Saturday, May 24, 2014

Why we are wrong to make a shibboleth out of gay marriage

(For those who don’t know their Bible so well, a more contemporary synonym for "shibboleth" might be "litmus test")

A recent piece in Christianity Magazine observed very astutely that the current discussions within the church about gay marriage have escalated to the point where the issue is being used to determine whether someone is really an evangelical – that is, a Christian who holds the Bible to be the highest authority over and above their own experience, reason, or church tradition. I am myself an evangelical Christian and am very much concerned with the struggle for the heart of evangelicalism, or as I would see it, the battle to retain a biblical focus in the face of creeping erosion by secular ideas from inside and outside the church. But I think we are wrong to make gay marriage a strategic battleground in this campaign.

Why? Firstly, because the Bible doesn’t make a big issue out of homosexuality (Jesus doesn’t see fit to mention it once). There are a few references to homosexual practices in the old testament, and a few in the new testament, but only in passing. It's hardly a defining feature of the Christian faith, and I know that even within evangelical circles there are different opinions on homosexuality which result simply from questions of hermaneutics (i.e., the question of how we read the Bible given that we believe in its authority).

Secondly, because it’s an issue that’s irrelevant to most people – in particular, to those who are almost entirely attracted to the opposite sex. For anyone who is "straight" to make a big deal about what it means to be gay and a Christian can only be seen as focusing on the speck in your neighbour’s eye to cover up the plank in our own; it smacks of rank hypocrisy.

Thirdly, because it panders to our secular culture and press’s obsession with sex. People want to portray us as obsessed with sex. In reality we ought to be less obsessed by it than the secular public. The media loves to portray Christians as people who are always talking about homosexuality because that hides the far more important and more challenging messages we should really be talking about.

Fourthly, because when talking about homosexuality, there is a risk that our right desire to read the bible honestly is coloured by a natural but wrong human tendency to react negatively to anything that is different from us. I suspect that a lot of the recent discussions have been more influenced by this fear of the strange than by what the Bible actually teaches, and I think we would be far better on concentrating on issues where we can be clear that our thinking is being influenced by good rather than by bad.

And there are probably more reasons than that. But I am an evangelical and as such I am committed to holding on to scripture against the tide of compromising ideas. So after a modicum of thought I would like to propose three different topics that I think are far better suited for examining the question of whether we genuinely want to let the Bible change us or whether we are really closet liberals taking the bits we like but bowing to societal pressure and ignoring scripture when that suits us. My trio of shibboleths are therefore:

1. Divorce and remarriage. Unlike homosexuality, Jesus did teach on this subject and his teaching is pretty unambiguous. He explained how his teaching related to the Old Testament teaching on the subject and why the latter fell short of God’s standards. We can discuss details of exactly when and why divorce and remarriage are permitted by the Bible, but for most of us who are married Jesus does not leave us even the tiniest bit of wiggle room.

2. Immigration. Throughout the Old Testament the people of Israel were taught to welcome and look after the alien, and not to put up barriers to people who wanted to come into the nation in order to meet God. Jesus himself was both a migrant (who fled to Egypt) and of partly immigrant blood (Ruth the Moabitess). The spread of the Gospel in Acts was only possible because of the Roman Empire’s relatively open borders and the free movement of Jewish Christians fleeing persecution in Palestine. And after the day of Pentecost true faith no longer belongs to one nation but belongs to people of every nationality (as promised by God to Abraham and reiterated throughout the Old Testament). There is no place in Biblical Christianity for immigration control.

3. Pacifism. For the first three hundred years of the Christian church it was utterly obvious to everyone that Jesus’ teaching was completely incompatible with the practice of war. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and Paul’s letters reiterated this in that we should repay evil only with good. It was only when the Christian faith was compromised by being assimilated into the hierarchy of the Roman empire that this teaching began to be watered down.

In all three cases the role of Christians should be to hold government and / or ourselves to account. I’m not saying we should campaign for new laws to try to enforce our views on others who do not claim to follow Jesus. That would be a nonsense and would be pretending a false gospel of works rather than the Gospel of Grace that Jesus shows us. (I personally think this Gospel of Grace is under attack by both sides in the current debate about homosexuality and Christianity – but that’s another story.)

These are all three issues on which society takes a radically different view. They are all issues where many Christians would argue that practical considerations, compassion, common sense, call it what you will, would dictate another approach. They are all issues were many of us settle for compromise and put the Bible to one side. In short, they are issues that cut to the heart of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian in today’s world.


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