Over the course of the last year we have dealt with some challenging issues through our questions of faith sermon series. We’ve looked at the problem of suffering & unanswered prayer, is God homicidal, do all religions lead to God, to name just a few topics.
This morning I want to tackle a subject which is a hot topic in the church at the moment, and has attracted a lot of media attention. It made the headlines again last week, when it was reported that the ‘Church clears way for Gay Bishops.’ It is the issue of homosexuality and the church.
I have deliberately steered away from tackling the issue of homosexuality until now for several reasons. Firstly, of the many challenges facing the church, the question of homosexuality is not the most important issue – there are other far more important matters that I feel the church needs to address, I will come onto these later. Secondly, I know that this is a topic that affects many of us personally. There will be many people here who have relatives and close friends who have wrestled with the question of their sexual identity, and there may be people here today for whom this has been, or may still be an issue.
So this morning what I want to do is lay out some of the reasons why this question is such a big issue in the church at present. But before I do that I want to talk about how my own opinions on this issue have been influenced.
In 1998 I went to NZ for a year to work with the Mission to Seafarers. My first priority, after finding somewhere to live, was to find a church that I could belong to. I ended up attending my local Anglican Church called St Luke’s. I was made to feel very welcome by that church, being so far away from home, the support I received from this community made a real difference to my time in NZ. But this was also a very liberal church, which as an evangelical I often struggled with. Within the congregation of St Luke’s were a significant number of gay people, and so whereas previously the issue of homosexuality had always been a theoretical one for me, which didn’t impact on my life personally, whilst I was in NZ I was challenged to think more deeply about where I stood on this issue.
This issue became even more personal, when one of my closest friends who I was training with at theological college, admitted to being gay. Coming from an evangelical background, they had wrestled with the question of their sexual identity, and came to the conclusion their sexual identity is part of who God made them. This person is ordained and also in a civil partnership, and now lives and works in Spain. So I’ve had to wrestle with how I feel about this, and how I respond to this situation. So the issue of homosexuality is for me, and many others, one that touches my life & my relationships personally.
What I came to realise is that like most moral issues, the issue of homosexuality is not black and white, and we need to realise that when discussing this issue, we are talking about peoples’ lives. It saddens me to hear the judgemental and condemning way some Christians talk about this issue, both traditionalists and liberals. It is a complex moral issue, and when discussing it, we need to respect different opinions.
Society & Church
Societies attitude to homosexuality has changed considerably over the last thirty years. Homosexuality is now much more widely accepted than it once was, we now have civil partnerships, and gay couples can adopt. The Equality Act protects people from discrimination on the grounds of their sexuality. It is because of the Equality Act that the Church of England is going to allow openly gay BUT celibate clergy to become Bishops. Despite the way it was reported in the news last week, there hasn’t been a radical shift in the Churches position on the issue of homosexuality.
But whereas society’s attitude to homosexuality has become more liberal, it is an issue that threatens to divide the church, with on the one hand, those who want to uphold the churches traditional teaching on sexuality, and on the other hand liberals, who want the church to treat homosexual relationships in the same way as heterosexual relationships.
Many people outside the church struggle to understand why this is such a controversial issue within church. Fundamentally, the reason it is such an important issue, is it comes down to how we understand and interpret the Bible’s teaching on this issue.
The Bible and Homosexuality
So what does the Bible say about homosexuality?
The Bible is silent about homosexual orientation, and there are only a handful of biblical references which clearly prohibit homosexual practice. For example, Leviticus 18:22 says, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” And in Leviticus 20:13 it states, “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.”
Paul in his letters also writes about homosexuality, for example in Romans 1:26-27 he writes “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 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.”
There isn’t any passage in the Bible which defends homosexual practice. However having said that, there are some important points that need to be made.
Firstly, what the Bible appears to prohibit is NOT homosexual orientation, but homosexual practice. This is often overlooked in the debates about homosexuality. This is why the Church of England still insists that gay clergy must remain celibate.
Of course, there is debate about the interpretation of these verses of scripture. For example, the passage that I quoted from Paul’s letter to the Romans, has been described as the most important biblical reference for the homosexuality debate. But there is a debate amongst scholars as to whether Paul is talking about homosexual activity in its broadest sense, or whether he is talking about homosexual prostitution, or homosexual acts committed by heterosexual persons, or heterosexuals who "abandoned" or "exchanged" heterosexuality for homosexuality. What this illustrates is the complexity in interpreting scripture.
Those from a more liberal position argue that we understand a lot more about homosexuality now, than when the Bible was written, and homosexuality is much more widely accepted. However it is worth remembering that homosexual practice was very wide spread in the Greco Roman culture.
What would Jesus say?
So what does Jesus say on the issue of homosexuality? Well the answer is we don’t know! But Jesus did say that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17). Jesus did not undermining the Law of Moses, which would have included teaching on sexual ethics. When a woman was caught committing adultery, Jesus did not condone her actions, but then neither did he condemn her, but instead told her to sin no more (John 8:11). Paul in Romans reminds us that all of us fall short of God’s standards, we have all sinned. Therefore we are all called to repentance and to live a new life following Jesus commandments.
One of the most inspiring people I have met is Martin Hallett, who runs the ‘True Freedom Trust’. This is a Christian support and teaching ministry for men and women, who accept the Bible’s traditional teaching on same sex practice, but are also aware of same sex attractions. Martin Hallett came and spoke at my college about his own struggles with the feelings of attraction he has for other men, but also how he has chosen to live a celibate life style, because of the teaching of scripture. It has not been easy decision for him to make, but he believes it is has been the right choice.
Based on the amount of time that the church spends debating homosexuality, you would think that it is the most important issue facing the church today, but it isn’t.
In 2007 Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that there are much more important issues to focus on. He said, "Our world is facing problems - poverty, HIV and Aids - a devastating pandemic, and conflict. God must be weeping looking at some of the atrocities that we commit against one another. In the face of all of that, our Church, especially the Anglican Church, at this time is almost obsessed with questions of human sexuality."
Jim Wallis, who is an American evangelical writer and political activist, who advises President Obama, said in a recent interview: “It’s sad that when three billion people – half of God’s children – are living on less than two dollars a day, so much of our talk is about homosexuality. It’s an important issue for sure, but with so many people struggling and dying in poverty, should this be our top priority?”
In Isaiah God makes it clear that the things that matter to him are to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) These are the issues that really matter.
Our Gospel reading this morning, is a reminder that we as the church are called to be a place of welcome, a place of acceptance, and a place of healing. I have only been able to scratch the surface on the topic of homosexuality and the Bible, and we may have differences of opinion on this topic, but I hope that as a church, we can discuss this, and other moral and ethical issues in a way that promotes love and understanding amongst Christians. Because ultimately as Christians we are called to love one another, just as God loves us, and it is love that is the authentic mark of a Christian community. Amen.
Questions for Home Groups
Please remember that this is a sensitive subject, which needs to be dealt with great care. It is important to recognise that people may have different opinions on this subject.
· Do you know someone who has had to wrestle with their sexual identity? What struggles did this person have to face? Has it influenced how you approach this issue?
· Why do you feel the issue of homosexuality is such an important one for the church?
· The Bible is silent about the issue of homosexual orientation. Why do you think this is the case? In the debates surrounding homosexuality do you feel this distinction between orientation and practice is often overlooked? Does this alter the way in which we approach this subject?
· Why do you think we focus so much on homosexuality, but ignore other aspects of sexual ethics, for example sex before marriage amongst heterosexuals?
· Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17) – what can we learn from this in relation to the debate surrounding homosexuality and sexual ethics in general?
· What can we learn from the way Jesus treated people (you may want to look at John 7:53-8:11)?
· How can we best support those people who are struggling with their sexual identity?
· What do you feel are the main issues that the church should be concerned about today?
If you want to explore further the question of the Church, Bible and Homosexuality I recommend the following websites:
An Exercise In The Fundamentals Of Orthodoxy www.peter-ould.net – the website of the Revd Peter Ould, one of the main bloggers in the Church of England on the topic of relationships, sex and Jesus.
True Freedom Trust www.truefreedomtrust.co.uk - a Christian support and teaching ministry for men and who accept the of same-sex practice and yet are aware of same-sex attractions, or struggle with other sexual and relational issues.
Church of England www.churchofengland.org/our-views/marriage,-family-and-sexuality-issues/human-sexuality.aspx - links to documents on the issues surrounding human sexuality, including homosexuality, and the Church’s teaching on Civil Partnerships