“The leadership from those in authority in the denominations who should be the guardians of biblical truth has been muted to say the least and even in Bible teaching churches many appear to be wavering under the onslaught of the gay lobby. Add to this scenario the increasing problems associated with immigration, and Islam in particular and indeed many other things which push Christians further and further to the margins, there is for many a feeling of despair and even fear about standing up and speaking out.”
It is thought to be this statement that led to former Liberal Democrat Leader, Tim Farron to pull out from the conference. In my earlier article, I focused on the words “increasing problems associated with immigration.” These words were horrendous for those of us working in urban, multi-cultural contexts.
However, just as big for the media was the use of the phrase “onslaught of the gay lobby.” This led many to label the convention and its organisers as homophobic. Meanwhile Christians responded by suggesting that Tim’s withdrawal from the convention was a sign of cowardice, ironically in the face of that aforementioned “gay lobby.”
It’s to the use of that phrase that I now want to turn my attention. As I said in my previous post, it is likely that whatever is said by Christians who stand firm on the Bible’s teaching that sex belongs exclusively within monogamous marriage between one man and one woman is likely to be seen as offensive by many. This is not a popular message. However, it is still worth pausing and thinking through what is tied up in that phrase.
The first thing we need to recognise is that our secular culture is hostile to the Gospel. Now, one thing we need to recognise is that this has in some form or another always been the case through history. There have been times when the Gospel has been heard and responded to by people ingreat numbers, there have been times when significant aspects of public morality have closely aligned with and even been drawn from biblical teaching and there have been times when there has been an open door to the Gospel in high places. However, throughout history, all societies have stood against the Gospel. Secular culture does not like the Gospel being preached but nor does religious culture. John Wesley was forced out of the churches and met with mobs, the establishment frowned upon Billy Graham’s visits to these shores and whilst certain aspects of biblical morality may be enforced, the culture will always conveniently forget other parts so that if in our day and age it is marital faithfulness and the protection of the unborn, in past days there was a blind spot to racism, segregation and slavery.
Secondly, we need to acknowledge the specific challenges faced to date. When the organisers of the Convention published their leaflet, they no doubt had in mind:
– The legalisation of same-sex marriage
– Expectations that teachers in school may be compelled to teach different expressions of sexuality as equally valid.
– The Asher’s cake case (currently being considered by the Supreme Court).
– Street preachers arrested and taken to court for saying that homosexual sex is a sin
– The hostile treatment that Tim Farron received during the General Election and the relentless focus on his views about homosexuality.
– Bed and Breakfast owners being taken to court for refusing to provide double rooms to same-sex couples.
– Recent debates within the Church of England synod about sexuality.
These are all examples of a culture which is not tolerant to opposing views on the question of sexual morality.
Thirdly, we need to note that the issue is wider than homosexuality. We could equally list some of the following as we think about morality:
– The increased availability and acceptability of euthanasia
– Some of the arguments and tone of argument/assumptions in the cases of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans
– The sudden prominence of transgenderism as a political issue.
We can see that these things have gained prominence and acceptance in public life and that there are politically active people who are lobbying for a change not just in the law but in the culture. To be fair, they have an idea of the type of culture they want to see and there is a challenge for Christians involved in public life to see their public theology providing a compelling vision of the sort of society they want to live in too, not just campaigns about specific issues. One thing that happens in church is that people find something of that alternative society.
What this means is that the “lobby” is broader than the “gay” issue in terms of its aims. Linked to that, it includes a wide range of people who are not themselves same-sex attracted. The lobby is as much about people believing in and campaigning for a certain ethic to be normalised in society.
The other side of that is that the “lobby” also does not encompass same-sex attracted people. This includes people like Ed Shaw and the Living Out team who acknowledge that they are same-sex attracted but also are committed to honouring and obeying Scripture even when it is difficult for them. It also includes many people who identify as gay but are not politically motivated and are simply getting on with their own lives.
So, the challenge is that. First of all, we do want to recognise that there is a public life issue here. This issue includes a threat to freedoms which we have enjoyed and which will and already is affecting Christians. It’s important that Christians are equipped to live in this culture and I believe that it is right for Christians to use public platforms and the mechanisms of a democratic society to challenge that culture, not merely to defend rights and privileges but to speak up for what is right especially when that means defending the vulnerable, weak and forgotten.
Secondly, we have to be careful that our attention does not focus so completely on the “political” issue that we miss the pastoral and evangelistic issue. My priority is recognising that there are people within our community who are same-sex attracted and who need to hear the Gospel. Some of them already have the barriers up and “The Bible’s view of gay-sex” is for them an obstacle meaning they can’t engage without that being responded to. Others will become Christians without their sexuality coming up as the first issue but it will be an issue. This will include children and young people growing up in church who may put their trust in Jesus first before they realise that they are same-sex attracted. You see, becoming a Christian does not magically take all those issues away.
We need to be giving as much attention to the pastoral issue and I think there’s a legitimate concern that how the political issue is handled may not always help the pastoral one. It is important that pastorally we do not compromise, we help no-one if we try to fit in to our culture and duck what the Bible has to say. That’s why I profoundly disagree with Steve Chalke’s approach. We need to keep remembering that our human attempts at mercy will never be more grace-filled, loving and merciful than God’s Word, never.
But we also need to find a way whereby people do not find themselves treated as part of a homogenous and threatening lobby. Just as we need to think about individual Muslims and not just “Islam” so too we need to think of individual people who are same-sex attracted or have gender issues. It is ironic that the very aim of our identity/victim culture and politics is to tell people that their identity is within that lobby group and that they must accept a life-style to go with it.
The alternative community that the church offers says no to that type of identity politics/tribal culture and invites people to be part of a family together where they are welcomed as themselves and loved. It’s a community where we all turn up with the mess of our lives. It’s a painful community because God’s Word disagrees with us and calls us to change. However, it’s a community where we are forgiven and justified. It’s a community where the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives sanctifying us.