is that those in favour of committed gay relationships are interacting much more seriously with the Scriptures. In this I include Christians of various denominations. Twenty years ago I don’t think you would have had an organisation like Accepting Evangelicals, founded by Anglican priest Benny Hazlehurst. He won’t remember me, but we crossed over at theological college by a year. If you want charismatic evangelical credentials, Benny can supply them: he was not long back from serving in Hong Kong with Jackie Pullinger when I met him in Bristol. But he believes that support for gay marriage can be held with integrity alongside a commitment to the authority of the Bible.

However, in my assessment there are strengths and weaknesses in both sides’ biblical interpretation. The traditional view states that every scriptural reference to homosexual practice is negative (quite true), but those campaigning for change say that these reflect particular circumstances, such as abusive relationships and gay prostitution (as in the unusual Greek words used by Paul in 1 Corinthians), and that none of them reflects the contemporary notion of committed homosexual relationships.

I have to say I think that’s (only) partly right. For example, go to a moving website such as Reluctant Journey, run by George Hopper, an elderly Methodist Local Preacher who became persuaded of the case for change, and who has sought to become a Christian friend to gay people. In his analysis of the biblical material, he argues that the centurion’s servant who was healed by Jesus was most likely his master’s gay partner. That suggests some level of commitment, and therefore unwittingly contradicts the pro-gay stance.

At this point my personality traits kick in, hoping to resolve the problem, but they don’t help. You see, I’m one who goes for the wood not the trees, the big picture not the fine details – I’m ‘N’ not ‘S’ in Myers Briggs terms. So rather than get caught up in atomistic discussions of individual verses or even words, I ask where the overall trajectory is leading us. Even then I can’t resolve it. The foundational principle for the biblical discussion in both Jesus and Paul is Genesis 2:24, which grounds everything in heterosexual terms:

For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

On the other hand, Jesus – who makes no comments about homosexuality – shows radical inclusion to social outcasts. You could argue it either way. Perhaps what we need is for people from both groups to sit down together rather than throw theological grenades.

Science

I suspect science is becoming less relevant to the debate. Every now and again the media will publicise some story about a scientific basis for sexual orientation. This seems to have some populist appeal on the naïve ‘If it’s scientific it must be true’ basis. None of these has ever convinced traditionalists. A doctrine of original sin is usually deployed to this effect. Moreover, as the American Baptist theologian Roger Olson recently argued that a scientific ‘is’ doesn’t make for a behavioural ‘ought’.
Until recently such scientific evidence has been used in support of gay rights.

However now even such a vocal campaigner as Peter Tatchell has admitted that the evidence is rather more fluid. I think I am right in saying (but have not found the link) to say that his line has become ‘Never mind science, this is a human right’. Please either correct me if I am wrong or let me know where he said this.

All of which makes some of the arguments over Anglican Mainstream’s use of controversial psychiatrists to oppose homosexuality rather irrelevant. And besides, even if they were to host a conference with a psychiatrist whose reputation could not be argued to be tarnished by their opponents, essentially their position in using psychiatry seems to be that homosexual orientation is a disorder. If it is, then it is a medical issue, not a moral one.

Epistemology

So what is the basis for deciding what’s right and wrong in sexuality? What it all comes down to is, ‘How do we know that we know?’ In other words, to give it its technical word, epistemology, that is, the study of knowledge.

The traditional view takes the teaching of Scripture and makes the case I have described. Those seeking change used to put human reason more highly but that is now vulnerable. Some of the argument in the church is about differing interpretations of Scripture, particularly about which of the diverse elements of the Bible take priority, as well as the questions of translation and context.

Beyond that lies the ‘secular’ argument of human rights that is such a strong narrative in society. It seems to be based on an assumption that what two consenting adults do in private is nobody else’s business, just so long as it is not harmful. Furthermore, it is influenced by a society that has downgraded the notions of responsibility and duty in favour of personal fulfilment.

And I do believe it is correct to call this a ‘secular’ argument. It is essentially premised upon the ideas of personal sovereignty and consumerism. Whatever view we take as Christians, we cannot get sucked in by these. Personal sovereignty contradicts the notion that Jesus is Lord. The consumerist attitude of personal fulfilment stands against sacrifice. And in passing, I note that the Church has not only asked homosexual people not to fulfil their feelings, she has asked many single women to do the same. For given both the teaching that Christians should only marry within the faith and the fact of female predominance in Church, many single women, not finding a life partner in Christian circles have seen it as their duty to stay celibate. Whether you agree with the teaching or not, at heart both parties have been called to make difficult and painful sacrifices.

Ours should be a conviction based on the big themes of the Gospel – a good Creator, who begins to make all things new in the wake of fallenness and brokenness, One who is seen supremely in his Son, a God of grace, truth and love. Which leads to my final thought.

Ethics
A story: I used to take some students on placement with me from a Bible college. One team led a midweek discussion group based on Nicky Gumbel’s book ‘Searching Issues’, which he wrote in response to the most commonly raised objections to Christianity raised on the Alpha Course. One of those topics was homosexuality, and the original chapter is now available as a separate booklet. Gumbel takes a traditional view of the subject.

During a debrief, I asked the students how they got on. ‘We told them the biblical view,’ said one. And I thought, ‘Oh no, you didn’t.’ Because by ‘the biblical view’ I knew they only meant, ‘what actions are right and wrong’. I said, ‘You didn’t give them a full biblical view if you didn’t start from the position of God’s unconditional love for all people.’

My spontaneous reaction that day is still a touchstone for me, especially because I am aware there are people on both sides (sorry to keep using that language, but I fear it’s true) who are hurting. I have gay friends who have suffered hurt, rejection and bullying. I have theologically conservative friends who are worried that the Gospel and mission are at stake here. Add to them the single women I mentioned above, of course.

The Christian Church, then, needs a huge dose of love to work through this matter, and I expressed my concern about the tone of the debate in my introduction. That’s the essence of my appeal here. I don’t know, but I wonder whether we will work ourselves through to the kind of place that James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, described a few years ago, to the consternation of many fellow evangelicals. His Presidential Address of March 2010 calls for ‘diversity without enmity’. He believes that the differing convictions on this subject are analogous to the differences Christians hold on subjects such as the just war and pacifism.

Is his proposal possible or desirable? What do you think? Or should the Church stick to one particular position? Indeed, would Jones’ proposal itself lead not to co-existence but to a singular conclusion?

Just one final word. I am happy to have comments from people of whatever persuasion, but in the spirit of this post I will watch for the tone of comments. Please, no labelling of people as homophobes or unbelievers. Let’s see if we can demonstrate love in the tone of our contributions.

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on June 7, 2012, in Current Affairs, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. I think you would be close to where I am thinking now. I am tired of flame wars and angry people stabbing the Bible and saying ‘It says here’….on both sides.

    I would have been as you were when a probationer (even though I only started in 1999) and now I am not so sure.

    As I get older I find ‘either/or’ debates less meaningful. At college, people often used to argue over the finer points of theology. I never liked to: I was much more concerned with ‘how then do we live?’ When they argued, I played Pool. I got very good at Pool.

    I haven’t signed the C4M petition. However I read it, its subtexts feel very much like ‘we are being persecuted’/’we want Christendom’. I know the Gospel has to be in a position to sometimes offend, but I wonder whether the offence this causes is in fact Gospel.

    I wonder to if we are picking the right battle. I am minded of an old ‘Divine Comedy’ song which had the lyrics ‘The cars in the carpark were shiny and German; distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon’….there is much, much more force in scripture about the wrong use of wealth than sexuality- although sexuality is important.

    I like the phrase ‘diversity without emnity’.

    Personally, if my church allowed the blessing of civil partnerships, I would not now leave. I am sure the relationships of many marriages I conduct fall short of what God wants, but I do them. A faithful committed same sex partnership may well have within it much more honesty and integrity than many marriages.

    Thank you for this post.

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    • Graham,

      Thanks for the kind words. I thought long and hard about this post. I have had it in the back of my mind for weeks, even thinking of turning it into a series (after all, it is rather long). Of course I’m not saying the debate doesn’t matter (not that you are suggesting that). Both ‘sides’ agree it matters, for differing reasons. But if Christians can’t debate in a different tone from society, then there is something deeply wrong with us.

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  2. I’ve had some interesting exchanges on my blog and on twitter over this issue. I changed my mind about this having watched the Matthew Vines video (there’s a link on my blog).
    One point he made (20 mins in) was about fruit – what are the fruit of those on both sides of the debate.
    Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

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    • Thanks. I read your post a few weeks ago when you mentioned it on the ACW Facebook page. I haven’t watched the entire Matthew Vines video. ‘Where is the fruit?’ is an important question, and as you say it applies to both sides of the debate, but equally it cannot be levelled as a charge against everyone. So, yes, I’m familiar with the hateful attitude to gay people among some conservative Christian and the test needs to be applied. Other conservatives are simply honestly struggling with the issue in the face of what they genuinely believe to be the teaching of Scripture (and church tradition). At the same time, some who favour change are guilty of some nasty caricaturing of those who disagree with them, and a smug superiority complex. But again, not all are like that: many are moved by a genuine compassion for the suffering gay people have endured.

      I think some of the bad attitudes happen because this is a debate that matters, and it is therefore understandable that people become passionate. However as Christians when we become passionate about what we believe to be the truth we still need to remember grace and love. My concern is the way many on both sides have lost sight of that need, as indeed I do from time to time on all sorts of issues.

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  3. Reblogged this on MMM… Meditation, Mental health, Mindful crochet and commented:
    Someone else who has changed their mind re the Gay Debate

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  4. Marilyn Scott

    We find it difficult to accept homosexual but try to Love everyone.We used to have a Testimony from someone who was and is now straight.But a very good article Dave

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    • Thanks, Marilyn. I’m not ruling out the possibility of the testimony you mention. In fact, (even) Peter Tatchell recognises the possibility of people’s sexual orientation changing. He sees genetics and the like as influential but not determinative of orientation. At the same time, some ways in which Christians have encouraged gay people to become straight do not have a happy record. I find it interesting that Peter Ould refers to himself as 'post-gay' rather than 'ex-gay'. He explains more about his choice of terminology on his website.

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  5. Excellent post. I’ve linked to it on my blog today. It is such an important debate, but I find a very confusing one. It’s not always easy to see ‘the truth’ in this matter and to speak the truth in love can be even harder. That God loves all people unconditionally is a key truth to share, but when our attitudes and actions don’t match what we as Christians say, how can that truth be heard?

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  6. Keri Williams

    This is a very well thought out post. I would like to suggest to you Jay Michaelson’s book God vs. Gay. It lays out very clearly the biblical argument for inclusion of the LGBT community in the Jewish and Christian faith. I don’t personally agree with some of Michaelson’s conclusions, but I do think it’s very important that Christians begin to engage the believers in the LGBT community respectfully and that starts by listening to the other side.

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  7. I found your blog via Nancy’s blog. I think that you provide some useful and balanced insights into the whole debate about human sexuality. Like Nancy, I remain confused on some areas, but the basic principle of God’s love for all, without discrimination between any, is foundational to my thinking.

    I had to write a paper on Human Sexuality for the CofE discernment process. The CofE accept differences of views, but expects obedience from its Ministers in sexual matters, while leaving Lay People to follow their consciences. I found this difficult, why two standards? I am only glad that they are revisiting the debate now, although the commission set up to examine it by the House of Bishop’s seems a little unbalanced.

    I suspect that I’m still in transition over the issue of same-sex marriage, as the theology has still to be worked out for it – something I put in the paper I wrote for the CofE. But in principle I have no objection to the blessing of Civil Partners in church or elsewhere. Marriage in church is something I am still thinking about.

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    • Hi,

      Thanks for coming over from Nancy’s blog. I too find the C of E situation curious. While I expect that a higher standard is expected of church leaders, this doesn’t seem to reflect a higher standard but contradictory assumptions. (Maybe that’s not surprising, but it’s still odd to see it at work.) I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the make up of the House of Bishops’ commission, though: feel free to expand on that if you want.

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  8. I used to be of the opinion of “let’s all try to get along civilly” and I’m actually beginning to wonder if a schism wouldn’t be preferable. I don’t even know how to articulate why without getting into the beliefs themselves. But it would probably also be fair to say that I’m tired of the hatred.

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  9. The trap has been well and truly sprung, and the mice that are today’s church leaders are about to lay their heads in it. For the ECtHR has said that there is no right to same-sex marriage, that signatory states of the ECHR therefore have no obligation to allow same-sex marriage, but that any state that DOES allow same-sex marriage at all, and which allows churches to conduct different-sex weddings, must allow (or maybe must force) churches that do conduct different-sex weddings, also to conduct same-sex weddings. So the presently proposed legislation is already illegal, before it has even been drafted!

    If one continues to meet one’s opponents half way indefinitely, one approaches surrender asymptotically. Except, this time, the ECtHR has said that if we tolerate the next compromise, all is lost. The court won’t LET it stop there, bound by its own precedents.

    Serious schism seems almost inevitable, and it will hurt the pockets no end of the faithful, who will have to find, and fund, extra places of worship. It will profit the legal professions no end, as the squabbles hit the courts, over which of two factions is allowed to continue worshiping in premises bought and paid for, in some cases, centuries ago, by people who thought with a clarity that the confused writer of this blog admits he lacks – and it shows.

    And the stupidity of it all is that absolutely NONE of this is about anybody “hating” homosexuals.

    The homosexual is fully liberated today in every respect compatible with the liberty of others to express disapproval, except in his or her exclusion from the dictionary definition of a word, the verb to “marry”, applied to his or her defining lifestyle choice. Since that is word that is implied in ancient and rather important biblical metaphors like “the bride of Christ” and “the wedding feast of the lamb”, believers are naturally up in arms, to prevent this sacred word being hijacked, not because that will help our opponents in any way, but because it will accomplish the hurting of us that our opponents desire, and they have the upper hand.

    Thank God that He is sovereign. He will bring good from all of this, we have his word on that. God alone knows how though.

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  10. I’m pretty simplistic I guess with all the information given I still maintain that marriage is for one woman and one man but that hate and malice toward gay people is totally wrong. God loves everyone and it is totally up to Him to judge each person and not up to us, as He alone looks into their hearts. …Diane

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  11. One of the leading public intellectuals in Australia is the retired High Court judge Michael Kirby, a homosexual who has been in a committed partnership for nearly 40 years. He said recently:
    “People ask, how can you stay as a person of Christian belief?” he said.
    “I say it is because Christian belief, as I understand it, is about loving God and loving one another. If you concentrate on a few passages from the Old Testament you’ll find all sorts of passages which are rather harsh.
    But the New Testament, as I understand it, is about love. I haven’t turned my back on my religion. I think it is important to keep our eyes on the great messages: love God, love one another, and let these things challenge us.”

    I believe in the importance of the Old Testament laws – as the way a community can live morally and reflectively before God. And I also believe the New Testament is primarily about love.

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  12. Wow…what a long time since this was posted. Probably no one will read tmy small comment.
    I wonder if the Lord is sitting in heaven debating this same question with His angels? Have you thought about that? My own opinion is that it is not. I wonder if we could just settle thiis matter on earth as it is in heaven and then let Jesus lead us in the way we should go. It’s not difficult is it?

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  13. Ruth Ferguson

    On what do you base your statement that God has unconditional love for all people? If, say, His love were conditional upon belief in Jesus and obedience to His commands, then the whole debate within the Church on homosexuality takes on a very different color.

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    • Ruth, your suggestion sounds like legalism. I believe God offers his love to all people out of grace, but that it is only received by faith, and that we show our gratitude by pleasing him.

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  14. Good to see a flicker of life here! I was refreshing some ideas ahead of some new local church initiatives and realised that Big Circ had been rather silent. (My own efforts around “making the main thing the main thing” have rather dried up too, but that seems also to the the case elsewhere – Conference 2015 was hardly overflowing with main things!)

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