With the General Synod of the Church of England meeting this weekend to engage in more ‘shared conversations’ about sexuality, the relationship of the LGBT movement to Christianity will once again be in the headlines. The fact that this is presented by the Church of England as a discussion amongst Christians assumes that this is a question on which Christians may legitimately disagree, a matter of secondary importance, something which does not bear on the very nature of the gospel itself.
This is, perhaps paradoxically, affirmed by the tendency of conservative Christians to speak of the issue as being fundamentally about the authority of Scripture. It certainly is about that of course, and Scripture is perfectly clear on the matter. Yet framing the discussion in this way almost inevitably makes it appear that this issue is simply a question of the interpretation of a limited number of biblical texts. And once something is considered to be ‘a matter of interpretation’, then it is virtually defined as being of secondary importance.
But this would be a mistake. A parallel may be drawn with the Arian controversy of the 4th century. Arius and his followers argued that Jesus was not himself God, but was the first and greatest of God’s creations. Arius and his followers had an impressive list of Biblical texts to appeal to to back up their position. Now, with the perspective of a millennium and more of hindsight it is perfectly clear that their reading of these texts was false, and the arguments based on them do not stand. And yet at the time it was not sufficient for orthodox Christians to argue simply on the question of the exegesis of the texts which specifically address the issue. To do so made the issue look like it was merely a matter of tricky interpretive questions on a limited number of texts.
Famously, the debate was eventually settled (principally thanks to Athanasius) not merely by careful examination of texts on the eternal deity of the Son, but by asking how the gospel of salvation from sin by Jesus through his death and resurrection would fit with an Arian account of who Jesus is. And when that question was asked, the issue became abundantly clear. A Christ who is less than God could not redeem and recreate God’s creations; the death of a Christ who is less than God could not save a single sinner. If Arius is right, the gospel is destroyed. So that before anyone could accept Arius’ version of Jesus, that person must already have abandoned (or perhaps simply never embraced) the gospel that lies so plainly on every page of the Bible. It is not a handful of texts on the eternal nature of Christ which opposes Arius; it is the very nature of the gospel itself, as we find it from Genesis to Revelation.
Here is the key to dealing with the LGBT issue. We must see how the gospel of salvation from sin by Jesus through his death and resurrection fits, or fails to fit, with the assumptions of the LGBT movement.
The gospel of Salvation from Sin
For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven. So says the Nicene Creed. Jesus came to save us. What did he come to save us from? Jesus’ very name tells us (Matthew 1:21): he came to save his people from their sins.
Now there are two aspects to this: he came to save us from the guilt of our sins and from the power of our sins. First, the guilt of our sins: our lawbreaking leaves us facing the wrath of God on the coming day of judgment, and the heart of the atonement is how God has propitiated his wrath towards us through the willing sacrifice of his incarnate Son. God forbid we should ever allow that to be displaced from its central importance in the gospel.
But Jesus also rescues us from the power of sin. As well as rendering us guilty before God, sin exerts a control over human beings such that we are driven by our corrupt, sinful natures to sin. Sin is a corruption in the heart, a twisting of our hearts’ desires, before it ever is expressed in actual sinful actions.
Consider Jesus’ words:
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these come from within, and they defile a person (Mark 7:21-23)
Jesus came to deliver us from this inner corruption of our hearts. Again, he says
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’. (John 8:34,36)
Our problem, according to Jesus, is that sin has enslaved us. It is a slavery that operates at the level of our hearts: we want to sin, to do the wrong thing. Our desires have been taken captive by sin and twisted so that our hearts are turned and hardened against God. It is enslavement to our own desires that Jesus came to save us from.
This lies at the heart of how the Apostles’ expand the gospel in the epistles. Paul writes
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
(Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)
Our deadness – our total inability to help ourselves, and our inevitable destination of death and divine judgment – is caused by living ‘in the passions of our flesh’. Again, our problem is with what we want to do. We carried out the desires of the body and the mind.
And that is the problem Christ came to rescue us from:
…[you] were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:21-24 ESV)
Our old, pre-Christian life, our natural self, was one of corruption through deceitful desires. James says the same (James 1:14-15; 4:1-3). So does Peter (1 Peter 2:11). So do John and Jude (1 John 2:16-17; Jude 7). But Christ has redeemed us: he came to rescue us from our sinful desires, by cancelling the debt of sin we owe to God, and then by transforming us into God’s own likeness by the work of the Spirit.
Now it needs to be pointed out that this is no minority opinion or denominational distinctive. I write as a Presbyterian, and a member of the Reformed tradition of theology. But while this tradition has been particularly concerned to give due weight to this aspect of the gospel, it is nevertheless the case that every theological tradition from the birth of the church onwards has held it to be essential. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Arminian, Anglican and Baptist theologians have all understood that our rescue from the sinful desires of our human nature is absolutely essential to the gospel. Anglicanism emphatically affirms it in Article 9 of the 39 Articles. These traditions have differed – sometimes dramatically – over the depth and extent of the problem, the means by which Christ delivers from it, and how we are to address it in our own lives and the life of the church. But on the belief that our natural desires are a major part of our problem, from which Christ has come to deliver us, they are all united. The only alternative to that is Pelagianism, the belief in the essential goodness of human nature, which has been recognised as a heresy by all.
LGBT and the gospel
Once we have seen this, the relevance to the LGBT movement is obvious. The central meaning of the colours on the striped flag of the movement, and the ever-growing string of letters in its preferred acronym, is that sexual desire of every slant and hue is both legitimate and good. Furthermore, it holds that our sexual desires define us: a person is gay, or lesbian, or queer, or whatever, because what a person desires sexually to do or to be is his or her identity. And that identity is one which is so integral to personhood that to deny or suppress it is to strike at his or her very self.
The LGBT movement is, if you like, a gospel: our natural desires are good, society has forced us to suppress them, and we can now be set free from that and all else that would restrict us from fulfilling them. The Christian gospel, in contrast, is that our natural desires are at the heart of our problem; and Christ came to set us free from them through his atoning blood and the re-creating work of the Holy Spirit. Two more entirely opposite gospels could not be imagined.
The belief that, when a person desires a certain sort of sexual experience or fulfilment, that desire must be assumed to be good and its fulfilment must be allowed, is indispensable to the LGBT movement. And that same belief is absolutely impossible for a Christian to accept. To do so would require a complete negation of the entire Biblical concept of Sin and Christ’s rescue from it. Therefore, before someone can accept the fundamental premise of the LGBT movement, he or she must either have abandoned the gospel of salvation from sin as held all through history by the church, or simply never held it in the first place.
For Christians know that far from being good, wholesome, and identity-defining, our desires are exactly our problem. My heart is a mass of warped desires and lusts, sexual and non-sexual. Before I became a Christian, I probably considered some of those desires essential to my identity. But Christ has delivered me from that; he has forgiven me for the darkness of my heart and the things it has caused me to do; and through his Holy Spirit given me a wholly new love for Christ in the strength of which he has taught me, and equipped me, to deny myself and put to death my natural desires. In doing so he has given me a whole new identity in Christ. No Christian can consider himself ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or any other of the LGBT identities, for every Christian knows that he is defined no longer by his desires but by Christ. Plenty of Christians experience sexual temptation, of course, in all sorts of forms; and as Christ taught us, we pray daily not to be led into them and to be delivered from them. We certainly no longer define ourselves by them. Our Lord gave his life upon the cross to save us from doing that.
This is why the Christian gospel is such vastly better news for those in the LGBT movement than that movement’s own gospel. True life is found not in an endless pursuit of satisfaction of desires, far less in finding our identity in their fulfilment. It is found in turning our backs on them and submitting ourselves, body and soul, to the life-giving love of Christ and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. That is what Jesus meant to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. He calls us to put our old selves to death, and in refusing to indulge the things we crave, and instead throwing ourselves upon his mercy and into his service, we find God raises us with him to an infinitely sweeter, richer, more human life. It might – it probably will – feel to us at first that we are cutting off our hand or plucking out our right eye. But it is better to do so and then enter life, as those who trust Christ most surely will.
Indeed, the rainbow itself, appropriated (in straightened and truncated form) by the LGBT movement as its flag, makes this very point. The Genesis account makes it clear that the reason why God’s gracious covenant not to flood the world again was necessary was because of the evil of man’s heart (Genesis 6:5; 8:21: 9:12-16). It is a promise of God’s patient forbearance in the face of the warped desires of our hearts, and the coming day when there would be a sacrifice which would deal with sinfulness of men in a way that saves them rather than, as the flood did, destroys them. The rainbow proclaims the deliverance from our desires that Christ will bring, not the miserable lie that life is found by letting our desires define us.
And so there is nothing less at stake here than the very nature of the Christian gospel. If God was wrong in the Old Testament in his verdict on the human heart; if the angel was wrong in giving the incarnate Son of God the name Jesus; if Jesus was wrong in his assessment of what he came to save us from; if the apostles were wrong in their description of the gospel once for all delivered to the saints; and if the church has been wrong about salvation from the power of sin all through her history – then rightness of the LGBT agenda, and the whole libertarian sexual ethic of our wider society of which it is a piece, may indeed be accepted. But not, however, otherwise. We may embrace the striped flag of the LGBT movement, or we may embrace the cross of Jesus Christ. But we cannot embrace both.