The Bible and (same-sex) marriage: Cutting through to the root issue

Image by Sabtastic

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have blogged quite a few times about marriage, and in particular same-sex marriage. You can see my previous posts under the “marriage” tag. Anyway, it seems we are still talking about marriage: the debate has simply moved from society – where same-sex marriage is now a reality – to the church.

General Synod recently spent a few days finishing the two-year-long ‘Shared Conversations’ process in which the CofE has been trying to find a way forward on same-sex marriage. As part of that, a number of books have been released and a number of people have written quite passionately in support of changing the church’s current teaching. These include ‘Amazing Love’ by Andrew Davison (reviewed here and here), as well as ‘Journeys in Grace and Truth’ by Jayne Ozanne (reviewed here and here). What is notable about both of these books is that they claim to be orthodox Christian, Biblical accounts of why we should change the church’s teaching.

If you read the books, and look at the discussion it generates on Ian Paul’s blog (and elsewhere), the discussion often focusses on peripheral issues. It can be very difficult to digest what is actually going on and get to the heart of the issue. I’ve had an interest in this issue for a long time now, and I wanted to write to try and outline the issue at the heart of why I believe marriage can only be defined as the lifelong union of a man and a woman.

It’s easy to get lost in the details, but to my mind you can boil down the issue to one basic root issue, which is this:

What does the Bible say positively about marriage?

It is sometimes claimed that Jesus said nothing about same-sex relationships; however, he did say something about marriage. The Pharisees asked a question about divorce, and he replied with this answer (this is from Mark 10):

‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

So when Jesus was asked a question about marriage, he goes back to creation – he takes us back to Genesis 1-2 and to God’s original intention for mankind.

What does this teach us about marriage? Marriage was intended from the very beginning of creation to be a permanent relationship (hence why Jesus gave this answer to a question about divorce) – but he also says that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. In marriage, with apologies to the Spice Girls (and to you for putting that thought in your head), two become one.

Some people claim that Genesis 1-2 is only about a covenant commitment – that the male-female character of marriage is purely accidental. But given Jesus’ words here – the male-female nature of marriage comes across more clearly than being a lifelong union, doesn’t  it? If you argue that the male-female nature of marriage is purely accidental, then so is everything else about marriage from Genesis 1-2.

And this is the issue. Marriage becomes entirely what the reader thought it was before they looked at the Bible.

Jeffrey John once wrote a book “Permanent, Stable, Faithful” in which he argued that same-sex marriage was in accord with the Bible – so long as those relationships exhibited the three values of permanence, stability and faithfulness.

The thing is, where do those values come from? As we have just seen, the Bible doesn’t say “marriages must be permanent, stable, and faithful”. Let’s take permanence, for example: the Bible doesn’t say “marriages should be permanent”, but it does say, “a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. So permanence is only defined in the context of a male-female relationship.

Similarly with faithfulness. The Bible says, “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4). But what is meant by faithfulness? Faithfulness, again, is defined in the sense of not becoming “one flesh” with another man or woman (1 Cor 6:16 – it’s interesting that when lawyers were drafting same-sex marriage legislation, consummation could not be defined and so was left out). Faithfulness is, to put it bluntly, not having sex with someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse.

Some people define faithfulness as ‘not sleeping with someone else without telling your partner’. In other words, ‘open relationships’ can embody faithfulness – depending on how you define it. I can well imagine someone who had such a view reading Heb 13:4 and it fitting in with their preconceived ideas – because they had an idea of what faithfulness was rather than letting the Bible define it.

This brings me to my final point. When you abstract your understanding of marriage from what the Bible actually says, marriage can become virtually anything. Almost every argument for same-sex marriage would also work for, say, polyamorous marriage. Or incest. Or ‘open’ relationships. Or time-limited marriages. And so on: the point is that it’s up to you and how you want to define it. Not the Bible.

That’s the root issue here: either we let the Bible be God’s Word and define what marriage is, or we crowbar the Bible into supporting same-sex marriage and opening the door for virtually anything. Don’t be fooled by fancy words, follow the logic and see where it leads you.


Brexit and the decline of Christian understanding

The last few days I have felt particularly ashamed to be British. Not because the country voted to leave the EU, but because of the backlash following it. I appreciate that many people felt deeply unhappy with the result – it’s natural and understandable. Many people believed that leaving the EU was the wrong decision. No problem. People thought the opposite and felt equally strongly about it.

No, what got to me instead was some of the mocking characterisation of ‘Brexiteers’ – xenophobic, racist and ignorant “Little Englanders”.

A few years ago, in one of the comedian Chris Addison’s shows, he made the point that ‘Eurosceptic’ was wrong – because ‘sceptic’ implied that people had actually bothered to think about it. I think this is a good example of the kind of tone used on Facebook and the like recently: not always offensive, but generally implying that those who voted leave were lesser people, somehow.

It really makes me think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

This seems to me to get to the heart of a lot of what is going on with moaning about Brexiteers. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – racists, xenophobes, ignoramuses – and especially not like this Brexiteer. I voted for Remain and I don’t want to sacrifice the futures of all our children for no good reason.”

The other night I had something of an epiphany: it seems to me that people who moaned about Brexiteers actually believed they were morally superior. It’s easy to treat someone else badly when you believe they are morally in the wrong (and you are in the right) – after all, they deserved it, right?

I think this attitude is linked with the decline of Christian understanding and morality in our culture. I believe that people growing up in decades past would have grown up with the language of the Book of Common Prayer – believing that mankind are “miserable offenders” and “there is no health in us”. Even people who didn’t regularly go to church would have had something of this attitude ingrained.

This has a big effect on how we see other people: if we believe that all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – then if someone else gets something wrong, something of a moral nature, then they are still fundamentally no different to us: all are human beings, all are flawed, and the only hope is the grace of God which cannot be earned – only accepted.

On the other hand, if there is no Christian understanding of humanity, then I think you end up with what we’ve just seen: people who think differently are actually perceived as morally deficient in some way. Worse than that, they are wilfully morally deficient. They should try harder and stop being morally deficient, and in the meantime we’ll treat them with disdain and contempt until they realise how morally deficient they are and change.

I wrote about this in November last year when I talked about Bigotry and legalism in our culture. That was in the context of same-sex marriage, but I think the same could be said of Brexit.

If we want to learn to disagree well, I think we have to recover a truly Christian ethic: those on different sides of a divide like this are both human, both made in the image of God, and yet both flawed. Neither is infallible. Both are in equal need of God’s mercy. If by the grace of God we are able to see others in that way, perhaps we’ll be able to make positive progress. But until then I fear for the direction of political discourse in this country.

Cathy Warwick and Pro-Choice Logic

Baby LydiaCathy Warwick has been in the news lately – she signed the Royal College of Midwives up to support a legal campaign for the removal of abortion limits in the UK. (Currently, if a woman undergoes an abortion outside of the law, it is a criminal offence.) This would effectively allow abortion to happen up until birth for any reason. You can read a midwife’s response here, see the links through to the original story.

This has raised – once again – the question of abortion. Many people see abortion as a woman’s rights – a foetus is simply a few cells connected to a woman, and having an abortion is no more morally problematic than having your appendix out.

The fact that a human life has to die is basically irrelevant: it is justifiable because at that point in the foetal development, the foetus is not a ‘person’. Notice here that I am using medical terms like ‘foetus’ rather than words we might normally use such as ‘baby’, ‘child’ or ‘mother’. This is because it’s important to understand that a foetus is not a baby – a baby implies a person, whereas a foetus is simply a medical term for a living organism inside a womb. A foetus is a group of cells; a baby or child is a person. A foetus cannot feel pain, has no understanding of itself as a separate entity, and so on – it’s not a person and so can be terminated at will.

I think this line of reasoning is deeply flawed and troublesome for a number of reasons. Chiefly, I think the problem is that it makes an arbitrary concept of ‘personhood’ the key factor in whether it is right to terminate life or not. Who decides what is a person and what is not? There’s a good question.

There was a very helpful article posted today, Why abortion makes sense. The authors make the point that such dehumanising has been the stock in trade of just about every genocidal regime throughout history. Once you have determined that ‘they’ are not human, you can exterminate them with a clear conscience. In fact, more than that, it is morally right and proper for them to be killed.

Once life is valued not for the sake of being life but because of some arbitrary concept we impose, then it can be redefined at will. The whole article is worth reading and I’d suggest having a look through it.

Coming back to Cathy Warwick – I think her position is interesting because it’s entirely consistent. Once you define a foetus as a nonperson, then where do you draw the line? Isn’t 24 weeks simply arbitrary? And then, if you’re going to allow abortion up to full term – what’s the difference between a 37 week child inside and outside the womb? Not much. This is why some ethicists have argued for post-birth abortion (an article published in the British Journal of Medical Ethics, by the way, not some hack rag). They argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

I think most people see through those kind of arguments, which is why the reaction against Cathy Warwick has been so strong. And yet, many people seem unwilling to concede that the position is entirely logical once the premises of abortion have been granted in the first place. Once you say that abortion is OK, any lines you draw are essentially arbitrary ones.

The BBC recently reported that abortion rates are stable – there were 185,824 in 2015. Nearly 200,000 abortions in one year – that’s incredible. That  statistic makes me feel nauseous. And yet we as a society brush this away because we are ‘pro-women’.

In reality, I think many women feel uncomfortable with abortion – from the article I posted at the start, an Angus Reid poll in 2012 found that 59% of women favoured a reduction in time limits for abortion (i.e. decreasing from 24 weeks). Only 2% favoured an extension.

In the name of being ‘pro-choice’, it turns out that a lot of women are actually pressured into abortion: if a woman falls pregnant unexpectedly, and in inconvenient circumstances, then all of a sudden abortion becomes the most attractive option for everyone except the woman concerned. Many women find they are pressured into it, simply because it is what is expected. Some choice.

All in all, I struggle with our society which permits what I think is essentially state sanctioned murder. However, I hope that Cathy Warwick’s comments will raise the profile of this issue – abortion is usually kept pretty hush-hush. Talking about it, rather than simply brushing the whole thing under the carpet, is a step in the right direction.

Transgender and the new reality

  Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen it to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.

— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This is one of my favourite bits from The Hitchhiker’s Guide. It nails for me the absurdity of some logical reasoning: you can apply as much logic as you like, but unless it aligns with reality then it’s worthless. I love the idea of mankind proving that black is white – and thus getting run over on the next zebra crossing. As if such a thing could happen…

Which neatly brings me to the thorny issue of reality and our minds. Some diseases, such as dementia or schizophrenia, can cause a person to suffer delusions – to believe things which are not actually true – that is, what their minds believe does not match up with reality. At the same time, other conditions include believing that one’s birth sex is different – that one was ‘born in the wrong body’, so to speak. Reality does not match up with one’s internal state. This is known as Gender Dysphoria. The current action of the NHS in such a case is to cautiously move forward with things like hormone therapy, and even surgery to permanently transition. (Since 2004, the government also allow sex on a birth certificate to be changed, as happened with Rachel Mann, for example).

In these cases, the transition – although it may be permanent – is only really a ‘patch-up’ job. Scientifically speaking, it is currently impossible (and perhaps will be forever impossible) to transition from being a man to a woman or vice versa. Every cell in the human body declares that we are male or female. A blood test on a man who has transitioned to a woman, for example, will still yield the result of a man. Someone who begins hormone treatment will need to be on that treatment indefinitely – i.e. for the rest of their lives. Treatment, such as it is, cannot alter reality.

Why do I say all this? Why am I stepping out into this delicate and precarious minefield? Consider the case of Germaine Greer: she recently made comments – in her usual, ahem, ‘robust’ way – that chopping off your penis did not make you a woman. Her comments were branded ‘grossly offensive’ and ‘misogynistic’, and a group of people petitioned to prevent her scheduled lecture at Cardiff University from taking place. Greer has subsequently been demonised by activists, calling her – no prizes for guessing – a “bigot”.

But now the government has got in on the act. The Women and Equalities Committee has just published the results of a transgender inquiry, which states that trans people are being failed by the NHS and many other parts of society. As Melanie Phillips writes, the results of this inquiry will actually have the biggest effect on children:

Trans and gender issues, says the committee, should be taught in schools as part of personal, social and health education.

We can all predict what will happen. Gender fluidity will be actively promoted as just another lifestyle choice. Under the commendable guise of stopping the minute number of transgender children being bullied, the rest of the class will be bullied into accepting the prescribed orthodoxy — that gender is mutable, and any differentiation in value between behaviour or attitudes is bigoted and prohibited.

This comes in a week where teenagers in a school in Brighton were given a (government-sponsored) survey with 23 options for gender, including terms like ‘Gender fluid’, ‘Genderqueer’, ‘Tri-gender’, ‘In the middle of boy and girl’ and so on. It’s truly staggering.

What worries me about all this is that, under pressure from certain vocal activist groups, an alternative vision of reality is being foisted upon some of the most vulnerable people in our society – children and teenagers. Scientists have known for some time about ‘neuroplasticity’ – the way the brain can rewire itself. This is none more so than in the brains of teenagers, for example pornography can have a much bigger effect on a adolescent brain than it can an adult:

Between the ages of 12 and 20, the human brain undergoes a period of great neuroplasticity. The brain is in a malleable phase during which billions of new synaptic connections are made. This leaves us vulnerable to the influence of our surroundings and leads our brains to be “wired” around the experiences and information that we receive during that time period.

Anyone who’s ever been through puberty will be able to testify – growing up as a teenager is a difficult time of life. It’s confusing, lots of changes are happening, and you are in real need of guidance. It seems to me that presenting teenagers with a list of 23 gender options will actually exacerbate the issue, rather than helping. Teaching children and young people that there are a plurality of gender options will make what is a confusing and difficult time even more confusing and difficult.

There have been a number of cases recently where very young children have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria (on charity claims up to about 80 children per year) – and the response is sometimes to administer powerful puberty-blocking drugs. I simply cannot believe this is the right response to these circumstances.

There’s a phrase from the Bible which has passed into our English language: “they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). It worries me that this is what’s happening with our society today: I think we are sowing seeds in young lives which we’re not going to see the fruit of for a generation – but one day we will reap the whirlwind. 

Gender Dysphoria is undoubtedly a real phenomenon and I feel deepest sympathy for anyone who suffers with it. But I think our government is very wrong in its solution. I would encourage anyone who has GD to find a way to feel comfortable in their own body, however hard that might be: to engage in transitioning from one sex to the other might seem to be the solution, but in reality it often does not deliver what it promises.

From the Melanie Phillips article I quoted above:

In fact, gender fluidity itself creates victims. Professor Paul McHugh is the former chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins hospital in the US. In the 1960s this pioneered sex-reassignment surgery — but subsequently abandoned it because of the problems it left in its wake. Most young boys and girls who seek sex reassignment, McHugh has written, have psychosocial issues and presume that such treatment will resolve them. ‘The grim fact is that most of these youngsters do not find therapists willing to assess and guide them in ways that permit them to work out their conflicts and correct their assumptions. Rather, they and their families find only “gender counsellors” who encourage them in their sexual misassumptions.’

In fact, there is a whole website devoted to the issues around sex change regret and examples of people who have made the transition ‘back again’, so to speak.

In conclusion, it seems that the government has bought into a particular agenda and understanding of gender – one which is controversial at best. But, worse than this, the new gender orthodoxy is not open to questioning – as the case of Germaine Greer demonstrates. And it troubles me that our society, once again, is sleepwalking into the whirlwind of its own creation as our children are raised in a world where desires can override reality itself.

Further reading

I’ve linked to a few pieces in the post above, but here are a few other articles which I’ve found helpful:

Note on comments: I have decided to disable comments for this post. If you would like to reply to me, I welcome feedback via other channels. I might publish and engage with feedback if it is constructive and respectful.

Gay marriage and the power of stories

Image by Sabtastic
Image by Sabtastic

Although same-sex marriage has been legal in the UK now for nearly a year, I still think it’s worth reflecting on the road which brought us to where we are. In fact, I think it’s probably good to reflect on what happened with the benefit of hindsight.

One thing which is clearer to me now than it was at the time was just how powerful a story can be. The pro same-sex marriage argument would often present itself using the story of someone who wanted to get married. I remember reading and seeing various different stories about a young man or woman, who grew up dreaming of a white wedding, dreaming of a family – only to have those dreams shattered because gay people were unable to marry. Now, whatever your position on marriage – you have to admit, in our culture today, that is a powerful story. A story so powerful, in fact, that I think most people bought into it.

By contrast, those who were (and are) against same-sex marriage – and I include myself in that camp – had nothing really to compete. That’s not to say that the arguments weren’t sound: I still believe what was said about marriage two years ago (see my blog posts on “What is marriage?”: part one, part two) – but I think by and large people didn’t understand because they didn’t have anything to relate to. Quite a few people who I interacted with simply could not see how same-sex marriage would make any difference at all, and abstract arguments didn’t really help. The argument was mostly won (or lost, depending on how you see it) at the emotional level. Continue reading

Top Gear Patagonia Special: The dark side of social media?

Social MediaI’ve just finished watching the Top Gear Patagonia Special (and, not that it really matters with Top Gear, but if you’re still planning to watch it this will discuss the episode content and should come with a spoiler warning). The end of the second part is pretty intense – a nationalist gang in Argentina essentially forced the Top Gear film crew out of the country, and attacked them on the way out – throwing rocks at the cars and breaking windows. At one point there was apparently a gang of 300 people waiting to assault the TG crew as they came through the town.

As I thought about this, it did strike me that all of this is a pretty good illustration of the power of social media: getting a mob together like that requires a degree of organisation which I don’t think was really possible (at such short notice) before the rise of the internet.

I can imagine how easily social media / the internet allows this kind of thing to happen:

  1. Word gets out that Top Gear are coming to the country. If you’re on social media, chances are you’ll see the news – or one of your friends will. This includes members of the nationalist gang.
  2. News camera crews film the cars while they’re in the country. Someone spots that the number plate of Jeremy’s car looks like a reference to the Falklands war. Word gets out on Twitter.
  3. Members of the Argentinian nationalist gang – who connect via a group on Facebook – start discussing how they’re going to respond.
  4. On the day itself, some of the gang find the Top Gear crew and broadcast that information online. They are able to give updates in pretty much real time as events unfold.
  5. As the Top Gear crew leave, some of the gang follow on and update with the route.
  6. Meanwhile, back on Facebook, the rest of the gang are organising themselves. They come up with a plan, quickly, and share it widely to bring in as many people as possible.

The key thing seems to be the power of communication via social media: it allows a group to organise itself amazingly quickly given the latest information, and then distribute the plan widely. Although I think such a lynch mob would have been just about within the bounds of possibility in pre-internet days, it would have taken massive pre-organisation and I think would have been highly unlikely.

It's a fake.
It’s a fake.

But there is another side to this, other than simply practical. This highlights one of the biggest dangers of social media: outrage spreads like wildfire. There is very little more powerful than outrage, especially on social media. One of the most shared photos over the last few months on social media purports to show MPs debating their pay rise (a full house) and debating welfare (an empty house) – the message clearly being “MPs don’t care about the poor or anyone else, they’re just in it for what they can get out of us.” There’s only one tiny problem with the picture: it’s a fake.

And therein lies the problem: on social media you don’t know whether something is true or false. It’s so easy for misinformation to propagate, especially when it plays into the hands of prejudice. In the case of Top Gear, when someone made the connection between Jeremy’s number plate and the Falklands war, it would have spread rapidly – most probably riding on the back of some anti-British sentiment. The MPs image probably spread so fast because many people do not trust politicians. So social media makes our prejudices easily reinforcable. We can share without fact checking. The voices which disagree don’t get a hearing – or we can simply switch off or ignore them. And, in the case of the Top Gear incident, it leads to a mob of 300 people itching to get their pound of flesh.

I wondered a little while ago whether Twitter makes us angry and dumb. I still think that there is a big problem here, which is only going to get worse as people use social media more: if we only listen to the voices which we want to listen to, we don’t hear any disagreement – does that render us incapable of intelligent thought about the subject? If we all know what the ‘right’ answer is, how do we treat someone who gives the ‘wrong’ answer? Social media makes it easy for something to become a ‘right’ answer – the dynamics of a group. There probably were those who doubted that Jeremy Clarkson’s registration plate was a reference to the war, but I doubt they were listened to and quickly came into line with the opinion of the group. And witness what happens on social media if you express the ‘wrong’ opinion about gay marriage, UKIP, or climate change (to name but three examples). Instead of intelligent debate, those with the ‘wrong’ opinions get hounded.

It seems to me there is a connection between what happened to Top Gear and the way the recent abortion debate at Oxford University was shut down.

Social Media is a tool, and – as with all tools – it can be used for good or ill. What’s the solution? I can’t think of any easy options. The problem is not with the tools themselves, but more with the people who use them. The problem lies not in social media but in the human heart. As such, the only solution I can offer is the one which we have just celebrated at Christmas: the coming of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

The only solution to the problems with social media, ultimately, is the solution to the problem of the human heart. Unless we can do anything about that problem, any technological solution will fall short.

Postscript: The Telegraph has an article about what actually happened… count the number of social media references. Seems like my imaginary scenario isn’t too far off the mark.

Happy Christmas

I’d just like to wish all my blog readers a very Happy Christmas.

Happy Christmas

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

… to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(From John 1)