21st Century Challenges: Not Allowing Ourselves to be Defined by Sexuality

It may seem more than a little strange to include this issue as one of the major challenges facing the church in the 21st Century, but the sad reality is that it is. The glaring evidence for this can be seen in the way the church in many parts of the world has allowed itself to be backed into a corner over this aspect of its teaching. In doing so has allowed not only its own credibility to be called into question, but that of the gospel as well.

This situation has not arisen suddenly. For four decades and longer the Bible and the role of women – especially when it comes to holding office in the church – has been hotly debated among those within the church as much as with those on the outside. In many denominations this has led to a deliberate shift away from the belief that the offices of elder (both those who teach and those who lead) and of deacon are intended only for males in the church.

Although this shift in church practice was welcomed by many it was not the end of the discussion – even for those churches that had embraced it. The focus of debate moved on to the church’s attitude to homosexuality. Again, even though the church in light of the Bible’s teaching has long debated this issue, the issue now being brought to the fore was the desire of some to approve homosexuals for ordination to the Christian ministry.

It came to the fore in both the United States and in Britain with a number of high profile cases that were highly publicised in the media[1] and inevitably intensified the pressure on those who opposed such appointments. The net effect of this for those who refused to support such a move was not only for them to be portrayed as ‘anti-gay’ in the liberal press, but for the gospel to be cast in that light as well.

We are not suggesting for a moment that these battles over what the church believes and practises should not have been fought – scripture demands that they must. We are, however, suggesting that the church has given them a profile that has led to confusion over what ultimately defines the church. Especially because in a number of instances the issue of so-called ‘gay ordination’ has become the catalyst for secession from wider church bodies.

Those who support the ordination of homosexual clergy (along with homosexual behaviour and same-sex marriage) have raised a valid question over making this particular issue the Rubicon from which there is no going back. They rightly point to other major debates that have divided the church over the past half-century – the authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ and the nature of the resurrection to name but a few – and ask why these more fundamental issues have not provoked the same reaction from evangelicals. And therein lies the problem: evangelicals, perhaps unwittingly, have allowed the secular world to set the agenda for the church and give the impression that it is our human sexuality that defines us as individuals and as communities.

Let me reiterate, this doesn’t imply that this debate should not be taking place. These are hugely important issues and the church needs to be clear on them. But to elevate them to a status above that of the authority of Scripture or the bodily nature of the resurrection is to send wrong signals.

Contrary to popular evangelical belief, Christ does not reserve is harshest condemnation for the sin of homosexuality; he directs it against religious hypocrisy. And the fact that it is so often the teachers of the law and the Pharisees[2] who are on the receiving end of his harshest words in the Gospels is because the Pharisees’ roots as a movement were as the evangelical party of their day. Their motivating concern was for theological orthodoxy and moral purity and their name, ‘Pharisees’ [Separated Ones], pointed to their tendency to separate themselves from those with whom they differed. Yet in so doing they succeeded in distorting the notion of ‘grace’ that lies at the very heart of the biblical message of salvation they claimed to defend.

Interestingly, it was often in the face of Jesus’ attitude to those who had fallen into sexual sin that their antagonism towards him was most pronounced – seen notably in their confrontation with him over the woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn 8.1-11). But, without minimising the seriousness of such sin, Jesus repeatedly exposed their own particular transgression as far more sinister – not least because of its implications for those who followed them (Mt 23.15).

How, then, should the church face this particular challenge that has been a defining mark of 21st culture? A number of ways in particular come to mind.

  • By recognising the church’s own part in the confusion over sexuality that has arisen during the past 50 years – its approach has too often been negative and reactionary instead of positive and instructive.
  • By being less awkward about the Bible’s presentation of human sexuality – not just in relation to sexual behaviour, but as a key component in what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God (Ge 1.26-31).
  • By providing support for those who have fallen into sexual sin and remembering the gospel reaches into their lives also.
  • By making use of the many helpful resources that have been made available in recent years that provide a fuller perspective on how the church should relate to those who are homosexual.[3]

We are not ultimately defined by our sexuality as human beings. We are all made in the image of God (Ge 1.26-27) and we have all fallen from the glory of that God-given image (Ro 3.23). The gospel’s bottom line in what defines our human identity is found in the words of an erstwhile Pharisee who became the foremost missionary of the church: ‘By the grace of God I am what I am!’ (1Co 15.10).


[1] Gene Robinson in the Episcopal Church US (2003), Jeffrey John in the Church of England (2003) and Scott Rennie in the Church of Scotland (2009) are the three examples that stand out, not only because of the media attention they generated, but because of the impact they had on the unity of their respective denominations

[2] Witness the ‘seven woes’ he directs against them (Mt 23.1-39)

[3] For example, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield (Crown & Covenant Publications) 2012, Is God Anti-Gay? Sam Allberry (The Good Book Company) 2013

 

Mark Johnston

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