Last night the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (operating as its Supreme Court) voted 326 to 267 to confirm the call of a practicing and openly gay man to be the minister of the congregation of Queen’s Cross in Aberdeen.
The decision comes at a time when the same issue has critically divided the Anglican Communion. A non-celibate gay man is Bishop of New Hampshire in the United States, his appointment confirmed by all but a small minority in The Episcopal Church. His presence at the inauguration of President Obama was nothing less than a presidential imprimatur. The Canadian churches are pushing ahead with the liturgical blessing of same-sex unions. Powerful gay lobbies are operating in many Anglican provinces around the world, including here in Australia. Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury, caught between his published private opinions and the official position of his church, keeps trying to hold everyone together.
Other denominations both in Australia and beyond have also been dealing with various levels of gay activism within their membership.
The statement released by the Fellowship of Confessing Churches states the issue with unusual succinctness: this vote ‘sends a clear signal to the world that our denomination has departed from the teaching of the Christian Scriptures, upon which its very existence depends’. This statement resonates with the stated concerns of orthodox Christians around the world and in various denominations. The written word of God states repeatedly and unambiguously that homosexuality is a contradiction of God’s creational design for human sexual expression; to use the words of the Fellowship’s statement again, ‘the clear Scriptural pattern that recognises the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman as the only proper place for sexual intimacy’.
To acknowledge the Bible’s teaching on this matter as the true expression of God’s mind is not in any way to condone violence against homosexual persons. Such violence is itself a failure to take seriously the teaching of Scripture. Christians completely repudiate any such violence against anyone with whom we might disagree and where violence has been perpetrated in the name of Christ or of his people we need to acknowledge it and genuinely repent of it. What is more, homosexual persons are entitled to certain protections under the law (e.g. the right to live free of a fear of violence, the right to own property, and the right to be paid the same salary for the same work). However, these protections should not extend to insisting that all must agree with their decisions or behaviour. It is not an act of violence to say that something is wrong or morally repugnant.
Nor is this a sign of some psychological weakness, a ‘homophobia’ which is little more than giving way to our own fears and insecurities. This psychologising of dissent or opposition is a common enough tactic in modern debates. In the popular media and in liberal circles, it is used to suggest that there is something seriously deficient in those who disagree with the consensus they are promoting. It can also be a way of avoiding serious engagement with the arguments of your opponents. After all, if their opposition is borne out of pure irrational bigotry then surely it is appropriate just to marginalise and ignore them. However, the Christian opposition to homosexual behaviour over the past two thousand years has not arisen out of fear or ignorance. It arises from God’s clear expression of his mind and purposes for human beings. It is carefully reasoned and grounded firmly in God’s revelation.
The advocates of the right of actively homosexual persons to be recognised as faithful Christians and entrusted with Christian leadership of various kinds have also sometimes argued that their opponents are all captive to naïve and fundamentalist readings of Scripture which cannot be taken seriously in the twenty-first century. They point to other practices condemned in Scripture (almost invariably the Old Testament) which Christians do not take seriously and in fact have not taken seriously for a very long time. The food and clothing laws of Leviticus are often cited in this regard. So too is the insistence in the same Old Testament book that adultery should be punishable by death. Christians once justified slavery on the basis of biblical teaching, so the argument goes, and excluded women from leadership in the Christian congregation.
However, even a basic understanding of biblical theology demonstrates the difference between most of these cases and the issue of homosexual behaviour. The food and clothing laws of the Old Testament relate to the distinct national identity of Israel as God’s chosen people. With the advent of Jesus the situation is quite different. Indeed, it is Jesus himself who declares all foods clean. Adultery, however, is very different, as the repeated denunciations of it in the New Testament testify. It is no less serious an affront to God as it was in the Old Testament, since it still involves the repudiation of God’s intention for a faithful life-long union between a man and woman. Yet the Old Testament demand for judicial execution is replaced by congregational discipline: a call to repent and temporary exclusion with the goal of full restoration. Here is an appropriate analogy with the New Testament perspective on homosexual behaviour.
The appeal to the Christian attitude towards slavery as a precedent is to a certain degree disingenuous. After all, it was evangelical Christianity, motivated by obedience to the Scriptures rather than a desire to set them aside in favour of a contemporary public consensus, which overturned the slave trade in Britain. That abominable trade in human misery had been wrongly equated with the slavery found in Israel under the Old Covenant. Furthermore, the bonds of brotherhood in Christ took precedence over all social station and effectively undermined the practice of slavery as it existed in the first century Mediterranean world (as Paul more than hints to the slave-owner Philemon).
The case of women and Christian leadership is nowhere near as straightforward. It is certainly a matter of demonstrable fact that there is no universal Christian consensus on what kinds of leadership are appropriately exercised by women and what are not. There are many who insist that women are to be considered in every way equal to men and yet that this equality is not at all compromised by recognising men and women as complements of one another rather than duplicates. Yet others prefer an undifferentiated egalitarianism. The New Testament clearly considers gender an important issue when it comes to how we should behave within the Christian congregation. Yet debate continues as to how giftedness and opportunity are related to the very few restrictions on the appropriate ministry of women in the apostolic writings.
The push for what is euphemistically called ‘homosexual inclusion’ is sometimes portrayed as the next chapter in the history of enlightenment and emancipation. The prejudices of the past and the morally bankrupt practices which arose from them have one by one been overturned as knowledge replaced ignorance and freedom overcame oppression. The mistreatment of those who were different in race or gender to those with power was rightly exposed and action was rightly taken to eliminate it. Now, we are told, there is one further kind of discrimination which needs to be overcome: discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet such a picture cloaks a raft of differences.
Most important of these is the simple fact that the Christian objection focuses on behaviour rather than the inward struggle with temptation. Each of us is tempted to seek fulfilment, pleasure or meaning apart from God and his good word to us. We could rightly speak about our orientation or attraction to selfishness, pride, greed, anger, promiscuity and so forth, and of our responsibility to seek God’s help to resist that orientation. Those troubled with homosexual temptation need support and care rather than repudiation. And part of that support may well be to help such people avoid circumstances which would provide opportunity to surrender to that temptation.
Nevertheless, the issue in New Hampshire, Canada, Scotland and elsewhere is homosexual activity, indeed the embrace of an actively homosexual lifestyle while claiming to submit to the Lordship of Christ.
The sad but unavoidable truth is that any Christianity which endorses homosexual activity is not authentic Christianity. It cannot appeal to the universal teaching of the Christian churches over the past two thousand years. It can lay no claim to the mandate of Scripture. It cannot legitimately suggest that Jesus overturned the teaching of the Old Testament on this issue. Indeed, when speaking to the Pharisees about divorce he explicitly reiterated God’s creational intention: ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ (Matt. 19:4–6)
It is important for Christians to be vocal in their opposition to moves such as that just made in Aberdeen. We need to insist that this is an aberration which is inauthentic. The lobbyists will certainly try to use it as evidence that there is no Christian consensus on this issue. This will no doubt be part of the debate in the House of Lords this week as activists try to wind back religious exemptions to the laws which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet we continue to say ‘no’ and to argue that homosexual practice is morally repugnant because God has made this clear in the Scriptures. And the good word of the good God who made us all is always worth living by.