Charmaine Yip delves into the scriptures to assess whether allowing LGBT people to attend church services, but preventing them from serving or taking on leadership roles is justifiable
The Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith (LLF) resource, which aims to support "church-wide learning together" as part of "discerning a way forward for the Church of England in relation to matters of sexuality" has been criticised by conservative evangelical churches as a departure from doctrine and scriptural authority, particularly in relation to same-sex relationships.
The LLF book identifies three broad types of response among churches to the social acceptance of same-sex relationships, and it is the first and most conservative of these, called “pastoral accompaniment,” that this article is about.
The LLF book notes that in most of these churches, a person seeking to participate in congregational life would not be turned away if they identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. On the other hand, "the welcome and care offered to that person would need to include some recognition that entering or continuing in a same-sex sexual relationship would be out of line with that church’s teaching”.
The LLF book then identifies certain limits which would be placed around the person’s participation in congregational life, such as restrictions on “receiving communion, or joining the choir or the worship band, or sitting on the church council, or convening a home group”. Although not explicitly stated, it is inferred that if after a period of pastoral accompaniment the person does not renounce their lifestyle, he or she would be asked to leave.
An incomplete welcome?
The pastoral accompaniment response raises several concerns about welcome and care. For instance, there is an implicit admission that some churches practise a policy of exclusion. Additionally, how does the “recognition” that a relationship is inconsistent with that church’s teaching, which includes limiting a person’s participation, play out in practice? Of course, we must accept that a person whose lifestyle is not in line with a church’s teaching cannot realistically hold a teaching or leadership position in that church, but we might rightly be questioning whether the other restrictions are compatible with welcome when their effect might be to exclude, stigmatise and make people feel unwanted. Crucially, is the welcome which we extend to those in same-sex relationships consistent, firstly, with scripture, and secondly, with that offered to heterosexual people in relationships which are similarly prohibited by scripture?
A biblical consideration of welcome and care should start with Jesus’s treatment of sinners. Matthew 9 records that when Jesus had dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples, prompting indignation and outrage from the Pharisees. In Luke’s Gospel, the Pharisees refer to Jesus’ habit of associating with sinners to insult him and undermine his credibility as a teacher. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” they muttered (Luke 15:1). Jesus’ response is that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. He uses three different parables in Luke 15 to hammer home the point: He has come to seek and save the lost.
But who are the lost, the sick and the sinners? In an astonishing departure from prevailing thought, Jesus shows it is not only the prostitutes and tax collectors who need saving, but the ‘righteous’ Pharisees too. In Matthew 23 Jesus exposes the lie that the Pharisees are in fact righteous. In the most scathing attack recorded in the Gospels, he calls out their hypocrisy, greed, moral inconsistency and judgmentalism. In woe after woe, he teaches that sin is not so much a matter of external conduct but a matter of the heart, and what lurks in the hearts of the Pharisees is no less vile than the sexual immorality they were so quick to condemn.
The centrality of love
There is a further lesson to be learned from Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question in Matthew 9. Quoting from Hosea 6:6, he asks the Pharisees to go and learn what the words “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” mean. In a later section, Matthew 12, he refers to the same text when responding to the Pharisees’ question about plucking grain on the Sabbath. What is Jesus’ point here? Hosea 6 records God’s lament over the unfaithfulness of his covenant people. “Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears,” he says of them. What God desires is not so much their strict observances of the Mosaic law and the sacrificial system it encodes, as their hearts. The word translated as “mercy” in Hosea 6:6 is the Hebrew chesed, a word rich in meaning which is one of the most common descriptions of God’s unconditional love and loyalty in the Bible. In referring to Hosea 6:6 in both Matthew 9 and 12, in situations where the Pharisees’ questions betray a concern about defilement, Jesus’s answer is that love for God and neighbour is more important than meticulous observances of the law. Paul makes a similar point in 1 Corinthians 13: what’s the point of spiritual gifts without love? The Pharisees, it seems, missed the point.
It’s not difficult to see where we’re headed with this. It’s correct that the Bible does not affirm same-sex relationships; in fact, several texts in the Bible prohibit such relationships and we do want to be faithful to scripture, but in our desire to uphold the Bible, are we in danger of becoming as hard-hearted and judgmental as the Pharisees, focusing so much on external observances like sexual purity that we’re neglecting love, kindness and compassion? How faithful are we to Jesus’ pattern of welcoming sinners and to his commandment to love each other? And who would Jesus be choosing to eat with if he were on earth today, the pious in the pews or the lepers we have rejected?
What about truth?
Of course, loving people also means teaching them biblical truth. Jesus himself does not welcome sinners without also pointing out their sin and urging repentance. In John 8:11, he declares to the woman caught in the act of adultery, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” And in Matthew 18:15-17 he sets out a procedure for dealing with sin in the church. If after several interventions the offender does not repent, Jesus’ instruction is to treat the offender as one would a pagan or tax collector. This passage establishes the basis for church discipline which Paul elaborated on in 2 Thessalonians 3 and 1 Corinthians 5. In both these instances Paul advocates a withdrawal of close fellowship with the offender which is aimed at bringing about godly sorrow and repentance. The Bible is clear that we cannot focus so much on the welcome and inclusion that we refrain from teaching biblical truth. The question is, how do we balance these two seemingly conflicting demands? Can we glean any insights from our handling of other sexual relationships which are contrary to traditional church teaching?
The Bible is clear that we cannot focus so much on the welcome and inclusion that we refrain from teaching biblical truth
Let’s consider the treatment of heterosexual couples in our churches who are remarried divorcees. Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 19:9 that anyone who divorces his wife for reasons other than sexual immorality and marries another woman commits adultery. It appears clear that the second marriage does not sanctify the adultery; indeed, Jesus appears to say explicitly that it causes it, presumably because, in God’s eyes, the first marriage is a lifelong union. A literal reading of Matthew 19:9 is that, except in the case of divorce for sexual immorality, divorcees must not remarry and must remain celibate for the rest of their lives.
Despite the clarity of scripture on this issue, most churches do not exclude or treat divorced and remarried couples any differently from single-marriage or single people. Some churches do on occasion refuse to marry divorcees, requiring them to marry at registry offices instead, but thereafter the couple is welcomed warmly into the church family and there are no limits placed on their participation. Any teaching on divorce is delivered with the utmost sensitivity, gentleness and with an express acknowledgement that life is sometimes messy and there are grey areas. All of this is right and consistent with our call to love each other. Why should we not treat people in same-sex relationships the same way, removing any limits on their full congregational participation, teaching the truth swaddled in layers of grace and extending to them the same welcome that we would to anyone else?
Why don't we preach against extra-marital sexual relationships as vociferously as we do against same-sex relationships?
The same questions arise with heterosexual cohabitees. The traditional teaching has always been to the effect that sex is only permissible within marriage. In some churches, unmarried cohabitees are not allowed to hold office, but are not usually asked to leave or even restricted from taking communion. It is common to find unmarried mothers attending church with their young children, or unmarried young couples who have recently moved into the area dropping in to “check out a church”. These unmarried people are quickly befriended by other young couples or parents with children the same age, and they find in the church a warm caring community which loves and accepts them. Why do these people, whose relationships also fall foul of scripture, feel welcomed, loved and accepted? Perhaps it is because we do not preach against extra-marital sexual relationships as vociferously as we do against same-sex relationships, so it’s not what we say but how we say it. Or perhaps it is that, despite what is preached from the pulpit, we people in the pews are intrinsically more loving and welcoming to an unmarried heterosexual people than we would be to a gay couple because we ourselves feel more comfortable around them; they are more like us, less “other”. Here’s where the rubber hits the road: is the exclusion and restriction more to do with social conditioning than scriptural authority? To put it bluntly, is scriptural correctness a convenient veneer to conceal underlying prejudice?
Church as family
Perhaps the answers to all these questions lie in our vision of what church should be. In an interview with Premier Christianity, the Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell tells the story of a man who wanted to attend the church of which he was the vicar. The man didn’t believe in God but liked the community. Stephen allowed it on one condition; the man was not allowed to say the Creed. “In fact, don’t say anything if you don’t want to, because I’d much rather you wait until that day you feel you can say it, rather than you just going through the motions.” Several years later the man was baptised and confirmed. Stephen ends the story with the words: “That’s what church should be – this gathering together of muddled humanity, exploring what it means to follow Jesus.” Or as the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, “No one characterises a family as exhibiting unanimity. But the Church should demonstrate the inclusive relationships that our Lord showed us.” It’s true that the church is not a social club; it should be a gathering of God’s elect who seek to glorify God and live in obedience to his word. But this obedience means that we must, at the most basic level, welcome, love and care for all equally.
Finally, although this article is premised on the traditional church view that same-sex relationships are prohibited by scripture, we know that we don’t always get things right. Back in the 18th century, slave-owners defended their right to own slaves by reference to the Bible. There are several texts in the Bible which endorse slave-keeping and there are none which prohibit it. Slaves were enjoined to obey their masters by texts such as Colossians 3:22. When William Wilberforce began his campaign for the abolition of slavery, he was accused of deliberate abandonment of the authority of scripture. Yet it was clear to him, despite these texts, that if all humans are made in the image of God, then slavery is inconsistent with the core values of justice, mercy and love at the heart of the Bible. Few would argue that his interpretation is incorrect today. As George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilisation, put it: “…after slavery was abolished, the grandchildren of those who believed, practised or were involved wondered how they could have been so blind and stupid. What issues do we have so wrong that future generations will stand in amazement at our blindness, prejudice, laziness and stupidity?”