Responding to false teaching: Lessons from 2 Peter

A BibleI’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst evangelicals recently. I encountered it most recently in this blog post by Baptist minister and theologian Steve Holmes. This is how he puts it (you’ll have to read the full blog for the whole context):

No, I know Megan and Bill, I know that they call people to believe in Jesus. They are leading people on the highway to heaven (even if I presently think that they are fairly seriously wrong on at least one aspect of the nature of that highway).’

Sola fide. I have to stand on that. Because the Blood flowed where I walk, and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice, complete, once for all, offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.

Steve puts it well, and I believe it’s an increasingly popular perspective. The argument seems to be that although traditional marriage is the correct interpretation of the Bible, other people teaching that same-sex marriage is right is not a really serious business. It’s not a salvation issue, certainly. So although Bob may believe strongly that the Bible teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, he doesn’t think Alice – who teaches that marriage is between two people regardless of gender – is not saved.

Personally I believe this is a disturbing trend, as I said at the beginning. I’ve already outlined on this blog why I believe evangelicals cannot agree to disagree on this issue, and I stand by what I said back then. But I’d like to add to that a little. Not long ago I worked through the book of 2 Peter with Peter H. Davids’ Pillar commentary. I’d like to share a few insights from 2 Peter which might help shed some additional light on this issue.

2 Peter is written in response to false teaching and false teachers. It seems that false teachers were teaching that the final judgement was not coming – perhaps it had already happened – and therefore there was no need to live a holy and righteous life. Because there was no final judgement to look forward to, there was no need to worry about restraining our sinful desires now.

Let’s take a quick tour of the letter to analyse what Peter is saying.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (Chapter 1)

God has given those who believe “everything we need for a godly life”. What does that look like? It is to “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”. Participating in the divine nature is a strange phrase. I believe it means ethically – participating in the divine nature by increasing in goodness and love (Peter talks about God’s goodness in v3), in contrast with the corruption and evil desires in the world.

So the purpose of the Christian life is to add goodness, knowledge, self-control etc. (vv5-7) to faith, so that Christians will not be “ineffective and unproductive”. But, we are warned, “whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”

So – a cleansing from past sin does not give us licence to sin in the future. Here, as we see in many places in the Bible, salvation by grace does not mean freedom to indulge our sinful desires. One of my go-to passages about grace and right living is Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…” The Hebrews 10 passage I referred to in my post about why we can’t agree to disagree also takes the same line: wilfully continuing to sin after receiving knowledge of the truth means all we have to expect from God is “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God”.

Peter continues in chapter 2:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

There were “false prophets” among the people of Israel – you can read about them in Ezekiel 13, for example. What did they do? They led the people astray – they said “peace, when there is no peace”. They prophesied out of their own imaginations. In particular, they led the people to worship false gods and did not see violations of God’s ethical commandments as being a problem. Peter says that, as there were false prophets then, there are false teachers “among you”. These were the people who denied the final judgement, who denied the need to live self-controlled and upright lives – and Peter says “their destruction has not been sleeping”. It’s possible that these false teachers even claimed that the Lord was ‘sleeping’ – that they would not receive the recompense for their wrongdoing. But Peter turns the tables and says that it is their destruction which has not been sleeping. What does he mean?

…if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

To hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgement – this is what Peter is talking about. And this is “especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh” – those who indulge in their sinful desires rather than restraining them.

The chapter finishes:

17 These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.’ 20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.

For such people – false teachers – “blackest darkness is reserved for them”. Why? They “entice” people escaping from the world back into sin (echoes of Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42?). Note that he uses the phrase “lustful desires of the flesh” – quite possibly having in mind sexual sin, it was as common back then as it is now. Sin is slavery (John 8:34), but if the Son sets us free then we shall be free indeed. To turn to Christ is to turn away from sin, to repent of evil desires and be freed from them. Yes, we know that anyone who claims to be without sin deceives themselves (1 John 1) – but sin is not a cause for celebration, but rather mortification and turning to Christ. These false teachers promise freedom but deliver slavery – just as Satan does. It shows who they are really working for (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The worst thing about this passage is, I believe, that false teachers are leading people to hell. I think this is the implication of Peter’s words here – that it is actually worse for people who have begun to turn away from sin, only to be misled by a false teacher and turn their backs on the way of righteousness.

False teaching is that serious. It simply cannot be tolerated in a church, a denomination, or any Christian organisation.

Peter closes out the letter by looking forward to the day of the Lord, which will “come like a thief” – unexpectedly. What does that mean for believers?

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Peter closes off his argument: because there will be a day of judgement, because there will be a day of wrath, because there is darkness reserved for the unrighteous – we ought to live “holy and godly lives”. God is not mocked. We look forward to the day when righteousness will dwell in the new heaven and earth. We look forward to the day when we will be righteous, and see the Lord face to face. We yearn for the day when sin is no more.

How can those who long for such a day continue to live in sin in the present? It’s impossible! Romans 6:1ff – we have died to sin, how is it possible to continue in it?

And, if this is the case, how can those in the church – thinking particularly about the Church of England but applicable more broadly – stand by and do nothing when the CofE is openly contemplating changes its teaching on matters of marriage?


I appreciate this post has gone on a bit (about 1600 words at this point!) but I’d just like to offer a few more brief reasons why I believe sexuality in particular isn’t something which we can disagree on.

  • I have rarely, if ever, encountered someone who is orthodox on everything except the nature of marriage. This could be because in order to affirm same-sex marriage you have to twist the Bible virtually out of all recognition (as I try to explain here). Interpreting the Bible wrongly in one area will lead to interpreting it wrongly in others – especially on a serious and core doctrine such as marriage.
  • As John Stott pointed out in The Cross of Christ, “sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards. Its essence is hostility towards God.” Sin is not something which God simply shrugs his shoulder about – it is something which Jesus Christ needed to die for to bear the wrath we deserve. To continue in sin wilfully is not simply being wrong or mistaken – it is an act of aggression against God. If same-sex sexual activity is a consequence of our idolatry (Romans 1), then I think this is applicable in particular. God cannot simply overlook such hostility towards him.
  • Bible teachers should be held to a higher standard – James 3:1. Someone who holds the wrong opinion on marriage ‘in the pews’ is less of a danger than false teachers, who can mislead many. This is why I believe that the apostles were so hot on false teaching, and why I believe we must be today. So someone ‘in the pews’, so to speak, might hold the wrong opinion on same-sex marriage – but at least they are not misleading many others. I believe it is appropriate to instruct them gently (2 Timothy 2:25-26). But those who are responsible under God for shepherding Christ’s flock which he bought with his own blood will be held to account. When the day of the Lord comes, I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands (Acts 20:26-27).

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

Marriage
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.

Hymnology: And can it be – “My chains fell off…”

Last weekend I travelled down to High Leigh for a residential weekend with my fellow curates in the Chelmsford Diocese. On Friday evening we sang ‘And can it be’, one of my favourite hymns and one of Charles Wesley’s finest (in my opinion). The hymn tells the story of salvation from a first person perspective – it’s written in a very personal style. Like In Christ alone you could spend hours dissecting every verse of the song, but let’s focus on one for now:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

What do those first two lines mean – “Long my imprisoned spirit lay / Fast bound in sin and nature’s night”? The answer that the Bible gives us that we are held captive by sin. This is what Paul is at pains to demonstrate in his letter to the Romans, throughout the first part of the letter. As he says in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. But it’s even more than that: some people say that sin is simply a bad example – we sin because we see other people sin. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically sinful about us – we can choose to do good or evil, and sometimes we choose what is wrong, but basically human beings start out from a neutral perspective.

But the Bible goes further in describing our fallen condition: we don’t start out from a neutral place. There is something inherently sinful about our very nature. This is what Paul says a bit further on in the letter, Romans 6:16-18:

Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

We don’t start out from neutral: we are either slaves to sin, or slaves to righteousness. There is no middle ground. Paul is not the only one to use this language – Jesus says in John 8:34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The point is, we are all held captive by sin: there is no way out by ourselves. All of us are, by nature, “fast bound” in sin.

Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray

And that’s why we need God to step in, as the next line of the hymn goes: “Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray”. Quickening is a word we don’t use very much these days, but in this sense it means “to give or restore life to”. Although we couldn’t escape slavery to sin by ourselves, nonetheless God stepped in to our situation and made us alive. Paul puts it like this:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2:1-5

Paul describes the state of slavery to sin here as being ‘dead’. Those who are without Christ are “dead in transgressions and sins”. I’m not a doctor, but I do know that one thing dead bodies do not do is come back to life again by themselves! A dead body cannot raise itself. As with our physical bodies, so we who are spiritually dead cannot raise ourselves: but God “who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions“. Salvation is not of our own doing, but from God. He is the one who looks upon our helpless state, and makes us alive – even when we were still dead.

We didn’t make the first move towards God. Because of our sin, we would never make the first move to God – we are so sinful that we would never have chosen Him. Paul is clear that the one who makes the first move is not us, but God: “For he chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” John puts it like this: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Without God making the first move towards us, without him sending that “quick’ning ray”, we are dead in our transgressions and sins. But God, who is rich in mercy, makes the first move towards us, he brings us from death to life by his sovereign choice and power.

As I am an Anglican, I think it’s always helpful to look to the 39 Articles to see how Cranmer and our reformation forebears put it. This is what Article X “Of free-will” says:

THE condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

This is standard reformation theology, following Augustine. It is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6).

breaking_chains_by_midori_vanityMy chains fell off

And so we come to the end of the verse: “My chains fell off, my heart was free / I rose, went forth, and followed Thee”. This describes the response to God, once He has made that first move and stepped in. To continue the quote from Jesus I mentioned earlier, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Once God has set us free, we take up our cross and follow Christ – putting to death our flesh with its passions and desires, and seeking to love God and love our neighbour as we walk in step with the Spirit.

Christians have been set free from slavery to sin. That does not mean that Christians do not sin, of course – but that the curse has been lifted. It is no longer our master. Jesus is our master, and his righteousness. And one day we know that the work which God has begun in us will be completed – we will be completely free from sin! This is a great promise for those who are struggling.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24


A brief note on free will and predestination…

I appreciate that I haven’t really touched on the thorny subject of predestination in this post. My aim is to return to it in a future post, as it’s a huge topic of which this is only a small part.

However, I think it’s worth reflecting on the words of the 39 Articles here, and with this I will close. Article XVII, Of predestination and election:

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God … we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.

 


This is part of my “Hymnology” blog series.

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.

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.

The Bible: “That’s just your interpretation”

A BibleOver the past few weeks on Facebook, I’ve been in a group discussing (what else?) sexuality and the church. One of the themes that comes up again and again is the issue of interpretation: we all interpret the Bible differently on this, and there is no way of judging between different interpretations, so we may as well just give up and agree to disagree now. Now this is a topic I’ve blogged on before, but I’d like to return to the issue because of the way it comes up so frequently in discussion.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts and observations having participated in these kind of discussions for a while now. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to see that I don’t believe there can be many valid interpretations of Scripture on this issue (as well as many other issues).

1) What are the logical consequences of “that’s just your interpretation”? Can we say, for example, “but that’s just your interpretation” about any interpretation of the Bible? Does that mean that every statement in the Nicene Creed is simply an interpretation, and that other interpretations are available? Does that mean the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be thought of as an orthodox Christian church – after all, they simply follow a different interpretation of Scripture?

Additionally – where does “that’s just your interpretation” actually end? Are we free to hold an atheistic interpretation, for example? Who draws the lines? It seems that the “that’s just your interpretation” argument can be deployed anywhere against anyone, for an alternative interpretation can always be found – irrespective of whether it’s a good or bad interpretation.

With respect to the specific issue of sexuality – the traditional view of the Bible is that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others. If the traditional interpretation can be challenged one one area (man and woman), could it not also be challenged in other areas (e.g. could marriage be between two or more people, or could faithfulness be redefined?) I think claiming “that’s your interpretation” is actually shooting yourself in the foot: as soon as you do that, you open the door to someone else saying the same to you for whichever cherished beliefs you hold about marriage. There’s no rejoinder, because “that’s just your interpretation”.

Once you reduce the Bible to being a matter of someone’s opinion about interpretation, it seems to me that it’s open season on Biblical interpretation and you can simply interpret the Bible any way you like to suit you.

2) What does “that’s just your interpretation” say about God? Following on from the last point – what we think of God will determine what we think of the Bible and the way it speaks to us. I believe that God, as the one who created us, is able to communicate with us in a way which we will understand. I believe that God is able to speak clearly into our situation, even our situation today. How could God’s statutes be trustworthy and “make wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7) if it was impossible for us to agree on their interpretation?

One of the things which irks me most about the “that’s just your interpretation” argument is that it essentially seems to deny the fact that God might want to say something to us. God’s authority becomes simply human authority (you think God says that, but I think God says something different). Surely this negates God’s authority: if everything that He says is open to interpretation, in what sense can He be said to communicate with us? God’s voice becomes dependent on the interpretation of the one listening to it.

3) The strategy of the “that’s just your interpretation” group. I apologise for using the word ‘strategy’, which implies that this is something done purposefully. What I mean is that often those who advocate for “that’s just your interpretation” often use a particular line of thinking, even if they don’t do so intentionally.

So, rather than trying to advocate for another interpretation, they simply point the finger to a range of interpretations and say “there! there are a lot of options, take your pick. Clearly the traditional interpretation is not the only one on the market.” You can see this happening on Vicky Beeching’s “What does the Bible say?” blog post, to name one example. She doesn’t outline one particular interpretation which she thinks is most plausible: she simply points out a number of books which outline different interpretations. This essentially shuts down discussion (it’s not making an argument, it’s just referring to other people who have made arguments as if their arguments are conclusive).

To use an analogy, this would be like me saying that Jesus Christ was not eternally begotten of the Father and referring to works by Arius of Alexandria, the Watchtower Organisation and so on in order to prove my case. “Oh, there are lots of arguments for Jesus not being the eternal Son of God. Take your pick”. This would be bordering on dishonesty because it hides the fact that those arguments have been refuted for a long time by people such as Athanasius, Augustine and countless other theologians. Despite the number of people who argued against the eternal Sonship of Christ on the grounds of Scriptural interpretation – the church has simply not found their arguments to be persuasive (rightly, in my opinion).

4) Not all interpretations are equal. By that, I mean that not all interpretations of Scripture are correct. For example, Jesus himself refuted, corrected and relied upon interpretations of Scripture (Matt. 22:29-32; Mark 12:35-37; John 10:34-39 for example). It seems that there are better and worse interpretations of Scripture. Following on from the point above, it’s impossible to talk about different interpretations without actually dealing in the specifics. Some interpretations of Scripture are better than others – i.e. some are more faithful, explain the Biblical evidence better, fit in with the context, and so on. It’s hard work, but I believe that it is possible to compare different interpretations and come to a reasoned, defensible and persuasive decision on which one is best. We are not without tools to help us in this task.

In conclusion, my big issue with “that’s just your interpretation” as an argument is that it closes down discussion. It seems to essentially validate “my” interpretation while invalidating “your” interpretation (in the sense that you’re not allowed to hold that an interpretation of Scripture should be binding) – all done without actually looking at the specific interpretations and attempting to judge between them.

If I were to be cynical, I would suggest that the arguments about Biblical interpretation were more to do with people trying to cling onto Biblical authority: the only other option is admitting that the Bible got it wrong, which is a bridge too far for many people – even if there are some who go down that road. Walter Wink, for example, says: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.” (‘Homosexuality and the Bible’).

The Road to Emmaus: thoughts on seeing Jesus

Source: Wikimedia
Source: Wikimedia

“How do I see Jesus?” Not a question people ask very often, but nonetheless it has a lot of answers. Do I see Jesus by trying to be a good person? Do I see Jesus by praying a lot? Do I see Jesus by looking deep inside myself to try to find out what God is saying to me?

I think the story of the Road to Emmaus might help us to answer those questions. On Easter Sunday I preached on this wonderful passage from Luke 24. It’s a poignant and moving story, and there’s a huge amount you could say about it. What I was particularly struck by this time was how the story is like a metaphor for meeting and following Jesus for every Christian.

The story starts with two men, who had been followers of Jesus, dejectedly walking back home while talking about the events of the past few days (the crucifixion). As they were walking along on their journey, the risen Jesus comes alongside them – but they were kept from recognising him. It turns out that the Jesus they followed was not the Jesus who rose: they believed in a Jesus who they “had hoped … was going to redeem Israel” (v21): in other words, they believed in a Messiah who was going to be some kind of military conqueror, someone who was going to overthrow the Roman oppressors and lead an earthly kingdom. Although they did believe in Jesus, they believed in a false Jesus.

However, Jesus didn’t let them continue in this dejected state: he opens the Scriptures to them, and shows how all that has happened was a fulfilment of prophecy, and how all the Scriptures testify to himself. Before those two disciples could see him, Jesus had to open their eyes to the Scriptures. Finally, they invite Jesus in, and he comes in and eats with them – they share fellowship. As Jesus breaks the bread, then their eyes are opened and they see Jesus, and they return to the other disciples only to find that Jesus has appeared to them too.

What does this say to us about discipleship today? I’d like to suggest a few things:

  • Everyone is following a ‘Jesus’ – everyone believes in some kind of saviour. That saviour may not be a person (for example some people trust in politics, or reason, or money, etc). But each of us follows some kind of a saviour, some kind of a ‘fake Jesus’. Like those two disciples on the Emmaus road – the fake Jesus we follow will let us down, the fake Jesus will lead to despondency.
  • But, the good news is, the real Jesus – the risen Lord, the one who is alive and reigns with the Father – comes alongside us, even in the midst of our despair. Because Jesus is alive, he can come alongside us wherever our journey may take us and open our eyes to him.
  • Jesus doesn’t immediately reveal himself to them – he opens their eyes to the Scriptures. This is one of the key things about following Jesus: coming to know Jesus is coming to know God’s plan of redemption. It means understanding who we are as sinners, who God is as a holy judge, who am as someone in need of forgiveness. In other words, we don’t see Jesus in isolation – understanding Jesus requires understanding the bigger picture of God’s plan.
  • Only after Jesus opens their eyes to the Scriptures and they share fellowship together do they finally see Him. Jesus is the one who takes the initiative, he is the one who comes alongside them and opens their eyes.
  • Yet – once they see Jesus, he disappears from their eyes. They ‘see’ him with eyes of faith now – they do not need him to be physically present. Once their eyes were opened to the Scriptures, once he came and shared fellowship with them, they had by faith what they had previously only had by sight.

One big lesson from all of this is to do with seeing Jesus, as we started out thinking about. If you want to see Jesus, look no further than a Bible. Pray to God that he would open your eyes to see Jesus, and open the pages of Scripture. And the risen Lord comes alongside us and opens our eyes.