At the General Synod of 2012, the Church of Ireland, affirming that 'marriage is part of God’s creation and a holy mystery in which one man and one woman become one flesh' also committed itself to a listening process. Since then, the listening process has been developing through a series of diocesan events, as well as tripartite events where three dioceses came together for discussions. As part of my preparation for our tripartite in Claremorris back in February, I read this little volume, Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love, edited by Paul Brown.
With a range of contributors, the book focuses on a variety of angles and approaches to the subject of homosexuality. Front and centre, the introduction reminds readers of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, which is a good message for every person without exception. Everything else that is said comes within this context, particularly with regard to the fact that the gospel impacts people in two ways: 1. It tells us how we can be right with God; 2. Those who believe in Jesus Christ begin a new life. These are helpful reminders, because everyone without exception is a sinner, so everyone needs to repent, not just one specific type of person.
Kenneth Brownell kicks off chapter one by 'Learning from the past.' Prompted by the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop, he asks the question 'How have we got to this point in the western church?' Tracing the path from the first apostles to today, he counters those who argue that earlier generations of Christians previously welcomed and accepted homosexual practice. 'I will show that there is no need to revise our understanding of the church's historic position on the practice of homosexuality.' Thus he points to the early church which was 'born into a social context in which male homosexuality was tolerated and widely practiced' - yet the church fathers condemned the practice just as Paul had. Through the medieval period, the 'doctrinal consensus was maintained.' He looks at the argument that 'spiritual friendships' or 'passionate friendships' were actually homosexual relationships, but refutes the claim: 'Perhaps the difficulty is not so much with the language of friendship in the twelfth century but the shallowness of friendship in the twenty-first century.' From the reformation through the Victorian period and into the twentieth century there was still agreement by all the churches that homosexuality 'was sinful and socially destructive.' He traces the change in culture to the work of Kinsey and secularisation, but reiterates that 'Those who want to remain true to Scripture and its moral standards will have to stand fast and do so confident that they are standing where countless others have stood down the centuries.'
Peter Saunders looks at the issue of genetics. Observing the fact that 'there is no universally accepted definition [of homosexual inclination] among clinicians and behavioural scientists. There is even less agreement as to its cause.' Discussing the spectrum of sexual orientation and its causes, Saunders points out that the scientific research often has vested interests, either for promoting or shutting down findings. Yet science will not ultimately contradict God's truth in the Bible. He then explores the arguments for and against nature and nurture, none of which has been convincingly demonstrated. Rather, he points out, the gay rights lobby presupposes that what comes naturally is naturally good - in stark contrast to the Bible's worldview.
Paul Brown provides a Bible overview on sexuality and marriage in two sections. The first concentrates on the creation pattern found in Genesis 1&2 - the 'like opposite' of man and woman, seen in practical emphases on sexuality, marriage, family, it being a divine institution, and also commenting on singleness. 'Marriage is, by definition, a one-flesh union between a man and a woman. Refraining from sexual intercourse is obligated on all who are not married, whether hetrosexual or homosexual.' In the second part of the chapter, he moves on to consider life in a fallen world, in which 'the results of the fall have affected every area of life including the sexual.' Polygamy and divorce may have happened in the Old Testament, but they are not God's ideal. How much more, then, the firm prohibition of homosexual practice, which is never tolerated. He then gives the reminder of how forgiveness and restoration can be found in Jesus, as we are given the power of the Holy Spirit to change.
Chapter four comes again from the pen of Paul Brown as he tackles the relevant passages on the Bible and homosexual practice. But these are not just random prooftexts - they are to be seen within the context of the previous chapter which displays God's will for marriage and sexuality. He points out that the incident of Sodom in Genesis 19 isn't just the crime of hospitality deficiency, because homosexual rape is the intention. It is to be considered in the context of the sins of the Canaanites, which God had already said to Abraham were great, but not yet to the full measure. Interestingly, the first instance is mentioned and referenced in the last reference (Jude 7). The Leviticus passages 'come in a context in which the people of Israel are strongly urged not to follow the practices of the Canaanites' - so this is a counter-cultural call. After a brief mention of Judges 19, the focus switches to Romans 1. Here Brown makes the connection between Romans 1 and Genesis 1, because of the context of creation. The dishonorable passions are contrary to nature - that is, as God intended, not just what feels natural to the individual. Sadly, the discussion of 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 were both minimal, although the point is helpfully made that homosexual practice is not the only sin - there are many sins within the list, all of which exclude people from the kingdom of God. Despite there only being a few references to homosexuality (all of which condemn the practice), the Bible isn't 'a collection of varied autonomous texts'. Rather, there is a fundmental unity and consistency within the whole Bible.
Roger Hitchings tackles the question of equality for whom? In my view, this was the weakest chapter. Using the same idea as Don Carson, a la the changing definition of tolerance, he argues that the gay lobby is actually intolerant of Christians and religious communities. His survey of which laws had changed is now hopelessly out of date, given that gay marriage is now lawful in England and Wales. There are some helpful ideas here, amongst the unhelpful.
Declan Flanagan then proposes a pastoral response in the local church. This is great! He reminders pastors and readers in general that 'Someone seeking help does not want to encounter a formula, but a person with whom they can relate.' He then sets out some steps (in an unformulaic way!) to help those helping others: 1. Know yourself, in terms of inner attitudes and questions; 2. Know and declare the truth - not in isolation, but as the whole counsel of God; 3. Acknowledge the difficulties; 4 Challenge the lies; 5. Understand the varieties of orientations; 6. Distinguish between temptation and sin; 7. Develop a carefully considered approach. This framework is useful for anyone in pastoral ministry, with any issue or struggle.
The closing chapter is a personal story. Martin Hallett of the True Freedom Trust writes of how he began to feel attraction to other men, and his new lifestyle. He writes of trying to convert a Christian to the gay lifestyle, and through that contact being converted to Christ. From there, he highlights the work of the True Freedom Trust, which helps those experiencing same-sex attraction.
This book is a good introduction to the various angles and attitudes to homosexuality, seeking to present clearly and pastorally the good news of Jesus for all. Those seeking to work out the issues will find much that is useful and helpful, and this is a volume that I will return to time and time again. Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love is available from Amazon.