Why these pictures? Read on!
How do the Church and society respond to issues of Sexuality? In some senses it’s an issue or question that’s very easy to answer. Poorly – in my view, but if I asked for a show of hands, how many of you think the church treats sexuality issues well? Consider the lists of the well-known Christian pastors, Priests, preachers, and apologists, who have had run into sexual misbehaviour problems at various times. Each year several more names get added to the list. The church has a tendency to initially deny the accusations, which is normally followed by much handwringing as they say: “we had no idea what was happening”, and then they end up withdrawing from sale everything the individual ever published.
However, there are victims who have been hurt – and sometimes badly, and we are called to help them – the victim must always come first. We must seek to pray for, value, treasure and honour the victim, as well as try to bring some aspect of healing, and pray for the recovery of their hope, and faith – however that ends up looking. We weep with those who weep.
The perpetrator must always come second. But should we trash everything the perpetrator said or wrote, even writings previously considered insightful and valuable? Probably, each individual will have to work that out for themselves before God. Speaking personally, even if the perpetrator has spoken/written the words of angels, we won’t be able to quote from them in public for a generation, so maybe there is no point treasuring any of their words – but I guess it depends on the scale of their failure.
We stand with, and support, the victim, bringing them the healing of God, in whatever form we can. However, our God doesn’t just want to take the victim into his arms and care for them, He wants the perpetrator to repent and make themselves right in His eyes – He doesn’t bin them in the way we do. Although God wants to restore them, it won’t mean a restoration to whatever they were previously doing, but they can be restored not the life of the church (See 2 Cor 2: 6-8). So, how do we work that all out, without making the pain of the victim worse. These issues were explored by Premier Christianity on the death of Jean Vanier of L’Arche on their website, after he was found to have feet of clay: https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/I-was-wrong-to-call-Jean-Vanier-a-living-saint.
As I’ve just personally demonstrated, I struggle with these issues, and Churches really don’t know how to handle issues relating to sex. It’s all seen as a bit grubby and probably stems from the Dualistic (Gnostic) ideas that material, or the body, is bad, and the spirit, good. In recent centuries, the church has always been uncomfortable talking about sex, seeing it as sinful, and this is probably another reason why it is easier for many churches to ignore, or have nothing to do with, the LGBTQ+ community.
I wonder whether a few more hands would go up if the same question we asked at the beginning was asked about society? Regardless of numbers, my conversations and my experience tell me that neither the church nor society handle things well.
To illustrate both areas, one of my friends was talking about someone who had been asked to leave their church by their Pastor because they were gay. On one of my visits to a church south of the river in London, I heard it was not unusual for them to attract Christians who had been asked to leave churches they had regarded as ‘home’, because they were LGBTQ+. This church has been superb in offering these folks a place they can worship God in freedom, and without judgement – a rare thing. This can also be said of the Metropolitan Community Churches across the globe, a church whose leaders come from the LGBTQ+ community but who are committed to supporting the marginalized and vulnerable in society.
However, normally, huge damage has already been done to these, usually young – but not always, Christians. I know that when I left one previous church, I had felt damaged, and I’m straight and getting on a bit! I hadn’t been rejected, though it felt a bit like that. I happened to be walking in the opposite direction to the church, since I could no longer support an anti-LGBTQ+ stance. I chose to leave, but I find the idea of being asked to leave a home church with little warning, inexcusable. I’m sure it is one of those things that makes Jesus weep. How do you stand before Jesus and explain why you made someone leave your church, someone who is already wondering why God made them like this, and feeling wretched because God seems to have gone quiet? Then you come along and complete the rejection with a good verbal kicking.
On the other hand, looking at society, you have the story from early June 2019, when we saw the dreadful attack on two lesbians on a late-night bus in London by a group of kids who presumably thought they’d have a laugh at someone else’s expense. (See https://metro.co.uk/2019/06/07/police-arrest-suspects-gay-couple-attacked-bus-9870237/). They are sadly not alone. I’ve heard folk tell of being followed, before being attacked for being gay, or trans, and I quote some of these stories throughout my writings. However, my impression is that British society, in general, although not yet fully embracing, is a lot more accepting of those in the community, certainly in recent years.
Around c112AD, Pliny, who was the Roman governor of Bithynia (which we think of as in Turkey) wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan asking for advice about how to deal with Christians, because they were not worshipping the Roman gods. He wrote:
“I have hesitated a great deal in considering whether any distinctions should be drawn according to the ages of the accused; whether the weak should be punished as severely as the more robust; whether if they renounce their faith they should be pardoned, or whether the man who has once been a Christian should gain nothing by recanting; whether the name itself, even though otherwise innocent of crime, should be punished, or only the crimes that gather round it.” https://earlychurchhistory.org/politics/plinys-letter-to-trajan-about-christians/ [Emphasis mine] See also: https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/pliny/ and other versions in other places!
The phrasing I have emphasised is basically asking “do I punish them for the simple fact of being Christian, or for the actions of being Christian?”. These days Christians need to answer the same question: Are you punishing the Christian Gay for being gay (regardless of whether they are in a relationship), or for the actions of being gay (of what you think they do once in a relationship)?
It’s a little ironic that we Christians used to be the victims, but now we are the prosecutors, the jury and the Judge, and where Jesus offers us mercy and grace, we get angry and push people out. Jesus told a story about being forgiven and then needing to extend forgiveness to others, didn’t he? (See Matthew 18: 21-35, esp. v32)
So, both the church and society treat sexuality badly, the church especially so, because our standards should be so much higher than the society around us – we should be modelling “the new way of being human”- as N.T Wright calls it. God calls us to live lives filled with His Spirit. He calls us to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10: 16). In my chapter 4, I discuss the idea of really taking the texts of the Bible seriously – by that I mean get to grips with the underlying message and meaning. Part of the problem with discussing sexuality, is the inflammatory language many people use, when talking about those who are gay. We, the established church ‘know’ what the Bible says, so we don’t stop to double-check, and we also never ask the questions:
- Are the people we think of as gay, the same people the Bible writers were talking about? Would the writers look out today and say “yes, that’s them”, or “No, that’s not at all who I meant!”
- Are we certain we are not comparing apples to pears?
Additionally, we must seriously deal with the issue of recognizing that people aren’t gay by choice. No-one who simply calls gay folks, “sinners”, has ever spent any time sitting down with, and listening to, the backstory the gay person has experienced. That critic needs to ask themselves whether their mind that isn’t just closed, it’s locked. As I have repeated many times in various places, the issue of ‘choice’ is the elephant in the room. If LGBTQ+ folk have chosen their lifestyle, there may be a moral argument from Scripture that might be used. If they have no choice, we must correct our theology and see where the grace and mercy of God leads us. Clearly, after all the people I’ve spoken to, and all the books and web pages I’ve read, and all the interviews on radio and TV, I know choice is not involved. If you aren’t sure, allow your mind to open up, and go and explore the issue just like I did – you may come to a different (whether that be radically, slightly or a nuanced) conclusion to me, but do the work. Don’t just ignore the issue – for Jesus’ sake.
Then, as we explore Scripture, we need to look at everything written there – not just the English words used, but the situation and context of the passage, who it was written to, what the writer was addressing, and what their hearers understood them to be saying. When looking at the Old Testament writings we can seek out the writings of those who are experts in understanding the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrashic literature, which are early scrolls written by Rabbi’s as companion texts to clarify or expound the Hebrew Bible – as I said in chapter one if you have read that yet. I guess we could call them early versions of a Bible commentary. Don’t forget the cultural context – What we read in the Bible was written during the Bronze and early Iron Ages (and some of that is reflected in the text) – it wasn’t written last week in Clapham. That’s not meant to disparage Scripture, it is an extraordinary book inspired by God with a wealth of teaching we can apply to our lives today.
One of the things that troubles me, is that the contexts of most of passages used by Christians to address the LGBTQ+ community, are passages dealing with pagan worship/idolatry, or abuse. They do not address what we are looking at today. Then, when you look at the person of Jesus, his ethics and teaching, the rest of the arguments lose all their credibility, or as folk say round here: “Yer jaikets hangin’ oan a shoogly peg”! (No translation needed!)
In the chapter, I argue that we shouldn’t just go to the backgrounds of various texts when it suits us, but also for any story we really want to understand. In fact, you can argue we should go and look at the background and see what other things we can learn about any story, because that helps us to more fully understand the text that we’ve been left in the Bible. Having said that, I personally don’t do that unless it is an issue I regard as key, or maybe something comes up in a Bible study. But where there are important issues, I thoroughly read around the problem. I remember at school, facing kids who loved to try and pick holes in what I believed, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to second-guess where people will attack the weak points of any argument – as you’ve guessed from my writings!
My rule of thumb is that I find out what I can about the story, and if there are still unresolved issues or conflicts, look at what we are told and taught about Jesus, and then imagine how he would fit into a given passage. When I was much younger, we were encouraged to ask: “What Would Jesus Do?” and they tried to sell us bookmarks and bracelets, keyrings and cards, mugs and mats all with WWJD emblazoned on them. Having just stopped to check, I find they are all still available – oh how grim! We need to engage with the message, but I hate the cheap tatty commercialism – not that I have any strong views!
Moving further into the chapter, I take a look at the difficult situation confronting the Anglican communion, where part of the church would like to be inclusive, but a large part of it, led especially by the African churches sees the direction as being close to apostacy. The African churches see LGBTQ+ issues as being a Western disease and not one that involves true Christians in Africa. Where African Gay Christians appear, it is seen as a sinful lifestyle choice, that must be repented of and changed, forcefully if necessary. Without doubt it is a fallout from colonialism where Western Missionaries came into Africa preaching against same sex relationships, and teaching Africans it was evil. The African churches have ignored the fact that there are pre-colonial documents describing the incidence of same-sex behaviour, but these are denied as fake. I have quoted some of these documents in the chapter. Unfortunately, the pressure from the African churches will probably eventually lead to a split in the Anglican communion at some point, though Archbishop Justin has done a good job so far.
I personally know LGBTQ+ African Christians who have fled the continent because of the hatred they have experienced. Some came here after being physically attacked, and some came here out of fear of being found out. When they arrive in the UK the Home Office usually wants proof that they are gay and come from a country that is antagonistic towards the LGBTQ+ community. Sometimes countries are theoretically accepting, but when you look closely, any local communities will punish those who are found out. If you have been brought up to be a Christian who doesn’t approve of sex outside of marriage, how do you prove to the Home Office you are gay? Some have been forced into a series of relationships just so they can make a stronger case and not be sent back. How can that be right?
As I progress through the chapter, I make the point that scientifically we see same sex behaviour in much of nature and I quote examples. Furthermore, I make the point that every aspect of our bodies is on a spectrum of one kind or another. (Here is where the pictures at the top start to make sense!) So, for example our ears are different shapes and sizes, our eyes are different from others to the extent that we can use eye scans in place of Passes or passwords, to grant us access to areas of buildings. Some people have big or wide noses, with large airways, whilst others are so narrow it’s difficult to breathe easily, or a mixture of the both. Our hands and arms are different shapes and sizes, and if you insist I go there, so are our genitals. Our intellects, mental capacity, interests, likes and dislikes/tastes, moods and reactions are very different. We can be tall or short, fat or thin. Our body-lengths and sizes are different as are our legs and feet. Some people have difficulties getting shoes to fit, because whilst the length might be fine, the width isn’t. We can drill down so much further. How far do you really want to go? We talk about each person being unique, but then with our Christian hat on, we say that uniqueness doesn’t extend for some strange reason to our sexuality and orientation, where suddenly everything is binary – black and white, instead of the colour seen in the rest of our body. It seems illogical, and quite frankly, daft, and ill thought through.
Note that I am not saying that diversity is equal across the ranges. In each category there will be a majority or typical group, and the exceptions at either end will be relatively small, but almost everyone will have something they don’t like about themselves, something different to many others or something that is a nuisance. Nevertheless, even in the majority or typical group, there will be a huge range of differences.
Towards the end of the chapter, I look at the statistical likelihood of people being born as LGBTQ+ and making the point that with all the diverse types of bodies we have, it is entirely to be expected that some will be gay and others trans – in fact, it is extremely UNLIKELY there would be no-one in this category. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community is something observed across the globe in every country and culture. In some countries it is hidden, but where there is no threat of persecution, the incidence percentage is normally around 6-8%.
Christian folk who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, have been made in the image of God, exactly as the rest of us, and God will bless and honour them – Isaiah confirms that. So, let’s make sure we stand with, respect and encourage them.