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Moral Clarity and Witness are the Priority, not Politics

Yesterday, I saw a portion of the emotional press conference in which another very credible woman accuses Judge Roy Moore of sexual misconduct. The New York Times reports on what she said:

The new accuser, Beverly Young Nelson, told a packed news conference in New York that Mr. Moore attacked her when she was a teenager and he was a prosecutor in Etowah County, Ala. Ms. Nelson was represented at the news conference by Gloria Allred, a lawyer who has championed victims of sexual harassment.

“I tried fighting him off, while yelling at him to stop, but instead of stopping, he began squeezing my neck, attempting to force my head onto his crotch,” Ms. Nelson said, growing emotional as she described the assault, which she said happened one night after her shift ended at a local restaurant, where she was a waitress.

She said that Mr. Moore warned her that “no one will believe you” if she told anyone about the encounter in his car.

Ms. Allred displayed a yearbook that Ms. Nelson said had been signed by Mr. Moore, and the writing mirrored other examples of Mr. Moore’s signature.

If you haven’t seen the video of the press conference, watch it for yourself. As I said, I think this woman is very compelling and credible. And the same can be said of the other accusers who have come forward over the last week.

I am not omniscient and cannot claim any special definitive knowledge about the veracity of each and every allegation. All I can say is that from what I’ve read and seen over the last week, there is certainly enough smoke to suggest a very serious fire. Even if one does not believe the most serious allegations, everyone ought to be scandalized by the undisputed allegations—that a grown man was seeking to date underage teenage girls.

As Christians, our first response to such allegations should not be a political calculus. Our first response should be horrified compassion for those traumatized by sexual misconduct. And that response should also include moral clarity and consistency. The balance of the United States Senate is not our chief concern. Our witness is. More than anything, we must be concerned to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to its transforming power. That witness is undermined when God’s truth is set aside for any reason, much more for worldly political ends.

Yesterday before these most recent allegations came forth, Albert Mohler made the following remarks on The Briefing:

We also understand a particular responsibility to defend the defenseless and to speak up for those who need that defense, and we must make very clear that predatory sexual behavior, especially predatory sexual behavior addressed to a child, to a minor, is absolutely heinous, reprehensible, and cannot be accepted by any morally sane society. Even in our sexually confused age, we should be thankful for the fact that there is at least enough residual moral sense in the American people that they understand that any contact by an adult male with a minor female, or for that matter you could even change the genders, it’s absolutely wrong, immoral, and unacceptable. So we should at least state that about the charges right up front: If indeed the allegations are true, they are genuinely, morally devastating and they should be politically devastating as well.

I couldn’t agree more. Every person who names Jesus as Lord should agree as well.

Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality

Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand have put together a stimulating collection of essays on sexuality titled Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP, 2017). Contributors represent a diverse range of views within evangelicalism and include Richard Mouw, Beth Felker Jones, Wesley Hill, and yours truly.

My chapter is titled “The Transgender Test” and explores the ways that transgenderism presents a unique challenge to Christian faithfulness and witness. I argue that it is a test of biblical authority, a test of biblical message, and a test of biblical relevance.

All of the contributors participated in the 2016 conference hosted by the Center for Pastors Theologians in Oak Park, Illinois. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Humans are sexual creatures. Our sexuality can be a beautiful and mysterious expression of what it means to be human. But it can also become distorted and sinful. Perhaps no issue is as urgent for the church today, or confronts it with as many questions, as human sexuality: What does it mean to fulfill God’s will through our sexuality? To what extent should our sexuality define who we are? How can we navigate cultural trends around sexuality while being faithful to Scripture? The Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) seeks to assist pastors in the study and production of biblical and theological scholarship for the theological renewal of the church and the ecclesial renewal of theology. Based on the 2016 annual CPT conference, this volume brings together the reflections of church leaders and academic theologians who seek to answer the urgent questions concerning human sexuality. contributors engage with Scripture, draw on examples from church history, and delve into current issues in contemporary culture, including embodiment, marriage, homosexuality, pornography, transgenderism, and gender dysphoria. Beauty, Order, and Mystery tackles difficult questions with discernment in order to offer a theological vision of faithful human sexuality for the church.

The essays are not overly technical but are accessible to ordinary lay readers. If you’re interested, you can order the book here.

12-year old boy transitions to female (then changes his mind)

60 Minutes Australia reports on a 12-year old boy who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria and who decided to “transition” to become a female (watch above). With the help of his mother, he adopted a female identity, began taking female hormones, and grew breasts.

Two year later, however, at the age of 14, he changed his mind. He decided that he didn’t want to be a girl after all. But his body had already been permanently changed by the female hormones. His reversal will now require surgery, including breast reduction surgery to try and make his feminine-looking frame look more masculine.

A few thoughts on this:

1. The science conclusively demonstrates that 80-90% of children with gender confusion grow out of it by puberty, and they do so without any medical intervention at all. In light of that incontrovertible fact, everyone on all sides of this debate should agree that it is cruel and abusive to make permanent changes to the bodies of minor children based solely on their self-reported gender confusion.

2. Is gender dysphoria real? I think that it is. Some children experience real distress because of a perception that their body doesn’t match their mind. But what is the solution to this? Is it not far better to teach such children to resolve their distress in a way that affirms and embraces their biological sex? In other words, it is better to change their mind to fit their body than to amputate healthy body parts to make the body fit the troubled mind.

3. God’s “purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God” (source). Among those “short-sighted” alternatives are gender transitions of minor children. That radical measure is but one of the ways that people are harmed by failing to recognize God’s good design.

The Nashville “Megachurch” that embraced gay marriage two years ago has cratered

Two years ago TIME magazine highlighted an evangelical “megachurch” whose pastor had led the congregation to affirm gay marriage and to welcome LGBT persons as full members of the church (see the sermon announcement above from two years ago). The story made quite a splash at the time, even though many pointed out that the church wasn’t really a megachurch and could hardly be seen as a bellwether of things to come.

Yesterday, the website “Juicy Ecumenism” reported that the church has cratered over the last two years. From the report:

A once-large Nashville-area Evangelical congregation that made headlines after its pastor announced that the church would conduct same-sex marriages is selling its campus and relocating to rented space.

After his announcement of LGBT support in 2015, Pastor Stan Mitchell of GracePointe Church in Franklin, Tennessee was profiled in Time magazine. But what was a much sought-after sign of Evangelical movement towards LGBT affirmation may have been wishful thinking on the part of cultural progressives pouring money into programs that aim to shift Evangelical pastors’ views on sexuality…

Changes ultimately were not limited to teachings on sexuality. In August, the Nashville Star reported that GracePointe would share space with another progressive congregation, now describing itself as “unapologetically interfaith”.

A visitor to a recent service counted approximately 240 attendees, a fraction of the number that once participated.

“The public embrace of LGBTQI people and same-sex relationships by Mitchell and GracePointe Church in 2015 has led to a major decline in attendance and revenue,” Out & About Nashville reported in September. “The half-empty lot bears evidence of a minor exodus over two years of congregants.”

GracePointe has listed the 12,000-square-foot modernist chapel and 22 acre property where the church has met since 2009. The property, initially listed in February at $7.5 million, was dropped to $5.7 million in March and $4.9 million in April according to real estate records. The property is now under contract according to the Franklin Patch, and the sale could finalize by year’s end.

The loss of more than half of the congregation has hurt GracePointe’s financial stability, Mitchell told Out & About Nashville. The congregation is hoping the sale of the church property, along with budget and staff cutbacks, will improve finances.

This is a sad but predictable result of a pastor who leads a church to apostatize from the Christian faith. Walking away from Jesus is not a catalyst for church growth. On the contrary, it is the catalyst for church death. Believers in such churches will eventually leave, and those that remain to embrace the error will be an unfaithful remnant. It may be a gathering of people, but it will not be a gathering of born-again people and will not therefore be a church of the Lord Jesus.

I wrote about this church two years ago after the TIME magazine report. What I wrote then, I still believe to be true:

Gay marriage and homosexuality are going to become the occasion for a great winnowing of the evangelical ranks, and we are going to be seeing a lot of that in days to come. Those churches that have been evangelical in name only and that have not been conducting themselves with biblical integrity are going to get exposed on this issue. Many of these “evangelical” churches will buckle under pressure (like GracePointe) and will be known as “formerly evangelical” in very short order. For that reason, GracePointe’s falling away is not the future of evangelicalism but of former evangelicalism. And that is a big difference.

Pastors, be ready for questions about abortion and homosexuality

The Federalist ran a story yesterday about a certain pastor’s appearance on The View. One of the hosts asked him what his church teaches about homosexuality and abortion. The pastor dodged the question. Another host, Joy Behar, followed up by asking very specifically whether abortion is a sin. Still, the pastor could not bring himself to say that abortion is a sin. Rather, he said that each person has to “live to their own convictions” and that God would be the judge.

A few thoughts on this:

1. His answer is not sufficient. As a pastor, you have a responsibility to speak the truth in love, and it is not loving to fail to speak the truth (1 Cor. 13:6; Eph. 4:15). One can do both at once, but it was not done here.

“We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).

2. The questions are not surprising. Any pastor should know and be prepared to answer these questions–especially if one is going on a show like The View, where there is no mystery about how the hosts view abortion and homosexuality. The hosts are for abortion and for homosexuality. It is pastoral malpractice to leave the impression that abortion is just an individual choice and might be right for some and wrong for others. Be ready, pastors. You’re not gonna have to go on The View to get asked these questions, and you shouldn’t be caught by surprise when they come your way.

“Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

3. His answers are not consistent. The pastor is willing to speak with moral clarity about racism. He condemns it outright and is congratulated by the hosts for doing so. But when asked for the same kind of moral clarity about abortion and homosexuality, he backs down. Why? Clearly the hosts approve his condemnation of racism but would not have approved a condemnation of abortion or homosexuality. A pastor must never stick his finger to the wind to determine when and where to offer moral clarity. No, he must be morally serious at all times and has no right to pick and choose when he’ll speak the truth and when he won’t. If he is God’s man, then he must always be completely truthful.

“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season… For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:2-4).

“I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

4. This kind of evasion is a real temptation for every Christian, and that includes me. It is hard to stand when the world and the devil stand against you. There is a cost to moral courage, and only a test can reveal who is willing to pay it. We need to pray for each other to be faithful and not to falter when the tide turns against us. That tide is turning now, and we need grace to meet it.

“The Lord stood with me and strengthened me… and I was rescued out of the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:17-18).


UPDATE: The pastor has released a statement on Twitter clarifying his stance on abortion.

How homosexuality undermines male friendships

Anthony Esolen has a prescient essay in which he demonstrates that homosexuality undermines male friendships. He argues that the removal of the taboo and the openness of homosexual relations in the modern age cast a shadow over male friendships in general. He writes:

Imagine a world wherein the taboo has been broken and incest is loudly and defiantly celebrated. Your wife’s unmarried brother puts his hand on your daughter’s shoulder. That gesture, once innocent, must now mean something, or at least suggest something. If the uncle were wise and considerate, he would not make it in the first place. You see a father hugging his teenage daughter as she leaves the car to go to school. The possibility flits before your mind. The language has changed, and the individual can do nothing about it.

By now the reader must see the point. I might say that of all human actions there is nothing more powerfully public than what two consenting adults do with their bodies behind (we hope) closed doors. Open homosexuality, loudly and defiantly celebrated, changes the language for everyone. If a man throws his arm around another man’s waist, it is now a sign—whether he is on the political right or the left, whether he believes in biblical proscriptions of homosexuality or not.

If a man cradles the head of his weeping friend, the shadow of suspicion must cross your mind. If a teenage boy is found skinny-dipping with another boy—not five of them, but two—it is the first thing you will think, and you will think it despite the obvious fact that until swim trunks were invented this was exactly how two men or boys would go for a swim.

Because language is communal, the individual can choose to make a sign or not. He cannot determine what the sign is to mean, not to others, not to the one he signals, and not even to himself.

Esolen argues that the shadow of homosexual signaling reduces men to bonding through stereotypical boorishness:

The sexual revolution has also nearly killed male friendship as devoted to anything beyond drinking and watching sports; and the homosexual movement, a logically inevitable result of forty years of heterosexual promiscuity and feminist folly, bids fair to finish it off and nail the coffin shut.

What is more, those who will suffer most from this movement are precisely those whom our society, stupidly considering them little more than pests or dolts, has ignored. I mean boys.

And then Esolen offers this most devastating observation:

The prominence of male homosexuality changes the language for teenage boys. It is absurd and cruel to say that the boy can ignore it. Even if he would, his classmates will not let him. All boys need to prove that they are not failures. They need to prove that they are on the way to becoming men—that they are not going to relapse into the need to be protected by, and therefore identified with, their mothers.

Societies used to provide them with clear and public ways to do this. The Plains Indians would insert hooks into the flesh of their thirteen-year-old braves and hang them in the sun by those hooks, for hours—a test of endurance and courage. At his bar-mitzvah the Jewish boy reads from the Holy Torah and announces, publicly, that on this day he has become a man.

In our carelessness we have taken such signs away from boys and left them to fend for themselves. Two choices remain: The boys must live without public recognition of their manhood and without their own certainty of it, or they must invent their own rituals and signs.

And here the sexual revolution comes to peddle its poison. The single incontrovertible sign that the boy can now seize on is that he has “done it” with a girl, and the earlier and more regularly and publicly he does it, the safer and surer he will feel. If sex is easy to find, and if (as mothers of good-looking teenage boys will testify) the girls themselves seek it out, then you must have a pressing and publicly recognized excuse for not having sex. To avoid scandal—think of it!—you must be protected by your being a linebacker on the football team, or by being too homely for any girl to be interested in you.

A boy who does not agree to a girl’s demand for sex will be tagged with homosexuality. She will slander him herself. Ask teenagers; they will tell you. But even a linebacker known as a rake will not dare to venture into the dangerous territory of too-close association with the wrong sort. He, too, will avoid the close male friendship. The popular and athletic boys will thus have their tickets punched, while the others live under suspicion, alienated from the other boys, from the girls, and from one another.

This must happen. In large part, it has already happened. But we must try to remember when it was not so, if we are going to gauge what we have lost.

Indeed we have lost much. Esolen wrote this about twelve years ago, and we have lost so much more in that interval. Sexual connotations seem to infuse even the most ordinary spaces—spaces where such connotations did not used to exist. Everything is sexualized, and thereby scandalized. It has been a great loss indeed.

Beware of casting off taboos. You will lose more than the taboo.

Esolen’s piece is a long read but worth your time. Read the rest here.

Church Clarity ought to be about biblical and theological clarity

On Wednesday, the website ChurchClarity.org appeared online. Its stated mission: to pressure churches to make clear on their websites whether or not they affirm homosexual immorality and transgenderism. The leadership team that runs the website is comprised exclusively of those who affirm homosexual immorality and transgenderism. And they seem to be focused on forcing evangelical megachurch pastors to clarify where their churches stand on the issue.

I looked through the website and found a number of problems with it. Here are several of them in no particular order:

1. The website claims that it merely wants clarity and that people on all sides of the issue ought to agree about that. That sounds reasonable until you read the fine print. It turns out that this group does not want theological or biblical clarity but only clarity about a church’s policies. The site says:

Church Clarity is not interested in evaluating theology or doctrine, but rather organizational policy. Policies are much more straightforward and have clear impact on people. Will your church let a trans woman join a women’s group? Will your pastoral team officiate a wedding for a gay couple? These are the policy questions we are seeking to clarify. What we’re not interested in: A church’s theological position on whether queer Christians go to heaven, whether same-sex attraction is natural or chosen, how gender plays out in the story of Adam and Eve, etc. You get the point. Conversations around LGBTQ+ issues often drift needlessly into theological debate. That is why we painstakingly emphasize our laser focus on evaluating the level of clarity in regards to a church’s actively enforced policy.

The problem with this is obvious. The clarity that this group calls for falls short of the clarity that Jesus requires (2 Cor. 4:2). Being clear about policies is fine. But even more central is being clear about what a church believes. A church’s policies ought to be grounded in clear biblical teaching, but “Church Clarity” does not aim at “evaluating theology or doctrine.” And yet this is precisely what the Lord expects churches to do. Followers of Christ will recognize that no one is served by putting theology and Bible on the backburner. In fact, that is a recipe for falling into the same kind of error that the founders of “Church Clarity” are into.

2. “Church Clarity” believes that churches have to earn their tax exempt status. A lack of clarity on LGBT issues could be grounds for denying churches tax exempt status:

Churches are unique organizations in America. They enjoy tremendous public subsidies, as they are recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt religious organizations. In exchange for these subsidies, churches are expected to play a vital role of serving their communities. But there is very little accountability to demonstrate that they are earning that subsidy. In fact, many churches fail to uphold the basic standards of transparency that we, as a society, expect from most other organizations.

“Church Clarity” seems unaware that churches don’t “earn” tax exemptions. The United States government does not give tax exempt status to churches because they meet some minimum threshold of usefulness to a community. They are given because of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Supreme Court has held that tax exemptions are not subsidies, that they help to uphold the separation between church and state, and that they are based on the first amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion (see Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York). Is “Church Clarity” really suggesting that churches should lose their tax exemptions based on their website content? If their websites don’t meet Church Clarity’s standard of clarity? Do we really want the federal government policing church websites to determine whether their policies on LGBT issues are clear enough? This is absurd.

3. “Church Clarity” seems particularly concerned about churches “where ambiguity and misleading practices have become normalized.” They write,

Many churches have avoided fully or clearly disclosing their church policies out of a desire to be “seeker sensitive,” that is, a desire to attract “seekers” and convert them into loyal “customers.” This capitalist mindset is particularly dangerous in a spiritual context. It means that pastors will preach about “welcoming” and “loving” all people, no matter who they are, while quietly refusing to officiate weddings or grant full membership to LGBTQ+ people.

There are clear laws and regulations in the for-profit world that protect us from “false advertising” and “bait and switch” tactics. But while we hold the marketplace accountable for such violations, we rarely insist that churches abide by these basic norms. Are the stakes not much higher when it comes to spiritual matters? Is a clearly communicated policy on a church’s website an unreasonable expectation? We don’t believe so.

“Church Clarity” claims to be targeting “seeker sensitive” churches, but they do not seem to realize that they implicate non-seeker sensitive churches as well. What they call “false advertising” and “bait and switch” may not be those things at all. It is not false advertising when a traditional church welcomes all sinners to visit the church, to hear the message, and to come to Jesus. That’s what every faithful church teaches, and it is in no way at odds with upholding the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality. Perhaps if “Church Clarity” were a little more interested in theology and Bible they would recognize that.

Again, keep in mind that “Church Clarity” doesn’t want theological or biblical clarity. They only want churches to advertise whether or not sexually immoral people can participate in every level of a church’s membership and leadership. It doesn’t matter to them whether the church’s website is theologically or biblically clear.

4. “Church Clarity” focuses on megachurches. There is a reason for that. There really are pastors of megachurches who have been evasive and silent on this issue. Some of them are suspected of being “affirming” but of being too cowardly to admit it. “Church Clarity” seems intent on blowing up their evasions and forcing the issue. I agree that the evasions are unhelpful and cowardly. I do not agree with Church Clarity’s suggested remedy.

Pastors who have been evasive need to repent, but they don’t need to follow the agenda of “Church Clarity” to do that. They need to make plain their commitment to biblical orthodoxy. They need to make plain their church’s convictions in a doctrinal statement (I recommend the Nashville Statement). And they need to set forth a biblical and theological vision of human sexuality in the teaching ministry of the church. How an unorthodox, apostate group rates them on these efforts should be of no concern at all. How God rates them should be of utmost concern (1 Cor. 4:2-5).

Spurgeon on the “reproach” of believer’s baptism

“If I thought it wrong to be a Baptist, I should give it up, and become what I believed to be right… If we could find infant baptism in the word of God, we should adopt it. It would help us out of a great difficulty, for it would take away from us that reproach which is attached to us,—that we are odd, and do not as other people do. But we have looked well through the Bible, and cannot find it, and do not believe that it is there; nor do we believe that others can find infant baptism in the Scriptures, unless they themselves first put it there.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, et al., The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, vol. 1 (Chicago: F.H. Revell, 1898), 155.

Book Review of “Single Gay Christian”

I just finished reading Gregory Coles’ moving memoir Single Gay Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (IVP, 2017). In many ways, there is much to admire about this book. Coles is a great writer and has put together a real page-turner. This is not a boring book. Coles’ honesty and vulnerability come through in just about every page. Coles is telling his own story—warts and all—and he’s gut-wrenchingly honest about his emerging awareness of himself as a same-sex attracted man.

Coles’s story is a very human story, and just about anyone (same-sex attracted or not) can resonate with the humor and the pathos that he narrates. By the end of it, you feel like you know the man. And this is a man who embraces the Bible’s prohibitions on same-sex immorality. Because of that, he has dedicated himself to a life of celibacy out of faithfulness to Christ. As hard as it is, Coles has concluded that faithfulness to Jesus on this point is more important than pursuing a gay relationship.

So there is much that I resonate with in Coles’s story. In the end, however, I share the same concerns about the book that Rachel Gilson expressed in her review at TGC.

First, this book falls squarely within the celibate gay identity genre, in which the author rejects gay sexual behavior and gay marriage but embraces a gay identity. Coles argues that being gay is “central to my identity” (p. 37). He resists referring to himself simply as one who experiences same-sex attraction. Coles believes that describing himself as same-sex attracted might imply that the experience is merely a “phase” he is going through (p. 63). He maintains that being gay is something that defines him at the core of his being. His sexual attractions are not just how he is but who he is. Coles writes:

I began to realize that my sexual orientation was an inextricable part of the bigger story God was telling over my life. My interests, my passions, my abilities, my temperament, my calling—there was no way to sever those things completely from the gay desires and mannerisms and attitudes that had developed alongside them. For the first time in my life, I felt free to celebrate the beautiful mess I had become (p. 43).

Coles not only argues that homosexuality is core to his identity, he even suggests that it may be a part of God’s good design.

Is it too dangerous, too unorthodox, to believe that I am uniquely designed to reflect the glory of God? That my orientation, before the fall, was meant to be a gift in appreciating the beauty of my own sex as I celebrated the friendship of the opposite sex? That perhaps within God’s flawless original design there might have been eunuchs, people called to lives of holy singleness?

We in the church recoil from the word gay, from the very notion of same-sex orientation, because we know what it looks like only outside of Eden, where everything has gone wrong. But what if there’s goodness hiding within the ruins? What if the calling to gay Christian celibacy is more than just a failure of straightness? What if God dreamed it for me, wove it into the fabric of my being as he knit be together and sang life into me? (pp. 46-47)

Coles suggests that same-sex orientation may be a part of God’s original creation design and that homosexual orientation within Eden is an ideal that exceeds that which people experience outside of Eden.

I do not know how to reconcile this perspective with scripture or with the natural law. Same-sex orientation is not simply a “creational variance” (as Nicholas Wolterstorff has described it). Scripture teaches explicitly that homosexual desire and behavior are “against nature”—meaning against God’s original creation design (Rom. 1:26-27). Nor can I reconcile this perspective with what Coles says elsewhere about same-sex orientation being a “thorn in the flesh,” which suggests that same-sex orientation is not a part of God’s original design. Which is it? A thorn in the flesh or something God “dreamed” for people as a part of his original design?

The answer to this question is not clear in this book, and that omission has enormous pastoral implications in the lives of people who experience same-sex attraction. Should they embrace their attraction as a “gift” from God that is a part of his original design for them? Or should they recognize those attractions as a part of what has gone wrong in creation? Should they try to find something holy in those desires, or should they flee from them? I am concerned that readers will not find a clear answer in this book. And there can be soul-crushing consequences for answering those questions incorrectly.

Second, Coles says that the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not as clear as conservative Christians suggest. After studying the issue and really digging into it for himself, he concludes that the Bible does not support same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior. Nevertheless, because the Bible is less straightforward on the matter than he previously was led to believe, he ends up treating the issue as one that faithful Christians may agree to disagree about. He writes,

The Bible’s treatment of homosexuality was complicated. More complicated than the well-meaning conservative preachers and ex-gay ministers were ready to admit. But the fact that it was complicated didn’t make every interpretation equally valid. There was still a best way of reading the text, still a truth that deserved to be pursued.

And when I pursued it, I got the answer I feared, not the answer I wanted. More and more, I found myself believing the Bible’s call to me was a call to self-denial through celibacy (pp. 36-37).

Coles goes on to explain that even though he embraced a conservative stance on the issue, the Bible’s lack of clarity continued to affect his views.

I was still sympathetic to the revisionist argument that affirmed the possibility of same-sex marriage. Part of me still wanted to believe it, and I understood at the most visceral level why some sincere Christians might choose to adopt this view (p. 37).

Even though Coles disagrees with those living in homosexual relationships, he nevertheless identifies some who do as “sincere Christians.” Near the end of the book, he elaborates even further:

And yet if I’m honest, there are issues I consider more theologically straightforward than gay marriage that sincere Christians have disagreed on for centuries. Limited atonement? “Once saved always saved”? Infant baptism?… If we can’t share pews with people whose understanding of God differs from ours, we’ll spend our whole lives worshiping alone (pp. 108-109).

Coles says that he does not wish to be the judge on such matters and says that judging other people’s hearts is “none of my business” (p. 110). He adds that the issue falls under the warning of Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall” (p. 110).

Coles seems to equate differences about homosexual immorality with differences that Christians have about second order doctrines. But how can homosexual immorality be treated in this way when the Bible says that those who commit such deeds do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11)? In scripture, sexual immorality is not compatible with following Christ (Eph. 5:5-6). How then can “sincere Christians” engage in such activity and still be considered followers of Christ? Coles does not seriously engage this question. He simply says that “sincere Christians” may come to different conclusions.

So much of the evangelical conversation on these issues has been colonized by secular identity theories. Those theories are premised on an unbiblical anthropology which defines human identity as “what I feel myself to be” rather than “what God designed me to be.” If there is to be a recovery and renewal of Christian conscience on sexuality issues, secular identity theories must give way to God’s design as revealed in nature and scripture. Gay identity proposals, in my view, are not bringing us any closer to that renewal.

I really enjoyed getting to know Coles’s story. I can’t help but admire his continuing commitment to celibacy and traditional marriage. I want to cheer him on in that and say “amen.” Still, I am concerned that the celibate gay identity perspective he represents is not biblically faithful or pastorally helpful. And the issue is important enough to flag in a review like this one. Evangelicals need to think their way through to biblical clarity on sexuality and gender issues, but the celibate gay identity view is muddying the waters.

Archbishop of Canterbury on Homosexuality: “I can’t give a straight answer”

GQ published a short interview with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby last week. In it, Alastair Campbell asks Welby a series of pointed questions about the morality of gay sexual activity. Welby’s response is astonishing.

I am not surprised that Welby fails to defend what the Bible teaches about sexuality. I am surprised that he is so honest as to why he won’t give a straight answer. Welby admits that his obfuscation is essentially political. Here’s an excerpt:

Alastair Campbell: Is gay sex sinful?

Justin Welby: Do you know, we have done religion, we have done politics, why am I surprised we are on to gay sex?

Because I feel sorry for Tim Farron, who kept being asked this question, so I am asking you.

You know very well that is a question I can’t give a straight answer to. Sorry, badly phrased there. I should have thought that one through. [Pause, mildly embarrassed.]

Why can’t you?

Because I don’t do blanket condemnation and I haven’t got a good answer to the question. I’ll be really honest about that. I know I haven’t got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships.

But that could be a man and a man or a woman and a woman?

I know it could be. I am also aware – a view deeply held by tradition since long before Christianity, within the Jewish tradition – that marriage is understood invariably as being between a man and a woman. Or, in various times, a man and several women, if you go back to the Old Testament. I know that the Church around the world is deeply divided on this in some places, including the Anglicans and other Churches, not just us, and we are – the vast majority of the Church is – deeply against gay sex.

So this is where you are having to be a politician.

Yes. I am having to struggle to be faithful to the tradition, faithful to the scripture, to understand what the call and will of God is in the 21st century and to respond appropriately with an answer for all people – not condemning them, whether I agree with them or not – that covers both sides of the argument. And I haven’t got a good answer, and I am not doing that bit of work as well as I would like.

But is that because the politics are so hard, you have these Ugandan bishops and the liberals who believe something very different and you have to try to reconcile them?

It is irreconcilable.

So is homophobic hatred sinful?

Yes. Because you are hating individuals. I don’t think it is sinful to say that you disagree with gay sex. But to express that by way of hatred for people is absolutely wrong in the same way as misogyny or racism is wrong.

Is that not morally a cop out?

Yes. I am copping out because I am struggling with the issue.

These statements from Welby are so morally confused. One thing, however, is very clear. Welby is unwilling to defend the teaching of scripture and of the 2,000-year consensus of the Christian church. Instead, he feels it his duty as the archbishop to cover “both sides of the argument” and offend no one—to tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 2:3).

How far this is from the New Testament’s vision of pastoral leadership. That vision involves integrity of conviction and the willingness to contend for the truth in the face of opposition.

Titus 1:9 “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

2 Timothy 2:24-26 “And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

These are basic pastoral duties, but they are altogether missing in Welby’s response. Any pastor unwilling to take up these duties is not qualified for the office they hold, and it is great tragedy when they do hold it.

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