EAI Launches Crowd-Funding Initiative for “Who Owns Marriage?”

Evangelical Alliance Ireland has launched a crowd-funding initiative for the forthcoming book “Who Owns Marriage?” For the next two weeks supporters can be a part of this project by visiting http://fundit.ie/browse/category/mediapub

The way that crowd-funding works is that supporters make a financial contribution to the project. Fundit.ie take the supporters’ credit card details, but the payment is not debited until the fund raising target (in this case €2000) is reached. If the target is not reached within the specified time period (in this case 14 days) then the crowd-funding project is deemed unsuccessful and no-one’s card is debited!

Please consider being a part of this project!

Who Owns Marriage square

Day 9 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Sun 22nd March)

Who Owns Marriage square

On behalf of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I am producing a book called “Who Owns Marriage?” Scheduled for release on Easter Monday, this book seeks to dig a bit deeper into the issues raised Ireland’s forthcoming Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage. EAI has already released a statement concerning the Referendum, available at http://www.evangelical.ie

The book aims to encourage us to think through what we really believe about Evangelicalism, the Bible, our identity in Christ, civil society, how we hold religious values without trying to enforce them on unbelievers, and how biblical marriage relates to civil marriage.

We have invited a number of thinkers, theologians, leaders and public figures (including some non-Christians) to contribute to the book. This is your opportunity to join the conversation! For the last 9 days segments of the book have been posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays).

A small number of the best contributions (by that I mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of my points) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.

A Secular Society
In the past, Irish Evangelicals were a small minority in a predominantly Roman Catholic society. Now, although we are growing numerically, we are a small minority in a predominantly secular society.
Religious people sometimes speak against secularism as if it were the bogey man. Successive Popes and Archbishops of Canterbury have waxed eloquent on the dangers of secularism. However, secularism is not necessarily antagonistic to religious faith. Secularism can be understood as a society where there is complete separation between Church and State. Churches are afforded no special privileges in a secular society, but neither are they subjected to any special restrictions or discrimination. In other words, religious groups are given the same rights and powers as any other voluntary association or group of people.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, makes an important distinction between political (or institutional) secularism and doctrinal secularism. Doctrinal secularism, according to Bielefeldt, discriminates by trying to drive religion out of society. But political secularism grants religion the same rights and position, no more and no less, as any other voluntary association or NGO.
There is a considerable body of evidence internationally to suggest that Evangelical church groups actually thrive in secular societies. In a free market place of ideas, where no faith group or ideology is being artificially propped up with governmental support, the self-confident and zealous attitude of Evangelicals in promoting their message tends to result in quite spectacular growth.
However, our focus here is not on whether secularism is good for Evangelicalism or not – that is yet another debate for another day! Like it or not, Irish Evangelicals live and worship in a society that is transitioning rapidly from a religiously dominated past to a secular future. How can we practice and promote our ideal of what marriage should be, yet simultaneously avoid trying to use the law of the land as a blunt instrument to force those views on others? How can we protect our rights without appearing to scream for special privileges? How can we be faithful to our core values of relationship-based morality and faithfulness to Scripture, without descending into homophobia or losing compassion for a group of people (the LGBT community) whose experience as a minority in Irish society has been a lot harder than our own?

The Legitimate Role of Government
I have already suggested that, in our eagerness as Evangelicals to have our marriage ceremonies recognised like those of more established churches, we may have made a mistake in legally aligning ourselves with the State’s unbiblical concept of marriage. By registering our ministers as solemnisers, we have made ourselves the State’s agents. This smacks of a return to the Christendom mind set where Church and State operated hand in glove to the detriment of both fair government and of effective Christian witness.
In short, we thought the new marriage registration legislation was a step forward, giving us legitimacy. I would rather argue that it was a step backwards, in which we conceded to the State a power that it does not have the right to claim.
The responsibilities and areas of authority of governments are many and varied. Among other things governments should promote order, protect their citizens, provide public services and promote economic stability and growth. However, there are also limits to the authority that the State possesses. No government has the right or authority to interfere with religious freedom, to regulate religious doctrine or indeed to dictate how its inhabitants should observe seasonal celebrations, rites of passage or other community traditions.
Take a non-controversial example, such as the celebration of Christmas. The State can certainly decree which days are deemed to be public holidays, but it has no authority to dictate how you or I celebrate Christmas or whether we celebrate it at all. If you choose to eat your Christmas Dinner on December 24th, or if you choose to spend Christmas Day praying in a mosque to Allah, then that is your freedom. We all recognise that such activities are none of the State’s business (unless, of course we are breaking other laws by, for example, robbing banks to pay for our Christmas presents).
The same applies to religious matters which, after all, in a secular State should be treated in the exact same way as community and societal traditions. The State does not have the authority to prevent Christians from reading their Bibles, or gathering to worship and pray. They do have the right and authority to insist that we observe other laws, such as those pertaining to planning permission and fire safety, but if government tried to interfere with our religious freedoms we would, like our brothers and sisters in China, reject such action as the State overstepping its legitimate sphere of authority.
That is why the State does not pass legislation telling us whether, in our churches, we are to baptise by immersion or sprinkling, whether we are to drink communion wine from one common cup or lots of little plastic cups, or mandating which Scripture verses we are allowed to read out during a funeral service. In all these matters, and I say this with the utmost respect for the civil authorities, we recognise that what we do is none of the government’s business.
Once we understand these basic limitations as to governmental authority, one obvious question remains. What authority should a secular State have when it comes to who can and can’t get married, and to whom?

Marriage as a Religious and Community Event
For the greatest part of human history, the State had no role to play in the regulation of marriage. This can be best illustrated by Henry VIII’s famous attempts to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The one unspoken assumption that underpinned Henry’s divorce and remarriage was that it was the Church, and not the State, that regulated marriage. Even though Henry was the King, and therefore head of State, he knew that he did not have the authority to dissolve a marriage. Yes, he was prepared to go to the lengths of cutting his ties with Rome and establishing the Church of England, but he was never so arrogant as to abrogate the Church’s primacy over the State in this regard.
Even the Church’s claim to regulate marriage in a society is of fairly recent origin. For most of western history, it was left to couples to declare that they had made marriage vows. Marriage was viewed as a private contract and the Catholic Church would accept a couple’s declaration and treat them as validly married, even where there was no church ceremony, no priest, and even no witnesses. So long as a couple said they were married, and there were no objections from their community to dispute that assertion, then the Church accepted the fact. It was not until the Council of Trent in the Sixteenth Century that the Catholic Church began to insist on the presence of a priest and witnesses at weddings.
As the Church extended its control over people’s lives, it also began to regulate and control marriage. The State began to pass laws supporting the Church’s role. For example, in England and Wales a law was passed in 1215 requiring the reading of marriage banns in a church, giving three weeks’ notice for anyone to object to the validity of an intended marriage. Marriage was still viewed as primarily an ecclesiastical act, and any exceptions to the normal procedures ultimately fell under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury rather than the civil authorities. Indeed, right up until 1837, marriages in England and Wales could only be conducted in consecrated church buildings.
The Marriage Act of 1836 was the point at which the State in Britain first claimed the power to dictate who could marry whom, and what constituted a valid marriage. Similar arrangements were introduced in Ireland in 1845. Most other western countries can point to the mid-Nineteenth Century as the period in which their governments decided to get into the business of marriage.
This brings us back to the question about who owns marriage. We have already noted that, in a pluralistic society that includes those of many religions and those of none, it would be arrogant for the Church to claim that we own marriage and can therefore force our definition on everyone else. However, the State has even less right than the Church to claim ownership of marriage. Even Henry VIII’s famous ego did not extend to the overweening arrogance of pretending he had the authority to tell people who they were allowed to marry.
If marriage is truly a religious or community event, then it should be left to religious and community groups to conduct marriages as and when they see fit. No one group should receive official favour or recognition in this respect. Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims, LGBT groups, Atheist Ireland, humanist groups – they are all capable of renting a hotel function room or a community hall and holding their own wedding services. True, some groups won’t recognise the validity of each other’s ceremonies and traditions, but that happens in all walks of life. I know of Roman Catholics who insist that baptism is not ‘real’ if it’s conducted in a Pentecostal Church, and equally there are Evangelicals who deny that a Catholic mass is a valid expression of the Lord’s Supper. We all learn to live with such differences of opinion, but we would be outraged if any government was foolish or heavy-handed enough to start taking sides and pontificating on what constitutes valid baptism or communion. It’s none of the government’s business – and neither, I would argue, is marriage.

Current Ambiguity
As things stand now there is already confusion as to what actually constitutes marriage. We hear the term ‘common law marriage’ being used to describe couples that cohabit but are not legally married.
Certain minority religions practice polygamy where a man lives with more than one wife, their friends and co-religionists recognising these plural marriages. Such arrangements, while obviously falling far short of the Christian ideal of marriage, are generally not illegal in Ireland. Laws against bigamy can only prevent people from entering into multiple legal contracts of marriage concurrently. They cannot prevent people choosing to live with whoever they want, addressing each other as ‘husband’ or ‘wife,’ being recognised as such by their surrounding community, or marking those ‘marriages’ with ceremonies in their religious organisations.
Many couples from African backgrounds celebrate three ‘marriages’ – a traditional ceremony with their families, a religious ceremony at church or mosque, and then the legal contract. It is not unusual to talk to a ‘married couple’ only to discover that their marriage was of the traditional or religious variety but was never legally recognised.
It is inevitable, as Ireland becomes more pluralistic and multicultural, that such confusion will become more acute. Marriages between parties of different nationalities are on the increase, and there is a growing disconnect between what the State officially recognises as ‘marriages’ and what society in general means by the term.

Genuine Civil Partnerships
Of course, even if the government got out of the marriage business, there would still be other laws that need to be complied with. For example, laws concerned with the age of consent or rape apply equally whether a marriage is involved or not.
It should also be noted that the main reasons why governments got involved in the regulation of marriage in the first place were because of issues of inheritance, property and adoption rather than through any desire to protect morality or to promote the family. However, with the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act in 2010 there already exists a perfectly adequate legal framework under Irish law to deal with all such issues without there being any necessity for the State to involve itself in the regulation of marriage.
Indeed, I would suggest that the Civil Partnership Act be broadened considerably so as to make it possible for any two adults to enter into a civil partnership for legal matters such as taxation, property and inheritance. There need not be any connection with sexual intimacy or romantic love at all. For example, two elderly women who choose to share a home and live in a platonic relationship should be entitled to form a civil partnership and legally share their financial assets in exactly the same way as a couple that are involved in a long-term sexual relationship.

True Marriage Equality Rather Than State-Enforced Marriage Redefinition
My argument, then, is that the State exceeds its proper sphere of authority by presuming to regulate marriage. Neither does the State have the authority to take a word with a long history of usage by religions and communities and arbitrarily ascribe a new meaning to it. The State never had the rightful authority to declare that marriage could only be between a man and a woman, nor does it have the authority to declare that marriage can be contracted by two parties of the same gender.
The State has the authority to regulate civil partnerships, because they pertain to issues such as property, taxation and inheritance which fall under the rightful responsibilities of civil government. Marriage, however, has to do with issues such as faith in God, voluntary participation in community groups, love and romance – and these lie beyond the civil government’s sphere of responsibility.
If the State were to get out of the marriage business then that would allow each faith group and community group to practice their ideals of marriage without hindrance. It would also allow a much wider and more embracing concept of marriage equality that is in keeping with the freedom and fairness that we expect of a modern secular democracy.

Day 8 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Sat 21st March)

The Competing Claims of Church and State
When I listen to many people who oppose redefining civil marriage so as to include same-sex couples, they often quote definitions of marriage that are, at their heart, religious. This is understandable since, within Christianity at least, marriage is fundamental to the very existence of the Church. The impression that is created, however, is that we think that the Church owns marriage.
The common response to this by those who don’t share our faith is to say, “You people can define and practice marriage whatever way you want, but leave the rest of us alone. Marriage is a legal matter, controlled by a secular State, and so religion shouldn’t come into it.” By this way of thinking, the State owns marriage.
In this final Chapter I am going to make what may seem, to some at least, a radical suggestion. I would stress that this is my own personal opinion, and does not necessarily represent the official stance of the local church that I serve as pastor, the denomination I serve as National Bishop, or the organisation (Evangelical Alliance Ireland) that I serve as Executive Director. Consider what follows as one Evangelical Christian’s attempt to find a way of approaching marriage where everyone can remain true to their convictions without anyone trying to impose those views on anyone else.
I want to suggest that the Church does not own marriage, but neither does the State own marriage. Marriage, for most of its history, has been a community event. Maybe it is time for marriage to be returned to the community?

Evangelicals and Civil Marriage
Until very recently most Evangelical churches did not have the right to celebrate weddings that were legally recognised. Often our members had to get legally married at a Registrar’s Office and then have a religious ceremony in church. In some cases Registrars would make arrangements to be in attendance at the church ceremony, but in many areas they only worked Monday to Friday, meaning that Evangelicals, unlike members of more established churches, could not get legally married at weekends. That hardly amounted to persecution, and must seem comparatively trivial in contrast to how Christians are often treated in other parts of the world, but there was still a clear perception that most Evangelicals were being treated as a second-class religion by the State.
Now, with the introduction of solemnisers in 2007, ministers in Evangelical churches can act as agents of the State by conducting legal weddings. Eight years ago, most of us viewed this as a triumph. We were happy to enter into a cosy relationship with the State whereby we acted on their behalf, and by which we acknowledged the right of the State to regulate and control who can and can’t get married. However, this new found parity of esteem has raised new questions as we realise that what the State refers to as ‘marriage’ is actually something very different from what Evangelical Christians mean by ‘marriage.’ Some of us are starting to question whether jumping into the State’s pocket with more established churches was actually a good idea at all.
Marriage, in the eyes of the State, is a legal contract that confers certain benefits, including those in the area of taxation and inheritance. It is not necessarily a life-long commitment. There is nothing to stop a couple entering into a legal marriage with the attitude of, “Ah well, if he doesn’t make me happy I can always get divorced.” Some couples even enter into pre-nuptial agreements, already preparing for the moment when the marriage is dissolved. Please note that I am not saying that all couples who enter into a civil marriage view it that way. Many people get married in a Registrar’s office with a high view of marriage. But legally speaking, such noble intentions are not a requirement.
Marriage, in the eyes of the State, is not a covenant made in the sight of God. Indeed, the marriage contract can be legally ratified by a government official with no reference to God whatsoever. Now the proposal is that marriage should be redefined, not merely to apply to the union of a man and a woman, but also to same-sex couples.
For many Evangelicals the proposals to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples has been the moment where the penny drops and we realise that what we call ‘marriage’ and what the State calls ‘marriage’ are actually two totally different things. We differ over the issue of whether it is a covenant or a contract, over whether it is a lifetime commitment or not, and over the relevance of God to marriage. This was already true in many respects as regards heterosexual marriages – we just hadn’t really stopped to consider the issue. If we end up differing with the State over the gender, and possibly at some later date over the number, of the participants then the only thing we’re left with in common is that both concepts of ‘marriage’ refer in some vague sense to people making promises to one another.
The debate over the Irish Referendum on same-sex marriage has clearly highlighted how the concept of ‘marriage’ is being increasingly stripped down to a bare minimum. As ‘no’ campaigners have raised a number of issues that they see as being part of marriage (for example, the raising of a family) the opposite side have repeatedly responded by saying, “That isn’t what marriage is about. Marriage is about two people who are in love making a public commitment to each other.”
This ‘hollowing out’ of marriage was explicitly stated in an editorial in the Irish Times which pushed for a ‘yes’ vote by saying that marriage no longer meant what it used to it and “is now about adults making a public statement of their commitment to each other.” A few days later Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny stated at his party’s conference, “And therefore I say to all same-sex couples in our country. This is about you, it’s about your right to say two small words, made up of three simple letters – I DO. For you, in your lives together, may they become your letters of freedom.”
Many of us believe that marriage is much more than a bare minimum of two adults making a public statement of commitment, or indeed saying “I do.” It may well be that the ‘yes’ side, including all the major political parties, have contributed to a minimalist view of marriage which will ultimately have a much more profound impact on our society than the outcome of a Referendum on the gender of the people involved. The Referendum, which was supposedly about marriage equality, has turned out to be more about marriage redefinition. Civil marriage, as a concept, has been so disembowelled as to be indistinguishable from civil partnership.
However, I am left with two main questions. Firstly, is ‘two adults making a public commitment’ really what most people mean when they use the word ‘marriage’? Secondly, if marriage really is to be redefined in such a way, then what rationale is there for keeping it under State control? Why should the State have any interest in, or control over, the ways in which two people who are in love choose to express their commitment to each other?

More than Semantics?
Is the issue more one of language than of substance? There are already civil partnerships available to both heterosexual and same-sex couples. What is the difference between a civil partnership that would bestow the exact same legal benefits as marriage and a non-religious marriage contract? A placard at a recent Dublin Gay Pride march declared, “You can stuff your civil partnerships – we want gay marriage!” Is the debate really over who owns a word?
When I have stated that I object to the artificial redefinition of the word ‘marriage,’ I have been accused of engaging in semantics. However, I have asked several members of the LGBT community, “If you could have a beefed-up civil partnership which conveyed all the legal benefits of marriage, but stopped short of being called ‘marriage,’ would you be happy with that?” In most cases the answer has been, “No! We want the word!” Perhaps all of us are engaged in semantics?
Of course words are powerful because they convey meaning. Words have the power both to hurt and to heal. For many of us the word ‘marriage’ has a whole range of positive connotations that have been built up over centuries.
Words also change their meaning over time. This is part of the natural evolution of language. The very word ‘gay,’ for example, meant something different when I was a child to what it means now. It never occurred to me as a young boy that the Flintstones theme tune that sang, “We’ll have a gay old time” could ever be understood as containing a reference to sexual orientation.
But I do have difficulties with the deliberate redefinition of marriage to suit a political agenda. If the word ‘marriage’ really ends up evolving into something different from its age old meaning of a man and a woman joining together in a lifelong union then so be it. In that case we shrug our shoulders, accept that language has changed, and revise our speech and our Bible translations to use a new term that more accurately reflects ‘the relationship formerly known as marriage!’ Such a course has already been suggested by Patrick Riordan, a Jesuit priest, who advised the Catholic Church to avoid getting involved in the civil marriage debate and instead to start using the term ‘matrimony’ to refer to sacramental marriage as conducted within the Church. If that’s the way we have to go then so be it, but the deliberate manipulation and redefinition of language by governments is, in my opinion, uncomfortably close to the concept of ‘Newspeak’ in George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’

The Imposition of Values
I have already cited EAI’s vision that the Kingdom of God “represents a third way, an alternative to the power structures of an imposed religious tradition or (the mirror-image) of an imposed absence of religion.” We cannot impose our vision of what marriage should be on the rest of society. If other segments of society wish to use the word ‘marriage’ to refer to unions that, in our opinion, fall short of the Christian concept of marriage, then we are hardly in a position to stop them, nor should we wish to have such power.
There is a fear among some Evangelicals, however, that the reverse may happen, and that churches will be forced to accept the imposition on them of an unbiblical concept of marriage. For example, anti-discrimination legislation could conceivably be used to force churches to offer same-sex wedding ceremonies even though such unions would be contrary to the beliefs of such churches.
To be fair, there is no suggestion that any political party is considering any such crass interference with religious freedom, and we would hope that such fears have no basis in reality. Neither the Church nor the State has the right to force their opinions and values down the throats of others.
However, there are signs that the distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage is not as clear as some would pretend. Secular States might say that the two are separate during a referendum campaign where they want to minimise the Church’s influence, but they are inclined to forget that distinction at other times and to enforce their view of marriage on the Church.
For example, laïcité is a core principle in the French Constitution. This concept of secularism would appear to separate Church and State, and it is often stated by media commentators that French civil marriages and religious marriages are entirely separate. But this is not strictly true. The separation actually only works in one direction. Religions are told to keep their noses out of civil marriage, but the State then presumes to regulate and control religious marriages. So, for example, it is illegal in France for a church to conduct a religious marriage if the couple concerned have not already been joined in a civil marriage.
Here’s a scenario which will inevitably happen sooner or later. Two men, either gay or bisexual, marry each other in a civil ceremony. Then, for whatever reason, they separate but remain legally married. One of the men experiences a conversion experience by which he becomes a Christian and enters into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Next he meets a Christian girl and falls in love. This couple now want to get married. In the eyes of the Church, which does not recognise same-sex marriage, there is no impediment to marrying this man and this woman. In the eyes of the State, however, they are already legally married. So what happens if an Evangelical pastor marries them in a religious ceremony? Will the State happily accept that religious marriage is none of its business? Or will it attempt to impose its concept of marriage upon the Church? Will the bridegroom be charged with bigamy? Will the pastor suffer legal sanctions?
In France, where separation of Church and State is a one-way street, such a scenario would expose the pastor and the couple to prosecution. In the US, where Church and State separation is more equitably applied, it appears that the State has no such legal right, but that will not stop individual States from trying to interfere.
Kody Brown is a polygamist, belonging to the Apostolic United Brethren, an offshoot of the Mormon religion. His family are featured in a reality TV show called ‘Sister Wives.’ Legally, of course, only one of Brown’s ‘wives’ is legally recognised as his spouse by civil law. The other three women are cohabiting with him, but are not legally married to him. Nevertheless the state of Utah attempted to prosecute Brown for bigamy, which carries a 20-year prison sentence, on the basis that the TV show had depicted a religious marriage ceremony. Brown’s defence was that, from the standpoint of civil law, only one of his ‘marriages’ was legal whereas the others were just ‘commitments.’ One wonders how such a defence might play out in Ireland, given that marriage is being redefined to such an extent that it is nothing more than a commitment between two people anyway!
The position of the State of Utah, therefore, is that they not only get to determine who can get married in a civil marriage, but they also wish to control what happens in a religious marriage that supposedly has no legal standing. A federal judge ruled that the State of Utah was acting unconstitutionally, but Utah has appealed that decision.
Of course Evangelicals in Ireland are not polygamists, but such cases demonstrate how civil authorities, even those who pay lip service to secularism and the separation of Church and State, are prepared to ride roughshod over religious communities when it suits them. That should lead us to be somewhat sceptical when we are told to confine ourselves to discussing religious marriage and not to interfere in the civil marriage debate. This brings us to what is, for the Church at least, the heart of the matter in the marriage debate. How do Evangelical Christians, and indeed other minority groups, protect their rights in a society where they are, quite correctly, afforded no special privileges?

Day 7 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Fri 20th March)

Who Owns Marriage square

We’re continuing with the conversation that will become an important new book – “Who Owns Marriage?” – published in early April by Evangelical Alliance Ireland! Over 9 days, segments of the book are being posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays). Or indeed to email them to nick@evangelical.ie

Today Nick wraps up the portion of the book that deals with the New Testament and how it helps us as Evangelical Christians to approach the issues of same-sex attraction and homosexual behaviour.

So Where Does This Leave the Minority?
Like Matthew Vines, David Gushee’s book, ‘Changing Our Mind’ makes a powerful emotional appeal. By not validating homosexual behaviour, according to Gushee, we are causing pain and suffering to a number of people. Again, we are being exhorted to interpret the Bible, not by being as objective as possible, but by coming up with a meaning that will match with what people want – with what they want more than anything else in the world.
A large majority of Evangelical Christians would understand and interpret the New Testament as uniformly speaking negatively of homosexual acts (as distinct from orientation). I am, by nature, an inclusive rather than an exclusive person. I would love to be able to lessen anyone’s pain and suffering. I would love to be able to find a way for those who feel isolated and marginalised to have what they long for. But my own studies lead me to agree with the majority interpretation of Scripture as declaring homosexual acts to be incompatible with the values of Evangelical Christianity and an obedient relationship with Jesus Christ.
I recognise that there are some, albeit a minority, within Evangelical Christianity who take a different view, and interpret Scripture in such a way as to allow homosexual acts to be compatible with Christianity in certain contexts. I think they are mistaken, but I am happy to engage in discussion and debate with them. Such debate is legitimate and should not be silenced by condemning them out of hand as heretics or as beyond the pale.
Of course some have placed themselves beyond the boundaries of Evangelical Christianity, not just by reinterpreting Scripture, but by discarding it altogether. For example, Rob Bell is someone whose books I have enjoyed in the past (even if I disagreed strongly with his conclusions about hell). In February 2015 he spoke about the Church being “moments away” from accepting same-sex marriage. He said, “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defence, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and co-workers and neighbours and they love each other and just want to go through life with someone.”
Rob Bell is entitled to believe whatever he wants, and in a free society he can express those views. I’m quite sure that many readers of this book, particularly those who don’t share our faith, will agree with Bell. For many, probably most, people the Bible is irrelevant to what they believe. As Christopher Hitchens put it, “What do I care what some Bronze Age text says about homosexuality?”
But Bell has effectively left Evangelical Christianity when he says that we should just ignore the New Testament if it stands in the way of giving people what they really want.

Homosexuality and Sin
I am taking care in this book, as much as is possible, to be irenic and to avoid language that unnecessarily provokes or inflames. At times it is difficult to be politically correct without our language becoming convoluted and laden with euphemisms, but we should all try to express our views without being insulting.
Nobody likes the idea of being labelled a sinner, but sin is an essential theological concept that lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. At its most basic, sin is anything that transgresses against God’s laws and intentions for mankind.
So, when my understanding of Scripture leads me to say that homosexual behaviour is sinful, it is with the understanding that all of us, myself included, are sinners in one shape or form or another. There are many forms of sin in society, and indeed in the life of the Church.
Most of us don’t tend to get bent out of shape when other religions disagree with us as to what is sinful. For example, Muslims and Jews would both see the consumption of pork as sinful, yet I can cheerfully eat a bacon sandwich without feeling outraged that a Jew or a Muslim sees me as a sinner. I understand that their definition of ‘sin’ refers to the rules and code of conduct that members of their religion are expected to follow, and I can happily let them believe whatever they want, provided that they don’t infringe upon my personal freedom by trying to force me to obey their religious laws.
It is possible that the offence caused by Christians in characterising homosexual behaviour as sin is caused in part by the regrettable periods of history when Christians have shown themselves to be intolerant by using the law of the land to force their religious beliefs onto everybody else.
Nevertheless, we should all be adult enough to state our beliefs without evasion or resorting to weasel words. The majority of Evangelical Christians do see homosexual acts, on the basis of our understanding of Scripture, as sinful. That is not to say that we believe the LGBT community to be nasty people, or that they are necessarily any more sinful than heterosexuals who engage in premarital sex, than people of other religions who worship other gods, or any other kind of behaviour that differs from the practices and values of Evangelical Christians.
For Evangelicals, ‘sin’ at its most basic level, means anything other than God’s original plan and purpose. That is why Joel Osteen, the American megachurch pastor, prefers to say, “I don’t think homosexuality is God’s best.” Osteen has taken a lot of stick from fellow Evangelicals on this issue, being regularly accused of sitting on the fence rather than ‘calling sin what is.’ I don’t agree with Osteen’s approach to many other aspects of church life, but on this issue I think he has been unfairly treated. If pressed for a ‘yes or no’ answer he will agree that he sees homosexual actions as sinful, but he recognises that many people misunderstand that phraseology as somehow saying that same-sex relationships are in the same category as murder or other heinous sins.
We should also remember that Evangelicals, committed as we are to developing a relationship-based morality, should be more concerned about how we live our own lives as Christians than about judging or condemning others. So when I describe homosexual acts as sin, I am more making a statement about what is or is not compatible with my own goal of following and obeying Jesus, rather than stressing over what other people choose to do with their lives.

Homophobia
Homophobia is often defined as the extreme and irrational fear of, hatred of, and aversion to, homosexuality and homosexual people. I would remove the word ‘irrational’ from that definition, as it implies that there is a rational reason to hate or fear LGBT people.
Homophobia should be rejected by Evangelical Christians as contrary to our core values. We are called to treat others with dignity and respect, even where they do not share our values and beliefs.
One major problem is that the word ‘homophobia’ is sometimes used as a lazy debating tactic to demonise and denigrate those with different opinions. Labelling someone as a ‘homophobe’ is the equivalent in polite society of calling them a ‘Nazi’ or a ‘fundamentalist.’ The aim is to dismiss their ideas as unworthy of consideration without bothering to engage in any serious discussion.
There is a real problem here in that indiscriminate use of such a pejorative term ultimately ‘cries wolf’ so often that we become unable to tackle genuine homophobia. If you are labelled a homophobe simply because you don’t immediately agree that same sex marriage is wonderful, then we lose the ability to confront and eradicate the kind of genuine homophobia that stirs up hatred, violence and drives young people to suicide.
So is there real homophobia among Evangelical Christians? Sadly, on occasion, the answer is yes. I have encountered Evangelicals who have expressed hateful views and, on at least one occasion, have expressed approval of laws in Africa that would sentence homosexuals to lengthy prison terms. I think such people are in a small minority, but they do exist.
Sometimes the Church reflects the attitudes of wider society. To hark back to the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christianity did not create Nazism – but some German Christians were so worldly in their attitudes as to fail to see that Nazism was incompatible with being an obedient follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that Christians ought to be ‘in the world but not of the world’ (John 17:15f). To see homosexual behaviour as incompatible with our Christian walk on biblical grounds, even when that goes against the flow of popular opinion, is to hold an opinion based on one’s principles and, one would hope, without malice or ill will. To be homophobic, however, is to surrender to worldliness and therefore is itself sinful.
I would assert that Evangelical Christians have a duty to combat homophobia within their ranks. This does not just apply to the in-your-face nastiness of the likes of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, but also to the slightly toned down version that forwards emails muttering about a ‘gay lobby’ that is engaged in some nefarious campaign to destroy churches.
However, our task in this regard is made much harder by the lazy and silly use of the term ‘homophobia’ to attack anyone who is not enthusiastically supportive of same sex marriage.

A Christian View of Marriage
As Evangelical Christians we believe that marriage was created by God. It is more than just a legal contract between two parties. Rather it is a covenant, by which a man and a woman commit their lives to one another in the sight of God. In this covenant, a miracle takes place by which two separate individuals now become ‘one flesh’. This is not an absorption of one lesser person into the identity of another more important person, but rather a mutual joining of hearts and minds to love, serve and respect one another for the rest of their lives unconditionally in mutual submission.
The particular Evangelical denomination to which I belong defines marriage as “a threefold covenant relationship between one man, one woman, and one God who eternally exists in three persons as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
This marriage covenant is considered so important in Scripture that it is used as the primary illustration in both Old and New Testaments for the relationship that exists between God and His people. Both Israel and the Church are repeatedly referred to as God’s ‘betrothed’ or as His ‘bride.’ In other words, marriage, for the Evangelical Christian, is more than just a cultural add-on or a religious ceremony. The concept of marriage as a covenant is central to who we are.
Non-Christians may respond to this, quite justifiably, by saying, “That’s great that you guys have this exalted concept of marriage, but that doesn’t give you the right to force that definition of marriage upon the rest of us. You might believe that your God created marriage – but that doesn’t mean that Christians own the concept of marriage.”
They have a valid point. Other religions have celebrated marriages for thousands of years, and marriage has historically been seen at various times as a religious institution, a societal custom, and as a legal contract. Evangelical Christians do not have the right to impose our view of marriage upon everyone else. But, crucially, neither does anyone else have the right to force their views of marriage upon us! We need to ask ourselves a basic question. Who owns marriage?

Day 6 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Thurs 19th March)

On behalf of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I am producing a book called “Who Owns Marriage?” Scheduled for release on Easter Monday, this book seeks to dig a bit deeper into the issues raised Ireland’s forthcoming Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage. EAI has already released a statement concerning the Referendum, available at http://www.evangelical.ie

The book aims to encourage us to think through what we really believe about Evangelicalism, the Bible, our identity in Christ, civil society, how we hold religious values without trying to enforce them on unbelievers, and how biblical marriage relates to civil marriage.

We have invited a number of thinkers, theologians, leaders and public figures (including some non-Christians) to contribute to the book. This is your opportunity to join the conversation! Each morning, for 9 days, segments of the book are being posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays).

A small number of the best contributions (by that I mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of my points) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.

Today, you are invited to join in the conversation as we discuss how we interpret Scripture, and what the New Testament has to say about homosexual behaviour.

The New Testament and Homosexual Behaviour
I have followed with interest attempts to reinterpret the New Testament in order to celebrate homosexual activity in the context of a loving relationship, but in each case the arguments have been far from convincing. I am always wary of any kind of approach that approaches the text of Scripture with a predetermined desire to reach a desired conclusion. This can produce something that I call ‘the X-Factor School of Biblical Criticism.’
If you’ve ever watched that TV Talent Show, you’ve probably seen the point in the auditions where an obviously untalented singer is asked, “Why should we put you through to the next stage of the competition?” Sooner or later someone will reply, “Because I really want this. I want this more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.”
At this point I tend to stop what I’m doing, look at the TV screen, and shout, “That’s not the point! They’re not having a competition to judge who wants to be a star more than anyone else. They’re having a competition to discover someone who has an exceptional talent!” Indeed, it is partly to avoid such outbursts that I try to avoid being in a room where anyone is watching such TV talent shows!
When Evangelical Christians say that we see the Scriptures as being inspired and authoritative, we mean that we should seek to read the Bible in as objective a way as possible. We don’t say, “But I really want the Bible to say something else. I want it more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life!”
For example, I wish that the New Testament didn’t teach about hell. I hate the idea of hell. The idea of anyone suffering eternally is not one I can easily acceptable. But, as an Evangelical Christian, I am not at liberty to make the Bible say what I want it to say. My belief in biblical authority obliges me to be as objective as possible in ‘following the evidence.’ And when I do that, I am convinced that the New Testament does indeed teach the existence of hell.
Trying to make the Bible say what you want it to say invariably results in eisegesis (reading your meaning into Scripture) rather than exegesis (drawing the biblical author’s meaning out of Scripture).
For example, if we read Romans Chapter One, we find that both gay and lesbian practices are spoken of in the most negative terms. However, those who want the Bible to teach something different display great ingenuity in finding different ways to interpret this passage.
Some suggest that Paul was only condemning pederasty (older men engaging in sex with young boys) here. Certainly such practices were common in the Roman world, with older men in positions of authority grooming boys and youths to submit to their sexual advances. However, this interpretation does not explain why Paul also refers to lesbian activity. There was no tradition in Paul’s time of powerful older women abusing young girls as their male counterparts did. A plain reading of the text would not suggest pederasty at all. It is referring to men engaging in intercourse with other men (not boys), and women with other women.
Others, quite astoundingly, have claimed that Paul was condemning the practice of men having intercourse with angels. Quite how they manage to see angels in a passage where they are not mentioned at all is a mystery. And does anyone seriously think that Paul’s readers would immediately say, “Ah, yes, we all know there’s a big problem at the moment with people having sex with angels”? Whoever came up with this idea deserves ten out of ten for ingenuity, but zero out of ten for credibility.
A more common reinterpretation of the passage is that it condemns homosexual activity when it occurs as part of pagan ceremonies, but not in other circumstances. So, according to the proponents of this theory, Paul wasn’t actually saying anything that would be applicable to loving consensual same-sex relationships today. It is certainly true that homosexual activity was, on occasion, involved in some forms of paganism. However, heterosexual couplings were far more common in pagan worship. So, if Paul wanted to condemn the immorality that went on in pagan temples, why would he dwell on the rarer homosexual variety to the exclusion of the much more prevalent heterosexual intercourse that occurred in paganism? Are we supposed to believe that Paul condemned same-sex couplings in pagan temples but was perfectly OK with pagan ceremonies involving heterosexual activity?
The pagan ceremony theory falls apart when we examine it closely. What about the other things mentioned in the same passage? Are they things that are only to be considered sinful when they occur in a pagan ceremony, but are fine when practiced in normal everyday settings? Is murder only wrong if you do it in a pagan temple? Is gossip bad when the tale-bearing occurs in a pagan ceremony, but morally good when you gossip in the market place or in your home? Of course not.
An objective reading of Romans Chapter One, one that genuinely tries to practice exegesis, cannot support such interpretations. They can only be reached if you practice eisegesis and say, “I really don’t care how this passage was intended by the author, or how it was understood by the original readers. If I try hard enough, I’m sure I can find some way of explaining it so as to make it say what I want it to say.”
The question has been asked, and it is a fair question, whether theological conservatives are also guilty of practicing a similar form of eisegesis. Has 2000 years of church tradition, all of it overwhelmingly negative towards same-sex attraction and behaviour, so conditioned us that we also approach Scripture with a predetermined conclusion? Are we so afraid of the consequences of radical change that we would be unwilling to listen if Scripture did indeed challenge the traditional view?
I can only answer from a personal standpoint. I have a very dear friend, a close family member whom I love more than life itself, who is currently in a same-sex relationship. She appears to be very happy in that relationship – probably more happy than I have ever seen her before. With every fibre of my being I would love for this person whom I love so much to be exercising their considerable talents and gifts in the life of the local church. However, that is rendered impossible by our church’s insistence, on what we believe to be biblical grounds, that active members and church workers should adhere to particular standards of personal and sexual morality. Although still welcome, of course, to attend worship services, she nevertheless feel separated from, and rejected by, the community to which she used to belong. That is intensely painful to all concerned. She feels cut adrift by a community that played a formative role in her early life. Meanwhile, not a day goes by that I do not mourn her absence from our church community.
If I could honestly believe that an unbiased interpretation of Scripture permitted this family member to remain in a loving same-sex physical relationship and also to be an obedient follower of Christ then I would be overjoyed. However, everything I know and understand about biblical exegesis and interpretation prevents me from reaching such a conclusion. It is not prejudice or tradition that leads me to conclude that the Bible opposes homosexual behaviour in the life of a Christian believer – it is integrity and intellectual honesty.

Arsenokoites – A New Word?
Another passage in the New Testament that is crucial to developing an Evangelical approach to homosexual behaviour is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. This passage refers to a number of different behaviours which would prevent someone inheriting the Kingdom of God. All of these behaviours, which at least some of the Corinthian Christians had once been involved in, are incompatible with living in an obedient relationship with Jesus Christ. They include arsenokoites – often translated as ‘men who have sex with men.’ (NIV)
At first glance one would suppose that, for those who see the Bible as in any way inspired and authoritative, this settles the matter. Yet there are those who argue that almost every Bible translation ever produced has misunderstood this word. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those with no knowledge of Greek whatsoever to confidently assert that they can translate this word better than the hundreds of Greek scholars who have spent much of their lives seeking to faithfully and accurately produce translations of the New Testament into English and other modern languages.
Arsenokoites is a compound Greek word. Arsen was a word for a male, and one often used in connection with sexuality. Koites literally meant ‘bed’ – but was often used to refer to sexual activity, just as in English we might say “He bedded her.” Indeed, koites has entered the English language as our word ‘coitus’ – meaning sexual intercourse. Put the two words together and you get the idea of men who go to bed, in a sexual sense, with other men.
However, we rarely find the word arsenokoites used anywhere else in ancient literature. This has led to the claim that Paul coined a new word here and, since we can’t be entirely sure what a new word means, we should just give up and not try to understand it at all. Of all the arguments I have ever encountered concerning the Bible, this must rank as one of the weakest.
Just because a word has been newly coined, that does not mean that we can’t understand it. Some years ago, while watching a British TV show, I heard a character describe someone else as a ‘shirt lifter.’ I had never heard the word in my life before, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t work out what it meant. It was a compound word, based on someone lifting up someone else’s shirt tail in order to engage in sexual activity. It was clearly a crude, derogatory and homophobic expression used to describe a gay person. And that is how language usually works. Newly-coined words often persevere and become part of the language because they are descriptive and we readily understand them without needing much explanation.
Yet there are compound words that, at first glance, don’t seem so obvious. Matthew Vines cites the word ‘butterfly’ as an example. You wouldn’t immediately add the words ‘butter’ and ‘fly’ together and understand it as referring to the colourful insect we identify by that word.
David Gushee cites another example from his own experience. He once coined a word of his own – ‘name-hug’. This refers to a practice he used to try to remember the names of his students in class. He would try to memorise their names from index cards, and then to place the names with the faces he saw before him in the classroom. With the few that he had trouble remembering, he would greet them with a brief hug while repeating their name. ‘Name-hugs’ therefore meant students whom he now remembered by name.
Gushee goes on to speculate what would happen if, centuries in the future, a scholar stumbled across his writings. How would they interpret this term ‘name-hug?’ He suggests that the same thing might have happened to arsenokoites.
Again, we must give Gushee top marks for ingenuity, but low marks for credibility. His ‘name-hug’ story is entertaining, but it falls apart when we realise that Paul, and his initial readers, had a powerful and authoritative cultural reference that would immediately make the meaning of arsenokoites clear.
Paul and the Corinthians lived in a Greek-speaking world. The Corinthians, being mainly Gentile converts, could not read the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) in its original language. Therefore they relied on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures. We also know that Paul, when he quoted Scripture, tended to do so from the Septuagint. The Septuagint renders Leviticus 18:22 (“Do not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination”) as καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν.
There you find, in close proximity, arsenos (man) and koite (intercourse) occurring in the specific context of a strongly-worded prohibition in the Jewish Law against homosexual activities. So when Paul put those two words together to form the word arsenokoites, he was not creating a word that could be in any way ambiguous as to its meaning. Both Paul and his Corinthian readers knew that such a word could only be understood in one way – as referring to men having intercourse with other men, something they all knew to be forbidden in the Jewish Law.
This is where Vines’ butterfly example and Gushee’s ‘name-hug’ example are extremely poor analogies. Paul’s use of this term can be much better understood by comparing it to another example of a new word being coined from an authoritative and well-known text.
When my wife and I first started the Solid Rock Church in Drogheda, it was the first Pentecostal Church in the town. There were already some Evangelicals in Drogheda, but the vast majority of the population were Roman Catholic. I was trying to rent a building in which we could hold our Sunday meetings. On one occasion I met a prospective landlord who stared at me suspiciously and asked, “Are you one of those twice-borns.”
I had been an Evangelical Christian for 12 years, and I had never in my life come across the term ‘twice-borns.’ However, both that landlord and I knew exactly what he meant. Why? Because we both shared a familiarity with an authoritative text where Jesus had said, “You must be born again.” (John 3:3)
When you coin a new word from an authoritative text that is familiar to both the speaker and the hearer, then it is not hard to discern the meaning. That was true of the ‘twice-borns’ and was true of Paul and the Corinthians when he referred to the arsenokoites.

The Perspicuity of Scripture
Not only do Evangelical Christians believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but we also hold to something called ‘the perspicuity of Scripture.’
To understand this concept, we need to go back to the Reformation. During the Middle Ages the Scholastics had developed an allegorical method for interpreting the Bible. This meant that, in addition to the plain meaning of any text, there was a secret allegorical meaning. This was obviously very useful for a hierarchical Church that wished to stifle dissent. If anyone questioned why any given Church practice appeared to contradict Scripture, then the Church could reply by saying, “Ah, but it just looks that way. If we look at the allegorical meaning, then you’ll see that there isn’t really a problem at all.” And, since the Church was the only institution that had the key to understand this hidden allegorical meaning of the Bible, that enabled the hierarchy to effectively control what everyone else believed.
Martin Luther, when he called for Reformation in the Church, stressed the principle of the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture. It basically means that an ordinary person, given a copy of the Bible in their own language, can, through prayerful study, discover as much as is necessary to know of the plan of salvation and the will of God.
It is easy to see that this approach to theology would, in one fell swoop, strike at the roots of any hierarchy that sought to control what others believed. Indeed, Luther himself did not like the consequences when radical groups such as the Anabaptists pushed the Reformation further than he had intended it to go. It is for this reason that Alister McGrath entitled his history of Protestantism ‘Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.’
Nevertheless, the principle of perspicuity is integral to modern Evangelical Christianity. That is not to say that we cannot benefit from the insights provided by linguists, historians, theologians and other scholars. But, when all is said and done, we expect to be able to interpret the Bible in a way where we don’t have to rely on some authority figure to provide us with the secret key needed for true understanding.
Indeed, it is this principle of perspicuity that enables someone like Matthew Vines to challenge traditional Evangelical approaches to homosexuality in his book ‘God and the Gay Christian.’ Evangelical leaders cannot legitimately brush him off by saying, “How dare you challenge our authority? We are the only ones who can decide what the Bible teaches or doesn’t teach.” If they are to remain true to their Evangelical principles, then they need to respond to Vines with arguments that will convince others of the validity of the traditional beliefs.
Unfortunately for Vines, the same principle of perspicuity is also what undermines his overall approach. Vines is a likeable and passionate writer who argues that we have all misunderstood the New Testament passages about homosexual behaviour. In his view, the verses cannot be taken to refer to loving consensual same-sex relationships today because the apostle Paul had a mistaken notion of patriarchy. Therefore the passages that we all thought prohibited homosexual behaviour are either condemnations of ‘bad’ homosexual behaviour (such as unbridled promiscuity, pagan rites or abuse) or else are examples of Paul’s inability to think beyond his patriarchal mindset.
From an Evangelical standpoint, there’s two problems with this approach. Firstly, it betrays an inadequate appreciation of biblical inspiration. Evangelicals don’t just think that the Scripture is a record of Paul’s mistaken ideas. We believe that God the Holy Spirit guided and superintended the biblical writers, so that the Bible that we hold in our hands is, in a very real sense, the Word of God.
Secondly, Vines’ approach is inconsistent with the principle of perspicuity because he is, whether he realises it or not, setting himself up as the authority who holds the secret key for understanding Scripture. The rest of us, apparently, cannot rely on reading the plain sense of Scripture, but we have to apply Matthew Vines’ key to any passage that might seem to speak about homosexuality. Only when we read the New Testament through the lens of the assumption that Paul was defending a patriarchal mindset can we really know what is going on.
Now we get to the crux of the matter. How can we know that a distorted view of patriarchy provides us with the key to understanding Paul’s references to homosexual behaviour? We can’t get this insight from history or biblical scholarship, because the majority of historians and biblical scholars who have studied this issue would not agree with Matthew Vines at all. His reasoning in support of his case is far from convincing.
In the end, the only way we can decide to interpret these passages as being all about an outdated patriarchal mindset is to abandon the principle of perspicuity and to take Matthew Vines’ word that he is the one who holds the key of interpretation. And why has Vines chosen this key, rather than any other, to interpret these passages? Because, as someone who identifies both as a gay man and as an Evangelical, he really wants it to be so. He wants it more than he’s wanted anything before.

Day 5 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Wed 18th March)

We’re continuing with the conversation that will become an important new book – “Who Owns Marriage?” – published in early April by Evangelical Alliance Ireland! Each morning, for 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays). Or indeed to email them to nick@evangelical.ie

Today the discussion moves on to Same-Sex Attraction (including its causes), the importance of Identity, and the role of the Old Testament in forming a Christian approach to homosexuality. Tomorrow we will move on to the New Testament.

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Same Sex Attraction
Surveys yield dramatically varying results as to the percentage of people who are sexually attracted at one time or another to someone of the same gender. However, even the very lowest figures cited would still indicate that hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland have experienced some sort of same-sex attraction at some point in their lives. This would mean that most, if not all, Evangelical churches have men and women in their congregations for whom same-sex attraction is a real issue and not merely a theological abstraction.
Popular media often presents the issue as if there were simply two groups of people – heterosexual and homosexual, or ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’ In reality things are much more complex. Some people are exclusively attracted to one gender or the other. Others would be largely attracted to one gender but have experienced instances of attraction, whether acted upon or not, which might have caused them to question their orientation. Others are genuinely bisexual, attracted to people of either gender. Then there are those who have repressed or repudiated their feelings of same-sex attraction, often for religious reasons or due to societal pressure. Some of these people struggle with feelings of frustration, while others have quite maintained satisfactory relationships with the opposite sex, or have chosen a path of celibacy.
One of the more curious manifestations of sexual orientation is the considerable number of men (and a smaller number of women) who would consider themselves to be exclusively heterosexual, but when incarcerated in prison or in another single-sex environment will quite readily engage in sexual activity with those of the same gender. Once released from prison they will often revert to heterosexual behaviour and would, if questioned as to their orientation, vehemently reject any suggestion that they are gay or lesbian.
My point is that same sex attraction, while quite prevalent in one form or another in society, is much more complex than pigeon holing everyone as ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’ There are those who see their sexual orientation as fixed and unchangeable, and would rather remain celibate than engage in any other kind of sexual relationship. Others, however, would see their orientation as a preference for one gender, but can enter into different kinds of sexual relationships if the only other option is celibacy. This leads us to the relationship between sexual orientation and our sense of identity.

Identity
A few months ago I met up with a prominent LGBT activist for coffee. We talked about various issues to do with sexuality and religion. I explained my position that I was not in the slightest interested in seeing our views or values imposed on anyone else, and that when Evangelicals took a traditional, or conservative, view of sexuality it was more to do with the morality and behaviour of those who were within our movement.
He responded that must still be tremendously difficult for anyone within an Evangelical church who felt attracted to others of the same gender. Was this not asking them to deny who they were? He explained that, for him, being gay was a key component of his identity. “You know,” he said, “Just like your identity is as a heterosexual.” I thought about this for a moment, and then replied, “But actually I don’t see my identity as being heterosexual. My identity is that I am a follower of Jesus.”
That conversation really helped me to think through how important the concept of identity is to any discussion of faith and sexual orientation. It is also vitally connected with the distinction between rule-based and relationship-based morality.
For Evangelical Christians, the moment when we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ is when we receive a brand new identity. This new identity supersedes the previous things that dominated our lives and thinking. For example, before I became a Christian I was homeless due to my chronic alcoholism. My primary identity was as an alcoholic.
At first, after I had committed my life to Christ, I still saw my identity as being an alcoholic, albeit one who was now a Christian and was struggling to change. I attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where everyone told me, ‘Once an alcoholic – always an alcoholic.’ I listened to the mantra of ‘one day at a time’ and thought that, even if I maintained sobriety for an extended period of time, I was still going to be an alcoholic. In fact I couldn’t even maintain sobriety for more than a few days at a time, and endured several more weeks of failure and self-condemnation.
At this time I was staying in a Salvation Army hostel. One morning, after a night where I had been on another epic bender, I was seated on my bed with my head in my hands. A Salvation Army Officer, Captain George Hardy, came into my room and sat down on the bed beside me. “Nick,” he said, “You might be in the gutter again, but you don’t belong in the gutter anymore. That might be who you were, but it isn’t who Nick is now.”
That was a turning point. I would still struggle with my addiction for some time after that, but now it was a battle that I could win because I understood that my identity had changed. I do not see myself as an alcoholic, not even as a recovered alcoholic. I am a guy who used to be an alcoholic but am now an enthusiastic and committed follower of Christ. My identity has changed.
It is for this reason that I could not sit quietly over my cup of coffee and accept that being heterosexual is somehow crucial to my identity. As an Evangelical Christian, my relationship to Jesus Christ is my identity. When I yielded my life to Christ, any other claims on my loyalty become secondary to that central truth.
Now, before any of my LGBT friends start accusing me of comparing their sexual orientation to chronic alcoholism, let me say that our identities, before we come to Christ, may be rooted in many things, and those identities may be obviously debilitating (as with my alcoholic identity) but they may also be socially respectable and even considered to be admirable by society at large. For example, for many people, their primary identity is their national identity. In most societies patriotism is considered to be a praiseworthy virtue. That’s why so many people get all misty-eyed when their national anthem is played or their flag is flown.
Coming back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer once more, this was why he came into such conflict with the political authorities. He lived in a culture, 1930s Germany, where nationality and racial heritage was assumed to be everyone’s primary identity. The forms of ‘Christianity’ that accepted that assumption thought that they could practice their religion as a subset of that primary identity – by being Germans who happened to also be Christians, rather than being Christians who happened to have been born in a place called Germany. In the process they so distorted and prostituted their religion as to make it unrecognisable as anything resembling real Christianity.
One of the major problems with modern Evangelical Christianity is that we have often been insufficiently radical in making Jesus our primary identity. We have, to use biblical language, been guilty of worshipping other gods. It is small wonder that the world sees us as homophobic when we tolerate profoundly unchristian identities within our movement, yet then refuse to be as flexible when it comes to accepting someone who identifies themselves as gay or lesbian.
Let me give an example. In October 2014, Jonathan Merritt blogged about how David Gushee, a leading Evangelical ethicist, had changed his stance and now supported same-sex marriage. Merritt wrote, “To be sure, Gushee’s change of heart is not entirely unexpected — he has parted company with many fellow Evangelicals on a number of issues, including left-of-centre positions against torture and on the environment.”
Stop and think about that for a moment. Apparently, among some Evangelicals in the US, to be opposed to torture places one to the left of centre. That in itself is a staggering indictment on the state of Evangelical Christianity.
I cannot comprehend that there is a legitimate wing of Christianity that could ever, under any circumstances or provocation whatsoever, see torture as morally acceptable. The idea of deliberately and systematically inflicting pain on another human being is profoundly opposed to the entire revelation of God in Jesus Christ as outlined in the New Testament. Indeed, it could be argued that for a Christian to support torture is, by definition, a denial of biblical authority.
The issue of professing Christians supporting the practice of torture is, at its core, to do with identity. If your defining identity is your patriotic love of your nation, then pretty much anything is justified in the defence of that nation. Similarly, if you see your primary identity as a political ideology (be it conservative or liberal) then your adherence to that ideology will override faithfulness and obedience to the teaching and example of Jesus.
When I say that Evangelicals have been insufficiently radical in making Jesus our primary identity, I mean that we have tolerated profoundly unchristian identities (such as those that would validate torture) within our movement. Why should we be surprised then, if someone who sees their primary identity as being gay wants to combine that with Evangelical beliefs and values?
As Christians we affirm that our primary mark of identity is our relationship with Jesus Christ, not our nationality, not our political affiliation, and not our sexual orientation. That means we submit all other possible identities to the goal of pleasing Jesus Christ – and that, in turn, means that we follow a code of sexual morality that the New Testament indicates is pleasing to God, we turn the other cheek when others abuse us, and we forgive those whom we perceive of as our enemies. Oh yes, and we don’t torture people or support the actions of others who might torture people.
And this brings us back to the concept of rule-based and relationship-based morality. If my relationship with Jesus Christ is my primary identity, then all other identities and yearnings become secondary. If any of those secondary identities cause me to want to do things that are incompatible with following and obeying Jesus, whether that be engaging in certain sexual acts or adopting certain political stands, then those actions are actually a denial, not a fulfilment, of my primary identity. The theological word for that is ‘temptation!’ Temptation is not easy to overcome, but overcoming it is possible and is a liberating and empowering experience.
If, however, my relationship with Jesus is not my primary identity, then I am going to constantly suffer conflict in that my identity is clashing with the rules that I feel I am expected to obey. This experience is draining and dispiriting, even where the rules concerned might seem like good rules, and it rarely produces liberation or empowerment.

Causes of Same-Sex Attraction
There has been much heat, and very little light, generated in a continual debate as to whether same sex attraction is caused by nature, nurture or personal choice. In other words, are people born gay, did something happen in childhood that made them gay, or did they choose to be gay?
It is difficult to assess the evidence impartially in the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, as each side has a vested interest in the outcome. Many religious people feel that they have to prove that same-sex attraction is not a natural trait, because otherwise they fear that it would have to be viewed as something inherently good – a ‘gift from God’ even. In fact, from a theological standpoint, that isn’t the case at all.
Evangelical Christians have often argued that same-sex attraction is a ‘lifestyle choice,’ as if it were similar to choosing one’s favourite football team or deciding which music to listen to. Those in the LGBT community have sometimes responded by pointing out that they would hardly voluntarily choose a lifestyle that frequently attracts bullying from others and can cause painful misunderstanding in their family. That is a fair point. For example, there have been horrific and tragic cases of young people who have committed suicide because they feel so ashamed of their sexual orientation. The idea that their orientation somehow represented a ‘lifestyle choice’ is callous and insulting.
Other Christians have argued that same-sex attraction is frequently caused by childhood trauma or abuse. They often present anecdotal evidence to support this claim, although it is questionable whether this can be supported statistically. Again, one wonders about the impartiality of those on either side who present statistics to support or deny this assertion. The religious side feel it would strengthen their cause if environmental, rather than hereditary, factors were the primary cause of same-sex attraction. Gays and lesbians, quite understandably, are anxious to reach an opposite conclusion, resenting the inference that their sexual orientation makes them ‘damaged goods.’
On the other hand, there have been those in the LGBT community who want to prove that same sex attraction is caused by genetic factors (the search for a ‘gay gene’). This is sometimes accompanied by the argument that “Being gay must be OK because God made me this way.”
If I understand the concept of a ‘gay gene’ correctly, the idea is not that everyone who possesses a certain gene will be sexually attracted to those of the same gender. The idea is rather that those with certain genetic traits may be statistically more likely to be gay. This hardly sounds like biological determinism, so it would seem that the jury is still out on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate.
The causes of same sex attraction actually make very little difference, from either a logical or a theological standpoint, to the issue of whether homosexual behaviour should be considered moral or immoral. The ‘God made me this way’ argument should have little merit for any thoughtful Christian. We believe that although God created a good earth, we live in a fallen world, and that the world as it exists now has been distorted by evil. This doctrine of the Fall sees all of creation as standing in need of redemption. Indeed this restoration of all things to their original goodness is part of the great future hope of historic Christian teaching.
In other words, people are not necessarily born in the condition that God originally intended for them. A very obvious example, and one where we can clearly see the results of human sinfulness, would be where a baby is born already addicted to crack cocaine due to the actions of others (both the activity of the mother, who took drugs while pregnant, but also the activity of her dealer and others who facilitated her abuse of her unborn child). But the doctrine of the Fall is not limited to such obvious examples. The idea is that creation is so warped from its original condition that none of us are born as God originally intended us to be.
Feeling that we are naturally drawn to a particular action does not thereby imply that such actions are morally permissible, otherwise we would be forced to morally endorse some very nasty things indeed! I have heard people justify all kinds of reprehensible behaviour by saying, “But it’s just the way I am. I was born this way.” So, even if it does turn out that people are born with a fixed sexual orientation, that has nothing to say, positively or negatively, as to the moral validity of acting upon same-sex attractions.
The causes of same-sex attraction, therefore, while perhaps interesting for a psychologist or anthropologist, are not likely to prove to be anything other than a red herring in discussions concerning morality.

The Misapplication of Scripture
It must be said that sometimes Christians are our own worst enemies in the ways that we use the Bible. Sometimes those of us who are supposed to love and understand the Bible display the most appalling biblical illiteracy. For example, I remember speaking with one pastor in the United States who cut short all discussion on same-sex marriage by declaring, “The Bible says they (gays) are an abomination!”
This reference to Leviticus 20:13 was made over lunch at a seafood restaurant where this pastor had just loaded his plate with a generous portion of shrimp. He didn’t see the irony in that Leviticus 11:10 condemns the eating of shellfish as an abomination. Nor did he appreciate it when I pointed out his inconsistency.
As Evangelical Christians we believe that all of Scripture is inspired by God. However, our view of the Bible is Christocentric – in other words, the revelation of Jesus is the central theme of Scripture and the Old Testament Jewish law was a step in the progressive revelation that leads to Christ. To simply cite a verse from Leviticus as a proof text against a practice is a dangerous way to handle Scripture – not unless we want to be bound by everything in the Law of Moses!
This is not to say that Christians have ‘dumped the Old Testament.’ The Old Testament Law serves several important purposes. It shows us how God progressively revealed Himself to His people over the centuries, and how He prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ.

Types and Shadows
Some of this preparatory function of the Old Testament was in the form of ceremonies that were types and shadows of Jesus – glimpses of principles that would be properly explained and fulfilled in the New Testament. The apostle Paul described this as the Law being a schoolmaster, or a tutor, that lead people to Christ.
A good example of this is the Old Testament concept of the Sabbath. The Jews observed the seventh day of the week (Saturday) as a day of rest, a prophetic looking forward to the day when they would no longer have to struggle and strive to please God or earn His favour, but could enjoy the forgiveness and peace that comes from knowing that Jesus has done everything necessary to please God.
Jesus Himself indicated that this fulfilment was taking place when He invited His followers to come to Him, to enjoy being in a place of calm and rest, and to understand that following Jesus was not intended to be a burden.
Paul further explained this by telling Christians that they were no longer to allow anyone to judge them in the matter of Sabbath observance. Indeed, he declared, such practices were only the shadow of what was to come – the reality was to be found in Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews took this idea even further by explaining that the Sabbath was no longer limited to a Saturday (or a Sunday) but that ‘Today’ (in other words, every day of the week) the followers of Christ were to enjoy being in a place of rest.
I find a helpful way to think of this is to compare it to a mother who tells her daughter, “You must always hold my hand when you cross the road.” That commandment is given for a good and valid reason, but it does not remain binding for the entire lifetime of the child. For example, what if the daughter is now a 35-year-old surgeon? One can only imagine her reaction if she was told that she was not allowed to cross the road without holding her mother’s hand!
It is not that the commandment about crossing the road was bad. Nor do we conclude that the surgeon had two separate mothers – an Old Testament mother who ‘laid down the law’ and a New Testament mother who was relaxed and easy-going about crossing roads! It would not even be accurate, strictly speaking, to say that the hand-holding commandment had been abolished. Rather we should say that the commandment is now fulfilled. It has achieved its purpose in seeing the daughter grow to maturity without running headlong under a truck, and now circumstances have changed to the point where the commandment is no longer required.

Moral Principles
Apart from types and shadows, another way in which the Old Testament is useful to Christians today is that it highlights moral principles that are important if we are to live in a relationship with God. Certain laws and commandments teach attitudes and behaviours that are quite clearly not just intended to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. For example, the commandment not to steal still has relevance for any Christian today who is seeking to live in a meaningful relationship with Christ. It would be farcical to say, “Since the commands against theft were preparing us for the coming of Christ, now that Jesus has come it’s OK for Christians to rob banks.”
The penalties prescribed in the Old Testament clearly do not apply to us today (which is why no genuine Christian advocates stoning people to death), nor are we living a rule-based morality. Yet much of the Old Testament still teaches us enough of the character of God to help us develop a morality that helps us follow Jesus better.
For example, Martin Luther King sought to live a life that would reflect the revelation of Jesus Christ that he saw in the New Testament. Yet Dr King, in his speeches on civil rights, repeatedly drew on the Old Testament to encourage his hearers to follow a Christian path of non-violence that pursued social justice. He quoted from the Book of Amos to declare that “We are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The Old Testament only mentions homosexual behaviour in a few passages. Despite what some preachers would have you to believe, it devotes less space to the subject than it does to stressing the importance of showing kindness and hospitality to immigrants. Nevertheless, those passages that do speak of homosexual behaviour do so in the most negative of terms. A key question for Christians is whether we should view these passages as ceremonial parts of the Law, like Sabbath keeping or eating bacon. Or are they moral absolutes, like welcoming immigrants or not stealing?
One key principle in understanding how to answer this question is to continue to interpret Scripture Christocentrically. We read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. For example, we know that the division of food into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ categories was a ceremonial issue, and longer binding on us today, because the New Testament tells us so. We know that showing hospitality to strangers was a moral issue because such behaviour is still encouraged in the New Testament.
I cannot find a single passage in the New Testament that indicates that the Old Testament negativity towards homosexual behaviour was a purely ceremonial matter. There is no passage in the Epistles of Paul that says, ‘Let no man judge you on account of whether you engage in homosexual activity.’ Nor do you find any of the Gospel writers commenting, ‘By these words Jesus taught that it’s all the same whether you sleep with the same gender or the opposite gender.’
On the contrary, even the most radical reinterpretations of the New Testament passages concerning homosexual behaviour aim at nothing more than to explain them away to a point where the New Testament is seen as silent on same-sex intimate relationships. That in itself is a powerful argument against treating the Old Testament passages as being purely ceremonial.
Nevertheless, Christians who simply try to quote Leviticus against homosexuality do themselves, or the Bible, no favours. It is easy for anyone to counter such an approach by quoting other passages from the Old Testament law that no-one would consider following today.
If Evangelical Christians are going to make contributions to the debate on same sex marriage, then we should at least ensure that we have the ability to understand Scripture, read it in context, prioritise the New Testament, and ground our opinions on the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.

Day 4 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Tue 17th March)

Happy St Patrick’s Day! We’re continuing with the conversation that will become an important new book – “Who Owns Marriage?” – published in early April by Evangelical Alliance Ireland! Each morning, for 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays). Or indeed to email them to nick@evangelical.ie

Yesterday we talked about Culture Battles, and Four Core Values of Evangelical Christianity. Today we explore how we fit those core values together. We don’t want to be like the Taliban, but neither do we abandon biblical truth and go with the flow of every popular trend or opinion.

Feel free to join the Conversation!

Fitting Our Core Values Together

I would suggest that much of the divergence of opinion within Evangelicalism concerning same-sex marriage is because we are struggling to remain faithful to the four core values outlined above. Sometimes we stress one value in such a way that it seems to conflict with another. We affirm each core value, particularly when it applies to straightforward black and white issues. So, Evangelicals believe in the Bible, and are happy to engage in apologetics and reject anti-supernaturalistic assumptions and worldviews. We believe in promoting healthy marriages, and see adultery and sexual promiscuity as unacceptable behaviour within our churches. We preach social justice and support initiatives that tackle the problem of people-trafficking. We try to live in ways that show our love for God, and honour our relationship with Him by not stealing from or abusing anyone and by observing a morality that helps builds a positive and caring society.
So far so good. But simultaneously reflecting all four core values becomes harder when we move from simple black and white issues to more complicated grey areas such as the relationship between religious and civil marriage. At one time ‘marriage’ was something that was practiced and regulated by the Church without interference by the State. Then the State began to regulate marriages and to issue licences. However, marriages continue to be celebrated in churches, as religious ceremonies, yet where the clergy are acting as agents on behalf of the State. Meanwhile, even those who reject religion continue to use religious language when referring to civil marriage.
For example, when comedian Stephen Fry entered into a civil marriage in January 2015 he tweeted, “Gosh. @ElliottGSpencer and I go into a room as two people, sign a book and leave as one. Amazing.” It certainly would be amazing if signing a book somehow turned two people into one. Of course civil marriage makes no claim to transform two people into one – that is a specifically religious claim, based on the biblical concept of marriage as a covenant before God in which two people become one flesh.
It is understandable, therefore, that many Christians see proposals to legally redefine marriage as having a religious significance. It is not as simple as those pretend who would pat us on the head and say, “There, there. Don’t you go confusing yourselves by mixing up religious marriage and civil marriage. You keep on believing what you want and leave the rest of us alone.” There is ambiguity in how the State regulates and practices marriage, and confusion when the same term is being used to describe very different concepts.
This is why many Evangelicals, in trying to remain true to their core values, find it difficult to remain biblically faithful, to affirm a high view of marriage and yet not to advocate discrimination against gays and lesbians who want the same legal rights as everybody else. Such a balancing act is made even more difficult by our innate tendency, one we share with most of humanity, to keep drifting from a grace-centred relationship-based morality back into rule-based morality.
Jesus, of course, did not struggle in this way. He, being the incarnate Son of God, was able to work out how to simultaneously combine 100% truthfulness with 100% mercy and grace. We, however, with our limited knowledge and fallen human natures tend to veer to one extreme or another. The Scripture affirms that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). If we approach any theological or cultural issue or debate in a way that fails to be truth, or in a way that fails to demonstrate grace, then we are being unfaithful to the Gospel. Or, to put it another way, if our ‘truth’ is not gracious then it is not God’s truth, but rather a strident opinion. Similarly, if our ‘grace’ is not truthful then it is not God’s grace, but rather a wishy-washy shrugging of our shoulders – or ‘sloppy agape’ as some of my American friends say (combining a touching love for rhyme with an abysmal inability to pronounce Greek).
Of course there will be those critics outside of our movement who just throw up their hands at this point and say, “Those crazy born-again Christians are so contradictory that it’s a waste of time talking to them at all.” That would be an immature and unhelpful response. First off, few people are so dogmatic in their views and values as to not have to struggle occasionally to resolve moral conflicts and paradoxes. Secondly, Evangelical Christians may be a minority in Irish society, but they are a rapidly growing minority. Also, in a global village, where values increasingly overflow national boundaries, Evangelicals do comprise a significant proportion of the world’s population. A civil society should seek dialogue and discussion to fully include minority groups – and that applies equally to the LGBT community and to Evangelical Christians.
Understanding the role of the four core values outlined above will also help Evangelicals to have a more productive debate among ourselves. We should take the default position that our fellow believers who might take different approaches to us are doing so as part of their struggle to reconcile our mutual core values, rather than immediately assuming that they have abandoned those values. This will make our internal discussions within Evangelicalism on the subject of same-sex marriage more civil and more Christ-honouring.

We are Not the Taliban
The vision of EAI states that the Kingdom of God “represents a third way, an alternative to the power structures of an imposed religious tradition or (the mirror-image) of an imposed absence of religion.” In other words, we should not accept any attempt by the State to force us as Christians to relinquish our distinctive beliefs or practices. However, neither are we in the business of persuading the State to impose our understanding of personal Christian morality upon others who are not of our faith.
If we were to follow such an agenda, on the mistaken idea that Ireland is a ‘Christian country’ and therefore has the right to impose Christian standards of personal morality on non-Christians, then that would implicitly acknowledge the right of other societies in other parts of the world to impose their morality upon Christians. For example, if a Christian country has the right to impose ‘Christian’ laws upon non-Christians then a majority Muslim country has the right to impose Sharia law upon Christians. Such an endorsement of ‘might is right’ would be a betrayal of our brothers and sisters in the Persecuted Church worldwide.
Of course none of this should hinder us from engaging in political activity, or from using our votes and influence to seek a more just and fair society. Evangelical Christians are not in the business of using political privilege to force the Bible down people’s throats, but we should, like Wilberforce and Luther King, allow the Bible to inform our views so that we become better citizens and help build a better society.

Swimming against the Current
There is often the perception that the majority of Evangelical Christians, in not immediately jumping to embrace the concept of same-sex marriage, seem to be swimming against the current of popular opinion. There is no doubt that society in general has become much more accepting of same-sex attraction and relationships, and the national mood in Ireland and elsewhere appears to be swinging quite dramatically in favour of broadening the definition of marriage to include same-sex partnerships. Many people would agree with former-Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s assessment of same-sex marriage as “the civil rights issue of this generation.” Those who fail to support proposed changes in the law are often portrayed as reactionary conservatives and compared to the people who tried to halt the abolition of slavery or who tried to defend segregation and discrimination in the American South fifty years ago.
Many younger Evangelicals struggle with the fear that they, like the supporters of slavery or segregation, will look back in future years and see that they were part of a movement that proved to be ‘on the wrong side of history.’
I have two major problems with such comparisons. First of all, any sober assessment of history tells us that Evangelical Christians were at the forefront of the campaigns to abolish slavery and segregation. Secondly, it is unreasonable to assume that the task of the Christian Church is to unquestioningly ‘move with the times’ and to roll in behind every wave of popular opinion. One of my theological heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg in 1945. Bonhoeffer, and other members of what became known as ‘The Confessing Church,’ resisted the tide of popular opinion that blamed Germany’s ills on the Jews. The section of the church that moved with the times and flowed with the current of popular opinion encompassed those who betrayed Christ by supporting the Nazi regime.
Please note that I am referencing Bonhoeffer for the sole purpose of demonstrating that the current of popular opinion is no guarantee that a cause is right, nor, if the Church is truly called forth by God, should it automatically reflect popular trends and opinions. For what it’s worth, I would emphatically repudiate and denounce any attempt to compare the so-called ‘gay lobby’ to any totalitarian movement. Such comparisons are hysterical and lazy – in fact, just as hysterical and lazy as equating opponents of same-sex marriage with supporters of slavery or segregation. Those on either side of the debate who resort to such crude mischaracterisation make it all the harder for the rest of us to engage in sensible discussion.

Day 3 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Mon 16th March)

who owns marriage cover with logo-01 (2)
We’re asking you to join the conversation that will become an important new book – “Who Owns Marriage?” – published in early April by Evangelical Alliance Ireland! Each morning, for 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays). Or indeed to email them to nick@evangelical.ie

A small number of the best contributions (by that we mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of the book) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.

Today we talk about Culture Battles, and Four Core Values of Evangelical Christianity.

Feel free to join the Conversation!

Culture Battles
The phrase ‘culture wars’ has been applied to the efforts of those in the United States who are continually trying to keep their nation’s law and public policy more closely aligned to traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices. I would suggest that these would be better described as ‘culture battles.’ Indeed, viewed as a whole they are strongly reminiscent of a series of rear-guard actions that, irrespective of the outcome of each individual battle, results in an unsustainable accumulation of casualties. Every time Christians manage to act and speak in ways that are mean or unloving, then they lessen their ability to be a positive force for change.
The war in which Evangelical Christians are engaged is primarily one of overcoming hatred and hopelessness by exalting Jesus Christ and spreading His message of love, forgiveness and salvation. Many of us on this side of the Atlantic would be of the opinion that often our brethren in the US are so determined to win cultural battles at any cost that they are in danger of losing the real war.
As Evangelical Christians in the Republic of Ireland our narrative is very different to that of Evangelicals in the United States. We are a minority that has always existed as a counter-cultural force. We have never had a place in the corridors of power or been a dominant cultural voice in our nation. In the past, some of us thought this was a weakness or deficiency that could be corrected as we grew in numbers and influence. Today we are coming to realise that this is rather a strength that helps us to model a more authentic version of Christianity.
It was Lord Acton, the British Roman Catholic politician and historian, who coined the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” History bears out the truth of that observation. Some of the most cringe-worthy moments of Church history occurred when the Church abused its position of power in society. Conversely, the Christian Church has often been at its best when it was a persecuted minority. That, perhaps, explains why some Christians in Europe and North America are so quick to claim that they are being persecuted when they don’t get their own way on social and cultural issues.

Core Value Number One: Faithfulness to Scripture
Our core values must guide our actions and public statements. If we lose sight of that then our activism, no matter how well intentioned, will ultimately be a denial of the Gospel. I would suggest that there are at least four core values at stake as we approach the vexed issue of same-sex marriage:
The first core value is faithfulness to Scripture. As Evangelical Christians we believe that the Bible gives us our most complete revelation of the Person and nature of God. Our understanding of the inspiration of Scripture is a powerful incentive for us to study the Bible with a submissive spirit so as to discover what it is actually saying to us, rather than seeking for Bible verses that we can cherry pick to affirm or justify our wishful thinking, assumptions, traditions and beliefs.
Of course, Evangelicals must not treat the Bible as a book of magic spells where we can pull verses out of context at will and twist them to suit our personal agendas. We see a progression in Scripture where the Old Testament foreshadowed and prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. Essentially our interpretation of the Bible must be Christocentric. The ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the rest of the Bible, including the Old Testament laws and the New Testament instructions given to churches by Paul and other apostolic writers.
This means that, when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, we should practice exegesis – drawing out what the biblical authors intended to convey to their original audiences. Then, using that as a foundation, we ask how we can apply that in our own day and in a way that is consistent with the revelation we have of Jesus.
The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis – where we read our assumptions and values into the text so as to make the Bible say what we want it to say. Eisegesis is ultimately incompatible with Evangelicalism. You cannot claim to acknowledge the Bible as a source of authority if you are interpreting the Bible in such a subjective way as to rob it of any objective meaning.
One way of understanding the difference between exegesis and eisegesis is to think of a CSI TV show. Anyone who has watched that genre of entertainment will be familiar with the storyline where the police want the evidence to confirm their assumptions of who committed the crime. But the brave forensic scientists resist police pressure and intimidation saying, “We have to follow the evidence, wherever it takes us.” Exegesis means being as objective as possible when studying Scripture and following the evidence, even if it doesn’t take us to a comfortable conclusion!

Core Value Number Two: A High View of Marriage
Our understanding of Scripture leads us to view marriage as a wonderful and precious gift from God. We cannot simply treat marriage as if it were a man-made tradition or convenient social convention. For Evangelical Christians, this view of marriage is bound up with our approach to Scripture. We see marriage as being fundamental to the very creation of humanity.
However, others who do not share our faith also hold to a high view of marriage. The reason why so many people want the right to use the word ‘marriage’ is because it is a value-laden term. Even though we have all witnessed disastrous and even abusive marriages, that rarely stops people from having their own dreams and ambitions of being happily married.
This is why Evangelicals should resist any movement that would seek to redefine marriage in a way that minimises it or makes it less wonderful or special. For example there are many at this time who would argue that marriage is a legal contract – nothing more and nothing less. This is quite apart from the issue of same-sex marriage, for there are those that would also apply this minimalistic definition of marriage to heterosexual unions. If we take a value-laden term and then insist on using it a way that drains it of its value, then it does not make the mundane special. All it does is devalue a word that formerly meant a lot.
For example, we are all familiar with the mantra that we should eat ‘five a day’ – designed to boost our health by encouraging us to eat more fruit and vegetables. But imagine if pork farmers, in order to increase their sales, managed to convince us that pork and bacon should be reclassified as vegetables and therefore included in our ‘five a day.’ Such a move would, quite obviously, not make pork any healthier. All it would achieve would be to hollow out the term ‘vegetable’ to a point where, from a nutritional standpoint, it became meaningless.
In the same way, if we redefine and minimise ‘marriage’ to mean nothing more than the legal recognition of two people making a commitment to live with each other in some way, then that will not make a legal contract any more meaningful – but it will very quickly make the word ‘marriage’ meaningless when it comes to comes to concepts such as faithfulness and sacrificial love.
This is why the minority of Evangelicals who see the Bible as validating same-sex marriage, such as Matthew Vines, still see marriage as being something special and holy. I might disagree with their biblical interpretations and their conclusions, but on one level I have much more respect for them than I would have for someone who wishes to confine marriage to heterosexual couples yet sees marriage as nothing more than a legal contract.
I think that, deep down, most people, even if they are no longer religious, still see marriage as being something profound and special. They want marriage to be holy, or magical. This is why, even though some claim that marriage is nothing more than a legal contract, that they usually celebrate it in ways that would be wholly inappropriate to any other kind of legal contract.
For example, think of the most financially significant legal contract that most of us will sign – the purchase of a house. We simply sign a few forms and then let the solicitors do their stuff without any need for our physical presence. Eventually we get a phone call to inform us that contracts are exchanged, everything is stamped, and the property has now changed hands. If we really believed that marriage was nothing more than a legal contract then that is all that would happen at a civil marriage.
Imagine if we celebrated house purchases in the same way most people celebrate civil weddings. The prospective house purchaser would meet up with friends, usually of the same gender, a few days before the exchange of contracts and go on a drinking spree (perhaps with a large L-plate affixed to their back). Invitations would be sent to family and friends to attend the stamping of the contracts at the Revenue Commissioners’ offices. This would occur in a room designed to look as much like a church as possible, where everybody wore their best clothes, where candles were lit, and a tax official presided over a quasi-religious stamping of the documents to the accompaniment of soft music and poetry readings. That would be followed by a lavish banquet which would cost the purchaser thousands of euro.
The reason why we don’t purchase houses in such a way is, of course, because we recognise that, when all is said and done, purchasing a house is nothing more than a legal contract, albeit a very expensive one. Now, the rigmarole that surrounds a civil wedding often has little to do with any biblical worldview, but it does constitute a tacit admission that most people see marriage, even the civil variety, as being so much more than a legal contract.
We might dismiss the ceremonial aspects of civil marriage as being nothing more than a manifestation of primitive folk-religion, as when otherwise non-religious people in England constructed shrines of flowers to mark the death of Princess Diana. But a more serious question relates to why the civil authorities facilitate such behaviour. Why, in a secular society where we are supposed to have separation of Church and State, does the State encourage quasi-religious ceremonies on public property to mark civil marriages? Why don’t they just tell the bride and groom to simply sign their contracts and leave it to their solicitors to do the rest?
The obvious answer is that most people would reject such a soulless approach to marriage because, even if they are not religious, they instinctively know that marriage is much more than a legal contract. Therefore the State, rather than treating marriage as a purely legal matter, had to encourage religion-like ceremonies to accompany civil marriage. This is reminiscent of how the Jacobins of the French Revolution, although mostly atheists who suppressed Christianity, were afraid to follow their beliefs to the logical conclusion of a religionless society. Instead they organised elaborate pageants to honour ‘the Goddess Reason.’

Core Value Number Three: A Passion for Social Justice
Evangelicals believe in the dignity and equality of all people, created in God’s image to live in love and holiness. At EAI we believe that these principles are so fundamental to the New Testament that we cannot ignore them and still be Christians in any meaningful sense. It is true that there have been those throughout history who have claimed to be Christian yet have practiced discrimination and slavery, but that is not part of our spiritual tradition. Our inspiration when working out how our faith interacts with wider society, politics and culture comes not from Constantine or Augustine, but rather from figures such as William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King. These were not just social reformers who happened to be Evangelicals. They were first and foremost Evangelical Christians whose biblical convictions led them to strive for significant positive change in their societies.
We all have a tendency to be more passionate about fighting injustice and discrimination when the victims of injustice are those whom we identify and agree with. Sadly our responses tend to be much more lukewarm if those who are being marginalised are not in agreement with our own lifestyle and values. Many Evangelicals, for example, tend to be very vocal about issues such as people trafficking or the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, but we are remarkably silent when it comes to homophobia or Islamophobia.
I love history, and I believe there is great value in taking a big picture perspective – viewing issues in the light of long-term trends rather than simply looking for short-term goals and victories. However, if I leave history aside for a moment and look at my own short lifetime (I am 52 years old), I must acknowledge that gays have suffered more bullying, discrimination and marginalisation in Western Europe and North America than almost any other group of people. It is a matter of shame that professing Christians have often been complicit in that marginalisation rather than confronting it.
Today, in Ireland, people still fear physical violence because of their sexual orientation. Irrespective of whether homosexual behaviour is compatible with our own religious practices or not, that reality should appal every one of us. Rory O’Neill has said, “I’m 45, and I’ve never got to hold hands in public without first considering the risk.” In case anyone thinks Rory is being over-dramatic, bear in mind that in January 1999, Robert Drake, an American living in Sligo, was left permanently brain damaged after being assaulted because of his sexual orientation.
Studies in the United States have revealed that LGBT students are three times as likely as non-LGBT students to say they do not feel safe at school, and that 90% have been harassed or assaulted in some way during the last year. In 2012 a survey in the UK reported that more than half of gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents aged between 11 and 19 had suffered homophobic bullying at school. Even more worryingly, 40% of the victims of such bullying had attempted or contemplated suicide.
You would think that any right thinking person who has even the faintest scrap of compassion for children would want to do all they can to end such behaviour. Imagine my amazement, therefore, when I read that, in 2015, Coláiste Eoin, a Catholic-run school in Dublin, had cancelled a workshop on homophobic bullying, citing “the need to hear both sides of the argument.” For me, this was a truly ‘head in hands’ moment. What is the other side of the argument to an anti-bullying message? That bullying is acceptable and should be tolerated?
I would argue that Evangelicals in Ireland, perhaps more so than in some other societies, should have the ability to be proactive in opposing discrimination and marginalisation. This is because our own narrative is one of being a minority. Speaking from my own experience as an Evangelical pastor, I know something of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discrimination in a society that favours and privileges the majority.
Let me immediately qualify that by stressing that I am not claiming that our experience as Evangelicals in any way equates to the harassment and bullying experienced by many gay people. I can count on the fingers of one-hand the number of people I know of in Ireland who have been beaten up for being born-again Christians! But I am saying that our narrative as a minority should help us to be proactive in standing up and speaking out on behalf of other minorities. When it comes to racism, for example, we have been very good at this. When it comes to homophobic bullying, however, we have not done nearly so well.
The relevance of this is that we are called to have compassion for those who are hurting, and we should reject any mode of debate or discussion that merely seeks to condemn without offering hope and justice. For example, if our contribution to the same-sex marriage debate is couched in such terms as to alienate gay people, demonise them as somehow posing a threat, or to stir up hatred or fear, then we will have grievously violated one of our core values. If we can’t discuss our principles without becoming hateful then we would be much better off remaining silent.

Core Value Number Four: Morality as a Sign of Relationship
As Christians our morality and ethics, in sexual matters as much as any other area of our lives, should be pleasing to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We are commanded to live as children of light in a dark world, but we need to remember that our concept of faith, and therefore of morality, is based primarily on our relationship with Jesus Christ.
The reason I stress this is because many religions base their morality on rules, rather than on relationship. In rule-based morality, you sign up to a religion (or, more likely, are born into a religion) and that places you under an obligation to obey the rules. This is the reasoning, for example, that underpins the application of Sharia law in many societies. True, there are some societies that simply apply Sharia to everybody as the law of the land. In other cultures, however, Sharia law is only applied to Muslims, as distinct from civil law which applies to everyone. The idea is that being a Muslim means you are obliged to obey the rules.
It is tempting, when Evangelicals try to explain to those who are not of our faith why our morality leads us to do certain things or to refrain from certain activities, to simplify the explanation by presenting it as a matter of rules. Muslims have certain rules, as do Jews and, it might seem easy to explain that certain things are against the rules of Evangelical Christianity. But that would be to fundamentally misunderstand the Evangelical approach to morality.
You do not become an Evangelical Christian by agreeing to believe certain theological propositions, undergoing a ritual such as baptism and then agreeing to keep the rules. No, you become an Evangelical Christian by entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. This is obviously not a relationship of equals, God being God and people being people, but it is a relationship that is based on love and trust. In a genuine relationship, you try to avoid doing things that would cause grief or pain to the person you love.
For example, in my relationship with my wife, we have learned that we avoid certain ways of speaking and behaving because we love each other, don’t want to hurt each other and want to honour and bless each other. For example, I will not engage in any kind of sexual liaison with anyone else because I know that to do so would cause great pain to the woman that I love more than life itself. It’s not just that I’m afraid of punishment if I break the rule against adultery – my faithfulness to my wife is based on relationship rather than rules.
Relationship-based morality is not an excuse for moral laxity, indeed it should always produce a higher, not lower, level of behaviour than rule-based morality. This is why, for example, Jesus said His followers should not just abstain from murder (keeping the rule) but should also love their enemies (living in a way that reflects relationship with Christ).
In the same way, rule-based morality might cause us to refrain from adultery (keeping the rules). But what about behaviour that is less than complete faithfulness to one’s spouse, but which is not specifically covered by the rules. What about kissing someone else? Or holding hands in a romantic way? Or even behaving flirtatiously with someone else. Under rule-based morality there is a temptation to ask, “What is the maximum I can get away with without actually breaking the rules and making God mad at me?”
But relationship-based morality is different. Behaving flirtatiously with someone else might not break any rules, but I know it would cause pain to my wife, therefore I know to avoid any such behaviour. Relationship-based morality, then, is motivated by a desire to please God because we love Him, not just to avoid punishment for breaking the rules and making Him mad at us. The idea of “what is the maximum I can get away with” is alien to relationship-based morality.
Another major difference between rule-based and relationship-based morality relates to how we view other people, particularly those who do not share our moral values. Any kind of morality necessarily involves sacrifice and restraint. In rule-based morality, we tend to either feel superior to others, or else get mad at them. Indeed, some religious people alternate between both these attitudes. At one moment, they are looking down their noses at the people who aren’t as holy as them. A few minutes later they are aggravated because other people, by breaking the rules, seem to be having so much fun. Often the only way they can console themselves is by reminding themselves how much those sinners are going to suffer later in life or in eternity. Rule-based morality, then, tends to lead to Pharisaical judgementalism.
In relationship-based morality, however, the focus is much more on working out our own walk with God. We certainly believe our relationship is precious, and we want to encourage others to enjoy a similar relationship with God, but there’s little room there for judgementalism or jealousy. Coming back to the example of a marriage relationship, I would like it if more people could enjoy their marriages more. But if my focus is on loving my wife as best I can, then I’m really not bothered about looking down on people who conduct their marriages differently. And I’m certainly not tempted to be jealous of anyone who is unfaithful to their spouse.
This means that an Evangelical passion for holiness, and our search for morality, should lead us more to self-examination and repentance than to an obsession with judging and condemning the actions of others. For example, it is more important for Christians to be passionate about practicing marriage in ways that reflect God’s love to our spouses than it is to be zealous for ‘defending marriage’ in society.
If we are unduly preoccupied with what other consenting adults get up to in their bedrooms, or if we feel a yearning to see the law of the land enforce our morality onto others, then that may well be an indicator that our morality is not truly Evangelical.

Day 2 – Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Sun 15th March)

This is another opportunity for you to join the conversation that will become an important new book – “Who Owns Marriage?” – produced by Nick Park and Evangelical Alliance Ireland! Each morning, for 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays).

A small number of the best contributions (by that we mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of the book) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.

Yesterday we looked at different attitudes to homosexuality among Evangelicals. Today, Nick shares his own personal stance. Then we look at the influence of Postmodernism. Although EAI has issued a statement on the Same-Sex Marriage Referendum (available at http://www.evangelical.ie) Nick explains why EAI has chosen to engage in a Conversation rather than just issuing a Position Paper.

Feel free to join the Conversation!

Nailing My Personal Colours to the Mast
Of the five attitudes towards homosexuality found among Evangelicals that we listed yesterday, I would fall most easily into number three. As an Evangelical, the Bible is more to me than just a set of theological statements about God. Nor do I see my life as being separated into two separate compartments of ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ where religious beliefs have no influence on my worldview, core values or decisions in life. My understanding of biblical teaching is that sexual intimacy is a blessing and a gift from God that should be enjoyed within the mutual love, commitment and security of a marriage relationship, and that sexual relationships between people of the same gender are not God’s intended purpose for that gift.
However, I see no justification for forcing my opinions upon those who do not share my faith and beliefs. I belong to a Pentecostal Evangelical Church, not to the Taliban. Nor do I consider homosexual behaviour to be particularly detrimental to society – no more so than a host of other common activities that are practiced by the wider population outside of the walls of the Evangelical churches. I do think that New Testament Christian values are beneficial for a culture as a whole, and that Irish society would be better if more people freely chose to share my beliefs and values, but I also strongly hold that any attempt to enforce those values by law would be nightmarish.
I also have many Evangelical friends who would fall into category number two. I understand why they feel as they do, and we are able to discuss our differences of opinion in a way that is good-natured and without rancour. Contrary to the way we are occasionally portrayed in the media, the issue of homosexuality is not high on the agendas of most Evangelicals, and in general we find that much more of our outlook on life unites us than the few issues where we might differ.
I have more difficulty with categories one and four, in that I see aspects of their approaches as being fundamentally at odds with what it means to be an Evangelical Christian. I will expand on those inconsistencies later in this book. This is not to say that I disown them, or feel a need to ‘cast them out’ of the Evangelical camp (as if we were organised or structured enough in the first place to cast anybody out). I still view them as fellow Evangelicals, but I feel the inconsistencies are important enough for us to address them and, where necessary, to point out why they are damaging to our witness to Jesus Christ.

The Influence of Postmodernism
Of the five categories of attitudes concerning Evangelicalism and homosexuality that I listed yesterday, the one that causes me most concern is that which basically divorces our sexual behaviour altogether from our religious beliefs.
This may be viewed as largely embracing a postmodernist approach. To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.
Confused? Let’s try a different approach.
I find one of the easiest ways to explain postmodernism to those of us who are not professional philosophers is to think about eating a meal (an activity that is always close to my heart). When it comes to food, I am one of those old-fashioned people who find my gastronomical enjoyment is increased when certain things go together. For example, I want to eat my appetiser first, then the main course, and finally a dessert. I would not enjoy a meal where the sticky toffee pudding was served first, long before I got to the mushroom soup or to the steak. Similarly, grating some parmesan cheese over my spaghetti carbonara will enhance my enjoyment of the dish, but the same would not be true if you grated parmesan over my ice cream profiteroles!
In other words, certain things are consistent with, or complement, other things. It might well be true, as they say in Belfast, that all the food ends up in the same place – but the process of getting the food to that place is more satisfying when we eat it in a particular order and a particular way.
A postmodernist approach to food, however, would see nothing wrong with pouring chicken gravy over an ice cream sundae, or adding raspberry yoghurt to a steak and kidney pie. Recently, while visiting the Unites States, my wife and I were on a long drive on Interstate 75 and stopped somewhere in Georgia for lunch at an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet restaurant. As we stood in line, a young man in front of us appeared to be trying to pile as many different food groups onto one plate as possible. His salad was squeezed on alongside meat loaf, spaghetti, potatoes, chilli, Chinese fried rice and scrambled egg. It was when he decided to add banana pudding to the mix that I leaned over to Janice and whispered in her ear, “Now that’s what I’m talking about when you hear me going on about postmodernism!”
Now let’s translate this to the relationship between religious belief and sexual morality. One of the cornerstones of Evangelical belief is our relationship to the Bible. It’s not just that we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but also that it is authoritative for our faith and practice. A postmodernist approach might say that the Bible is the Word of God, and simultaneously adopt a sexual morality that is diametrically opposed to anything we find in the New Testament. But, given that such an approach involves jettisoning the concept of biblical authority, I do not see any way that it can honestly be reconciled with being an Evangelical – the two things are inconsistent and don’t go with each other!
Another Evangelical might interpret the Bible differently to me and so reach different conclusions as to what constitutes acceptable sexual behaviour among Christians. I might disagree strongly with them, but we have a common basis by which we can discuss our differences.
But if someone simply feels free to totally ignore what the Bible has to say about sexual behaviour, then it is difficult to see how they can reasonably be described as Evangelical. They might attend an Evangelical church, they might even refer to themselves as an ‘Evangelical Christian,’ but by divorcing one of the most basic areas of their lives from any biblical reference point they have, in effect, removed themselves from Evangelicalism.

An Evangelical Conversation on Same-Sex Marriage
It would be fair, I believe, to say that the majority of Evangelical Christians in Ireland would be opposed to same-sex marriage in either a religious or a civil context, some extremely strongly so. This view would, incidentally, be even more pronounced among immigrants and ‘the New Irish’ than among those born here. Yet there is a significant minority within some of our churches that would take a different approach.
Some, particularly among the younger end of our constituency, don’t see what all the fuss is about. On occasion, it is not down to any reinterpretation of Scripture so much as a general feeling. They may not have thought through the issue to any depth, and are happy to go with the flow of contemporary opinion in wider society. However, it would be unfair to imply that such a lack of critical thinking is confined to those on one side of the issue. There are plenty of Christians opposed to same-sex marriage whose pronouncements on the subject also indicate a disturbing lack of understanding of how Evangelicals understand and apply the Bible. One of my hopes is that a conversation among Evangelicals on this subject, while it might not produce a uniform approach, will at least help us to think carefully and critically about the issues involved. This will help us all to address other issues that will arise at the interface of religious belief and secular culture.
There are those in the Evangelical community who have been influenced by the views of Vines, Gushee and others. This small, but growing, minority would interpret Scripture in such a way as to see faithful and loving same-sex relationships as consistent with Evangelical faith and that such relationships should be recognised and blessed as marriage by our churches. Part of our conversation should examine the validity of this approach, and ask whether such interpretations truly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.
Then there are still others who would draw a clear distinction between marriage as a Christian ceremony conducted in churches, and marriage as a civil institution. These people would reject any endorsement of same-sex unions within churches, but would see what goes on in a Registrar’s office as being something entirely separate from the biblical concept of marriage. It is entirely possible, therefore, that someone might strongly oppose same-sex marriage in their church, but still vote in favour of permitting same-sex civil marriages under the law of the land.
Like anyone else, I have my own personal views on this issue, and it is inevitable that, in interviews and other media interaction, I will be pressed to state those views. I am also aware that, as Executive Director of EAI with particular responsibility for articulating an evangelical ‘voice,’ there is a danger that my personal views may be misunderstood as necessarily representing the views of EAI, or indeed of Irish Evangelical Christians in general.
Therefore I wish to state in no uncertain terms that I do not envisage EAI as ever acting as an ‘Evangelical Papacy’ or as claiming to represent the views of all Evangelical Christians in Ireland on a given subject. Let’s not forget that Evangelical Christianity rose as a protest against a religious system that required its adherents to conform to a rigidly enforced dogma. The whole point of being an Evangelical is that you have the freedom, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to read the Bible for yourself and come to your own conclusions!
Therefore, as an Evangelical leader, my job must always be to acknowledge the diversity of opinion that exists among us. I can certainly express my own position, and try to give good and reasoned explanations as to how I have reached that position, but I am also required to acknowledge, respect and engage in dialogue with those who disagree with me.
It necessarily follows, therefore, that it is not the job of EAI, or my job, to issue an authoritative and binding position paper on same-sex marriage or any other contentious subject at the interface of Church and culture. Certainly we can offer advice. What we are mandated to do is to stress the values and distinctives that are part of our movement, even when they might seem to be in tension with each other, and then to encourage discussion as to how we best work them out in practice.
So I would rather see this book as a conversation – designed to encourage reasoned debate and a free expression of differing opinions. The responses in that conversation come from a wide range of backgrounds, including Evangelical Christians, non-Evangelical Christians, and those who claim no Christian faith whatsoever. This means, if you care at all about the subjects under discussion, that at some point you will find yourself strongly disagreeing with something that I, or one of the respondents and contributors, have written.
It’s OK to disagree. At times we all need reminding that we can disagree, even over deeply held convictions, while remaining civil and respectful to one another. If this book helps us to do that more, even if it achieves nothing else, then it will have been worth the effort.

Disagreement Better than Dogmatism
The disagreements and differences engendered by a conversation are not necessarily a bad thing, providing that we can learn to disagree in a Christ-like manner. Last year I was talking with another Evangelical leader who passionately argued that we should never admit to disagreements in public. He insisted that unless we spoke with one voice on every subject then all we would do is create confusion. I had to respectfully disagree with him. Ireland has suffered enough over the years at the hands of religious people who held rigidly to dogma and tolerated no dissent.
Sometimes, as Christians, we tend to gloss over or ignore our disagreements. In our eagerness to be good witnesses to our faith we prefer to concentrate on that which unites us. While understandable, this may at times be a mistake. One of the things that those outside our faith tend to find most unattractive about Christians is our smug assumption that we have all the right answers. Many Irish people have had their fill of religious dogmatism. Could it be that our voice can be more, not less, convincing when we come from a place of humility and brokenness? When we admit that we are struggling to work out how best to apply our core principles and values in a fractured and fallen world?
Just over a year ago, I sat at a table for discussions with several key figures from the Evangelical movement in Ireland. Before ‘getting down to business’ we talked openly and honestly about the stuff that was going on in our own lives. Then we prayed for one another. I was struck by the fact that, of eight or nine people in the room that day, four of us had dealt with the impact of immediate family members who had ‘come out’ as being gay. In some cases, because of a clash of parental and personal expectations and church beliefs, this had been traumatic for all concerned. I realised that, when it came to discussing the issue of same-sex marriage, we were not approaching it as ivory tower theologians who had it all worked out nicely. Instead we were people who were trying our best to be good parents and spouses, and that we had made plenty of mistakes on the way.
Historically, some of the Christian Church’s greatest insights have come from those who know what it means to sit in a place of humility and brokenness.

Who Owns Marriage: The Conversation (Sat 14th March)

who owns marriage cover with logo-01 (2)

On behalf of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, I am producing a book called “Who Owns Marriage?” Scheduled for release on Easter Monday, this book seeks to dig a bit deeper into the issues raised Ireland’s forthcoming Referendum on Same-Sex Marriage. EAI has already released a statement concerning the Referendum, available at http://www.evangelical.ie

The book aims to encourage us to think through what we really believe about Evangelicalism, the Bible, our identity in Christ, civil society, how we hold religious values without trying to enforce them on unbelievers, and how biblical marriage relates to civil marriage.

We have invited a number of thinkers, theologians, leaders and public figures (including some non-Christians) to contribute to the book. This is your opportunity to join the conversation! Each morning, for the next 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays).

A small number of the best contributions (by that I mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of my points) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.

Today, you are invited to join in the conversation on the below sections dealing with Media Parodies and Stereotypes,

Media Parodies and Stereotypes
The British and Irish media already has a problem in its coverage of Evangelical Christianity. For the most part it ignores the growing number of Evangelicals on their own doorsteps and, if they refer to Evangelicalism at all, do so in the context of the United States. This is understandable, given that Evangelicals are much more numerous in the US, but unfortunately the coverage rarely extends beyond the repetition of tired and inaccurate parodies.
Usually, if the word ‘Evangelical’ appears in our popular media, it will be coupled with phrases such as ‘the religious right.’ This perpetuates a lazy stereotype of Evangelicals as white Americans who all solidly vote Republican, support the Tea Party, are anti-immigration, and who, if you scratch deep enough below the surface, will be found to harbour racist and homophobic prejudices.
So, for example, the twisted ideology of the late Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church receives much more press coverage in Ireland than do the more measured statements of an organisation like the National Association of Evangelicals. Yet the Westboro people, with their ‘God hates fags’ placards, have never boasted more than a few dozen members – whereas the NAE represents a plethora of major American denominations and movements encompassing approximately 45,000 churches and many millions of members.
We see the same inaccurate parodies being trotted out in the British and Irish media’s coverage of US presidential elections. If a Republican candidate, usually in the primaries rather than the election proper, makes one brief stop at an Evangelical college or church then that will be repeatedly referenced by pundits on this side of the Atlantic. If such a candidate expresses any kind of religious belief then that is cited as an example of theocracy at work. Yet no reference will be made to the fact that Democratic candidates quote the Bible frequently, use much more overtly religious language than their Republican counterparts, and deliver numerous campaign speeches from the pulpits of Evangelical churches (predominantly African-American congregations).
This is not to say that the religious right does not exist. But it should alert us to the fact that our media are rarely prepared to do the serious journalism that would be involved in recognising the varied and multi-faceted nature of American, let alone Irish, Evangelicalism. It is much easier to present a misleading stereotype, particularly one that allows us, as Irish people, to preen ourselves and pretend we are infinitely more sophisticated and tolerant than our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.
During the same-sex marriage debate, therefore, we should not be surprised if the media prefers to portray Irish Evangelicals as frothing-at-the-mouth fundamentalists rather than seriously listening to what we have to say. And, inevitably, there will always be one or two from within the Evangelical community who will be happy to step up to a microphone and confirm such stereotypes.

A Vital Discussion
Despite my personal reluctance to get involved in the same sex marriage debate, I am of the opinion that the position Evangelical Christians take on this subject, and how we express that position, is of the highest importance – not so much because of the repercussions that society faces but rather because of how it will define the Church.
I am under no illusion that our contribution to the debate will somehow shape the short-term future of Irish society. Evangelical Christians are a small minority within the Irish Republic, and our numbers and influence are such that we cannot realistically swing a Referendum, or public opinion, one way or the other. All the opinion polls that I have seen suggest that, barring some massive unforeseen game-changer of an event, same-sex marriage will be passed into law by a substantial majority when it is put to the electorate in a Referendum.
So why should we poke our heads above the parapets and risk getting them shot off? Why not just keep quiet, wait for the inevitable to happen, and then move on? My answer is that the approach and stance we take on this issue may well define how we are viewed by the general public, and by our children, for at least a generation. Our contribution to this debate may not affect the short term future of Irish society – but it may well determine the long term future of the Evangelical movement in Ireland.
In the long term, the most significant thing to me is not whether same-sex marriage is legalised or not. I am enough of a realist to recognise that society often falls short of how we might like it to be. Indeed, Christianity has often been at its most vibrant when it operates as a counter-cultural force with values that may be radically different from the surrounding society.
The important thing in years to come will not be whether we felt we won or lost a culture war, but whether our words and actions at this point in our history really manifested the presence and influence of Jesus Christ. Marriage is something that is really important to us as Evangelicals, and I strongly believe that we have an important perspective to share at a time when marriage, including heterosexual marriage, is being reduced to a mere social convention – often leaving a trail of disillusionment, cynicism and heartbroken adults and children. If we keep quiet, and fail to add our contribution to the debate, then we will have proved to have been unfaithful witnesses to Jesus and the new life He gives.
Equally, if our passion to share what we believe to be truth leads us to be selfish, harsh and intolerant, then we have also failed to adequately represent Jesus Christ. And that is why I feel that EAI has no option but to get involved in the current debate. If we keep silent then, by default, things will be said and done in our name that do not represent the views of large numbers of Evangelical Christians in Ireland. We have a moral responsibility to engage in discussion with those of differing views, and to do so as peacemakers and fellow seekers after truth.


Various Attitudes towards Homosexuality within Evangelicalism
It would be wrong to suggest that there is one undisputed or definitive Evangelical opinion on the subject of same-sex marriage. Certainly some of our community feel so strongly on the subject that they might claim that their particular opinion should be the only acceptable one, and that all others, by default, are unacceptable and automatically disqualify one from being considered an Evangelical. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that Evangelicalism is a fairly broad movement, and that trying to steer all of our community in one direction and to speak with one voice is akin to trying to herd a group of cats.
When it comes to homosexuality in general, there is a range of attitudes taken by Evangelicals. These might be categorised as follows:
1. On the extreme right of the spectrum, there would be a number of our community who would not only believe that homosexual behaviour is grievously sinful on religious grounds, but also that it is seriously detrimental to society as a whole and therefore should be forbidden, or at least restricted in some way, by law. Thankfully I have never met any Evangelical in Ireland who has advocated violence against homosexuals or imprisonment, such as has been legislated for in Uganda. However, I have heard a few Christians argue that, if such a thing were possible, that they would support laws prohibiting homosexual behaviour. One representative of this viewpoint said to me, “I don’t agree with what’s going on in Uganda, but I think Putin has the right idea in Russia!”
2. Others take a slightly more liberal stance in that they still believe homosexual behaviour to be sinful and extremely detrimental to society, but would not support any kind of legal restrictions. Such people might still cite an increase in homosexuality as a sign of moral decline, but would try to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’ (a quote from St Augustine that was later appropriated by Mohandas Gandhi).
3. Still others would see homosexual behaviour as a sin in the sense that it does not represent God’s will for His people, but no more sinful than many other common aspects of human behaviour. According to this view, homosexual acts would be inconsistent with being a practicing Christian, but would pose no threat to wider society as such. This would treat homosexual relationships as being on a par with heterosexual couples cohabiting outside of marriage – not part of Christian morality, but not a major concern when practiced by non-Christians who, after all, can hardly be expected to adhere to Christian standards of behaviour.
4. A newer approach among some Evangelicals is to interpret the Bible in such a way as to validate same-sex marriages. Prominent representatives of this position would include David Gushee and Matthew Vines. Both Gushee and Vines are adamant that this is a reinterpretation, not a jettisoning of, biblical teaching on sexuality. Vines, for example, disapproves of premarital sex – irrespective of gender – and Gushee maintains that sexual promiscuity is incompatible with Christian living.
5. On the extreme left of the spectrum there would be a small number of people who would call themselves Evangelicals, but who would not see that as speaking to their sexual behaviour at all. They would read the Bible, see themselves as Evangelical because they hold certain beliefs about God, Jesus and salvation – but feel at liberty to form sexual relationships outside of marriage (heterosexual or homosexual), engage in premarital sex, and don’t feel that their religious beliefs commit them to a lifestyle where there are boundaries to sexual behaviour.