Ruth Dickinson takes the temperature of evangelical opinion on the subject of homosexuality and the Church.
There’s a theory that hardly anyone in the UK Christian Church actually wants to talk about homosexuality. Many preachers quake at the thought of having to tackle the subject either in a pastoral setting or from the pulpit, for fear of how they will be interpreted.
In his December interview in Premier Christianity, Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, who is in a homosexual relationship, said he thought that many bishops privately were much more supportive of such relationships than they were publicly prepared to admit. Steve Chalke, who writes in this magazine about the liberalising of his views on homosexuality, says he initially stayed silent for fear of losing friends or platform if he spoke out. The writer and activist Brian McLaren, who blessed his son’s gay wedding in 2012 (coming under a good deal of fire for doing so) claims that that is also the case in America.
‘I’m sensitive to [the silence of many Church leaders], because I struggled with that for many years myself,’ he told Christianity. ‘I was tacitly complicit in the conservative view, even though I didn’t hold it – ever, really. I never was [fully] conservative on the gay issue, but I tried to walk a pastoral road, where I would not drive either gay people away from the Church or conservatives away from the Church. So I think it’s a hard road to walk.’
It’s not just those who are liberal on the issue. A number of more conservative leaders have expressed a nervousness about speaking out, for fear of being pilloried in the secular press, who certainly don’t understand the rhetoric of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, or getting lumped in with Westboro Baptist Church and their appalling ‘God Hates Fags’ signs.
‘I have no doubt that some Christian leaders have felt restrained from expressing their views on this matter for fear of being labelled homophobic or bigoted,’ says Rev Ian Coffey, vice principal (strategy) and director of leadership training at Moorlands College and a regular speaker at Keswick and Spring Harvest. ‘When those who hold traditional views on homosexuality are dismissed by some as “bigots”, it suggests that reasonable debate is no longer welcome within our democratic system. That is a serious state of affairs. It’s always hard to swim against the tide, and in the debate on homosexual lifestyle it feels, at times, more like a tsunami.’
‘Some evangelicals probably do find it difficult to discuss homosexuality,’ agrees RT Kendall, the former minister of Westminster Chapel, who is now semi-retired and lives in the US. Kendall, the author of more than 40 books including Is God for the homosexual? published more than 20 years ago, takes the stance that gay people must remain celibate. ‘I don’t relish talking about it but I am certainly willing. It is an issue that is not going to go away – ever; we must not live in denial.’
While Kendall’s book was applauded by some in the gay community, others did not welcome it, he says. It illustrates that one of the difficulties with publicly expressing the conservative view, even within the Church, is that it can appear pastorally insensitive.
It’s easy for people who are more liberal on this issue to claim the pastoral high ground (indeed, Chalke’s piece is partly pastorally motivated), but that ignores many who will be hurt to read his change of view, and what they will regard as a sharp shift from scripture. Conservatives we spoke to who experience same-sex attraction testified to how helpful and pastoral their own churches had been as they came to terms with it.
‘Over time, I became convicted that the Bible could be trusted and that if what is written in the Bible is true, then regardless of my feelings, I had to believe what the Bible says about homosexuality,’ says one male in his 20s who asked to remain anonymous. ‘I looked very much at both sides of the argument regarding if it was ok to be a Christian in an active gay relationship, particularly because I was in a relationship with a guy at the time. But ultimately, I had an experience where I believe God showed me that the things I was looking for in a relationship with a man could only be satisfied in him.’
He continues: ‘It’s been very hard. It wasn’t as if as soon as I made a commitment to God that everything got better immediately. But I would say that my identity has changed: I see myself as a son of God, not as a gay man any more…The sexual temptations are still there, but my desire to be in a relationship with a guy has decreased significantly over the years.’
Some will feel that it undermines his, and others’, commitment to living celibate lives to suggest that the Bible says they don’t have to. For others struggling with this issue, it may be seen as pastorally unhelpful, or confusing, as they try to work through what God wants for them, to read something which suggests gay relationships are permissible.
Why does it matter for church leaders, outside of pastoral issues they may face in their own congregations? In other words, why do we care what other Christians might think? One answer is that it raises issues of biblical primacy, as well as church unity. According to a recent Evangelical Alliance survey, ‘It is common for evangelical Christians to distinguish between homosexual “feelings” and “actions”. The results reveal that while the majority of evangelicals do not consider homosexual feelings to be “wrong”, the majority do believe that homosexual actions are “wrong”.’
Chalke is going against the majority of UK evangelical opinion. Furthermore, many see this as a primary issue, not a secondary one, and one for which liberals will suffer grave consequences and the judgement of God for ‘softening’ on.
‘I think the Bible is very, very clear on it,’ says Sam Allberry, associate minister of St Mary’s Church, Maidenhead, who experiences samesex attraction. ‘I think people trying to sanction it are going against the grain of many deep issues in scripture. I fear for Christian leaders who are commending any kind of homosexual lifestyle. If my reading of the New Testament is correct, such Christian leaders are leading people into destruction. I have to treat this as a gospel issue.’
So where do we go from here? How do we talk about this most sensitive of issues in a way that respects individual pastoral situations, as well as the authority of scripture and Christ’s desire for a unified Church? ‘By just doing it! And remaining gracious,’ says RT Kendall. ‘This is surely the only Christian way of doing things. We must be willing to give an answer on any subject – as in 1 Peter 3:15 – assuming we know what we are talking about. If we don’t know the answer we should say “I don’t know” but I cannot imagine a good reason not to face questions people ask – whether they are Christians or not. I don’t want to be unfair, but if we cannot open our mouths without losing our tempers we should disqualify ourselves from claiming to be thinking Christians.’
‘Some have spoken out with courage,’ says Coffey. ‘We are blessed with organisations such as the Evangelical Alliance, CARE, Christian Concern and others who seek to present the biblical case for marriage and family clearly and intelligently.’ Part of the Evangelical Alliance’s response to the issue has been its leaders’ resource Biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality (edited by Andrew Goddard and Don Horrocks), which, along with expressing regret for the Church’s past and present failures regarding gay people, seeks to foster better engagement while upholding traditional biblical teaching. For most evangelicals, this is the heart of the challenge.
‘I have received a lot of love and compassion from people within the Church, but I’m also aware that other people haven’t, and leaders often don’t know how to respond to people struggling with this,’ says our anonymous interviewee. ‘We need to discuss this issue with shed-loads of love and compassion, examine what the core issues are here and ultimately look at what God is saying about it in his word.’
‘One of the key things for churches is to realise this is not just a political issue, it’s a personal issue, and therefore we mustn’t only speak of it in terms of government proposals and societal trends; this is an issue many of us in our churches are wrestling with at a personal level,’ says Allberry. ‘That’s what we’ve not been great at. If, as churches, we get better at being family and being community, that will give us the prophetic voice to then speak into society; we will have a credible witness.’
‘All discussions about human sexuality need to be handled with care, as they speak into deep areas of our humanity and identity,’ says Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance. ‘These are not discussions to be taken lightly, but with sensitivity, allowing God to shed light, so we can hear both truth and grace… Human sexuality should not be reduced to soundbites, the challenge of following Jesus speaks to each of us and affects every area of our lives.’
Could we even dare to believe that positive things may come from such discussions?
‘I’m actually encouraged by the way evangelicals (especially younger ones) engage with these issues,’ says Andrew Wilson, an elder at Kings Church Eastbourne (part of the Newfrontiers stream of churches). Wilson experienced same-sex attraction as a teenager but is now married with children. ‘My experience is that talking about Jesus a lot – his love of those on the margins, his call to give up everything in order to follow him, and his example as someone who renounced sex for the sake of the kingdom – helps both gay and straight people see what radical discipleship looks like.’