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God Is Not Arbitrary

By Philip Joy.

In response to Alun Brookfield's excellent piece of biblical exegesis in the previous edition, I offer the opposite approach to the LGBT issue. Where he began with our Bible-reading and challenged our theology, I would like to begin with our theology and challenge our Bible-reading. This concerns a question which I think the churches have not only got badly wrong, but which is a pastoral and evangelistic sore-thumb of unappreciated proportions: one which maligns the good name of our God.

My Starting Point

No-one does theology in a vacuum and what do we know that we have not been taught? As for presuppositions, I am one of that Bible College cadre who was blessed by NOT studying Christian Doctrine. Rather we learnt Theology proper: that is, the theological method. It was thought better in a changing world to give students the tools to address whatever questions might arise. The tool I use happens to be the "triple reflection" model, which involves a reasoned and prayerful examination of the interaction between Gospel, Tradition and World in a given subject. I heartily commend it, but it does not in itself lead to correct conclusions – for that we always need the Holy Spirit. As for teachers, I was taught by an excellent teacher who astutely insisted on teaching his students Ethics, because ethics is theology. Furthermore, I was expected to learn through in-pastorate theological reflection. I therefore come to the question with a good personal knowledge of working with gay families, gay church members and gay friends, both Christian and non-Christian. My trumpet-call comes from first-hand acquaintance.

College Confused the Issue

After the Ethics class when we 'did' homosexuality, our tutor remarked sadly on a disjunction between the conclusions reached by theological reflection and those reached by Scripture. This great Barthian scholar (Barth described God as "The One who loves in freedom") felt instinctively he wanted to go places the Bible would not permit. Despite God being Love, apparently 'love was not enough'. The stumbling block for him was the first chapter of Genesis. 

By contrast, in a postgraduate seminar, someone commented that the traditional anti-gay stance clashed with the character of God. I was confused. Either this postgraduate was ignoring some biblical references or my esteemed theology tutor had forgotten some essential characteristic of God. In any case, which trumps: plain biblical prohibitions or irrefutable general truths? Or is to speak of one trumping the other to be on the wrong track completely?

Good Theology does not contradict the Bible

Someone once said that there is no getting away from theology, for theology is simply 'thinking about God,' and we all do that. You can't just be 'biblical' and hope for the best, for you are always doing theology: and if you don't think a subject through, you are probably just doing bad theology! It is axiomatic that if our theology and our hermeneutics clash, one of them has to be wrong. Like many ministers, I instinctively wanted a loving God to embrace LGBT people, but the Bible seemed to condemn them. God, as they say, had made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. So which was at fault: my hermeneutics or my theology?

A belief-changing pastoral experience

Let me share one of those pastoral experiences which cause us to rethink an issue from scratch. I cringe now as I recall telling a lesbian couple that they had to stop practising gay sex if they wanted to know Jesus. I got to know them for a year. We watched the Jesus video together. I told them of Christ's offer of forgiveness and eternal life. Then one day they asked me to marry them! I am sorry to say I made Christ conditional on their celibacy. It was the line I had been taught – a fudge, trying to be pastorally sensitive, but failing to fully embrace. I said "You have to stop your sexual relationship." The younger woman said "but we can't just turn our feelings off like that." The older woman asked without a trace of hostility: "Why?" It was disarming. I had no reply! All the biblical reasoning I had been taught about God's original plan, creating Adam and Eve, etc., seemed brutally irrelevant. There I was as Christ's public representative, with nothing but an arbitrary 'because God says so' to explain why they could not be married. I said "You must get to know Jesus, then you will see." The older woman said: "Why bother getting to know Jesus if he's just going to tell me I must change my sexuality?" This was profoundly disconcerting. The bare word of the Bible about gay people seemed to be at odds with what I had spent a year sharing about the love of God in Christ. As a result this couple did not take their inquiry into Christ any further. I will always have this on my conscience, but it provoked the most profound biblical and theological soul-searching on the LGBT issue. As a result, 14 years later when my daughter came out as lesbian, I had already held a fully gay-embracing position for a more than half a decade. I had reviewed my hermeneutics in the light of my theology and discovered that it was my interpretation of the Bible that was at fault, not my theological instinct. So let me retrace for you the steps which led me to rethink my hermeneutics.

A Triple-Theological Reflection on the subject of Homosexuality

In the World as we find it, homosexual activity is a fact. It is there in the animal kingdom, and historically it has manifested in many human cultures alongside heterosexual behaviour. The people of Sodom and later the Romans seem to have pitched themselves into it as a search for the next sexual high (along with gang rape and pederasty). But there are also people whose adult sexual preferences in life are plural, either through being bisexual, or because their sexuality changes over the course of a lifetime. Finally, we must acknowledge a proportion of people only experience sexual arousal for the same sex. As Lady Gaga puts it, they were "born this way." In other words, far from being abberant behaviour, homosexuality is quite normal, though belonging to a minority of humanity. We must therefore refute the position that gay people have any choice in the objects of their sexual desire. We must refuse to equate homosexuality with promiscuity (or child abuse. Ed). We can no longer enjoin celibacy on gay people, since in the New Testament celibacy is a calling, not a requirement. Finally, we note from experience of living with gay people, whom God created, that their emotional lives – their loves, losses and family lives – are as profound as those of straight people. Once these prejudices are rejected, many Christians immediately question their traditional church stance – which takes us to the second part of our reflection.

Church Tradition has not yet universally and positively affirmed gay people, but neither has it always been so judgemental. Medieval Christendom was pretty bawdy as  cultures go, yet one can hardly say that they had a major hang-up about same-sex relationships per se. One feels Abelard could have as easily castrated himself over Eli as over Heloise!

The more biblical theologies of the Reformation, Puritan and Evangelical periods were not as easy-going on sex, but since they were concerned primarily with justification by faith and grace to the sinner, sexual sins were on a level playing field with every other sin.

In the last 150 years the church seems to have followed society in becoming more strident against same-sex acts. Despite the UK 1861 Offences against the Person Act repealing the death penalty for buggery (put in place by Henry VIII), homosexual acts remained illegal until 1967 and the law was strengthened by the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 which condemned any sexual acts between males (females, famously, not being mentioned!). The creation of a regular Police Force bound to uphold statute, and high profile trials such as that of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing caused convictions to rise to a crescendo in the 1950s. The lives of, particularly, gay men were made a misery in this period and the suicides must have included Christians as well. Additionally, as a result of Freud's theories, gay people could now be classified as mentally ill, and susceptible to 'treatment!' Indeed, an unholy alliance can still be observed between Christianity and Psychoanalysis in the abusive and fraudulent movement to 'cure' gay men which still flourishes in America and Africa.

That brings us to the present day when it appears that the LGBT issue is the last remaining Evangelical shibboleth, more important even than the cross. It is deeply ironic that it was not for his rejection of penal substitution, as "cosmic child-abuse", that Steve Chalke was anathematized by the Evangelical Alliance, but instead Oasis was removed for its gay-embracing stance! How the mighty have fallen! There appears to be a growing fanaticism over secondary issues. Possibly this is a last-ditch attempt to hang on to a literalist biblical hermeneutic, but I worry that it represents an upsurge of homophobia, the Western parallel to those violent policies in African and Asian countries gripped by religious fundamentalism. This brings us to the third area in our theological reflection: the Gospel.

It is in the Gospel where the character of God is seen most strongly. Does the love of God in Christ (the central strand of Scripture) illuminate or contextualize the facts of human sexuality and the often strident tradition of the Church which we have examined? We must coolly ask the theologian's primary question: 'What kind of God?' Let us suppose that we have done our homework, and found that at least in principle every negative passage can be explained by reference to cultural practices which have passed out of relevance, or ceremonial laws that have been abrogated by Christ. Assuming then that there are reasonable answers to all the biblical questions, what does the Gospel say about gay relationships?

I will confine myself to making two unremarkable observations which nonetheless take the gay question by storm.

  1. 1.     The Gospel is about inclusiveness

God is an inclusive God. The Bible's plotline reveals a universal love in creation and redemption. Despite the fall, we find a Covenant of Grace between the Father and the Son ratified by the Spirit, which was intended from before the foundation of the world, offering a Lamb slain as "a full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world" (Book of Common Prayer). What is promised in the Old Testament is revealed and proclaimed in the New: that ALL people regardless of human difference are carried by Christ our representative through death and into Life, that whoever believes in Jesus shall rise though she die, and inherit that Life which is both qualitatively and duratively eternal. Jesus showed his inclusiveness especially towards women, during his earthly ministry, and the Apostles were sent forth by the Spirit to all peoples. The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 3.28, says "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." I understand that to mean that God does not arbitrarily base his offer upon human difference. He may have done so once to the Jews, but that was a temporary launchpad for a universal message. So we may legitimately continue Paul's sentence and substitute any existing or potential distinctive, so that it may be demonstrably abolished as a basis for salvation. In our Post-Soviet era, the four vast differences are race, religion, gender and sexuality, but the inclusiveness of the Gospel sweeps them all aside. There is no accident of gender, colour, birth into a particular nation, or into a particular religion that matters to God, for he offers Christ regardless.

Can we suppose that sexual orientation is an exception? Can we suppose that the Holy Spirit insists upon the literal reading of specific verses like flood defences of fundamentalism before a tsunami of Divine Love? I cannot believe I have understood my Scriptures correctly if I end up trying with single verses to hold to hold back the tide of the whole Bible's plotline. I am certain that there is no accident of sexuality which must be given up before someone can receive Christ. To be gay or straight is of no more (or less) importance to God than left or right-handedness.

God is not an arbitrary God.

Lady Gaga was right after all: "You're on the right track baby, you were born this way." Yes, sometimes the world gets there first. I am afraid that we rather went off the boil after abolishing slavery and sat on our laurels and allowed the issues of patriarchy and homophobia to go unchallenged. Yet it is not too late to lay down for posterity that the Church in the 21st Century heard the Spirit saying YES to gay people! So long as people's sexuality is lived out in holiness, it does not matter to God whether they are gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual or transgender, for he created each one of us, knit us, and knew us completely and in some way that is a mystery to me, foreknew all our days right from our mother's womb. This is the true source of gay pride. Alleluia!

  1. 2.     The Gospel is about faithfulness

God is a faithful God.So how do gay people live out their sexuality in holiness? They must be monogamous and faithful, because God is monogamous and faithful. This is the sense in which First Century Hebrew marriage is a picture of a profound mystery: the Church. Christ has bound himself to his church as a faithful Husband and Partner.

He is of course, like a Hebrew man, the senior partner in the relationship – but that is for our Good. He does not cheat on us. He is not an arbitrary bloke who approves of his woman one day, but then finds fault the next and writes a letter of divorce on the third. He is a faithful, regular, attentive lover. He is permanently attached to his people.

Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 19. There is naturally no reference to gay people when he quotes Genesis, but gay people have done us a favour in helping us to see that Genesis 1, Matthew 19 – and therefore marriage itself – is not primarily about the male/female distinctive. The passage taken in context is about faithfulness, not gender. Jesus is asked about the validity of divorce and summarizes: "Therefore what God has joined together, let no-one separate."

The true interpretation of Genesis 1 is not one about the legal status of the male/female partnership, as the Pharisees thought, but about the 'one-fleshness' sex brings about. This happens to be numerically predominantly a heterosexual one-ness, but that is not the point: one-fleshness is the heart of human sexual coupling. The essence of marriage is faithfulness, says Jesus. God is faithful, therefore we must be faithful. It is actually not very complicated.

In Summary

I could have taken other aspects of the Gospel separately, but they have mostly been touched upon. The Gospel reveals an inclusive and faithful Creator and Redeemer God who never acts arbitrarily, but remains true to His character. The result, then, of our theological reflection on sexual orientation and practice is this: God has created some people gay, but Christian tradition has tended to hide behind literalism and follow the caprice of its host cultures rather than ask the deeper questions about what God is like. Crucially God is not arbitrary. His attitudes are consistent and embedded in his universal love. He does not arbitrarily accept one group and reject another. Given the faithfulness of God, we must conclude that ALL people, gay or straight, should they choose to bind themselves to one another, are enjoined to lifelong faithful monogamy. I believe that the Church must embrace gay people completely, baptize them, and enjoin upon them the same holy matrimony it preaches to the straight. Theology and hermenuetics cannot clash. Let us go back to our Bibles and reconsider them in the light of God's revealed character.

Finally, let us not be found maligning our God

If I sound a little preachy, it is because I care about God as well as man. Our dilatory pre-occupation with particular verses on a secondary issue is dragging the reputation of our Lord through the mud. Our unwillingness to embrace LGBT people on the same terms as straight people sends all the wrong messages about God. Such messages are not just about appearances, but about the essence of our faith. God offers the good news of abundant life to all without distinction. But we are not so inclusive as he. Where Christ tore down a dividing wall, we construct another, saying "you are different: you are gay: either conform or perish." How dare we erect a barrier to faith where God has not put one? This was the essence of my spiritual crime with that lesbian couple.

Furthermore, if we so readily fling aside the centralities of God's character, and inevitably substitute less central aspects, the result is an idol and we are found to be false shepherds. God offers his faithfulness, but we are not so kind. He is love, covenant love, but we are hatred.

So we proclaim a petty god in our own image. Insisting a gay or lesbian person "repent" of their orientation before we baptize them or admit them to membership is to call to mind a wrathful deity, a capricious creator who makes people a certain way, then arbitrarily mocks them by denying them the opportunity to live the way they were made.

This is no light we proclaim, but darkness. Do I exaggerate? Assuming my reader is straight, imagine a world where you were forced to have gay sex (or none) for the rest of your life before you could be saved. Then you will understand the torture we inflict upon the LGBT community. And what of the wider world? Do we have any idea how we misrepresent God? The young people today see this issue ever so clearly. They cannot bear the hypocrisy of clerics who forgive themselves all manner of sin, but publically withold God's forgiveness to the gay.

Postscript: What is God like and So What?

"God just wants you to have a rotten life: God's like that: he hates poofs." Fascinating that Rowan Atkinson ends with a reference to the theologians' ultimate task: to answer the question "what is God like?" The 'so-what' ought to be crystal-clear by now. If you are not completely gay-affirming along the lines of Steve Chalke, I challenge you to reach for your most basic theology (try "God is Love"), go back to your Bibles and question your hermeneutics in view of your theology. What are the limits of God's inclusiveness? What are the bounds of his faithfulness? Is love enough? Realize that the way we handle this is bigger than the rejection of a minority. It tells straight people something too. Shall we preach a false gospel? Dare we go on preaching the wrong god?

Philip Joy

Specialist in Old Testament narrative and typology

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You are reading God Is Not Arbitrary by Philip Joy, part of Issue 62 of Ministry Today, published in November 2014.

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