Back in the summer of last year I was given the chance to attend a seminar on supporting LGBT students in the educational environment. Most years as a teacher I will have one or two students who are openly gay, so it made sense to go along and see if there was anything useful to learn. The group attending mainly consisted of people I know to be gay or pro-active supporters of gay rights. The speaker was from a local gay support network and did a good job of explaining some of the issues gay students face. It was when he got on to talking about those who oppose homosexual practice that things started to get uncomfortable. Whilst not using the ‘bigot’ label it was clear he had very little respect for traditional Christian views and the Bible in particular. He described the Bible as an ancient irrelevant book that had no place in modern culture and that Christians basically needed to ‘get with the programme’ as David Cameron might have put it, and start living in the 21st century. The general consensus from others who spoke was agreement with him, and as the seminar went on I became more frustrated feeling that I needed to say something to show that most Christians don’t hate gay people, and I for one certainly don’t.
Finally I got the chance to speak at an appropriate point and came out as a Christian doing my best to give my point of view and correct some of the inaccuracies that had been given about Christians and the Bible. It wasn’t easy and I’m not sure how seriously I was taken, but as I was speaking at the back of my mind I was thinking maybe this is what it’s like for a gay people when they come into contact with the Church or hear Christians talk about them. It wasn’t enjoyable.
Steve Chalke, The well-known founder of Oasis ministries and Stop the Traffik really put the cat among the pigeons last week when he announced that he was in favour of monogamous gay relationships and had blessed a civil partnership between two men in his congregation. In the article he has written for Christianity Magazine, Chalke argues that as he has continued to study the Bible, he has come to the conclusion that nowhere does it condemn the sort of gay relationships he supports. His tone is one of compassion, but as you read his piece you get the distinct impression that he is trying to fit the Bible to his experiences, rather than the other way round. For someone as knowledgeable as Chalke, his comparison of gay relationships with slavery and women in the church is tenuous in places.
The backlash from the evangelical community has been as strong as you would expect and these flaws in his argument have been picked up by a number of evangelical commentators, who have gone over interpretations and basically rubbished them. It’s all been very predictable. As those on both sides fight over the exegesis and hermeneutics (i.e. the correct interpretation) of the Biblical texts that mention homosexuality, we end up digging over old ground. There’s nothing new here that hasn’t already been brought to the table and once again we’re reminded of the strength of feeling that surrounds the liberal versus evangelical dichotomies that are an unending source of tension within the church.
I have to make my stance on this issue clear at this point and say that I am firmly in the evangelical camp in that when I approach a moral issue I always turn to the Bible first. As I read the biblical passages, I find nothing in them that supports practising gay relationships, however, and this is a big sticking point for me, I’m disappointed in the way many evangelical critiques of Chalke’s shift to a more liberal viewpoint get bogged down in the theology of it all and only provide a superficial pastoral response to gay people who are brave enough to want to be part of a church fellowship. Explaining whether Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of brazen homosexuality or extreme lack of hospitality doesn’t provide any answers for someone who wants to live a life pleasing to God but struggles with same-sex attraction.
It’s very hard for the traditional evangelical stance on homosexuality not to sound judgemental both to liberals and those outside the church. The message comes across as, ‘We say we welcome everyone into our churches, but if you are gay, please leave any gay thoughts or behaviours you might have at the door before you come in.’ I don’t actually think this is the case most of the time, but other messages often get drowned out. The apparent choices available are to be celibate or become straight.
I’ve read two evangelical articles in response to Steve Chalke that have finished by giving a story of a Christian who has previously been attracted to members of their own sex, but now are happily married with children. This is fabulous for them, but gives a false picture of the realities for many gay Christians. Most studies of people who want to change their orientation from gay to straight, show that for the vast majority, they will not fully leave their same-sex attraction behind. The Evangelical Alliance’s excellent resource, Biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality (p. 83) gives an example of a study that followed 73 ‘highly motivated’ individuals seeking change who were asked to classify themselves after at least three or four years of reparative (ex-gay) therapy through a Christian ministry in the US. Of these, only 11 (15 per cent) reported ‘considerable resolution of homosexual orientation issues and substantial conversion to heterosexual attraction’. The rest were unsuccessful. If you look at the Rev. Peter Ould who on his website describes himself as post-gay, or take a look round the True Freedom Trust’s website you’ll see that for many Christians with same-sex attraction there is no complete ‘cure’ to their unwanted feelings.
Alternatively, telling someone they need to have to remain celibate for the rest of their life, isn’t going to be any easier for them to take whether they are gay or straight. I know how hard a message that would be for me if I was told I had to. It’s not surprising that many gay Christians are drawn to liberal churches where they can be accepted for who they are much more easily. When I was a church youth worker we had this mantra of ‘belong before you believe before you behave’. It was an acknowledgement that we couldn’t expect young people from outside the church to follow biblical teaching until they had discovered Jesus. And the chances of that happening were much more likely if they felt the church was a place they could be made welcome and be appreciated for who they were. Evangelicals might insist that liberals are too flexible on the behaviour side of things, but evangelical churches are not going to find gay people showing up if they feel they’ve been judged already and are unlikely to be welcomed.
In Romans 1:26,27 Paul says, ‘Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.’
Evangelicals are quite happy to use this passage as a key text on their views on homosexuality, but how often is the start of Chapter 2, which follows straight on from it, quoted alongside of it?:
‘You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?’
When Paul is talking about doing the same things, he’s not talking about being gay, he’s talking about sinning, which none of us can escape from. Jesus loved to hang out with tax collectors, prostitutes and other ‘sinners’. He made them feel at ease in his company and constantly demonstrated God’s grace to them. If evangelical churches want gay people to follow their tough message, then they should be making a concerted effort to give them the support and encouragement they need whatever stage they are on their journey with God.
Steve Chalke has risked a huge amount by revealing his beliefs on gay relationships. I can imagine that he is now totally discredited in many evangelical circles, despite all the good he has done in his various ministries. I struggle to agree with all of his theology but I admire his willingness to reach out to the gay community. It’s far from easy trying to cross these barriers and the stakes are high. Jesus paid a high price for taking the good news to those who supposedly were far from God. If the Church (and by this I mean the evangelical church in particular) is serious about showing God’s love to all people, we need to be putting ourselves in situations where we’re able to have honest dialogue with gay people, where we listen carefully first before we even start thinking about preaching. Often this will be challenging and uncomfortable for us as I inadvertently found out during that seminar, but if we fail to move on from discussing homosexuality primarily at a theological level, we’re letting down the Church, God and in particular gay people.