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 email@example.com
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 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?