Same Sex Marriage: Ethical and Pastoral Reflections

Posted by on Oct 6, 2015 in Blog | 21 comments

A few weeks ago I participated in a forum looking at Sexuality and the Church. A particular focus of the day was on same sex marriage and the ethical and pastoral implications that it invites us to consider. I’ve had more than a few requests for the paper I presented, and have been asked to repeat the talk a number of times (twice in this week alone). So I thought I would share it on the blog as well.

Please feel free to post comments – and they certainly don’t have to be in agreement with what I have said – or with what others may (or may not) say (though agreement is fine!). I realise that this is one of the big issues of the day, and that sincere Christians are finding that they sometimes disagree with each other. It is one of the reasons that a genuinely open discussion is needed.

One plea: This is to further the discussion on this topic. It is a discussion, not a debate. We are not looking for a winning side (and thus also a losing side). It is an exercise in listening and trying to understand – perhaps even beginning to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church at this time. And in the midst of it, let’s pay special attention to those who are trying to faithfully follow Jesus while living with same sex attraction. I salute them, and hold them is especially high honour.

I have presented the paper as given at the forum in Perth. Names of people are changed for obvious reasons.

Thanks for the opportunity of speaking today. It is my task to paint the big picture of the issues facing us as we explore our topic, Sexuality and the Church: Ministering in a Confused Landscape. Of necessity I will work with broad brush strokes, and allow some of the later speakers to delve into the issues raised in more detail. My hope is to provide a bit of the history of Christian responses to questions of human sexuality and particularly sexual diversity, and to give some biblical and theological pointers to the questions facing us, whilst also helping us to understand some of the alternate perspectives propagated.

I usually prefer to speak without paying close attention to my notes, but will largely ignore my preference as there is a lot to get through – so I will be reading my script most of the time.

As I begin, I recognise that I speak from a position of enormous privilege. The struggles I speak of have not really been mine, although they have touched friends and people who are very special to me, and I have been moved, greatly moved, by their pain and struggle. At the same time I am conscious of the enormous blessing that my thirty five year marriage has been to me. Rosemary is assuredly the woman the writer of Proverbs 31:12 had in mind when he penned those wonderful words – A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her. And then there is the richness and joy that my three children and recently my first grandchild, have brought into my life. I have experienced how wonderful and life fulfilling a good marriage and family life is, and I would hate to think that we would ever suggest that alternate relationships are every bit as good or desirable or that they should be viewed in exactly the same light. Family is worth striving for.

True, family can also be a source of great pain. I know that first hand. At a time when divorce was nowhere near as common as it is today, my parents were divorced, and divorced after years of hurt, coldness and distance between them. The financial struggles my mother faced after my father left were real, and most of the following years were spent in a small two bedroom flat which accommodated five of us. Somehow we fitted in. The flat had no garage, but as we didn’t have a car, that was no real hardship. Not that we thought we were poor. My mother passed on to us the gift of being able to be positive in even the gloomiest of circumstances, and constantly reminded us how fortunate we were to live close to the Umbilo 7 bus route, whose buses were often on time, and more frequent than in most other parts of the city of Durban where I grew up.

It was during those early teenage years that my faith became real, and I found the local church I attended to be family to me – more like family than my own. This was accentuated by the fact that at that time my other family members had not come to faith – a situation that changed many years later, but certainly hadn’t changed then.

My faith was zealous and staunchly evangelical and in no time I had my first convert – Grant, who like me was a member of the school’s debating team. His faith grew rapidly and was equally zealous, and in no time the schools Student’s Christian Association had a mini revival. They were great years, and for all the problems in my family of origin, I remember them as enormously happy. Church really was family to me – and the very best of family at that.

A few years later Grant and I were at University together. I was studying the social sciences, he was studying law. I still remember the night that Ian phoned. Ian was another of the converts from those years – and is now a pastor in this city of Perth. He said that Grant had something to tell me and that he would come along as well. It sounded ominous and from the tone I knew it was serious. We got together a little later, and Grant passed on the news he had told Ian a few hours earlier. He said he could no longer hide who he was. He was gay, and he really didn’t know what to do about it. Could Ian and I help? We were stunned. Gay – I had hardly heard the word. Indeed, in the circles in which I moved if you were happy you might well say, ‘I’m gay tonight’ and no one would look at you askance. How language has changed.

We didn’t know what to do – but we grasped onto the slogan ‘prayer is the answer’ and pray for Grant we did. When it was clear that our prayers didn’t make it into the major league, we stepped up the pressure and whisked Grant off to one healing meeting after another. It was to no avail. I still remember the night that Grant said, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t carry on like this. Phil has asked me to move in with him. I’m going to. Goodbye.’

And goodbye it was. The university we were at was large enough for us not to bump into each other, and I never saw Grant again. Years later I heard that he had died of AIDS. I also heard that shortly before his death he had tried, unsuccessfully, to get hold of me. He had passed on a message to someone giving his contact details and asking that I phone him. They forgot to do so. By the time I got it, he was dead. I have often wondered what we would have said if we had got in touch. It is a story that will trouble me to my dying day.

(Move to sit on empty chair)

And it is not just Grant. It’s Tania – a friend in a lesbian relationship; and Sam, who kept pretending he wasn’t gay, until he contracted AIDS and couldn’t hide it anymore; and Meg, a New Zealand friend who started a ministry to transgender people but found what she saw so heartbreaking that she became an alcoholic; and Gavin, who announced to his wife a few years ago that he was gay and… well the list goes on and on. And each story is filled with pain.

I felt it important to begin this talk in this way… and am sitting in this chair to say – this is their chair. Remember them and imagine they are here with us, listening to all that we say today. And ask how they would respond. And of course when you look at this chair, you will add your own names… people you know who struggle with sexual brokenness of one form or another. Could be that the person is you. Shortly I will get into what most will remember as the substance of this paper. But I wanted to start by reminding myself and all of us that today we are not primarily talking about theories or theological positions, but about the lives of real people… like Grant and Tania and Sam and Meg and Gavin. They are what Anton Boisen, founder of the clinical pastoral education movement called, ‘the living human documents’ – as he urged all serious theologians to listen to and read the stories of real people as carefully as they read the pages of theological tomes.

Well, into the substance. What have Christians said about human sexuality and in particular, sexual diversity?

There is a saying that the more things change the more they stay the same.

I have felt a little like this as I have prepared this lecture. Rosemary and I married almost 35 years ago. One of the more surprising wedding presents we received was the then recently published book by Robert K Johnston entitled Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice. Perhaps it says a lot about me that a friend would think that a book with such a title would be ideal honeymoon reading for me, but, whatever its appropriateness for that occasion, it is actually a remarkably good book and is extraordinarily penetrating in its analysis of the issues that divided the evangelical community back in its year of publication, 1979. According to Johnston, these were the debate over biblical inerrancy, disagreements over the role of women in the church and the third, said Johnston, uncertainty over an appropriate response to the ethical and pastoral issues raised by homosexuality. Remarkably, given that this was a 1979 publication, Johnston suggests that disagreements amongst evangelicals over homosexuality represented, quote “the single most important present source of evangelical conflict.” It is now 36 years later, and the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In his book Johnston makes use of James Nelson’s typology of the responses to homosexuality found within the evangelical community. Nelson suggested four key categories rejecting punitive, rejecting non punitive, qualified acceptance and full acceptance. This classification remains essentially accurate today, though the middle two are now dominant and instead of speaking of being rejecting non punitive in their attitudes to homosexual behaviour, people more commonly speak of being welcoming but not affirming and instead of qualified acceptance, we often speak of being welcoming and affirming. So if there has been some advance in the debate, I think it is that we now use slightly more helpful language – though to be honest, I think we’ve still got a fair way to go on this.

However, lest we too quickly explore what in 2015 has boiled down to a two sided debate of welcoming but not affirming versus welcoming and affirming, let’s understand why Nelson originally suggested a four division typology. Whilst the 21st century is more reductionist than the 20th, I think the greater nuance of the 20th century might help us better here.

When Nelson suggested that many Christians had an approach best described as rejecting punitive, he was simply being accurate. This was the 1970’s. In many countries laws against what was called sodomy were in place – and indeed, in 70 countries (about a third of the world’s countries) they remain in force to this day. In 70 countries you can be sent to jail if you engage in homosexual acts

In my zone of the world, after a bitter contest, New Zealand repealed its sodomy laws in 1986. By and large Christians in NZ rallied to oppose the change in legislation – so it is easy to see why in the 1970’s Johnston and Nelson said that the first category of Christian response to homosexuality was to adopt a rejecting and punitive approach. Large numbers of Christians in that not long gone era wanted the legal censure of homosexual acts to remain in force – thus punitive (though the debate had many different nuances). The history of the struggle is well documented in Laurie Guys work, based on his doctoral dissertation, World’s in Collision: The Gay Debate in New Zealand, 1960-1986 (Victoria University Press, 2003).

Given the complexity of the legal structure in Australia as a result of our separate states, the story here has been more complex. In Australia male homosexual acts were first decriminalized in the Australian Capital Territory in 1976, with Tasmania being the last of the states and territories to decriminalize such acts in 1997 after the landmark Croome vrs Tasmania case.

Again, if we want to suggest that the only two Christian responses to homosexuality are between those who are welcoming but not affirming and welcoming and affirming, we too quickly forget that not that long ago many Christians in this country were trying to enforce not just a rejecting approach to homosexuality, but also one that could be legally punitive. Relatively few would hold to this position today, but we should not too quickly conclude that this means that all our churches are places of welcome for those with other than heterosexual desires. Indeed, the reason Johnston said that in 1979 homosexuality was the greatest issue facing evangelicals was the debate between whether Christians should lobby to have homosexual acts remain as criminal offences, or whether such laws should be repealed. So while the debate over responses to homosexuality remains, the issues have changed – from should homosexual acts be illegal to should same sex marriage be legal. The magnitude of this shift should not be missed.

Position 1 outlined by Nelson and discussed by Johnston was then the rejecting punitive approach where Christians felt that all homosexual acts should be condemned and punished – potentially by the law. And in many countries around the world, Christian groups are anxious that this status quo remain – though it is not a position commonly encountered in Australia.

Position 2 was that of being rejecting non punitive – in other words, being rejecting of the morality of homosexual acts, but opposed to any legal consequences being attached to same sex acts between consenting adults. In our era, the terminology has shifted to being ‘welcoming but not affirming’.

While we probably know what it means to not affirm same sex sex, what does it mean to welcome those who are same sex attracted and might indeed be in an active sexual relationship with someone of their own gender?

Back to the living human documents. (Return to chair) I spent three wonderful years as the pastor of Umhlanga Baptist Church in South Africa. Located in a wealthy coastal suburb on the outskirts of Durban the church property had wonderful views of the Indian Ocean, and when my sermons were a tad boring, the congregation could gaze happily out to sea rather than grapple with the complexity of the Greek text before us. We stayed in the manse on the church property, and at the end of most days I would walk our dog Tigger along the tree lined streets of the suburb, chatting to friendly neighbours along the way. The closest neighbours, directly across a quiet road next to the church, were a gay couple. One day as I was walking Tigger, one of those men, David, called out to me. ‘Pastor,’ he said, ‘I just wanted to say thank you for your churches wonderful music.’ Knowing that he didn’t attend the church, and that some other neighbours found our singing far too loud for their liking, I replied, ‘Ah, glad you like it. Can you hear it clearly from your home?’ ‘We certainly can,’ he said. ‘It’s wonderful. Piet and I often go out into the garden on a Sunday morning and look out to sea and hear the glorious singing. We know all the songs now, and we join in, singing along from our garden.’ Opportunistic evangelist that I am, I immediately said, ‘Instead of singing in your garden, why not come and join with us. We’re only across the road. You’re very welcome.’ ‘Thank you,’ replied David, ‘but we wouldn’t be welcome.’ ‘Yes you would be,’ I said. ‘No, we wouldn’t be,’ he replied. ‘Yes you would be,’ I said a little more firmly, for I don’t really like being contradicted. ‘No we wouldn’t be’ he replied as firmly. ‘Yes’- I began, but he interrupted. ‘You are a very sweet man, and I know you mean well, but I know what I am saying when I say, “we will not be welcome”.’ And all I could do was look at the man, and think of him and his partner singing the songs of Zion outside the church walls, deeply convinced that there would be no welcome for them inside. And my heart broke for them. It is still broken.

It is broken because in my more honest moments I realised that they probably wouldn’t have been welcome. If they had been on their best behaviour, it might have been OK. But what if they held hands – as other couples often did. The people at Umhlanga were amongst the nicest in the world – but they would have struggled with that. The welcome would have quickly cooled.

It is so easy to say that we have moved from being rejecting punitive in our approach to LGBTI issues, to being welcoming albeit not affirming of same sex, sex. To move beyond saying that we are welcoming to actually being welcoming strikes me as one of the toughest issues we face. And face it we must.

So let’s then look at this second response to same sex attraction.

The welcome refers to an attitude we should have to all people. Theologically, we know that we are all fallen, broken and sinful people. What is more – we are all both sinners and sinned against. That fallenness expresses itself in different ways… for some in inner anger, for others, in self absorption and narcissism, for others in material greed, for others in gluttony and addictions, for yet others, in sexual brokenness. To some extent, we are all guilty of all of the above, and so how can we be anything but welcoming to any who come into the community seeking for God, and who hope to find God’s forgiveness, guidance and power in their daily lives.

When it comes to sexuality, people who hold to this approach usually say that we must differentiate between sin and the sinner. The church is a place of welcome for all sinners – and that’s everyone. The church is a community where we face our sin and struggle, receive forgiveness, and often find the power to move beyond particular sins which have held us in their grasp – whatever those sins might be.

Andrew Marin has championed the cause of building bridges with the LGBTI community and suggests that there be only one non negotiable orientation – that is that Love is an orientation – to cite the title of his book and DVD series. I rather like that. Love must permanently characterise our approach to all people. Our welcome needs to be genuine and deep. Love must be our orientation towards all.

However we must recognise that in this position, while we are saying that we welcome – regardless of sexual desires or practices – we are also saying that we cannot affirm sexual activity outside of marriage. Furthermore, we define marriage as being between two adults of opposite gender. If the welcome part of this slogan is to mean anything, we must be aware of the enormity of what it is that we are asking of those attracted to people of their own sex. Essentially we are saying that celibacy is their only option.

(Back to chair) When we genuinely love, we instinctively imagine what it is like to be in the shoes of the one we love… True – we are not the other so will never fully know – but a genuine effort must be made. Imagine that the roles were reversed, and that you were being told that because you are heterosexual you can never hope for a sexual relationship with another (unless you change and become gay) – that marriage is forever forbidden, except under circumstances that are likely to prove impossible to meet. How would you feel if this scenario eventuated? It is the one faced by our lesbian sisters and gay brothers.

What we are asking of people who find themselves same sex attracted is enormous, and we lack both integrity and credibility unless we begin by acknowledging this. It is a very tough ask…

Why not simply both welcome and affirm? Well, here are the six reasons I am deeply committed to being welcoming, but would not be able to affirm same sex, sex.

  1. The Bible does not define marriage in same sex terms. It speaks very deliberately and clearly about a man leaving his home to cling to his wife and these two genders becoming one flesh. This is the opening definition of marriage found as early as Genesis 2.
  2. The Biblical vision of marriage is closely linked to the vision of family – a man and a woman whose love can not only enrich their lives, but has the potential to create new life. Clearly this is not a same sex option.
  3. Biblically we are made to complement (in the sense of complete) each other. The Genesis portrait is of the woman being made from the rib of the man. Without a male-female union something is missing – symbolically, a rib or the rest of the skeleton. The language the Bible uses is about becoming more through seeking and celebrating the otherness of this body and life which is so different to mine… and Adam knew his wife and the two became one flesh. I cannot find that if I seek a body that in essence is the same as mine. In same sex relationships I encounter a body that was not made for me. Why not? Because it is simply me with minor variations. No matter how much I might desire a body of the same gender as mine, that body was not made for me – it cannot complete what is lacking in me.
  4. Gay marriage suggests an equality of relationships: gay marriage, heterosexual marriage… whatever, marriage is marriage you know… as though one is as desirable as the other. But is this true for society? Is it really of no consequence? The fifth commandment instructs: ‘Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.’ (Ex 20:12). Westerners that we are, we tend to interpret the command individualistically – if we honour our father and mother our life will be long. Some even wonder why some wonderful children die young – did they violate the fifth commandment? We of course miss that this is a communal command. The society that honours the role of mother and father, that honours family and strives to make it successful, that society will flourish and live long in the land.
  5. Gay marriage implies that frustrated desire is an unacceptable evil that must be rejected. But many desires in life are frustrated – and often our greatest creativity flows from that frustration. If frustrated desire is unacceptable, what are we to say to bisexual people – can they have one husband and one wife – or more? And the question is pertinent as the evidence suggests that whilst an exclusively homosexual orientation is held by relatively few (probably 2-4%), bisexual practices are an option for a far higher percentage. If desire must be satisfied, what about the fairly common bisexual desires… indulging them would make lifelong covenantal love with a single person a near impossibility – indeed, because our age portrays frustrated desire as tragic, increasingly we are told that serial monogamy is the best we can hope for…one partner at a time, but a fair few over a lifetime. The Bible disagrees. Sexual activity cannot be divorced from the concept of covenant – and covenants are not to be broken.
  6. It implies that sex is more important than anything else – it turns a gift into an idol. Let me make a non controversial statement. Contemporary western society worships four idols – money, sex and power and self. Let me now make a more controversial statement: The contemporary western church worships those same four idols – money, sex, power and self. How much does sex matter? A lot – but nowhere near as much as we have started to imply. Why is it that when we say we should model ourselves on Jesus we gloss over his celibacy? We affirm that he was fully human – indeed the full and complete representation of what it means to be human. And yet he was celibate. The inevitable conclusion: Sexual activity cannot be seen as a pre-requisite for a fully human life. And actually it wasn’t just Jesus who was celibate. So was the second most influential person in the rise of Christianity – the Apostle Paul. Add to this the fact that Jesus says that there will not be the giving or taking in marriage in the afterlife, a statement most commentators understand to mean that sex is limited to this lifetime, and you realise that the Bible quietly disagrees that sex is anywhere near as important as our culture suggests it is. This of course works both ways. To those who think it an unbelievable injustice to suggest that someone should be celibate for life, the Bible would say – ‘sex is not an eschatological category… it just doesn’t matter as much as you think, it is not one of those things that lasts forever.’ Equally, to those who think that some sexual sins are near unforgivable, the Bible would equally insistently say, ‘sex is not an eschatological category. It just doesn’t matter as much as you think. It is not one of those things that lasts forever.’

So if these are some reasons why we would welcome people of all sexual orientations whilst not being willing to affirm same sex marriage, is the current legal prohibition of same sex marriage in Australia something we should fight to retain? This is something I have agonised over. Those of you who know and understand me realise that mission and missional relevance is my driving passion. And I have worried, and still do, that strong opposition to gay marriage will create significant missiological obstacles in a post gay marriage world. If this is a debate we are likely to lose (and with Canada, NZ, Ireland, the UK and the USA plus more, all having said yes to same sex marriage… well you have to be a pretty naïve person to say, ‘never in Australia’) – should we fight a battle that is probably unwinnable? Won’t the hurt and ill will resulting make it not worth the cost?

While I am not unsympathetic to the views of those who feel it is simply not worth the inevitable fallout, increasingly I have come to believe that our strong commitment to a biblical view of marriage and family will be one of the key factors that makes faith winsome and compelling. Our faith must be invitational. People must come because of what they see… and they must see large hearted compassionate people living in families that usually (though not always) work. They must see the church as an extended family – for this is indeed a biblical image of church. And they must see that lesbian, gay and transgendered people are deeply part of the family life of the church – given that the biblical portrait of family is more about extended family than nuclear family.

Family is where you belong… and for those who believe, church is family. So will the LGBTI community be part of this church? Absolutely! They already are – though often silently so, not feeling safe enough to share the shape of their particular struggle. If we can birth a more honest church, perhaps we will grow to treasure and value our lesbian sisters and gay brothers as fellow strugglers on the journey of authentic Christ following.

While I have argued for the appropriateness of the welcoming but not affirming response, it would be silly to pretend that it is the only position practicing Christians hold. The third and fourth positions noted in the Nelson typology are qualified acceptance and full acceptance – what we would now usually describe as being welcoming and affirming. Whilst a statistical minority, there is no doubt that their numbers are growing steadily. According to a Barna report issued on 1 July 2015, in answering the question, ‘Do you support the high court ruling in favour of Same Sex Marriage’, 28% of practicing Christians in the US – that is, those who claim a Christian faith and attend a church service at least once a month, said they were either somewhat or strongly in favour, while 66% were somewhat or strongly opposed – the balance being uncertain. 35% of practicing Christians in the under 40 age bracket agreed, so it is clear that a younger generation is less convinced than the older one that same sex sexual relationships should be considered inconsistent with Christian faith.

So what has caused the shift? Here in my opinion are the top 10 reasons in no particular order:

  1. Our culture has shifted in its attitude to same sex relationships. Clearly this has ensured that the issue has remained high on the agenda, although it would be silly and naïve to think that this is the only reason – the underlying issues are actually much more complex.
  2. LGBTI matters are no longer seen as issues of morality but as issues of justice.
  3. Sexuality is now seen as an orientation that is largely involuntary. Whereas Thomas Aquinas thought of same sex longings as one of the lusts… one that anyone could succumb to if they allowed it to grow, we now think it is an orientation that is essentially outside of the individuals control.
  4. Whilst the biblical passages about homosexuality continue to be treated seriously, the hermeneutical debate as to the meaning of these passages has started to take new directions. Traditional interpretations of these texts are being challenged.
  5. There has been a turn to a narrative reading of scripture. Whereas in the past propositional passages were unofficially understood to trump narrative passages, the argument now goes that narrative passages provide the most important frame against which to understand propositional passages. The two stories of homosexuality in the Bible are Genesis 19 and Judges 19 and both are essentially about rape, violence and injustice. Indeed, if you wish to continue to insist that they are primarily about sex, they are more appropriately then classified as passages about bisexuality than homosexuality. Thus while the truly depraved men in Judges 19 do initially ask to have sex with the male visitor to the city, when presented with his female concubine they do not find themselves impotent and unable to be aroused by female company – and indeed, they literally rape her to death. This is heterosexual sex at its ugliest, engaged in by people who clearly have also developed bisexual yearnings. In short, this argument says that the narrative accounts are primarily about promiscuity and violence, and that this should impact the way we read the propositional prohibitions found in the remaining 4 passages that prohibit homosexual relationships.
  6. The church faces a credibility crisis. There is an ever deepening awareness of the churches failure to live up to its aspirational view of marriage due to divorce, sexual scandals and sexual abuse. Who is the church to speak?
  7. We now listen to and encourage people to tell their stories and those telling them are more honest than they were in the past. These stories impact us, and change the way we think.
  8. There is growing recognition that programs to try and get people to change their orientation have largely failed and often caused great harm. If we can’t heal people, perhaps we must just accept them as they are, and trust God for the journey ahead.
  9. Sex has been trivialized, and people both in and out of the church wonder what the fuss is about.
  10. The TV sitcom Modern Family has been a huge success. Full acceptance now simply seems part of being a 21st century person.

While these arguments should be treated with respect, I do not find them ultimately convincing. I worry that Romans 1:26-32 is all too perceptive – that the judgment that God is placing on our society is that we are being given over to our fallen desires. The import of the passage is that God does not intervene in this rebellious journey, but that the consequences of being allowed our rebellious wishes is judgement in itself. And indeed, as we see the dust of death in Western society, we are starting to see the harvest of what we have sown. It is not attractive. Narcissism and cynicism are the new norm. We have lost so much. It is time for the church to be a genuinely countercultural alternative.

My time is almost up. I know that my friends in the empty chair would probably be disappointed that I have committed to being welcoming but not affirming. But to them – and to all strugglers, I would hope that I and all here, can make these commitments and finish with a request.

  1. We will take the journey from being conditionally welcoming to actually being welcoming – and we will try to share some of the pain that you feel because we are unable to affirm your sexual desires.
  2. Love will be our orientation towards you. We want to know your story. It matters to us. As we hear it, we will try to imagine what it feels like to walk in your shoes.
  3. We will try to build local churches that operate as extended families. While not all our members are in a nuclear family, we are all part of the family of the church. And this family must be functional, loving and joyous. If you have a hunger for God, you are part of this family. You belong.
  4. We are a community of the broken. We will try to remember this. When we lapse into being a community of the braggardly, arrogantly judging the sins of everyone but ourselves, please remind us that we are fallen people, forever in need of God’s grace.
  5. We will honour both the married and the single. We will value those whose life path calls them to celibacy, and we will do all that we can to support them in this journey.
  6. If you fall, we will help you to stand up again. If we fall, please help us.
  7. We ask that you will forgive us for our insensitivity and blindness. We would love to promise that it will never recur, but then you would have to forgive broken promises as well. We know that this is not as it should be, but we are deeply conscious that we too are fellow strugglers…

As always, nice chatting… and please feel free to continue the discussion by adding your thoughts and comments.



  1. Thanks Brian for the great overview. I think that one reason why younger Christians are more open to full accepting same-sex couples is that they are persuaded that homosexuality is either innate or due to factors which take away the choice factor. The implication being that if you don’t have a choice, then how can it be wrong? Coupled with the idea that becoming a Christian does not lead to a change in your sexual orientation, they see the only loving thing to do is to accept them as they are, no change required. You mentioned Aquinas briefly, but I wonder if you would like to expand on this area. Love to hear your thinking.

    • Thanks Don. I think your insights are valid. There has definitely been a shift from thinking about this as a moral issue to viewing it as a justice issue. Personally, I think it is always a pastoral issue, one to be engaged in with enormous respect and with a deep listening for the voice of God…

      As regards orientation and choice and Aquinas and the lusts.

      As is often the case in life, I suspect that both are right, though in different circumstances.

      Aquinas, following Augustine, viewed same sex activity as indulging our lust. The importance (and I think deep insight) of Aquinas (and Augustine) is that unlike the language of orientation (oh, that is not me, nothing I have to worry about here), they alert us to the possibility that same sex attraction is possible for anyone (or almost anyone) – it is a lust, which if indulged, will grow, like any other. The biblical support for this is strong. How else do we explain ALL the men of Sodom wanting sex with men. No city has an entire population with a same sex orientation. Likewise, how else are we to explain the huge surge in same sex sex in single sex institutions (such as prison)?

      I think it is important to recognise this as it goes a long way to explaining homophobia – our overly strong response against something which at a subconscious level we recognise could be a shadow lying inside of us. I think it is also one of the reasons the Bible is so strong in its condemnation of same sex sex. It takes the possibility of bisexuality very seriously and sees that if it is allowed to grow, it will destroy the possibility of faithful covenantal relationships.

      The language of sexual orientation is very new, and is also helpful, but probably only to a point. So whereas it is probably true to say that given a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances, most people could find themselves same sex attracted, a small number of people find that this is where they automatically come out – it is their orientation. Clearly resisting same sex sex is much, much more difficult for them. And you are right – some would say, so difficult, that it is an injustice that they should not simply be who they most naturally are.

      I am not dismissive of this view, but ultimately I do not find it convincing for the reasons given in the post. We are made to complement each other through our differences, and the quest for completeness through sameness seems to me to be unlikely to lead to genuine wholeness.

      It is a tough issue…

  2. Wow Brian you have really handled this issue so respectfully, delicately and lovingly and yet so honestly. This is refreshing in it’s tone. I want to particularly pick up on your point that sex is an idol in our society. Same sex attraction is not the only area where people struggle in the church, vast numbers of people are addicted to pornography, this is often hidden from view so as to avoid the shame and glare that admitting to such an addiction would have within the church. It seems that we are living in a sexually liberal and permissive world that has become increasingly difficult to avoid and to abstain from. I guess my question is more in the practical, how do we encourage people to freely and openly discuss these issues, knowing full well that we also are sinners, without coming across as judgemental and unloving?

    • Thanks Desley. You have raised an issue of huge importance, and one which I will probably write a separate post on at some time in the future.

      But do we need a discussion on this – yes. And it needs to be an empathetic discussion. Porn is now everywhere – and people can land up on undesirable sites before they realise it. And it can quickly prove addictive.

      Two quick points I will make for now (and then much more in another post):

      1) When church truly is family, we talk about everything that is real. Nothing is off limits if it affects and impacts our humanity. Pornography has the ability to reshape us and to get us to think of others and our self in a way that does an enormous injustice to our status as beings made in the image of God (albeit that we are fallen image bearers) – so yes, we must talk about it. The quickest way to solve something is to bring it to the light. So let’s stop pretending. Any given Sunday, about 10-30% of the people in the service will have visited a porn site that week (it does differ a little depending on the demographic make up of the congregation). Does it impact the way they worship, their view of self and others – Yes. And we need to speak about it in a way that liberates, rather than one that leaves people feeling alone and condemned.
      2) There is a huge justice (injustice) issue behind the porn industry. Most porn ‘stars’ are not wealthy and leading an exotic lifestyle. Other than for the very successful (if we can use that term), the shelf life of porn stars is short, and the payment received is modest. People usually enter the industry because they are vulnerable, and the industry exploits that vulnerability. At every level it is an industry that exploits frailty… I cannot see any defence for its existence.

  3. Hey Brian, the way the Bible “defines” marriage seems open to interpretation… Would love your take on this article:

    • Thanks Andrew. An interesting little post – and actually it could have gone further. Virginia Mollenkott in her book Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism (New York: Crossroad, 1992) suggests no fewer than 40 forms of family implied in Scripture. Some are a tad imaginative (for example, her number 10, same sex partnerships because the two men on the road to Emmaus say to Jesus, come and stay with us) – but overall her list is worth reading because it is a strong reminder that the nuclear family is not what the Bible has in mind when it talks about family. The Bible thinks in terms of the household or the extended family model – something that I think is of great relevance for today.

      But as to which model of marriage is biblical marriage, lets distinguish between a form of marriage that you read of in the Bible and a form of marriage that is advocated in the Bible. The Bible accurately describes its time and setting, even whilst gently nudging towards a different reality. And yes, especially in the Old Testament era, there were a fair few forms of marriage arrangements that we would no longer deem appropriate (such as having to marry your brothers widow if she had no children). The New Testament teaching on marriage becomes a lot more explicit, and 1 Tim 3:2 and 12 requires a leader to be married to only one person – this at a time when polygamy was still fairly common.

      The little term ‘progressive revelation’ is begging to be used. In other words, the Bible does not present its message in a single package but leads us through a story which gradually gives us a better and clearer sense of the ideal. So, for example, while there are many examples of polygamy in the Bible, almost without exception, they are disastrous. We must pick up the clues from the narrative… time and time again we are shown that such relationships do not work. So by the time we come to the requirement for a one woman, one husband marriage in the New Testament, we are fully aware of the reason why.

      A fairly hurried answer, but hopefully it makes some sense.

      • Completely agree. My take on progressive revelation is that it was never supposed to stop when the Bible was put together in Nicaea. I can understand why Paul thought homosexuality was unnatural (and unhelpful for a small, ever-threatened nation!) when he wrote about it, but evidence is slowly suggesting that sexual orientation does have genetic determinants (I recently finished a course on biological bases of behaviour as part of my doctor of psychology program). Same-sex marriage in today’s world of millions of children without a healthy home seems to offer greater opportunity for God’s idea of a family, that is primarily defined by love, not a certain structure, in my opinion (Matthew 10:35 is an interesting consideration here, too…)

        • Thanks Andrew. While I certainly agree with progressive revelation within Scripture, I would be a lot more cautious about speaking about it post Scripture. I do think that we come to deeper and more significant insights into the biblical text over time, and value Clark Pinnock’s idea of past, present and future meanings of the text.

          For me it is about a consistent trajectory – so we see the wider significance of texts over time, but the insight is not inconsistent with what went before – just another step in a journey. To me that plays itself out logically when we explore issues like slavery and attitudes towards women – the text gives us multiple liberating hints that we have taken centuries to fully grasp (and sometimes have yet to fully grasp).

          The obvious question to ask is will it be the same with questions of sexual orientation. Time will tell, but I am doubtful, simply because when we read scripture on this question, we get a pretty uniform response of ‘don’t even go there’. I don’t see any passages that point in that direction (i.e. passages that imply that same sex sex is sometimes OK). Of course it does depend on your hermeneutical approach. If your prime emphasis is on specific passages and texts, there seems to me to be very little room for a change in position. If the emphasis is on broad themes within scripture, that is a different matter, and you could argue that themes like love and justice trump the concerns of particular texts – but as you will have gathered from my paper, that is a path I personally would be uneasy to tread. Seems to me that we can then too easily read our preferences into the text. But no question about it – this is a zone where many are starting to do some re thinking.

  4. Brian, I am a strange person to reply to your post. I confess and apologise to the fact I have not been polite at points in the past.

    Thank you for your essay on the Homosexuality and the Church in the seminar at the Mt Pleasant Baptist Church. I might comment on it at another time. But for the sake of brevity I will focus on your reply to Donald Smith. As Donald would phrase it I am one of those people who are both welcoming and accepting of so called homosexuals. I would rather call them people. Yes life would be simpler if I was homosexual but I have an addiction to women, not men. And at 54 I fail to qualify as a young person.

    And yes I am going to use John Boswell (1947- 1994) again. I have had “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality” for nearly 20 years. Because we have the same surname I need to remind you and tell your readers that John Boswell is not related to me. If he was, the connection would have occurred prior to 1842 when my ancestor Boswell arrived in Australia from Scotland. I do not know John Boswell’s ancestry.

    I need to start acquiring other pro-gay theological writers like D.S. Bailey. One reference is not sufficient to pontificate on.

    In his fourth chapter entitled “The Scriptures” Boswell looks at Romans 1:18-32. (Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Printed in 1994), pp. 109f)
    The first point is that much of Romans 1 is about the ‘divine retribution’ on ‘all the impurity and wickedness of men and women who in their wickedness suppress the truth’ (Romans 1:18). Homosexuality is only two or three verses of evil. Indeed it could be argued that the real evil is supressing the truth. The references to male homosexuality and lesbianism are illustrations of suppressing the truth. Indeed the verses in which men and women give up their natural desires for sex with the same sex (v. 26f) and animals (v.23). Hence, we might be overstressing homosexuality.

    The other problem is that the writer of the New Testament did not even think of sexual orientation but of actions. Males giving up natural relations for sex with over males are what Paul would have seen. There is no evidence that Paul distinguishes between permanent gay lovers and heterosexuals or homosexuals on a gay fling. The ambiguity cast doubt on using this verse to prohibit some sex relationships for Christians.

    I have the same problem with that conclusion as I have with much of the anti-gay propaganda; it is a tad too legalistic. When Paul wrote Romans, he was not submitting for a mark at a theological college.

    Michael Boswell

    • Hi Michael. I had wondered if you were related to John Boswell – thanks for clarifying that. And thanks for your thoughts on Romans 1.

  5. Nice summary Brian. The Christian community has a lot of bridge-building to do over this issue and your presentation provides a foundation for this. There is however a justice issue that ought to be determined prior to the theological or moral issues concerning same-sex marriage, at least in a liberal democracy. Moral propositions, whether they are theological or philosophical, are expressed in emotivist terms (I approve X for A, B, and C reasons). The justification used for the approval of X can be biblical or philosophical but there is no mechanism (in philosophy or theology) that allows one proposition (I approve X) to trump another (I don’t approve X). This epistemological problem will always define debates over complex moral issues and it also provides an explanation for why moral debates are often so shrill. A liberal democracy allows people to hold opposing views and to act on those views as long as no harm is done to others. The freedom to be and do in a liberal democracy is not absolute however. Concepts like freedom of speech and freedom of religion are non-sense in absolute terms because rational moral agents ought to reject both hate-speech and female genital mutilation. In Australia, the justice issue for marriage equality is nuanced by freedoms and limitations associated with a liberal democracy. The Christian community regards marriage (either formally or informally) as a sacrament and this ought to be respected by advocates for same-sex marriage. Similarly, people in the LGBTI community seek formal recognition of their loving relationships and the Christian community ought to respect that this request is consistent with freedoms associated with living in a liberal democracy. Because the marriage equality debate involves equivocation on the concept of marriage (sacramental or legal) my own view is that the State should have no role in deciding what type of adult relationships people engage in. If Australia does decide to change the legal definition of marriage it will have zero impact on the sacramental view of marriage as articulated by the Christian community. We are not heading toward marriage equality at all but toward two different and incommensurable types of marriage.

    • Thanks Philip. A really helpful addition to the discussion. I think your final sentence is an inescapable truth… We are not heading towards marriage equality at all but toward two different and incommensurable types of marriage.

  6. “6 It implies that sex is more important than anything else – it turns a gift into an idol.”
    Yes! That is what our society believes, and I think it’s an important reason that people see the church’s stance on same sex marriage as a justice issue. Many people, including Christians, never entertain celibacy as a viable option. “I don’t have the gift of singleness” (1 Cor 7:7). It’s interesting to unpack the implications of what Paul says here, but I don’t think it’s an out for anyone who just thinks celibacy is too hard.

    • Thanks Kerryn. Sorry for the delay in putting your comment up. For some reason it was classified as spam. Most rude of the site for doing that – especially when it is so insightful.

  7. Hi Brian, I attended your lecture on this subject at Red Door Church on Thursday evening. I, like a few other people who asked questions that night, found that I wasn’t really sure what your message was, though I do believe that you ended up saying that you did not support SSM.
    My major sadness is that you seem to be advocating the inevitability of SSM in Australia, simply because it has been introduced into several other western countries. However, if you take Ireland as an example – only 38% of the electorate voted on the issue, of which two-thirds voted for SSM. That only represents 26% of the electorate. How did the 62% who abstained really feel? Most likely they were just sick to death of the whole issue and decided to try to forget it. In the US, it was voted in by 5 undemocratically elected judges, while it had been voted against in 31 states where the people were allowed a say!
    As a Pastor who says he is against SSM. surely you should be encouraging people to pray strongly against it happening in Australia. It is not inevitable if only God’s people would do what they have been told to do by God – read Mark 11:22-25 and you will see the action that we need to take! And, Verse 25 is critical in this – we must against SSM, the issue, not the people, so we must not pray with hatred in our hearts. It can be done, if only pastors would look to the Word, rather than relying on their head knowledge.

    • Thanks for this Perry. I’ll take it as a comment, rather than a question. I’ve outlined my own position in the paper, which is the same one I presented at Red Door.

      All the best.

  8. Hi Brian, thanks for your blog post. I’ve heard a few talks on same sex relationships. One thing I’ve often heard said is that it is engaging in the sexual activity that is sin and that being attracted to someone from the same gender is not a sin. I’ve always wondered how this fits with Matt 5:21-22 and 5:27-28 because we can sin by our thoughts as well as our deeds. I am thinking out loud here. I suppose there is a distinction between being attracted to someone of the same gender as opposed to feeding the attraction until it becomes full blown lust? A delicate line to draw…For heteresexuals we sin too when lusting after someone of the opposite gender. When does attraction become sinful ie lust? Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    • You raise some thought provoking ideas here Elisa. I guess the thrust of what Jesus is saying is ‘don’t think all is well because your desires have not found their way into action.’ I think it is the passive acceptance of something – albeit that we don’t act upon it – that is the issue. So lust, of whatever kind, is problematic if we simply say that we didn’t act upon it. If we harbour it and let it grow – well what is on the inside will eventually come to the outside. Indeed, that seems to be the heart of Jesus’s teaching… watch what is on the inside because in due course it will find a way out. So while we can’t necessarily help a specific attraction, we can continue to feed it in our mind and imagination, and if we do, that sees us fall into sin (and sin from a biblical perspective is most commonly falling short of the standard God desires for us).

      I am sure this doesn’t answer every question, but perhaps it goes part way.

  9. Hi Brian,

    In comments on a paper 2012 (Grenz /NZ) ‘ Gay is Good’ is it your stance that gay is good? can you elaborate

    • Hi Jeremy

      My position is as outlined in the paper in the blog. I imagine that the article you are referring to is the one by Laurie Guy published in Stimulus – The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice, vol 19, issue 3, July 2012, and entitled “Is Gay Good? Responding to Brian Harris’s Discussion of Stanley Grenz in the Context of the Gay Marriage Debate.” The editors of the journal were good enough to ask me to respond to Guy’s article and I did so in the same edition of the journal in a response entitled “A Response: On Method and Morality”. I am assuming you have not read the response or you would not have asked the question, but in essence I say that Guy has confused my pastoral concern with my ethical position. I also point out that Guy has completely misunderstood my paper which was published in Meadowcraft and Habets Gospel Truth and Interpretation: Evangelical Identity in New Zealand. and which led him to publish this article. My original paper was an investigation of the theological method of Stanley Grenz (and I have published widely on that topic), and the difficulty inherent in his method of moving to a post foundationalist approach to theological construction by adopting scripture, tradition and culture as conversation partners. If culture is to be a conversation partner, you have to listen to what it says, and I point out that in the Gay debate Grenz was not willing to do so, pointing to an inconsistency in his method. That is hardly the same as saying that ‘gay is good’- a statement I have never made, so I have no idea why Guy linked it to me.

      Hope this clarifies things for you.

  10. Hi Brian, thanks for posting this subject on your blog. Thanks for openly sharing your heartfelt stories about your homosexual friends. I am posting to a Moodle blog for one of my pastoral care assignment and therefore, read your post. I always find yours informative and engaging both emotionally and mentally. Your post conveys heaps more than the actual word counts. I cannot agree with you more on your biblical evidence which strongly backs your position of accepting, not affirming. I agree that at a civil right level, one should not oppose homosexuality. As you said, it is a missiological obstacle and our faith should be invitational and love-oriented. One thing, I would like to add to the statement of “Sexuality is now seen as an orientation that is largely involuntary”. I am more under the impression and understanding that when people say “homosexual orientation”, it means people have a preference to choose which sex to engage in an intimate relationship but does not necessarily imply nature and involuntary compulsion. Homosexuality can evidently be part of one’s nature but not without a substantial component of personal choice and therefore,needs to be respected as human right while transgender is viewed as primarily nature but with a less substantial component of personal choice and therefore, viewed as a psychological condition needed to be treated. I wonder this may influence where we can locate our biblical evidence in Scriptures and how we can express our love to include people of different lifestyle choices in the church as their comfortable extended family. God bless!

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