Why we should be grateful for Vicky Beeching

undividedI recently talked a little about Vicky Beeching’s book – Undivided – and why I think it is dangerous for the church. I stand by what I said there – but, at the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and I think there are reasons to be grateful to Vicky Beeching. In particular, I think the book exposes the truth in two ways:

1. It exposes the truth about people.

One of the things which has really come home to me over the last month is the lack of depth and theological understanding in the UK church. It is pitiably weak in certain quarters.

Vicky’s story is a powerful one, for sure – but in a church which knew the Scriptures and the gospel, it wouldn’t have made a dent. My heart weeps for the many faithful Christians who will read this book and be swayed by it. Why are they swayed? Because they do not know the Scriptures deeply enough. This has something which I have hitherto only suspected – but Vicky’s book has brought into painfully to light.

There’s an intriguing moment at the end of John 6:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.’

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t dilute his teaching to make it easier for people to follow him. The words he speaks are “full of the Spirit and life”. If you want to follow him, you must follow it all – or it will be worth nothing. Vicky Beeching’s book – and the question of gay marriage in general – exposes people for who they really are: are they followers of Jesus, who take up their cross and follow, however hard it may be? Or will turn back and no longer follow him at this point?

Joshua said to the people of Israel as they entered into the Promised Land: “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Josh 24:15). We are at the point where the church has to choose whom it will serve – the gods of equality, sexual liberation and personal fulilment – or the God of the Bible. It cannot be both.

That said, if people do not know the Scriptures deeply enough, then they do not entirely have themselves to blame:

2. It exposes where the church has gone wrong.

If the church had been teaching the faith as it should have been, there would be no problem. I’ve been realising, however, that the church has not been teaching the faith – in particular, I think the church has failed in catechesis: teaching a basic systematic understanding of the faith. This is where I think many evangelical churches fall down – they preach the Bible week by week, which is vital, but neglect other things which are vital. I talked about this a little when I started my New City Catechism series.

In particular, I think the church has lost the understanding of sin that was so key at the Reformation: the idea that sin is pervasive and infects everything – our desires, our minds, our wills, everything. Too often people have a fairly weak view of sin as ‘bad things we do from time to time’. Children are often taught that kind of understanding to begin with, but sadly it seems that many adults never move beyond it. I know this from personal experience – I think for many years I saw sin as being something I did rather than something more fundamental, a matter of the heart. As Jesus said in Mark 7:21 “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come”. We’re not sinners because we sin – we sin because we are sinners. Because our hearts are wicked and corrupt, we bring forth the fruit of sin.

Recently in our church we’ve started using Order Two communion – the order in Common Worship (the standard CofE liturgy) based on the Book of Common Prayer. The confession has generated a bit of discussion, and it struck me that it’s the understanding of sin which is under question. (I should say that I minister in a conservative evangelical church which has had a strong Bible-preaching ministry for forty or more years!) I’m not saying this to criticise the church, but rather I think it illustrates that even among solid evangelical churches there has been a failure to adequately teach the faith which can leave believers exposed when error comes in. If people are rocked when they read Vicky Beeching’s book – or, more personally, when a close friend or family members ‘comes out’ – then it shows the church has not properly equipped them.

We as a church have often focussed so much on the ‘nice’ bits of the faith – worship and praise, the love of God, etc – that we’ve neglected the important doctrines of sin, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, hell, etc.

One of the things I’d like to see – as an Anglican – is a revival of the theology of the Book of Common Prayer. I honestly think the church wouldn’t be in half the mess it is if the prayer book had been retained as the staple diet of the church – or its theology, at least. Common Worship (released in 2000, which almost every church uses now) waters down so much of the gospel content that you can bend it to almost any theology. In our midweek communion service we’ve been using Order Two for nearly a year now – and it’s like balm to my bruised soul: I am free to be just exactly who I am before God – a sinner who is saved by grace, nothing more, nothing less. Hallelujah!

My wife had an interesting perspective on this – she grew up on Common Worship (or its precursor) – and didn’t really understand communion. She made the comment to me that the communion service suddenly became much clearer when using the Prayer Book style service. The BCP communion preaches the gospel in a way that Common Worship doesn’t.

What happens now?

I think there are reasons to be grateful, and reasons to be confident. Now that Vicky Beeching’s book – amongst other things – have exposed the truth, we can do something about it. I feel that for too long in this country we’ve been muddling along as a church, saying a few nice ‘Jesus’ things where appropriate but staying in the shallows, theologically speaking. That won’t work any more.

What this country needs is a revival, and a revival will not happen without people who are committed to living out Jesus’ teaching in every area. People who are willing to take up their cross and follow him. People who are willing to stand up and be counted.

This has been the case before in previous generations – as I mentioned when I talked about the hymn O Jesus I have promised. It can be so again. I think God often allows these things to happen to purify the church – to turn halfhearted people either out of the church, or move them to obey him in a more wholehearted way.

A wholehearted church can make a big difference – I was encouraged earlier today to read Ian Paul’s post on revival – Christianity eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire by growing at around 3.42% per year. That’s not a huge amount – and yet it changed the course of history.

So what practical difference should we make as a church? Many things, of course! But in practical terms, in broad brush stroke terms, what I’d like to see is:

  • Pastors and teachers who are trained properly and able to teach their congregations the faith. I only realised the value in theological training after spending three years at theological college – I’m so glad the CofE made me do it, otherwise I’d probably have said “I’ve got the Bible, I’ve got a commentary… now let me at it! No need for this academic stuff!” Any church serious about growth needs to invest in the quality of its theological education. Putting down deep roots into the Scriptures and theology are essential for surviving testing times – and only people who have those deep roots can help others to gain them.
  • A revival of catechesis – as I’ve already talked about.
  • A renewed commitment to church planting. I am heartened that so many churches seem to be talking about church planting at the moment. I was talking to someone recently who said that the best way of reaching people is by planting a church – if the church in the UK is serious about reaching the unreached, we need to be serious about planting new churches. I was taught at college “Growing churches are church planting churches” – and I think this is true. The UK needs more churches.

Above all, we should have confidence in the glorious truth of the gospel – that we have a God who saves sinners, and even today is still drawing men and women to himself. I was reading a book yesterday – Matt Lee Anderson’s book on questioning – and in the chapter I read last night he said that the purpose of questioning is to fasten our minds on the truth. There is an objective truth out there, and we are only deluding ourselves if we deviate from it. This is what our society is finding out the hard way is it tries very hard to write out the fact of God’s truth. We as Christians know God’s Word, his truth, and we should be confident in proclaiming it as we know it is the way that God transforms lives and societies.

I finish with the words of Paul to his protege, Timothy, his charge which I look to to describe my ministry and I think are appropriate here:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather round them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

A few years ago we preached through 2 Timothy, and it struck me then that it is one of the most prophetic books in the Bible – it describes our situation exactly in the church at the moment. And yet, the solution is the same: preach the gospel. Let’s have confidence in doing just that.

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Can we be optimistic about 2018?

Happy New Year to all my blog followers! Seeing as my last one seemed to be received well, I decided to do another vlog message thinking about the subject of whether we can be optimistic in 2018. Given that the world is in such a mess at the moment – the bad news seems to be relentless – can we be optimistic about the coming year? This is my answer.

Mike Pence, the Billy Graham rule and the gospel

Billy Graham

[Jesus said:] ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

If you haven’t seen the news this week, the internet has been astir with the news that Vice President of the US Mike Pence follows the ‘Billy Graham rule’. Basically, to avoid temptation, he takes measures to avoid being alone with another woman, or being at a social function with alcohol involved where his wife is not present. The rule is named after Billy Graham, with which it originated. (See the link above for more information about the history of the rule).

It’s been interesting to look at the responses. Some people have ridiculed Mike Pence on a number of fronts – how, in this day and age, can a man not have a business lunch with a woman (for example)? On the other hand, some Christian folk have stood up to defend him and commended him for taking steps to protect his marriage. Marriage breakdown is a huge issue, and it’s right to be concerned about it.

Personally, I have mixed feelings. As a Christian, I believe we should be concerned with sexual purity – both within and without marriage. Hebrews 13:4 puts it starkly: “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” I’ve argued before that sexual sin is serious business – and I stand by what I said then. However (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I believe the Billy Graham rule is misguided.

Let’s start with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount that I quoted to begin with. “You shall not commit adultery” – one of the Ten Commandments. You’d think that one would be a relatively straightforward one to keep, right? Either you’ve slept with someone you’re not married to, or you haven’t. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Jesus makes the commandment far beyond what we do with our bodies – he extends it to include our minds as well. Any man who has ever looked at another woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (And, of course, this applies for women too – lust is not an exclusively male problem).

Jesus was here was speaking against the Pharisees – those who believed that they were righteous because they were almost fanatical about obeying the law. Jesus said shortly before these verses, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v20). The message is striking: what God demands of us is moral perfection – a perfection that we cannot achieve by following the Law. The Pharisees made a big show of obeying the law, they probably had laws (way beyond the Ten Commandments) about what you were allowed to do and not do with women around. But Jesus says, no – the righteousness God requires is an internal righteousness – one which goes to the heart. The heart is where evil springs from – the heart is what must be changed. We cannot impose righteousness on ourselves by rules – only God can change our hearts.

I’ve recently been reading Colossians, and these verses sprang to mind:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Paul here says that there are rules in the world which people follow, rules that – although they have an appearance of wisdom, actually ‘lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’. I think this is what’s going on with rules like the Billy Graham rule. Those who follow these rules appear to be doing something wise, appear to be taking appropriate precautions – but actually the rules themselves do not have any value in preventing sin. (I wonder how many people who followed the Billy Graham rule have fallen into sexual sin?) It would be perfectly possible, for example, to follow the Billy Graham rule and yet be addicted to pornography. The outward appearance looks very different from the inward reality.

So how should we live in the way that God wants us to? More than that – how can we? This is what Paul addresses in Galatians 5. I won’t quote all of it, but the summary is this: there are two ways of living – either according to ‘the flesh’, or according to the Spirit. The flesh means our natural desires, our sinful state where we desire what is contrary to God’s will. This, of course, includes sensual indulgence. But Paul’s genius is that he extends this to include legalism as well – that is, living by a set of rules. If we live by a set of rules, we may appear to be godly – but we are simply fooling ourselves. The only way to live a godly life is to live by the Spirit of God, to live a life of love as we are transformed by the Spirit, as we walk in step with Him.

The problem with laws – legalism – is that it only focusses on the ‘Thou shalt not’. How can I, as a man, love my female neighbour if I have a law which prevents me from getting to know her?

In fact, as I hinted at above, legalism may in fact exacerbate the problem. If a man believes he’s doing OK because he’s keeping the Billy Graham rule, and yet spends a lot of time fantasising about women he’s not married to, then he’s simply fooling himself.

A personal anecdote…

I’d like to put some flesh on what I’ve written above by sharing a little of my life story. I wanted to share how this has worked out in my own life, and how I believe my experience shows that the Billy Graham rule is not correct.

I spent a lot of my time at theological college was spent worrying about adultery. I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t strong enough. We often heard and talked about stories of pastors who had failed in this way, and how it wrecked their ministries and personal lives. I spent quite a bit of time in prayer asking God to help me!

I also tried to steer clear of getting ‘too close’ to a woman – especially any woman I found attractive. Although I didn’t consciously live by the Billy Graham rule, I think subconsciously I followed something like it: it was very rare that I would ever have a one-on-one private conversation with a woman. However, I still didn’t feel ‘safe’ – I still didn’t feel like the laws I lived by would help me.

Fast forward to today: God has indeed answered my prayers and changed my heart. I feel like I have a whole new perspective on the world. It’s too long to go into here (maybe another blog post… or a book…) but I have come to believe that God has designed men and women for each other – not just within marriage – and intends men and women to be friends. This is exactly what Joshua Jones argues in Forbidden Friendships: Retaking the Biblical gift of male-female friendship.

As I said above, the problem with the law is that it stops with ‘Thou shalt not’. Christians, on the other hand, are called to do more than that: Christians are called to love one another. Peter says “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22), and I believe that includes love across the gender divide. Sexual sin is a horrible thing – but I have come to believe that one of the best antidotes we have to sexual sin is healthy relationships with those of the opposite sex.

Clearly, more needs to be said on this – and the Forbidden Friendships book is a good start – but this is a blog post and I don’t want to go on forever. The ‘in a nutshell’ of all this is that I am much more open to forming good friendships with women and believe that this actually (1) fulfils better the great commandment (to love God and our neighbour) (2) better equips me to combat sexual sin.

Conclusion

I applaud anyone who takes sexual purity seriously. Our culture seems to value fidelity a lot less than in days gone by. Mike Pence is honestly trying to protect his marriage, I believe he is sincere, and should be commended. I also think it’s not right to jump to conclusions about what someone does and does not believe – I don’t want to critique the man, only the rule itself at face value.

However, I believe that the gospel calls us to a more radical heart transformation. The gospel calls us to love, not simply to avoid 50% of the population of the world because we might be tempted to sin. The Pharisees were using their laws to get out of their obligations to love their neighbour. We may laugh at them, but our human hearts are tempted to use the law in the same way.

I’ll leave the last word to the apostle Paul:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

… Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13-14, 24-25)

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.