A MATTER OF INTEGRITY (abridged)
The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation
By Rev. Steve Chalke
The Government has announced that extending marriage to same-sex couples will ensure the ancient institution 'is relevant for our century.' Marriage, however, predates both State and Church - it is in neither of their ownership. All of which means there are some extremely complex and controversial discussions to be had about same-sex marriage - which our society will do well to reflect on before rushing to premature decisions.
This article is not about those issues. I'm worried that the noise of the arguments around gay marriage will cloud and confuse the real question for the Church, which is about the nature of inclusion. I am convinced that it is only as the Christian community grapples with this that we will find wise answers, not only regarding gay marriage, but also to related questions around the Church's wider attitude to gay people.
I feel both compelled and afraid to write this article. Compelled because, in my understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus' message. Afraid because I recognise the Bible is understood by many to teach that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is a sin or 'less than God's best'.
Some will think that I have strayed from scripture - that I am no longer an evangelical. I have formed my view, however, not out of any disregard for the Bible's authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously.
Promiscuity is always damaging and dehumanising. Casual and self-centred expressions of sexuality - homosexual or heterosexual - never reflect God's faithfulness, grace and self-giving love. Only a permanent and stable relationship, in which respect and faithfulness are given and received, can offer the security in which well-being and love can thrive.
One tragic outworking of the Church's historical rejection of faithful gay relationships is our failure to provide homosexual people with any model of how to cope with their sexuality, except for those who have the gift of, or capacity for, celibacy. In this way we have left people vulnerable and isolated. When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneness, secrecy and fear. It's one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle - but shouldn't the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?
In autumn 2012 I conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two wonderful gay Christians. Why? Not to challenge the traditional understanding of marriage - far from it - but to extend to these people what I would do to others - the love and support of our local Church. Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex, relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God's character as seen through Christ. I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded.
Traditionally, it is argued that the injunctions - of both the Old and New Testaments - against homosexual activity are irrefutable and therefore any attempt to interpret them in new ways betrays the Bible. Things, however, may not be as we thought.
For many, a central issue is the exegesis of the second Genesis Creation Story (Genesis 2:4 - 3:24), which is the one that Jesus later refers to, as recorded in Matthew 19:5: 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh' (Genesis 2:24).
Was the author intending to enshrine the view that all lifelong sexual unions should be exclusively heterosexual because this is a 'creation ordinance'? Or, is this simply the normative illustration, whereas the critical truths of the story lie elsewhere? If it is the former, then it is perhaps legitimate to refer to practicing homosexual sex, even within a lifelong relationship, as having 'fallen short of God's ideal' and to state that those who are not heterosexually orientated are 'in need of restoration'. But, if it's the latter, then does the 'norm' necessarily infer the 'ideal'? Or is it like the 'norm' of being right-handed, which never implies any failing of those who are born left-handed? If so, then neither of the earlier negative definitions is appropriate, but instead cause a great deal of unnecessary pain and, sometimes, terrible tragedy.
Most Christians are properly wary of using the story of God's judgement on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) which is now widely understood to be about the indulgence, indifference to others and social injustice of their inhabitants, rather than a proof text against homosexuality.
Equally, the difficult cultural issues and ambiguities involved in the interpretation of the clauses of Levitical Law are widely understood. The old approach of dividing the laws into three watertight categories - ceremonial, civil and moral - with no contemporary obligation to keep the first two - has been shown to be simplistic. Leviticus 20:13 might tell us that "If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; However, the next chapter, Leviticus 21:16-23, is decidedly bad news for the inclusion of any physically disabled people, "...none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God."
Then there are the New Testament injunctions (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11) which, depending on the commentaries you choose, are read negatively or more positively in relation to faithful (as opposed to casual), same-sex relationships. In fact, a growing number of evangelical scholars argue that what the New Testament writers refer to as homosexual practice could not have been the stable same-sex unions of the sort that exist today, of which they knew nothing, but promiscuity associated with wild occultic orgies.
However we interpret these passages, nowhere does the Bible actually affirm same-sex relationships. So, can loving, committed, same-sex unions ever be regarded as biblically faithful? The whole Bible matters. We disregard it to our great cost. But, the vital question is about how to interpret it properly.
Sometimes minority interpretations of scripture struggle for decades before eventually becoming accepted by the majority. When Copernicus discovered that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of our solar system, scripture was used by Luther, Calvin, the Catholic Church and many others to condemn him. Why? Because, while Copernicus' critics couldn't see beyond the exegesis of the biblical text, the real issue was to do with hermeneutics.
Exegesis and hermeneutics are two essential tools for understanding the Bible. But, while exegesis analyses the actual structure and meaning of the text itself and looks at the nuances of the linguistics, hermeneutics digs deeper to unearth what's behind it, as it explores the cultural and social perceptions of the writer and their hearers.
A key challenge the Church faces - which often goes unrecognised - is that the Bible does not provide the final answer to a whole number of issues to do with inclusion with which Christians have subsequently wrestled. Take just two examples:
There are several New Testament texts that are very clear about the role of women in Christian communities. 1 Timothy 2:11-15 says: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner." The text appeals to Genesis 2 and the very nature of creation as its source of authority for the silence and submission of women.
In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul writes: "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."
There have been numerous popular and theological attempts to soften these injunctions. Some suggest these verses were added by later editors, or that they address specific communities and refer to particular women. Others say they are offset by Romans 16 where Paul commends 'our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae' and later greets Junia, commenting that she is "outstanding among the apostles".
Regarding Phoebe, however, the New Testament uses the word deacon (servant) to refer to those who serve alongside the overseers/elders of a local church (see Phil. 1:1). But, in 1 Tim 3, where it is noted that women can fulfill this 'secondary' role (v.11), the qualifications for the post of overseer/elder (v.1-7) are very male indeed!
Regarding Junia, although some suggest that Paul's greeting names her as an apostle, the overwhelming evidence is that the phrase simply means Junia was 'esteemed by' or 'greatly respected' among the apostles.
The absolute and universal character of the Epistles' instructions about women is not easy to escape.
Although motivated by a laudable concern for inclusion, many of the arguments used in an attempt to soften these uncompromising statements unintentionally end up clouding the real issue - one of wider hermeneutics rather than simple exegesis.
The vast majority of Christians now recognise that women can, and should, teach and lead. So, how have we got there when, on the face of it, the New Testament prohibits it?
'It's cultural' we say. But, if that's the case, why is the issue of the role of women regarded as 'cultural' by so many while homosexuality isn't?
Which culture does our phrase 'it's cultural' refers to. By whose authority do we decide to re-interpret any Bible passage? If 'it's cultural' amounts to saying that 'because the way we think about the role of women in this day and age is different to that of the New Testament writers it's OK for us to ignore them' we are on very shaky ground.
To make 'this day and age' our spiritual norm is to place us all on the 'slippery slope' of relativism. It is thoughtful conformity to Christ - not unthinking conformity to either culture or textual prohibitions - that should be our unchanging reference point.
Take another example. How has the whole Church found itself believing something about slavery which is so at odds with the Bible?
William Wilberforce and friends were condemned by huge swathes of the Church as they fought for abolition. They were dismissed as liberal and unbiblical for their 'deliberate abandonment of the authority of Scripture'. But, on the basis of a straightforward biblical exegesis of the Bible's text, their critics were right.
The Old Testament not only endorses slave keeping and trading, it sets out terms and conditions for its practice (eg. Leviticus 25:44-46). Although the New Testament proposes a more humane form of slave keeping, it fails to deliver a clear cut protest against it. Of course, Galatians 3:28 explains "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." However, this passage is no more a call for the abolition of slavery than it is of the sexes or of national identities and cultures.
How then did Wilberforce and friends reach their conclusions? It was their view of the proper interpretation of scripture. They saw that the biblical writers did not take blind dictation from God, instead, their personalities, cultural and social understandings all played a part in the formation of their writing. So, rather than basing their approach on isolated proof texts, the abolitionists built their stance around the deeper resonance of the trajectory of scripture - the compass for which is Jesus who was radically inclusive of women and other social outcasts of his day, challenging social norms and perceived orthodoxy.
The Bible does not always speak with one voice. For instance, the New Testament moves the issues of the treatment of slaves, women and homosexual people on from the Hebrew Scriptures: Though slave keeping is still endorsed in the New Testament, slave trading is condemned. Though women are still subordinate to men they benefit from greater freedom. Though permanent same-sex relationships are still not supported, there is no longer talk of capital punishment.
Using my hermeneutical lens - the Bible is the account of an ancient and ongoing conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus. For more insight on this, read 'Having Words with God: The Bible as Conversation' by Karl Allan Kuhn, endorsed by Walter Brueggeman.
Christianity is not about a book, but about a person who is the Word of God made flesh. On the issue of women or slavery, as just two examples, the New Testament closes some distance from where even the most conservative Christian now is in their understanding. The process of understanding the character and will of Yahweh as revealed through Jesus - is an ongoing task for every generation.
Here is my question. Shouldn't we take the same principle that we readily apply to the role of women, slavery, and numerous other issues, and apply it our understanding of permanent, faithful, homosexual relationships? Wouldn't it be inconsistent not to?
What are we to make of the kind of fancy exegetical footwork which can allow (in spite of the 1 Timothy 2 argument from the order of creation) one approach to the role of women in church leadership, while rejecting the acceptance of faithful same-sex relationships because it would overturn a 'creation ordinance'? Is this 'pick and choose' approach to the New Testament more to do with an outworking of social conditioning and cultural prejudices than a genuine grappling with its text?
A Pastoral Plea
Why am I so passionate about this issue? Because people's lives are at stake. Numerous studies show that suicide rates among gay people, especially young people, are comparatively high. Church leaders sometimes use this data to argue that homosexuality is unhealthy when tragically it's anti-gay stigma, propped up by Church attitudes, which, all too often, drives these statistics.
I believe that when we treat homosexual people as pariahs and push them outside our communities and churches; when we blame them for what they are; when we deny them our blessing on their commitment to lifelong, faithful relationships, we make them doubt whether they are children of God, made in his image.
So, I face a hard choice; a choice between the current dominant view of what scripture tells us about this issue and the one I honestly think it points us to. This is why I seek to speak and write openly and, I hope, graciously, to encourage a compassionate, respectful and honest conversation that might lead to our churches becoming beacons of inclusion.
None of this is to point the finger at others. I have remained silent, for fear of damaging important relationships. Even in this I realise my self-centredness, for no rejection I might suffer is anything compared to what so many homosexual people endure all their lives.
I understand that there are those who will take other views to me. I respect their right to differ graciously with me just as I try to do the same with them. However, I believe that as the leader of a local church, a charity and many thousands of young people in schools and staff around the country and the world, I am called to offer support, protection, and blessing in the name of Christ, the king of justice, reconciliation, and inclusion, who beckons each one of us out of isolation into the joy of faithful relationship.
Rather than condemn and exclude, can we dare to create an environment for homosexual people where issues of self-esteem and wellbeing can be talked about; where the virtues of loyalty, respect, interdependence and faithfulness can be nurtured, and where exclusive and permanent same-sex relationships can be supported?
Tolerance is not the same as Christ-like love. Christ-like love calls us to go beyond tolerance to want for the other the same respect, freedom, and equality one wants for oneself. We should find ways to formally support and encourage those who are in, or wish to enter into, faithful same-sex partnerships, as well as in their wider role as members of Christ's body.
I end where I started; in the coming months there will be huge and often heated debate around gay marriage. I am committed to listening and trying to understand the intricacies of the arguments on both sides. But, whatever the outcome and whichever side of the debate we find ourselves on, my hope is that as Christians we face what I think is the central issue - what does real, Christ-like, inclusion look like?