Every time LGBT rights issues comes up in a church context I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with two Christian friends. The first was a Theology and Philosophy student – a real intellectual – who believed that the 21st Century Church didn’t take sin seriously enough. He referred to the fact that under Old Testament Law, the descendants of adultery were excluded from the Temple for several generations. At this, my second friend went purple. Unbeknownst to my first friend, she was herself the product of an adulterous relationship – and it was something she had always really struggled to come to terms with. She wasn’t from a religious family at all but had found acceptance within the Christian faith because she recognised that she had been adopted into God’s family as both a daughter and an heir. When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two and this enables all people – including all those excluded under Old Testament Law - to have direct access to the Father God. Jesus’s entire ministry saw Him reach out to people who had previously been excluded.
I remember my second friend repeating the line “Go away and read What’s so Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey”. I hadn’t read that book at the time but when I did, I understood what she was getting at. Yancey’s thesis was that whilst churches preach a gospel of grace (God’s unmerited kindness to humanity shown through Jesus Christ) they, too often become places of Ungrace – where people end up becoming excluded because of who they are or what they have done. LGBT people aren’t the only people to suffer in this way. Never married singles, divorcees, the childless, the unemployed can all feel that church is somewhere where they don’t quite fit in. This can be aggravated by the fact that the political agenda of churches is too often so marriage-centric that a non-believer might be forgiven for thinking that heterosexual marriage was compulsory for Christians.
This is, of course, wrong. From the Old Testament prophets to the Letters of Paul, the bible honours the single and the childless. Jesus Himself was single and childless and honours those who either by choice or circumstance never have a family of their own. For many centuries, the church was almost anti-marriage seeing the monastic life as a more superior way of Christian living than marriage and family. It was only with Martin Luther marrying an escaped nun that things changed. As is often the case, we end up “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” so to speak and with the dissolution of the monasteries we took away the key context in which never-married single adults could build abiding friendships and stability in their personal relationships.
This is where I believe that we have gone wrong in our dealings with the LGBT community. We cannot preach a marriage-centric gospel and then tell LGBT people to stay single. We cannot worship at the altar of the nuclear family – an entirely 20th century creation – and expect LGBT to live alone. And we cannot preach a gospel of grace and expect LGBT people to leave their homosexuality at the church door. In short, we are so far from being the kind of church that Jesus intended that we are in no place to throw Leviticus at the LGBT community.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not proposing we bring back the monasteries. What I am saying is that, as Christians, we have too often closed our ears and our hearts to the realities of being LGBT. We talk about celibacy in the same way we talk about giving up chocolate – as if it really isn’t that difficult; we talk about loneliness as if it’s something Christians shouldn’t struggle with because, after all “God is always with us” and we only worry about people who live alone if they are over retirement age – as if the under-65’s actually enjoy eating Sunday lunch alone.
Steve Chalke is right to raise the issue of the suicide rates in the LGBT community and also to highlight the fact that exclusion from the Church probably aggravates the propensity to promiscuity. Genuine homophobia is, in my experience, widespread in the Church and this creates obstacles to the proper pastoral care of – and outreach to – LGBT people. It is right that this is addressed. Nobody would dream of telling a couple in their second or subsequent marriage to get divorced. We would consider that cruel – and probably very impractical - but many Christians are quite happy to demand that LGBT people split from their partners when they come to faith. It is right for us to ask hard questions about whether the Church is guilty of treating LGBT people unequally.
That being said, I cannot help being left frustrated by some of Steve Chalke’s arguments.
Firstly, at one point, he actually questions whether the bible is the Word of God. The bible may not be the Word of God but if he believes that he cannot possibly describe himself as an Evangelical. Evangelicalism without Sola Scripture is about as credible as Roman Catholicism without the Pope. If he is going to make the case for Evangelicals embracing Equal Marriage then he needs to find a biblical basis for doing so.
Secondly, he compares the issue of Equal Marriage with Women’s Ministry and slavery, both of which are false comparisons. Many of the most vocal voices against Equal Marriage – the Roman Catholics and the Conservative Evangelicals – also oppose Women’s Ministry for the reasons he states. All he does is justify their position on Women’s Ministry. With slavery, Jesus came to “set the captives free” and to set us free from the slavery of sin: so there is a clear gospel mandate to oppose slavery. With the best will in the world, a comparable case cannot be made for Equal Marriage.
Finally, there is Steve Chalke’s track record of challenging basic Christian doctrine. At the centre of the Christian faith is the cross. It is at the cross that justice and mercy meet. It is at the cross that God’s anger at sin is satisfied so we can receive forgiveness for our sins and we are able to be reconciled with God. It is through precisely this message of penal substitution – a message that Steve Chalke has himself challenged – that all of us – the LGBT community included – can find grace and hope.