There has been an awful lot on this blog recently about the Bible- apologies to those of you who are not interested in such debates. But hey, it is MY blog after all, and I think these things are more important now then ever.
How else do we find a rudder in the mess of what we are becoming, unless we ask these deep searching questions?
This is NOT the same thing as trying to hold back time- trying to return us to some faux Victorian world view. We need to be free to re-encounter the words of the Bible, to debate it, to question it and allow ourselves to be questioned by it. My recent posts have been a bit about trying to make some space for this.
I saw this today- Steve Chalke of Oasis kind of saying the same thing;
I feel I must say sorry to my friends who are troubled by my take on this issue- angered even. My last post was unfortunately rather flippant and did not do justice to the depth of the issue. All I would say is that I do not do this because I am drawn towards controversy for its own sake. I do it because I have come to believe that the church has got its attitude towards gay people badly wrong.
We isolate people at their point of greatest need. We place them on the outside with no possibility of acceptance and inclusion. In another e-mail recently I found myself saying this;
…human sexuality is highly complex- some people can indeed change their sexual behaviour to a certain extent, but the harsh fact is that most can not. The implication for this majority then is that God created them with a different sexuality, but who they are will never be acceptable to His people on earth- short of a half life of loneliness and struggle. The end results are high suicide rates, mental illness, isolation and some people end up living in (not always healthy) ghettos where they feel safer. Despite a shift in societal attitudes gay people still live in fear of all sorts of prejudice.
The other end result is that they are driven away from the church and from God. We have two friends whose children grew up in the church but always knew themselves to be ‘different’. Both are now far far from the church. I also have friends who deal with their sexuality by keeping secrets- trying to display surface acceptability. What they long for are stable, monogamous, loving relationships- and to be accepted and loved by their peers.
All of these friends will describe their utter incomprehension at being told that they are loved, but that their sinful lifestyles can not be accepted. They would describe their sexuality as fixed from the earliest age- in the same way as others have blond hair. The arguments about original sin make no sense to them- and they would point to others who are born with a physical disability, who used to be excluded but are no more.
The reason why we in the church have adopted the position we have is based on our interpretation of scripture. This has been a crucial journey for me- in trying to understand what these scriptures mean, and to set them in the wider context of the life Jesus calls us to.
And a long time ago I decided that if I was going to make an error in my theology, I would err on the side of grace. I would err on the side of love. I would err on the side of acceptance.
What I think we need is for people who have an apostolic voice to speak on this issue with love as the primary imperative. People who are prepared to risk the storm that will surely fall on their heads- risk their jobs, their reputation, even losing their friends.
I received a prayer bulletin from Pray for Scotland today. This is an organisation run by some wonderful people whom it was a great privilege to meet and spend time with a few years ago when Michaela and I first arrived in Scotland, hungry for connection, and to understand what God might be up to north of the border. Pray for Scotland can be characterised as evangelical, charismatic and apostolic in their aims- full of people who believe that prayer can make a difference to the very character of our nation.
However, I had some trepidation as I opened the e-mail as I could guess what the content would be. Both the media and the church are full of talk about gay marriage at the moment, and so I was both saddened by, and not surprised, to read the content of this newsletter. Here are a few extracts;
Dear Praying friends
I’m sending out this extra E-letter regarding the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2012-13 . The bill is being read in the House of Commons today 5 February 2013 and we think its important that we all join together to pray for our leaders. I have brought some material together for prayer and information on the issues.
Let’s storm heaven with our petitions of ‘ His kingdom come’ in the UK government and ‘His will to be done’ .
At the very beginning I found myself wondering about our common understanding of the Kingdom of God, and whether we would ever want to ‘storm heaven’.
Dear Friends, Tuesday. 5th Feb. will be the second reading of a bill in Westminster on redefining marriage.
We would appreciate if you would pray at a convenient time during the day.
There will be a bill come to the Scottish parliament, however Westminster will influence Scotland particularly in the area of equality bill and protection of people in ministry and public offices eg. registrars, teachers, social workers.
On Sunday many people prayed in churches and the following was the suggested corporate prayer—
‘Heavenly Father, we thank you for the gift of marriage which you established at the dawn of time, to be a blessing throughout the earth, down through the ages. We pray you would fill every marriage with your love and grace, and that every husband and wife would know the joy that comes from sharing and giving. We thank you for establishing marriage to be a secure and stable environment for raising children.
We pray for all those who do not enjoy these blessings, remembering you are a father to the orphan and a husband to the widow. We pray, as you have commanded us, for those in positions of civil authority. We pray that our government will act with wisdom and righteousness, upholding marriage as the voluntary union of one man to one woman for life, for the good of all people.
We pray for forgiveness for our nation as our government seeks to redefine marriage. We pray for ourselves that we would speak out in support of marriage with gentleness and kindness, also with courage and confidence. in the name of our lord Jesus Christ, amen. –
Director Pray for Scotland
I have met Jean, and have the utmost respect for her as a gentle, thoughtful and loving person. However, this prayer troubled me greatly. The newsletter went on to quote CARE, and also the World Prayer Centre, who suggested these points of prayer;
That marriage will not be redefined, and that real marriage will be promoted in society for the good of all.
That as many MPs as possible will vote against the Bill to redefine marriage.
For David Burrowes, MP and others, as they lead opposition to the Government’s plans in the House of Commons.
For the Coalition for Marriage group as it campaigns to defend the true meaning of marriage.
For politicians and others in public life to have the courage to stand up for what is right and true.
For the news media, that they would report the issue widely, fairly, and accurately.
That the true consequences of redefining marriage would be publicly known and properly discussed.
That people would not face discrimination, in the workplace or elsewhere, because of their sincere beliefs about marriage.
I decided that I would reply to Pray for Scotland in the form of an open letter. I do so with some trepidation as I do not like conflict, nor am I ever happy to offend anyone. However I have come to believe that this is one of those issues that I can not stay silent on- that unless other people see that there is a real debate going on in the church as to what is the right way to respond to changes in society around homosexual rights then we do a disservice to Jesus and everything that he was.
Here is my reply;
Dear praying friends
Firstly thank you for your faithfulness in continuing to encourage those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus in Scotland to pray. However please forgive me, but I felt that I needed to respond to your latest prayer bulletin. I have made this the subject of an ‘open letter’ via my blog, and am happy for you to re-use these words as you see fit.
The issue of marriage and the underlying (but primary) issue of the Church’s correct stance towards people who are homosexual are ones that have the capacity to polarise and I have little interested in becoming involved in endless circuitous debates. However, your bulletin appears to assume that there is only one perspective on this issue and that all praying Christians will have come to the same view as the organisations you quote about the sanctity of marriage and the inherent sinfulness of a homosexual ‘lifestyle’.
I would respectfully suggest that this is not the case. There are many Christians, like myself, who have come to a different position after years of prayerful engagement with scripture and the traditional teachings of Evangelical churches. I think many of us were very heartened to read Steve Chalke‘s (Oasis Trust) piece on this issue, which was quoted in Christianity Magazine, and can be read in full here; http://www.oasisuk.org/article.aspx?menuId=31887 I will not seek to rehearse the theology, as Steve has done it far better than I could.
Although I am aware that some will be scandalised by what Steve has to say (and its implications for the way we read the Bible) as Pray for Scotland seek to unite Christians in prayer for our nation I consider it vital that we bear in mind that this is not a marginal view- rather it is one that an increasingly large part of the Body of Christ in Scotland are beginning to awake to.
I have read and re-read Jean’s suggested prayer, which is full of grace as I know her to be. However, I simply can not join you in many of the prayer points you outline. I am excluded from being able to do this because I believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us on a new path- towards the radical inclusion of the outsider that Jesus modeled for us in everything that he was. I accept that some of you will be convinced of my error in understanding Scripture and my conviction that the new marriage bill poses no danger whatsoever to this nation, nor to the intrinsic value of marriage. Even in our disagreement I would however ask you to consider whether the views you hold allow us to join in a universal prayer for Scotland
In my own prayers, I decided I could join you in prayer in these ways;
Thanking God for the gift of marriage- for the blessing it has been in my own life, and the life of others all around me.
Praying for those who are married, that their relationships may be characterised by peace, productivity, life long loyalty and blessing. Praying that this kind of relationship will be available to all.
Praying particularly for people whose marriages have NOT been like this- for those who have known pain, abuse and brokenness in their marriages. For divorced people, for those alone. Praying for them to find peace, and renewed companionship.
Praying in particular for the children born to marriages like the one above. The children born to these marriages will have all sorts of disadvantages and damage, and so I will pray that these might be turned towards healing by grace.
I will also say sorry to God that I am part of a society that constantly tends towards selfishness, over consumption, empire building and trivialisation, whilst at the same time undervaluing the principles of love and justice that would lead us always towards the other- particularly those who are marginalised and stigmatised by society.
May you be richly blessed
(Comments on this piece are welcome, but will be strictly moderated- let us discuss this issue with love and respect or not at all.)
My mate Simon pointed me to this article, written by Steve Chalke, of the Oasis Trust, and published in this months Christianity Magazine. For those who do not know this publication, it is the voice of Evangelicalism in the UK- read by mostly fundementalist, bible-first, charismatic (with a small c), conservative (also with a small c) Christians. I used to read it myself years ago, but found that it made me too cross.
In this instance however, well done to the magazine for giving air to Steve, who has no doubt summoned down the wrath of many of its readers on his head, but in doing so has opened up an important debate from on the ‘inside’.
Here are some of the things he had to say;
I feel both compelled and afraid to write this article. Compelled because, in my understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message. Afraid because I recognise the Bible is understood by many to teach that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is ‘a grotesque and sinful subversion’, an ‘objective disorder’ or, perhaps slightly more liberally, ‘less than God’s best’.
Some will think that I have strayed from Scripture – that I am no longer an evangelical. I have formed my view, however, not out of any disregard for the Bible’s authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously. My prayer, in writing, is therefore to encourage a gracious and mature conversation around an extremely important pastoral and theological issue that impacts the lives of so many people…
In autumn 2012 I conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two wonderful gay Christians. Why? Not to challenge the traditional understanding of marriage – far from it – but to extend to these people what I would do to others – the love and support of our local church. Our service also gave them the opportunity, surrounded by their family and friends, to publicly recognise their dependence on God and their need to be part of a supportive Christ-centred community to strengthen them in fulfilling their promises to one another.
Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ. I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded…
In my view, although motivated by a laudable concern for inclusion, many of the arguments that have been constructed in the attempt to soften or nullify what is the clear and uncompromising stance of Scripture unintentionally end up clouding the real issue – one of wider hermeneutics rather than simply exegesis.
Through my hermeneutical lens, the Bible is the account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity. It is a conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, human voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus. But it is also a conversation that, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon, continues beyond it involving all of those who give themselves to Christ’s on-going redemptive movement.
Rather than condemn and exclude, can we dare to create an environment for homosexual people where issues of self-esteem and wellbeing can be talked about; where the virtues of loyalty, respect, interdependence and faithfulness can be nurtured, and where exclusive and permanent same-sex relationships can be supported?
Tolerance is not the same as Christ-like love. Christ-like love calls us to go beyond tolerance to want for the other the same respect, freedom, and equality one wants for oneself. We should find ways to formally support and encourage those who are in, or wish to enter into, faithful same-sex partnerships, as well as in their wider role as members of Christ’s body.
I end where I started; in the coming months there will be huge and often heated debate around gay marriage. I am committed to listening and trying to understand the intricacies of the arguments on both sides. But, whatever the outcome and whichever side of the debate we find ourselves on, my hope is that as Christians we face what I think is the central issue – what does real, Christ-like, inclusion look like?
For those who want to engage with the theology of his argument, I recommend reading the article in full.
And in the mean time, I commend you Steve for using your apostolic voice to raise this issue in such a thoughtful and gentle way. I know this is an easy thing to do when someone agrees with your own opinion- it is much harder to feel respect for those on the other side of a debate.
Let us hope that there may yet be a time when the Church can be a place of radical inclusion of out groups- which is after all the Jesus way.
Within churches across the western world, many of us will be singing this line today- from the modern hymn by Stuart Townend, ‘In Christ alone’. The whole verse goes something like this;
In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.
It is a great hymn, deeply emotional and soaring in its melody. However I increasingly find the one dimensional nature of it’s theology really difficult. It is this one line about the wrath of God. It conjures up the idea of some kind of unstoppable force of holy hate and destruction in the universe that was narrowly averted only by the torture and death of Jesus.
This is another one of those underpinning assumptions of Evangelicalism that most of us accepted as unassailable truth- Jesus died the horrible death on the cross that was rightfully ours and because of this, God was able to undertake some kind of divine conjuring trick for some of us. This was the only way to overcome the natural forces of justice in the universe. It was the only way to deal with the wrath of God.
For non theologians like me, the fact that this kind of understanding of the atonement of the cross is not the ONLY way of understanding the central drama of the Christian faith might come as a surprise. Recently of course, a number of hugely controversial books have emerged taking a new look at the issue. The authors of these books (Rob Bell, Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren) have often been subjected to the outrage of the faithful.
So, on this Good Friday, I thought that it might be worth examining some of the other understandings of atonement- the other ways that followers of Jesus have attempted to come to terms with the enormity of a God who would come to earth to die such a death.
The name given to the theory of atonement outlined above is ‘Substitutionary atonement’ or sometimes ‘Penal Substitution’. However rather than talk more about I think it would be useful to take a journey through atonement in church history.
Firstly, there is a summary of some of the ideas in this clip by Tony Jones, along with some of his own hard hitting alternatives;
There are other theories of atonement, but here is a quick summary of the dominant ones again;
In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his death and resurrection.
This was the atonement theory dominant in the early church in the second and third centuries and was taught by the Church Fathers. It was also popular into the middle ages and beyond.
Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind).
Here Jesus is not used as a ransom but rather defeated Satan in a spiritual battle and thus frees enslaved mankind by defeating the captor. This theory continued to influence Christian theology for a thousand years.
This theory grew from the work of the 11th century theologian Anselm. Mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Here we see the influence of earthly politics projected onto the heavens.
The Protestant reformers developed Anselm’s theory. Instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour, rather sin is regarded as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being rightfully deserving God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Galatians 3:13).
A variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ “governmental theory“, which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.
Some would argue that all these theories contain part of the truth, and (in the absence of certainty) I think I would agree with this.
Apart from this thing that we call ‘the wrath of God’.
I would contend that our theological projections of God are always partial, always incomplete and always emerging from our cultural perspective. So it was natural for the children of the modern enlightenment to see God as embodying a force of logical, highly technical justice. It seemed like the elevation of mankind towards democratic freedom mediated by the purity of the law was a process ordained by God, and so this must also be the character of God himself.
God the judge- stern, inflexible, bound by the fine detail of the law, but able to save a narrow few through a technicality.
But today we remember the death of a man Jesus.
The scandal of the cross.
The unreasonableness of the cross.
The injustice of the the cross.
The laying down of all power and majesty, the ultimate vulnerability of the cross.