Confused by ‘I, the Lord of sea and sky’

HymnalJust the other day, someone was saying to me how much they love the song “I, the Lord of sea and sky” – it’s one of their all-time favourite hymns. I remember once visiting a church to have a look around, and they were holding a “hymn request” month – people could write their favourite hymns on a bit of paper. This particular hymn came up a lot. On various things I’ve been on with the Church of England with my fellow curates, this song has been requested. It seems to be one everyone’s list of favourite hymns – it’s just one of those hymns with a great tune that makes you want to pump your first in the air and shout “YEAH!” at the end of it.

So – it is with a sense of trepidation that I dare to say: I’m really not sure about it. I’ve had a gut feeling about the hymn for a while now, but I haven’t really thought through why it is that I don’t like it until recently. Hopefully putting it into words will help crystallize my thinking.

I think the essence of the problem, for me, is being uncomfortable with the way the song uses “my people”. In the Bible, the phrase “my people” is used by God to refer to the Israelites. So, for example, Exodus 7:4, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” Or Leviticus 26:12, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” Or 2 Chronicles 7:14 “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Now, I believe that the New Testament requires us to see that the promises God made to Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ (see Rob Dalrymple’s book which I reviewed recently, ‘These Brothers of Mine’). Consequently, Old Testament references to “my people” are ultimately fulfilled in the Kingdom of God – his people, the Church, the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

So, let’s go back to the song. Does the song use the phrase “my people” in that way, i.e. referring to those within the Kingdom of God? I don’t think so. The whole first verse seems to be talking about people who are currently outside the Kingdom: “All who dwell in dark and sin / My hand will save.” And I think this is where I get confused with the song. (As an aside – not to mention the fact that “All who dwell … my hand will save” seems universalist, although I think this is probably not intended).

The song’s imagery is largely drawn from within the people of Israel. Isaiah was called as a prophet to Israel. Samuel was called to be a judge of Israel. The song references the call of both of these men. The second verse says “I have born my people’s pain” – a reference to Isaiah 53:4, which – again – is talking about God bearing the sin of Israel, ultimately of those who trust in Jesus.

The chorus finishes with the line, “I will hold Your people in my heart”. By the time I’ve sung the rest of the song, I’m just not sure who the “Your people” actually are, or what I’m supposed to be doing for them!

Am I being a needless pedant over this? Perhaps. It is certainly true that those in the Kingdom of God were chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) – and as such ‘my people’ in a sense includes not just those who have trusted in Jesus, but all those who will trust in Jesus. God says to Paul in Acts 18:10, “I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” But then, we don’t know who they are. That’s the point of the Parable of the Sower – we spread the word, and there are a variety of different responses. And we don’t call those who have yet to trust in Jesus “my people”. Saul, for example, while he was breathing out murderous threats against God’s people was certainly not a member of the Kingdom of God!

At the end of the day, I feel like the song is trying to make the (excellent) point that God is the one who saves us, that he plans to work in particular people’s lives, that he acts first, steps in and brings light to our darkness, and that he calls and uses us in his mission. That much is all worthy of singing about.

But I feel like the song is also a little confusing, and a little vague – I can well imagine two people from very different theological backgrounds singing the song and meaning different things by the words. Perhaps that’s why it’s so popular in the Church of England, and other Christian groups: it’s not specific enough for any one group to disagree with!

All in all, I’m not going to start a campaign to stop us singing it, but I think it’s worthwhile thinking through what we are singing – especially our most popular hymns. Even if I am being a needless pedant…

Bigotry and legalism in our culture

Intolerance will not be toleratedThree years ago, I lamented the use of the word “bigot” especially in the context of same-sex marriage. In the last week or so, I’ve read a couple of other things which have really said what I wanted to say much better.

Firstly, Brendan O’Neill writes about “The New Bigots” as he considers the treatment of  Germaine Greer after making her comments about transgender women. O’Neill is someone who I would probably disagree with fundamentally on a number of issues, but he is always well worth reading and this is no exception: I think it’s very insightful. Who are the real bigots – people who hold opinions like Germaine Greer, or those who try to silence those opinions?

Secondly, the webcomic Adam4d posted up a cartoon about intolerance, which makes a very similar point. Having a different opinion is not intolerance.

As I was reading these two pieces, it made me reflect on the nature of our society today: why is it that those with dissenting opinions – particularly on matters such as marriage – are often accused of being ‘bigoted’?

Let’s just take a detour into a little thought experiment for a second. Imagine a racist, let’s call him Racist Tim (I don’t know why I chose the name Tim, apologies to all the Tims out there.) Racist Tim is a member of a certain far-right political party and often expresses his support for them in conversations with his friends. Most of his conversation is focussed on the evils of immigration and the dangers of Islam.

Now, Racist Tim has views which are not acceptable in society at the moment (racism). What do you think would help him to change his views? (1) his friends all telling him that he’s stupid; (2) everyone on Facebook and social media telling him that racism is stupid; (3) him having a change of heart and realising that racism is wrong?

Now I appreciate that those three options are not mutually exclusive, but the one which really matters – the one which will really make a difference – is (3), isn’t it? At the end of the day, however much Racist Tim’s friends or the internet tells him that his views are stupid and wrong, it isn’t going to make much of a difference unless he can realise for himself that he’s wrong. Now, it is a possibility that (1) and (2) will help towards (3) – but what I think is more likely to happen is that the more Racist Tim gets abused for his racist views, the more strongly he will hold them. I’d say what is much more effective in that situation is to engage with kindness and compassion and to show Racist Tim why his views are wrong and help him to see that for himself: he won’t realise if he’s just abused, he might just realise if people engage him with gentleness.

Why do I say all of this, and what relevance does it have to intolerance? The point is, at the moment our society basically engages in (1) and (2):  telling people who hold unacceptable opinions that they are wrong, that they are ‘bigots’, that they need to change their minds. But the problem is, I don’t think this will actually change anyone’s mind.

But from a Christian perspective, I also believe there is something even more fundamental going on: the issue of the human heart. As someone once said, “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” Jesus said in Mark 7:20-23,

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.

In context, the disciples (and the Pharisees) thought that ceremonial uncleanness – what made them ‘unclean’ and separated from God – came from outside. But Jesus says, no – uncleanness comes from within. We have a heart problem, one which is inside, rather than one which is merely external.

We human beings, by nature, love to make all our problems external. We believe that if we just follow a set of rules, we’ll be OK. We love to believe that we can set a list of rules for ourselves, and all we need to do is simply keep them. Then, once we’ve followed our list of rules, will we be good and righteous. “Don’t be racist: tick. Don’t be homophobic: tick. Give to charity from time to time: tick.” If you get ticks in enough boxes, you’re a good person. This is known as legalism – that the route to being a good and righteous person is by keeping the law.

From this perspective, it’s not surprising that our society is intolerant, is it? Our society is profoundly legalistic. If you ‘break the law’ (i.e. express the wrong / unacceptable opinion), you’re not a good person. Instead, you need to say the right words, spout the right ideas, keep in line with societal orthodoxy… or at least appear to do these things. Because, truth be told, the fruit of legalism is hypocrisy: people who appear to be keeping the law on the outside, but internally are just the same. Let’s go back to our example of Racist Tim. Let’s suppose that he recognised that expressing his racist opinions drew him lots of abuse, so he stopped. Let’s say that he learned to say the right words so that he could sound enlightened and most definitely not racist. Do you think his heart would have changed too? Or would he just simply be a hypocrite, saying ‘inclusive’ things on the outside while quietly feeding his racism on the inside? He could spend the rest of his life saying the ‘right’ things (or at least, avoiding saying the ‘wrong’ things) while inside still believing his racist thoughts without anyone knowing.

And this is where the Christian message speaks into our society: all of us have a heart problem. All of us have things inside of us we know are wrong which can’t be fixed by giving ourselves a set of rules. But God promises to give us new hearts. He promises to change us from the inside out. This is what God said through the prophet Ezekiel:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Christianity, unlike every other major religion, doesn’t say “do this”: it points to the Saviour, Jesus Christ, and says “done”. It doesn’t say, “if you try really, really hard – you’ll be OK.” It says, “You can’t do it on your own. Trust in Jesus, who has done it for you – and God will renew you and give you a new heart that wants to obey Him.”

At the end of the day, I don’t think Christians should be surprised at our society’s current obsession with the word ‘bigotry’: our society is simply doing what human beings do best – legalism. But the only real solution to intolerance is not more laws, is not more accusations of bigotry, but a new heart.  That’s the only thing which will make any difference in the end.

Thinking about Halloween

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

What is the big deal with Halloween? Why is it that some people – most of them Christian – get so upset by it?

I’ve been thinking about it a bit over the past few days. At church last week, someone made a comment about it from the front, and that generated a certain amount of discussion on Facebook. Halloween is one of those things which different people have very different opinions about, and I wouldn’t like to prescribe any particular opinion as “the” Christian opinion.

However, I will admit to being quite uncomfortable with Halloween, and – given that it’s a subject I’ve never blogged on before – I’d like to take a moment to share my thoughts on it. So, what’s the big deal with Halloween? Why does it make me uncomfortable?

Firstly, a personal anecdote. A couple of weeks ago, we went into a store in Clacton to buy a two-year-old a birthday present. It was a general, family-friendly store, and I was carrying Lydia (my two-year-old daughter). As we walked in, the very first thing we passed as we entered the shop was a display with some gruesome Halloween costumes. I’m sure you’ve all seen the kind of thing – masks and costumes made up to look as horrible as possible – Zombies, the undead, creepy things – all that kind of stuff. And as I was carrying Lydia past it, I did wonder whether it was really an appropriate display for a two-year-old to be looking at (fortunately she didn’t notice). I don’t think I’m a prude by any manner of means, but I do think some things are not appropriate for children and many Halloween costumes really push the limits of what is acceptable. Even if those costumes were designed for older children, you can’t prevent younger children from seeing them (e.g. older siblings, at school etc.) For the last few weeks we’ve been taking Lydia along to a toddler group at a nursery, and over half-term at that nursery they’ve been running a Halloween-themed club. Apparently every activity is Halloween themed. This is far from uncommon – in fact it seems to be the new norm. Even the youngest children are exposed to it.

Secondly, I have a problem with what Halloween actually is. Most people defend Halloween as being “just a bit of fun” – I hear this time and again when talking about Halloween. But the thing is, “just a bit of fun” is not a reason to do something. There are a lot of things which are “just a bit of fun” which might actually be harmful – such as ‘banter‘. The point is, to my mind a festival like Halloween needs to say something positive to justify its existence rather than simply carrying on because it’s not bad enough to stop doing. With a festival such as Christmas or Easter, it’s obvious what those times are supposed to be celebrating: there is, if you like, a positive message. But with Halloween – what? Scary stuff is good? Let’s all have a big laugh at witches, ogres, monsters, etc? However you want to cut it, I think Halloween simply does not say anything positive, which causes me to question its existence.

Thirdly, following on from that – doesn’t Halloween actually work against pretty much everything that we teach kids for the rest of the year? We want to teach children good values, we want to teach them about goodness and love, that good overcomes evil, to be polite to others, not to participate in things which are wrong, etc. It seems to me that Halloween, as it is today, turns all that on its head. Trick or treat, for example: when else would we tell kids it’s OK to knock on a complete stranger’s door and ask them for a treat… or else? (And yes, I know that’s not how most parents do trick or treat, but still.) Some kids go to Halloween parties made up with big scars etc – isn’t that simply disrespectful to those who bear wounds and injuries, or with physical deformities? Is it right to be teaching kids that physical deformity and scars are “scary” and should be mocked and ridiculed? Those are just a couple of examples, there are more.

Fourthly, and as a Christian I think this is the most important thing for me, I believe that evil does actually exist. And actually, I wonder whether this may be the heart of the matter. 1 Peter 5:8-9 says, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” The Bible is clear that the Devil and evil do actually exist, not just in a philosophical sense. There are many testimonies of those who have experienced evil in a fairly personal way – Nicky Cruz’s books spring to mind (especially ‘Devil on the Run’, where he talks about his parents who were occult healers). Someone at my old church grew up in a missionary family in Africa, and had more than a few stories to tell. Christians are warned explicitly against consulting with mediums and the like (e.g. Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:9-13). Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Given all of this – why would we even want to have anything to do with evil, regardless of how light-hearted it supposedly is?

Christians, by contrast, are exhorted: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). We are to set our minds on the things of God, good things, things which are pure and help us to grow in holiness. I can’t see that Halloween helps us in that goal.

A few years ago people used to wear “WWJD” bracelets – What Would Jesus Do? Although I think it’s not always helpful to think of things in those terms (Jesus was the Son of God, after all, he could do things we couldn’t or shouldn’t do) – but I do think it might be a helpful question to ask in this situation. Would Jesus dress up as a burn victim for Halloween? Can you imagine him laughing as he painted on fake scars? You know, I just don’t think I can. That’s not to say I think Jesus would have avoided going to Halloween parties – he hung around with sinners all the time – but I don’t think he would have “celebrated” Halloween.

Finally – I appreciate that this is not an issue which Christians completely agree on (if you want a different perspective, have a read of this from the Good Book Company). And, as I hinted at in that last paragraph, I wouldn’t advise Christians to avoid Halloween parties. That’s not to say I would advise going to Halloween parties – I’d just say, use your own godly common sense and wisdom. But I just wanted to share why Halloween, as a festival, makes me uncomfortable, and why I think it’s worth at least pausing for thought before diving in.

Christian Zionism vs Biblical Theology

These brothers of mineChristian Zionism isn’t something I’ve come across very much. I have a feeling it’s a bigger deal in the USA than it is here in the UK, and as such I don’t recall meeting anyone who was particularly big on it here. Because of this, I hadn’t really read or thought much about it before, and didn’t really know what it was about.

I’ve just finished reading a book which changed that: “These Brothers of Mine” by Rob Dalrymple. It’s subtitled, “A Biblical Theology of Land and Family and a Response to Christian Zionism”. Rob is formerly a Christian Zionist (if that’s the right way to describe it), and he has come to believe that position is wrong.

This book is a response to Christian Zionism, analysing it using the tools of Biblical Theology. “What is Biblical Theology?” I hear you ask. That’s a good question.

Biblical Theology is about understanding the Bible as a narrative running from Genesis to Revelation, seeing each book in the light of Scripture’s big picture. It’s about seeing Scripture in the context of redemptive history and seeing how it fits in within the key story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. We know that each part of Scripture speaks of Christ (e.g. Luke 24:27) – Biblical Theology is about finding out how the promises God makes in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ, and how they will ultimately be fulfilled in the new creation.

To give one example – which Rob expounds within the book – think of the land which God promises to Israel. Is it the physical Promised Land, or does it actually have a spiritual significance which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ? How are the promises God makes to Abraham fulfilled in Jesus, and what does that say about Israel as a nation? Rob sees the promise of land as being fulfilled in Jesus – although if you want to find out exactly how, you’ll have to read the book…

Before I went off to theological college, I did a few units of the Moore College correspondence course. Two of them (Introduction to the Bible and Promise to Fulfilment) introduced me to Biblical Theology – and they really transformed the way I understood the Bible. In fact, even now, looking back I think that first unit (Introduction to the Bible) was one of the single most useful things I ever did in terms of understanding the Bible.

Consequently, I would recommend this book not only for people who have an interest in Israel / Christian Zionism, but also for people who just want to read and understand the Bible better. This is a helpful looking at how Biblical Theology might apply to something like Christian Zionism. It’s not a light bedtime read, but it’s not technical either – well worth mulling over especially if you want to understand the Bible better and this kind of thing sounds new to you.

Taking God at His Word and reviews

Taking God at his WordEarlier this year, fellow blogger The Alethiophile suggested a sort of ‘book exchange’ – he would take book requests and review them, if readers would take a suggestion from him. He suggested ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ by Greg Boyd, which I reviewed a few months ago, and I suggested ‘Taking God at His Word’ by Kevin DeYoung for him to read.

Today, he published his review of the book. I started this blog post off as a comment, but it got a bit out of hand, so I publish it here and hope that others might find it helpful. You’ll almost certainly want to read his review before reading this, otherwise it won’t make much sense…


Hi there, as I was the one who recommended the book to you in the first place I feel a duty to respond :) I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy the book, but – as I said on Twitter – I do feel that you have been unfair in this review, and I’ll try to explain why. By and large the problem is I feel that you are writing a review of a book I don’t recognise.

My suspicion is that DeYoung has got your back up with the comments you mention about wanting someone else to accept his interpretation. His tone is polemical at times – perhaps you felt like he was attacking you and your views – and I think you’ve reacted strongly to that, which has coloured how you’ve read and reviewed the book.

Anyway, I’ve divided this up into a few sections which examine the points you make; I hope this isn’t too much but I find it helps to keep things neat and tidy.

1. DeYoung’s interpretation?

You don’t actually quote DeYoung’s full comment about interpretation (and in fact you don’t quote much in the review at all. I would say it’s generally good form in a review to let the author speak for themselves where you can and summarise where you have to.) The full quote is: “I do claim that you need to accept my understanding, because it’s not my understanding. It’s the teaching of the New Testament and the affirmation of the orthodox Christian church throughout the centuries.”

So DeYoung is not claiming himself as the infallible interpreter of Scripture, but simply in line with the way the church has always understood these things. The idea of ‘agreeing to disagree’ is a modern novelty: Athanasius or Augustine didn’t “agree to disagree” with the Arians, for example. This is why we have the ecumenical creeds. There is actually a kind of false humility in saying “I don’t claim that you need to accept my understanding” – because it gives the appearance of saying “I might be wrong” while actually putting your own particular belief beyond challenge or criticism. You don’t need to submit your views to scrutiny because you’re not saying other people need to accept that understanding.

If, for example, you claim to believe in the Bible but claim that Jesus is a created being, then I would say that you do need to change your opinion – not because I happen to believe something different, but because I believe the Bible says very differently and the church has always held this as an orthodox Christian belief.

It’s interesting that in this very review you say, “Yes, some things are really important historically. I would fully affirm the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; those twin events are not only the lynchpin of christianity, but are well attested and can be relied upon as historical events as strongly, if not more so, than many an event in the ancient world.” When you say “really important”, how important do you mean? Would you say that someone who didn’t take the resurrection account as historical is actually in error, and would you want them to accept your particular view?

There must come a point at which we need to say that some beliefs are wrong. The church has always believed that Christ was “born of the virgin Mary” (to quote the Apostles Creed), and I don’t see how requiring someone to believe what the church has always believed when it comes to the virgin birth (or the rest of the creeds, for that matter) is setting oneself up as an infallible authority.

In particular, I think your statement: “this level of arrogance is sufficient reason to view DeYoung as an unsound, unhumble teacher whose work is not to be trusted” is completely unfounded.

2. The Bible – clear?

You say: “in his view the bible is wholly clear and can be readily understood. But if you read the chapter, there is no evidence of his appreciating the times, the cultures or the languages the bible was written in, nor to the various audiences to whom the books were written.” Actually I don’t think DeYoung says the Bible is ‘wholly clear’.  He quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith and says “Some portions of Scripture are clearer than others. Not every passage has a simple or obvious meaning” (which I think would cover your example of 1 Thess. 4:17).

But he does say “That which is necessary for our salvation can be understood even by the uneducated, provided that they make use of the ordinary means of studying and learning.” This is similar to other statements such as the Anglican 39 Articles, which says in Article VI: “HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

So I feel that you have misrepresented what DeYoung says and knocked down a straw man. Although study of culture and language may be beneficial in terms of nuance and background, the fundamentals of the gospel are understandable without them.

3. Quoting

You say: “Obviously, there are some scriptural references, though all too often they are piecemeal, stripped of context and have a strong odour of proof texting about them rather than the aroma of exegesis.”

When you quote 1 Corinthians 13:11 at the end of your review, is that ‘proof texting’?

I think DeYoung does a pretty good job of giving context in the book actually. Can you name any specific examples where he proof texts and takes things out of context?

I agree that DeYoung doesn’t quote from any liberal scholarship – but then, when I read Greg Boyd, I don’t recall him really engaging with any conservative scholarship. I’d say it was acceptable for a book written for a popular (not scholarly) audience not to engage with lots of different views – he’s trying to promote a particular view. Saying that he doesn’t quote from people who disagree is, I think, a little uncharitable. And doesn’t actually engage with any of his arguments.

In terms of the history, I think DeYoung would agree that literary genre is of course important (not sure what his position is on Genesis 1-2 with respect to evolution). But we do have to take seriously Jesus’ view of Scripture, and I think he presents a compelling case that Jesus had a truly high view of Scripture which we must reckon with. If our Lord and God thought certain things were historical, who are we to argue? (Incidentally, if you want an interesting read on historical criticism and evangelicalism have a read of this book.)

4. The fundamental disagreement

The fundamental disagreement I have with you is at the start of your post: “all too often he seems to treat it as though it were a single body of work with a single author.”

I think DeYoung presents good evidence that the writers of the Bible did indeed think it had a single author. I think this is precisely what e.g. 2 Tim 3:16 does claim for the Bible, or the book of Hebrews, or the apostles in Acts 4:25, and so on. The Bible’s words are God’s words. DeYoung is not elevating the Bible to the position of the Trinity, but if Scripture is the Word of God then it flows from Him and reflects His character, will, truth, etc.


Anyway, I’m sorry for writing a short essay in response to your review, but seeing as I suggested the book in the first placeI felt compelled to respond. There’s more that could be said but I think that covers the most important things!

‘Change or Die’: is the church doomed?

A BibleA popular line of argument these days is that the church must either change or die. More specifically, the ‘change’ to happen must include being affirming of same-sex marriage. Vicky Beeching wrote this on Twitter a few days ago:

Today many predict that #LGBT inclusion will ‘split the Church of England’. Perhaps it will just follow the same #womenbishops trajectory. (Link)

One thing’s certain: the Church cannot afford to move as slow on #LGBT as it has on #womenbishops. Otherwise there’ll be no under 20’s left.

Young people see Church on the wrong side of moral justice when it’s against #LGBT inclusion. If we want them in the pews, change is needed.

It’s unfathomable to kids my niece & nephew’s age that the Church isn’t fully inclusive of #LGBT Christians. It’s not even a debate to them.

This is a fairly common argument – for example, at the end of 2014 there was an event called “What future for the Church of England?” From reading reports of the event afterwards, it seems like most of the speakers basically said the church needed to stop being so mean to LGBT folk or else it was going to die.

But does this line of argument stand up to scrutiny? I don’t think it does, for two main reasons.

1. It ignores God

This is my biggest problem with the argument. If God has created marriage as being between a man and a woman, then it doesn’t matter what society believes: this is God’s world (Ps 24:1 – “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof”), and the church must proclaim God’s words rather than whatever happens to be in vogue in society at the time.

I’m sure Vicky Beeching is correct in that there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church is not affirming of same-sex marriage. But then, there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church believes we are all sinners and need to repent and believe in the gospel. There are people who think the idea of God becoming man and dying on a cross is a contemptuous idea. We do not give up on these because society finds them strange, distasteful, or even immoral. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29, NLT).

However, even if this particular teaching of the church is deeply unpopular within society, there is no reason to suppose that the church will die: those who come to the Lord will always find that with Him is “life to the full” (John 10:10). God’s will for our lives is the true vision of human flourishing. God is the one who calls people to Himself, and people will find that a life lived in obedience to Him will always be worth it – whatever the cost. If God has indeed said it, then if the church proclaims it – some will listen.

Now I appreciate that some in the church (including Vicky Beeching) don’t think that God created marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. However, surely the important question is not what society thinks but what God thinks: we shouldn’t base our theology on what society thinks of it, but rather on what God thinks of it! No Christian church should ever do otherwise. Whether society finds a teaching of the church acceptable or not is really irrelevant to the question of whether the church should teach it: all that matters is whether God has said it.

2. It ignores all the evidence

My second problem with the “change or die” line of argument is that it ignores the evidence from a number of places:

Firstly, it ignores the historical evidence. The first-century Roman empire was a pretty diverse place in terms of sexuality. Not so different from today, really. The traditional Christian ethic of marriage would have sounded just as bizarre in that culture as it sounds today. And yet, Christianity grew and grew. Clearly, being out of step with culture wasn’t a problem for them.

Secondly, it ignores the evidence of churches today. If you look round at the church today, most of the churches that are growing are theologically conservative. In my limited experience, the churches I know which preach the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and hold to the traditional teaching on marriage – are generally not dying out. In fact, the ones I’ve been part of often have good numbers of children and young people. If the traditional teaching on marriage really was a barrier, you would expect all of those churches to eventually die out. That is not happening as far as I can see.

Thirdly, it ignores the evidence of other countries. There are other churches in other countries who have approved same-sex marriage. For the purposes of the Church of England, the best comparison is probably the Episcopal Church in the USA. The ECUSA is currently “near collapse“. The church is shrinking (it lost a quarter of its attendance since 2003), and it has been embroiled in about $18m worth of litigation against former Episcopalian churches which have chosen to leave. Of course, the situation of the ECUSA is not the situation of the Church of England – but does what  happened in the USA give us any confidence that something similar won’t happen here?

Given all of this, I think the “change or die” argument is wrong and I hope that it soon disappears. For me, as someone who believe the Bible is clear about marriage, I think actually the reverse is true: if the church does change on marriage, it will be a disaster. The more the church begins to look like society, the less people will want to go: on the other hand, if people are meeting with the living God, nothing will be able to stop it.

Reflections on the same-sex marriage debate within the church

Image by Sabtastic
Image by Sabtastic

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been involved with a Facebook group set up to discuss same-sex marriage (SSM) within the church. This has been set up as the CofE undergoes a “shared conversations” process to talk about the issue. This has been the first time I’ve really spent much time actually talking with people within the church who believe in same-sex marriage (or ‘affirming’, as I will use in this post as a convenient shorthand). Although I have had brief conversations with affirming people before, most of them have been pretty fleeting so it’s been good to have the chance to engage with people over an extended period of time.

I thought I’d share one or two observations about the debate as I’ve observed it over the past few weeks. I do think there is a difference in the way the two sides think and approach the question.

Firstly: the debate is all about the Bible. This one is pretty much a no-brainer. Obviously the debate was going to focus on the Bible, it is the heart of the disagreement: does the Bible call same-sex relationships sinful or not? When I joined the group, I was expecting to spend a lot of time discussing the Bible.

Having said this, what I’ve found interesting is that the debate has not really been about the Bible texts themselves. We have spent a little bit of time discussing interpretations of the Bible, but in general the group does not spend much time discussing the various interpretations of Romans 1:18-32 (for example). I wonder whether this reflects the fact that there really is very little scope for interpreting the Bible any differently to the way it has traditionally been interpreted. Diarmaid MacCulloch (who is himself strongly affirming of SSM) has said: “Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity, let alone having any conception of a homosexual identity.”

It seems instead that people would rather talk about almost anything about the Bible other than the Biblical texts themselves. We talk about the Bible’s clarity, interpretation, translation, history of interpretation on slavery and so on… almost anything other than the text of what the Bible actually says.

This leads me onto the second point (where I contradict my first point, but please stick with it…): the debate is not really about the Bible at all. It seems to me that the debate is not actually about what the Bible says. It’s not even really about interpretation, or any of those other issues surrounding how we understand the Bible.

The debate is actually about the presuppositions we bring to the table. As we’ve been discussing, what I’ve come to believe is that most affirming people see SSM as a matter of basic justice. When asked for a Bible text to justify SSM, a lot of people come out with “love your neighbour as yourself.” Now unless I’m missing something, Jesus doesn’t here mention marriage – rather, the idea is that the most loving thing to do for our neighbour is to allow them to enter into a SSM if they want to. So SSM is argued for on Biblical principles rather than on the text of the Bible itself.

I find this interesting because although equality, justice etc. are all Biblical principles – you can’t just extract them from the Bible and use them in isolation from the Biblical context. Especially when those principles are being used to argue against other things the Bible does actually say. So, for example, although I think ‘equality’ is a Biblical principle, it doesn’t stand on its own – it only exists within the larger framework of other things the Bible says about what it means to be human. Similarly, ‘inclusion’ is a Biblical principle – Jesus ate with sinners such as Zacchaeus – but we must also read it in tandem with its radical exclusivityJesus’ demand is to repent and believe in the good news. So, in this example we can’t just take ‘inclusion’ as a Biblical principle and apply it in isolation – that would be doing a big disservice to everything else that the Bible says.

My sense is that most people on the affirming side of the SSM debate come to the table believing that SSM is an inalienable right – that no-one should be denied the right to marriage because of their sexual orientation. In our society this is a hugely powerful idea which draws on a lot of things our culture believes about identity, humanity and romance. Given this foundational belief, when coming to Scripture one essentially has to presuppose the conclusion one wants to draw: because if the Bible did actually call same-sex relationships sinful, that would be wrong. So the answer is already decided before the Bible is even opened.

Recently someone made the perceptive comment that a theology of SSM is actually highly elusive: although many affirming groups criticise the traditional interpretations of Scripture, there are very few people who actually attempt to go through the Bible and build up a theology of SSM. A few have tried but their efforts haven’t achieved anything like a consensus. Most people seem content to simply point the finger at a range of interpretations, no matter how good or bad those interpretations are – just their very existence validates the fact that at least one of them must be correct (see my third point on this post).

But I think it serves to highlight the differences in our approaches. Although many affirming folk would claim the Bible as their authority, I think in reality the Bible’s authority is relativised and set aside. Our current cultural narratives about equality, justice, romance etc are taken as axiomatic and take precedence when interpreting the Bible – without any real theological reflection about the nature of equality etc.

In sum, I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to discuss this issue with people – it’s always good to try to understand other people’s views better, and it has helped me to clarify my own thinking. But it has made me realise even more that there is a huge and unbridgeable chasm between our two perspectives – and I think to affirm both within one church would be absolutely unworkable.