It’s a legitimate question: if you’re an outsider, it looks like the church wants to talk about nothing else at the moment. One obvious answer to the question is that sex is the area of our culture which rubs up most obviously against the traditional Christian understanding – hence the clashes. In previous years there have been others, this is just the most obvious one for our society.
But why, to continue the question, is the church so obsessed with its traditional view of sex and sexuality? In other words, why can’t the church just get with the programme? Why can’t the church just change its mind? One of the commenters on a previous blog post here asked me why I couldn’t just shut up about sexuality. Why is it such a big issue?
The answer to that is essentially this: the debate about sex and sexuality within the church is a debate about the nature of God. It has massive implications. That might seem strange, but allow me to try and explain.
Recently, I’ve been studying the Doctrine of God at college (it’s a whole-year course, so we’re not yet half-way through the course). In particular, one of the things we looked at was the idea of God’s infinity: what does it mean for God to be infinite? There are many implications: God is not constrained by space and time; God is the “most mostest” – it is impossible for him not to have anything to the full and so on. One thing we looked at was what the concept of God’s infinity means for Scripture: God is outside of time, so when he inspired Scripture he had our very circumstances in mind. Scripture is always relevant, because it is the word of an infinite God. Another implication is that Scripture is accurate – because we believe that it it’s God’s word, using words which he has chosen to communicate to us about himself.
As such, if we are to do justice to an infinite God, as revealed in the Bible, we must seek to understand it given the starting point of God’s infinity and let it speak to us without standing in judgement over it (i.e., the Bible judges us, rather than the other way round).
This is why the Church’s debate on sex and sexuality is so important: it gets right to the heart of the matter. Are we prepared to let God be infinite? Will we be obedient to God, as he has revealed himself in his word, or won’t we?
You may be aware of the Pilling Report, released a couple of weeks ago (scroll down for the link to the actual PDF). I won’t go over it now, but the report’s conclusions are… interesting. In particular, the report seems to stress the fact that different people within the church hold diametrically opposed opinions about the interpretation of Scripture – and that the matter is basically irreconcilable (scripture is ‘unclear’). Mike Ovey (principal of my theological college) has been blogging all this week about the report and its assumptions, and in his third blog post he outlines how an understanding that Scripture is ‘unclear’ on the matter is a judgement call in itself, which actually undermines the assertion that scripture is authoritative. If Scripture is not in fact unclear on the matter, have we let God be infinite?
What’s interesting about Pilling is the reaction of Changing Attitude (a group who work for the full inclusion of LGBT people within the Anglican communion). Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude, wrote this in his response to Pilling:
The inadequacies of the report result from the theology held as orthodox and traditional by many Christians, belief in the Bible as the literal, inerrant Word of God, and belief in God as a supernatural being, remote from the world, who is primarily a law-giver and rule-maker, judging our lives and behaviour.
Now that’s interesting. Here, Changing Attitude are basically distancing themselves from ‘orthodox and traditional’ Christianity. In fact, judging by what Colin says here, I’m not even sure that we believe in the same God. I (along with most traditional Christians, which encompasses the vast majority of Christians the world over) believe that God is supernatural; I believe that God is distinguishable from the world (i.e. I’m not a pantheist or panentheist – believing that God is everything), although I do believe that God is fundamentally involved in the world and upholds it by the word of his power (e.g. Hebrews 1:3); I believe that God is a law-giver and rule-maker (although I would not agree with ‘primarily’); and in particular I believe that God will judge our lives and our behaviour at the last day (e.g. Acts 17:31; 2 Timothy 4:1, 1 Peter 4:5 – from many, many examples).
That last point is the most critical of them all: If you don’t believe that God will judge – then you have essentially thrown out everything about Christianity that makes it distinctive. It relates to the whole idea of “Gospel”. I believe that, although God will judge, he has provided a way of escape: in love he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross and endure our punishment in our place – for those of us who will accept it. Yes, God is a judge, but he is also a Saviour. That is the point of Christianity – that Jesus died “for us and for our salvation”, so that we may inherit eternal life rather than condemnation (e.g. John 5:24-30).
Ultimately, this is why the church appears to be so obsessed with sexuality: because it relates to our understanding of God, our understanding of salvation. This is not a trivial point of order, it concerns the very nature of the church itself. This is one issue we traditionalists cannot and will not let go of.