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‘What does the Bible say about gay sex?’ and 6 other questions you’ve always wanted to ask

Last month, Premier Christianity published a cover story Why the Church’s conspiracy of silence is hurting gay Christians. As a same-sex attracted pastor, Ed Shaw has a unique perspective on the issues raised. Megan Cornwell asked him what the Bible teaches about same-sex relationships

1. What does the Bible say about same-sex attraction?

The big story of the Bible is about a marriage between God’s Son, Jesus, and God's people, the Church. The Bible begins with the wedding of Adam and Eve and ends with the wedding between God’s Son and the Church. That union, which will go on for eternity, is a union of difference.

The difference that we see in human marriage between a man and a woman, all the way through the Bible story, is a trailer for where history is heading; it's really key. So the big thing that convinces me that sex is for marriage between a man and woman, is the fact that sex and marriage and creation is just a trailer of that union of difference at the end of time.

Obviously the passages that directly talk about homosexual sex help confirm that my instincts are right on marriage, but even if all those passages disappeared, I still think it would be clear that the Bible teaches that marriage is male and female, and that sex is for marriage.

It’s something that Jesus himself confirmed, and certainly something Paul confirmed, and certainly something that, I would think the vast majority of Christians at all stages of Church history, in a whole lot of different cultural contexts, have thought and believed, including first-century cultural contexts in which people didn't bat an eyelid about gay sex and permanent, faithful gay relationships.

There's often an odd argument nowadays that says: “If only the Apostle Paul had known more about gay sex; if only the Apostle Paul had known about the possibility of permanent, faithful, stable, gay relationships, he would have taught differently.” All the evidence I can see from first-century Corinth, for instance, is that the culture was almost as accepting of gay sex and permanent, faithful gay relationships as we are today. So it’s not just a cultural argument.

And then there is how positive the New Testament is about singleness, and how Jesus – the Jesus who asked me to be single – was single himself. Paul’s teaching on singleness is about how it is, in many ways, better than marriage (1 Corinthians 7). And the New Testament’s emphasis on spiritual children and spiritual parenting rather than biological parenting and biological children all helped me to see that there is life in all this. I'm not being denied the experience of intimacy, I'm not being denied the experience of parenthood, I'm not being denied life in all its fullness by being asked not to have sex, by being asked to be single.

2. So being gay necessitates being single if you're a Christian, from your perspective?

A same-sex sexual relationship is not on the cards. Getting married to somebody of the opposite sex will be a possibility for some people. One of my colleagues, Sean Doherty, would still describe himself as same-sex attracted but has also fallen in love with a woman called Gaby and they’re married with kids. That’s some people's experience.

Society is recognising that some people have a fluidity in their sexuality. There are celebrities who have been in same-sex relationships and opposite-sex relationships. And whereas 20 years ago everybody was invested quite heavily in a binary model – you're either gay or straight – I think there’s a little bit more recognition now that for some people, not all people, but some people, there’s a fluidity.

There are some people who believe that their sexual experience has always been a gay one and that remains constant. There are some people whose experience of sexuality has always been heterosexual and that remains constant. But there are people for who things change, and they fall in love with somebody unexpectedly of the same-sex having presumed they were heterosexual, or the opposite-sex having presumed they were gay.

3. What about people who say New Testament verses about homosexuality have been misinterpreted?

Sometimes there's arguments around Romans 1, saying: “Oh this is just condemning promiscuous gay sex in the court of the Roman emperor at the time”, or about 1 Corinthians 6: “This is just condemning paedophilia and the Greek and Roman practice of older men having sexual relations with prepubescent peasant boys.”

I think Christian scholars down the ages have not recognised that to be true, and even secular scholars say this is stretching it. There's not much evidence. Books that are written from a revisionist point of view will ask questions, but they don't have the textual evidence or historical evidence to make a convincing case.

Obviously, part of me would love the revisionists’ case to be true, but it's always special pleading and it never seems to consider the context of the passage, or the historical context, or the textual linguistic evidence.

4. What would you say to those churches that have chosen to show love and welcome to same-sex attracted Christians by affirming gay relationships and gay marriage?

I love their desire to show love and welcome to LGBT people; what I find troubling is that they think it's loving to change what a loving God has said about sex and relationships in his word. I don’t think that’s ultimately loving. I think that's ultimately harmful, because you're saying that God hasn't said what he has clearly said.

God says things not out of a desire to muck up anybody's life, but out of love and for their good, so to change that will ultimately not be good for them. And what starts with a loving instinct, actually ends up being the opposite. But I get why they want to do it.

We had a lesbian couple turn up at church a while back and everything in me wanted to say: “Come on and get involved with the Church family life”. They wanted to know if it was ‘inclusive church’. I wanted to say that we are an inclusive Church in the way that I understand it. But I knew it wasn't the way that they understand that. I wanted to be loving to them by saying: “Actually you need to understand what we mean when we say inclusive, which I think is going to be different to what you mean”. I didn't love having that conversation with them, it was deeply painful. But I think it was right to have an open and honest discussion about what we mean when we talk about inclusion.

5. What about people that say same-sex attraction is a secondary issue and not crucial to salvation. Have you heard that argument?

Oh yeah, all the time…I do not think the Alpha course needs to be rewritten to start with “Session 1: gay sex is wrong”. But we've also got to recognise that if marriage is part of the architecture of the Bible, which I think it is, it isn't in the same sort of secondary category as issues around church government; or how often you have the Lord's Supper; or whether baptism is by immersion or sprinkling.

Certainly when it comes to what Paul teachers and how Paul deals with sexual sin in 1 Corinthians, he doesn't seem to see it as a secondary issue. He talks about our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit. He’s not saying: “This is just a little bit of advice you can take or leave.” He’s saying: "When I talk about sexual ethics, it really matters."

And Jesus in his letter to the churches in Revelation seems to go in quite hard on churches that are tolerating sexual immorality and turning a blind eye to it. That seems to be a primary issue for him; that there are Churches that are not being countercultural and are not being Christ-like in their sexual ethics. So that would make me think this isn't a secondary issue.

The other thing, and this more of an observation: if we start, as it were, to retreat wherever the cultural battle is, we'll keep retreating. And we'll retreat on: Jesus is the only way to salvation. We'll retreat on issues around abortion, euthanasia. Most liberalism is fuelled by a loving desire for more people to get the gospel, I really see that in my liberal friends, but, by giving up bits of the gospel to make it more acceptable, you lose the gospel and people outside don't want to respond to something when they just see that you keep trading away pieces to get a response. It has never worked. The stats show that liberal churches decline and die, and that Churches that actually believe things that are countercultural are the churches that grow.

6. As a pastor, if you had a gay couple with children come to your church exploring Christianity, what would you do? Would they have to get divorced in order to become Christians?

It’s a complex situation…anything I say will be theoretical and it would be different when it actually happened. If I meet anyone who is investigating Christianity, I'd want to be talking to them about Jesus. I'd want them to see the importance of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead in determining whether Christianity is true or not.

We’d say to anybody investigating Christianity, the key thing you need to do is not to work out what the Bible teaches about gay sex. You just need to work out: “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” Because if he didn't rise from the dead you can ignore it. Christianity falls apart. If he didn't, it's all fiction. It's a nice story, but nothing more than that. 

Focus on the resurrection of Jesus, did it happen, did it not? When you're convinced that it happened, let's talk about the implications: the end of 1 Corinthians 15 to stand firm in the gospel and to give your life working for Jesus. What it means to live out the rest of 1 Corinthians: the call to use your body in a way that honours Jesus, and to use your body sexually only in the context of a committed lifelong union with someone of the opposite sex.

I want to make sure that I am not saying: “Before you're welcome in this church, or before you become a Christian, you need to have got your sex life sorted.” No. What they mainly need to do is work out who Jesus is. None of the big calls that Jesus makes on any of our lives makes sense unless you believe he's Lord of all.

I'm not going to hide the truth of Christian sexual ethics if they ask questions, but I'd say: “What the Bible teaches about sex and marriage only makes sense when you get Jesus. Let's talk about him.”

7. In terms of that hypothetical couple, could you see a situation where they could stay married but not have sex. Would that be an option or would they have to unravel their whole lives and get a divorce?

There are a lot of heterosexual couples in most churches who are bringing up children and actually not having much sex. Now, that's not an ideal situation, but it is possible to bring up children successfully without having sex.

So the idea that actually a couple could continue to live together and could successfully bring up children that they committed to bringing up together, it’s a plausible thing. Now it will vary for different couples; some couples will find the sexual temptation of living together too much. And, if they've been very sexually active beforehand, they’ll find it very hard to break that pattern. Other couples might find it not particularly hard because they haven't been particularly sexually active recently. It depends on a whole host of circumstances.

There are Christians who want to say that once you’ve become a Christian, you need to be divorced, living in separate homes, and giving the children up for adoption. There are some people who are wanting people’s lives to be completely sorted before they become a Christian. I'm baffled by that because in no other context would we ask that. It would seem totally against the basics of the gospel, and unwise. But there are some pastors who are very bothered about seeming to go liberal on this one; whereas some pastors are afraid of being seen as too conservative.

People are appalled at the idea of saying that a same-sex couple could continue to live together. And people are just not pausing and thinking about the children, for instance, or thinking about how it is possible to live together and not have sex.

Ed Shaw was speaking with Megan Cornwell, the deputy editor of Premier Christianity magazine

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Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.

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