Real Marriage

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If you missed the Church Meeting recently, just a few points by way of background. The Government has introduced its Marriage (Same Sex Couple) Bill.

1. This Bill, for the first time in British history, fundamentally seeks to break the existing legal link between the institution of marriage and sexual exclusivity, loyalty, and responsibility for the children of the marriage. If the Bill passes, several previously foundational aspects of the law of marriage will be changed to accommodate same sex couples:

· the common law presumption that a child born to a mother during her marriage is also the child of her partner will not apply in same sex marriages;

· the existing provisions on divorce will be altered so that sexual infidelity by one of the parties in a same sex marriage with another same sex partner will not constitute adultery;

· and non-consummation will not be a ground on which a same sex marriage is voidable.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales warns that:

“The effect of the Bill will be to make a more complete separation of church and state in the area of marriage almost inevitable. ‘Civil’ marriages will be performed by state officials only and the state will determine the legal benefits, rights and duties that accompany marriage, but these will not be regarded as marriages in the eyes of many Churches. ‘Religious marriages’ will be performed by religious institutions according to their own doctrine and rites, and will have no effect on legal relations. Over time, civil and religious marriages will become fundamentally distinct institutions.

Some will welcome that development; some will not. The choices that Parliament is being called to make will have profound implications for the future architecture of relations between church and state in Britain.”

2. What is the church (for example, in terms of the opt-out provisions, or the media)? Non-conformist churches like ours are not the same as the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops and others do not speak for us. We have to do the hard work of coming to our own view and practice about these issues as we read the Scriptures and open ourselves to the work of the Spirit.

3. Steve Chalke added to the debate by arguing that inclusion and justice overwhelm the traditional Christian view of sexuality and that he had participated in blessing a civil partnership.

First I want GBC to be known for what it is for rather than what it is against.

1. We are for the good news of Jesus
He welcomes all of us in our brokenness, and is able to transform us all into the whole human beings God intends us to be, whether we be men or women, rich or poor, educated or not, and whether we struggle with same-sex attractions or with heterosexual temptations.

We emphasise leading people to Jesus because that offers them real possibility of change from the inside out; preaching Christian morality may lead to conformity but rarely leads to conversion.

God invites us into covenant relationship with himself. God invites us to follow him. God invites us to embrace the message of the cross, its redemption, its hope, its forgiveness and its grace. Yet to follow him, we are called to obey him. To walk with him, we must let him take the lead. To receive his forgiveness, we must be willing to acknowledge our wrongdoing. Receiving the grace of God in our lives and hearts is predicated upon our willingness to acknowledge our need of that grace.

He offers us love, acceptance, forgiveness and a new start. He invites us to join him in the task of transforming the world. Yet His invitation also requires an RSVP. That response is the acknowledgement of our need of him, our confession of our own failure and sin and our willingness to turn from those practices, habits and attitudes which dehumanise us or others such as greed, anger, prejudice, pride, self-centeredness, and yes, sexual conduct outside of marriage.

2. We are for real marriage.

One of the strongest threads in Scripture is either directly about marriage or applied to a marriage relationship: Genesis 1.26–31a; 2.4b–8, 18–24; Psalms 8; 33.2–9; 67; 95; 100; 103.1–5, 15–18; 117; 121; 128, 136.1–9, 26; 144.8–10, 15, 17–18; 145; 148; 150; Proverbs 3.3–6; Song of Songs 2.8–10, 14, 16; 8.6–7; Isaiah 54.5–8; Jeremiah 31.31–34; Matthew 5.13–16; 7.21, 24–27; 19.3–6; 22.35–40; Mark 10.6–9; John 2.1–11; 15.1–17; Romans 12.1–2, 9–13; 1 Corinthians 13; Ephesians 3.14–21; Philippians 1.9–11; Colossians 3.12–17; 1 Peter 3.1–12; 1 John 3.18–24; 4.7–12; Revelation 19.1, 5–9a.

In practice, our definition of Christian marriage comes for centuries of tuning biblical references into liturgy which is acknowledged at each and every wedding:

God has made us in his own image,
male and female,
and marriage is his gift,
a holy mystery
in which man and woman become one flesh,
united in love,
and called to be faithful to each other throughout their lives.

Marriage is founded in God’s loving nature,
and in his covenant of love with us in Christ.

Husband and wife,
in giving themselves to each other in love,
reflect the love of Christ for his Church.

Marriage is given
so that husband and wife may comfort and help each other,
living faithfully together in need and in plenty,
in sorrow and in joy.

It is given that with delight and tenderness
they may know each other in love,
and through the joy of their bodily union,
may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives.

It is given so that the stability it imparts to their relationship
may be a source of strength to others
and the foundation of a secure family life
for any children they may have.

In marriage husband and wife belong to one another,
and they begin a new life in the community.

It is a way of life that all should honour;
it must not be undertaken carelessly, lightly or selfishly,
but reverently, responsibly and after serious thought.

This is the way of life,
created and hallowed by God,
that A and C are now about to enter.

Therefore anyone who can show any reason
why they may not lawfully be married
should say so now.

3. We are for inclusion

Christ-like inclusion is seen in a Saviour who beckons all who will respond to Him to come and follow Him.

Christian inclusion looks like a narrow road and a small gate. It looks like picking up a cross, denying yourself and following Jesus. It looks like obedience. It looks like a rejection of self and selfishness. It looks like keeping your body holy and pure. It looks like an acknowledgement of sin and dependency on God. Christian faith is not a lifestyle option to be added to the rest of our life-choices. It is a fundamental shifting of our thinking and perspectives so that we submit ourselves to God.

In all of this, it looks like hope for the broken, grace for the weak and forgiveness for those who know they need it. Gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, rich or poor – we must all kneel at the cross if we are to be followers of the Cross-Bearer.

What has gone wrong?

Sex, in our culture, is now primarily for personal satisfaction. This is at the core what it means to be human. Sex is the meaning of life. Sexual expression is innate and immediate taking no formation. It says desire is what it is. It is largely determined by biology and it is meant to be fulfilled. Science teaches us this and we do not ever distrust science.

We have a whole entire society that runs on this ideology. It drives our advertising. It under girds the ways we engage in healing, medical practice, psychology, marital counselling etc. etc. The culture industries including television and cinema rarely engage and explore the adequacy of this account of things. Instead they play on it, use it to sell tickets. It undergirds the massive addictions of our time including pornography and the inability to stay married to one spouse that is basically now a given in our society.  Our sexual shaping is so part of our subjectivity, we believe it is our own. It is so deep that the mere thought of celibacy is viewed with horror.

The entire capitalist economy, one might say, runs on this. Question it and the economy will fall. This is what living in a post-Christian society looks like? We’d better get used to it.

I believe there is a danger that the more we proclaim our Christian ethics in our post-Christian society, the more it will offend an unregenerate mind and add to their darkness; hence the frequently used tags of hypocritical, judgemental and homophobic. These accusations were never used about Jesus and if we talked more about him I think we might avoid those tags more often.

Yet can anyone deny that the core Christian convictions, our very Story in Christ, denies some if not much (but not all) of this sexual ideology?

Is not self-denial the core of entry into the Kingdom? Is not “submission” (another dirty word in this ideology) to God and His Kingdom what makes the Kingdom?

Are we not asked to pick up our cross and follow Jesus? Is not mortification, the dying to one’s self and “the flesh” at the core of God’s program into new life?

Does it not begin here from which incredible resurrection flows? As Bonheoffer said, “When Christ calls a man (or woman), he bids him (or her) come and die.” Can anyone deny this?

We need an alternative sexual ethic that opens doors for mission and God’s Kingdom to break in. We cannot confront today’s sexual ideology straight on. You must make space, open up ruptures, open cracks under the space of the canopy where some new reality can be birthed.

4. I believe we should be for the historic biblical view on human sexuality.

I don’t think we need to keep repeating that publically – it is self-evident.

When questioned we say, as Justin Welby said at the official ceremony to mark his election as Archbishop of Canterbury, “I’ve made my views clear…I stand with the statement I made…We have made many statements about this and I stick with that.”

The Bible’s teaching and the historic teaching of the church on the issue of human sexuality seem to be one of the clearest threads of Scripture to me. Sexual relationships are an expression of intimacy, love, union and mutual dependency across the genders that are given to us as a gift to be practiced within the context of a faithful and monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. The very act of sexual union between men and women is an articulation of the completeness of God, a picture of the perfect relationship within the Trinity that cannot be expressed in homoerotic relationships.

I want to make two simple points:

a) Eisegesis is not good exegesis.

Our intention must always to listen to and dialogue graciously with everyone, including those who hold other views to us, and create space and time for people both to meet Jesus and to learn to live according to biblically revealed sexual morality.

But as Malcolm Duncan says:

“To place inclusion as the key value then to seek to lean into Scripture and redefine inclusion in the light of what our society understands it to be is a masterstroke of eisegesis, but it is not biblical exegesis. Steve Chalke’s failure, I think, is to start with what our society describes as ‘inclusion’ and it read it back into Scripture, then to use Scripture and arguments of compassion and justice and inclusion."

‘Loving your neighbour’ demands more than blind acceptance of their behaviour or lifestyle. What if love means challenge? Morals and ethics and choices are not simply a laissez-faire affair, but that there are clear expectations of behaviour and transformation articulated in the Bible – and these include sexual ethics and relationships.

One cannot remove the challenge of the Biblical ethics and morality, disrobe Scripture of language that no longer fits the modern wardrobe and then squeeze its message into attire that is neither faithful to nor connected with its original intent.

You cannot reverse the Bible’s teaching on the issue of human sexuality and at the same time claim to remain faithful to Scripture’s teaching on the same issue. You simply have to muster the courage to say you do not agree with the Bible on the issue of human sexuality.

b) Not every change in society can be supported by Scripture.

It is true that the ‘church’ has changed its position on slavery and women but that does not imply the church must, one day, do so on homosexuality.

In the Bible, the role of women moves from one of strong subordination in the Old Testament (yet still within a strong framework of equality in Judaism which itself is remarkable) to one of equality by the time you read Colossians and the wider New Testament.

Slaves move from being perceived as ‘property’ to being described as brothers and, by implication, sisters in the epistle to Philemon.

The language and approach to sexual practice and to homoerotic behaviour does not change at any point across the Bible. It always appears as or in the list of sinful practice. There is simply no evidence whatsoever, not a shred, to support a re-invented hermeneutic to justify homoerotic behaviour.

We are not free to change this biblical view by creating an apparent trajectory into and endorsement of homoerotic behaviour where the Bible does not set such a trajectory in the first place. To do so is, indeed, to move beyond the authority of Scripture and to instead hold Scripture under the authority of our culture. Such a step creates a relativist church and creates a sub-cultural Christian community with little to offer the world.

5. I believe we should be for engagement with everyone in our community
The tide of society turned some time ago on this issue and we as a church need to come to terms with that. Our society might once have been built on an understanding of the wisdom of Judeo-Christian morality. Now it is now a minority view in our democracy.

Seven things we can do instead of getting upset or angry:

1. We need to keep supporting Christian MPs, get more of them selected and elected, constantly praying for them to have an ever-increasing influence.

2. We should continue to teach sensitively what we believe and most importantly try to live it out in a self-authenticating and winsome way such that some are persuaded.

3. Our main task now is to ensure we have the freedom in our society to teach the next generation an alternative to our society’s new preferred morality.

And that is a huge task! Government is appears “powerless” to stop teachers getting sacked if they refuse to endorse same-sex marriage. Daily Telegraph quotes a senior source at the Department for Education admitting that the UK is not “in control” and that European judges have the final say.

Already same-sex marriage storybooks are being promoted in primary schools. The legal and political pressure to use these books in classrooms will be all the greater if or when marriage gets redefined.

At some stage that freedom may be taken away in which case we teach what we believe in a clandestine way in much the same way that Christianity has been taught, spread and multiplied in every other non-Christian society around the world through history!

4. We need to speak from a position of accepting others

We ought not to single out a particular person’s sexual brokenness as an issue above others, or act like there is no sexual brokenness at all in any of us. We all are in some way or another sexually broken and moving toward maturity in Christ and this means that we all submit our brokenness to the healing and reconciling work of Christ in the context of Christian community.

If you are sexually whole and have no need for redemption, you are blessed. But we, who are broken, come relationally as real people in real situations to submit together to what God is doing in and among us. This to me is the opening of space for God’s Kingdom to break in on any issue.

Homophobia has no place in the family of God.

I have no doubt that I am caring for men and women who are gay. I am sure that many of here have family members who are gay. We should welcome people of any sexual orientation into our church family. We are delighted to show hospitality, love, embrace, kindness and generosity to people irrespective of their sexual orientation.

We accept all people to share with us in our life as a church – but acceptance and agreement is not the same thing.

5. We need then to recognise that acceptance does not mean agreement

Acceptance does not have to mean that the church has fully welcome and embrace gay people into its life and facilitate their participation at whatever level they choose.

However, the journey toward Christ should be evidenced by ‘fruit’ that shows an increasing Christ-likeness in the follower. The absence of such fruit tells both the follower and those around her/him that their assumed ‘intimacy’ with God and love for Him may be false.

When a person is following Christ and growing in relationship with God, then their lives will demonstrate the fruit of transformed thinking, behaviours and actions. The absence of such ‘fruit’ is an important alarm bell to ensure that the basic principle of Christian spirituality is protected.

Acceptance must also allow room for challenge, for growth, for confession. An acceptance that denudes itself of the ability to be accountable and honest about mutual shortcomings and failures is not a real acceptance at all. Instead it is a paper-thin mirage that will crack under the pressure of real life and the choices that we must make.

6. We need then maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace

There is a real danger that single-sex marriage will becomes an identity marker amongst Christians – another fracture in the unity of the worldwide church. I call this turning it into a Master Signifier – a ideological given.

This works against God in Christ doing anything different among us and our sexual lives. In essence, we cement the status quo firmly in place with all its antagonisms. We get nowhere. There is no open space for sexual redemption.

We need to create space for a whole new conversation. Sadly, my guess is, neither side wants this.

7. We need to understand the public square and the church circle

Posting one’s “position” (any position) as Christians to outsiders in the public square (the place you work for example) in culture which does not understand who we are or why we do what we do is ‘communication-suicide.’ It can only be misunderstood as judgment and hate.

Instead, we must have a compelling way of life, a richness to our sexual purposes, as displayed in a way of life (the way we marry and have children, and the way we incorporate singles into families) from which to speak to others about God’s redemptive work in sexuality.

People in these post Christendom days in the West need to be on the inside to make sense of our descriptions of God’s sexual order. This means the church in the West must first cultivate our own sexual faithfulness as a way of life.

For instance, Christians do not believe sex is for self-satisfaction or personal-fulfilment. It is for mutual self-giving and ultimate pro-creation. The fact that this does not make sense to the outsider (even in our own churches) means that the church must first live this, and then from this embodied witness, communicate it to people we come into contact with us who ask “what manner of life is this?”