Can love ever be sinful? There is a proposal coming forward to this year’s General Assembly from the Legal Questions Committee, to declare it acceptable for ministers to conduct services of blessing for same-sex partnerships: so-called ‘gay marriages.’
Is there a right and wrong here? If so, how important is it and how sure can we be?
Let us state at the outset that good has come from the ceaseless endeavours of the gay movement in the matter of accepting one another. Those who feel sexual attraction to their own sex feel very strongly that this is a basic feature of their identity. The recognition by all of us that different people experience a wide variety of attractions, and that Jesus accepts all of us as we are - these are vital features of Christian openness in a congregation.
In this sense - “feeling sexual attraction to” - Sandyford has homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual members and we think nothing of it. I have written before about accepting one another and not teasing or making slighting references to gay mannerisms.
Civil partnerships, however, will almost invariably involve not just Christian love but sexual relations. Is the behaviour as acceptable as the orientation?
We do well to be clear as to our convictions: for such has been the shift in thinking over the last three decades that what formerly would have been seen as inadmissible, is very widely accepted even amongst those who think of themselves as evangelical Christians. Since other proposals are also being pushed - to recognise polygamy as acceptable, for example - we must be clear what standards guide our decisions.
The reality is that we are neither wise nor moral enough to decide for ourselves what behaviours are for our good and honour God. We are dependent on his Self-disclosure in scripture. The C/S puts it this way: ‘The Church of Scotland receives the Word of God which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as its supreme rule of faith and life.’
Jesus constantly lived by this principle. When people put questions to him his reply was ‘what does the scripture say?’ He included sexual relations in that approach.
It is vital to study scripture responsibly, and there are ways of ensuring that. To compare scripture with scripture and see how clear its position is and what importance it attaches to the matter; to ensure that we are examining it with the centrality of Jesus and the Triune God firmly in our thinking; to ascertain whether we are dependent on a single proof text or on a whole way of thinking based on a pattern in creation and redemption: these are the kinds of method to apply.
When we do the homework we are not left uncertain on the matter of same-sex practice.
Take first the centrality of our Lord Jesus. There are 28 places in the Gospels where he is recorded as dealing with the matter of sexual relations. He lived at a time when divorce was common and homosexual practice not unknown. Relevant to same sex relations are:
- He condemned ‘porneia.’ This is a general term meaning sex outwith heterosexual monogamy, including male with male.
- He said that Sodom would not enjoy judgement day: it was accepted that the sins of Sodom included male-male sex. *
- In an age when men sometimes married men (Nero did), the only choice he offered was either man-woman marriage or ‘making oneself a eunuch on account of the kingdom of heaven,’ i.e. celibacy.
- He refers to Genesis chapters 1 and 2 as the God-spoken basis of sexual relations and spells out God’s will in this area as a man marrying a woman for life.
- He said that every last letter of the OT law stands for all time.
In fact in every one of the 28 cases our Lord either commended heterosexual, lifelong, monogamous marriage as the God-given context for sexual relations, or spoke against other sexual relations.
All that Jesus said on the matter is mirrored by the rest of the Bible, OT and NT. Of the various ways of having extramarital sex the three most squarely condemned, and in terms of similar severity, are adultery, homosexual practice and bestiality. A typical passage is 1 Cor 6 v 9 and 10. The list of wicked deeds includes thieving, all extramarital sex and specifically ‘arsenokoites’ (from which we get the word coitus): a man engaging in acts designed to produce sexual orgasm with another man. Those who so act, the passage warns, will not inherit the kingdom of God.
When we ask why same-sex practice is as wrong as that, the Bible answers that our human sexuality somehow links us with God’s own self. ‘Let us make man in our image, male and female’ says Genesis Ch 1. In line with this Eph 5 says, ‘A man is to be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery; I am talking about Christ and the church.’ Marriage is a relationship showing forth the relations between Jesus Christ and the church. Salvation itself comes to us through the incarnation of God the son who takes on our frail human flesh. So sexual behaviour is given detailed guidelines and prohibitions not only for our welfare but because it expresses truths about, and links us with, God himself: what is done in the body is utterly significant. This seems to be why it is treated as a matter of great importance:
‘All other sins a man commits are outside his body but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit ... ?’
This also answers whether its standards are just for then or for always. At a time when sexuality was up for discussion our Lord Jesus cut clean across the new spirit and confirmed that sex is God’s wedding gift to a man and a woman in lifelong marriage; not for temporary reasons but because he made us to function that way, from the beginning, as a permanent principle founded in both creation and redemption.
So our convictions on this matter are neither uncertain nor based on a single proof text or even string of texts. They are clear, Christ-centred, Trinitarian and reflect the inner connections of the Bible about how to behave. They are treated in detail and as immensely important.
The issue facing the General Assembly, then, is not trivial. In a comprehensive article on this matter the leading German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg concludes:
'Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of scripture. Those who urge the Church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognised homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would no longer stand on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of scripture.
‘A church which took such a step would thereby have ceased to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.’
If we take the Bible with any seriousness at all Pannenberg is right. We are in the position of Tevye at the end of Stein’s musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ The Jewish family had had to make many adjustments to the pressures of modern society, but Tevye would not let them marry outside the faith - they would no longer be Jewish. Identity has its limits. In the same way but at a far more fundamental level same-sex practice takes us outside Apostolic Christianity. The Committee’s proposal is a ‘casus belli’, a cause of conflict which they have started.
Can love ever be sinful? Yes: when it engages in sexual relations outwith man-woman marriage. The Kirk does not have the freedom she thinks she has. Either we remain within one holy, catholic, apostolic church or we allow services for the blessing of same-sex partnerships. We cannot do both.
C Peter White
* eg The Jewish historian Josephus says, ‘What are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that of a man with his wife. It abhors the mixture of a male with a male. It prescribes punishment for anyone guilty of adultery, of forcing a virgin, of attempting sodomy with a male, or submitting to the same if another attempts it on him.’ Similar comments from 200BC to about 150 ADView All Letters