Monday, 4 August 2008

A response to Gene Robinson on homosexuality

Introduction

To the inexperienced mind many icebergs look quite safe. Seeing only the small tip above water, it is perfectly understandable to ask what the fuss is all about in seeking to give them a wide berth. However the fuss is quite justified, for although the presenting issue may seem trivial, underneath it exists a mountain of ice sufficient to sink one’s ship.

The illustration surely stands for the current crisis over sexuality within the Anglican Communion. Many a church member seems to wonder what the fuss is all about. Shouldn’t the church be giving its energies to more pressing issues? The fact is however, that although homosexuality is the current presenting issue, beneath (or behind it) lie very serious issues indeed - the authority of scripture and the nature of repentance to name only two. The question cannot therefore be ignored. For scripture is nothing less than the foundation on which Christianity itself is built, and repentance is nothing less than the means by which we receive salvation.

Having said this, we must also question the assumption that homosexuality in and of itself is a trivial issue. Most important for Christians is that ignoring it is to permit or even encourage an activity that the Bible deems sinful. And sin is never trivial. Yet in terms of the impact of homosexuality on others too, it is far from a minor issue. Consider here the following quote from the American College of Pediatricians which as far as I am aware is not a religious body, but one that is simply concerned to promote policy on the basis of scientific evidence. Support for these assertions can be found in the footnotes on the website:

Violence among homosexual partners is two to three times more common than among married heterosexual couples. Homosexual partnerships are significantly more prone to dissolution than heterosexual marriages with the average homosexual relationship lasting only two to three years. Homosexual men and women are reported to be inordinately promiscuous involving serial sex partners, even within what are loosely-termed "committed relationships." Individuals who practice a homosexual lifestyle are more likely than heterosexuals to experience mental illness, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, and shortened life spans. Although some would claim that these dysfunctions are a result of societal pressures in America, the same dysfunctions exist at inordinately high levels among homosexuals in cultures were the practice is more widely accepted. Children reared in homosexual households are more likely to experience sexual confusion, practice homosexual behavior, and engage in sexual experimentation. Adolescents and young adults who adopt the homosexual lifestyle, like their adult counterparts, are at increased risk of mental health problems, including major depression, anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, substance dependence, and especially suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

The facts seem quite clear. To allow the promotion of homosexuality as a valid form of sexual experience is to encourage what is damaging to those who practice it. The quote above doesn’t even mention the physical damage that results from homosexual sex. We might respond that this is the individual’s choice. But we should realise that affirming that choice has already opened the door to the promotion of homosexuality in schools and of course by parental example to those adopted by gay parents. In the light of the quote above, we have to acknowledge that this is to encourage children into destructive lifestyles – something that has become a taboo to suggest, and that the media refuse to acknowledge.

Context

The crisis in the Anglican church has actually been bubbling under the surface for some years. Many hoped the agreed resolution of the Lambeth Conference in 1998 might quell this. However despite its statement that: “this conference…believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage” and “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions,” a Canadian Episcopal synod officially approved same-sex blessings in 2002 and a year later a number of US Bishops consecrated an actively gay man (Gene Robinson) as Bishop. So it was that eruptions began. And since then the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle has been consistently and openly pushed by those who are considered liberals, including Gene Robinson himself who took the opportunity last month to promote his views in the Guardian.

No matter how much we might wish for this issue to go away, it will not therefore do so. Moreover, because our press is evidently reluctant to give space to alternate sides of the debate, Robinson’s very public assertion of his views requires public response. It is for this reason that I have used Robinson’s brief article as a platform for commenting on the issue. Do please read it (here) before reading my reflections. It is important to properly hear his views, and they are in many ways representative.

Response

Robinson writes (and speaks) in a gentle way. His article reads as if it is asking questions rather than making bold assertions. In this sense it of course appeals to the reader who seeks to be caring and tolerant as we all should. However in recognising we are creatures of a culture that places tolerance above truth in the list of virtues, we must be careful not to assent to what is written just because we like its manner. For upon a closer look, the article is making very bold assertions indeed.

Robinson’s view of revelation and the church

A lifeless God

The historic position of all Christian churches has been that God has indeed given the Bible as a final and complete revelation. It is therefore ungracious and deeply disrespectful to the thoughtful Christian witness of two millennia to dismiss this with unjustified assertions that it makes God “static,” “lifeless,” “enclosed” in a “box” and “locked up in scripture.” Moreover, with phrases like “for me there is something static and lifeless” and “in my life God seems infinitely more engaged,” Robinson hints that he has little more to back up this view than his own intuition and experience.

The irony here, is that the historic position is that it is specifically because our own intuition, experience and cultural bias is so limited, untrustworthy and impacted by sin, that God in his wisdom has revealed his will in a book. For this alone can be preserved across cultures, discussed and studied in a way that enables the Christian to have their own thoughts and feelings challenged and brought into submission to it (if we can use that word – see 2 Cor 10v5).

Robinson says that his “conservative brothers and sisters seem to argue that God revealed everything to us in scripture. Ever since, it has simply been our difficult but straightforward task to conform ourselves to God's will revealed there and to repent when we are unable or unwilling to do so.” The way this is put is something of a caricature. Of course this process is not always “straightforward,” and requires prayerfulness, humility and subtlety, an awareness of the culture of Jesus’ day and of our own bias. But having said that, only a brief read of the gospels shows how often Jesus declares his message “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near,” and how often he appeals to scriptures written hundreds of years before he lived in critiquing the moral and religious assumptions of his day.[1]

Robinson must therefore be honest. He is actually saying that Jesus’ portrayal of God is “static,” “lifeless” and one that encourages us to “enclose” God in a “box” etc. We must see that in reality his argument is with Christ himself (and the apostles). The truth is that it is God who has deemed it appropriate, adequate and possible to accurately reveal something of his nature and will in a book. Jesus himself taught this, and we affirm it every Sunday when we respond to the assertion: “This is the word of the Lord” with our agreement “Thanks be to God.” (John 5v36-47)

The irony this time is that it is in the very things Robinson rejects, that we genuinely experience the dynamism and life of God just as the disciples experienced the dynamism and life of Jesus; we experience him through the Bible convict us of our failure and sin, challenge the accepted morality or religion of our day as “traditions of men”, and then encourage us with wonderful grace that is willing to forgive and transform all who (in Jesus’ words remember) “repent.”

At this point may I gently suggest that it is the liberal view that in reality “encloses God in a box.” For how does the liberal know God’s will? If it is by what feels or seems right to us, surely this is far more limiting, because our personal or at most cultural convictions become the boundary markers on what God can be like and what his will is allowed to be. Such a view means that conscience, culture or consensus can never be challenged by God because it assumed that these things reflect his mind and spirit. A century after the consensus of the German people was to support Hitler, this view is naïve indeed.

Discerning God’s will

In fairness, Robinson is more subtle here, suggesting that “in the community of the church, together we are able to discern God's will for us - and sometimes that may mean reinterpreting and even changing old understandings of things thought settled long ago.”

It would be nice to assume that what this advocates is nothing more than an acceptance of the trustworthiness of scripture, but with the wisdom to listen to the church universal in its understanding of the meaning of scripture and how it should rightly apply today. However by later commending the idea that the church can choose to over-ride Christ’s teaching that some remarriage is adultery, Robinson reveals his actual presupposition (apparently stated in his book) that scripture is at times in error, and that the modern mind is sufficient to ascertaining what God really wills.

But again, the historic position (and as noted, that of Jesus himself) is that the church is to seek to understand and apply the actual teaching of the Bible, not decide which parts are right or wrong.

Moreover an appeal to the community of the church for authority is astonishing when coming from Gene Robinson of all people, as many pleaded with him and the US Bishops not to proceed with his consecration precisely because it went directly against the consensus of the church. And note how large that consensus was and is: It includes the resolution of the previous Lambeth conference, the mind of every major denomination throughout the world, and that of the entire 2000 years of church history. Yet proceed these Bishops did. And if we are to turn Robinson’s words back on him, we must surely say they proceeded because they “locked God up” in the box of the common mind of only x amount of liberal bishops in one province of the Anglican Communion in one particular decade of church history.

Robinson’s use of scripture

The apostles

Turning now to Robinson’s use of the Bible in support of his views, he writes: “Jesus says a remarkable thing to his disciples at his last supper with them: "There is more that I would teach you, but you cannot bear it right now. So I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you into all truth."” Robinson then comments: “Could it be that God revealed in Jesus Christ everything possible in a first-century Palestine setting to a ragtag band of fishermen and working men? Could it have been God's plan all along to reveal more and more of himself and his will as the church grew and matured?”

What Robinson fails to see here, is that these verses actually make the very point he is trying to counter. They were spoken to the twelve. They were therefore a promise to them not us. Read the context in John 14-16. Jesus here promises that the Holy Spirit would “remind” his apostles “of everything” Jesus had taught them (John 14v26), and not only “lead them into all truth,” but “teach them what is yet to come” (16v13). Now if we want to apply the “leading into all truth” to the church, then we must apply the other points too. But who would claim that we all have perfect memory of Jesus’ words or prophetic insight into the future? These chapters are a promise to Jesus’ disciples, the night before his death, that they would be supernaturally inspired to the extent that they could accurately record his teaching and even know “all” truth. It is precisely because of this teaching that the early church regarded the apostolic letters and gospels as divinely inspired and entirely trustworthy.

So we must answer Robinson in the affirmative to one of Robinson’s questions, but with a slight qualification to his wording: “Yes, God did reveal in Jesus Christ everything necessary in a first-century Palestine setting to a ragtag band of fishermen and working men.” In other words he gave sufficient revelation for the church from then on to study and apply to whatever situations they might face. It is not that he reveals more of himself as the church progresses through history, it is that we have the potential to better understand and apply his revelation given in the Bible as we stand on the shoulders of the interpreters that have gone before us.

Changing views

In making his case that the church is able to “reinterpret” scripture. Robinson goes on to write: “Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, the church was led to permit eating things proscribed by Leviticus, to oppose slavery (after centuries of using scripture to defend it), and to permit and bless remarriage after divorce (despite Jesus' calling it adultery).”

I do want to read Robinson sympathetically, but although this argument is common amongst liberals, it is a desperately weak one. Surely every attentive Bible reader can notice that the Holy Spirit didn’t lead the church to accept unclean foods in the way Robinson wants the church to decide to accept homosexuality. No, the Holy Spirit clearly revealed his will within the New Testament of the Bible – in the teaching of Jesus and through a revelation made to one of his apostles (Mark 7v19; Acts 10v9-23)! Moreover, this was not to contradict what was previously written in the Old Testament, which all along had hinted that the food laws were a temporary requirement intended to set Israel apart from other nations and teach the utter purity required by God’s special people (Lev 20v25-26).

Again, the church didn’t oppose slavery by negating or updating the teaching of scripture, rather it was scripture that inspired the likes of Wilberforce to do exactly what they did! Certainly the Bible encourages slaves to be hard working if their slavery is inevitable, but it also urges them to seek their freedom if possible (Col 3v22-25; 1 Cor 7v21). Moreover, it encourages slave masters to be kind to their slaves, and treat them instead as brothers (Col 4v1, Philemon 15-16). We must understand that slavery in the ancient world wasn't like that of 18th and 19th centuries. Slaves were often respected servants, well provided for and looked after. Moreover, the entire Roman system was built upon them. If Paul had urged slaves to revolt and disobey their masters, the slaves would have undoubtedly suffered.[2]

As for remarriage after divorce; is Robinson really wanting to say that the church’s view of remarriage displays a readiness to sanction something the one they follow taught was adultery? Absolutely not. Those who reject the view that remarriage is always wrong do so (or should do so) because they are convinced by the teaching of Jesus and scripture that it is sometimes permissible (Matt 19v9; 1 Cor 7v15).

I every case Robinson cites, it is in fact by an appeal to the clear teaching scripture that the church has come to the conclusions it has, not by a willingness to contradict, or in his terms “reinterpret” it. In other words, the abuses of the church in the past actually stemmed from being not faithful enough to the Bible’s teaching. And we might add that this is the case with homosexuality too. Of course some Christians and churches have been (and may still be) guilty of inexcusable hostility to homosexuals. But the answer to this is not to say that the Bible encourages this and reject its teaching. It is to show that the Bible not only teaches homosexual sex to be sin that must be repented of, but also teaches the Christian to offer friendship and love to every sinner whilst humbly recognising that every one of us is in need of repentance too.

Sexuality

So it is by the full examination of scripture that the church must come to its conclusions on sexuality. And it is here that Robinson faces a dilemma. For whereas the Bible explicitly abrogates the food laws, implicitly challenges slavery and seems to permit remarriage, it consistently condemns homosexual practice and never, never gives any sense that it might be acceptable.

The liberal lobby love to pretend the issue is just an Old Testament one and equate it with the temporary laws on food. However, they conveniently ignore the fact that OT is very clear that whereas God was concerned only with Israel when it came to food laws, he condemned homosexuality amongst other nations and cultures too (Lev 18v3, 28-20). This law was not therefore culturally bound. And the NT reaffirms this. In a Greco-Roman culture where homosexuality was common we see Jesus clearly stating that the only alternative to heterosexual marriage is celibacy (Matt 19v4-12), and to churches existing amongst a diversity of cultures Paul mentions and prohibits homosexuality itself (Rom 1v24-27; 1 Cor 6v9). Furthermore, the entire NT condemns 'porneia' on (at my count) 24 separate occasions; and it is commonly agreed that 'porneia' refers to all sexual practices forbidden by the OT, including homosexuality.[3]

One oft heard response to the weight of this evidence is to sidestep it entirely by saying that the particular sort of exclusively committed homosexuality some want to affirm just isn’t dealt with by the NT teaching, or that when Paul condemns homosexual acts as “unnatural” (Rom 1v26-27) he is referring not to those who we understand today are gay by orientation, but those who are “naturally” heterosexual but engage in homosexual acts. A number of simple points can be made in response:

1. This implicitly acknowledges that the NT teaching does prohibit the majority of homosexual acts.

2. This is effectively to say that any expression of sin not explicitly mentioned in scripture is justifiable. But this is pedantic to the extreme and opens the door to pretty much anything. The discipline of interpreting scripture has always meant applying its principles to similar though not identical circumstances today.

3. One must ask how we can be so sure the NT writers were not forbidding all forms of homosexual sex including that which is engaged in according to “orientation” and within a committed relationship? Such relationships were not unknown in the ancient world. Indeed, in Leviticus 18v22 it is “lying with a man as one lies with a woman” that is forbidden. And in Israelite society then one was only ever to lie with a woman in the context of lifelong marriage.[4] For a man to lie with a man in this way was effectively to treat them like a wife.

4. Most conclusively, we should note that the teaching of both testaments cited above is directed not to the type of relationship but to the sexual act itself, irrespective of its context. And we just cannot impose our 21st century assumption (that is still unproved) of homosexual orientation being “natural” onto Paul in Romans 1 or Jesus in Matthew 19. Jesus explicitly grounds his teaching in the fact that God “said” at the creation that marriage and sex was to be heterosexual (Matt 19v4; Gen 2v23-24). And it is without doubt that as a Hebrew, Paul’s definition of what is “natural” would be defined on the same basis, ie. by this same creation account.[5] As an aside, I don’t think Paul would be to surprised even if it was proved that homosexual orientation had a genetic basis. For as a Hebrew he also held to the fact that the fall has fractured the entire created order - even down to the genetic level (Rom 8v20).

In the light of this substantial testimony, we must say as firmly as possible, that the issue at stake in the debate over homosexuality is not merely differences in interpretation as is often said. It is whether or not the consistent, substantial and plain meaning of the Bible is to be taken seriously. And here we should also say, again with great irony, that because Robinson’s argument for permitting homosexual sex ignores the Bible's plain teaching, at this point it actually has more in common with the justification of slavery, because this was allowed by sidelining and distorting scripture too.

Conclusion

We started by noting the gentle and tolerant tone of Gene Robinson’s article, and that in our current culture tolerance is the supreme virtue. However, honesty is surely still prized too. And I have to say that I really do struggle to see how Robinson could have written an article that so misrepresents the teaching of the Bible and the historical understanding of the church. We must give the benefit of the doubt and assume this misrepresentation is not wilful. Yet this still leaves us deeply concerned that a senior church leader could make such schoolboy errors. Indeed, we can only conclude that this stems from a prior commitment to affirming homosexuality that is obscuring all objectivity.

Authority

Returning to the iceberg, we must also see the implications of what Robinson (and others) are advocating. He seems to suggest at the very least that the common mind of the church has authority to contradict scriptural teaching. However every Sunday school child knows that Jesus taught that the wise man builds his house upon the rock, and that to build in this way is to listen to and obey what Jesus taught. We must be clear that his teaching, including that propounded by the apostles, is intended to be the foundation of the church (Eph 2v20). To accept the grounds on which Robinson seeks to justify homosexuality is to do the very thing Jesus taught would lead to disaster – build our lives and church upon sand.

Repentance

The other major background issue is that of what it means to repent. When cut to the heart at rejecting Christ, the Jews on the day of Pentecost cried: “What shall we do?” Peter replied: “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

So repentance is necessary to salvation. And we need only read Mark 9v42-49 to see how serious it is when someone teaches that there is an area of sin the Bible forbids that we need not repent of. Rather Christian discipleship has always required a readiness to change one’s mind and life in accordance with the teaching of scripture. Of course this means that some have to make more painful changes than others when coming to follow Christ, but this has never been otherwise.

The seriousness of those who claim to be Christians failing to repent is outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6v9-10: “Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral (porneia) nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Now it is no surprise that the exact meaning of the term translated “homosexual offenders” is hotly debated. But we might note again that homosexuality is also included in the catch-all term translated “sexually immoral,” and because this term denotes the practices forbidden by the OT it more straightforwardly forbids all forms of homosexuality. Having said this, we should not assume that Paul has in mind those who may fall in one of these areas on occasion. His point seems rather to be that those who persist unrepentantly in such sins (even that of slander or greed) will not inherit the kingdom.

In summary

Clearly then, a refusal to turn from homosexual sex is of the utmost importance, as is the decision by Christian leaders to justify it or the refusal by Christian leaders to lovingly oppose it. It not only propagates what science suggests is destructive behaviour, it not only encourages people in sin against God, but it takes an axe to the foundation of the church and is in danger of closing the door to salvation itself. If you disagree with this, then please do so on scriptural grounds. And if you do, please understand nevertheless, that it is for these reasons, out of loving concern and not out of bigotry, that so many Bishops and clergy throughout the Anglican Communion are opposing Robinson’s views and taking a stand on what may at first seem a minor issue.


[1] I count 20 times where Jesus begins “it is written” before justifying his view from the Old Testament. On tope of this we have a huge number of other quotes, including an equating of Genesis 2’s teaching on marriage with God speaking (Matt 19v4-5)

[2] Another issue mentioned by some as akin to the repression of homosexuality is the oppression of women. Yet here too, the Bible is actually radically pro-women when we consider its cultural context. Jesus teaches women, whereas this was considered a waste of time in Judaism. He chooses them as witnesses to the resurrection whereas they were not considered suitable witnesses in his day. And Paul teaches husbands to love their wives as Christ did the church – which would mean a daily dying for their good. Yes he also teaches that wives should submit to their husbands, but it is clear from his teaching to husbands that he intended no license for oppression in this.

[3] O’Brien, Peter. The letter to the Ephesians, (Leicester, Apollos, 1999), p.359, f.n.2; Hauck and Schultz “porne” in the Theological dictionary of the New Testament: Vol VI, ed. Gerhard Kittel, translated and edited by Geoffrey W Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1964), p.590

[4] Wenham, Gordon J. The book o Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (grand Rapids, Eerdmans, p.253

[5] This is probably why he speaks of homosexuality as worshipping and serving “created things” rather than the creator (v25). It is to devote oneself to the act of sex rather than prioritising obedience to the one who has defined how it should be expressed.