Are Christians homophobic? Of course we are, of course we’re not.

I remember the first time I encountered the word ‘homophobia’. It was on the back of a bus I was driving behind in Liverpool, in an advert placed by the police encouraging people to report ‘hate crimes’. It was in a list of other hate crimes including racism and sexism. After a moment of puzzlement over what this neologism could possibly mean (‘fear of the same thing’, literally; what on earth is that?) I of course worked it out. And immediately the significance of this as a rhetorical move became clear.

This was a new word invented to place opposition to gay rights (as they were still mostly known back then, a whole decade ago) in the same category as racism; and to render such a position equally socially unacceptable. It does so by rolling together a number of distinct things in a single concept in such a way that the word cannot be used at all – either positively or negatively – without inherently supporting the LGBT agenda. And therein lies its problem for Christians. We cannot deny that we are homophobic without denying things which Christians must not deny; and we cannot affirm that we are homophobic without affirming things that Christians must not affirm. Let me unpack this.

Words carry and communicate concepts, and the word and the concept of ‘homophobia’ contains and combines at least three elements. First, the suffix ‘phobia’ implies an irrational horror, as in ‘arachnophobia’: an involuntary revulsion at the idea of homosexual acts. Second, a personal animosity, even hatred, towards those who identify as ‘homosexual’. Third, a belief in the moral wrongness of homosexual acts. The first of these is clear from the choice of construction of the word; the second is obvious from the fact that it is conceived of as a hate crime, and has perhaps become most commonly associated with bullying; the third has been amply demonstrated by the reaction of LGBT campaigners to those who hold a principled objection to, for example, the redefinition of marriage or the ordination of clergy in gay relationships. Yesterday’s news about and reactions to the decision of an Anglican diocese not to appoint a bishop because he is in a same-sex relationship provided a classic example.

And therein lies the reason why the word is an impossible trap for Christians. For at the heart of the Christian gospel is the atonement: Jesus Christ gave up his life, in obedience to his father, to bear the wrath of God which otherwise justly would have landed on those who richly deserved it. And in so doing, God made peace. Therefore the Christian gospel both condemns sin and proclaims peace, love and forgiveness to the sinner, if he or she will hear Christ’s call and respond. Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, has broken the link between our actions and our status before God. So God condemns the sin still, but because he condemned it in Christ’s flesh (Romans 8:3) the gospel is one of mercy and forgiveness towards all of us sinners.

Now this applies equally to every Christian. Sin, and the desire to sin, is universal. Homosexual acts, and the desire to commit them, is just one example, albeit a serious one. Knowing ourselves to be forgiven sinners, saved by grace, transforms how we relate to every other human being. Christ’s message to us was to repent and believe; to recognise that our actions have deserved death, and to trust in Christ who died in our place as our only, and our certain, hope. And so Christ’s message through us to everyone else is the same: to repent and believe. Recognise that your actions have been wrong, and trust in Christ who in infinite love for you promises forgiveness if you will leave them and follow him instead.

It makes perfect sense for non-Christians to assume that, if you believe an actions is wrong, you will inevitably despise those who do them. But that makes no sense at all for Christians. We affirm that the actions are indeed wrong, and the desire to do them is sinful; and we love those who (just as we did) do such things and we seek nothing but their good. This belief in the reality of sin, and this fundamental orientation towards sinners, is part of the irreducible core of Christianity.

On top of that Christianity has a nuanced and glorious understanding of our conscience. God made us with a natural sense (written on our heart, Romans 2:15) of what is right and wrong. This sense is largely intact in all human beings but also significantly damaged in all human beings. So a natural revulsion to sinful acts – especially sexual sins – is good and to be expected, but it is by no means a trustworthy guide on its own, without reference to God’s laws in Scripture, to right action. So to find the thought of sodomy (sorry to use the word, but there is no real substitute) revolting is not wrong, and is indeed a right reflection of the laws of God, which God may use to keep us from sin or make us aware of our own guilt; but it absolutely does not justify acting in anything but love towards those guilty of it or tempted by it.

So then, are Christians homophobic? We need to consider separately the three elements the word rolls together. So first, many Christians indeed find the thought of homosexual acts revolting, and they are not wrong to do so. But some do not, and that does not make the acts permissible. Second, to act in animosity or hatred towards another human being, a sinner like ourselves, and like ourselves an image of God, is a denial of everything Christianity is. We are instead to show them love and proclaim to them Jesus’ good news of mercy, forgiveness and freedom from sin. And third, we must repent of our sins which includes recognising that God’s laws stand over us, and we cannot change them; so yes, we must affirm the wrongness of homosexual acts. Indeed, this is part of being truly loving; for with all of God’s laws, breaking them looks to us like freedom but in reality it is slavery which leads to death. Embracing a homosexual lifestyle is no exception.

So on the first count we may or may not be homophobic, and if we are, we are not wrong to be; on the second we certainly are not; and on the third we definitely are. But the whole point of the word is to roll all three together in such a way that we cannot make those distinctions. On the terms of an LGBT-affirming society, of course we are homophobic, on at least one count, and quite possibly two; and the effect of the word is to imply that if we’re guilty in either the third or the first sense, we’re certainly guilty of the second. One might say, the word might as well have been invented – and quite possibly was – to make it impossible to speak either way on the matter without abandoning those distinctions. It is a piece of rhetorical sleight of hand which we accept uncritically at our peril.

Which means that the only course open to us is to refuse to use the word. Attempts to deny that we are homophobic (such as this recent article from Desiring God) inevitably end up denying what we must not deny, about God’s good laws for humanity and his good design of humanity in the makeup of our conscience. And of course, we cannot simply affirm that we are homophobic, for that is to accept an accusation that we hate gay people which is, quite simply, not true; worse, it is to deny the good news our Lord himself has commanded us to proclaim to a sinful but beloved world.

Rather we need to call out the rhetorical move that this word entails. When asked ‘Are Christians homophobic’, we must refuse to accept the premise of the question. We proclaim a gospel of love, far more profound, real, transformative and permanent than the false love proclaimed by the LGBT version. We cannot accept the language of non-Christians here without capitulating to a non-Christian way of thinking. Let us use the language Christ gave us instead. Let us call people to repent and believe the good news, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.


An Axe Too Sharp

General Synod - LondonOne of the arguments advanced ahead of, and during, the Church of England General Synod debate yesterday on homosexuality was that to call homosexual acts sinful, and call people to repent of them, causes severe psychological distress, even mental illness, to gay and lesbian people. Therefore, for the Church to preach this is to drive people into misery, self-harm and even suicide. The implication is that orthodox Christian churches are particularly guilty of this; the only way to avoid it (as the C of E now looks certain to try to do) is to alleviate this distress by ceasing to call such acts and relationships sinful, no longer call for people to repent of them, and accept their fundamental goodness.

The problem with this argument is this: its fundamental premise, if accepted, cuts too deep. If this axe is a valid one to wield, it is too sharp. For it cuts not through an unwelcome creeper clinging to the bark of the Christian tree; it severs the entire trunk at the roots. This critique cannot be levelled at Christianity without, if it be valid, destroying Christianity itself.

Let us follow the argument. There are people – many people – who find in themselves sexual desires directed towards people of their own sex. The Christian church, however, tells them that to fulfil these desires would be sinful, and they are rather to repent of them and abstain from carrying them out. This call to deny their deeply-rooted desires, and live in a way contrary to them, causes such anguish and distress that it leads to (in the words of the report produced by the Oasis Foundation last week) ‘spiritual, mental and physical harm, and in the worst cases to people taking the decision to take their own life’ (p2).

Let us suppose for a moment that this argument is valid; that calling people to deny their deep-seated desires does cause such distress that they are emotionally and maybe physically harmed by it. The problem is that in the Christian gospel this is not limited – not remotely limited – to the question of homosexuality. Rather, this is the central call of Jesus to every human being. His first word of command recorded in the gospels is the word, ‘repent’.

For to call us to repent is to call us to recognise that our own desires are deeply flawed. That our internal inclinations are no guide to right behaviour; rather, they are the very opposite. Ever since the fall, the heart of man has inclined to evil. And that inclination to evil is our central problem. It is this, and the resulting wrath of God, that the Son of God became man, suffered, died and rose again to deliver us from. Jesus came, he said, not for the healthy but for the sick.

Now this includes our sexual desires, but is certainly not limited to them. Pride, selfishness, greed, covetousness are equally embedded in our hearts. Which particular sinful desires dominate, and the form they take, varies in each human being. But Jesus’ call to repent of following them, to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, and in him find redemption from the power of our sinful desires and forgiveness for the guilt of them is a universal one. This is not a creeper on the trunk of Christianity; it is not even the bark or some of the branches. It is in every single ring of the trunk, right down to its core. It is central to all the teaching of Jesus. It runs through every part of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

And so if calling people to deny the fulfilment of homosexual desires is profoundly mentally damaging, then so must be the call to deny the fulfilment of all other distorted sexual desires, including those we might bracket as ‘heterosexual’. And so must the call to deny the fulfilment of our non-sexual desires: to dishonour our parents, to exact revenge on those who anger us, to advance ourselves at the expense of others, to bear false witness, to own what God has not given us. And fundamentally our desire to displace the love of God with any and all sorts of loves for false gods of any sort. That desire runs so deep in our hearts that every thought, word and deed of every human being is affected by it. And it is that desire that, fundamentally, Jesus has come to rescue us from.

In other words, every part of Jesus Christ’s call to be his disciples involves exactly the same call to repent. So if a call to repent is so irreparably damaging, it is not the church’s attitude to homosexuality that is the problem. It is the Christian gospel itself which needs, on the basis of this argument, to be discarded.

What, then, of the distress and mental health of those in the LGBT community? The Christian church has nothing but compassion for the many whose anguish is real. But its causes are not to be located here. Christ’s call to repent of our sins is not the cause of illness but, ultimately, the only thing that can bring its healing. For all distress and all illness, mental and otherwise, is part of the catastrophic results on humanity of our heeding of the words of the snake that who urged, rather as this argument does, that to obey God’s commands will damage us. Now, the way that mental illness, like all other illness, is connected to our sin is far more complex than can usually be traced. But in this case it cannot but have been exacerbated by the central move in LGBT thinking since its inception: that our identity is rightly defined by our sexual desires. That homosexual desires are, not just desires, but identity-defining realities, expressed by the words ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ ‘bisexual’. The move was of course intended to be one that brought liberation; but, like all the lies of the snake, it brings slavery instead. For as God’s images we cannot shake the conviction of our conscience that our sins are, in fact, sinful. We can only suppress them, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1. And if I have come to believe that my identity lies in something which, inescapably, no matter how much I deny it, I know is contrary to my created nature, how can that belief not damage me in some way?

The Christian gospel confronts this in exactly the same way as it confronts all sins: by Jesus’ call both to repent and to believe the good news. The good news is that (contrary to the language of LGBT identity, unquestioningly adopted by so many – though thankfully not all – in this debate) our desires do not define us. Christ does not see Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people as categories apart from the rest of humanity. He sees all human beings as images of God sadly ravaged by sin and because of that living without excuse in rebellion against him. And to not one of those spoiled images of God does Jesus say that the solution to the anguish caused by of our sinful nature is to grant us a green light to follow where it leads us. That way offers temporary comfort, but it delivers enslavement, dehumanisation and ultimate destruction.

Rather, Jesus offers rescue. Rescue from the idea that we are defined by our desires, corrupted and spoiled as they are; rescue from the slavery under which they hold us; from which we have no power to free ourselves; rescue from the guilt with which they have stained us before the eyes of the holy and true God. It is a rescue which, in this life, is begun and marked by repentance; surrendering the pursuit of self, refusing to follow our desires, because we have learned to love and trust in a saviour who is more wonderful, more glorious, and more loving than to leave us in them. It is a rescue the benefits of which we taste only partially in this life. But even the foretaste we have now is infinitely better than the deceitful and ultimately insipid pleasures of simply fulfilling our desires, sexual or otherwise. For at its heart is peace with God; peace in the knowledge that our sins are forgiven; that our sinful desires do not define us; that God has adopted us as his own children; that in the Spirit we call out Abba, Father, and as our Father he hears us. Jesus’ call to repent does not drive us to despair, illness, or suicide. In the mouth of the Prince of Peace it is, rather, the doorway into life – life in all its fullness.

Gender-neutral pronouns: Ze problem solved


Oxford University Students’ Union is reportedly calling for the adoption of the pronoun ‘ze’ as a gender-neutral alternative to ‘he’ and ‘she’. There seems some uncertainty online over the extent to which this an accurate report, but whatever the Oxford situation there’s no doubt that this is a new battlefront being opened up by progressives. Ostensibly this is to make life easier for ‘the transgender community’, although it is not hard to see behind it a deeper agenda to erase gender entirely from public discourse.

There’s lots that could be said about this. But here is a simple observation. The search for a gender-neutral pronoun to replace the irretrievably gendered ‘he’ and ‘she’ is entirely unnecessary, for English already has one: the word ‘it’. It is a non-gender-specific, singular pronoun, conveniently (unlike he and she) the same in nominative and accusative cases, and with a simple, regular genitive form ‘it’s’. Why introduce a new set of invented gender-neutral pronouns when we already have a perfectly serviceable one? ‘It’ solves the problem of needing a gender-neutral pronoun perfectly.

I am not being facetious about this. I am of course aware that this will be totally unacceptable to those contending for ‘ze’, ‘per’ and other proposed neopronominal gibberish. For of course ‘it’ is not suitable to be used for a person; it is for sub-human objects, not human beings. How could I propose something as insulting as referring to valued members of the human race as ‘it’?

But that is exactly my point. For maleness and femaleness are so integral to being human that it is impossible to be human without being male or female. Humanity does not subsist in any other than male and female persons. This is established in the creation of mankind in Genesis 1:27:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Man is made in the image of God, and that image consists in, and only in, people who are in their created being either male or female. Indeed our maleness and femaleness is part of, and an essential part of, being the image of God. Apologists for transgenderism are fond of saying that gender is assigned to children at birth. But of course no ‘assigning’ takes place, and it is plain falsehood to say that it does. The sex of a child is observed, not assigned, at birth, but it has been integral to the very being of that child from the moment of conception onwards.

Some Christian writers have countered the language of gender being ‘assigned’ by saying instead that God gives us our gender. But even this is wrong. For it treats ‘me’ as somehow an entity who can be separated from my gender; there is a pre-gendered ‘me’ to whom God could ‘give’ my gender. But this is not so; there never was a ‘me’ who was anything other than a male or female me. God created us as one of the two sexes, male or female. There is no other humanity than male and female humanity.

Even to use the word ‘gender’ is potentially tendentious, for ‘gender’ is a linguistic term which, being to do with language, carries an inherent hint of arbitrariness (‘ship’ is feminine in English, ‘bateau’ is masculine in French). Better to refer to it as our sex, our maleness or femaleness. Our sex, then, is part of our very being. Human nature only finds actual reality in male or female persons.

The existence of intersex conditions in a very small number of infants is no obstacle to saying this. The unfortunate sufferers of such conditions are still certainly male or female; the fact that they suffer from a bodily abnormality which makes them display physical traits of the other sex is undoubtedly distressing but does not diminish the fact that they remain genetically and physically fundamentally male or female, even if (in extreme cases) it is not immediately obvious at birth which is the case.

And so there is no human being who is an ‘it’. This is very important; human personhood is always sexed, always found in an actual male person or an actual female person. The new campaign for gender-neutral pronouns can be seen simply as an attempt to overcome this basic fact of humanity; to try to believe in the fiction that there can be a human person who is neither male nor female, that maleness and femaleness are a veneer superimposed on a non-sexed humanity which lies beneath. But there is no such thing as non-sexed humanity; there are non-sexed objects and there are male and female persons. What there are none of is non-sexed human persons.

So when we are asked (as it looks like we all shall be, in due course) to refer to someone as ‘ze’ or ‘mx’ or whatever, we are in fact being asked to refer to that person as an ‘it’. When called upon to treat someone as if he or she were neither male nor female is to ask us to treat this person, who is the image of the living God, as a subhuman, an object. We might as well say ‘it’, for that at least makes clear what it is that is being demanded of us.

Which is why Christians must refuse to use such language. First, because it is a simple matter of truth-telling. Whatever the person in front of me might be called by others and call him or herself, this is a male or female image of God before me; I am not at liberty as a Christian to lie about that. And second, and more importantly, because I may not ever treat an image of God as an object, even if he or she is asking me to do so. It is out of love for our fellow-images, our fellow humans, our fellow persons, that we must refuse to treat them, in the language we use, as any less than that.

To call someone ‘ze’ is to reduce him or her to an ‘it’. We must honour the image of God in our fellow men and women – which is to honour them as men and women – far too much ever to do such a thing.


Ordination: Do we believe in that?

ordinationYesterday afternoon was a great occasion at Christ Church Derby: the ordination of Joel Kendal as a minister and elder. Joel is the new minister of Christ Church Derby, taking over from Jonty Rhodes who is moving in a few months to Leeds to begin a new church, Christ Church Central Leeds.

So what is an ordination? Like many evangelicals, I for years thought that it was nothing: a bit of Church of England archaic nonsense, a hoop for ministers to jump through to get into a job, but nothing more. It’s fair to say that the Church of England ordinations I have witnessed did nothing to dislodge that idea. But more fundamentally, we evangelicals believe in the priesthood of all believers, don’t we? So therefore there is no difference between ministers and everyone else. What, then, could ordination possibly mean?

Well, absolutely we must believe in the priesthood of all believers. Jesus Christ is our great high priest, and in him all believers are priests. We, the whole church, are a royal priesthood, as Peter says (1 Peter 2:9). But believing in the priesthood of all believers does not mean we believe in the eldership of all believers. The fact that it is manifestly against the Bible to consecrate ‘priests’ in the church of Jesus Christ does not mean that there are no biblically-mandated offices at all.

Because, quite clearly, there are. Eldership, as a distinct office in the church, is found repeatedly in the New Testament. In the book of Acts, the critically important Council of Jerusalem is a council of the Apostles and elders (Acts 15:2,4,6,22). Paul appointed elders in the churches he had established (Acts 14:23). His farewell address at Miletus was to the Ephesians elders (20:17); Paul quite plainly sees them as having a specific ministry of overseeing the flock (20:28), thereby demonstrating that elders, overseers (=episkopoi, from which we get the word ‘bishops’) and shepherds (which, via latin, has come into English as ‘pastors’) are all the same people. Also, very significantly, Paul is clear in 20:28 that it is the Holy Spirit who has appointed these men. It is therefore not simply a man-made ministry but a God-appointed ‘office’: a role planned and designed by God for certain men to fulfil for the good of his church. The pastoral epistles are written with this office particularly in mind. The whole purpose of Titus being in Crete, is to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5); the purpose of the letter is to assist him in doing this. 1 and 2 Timothy are full of this. The office of overseer (1 Tim 3:1) is a noble task, and it is a God-given one; that is why an overseer must (3:2) have certain qualifications. There cannot be God-given stipulations for who may occupy a man-made function! Peter, finally, speaks to the elders and identifies them not only as different from the rest of the church but also as shepherds and overseers of the flock, under the chief shepherd Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:1-5).

Ephesians 4:11 is particularly instructive here. Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists and Pastor-Teachers are gifts from Christ to his church to bring her to maturity. The Apostles and Prophets are the bearers of the New Testament once-for-all revelation of God in Christ and his gospel (Eph 3:5). Opinions differ on exactly how the understand ‘evangelists’, given that the word is not elaborated on elsewhere in the New Testament. But Pastor-Teachers are beyond question the same as the elder/overseer/pastors found throughout the New Testament. They are not a man-made invention but men whom the Lord Jesus himself has given to the church with the specific, defined task of caring for her, overseeing her, teaching her and ruling her on his behalf. Christ has delegated his ruling authority over his church, in part, to the men who occupy the office of elder in the church.

So what is an ordination? It is the point at which Christ confers this office on a man, gives him the authority to fulfil it, and charges him to discharge its duties. It absolutely does not move him closer to God, increase his righteousness, or give him greater access to God. What it does is give him new duties and responsibilities over the church, and give him a delegated authority from Christ to proclaim the gospel and to govern the church. It is an authority which he must not abuse, hence the great and weighty vows he must take about how he will use it. It is an authority which is strictly limited according to God’s word. But it is a real authority which he must not neglect and the church must not refuse to recognise (1 Peter 5:5). It is an authority, and a duty, to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments according to the word of God, for the good of the church.

Ordination to this office is itself described in the Bible, accompanied by the sign of laying on of hands. So Timothy was not to neglect ‘the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands’ (2 Tim 1:6). This gift, in the context of 2 Timothy, is not some mystical ability but must refer to the duty of his office to proclaim the gospel and govern the church without being ashamed of it. Paul referred to it also in 1 Tim 4:14, where he refers to the ‘council of elders’ who ‘laid their hands’ on him. Laying on of hands demonstrates Christ laying on this man the duty, responsibility, and delegated authority to discharge the office of pastor/teacher/elder.

Why should a church submit to the teaching of its elders (provided they do not transgress God’s word, of course)? Why should they accept their authority in governing the church? Why should they allow them, and not others, to make decisions about who teaches, what they teach, and who will be baptised and admitted to the Lord’s table? The answer is that they know that their elders have been ordained to the office by Christ. Equally, why should a minister labour to preach the word faithfully? Why should he get up in the morning when no-one will check that he does so? Why should he keep going when the work is tough and the people are ungrateful? Why should he keep proclaiming the gospel without fear when the world, and perhaps the church, are against him? Why should he go through the awkwardness of telling people that they ought to be baptised, or that they cannot eat the bread and the wine, when it would be much easier to say nothing? Why risk the offence of those in front of him when he says things which he knows some of them will hate to hear? Why proclaim a gospel which has led countless ministers before him to their death, and may do the same to him? Because he has been ordained by Christ crucified and risen, before whom he made his vows and in whose name the elders of the church have laid their hands on him.

So ordination is of immense significance for the church. Praise God for the ordination of another minister yesterday. Let’s pray for Joel. May God bless him, enable him to discharge the duties with which he has charged him, and use him for the church’s good and God’s glory.

Christian freedom under threat? A tale of two freedoms…


Is our freedom as Christians under threat? From the news in the last week, and from the reaction of many Christians, the answer would seem to be pretty unequivocal: yes it is. Unless the judgment in the Ashers Bakery case is overturned by the Supreme Court, or there is a change in the law, it now appears that Christians may be required by law verbally to express support for the rightness of homosexual relationships, on pain of losing their livelihoods. As in the days of the Emperor Diocletian, Christians will now apparently be forced to make sacrifice at the altar of a god whom they do not and will not worship. As in the reign of ‘Bloody’ queen Mary, those who refuse to assent to something to which they do not assent will be made, by the force of law, to pay the price.

And yet the freedom of Christians is not at all under threat. Not if, by ‘freedom’, we mean what both Scripture and historic Christian theology has meant by that. Not if we understand what true freedom is.

Freedom, in the Reformation, was a big thing. The Reformation happened in the midst of a society thick with legal coercion: from the church of Rome, which demanded conformity (under threat of purgatory and damnation) to all sorts of practices not found in Scripture and alien to the Christian gospel, and from the various governments of Europe, which in various ways used civil punishments ranging from fines through imprisonments to death to compel conformity to the church.

And yet the Reformers never complained that their freedom was under threat. Rather, they understood ‘The freedom of a Christian’ as the freedom that Christ himself has brought from the curse of the law, from the power of indwelling sin, and from the threatenings and coercions of the Roman church and the civil government. The Christian is free because Christ died to set him free. He is free from God’s curse on his lawbreaking, because Christ bore the curse for him. He is therefore free from the threat of judgment for his sins. That means he is free to pursue righteousness and holiness without fear of God’s wrath at his inevitable shortcomings in doing so. And it means he is free from the fear of man. This is Romans 8: who can separate us from the love of Christ? ‘Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?’ No: The pope may threaten hell, and the magistrate may threaten penury, prison or the stake, but the Christian is free to follow Christ because Christ has made him free. No man can take away our certain hope in our King. No man may enslave us.

What’s more, Christ has set us free from our own sinful desires. This in many ways goes to the heart of what Christian freedom means. We are no longer slaves of sin. Our exodus liberation is from the tyranny of our corrupt desires which dwell inside us. This is Romans 7: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’. We are no longer slaves to our desires. Christ has set us free, free to love our God, free not to sin where previously we had no weapons in our armoury to resist it. Free to be what God designed humans to be, free to be God’s true images.

So in this sense the freedom of Christians is not the slightest bit threatened by the current disastrous drift of law in the British Isles. It is precisely because we are free that we will never need to submit to the increasing threats used to compel our conformity to the reigning doctrines of sexual licence. Yes, we may lose our court cases, our jobs, our social respectability. We may go to prison. But we will do so cheerfully because we are free to do so. We serve a higher master, and his blessings – now and for eternity – cannot be removed by man. That is the freedom Christ has won for us.

Now, it is often assumed that these two freedoms – the freedom of a Christian, and the idea of ‘free speech’ or ‘religious liberty’ – are the same thing. Many Christians have seized on the comments of Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights campaigner, as supporting our cause. But this is not merely short-sighted, it is a very serious mistake. For the secular doctrines of freedom are not a version of the Christian doctrine but its very opposite.

Before the enlightenment, Christian authors never conceived that ‘freedom’ was in any sense a moral absolute. And for a very good reason. There was another word already in their vocabulary for the idea that human beings should be free to say, and to do, whatever they chose, with no regard to higher authority. That word was ‘sin’. For that is what sin is: it is a belief in human autonomy, that there is nothing worse for a human being than in having God tell us what to do. Secularism, rooted in the atheist doctrines of the Enlightenment, exactly inverted Christian ethics on this point. Far from being the root of human evil, human autonomy was now to be considered the highest human good. Sin was rebranded; now it would be ‘freedom’, and under that rubric made the foundation of a whole new ethics. Civilisation and the moral character of a society was to be judged not on its conformity to the law of God but on how much it defended the absolute freedom of men and women to believe, speak and act as they choose.

It is part of the tragedy of the history of the last 250 years that generations of Christians (with of course some notable exceptions) have not noticed the inversion in the word ‘freedom’ that this entailed. Christian freedom is freedom from ourselves and our desires, won for us by God in Christ, so that we might obey his laws. Secular freedom is freedom from God and his laws, won by us, so that we might follow ourselves and our desires. The social revolution of the last 50 years are just the working out into law and mainstream public opinion this inversion of the meaning of freedom that philosophers adopted 200 years earlier.

The lessons for us are twofold. First, we need to stop thinking that secular ideas of ‘freedom’ – the ideals of free speech and absolute religious liberty – are our friend. They are not. They are in fact the enemies which are fighting against us. The more we appeal to them, the more we strengthen the secular zeitgeist which hates Christianity as an immoral restriction on the freedom of the individual. If we fight the spirit of the age with the weapons of the age we are in fact affirming the rightness of the age. If we win this battle this way, we lose. Ashers bakery was not right to refuse to promote gay marriage because of a ‘fundamental’ principal of free speech. There is no such principal in God’s universe. If there were, the serpent in the garden of Eden did nothing wrong! They were right to refuse to promote gay marriage because those Christ has set free from sin are free to obey God and not man. God is God, whatever the courts might say. That is what the McArthurs, to their credit, said outside the courtroom.

And second, we need to stop thinking that our freedom – real freedom – is in any way under threat. The law can revile us, it can fine us, it can deprive us of our jobs, it can throw us to the lions – but it can never remove from us the freedom to live righteously which Christ won for us at Calvary. There may be dark days ahead for Christians in the British Isles, but they will be temporary. And Jesus Christ will build his church, the church of those whom he has set free to serve him, in true righteousness and holiness, both now and in the new creation forever.

Lloyd-Jones and Stott: an evangelical false dilemma

This week marked 50 years since the two giants of mid-20th century English and Welsh evangelicalism, John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, famously clashed at the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals in London. There have been useful articles written to mark the occasion, including one from an independent church perspective here and one from an Anglican perspective here. I would like to provide another, Presbyterian angle on what happened and the effect on the church particularly in England since.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the event was a gathering of leaders of evangelical churches from all denominations. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, minister of Westminster Congregational Chapel, had been asked to speak on church unity. John Stott, rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, was chairing the meeting. Lloyd-Jones delivered an address which called for evangelicals to leave their denominations which they shared with liberals and unbelievers and unite in a single ‘fellowship, or association, of evangelical churches’. Such was the power of his call that Stott felt obliged, despite the fact that as chairman, this was not his role, publicly to rise to his feet and refute Lloyd-Jones. The effect was a deep rift between Anglican and Independent evangelicals which lasted decades; some would say, even to this day.

The heart of Lloyd-Jones’ case is found in the following paragraph in his address:

‘… so often, we have neglected the doctrine of the church altogether. So the charge that is brought against us by members of the ecumenical movement and by the liberals has always been: You evangelicals are not interested in the church, you are only interested in personal evangelism. I am here to say that I am afraid that there is far too much truth in that charge. And it is because we have faced our problems in terms of movements and societies, instead of facing them at the church level.’

The words I have put in bold are Lloyd-Jones’ central point. Evangelicals are only ever interested in movements, not in the doctrine of the church. That is, while we believe passionately in the unity of Christian believers (how could we not, if we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ?), we have been terribly resistant to applying that to our understanding of the church. And this is because, he says, we are terrified of falling out over it (One might observe that, on that point at least, he was proved right within minutes of sitting down!). And so we only ever express our gospel unity in the vague and non-committal form of parachurch movements. But this, he argues, is surely wrong: what a travesty that liberals, who have no unity in Christ whatsoever, because they have no faith in the real Christ, are seeking a church unity while we, who are united in Christ are utterly averse to it.

On this front, Lloyd-Jones was surely right. His deconstruction of the two classic arguments of Evangelicals in the Anglican, Methodist and (then) English Presbyterian churches for staying in – that it is ‘a place in which a man can fish’ (‘Is that a church? Does the church consist of people who are unconverted and who need to be converted’), and that they are not tainted by the unbelief of their leaders (‘you cannot justify that honestly in terms of your “independence”… you cannot dissociate yourself from the church to which you belong’) – is masterful and unanswerable if we have the most basic grasp of scripture and, simply, language. And the lamentable situation in which Christian unity is incapable of transcending movements of no more structural solidity than a pressure group, fan club or mutual interest society is, surely, lamentable indeed. Christ clearly envisaged more; evangelicals, of all people, should be able to see that.

It needs to be said that on this matter Stott’s public refutation of Lloyd-Jones’ arguments entirely failed to engage with the point. The argument that there is no pure church in Scripture, and churches in the New Testament are a mixture of true and false believers, is irrelevant. This is neither a justification for sharing a communion with false teachers, nor does it address Lloyd-Jones’ powerful point of the absurdity of having a higher level of unity – an ecclesiastical one – with those with whom we have no fellowship, while restricting our unity with those with whom we have deep and eternal fellowship in Christ to the far lower level of informal parachurch organisations. The same might be said of his argument from history. Neither engaged with Lloyd-Jones’ central theological point at all.

And yet it appears to me that Lloyd-Jones invited exactly these responses by a serious inconsistency in his position. Here are his words elsewhere in the address:

‘These (i.e. atoning, substitutionary death; physical resurrection; the person of the Holy Spirit and his work) are the doctrines which are essential to salvation; there is the truth that is to be preached, the message which is the first of the true marks of the church. And a church, surely, is a gathering of people who are in covenant together because they believe these things. Not only do they believe them, but they are men and women who have experienced their power. They are men and women who are born again and born of the Spirit, and who give evidence of this in their daily life. Surely that is the evangelical view of the Christian church.’

Lloyd-Jones may have thought this ‘surely the evangelical view’, and he expounded it at length on other occasions. But Presbyterians would respond that this is in fact partly biblical but partly seriously unbiblical. Absolutely, the content of the gospel is indeed a mark of the true church. But to move from that to saying that the church consists of those who believe them, who have experienced them, and who are ‘born again and born of the Spirit’ is a non sequitur, and more importantly, contradicts what we find in Scripture. The church, from Abraham onwards, has been a family. At the very least that means it contains children who are being instructed and taught in the faith, and whose experience or otherwise it would be hard to comment on. More theologically, we cannot see election; we are simply not able to identify those who are truly born again. God knows that, and we do not. If that were not the case, what would be the need of preaching to the church? Why the exhortations to endure, the warnings against falling away? Preach outside, by all means, but if those inside are all elect there is no more to do. But of course that would be absurd. The church is always a mixture of believers and unbelievers. Note, this is not the same thing as saying a mixture of true teachers and false teachers. The teaching of the church must be faithful and true. The purpose of church government is to hold ministers and elders accountable for their adherence to the faith once delivered to the saints. The elders of the church are obliged to make a credible profession of the one true faith a requirement for church membership. But the church cannot be construed as a gathering of the elect; this is not the case in either the Old Testament or New Testament. The existence of preaching, exhortation, warnings against apostacy, and church discipline in the church all show that it cannot be that.

In fact, this aspect of Lloyd-Jones’ view of the church – that it is a gathering of the truly converted – makes his own appeal to unity at a church level impossible. Because such a view of the church cannot see there even being a church where there is no gathering. So any unity at a supra-congregational level must by definition be one merely of voluntary association; of a movement, we might say. That indeed is the conviction, quite consistently, of those who hold to Independent church government. But to call for unity at the level of church, not just movements, is to presume that the church does have some identity which transcends the physical gathering of a number of converted people. There is therefore, to my mind, a crashing contradiction in the penultimate sentence of Lloyd-Jones’ appeal, in which he expressed his hope that we might look back on this time as an opportunity which

‘…made us face our problems on the church level instead of on the level of movements, and really brought us together as a fellowship, or an association, of evangelical churches.’

The problem with this is that a ‘fellowship’ or ‘association’ is a ‘movement’, not something ‘at the church level’. Lloyd-Jones displays an incompatibility between the instincts of his Presbyterian background (desire for unity at the church level) and the theology of the gathered-elect church which he clearly held to.

And so on that front Stott’s refutation was absolutely right. He heard Lloyd-Jones’ appeal as a call to a pure gathering of the elect which he knew to be both practically impossible and theologically unwarranted. Ironically, it could be argued that it was his belief in unity ‘at a church level’ which drove him to disagree with Lloyd-Jones! For had his call been heeded what would have resulted would have been a mere association, and not an ecclesiological unity at all. And so Stott concluded, as his followers have done ever since, that his appeal had to be dismissed as a whole in favour of working within the Anglican structures as the only alternative.

And thus was set up a classic false dichotomy. Stott and the Anglicans saw, quite rightly, that pure-gathered-church independency is not only impossible but unbiblical. The letters to the seven churches would never have been written as they are if it were correct; the entire book of Acts is suffused with the interconnection of churches at a level far deeper than just a parachurch movement or association. Lloyd-Jones and the independents saw, quite rightly, that formal-church-communion-with-false-teachers is not only unbiblical but self-contradictory. You cannot claim independence from those you are bound to by your church constitution, practice and your ordination vows; and thus to remain in such a communion, and for men entering ministry to go on making such ordination vows, is a violation of every New Testament verse on false teachers. Thus each was right – and each, quite wrongly, assumed that the only viable alternative to the other position was his own. And this false dichotomy has remained a defining feature of evangelicalism in England to this day. If I see the unacceptability of Anglicanism, I must be an independent; If I can’t embrace independency, I must be an Anglican.

The tragedy which Presbyterians see here is that national-church episcopacy and gathered-church independency are not the only options on the ecclesiological table. But in England in 1966 it seemed like that, and for many evangelicals in England it still does. This tragedy is particularly hard to understand, for the alternative and, to our mind, manifestly more biblical doctrine of the church is hardly a closely-guarded secret. It is possibly the majority view among orthodox protestants in America and much of Western Europe, it is all but universal north of the border in Scotland, it was the mainstream view in the continental Reformation, and it received its clearest historical exposition in the standards written in, and named after, a building not 200 yards from where Lloyd-Jones and Stott had their disagreement! It is the Presbyterian view, found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the church is a covenant family.

We can summarise this view as follows:

– The church is defined by God’s covenant made with her in Christ. As all through the Bible, the covenant is made unilaterally by God, and we are required to respond to his promises in faith. In making his covenant with us God has constituted us as his people, one family, bound to our one Lord by his one gospel of his death, resurrection and return

– The church as a family has a real identity even when she is not gathered. There is a real unity between believers, and a real connection between churches, even when they are not physically together. For the same reason, there is a real communion with our forefathers who went before us and with our children who will come after us. The church is a family where our children are counted as part of the family, and are instructed in and urged to believe the faith of the covenant family into which they have been born, and brought up identified as Christian people.

– The church as we see her – public and visible – is the same church as God sees in his eternal decrees, yet we do not see her edges the way God does. The church is the context wherein it is possible to have faith, in which we are constantly called to believe the covenant promises made to us in Christ, and in which discipline is to be maintained to exclude open unbelief; but we overreach ourselves and bring on our heads all sorts of pastoral problems if we believe we can identify the elect. God sees election; we can only see profession of faith and public manner of life. So the church is not a pure church, for that awaits the return of the Lord. But she is a place of pure doctrine, where the teaching of the faith is to be clear, unified, public, and enforced.

– The bonds of fellowship between churches are therefore real, solid, and accountable. Accountability means not a mere association but fellowship with teeth. It means the power to choose, ordain, discipline and dismiss ministers. It means pooling resources to finance new churches and support weak ones. It means that ministers and elders are themselves men under authority; the authority of the ‘council of elders’ who ordained them, whose authority derives from Christ himself. The church cannot and must not tolerate false teaching, and false teachers must be driven from the church. The church is defined by the gospel, and the councils of the church are to uphold, preserve, teach and proclaim that gospel.

It is a tragedy that for so many Evangelicals in England, the existence of this view of the church has remained so unknown. If there is a particularly sad effect of the Stott-Lloyd-Jones debacle then this is it. As one wise, elderly Anglican clergyman confided in me as a young man just starting in ministry, ‘Biblically there is no answer to Presbyterianism… if I had had the opportunity, I would have been a Presbyterian. But in England, it just has not been an option.’

But this need be so no longer. It is of course true that we will continue to need ‘movements’ and ‘associations’ to show what unity we can at a sub-church level. We need them because differences over exactly this question of the nature of the church persist. For that reason, may God bless Regional Gospel Partnerships, and other parachurch bodies such as Affinity. Furthermore, for Independents who are theologically committed never to rise above the ‘association’ level of unity – quite properly, given their view of the church –  I am delighted that organisations such as the FIEC exist to give a loose connection between churches rather than none whatsoever.

But surely, 50 years on, with the horrific effects of secularism unfolding around us in a manner neither Stott nor Lloyd-Jones could have imagined in 1966, it is time to heed what Lloyd-Jones got so right, and with which Stott, in a real but different way, concurred: we should indeed ‘face our problems on the church level instead of on the level of movements’. But to do so will require not a gathering-of-the-elect nor a communion-with-false-teachers but a covenant-family view of the church; that is, a Presbyterian ecclesiology.  Presbyterian churches are still few and far between in England, but they are multiplying as more and more people realise that evangelicals in our country have been living a false dichotomy for fifty years; and that the glorious unity of the church means real, covenantal unity in Christ and can be wonderfully expressed, as biblically it should be, in the formal and organic union of the church as a covenant family. In embracing this, believers in England have the opportunity to rediscover what vast numbers of our brothers and sisters in Reformed, orthodox churches all over the world have long understood as part of basic evangelical Christianity: the unity of the church in the gospel, as Christ prayed for and as the scriptures urge us to, is, can and should be expressed in the nature of the church herself. The more we do so, the more we will find our witness strengthened, our fellowship deepened and our understanding of the gospel enriched. May God speed the day.

‘My sexuality is part of who I am’ – the gay bishop and the gospel

I want to offer two comments on the ongoing disaster in the Church of England, one about the circumstances of this bishop’s life and one, more serious, about the nature of Christianity itself.

First, it appears that the conservative wing of the church have been somewhat blindsided by the language of ‘gay but celibate’. When this language was first adopted as the official position of what was allowed of clergy a number of years ago, it was assumed by conservatives (with some relief) that what this meant was that it was acceptable for the clergy to experience homosexual attraction but not acceptable to follow through on it. That is of course correct; all Christians are tempted by the desires of our flesh, of all sorts; godliness consists not in whether we are tempted but in whether that temptation is resisted.

What they apparently did not foresee was the way that phrase has in fact been applied, as demonstrated in this case: that it is fine for a man (or woman) to live in a pseudo-marriage with a same-sex partner, provided that it is claimed (contrary to all appearances) that the relationship is not sexual. This is, to say the least, stretching credulity; does anyone really believe this to be true? If a man in my church calls a woman his ‘girlfriend’ and entertains her in his room for the night, I am not inclined to believe his protestations of chastity. Moreover, the Bishop of Grantham describes the relationship as ‘faithful’. What could this possibly mean if the relationship is not sexual? I am faithful to my wife because I make love to her and to no-one else. ‘Faithfulness’ (in the sense of exclusivity) as a category simply does not apply to non-sexual friendships.

Of course we could never know whether the bishop is telling the truth, much as it might be somewhat naïve to take it at face value. But that is beside the point. We are told by God in Scripture to flee immorality, to give no opportunity for the flesh, to pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin. At the very least his domestic arrangements are a dramatic failure to do any of those things, and to expose himself to temptation in a drastic and constant fashion. If sodomy is a serious sin (as the Bible is so clear it is, and as the C of E still officially maintains) then for a man who confesses himself tempted by it to do anything other than flee as far as he can from it and lead himself not into temptation – as he, if he is a Christian, should pray daily that God would do for him – is itself a moral failure of a very serious kind. If a man confesses to me that he is strongly attracted to a woman who is not his wife, I do not pat him on the back if he says that, while they regularly spend the night at each others’ houses and refer to themselves as ‘partners’, they never actually have sex. He is either lying, or deliberately putting temptation in his (and her) way, or, most probably, both. Neither is, of course, remotely compatible with being a man who can be an example to the flock.

It seems therefore that the only course for evangelicals in the C of E is to cry foul; ‘gay but celibate’ is not a good enough definition of an acceptable lifestyle for any Christians, clergy included. ‘Recognising the sinfulness of all sexual sin, homosexual activity included, and living in a way which demonstrates diligent fleeing from it and avoidance of temptation’ would be far better. The archbishop of Canterbury’s failure to insist on that in this case is of course a matter of the gravest concern.


But second, serious as this matter is, it is not in my view the most serious thing which is going on here. For that, we should consider the bishop’s words in his BBC interview. Twice he said, ‘my sexuality is part of who I am’; and used that as the basis for justifying his lifestyle. He has conducted his ministry, he said, ‘as a gay man’. And in saying that he demonstrated a total failure either to understand, or to believe, the Christian gospel.

Because the gospel is about how God, in Christ, rescues us from who we are. At the heart of Jesus’ message is that evil begins, not outside of us, but within us; it is from the heart that all evil springs. That is why Christ’s mission is one of rescue, of opening blind eyes, of softening hard hearts, of enabling us to see our hearts for what they are, so that abandoning our love of self we will flee to him to save us from what we are and transform us into what we are not. Jesus’ death on the cross was precisely to atone for who we are; to take away the corruption of our flesh, to crucify it along with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). Jesus’ was raised from the dead by the Father so that, as the risen crucified one, he could give life to the dead. For we were ‘dead in our transgressions and sins’, ‘carrying out the desires of the body and the mind’ until ‘God raised us up with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:1,3,5). Christianity is about the risen Christ saving us from who we naturally are.

But the liberal wing of the C of E, as exemplified in this case by the bishop of Grantham, takes ‘who I am’ as being something fundamentally good. Because I find a certain sexual desire in my heart, it must be right for that desire to be fulfilled. More than that, to accept that ‘gay’ is a valid identity marker for a Christian is to accept that we are defined by the desires of our hearts. But the whole nature of the Christian gospel – Galatians 5:16-24 would be a classic example – is that while we might have been defined by our desires before we were Christians, Christ has saved Christians from them. Our identity is no longer in our lusts and passions, it is in Christ. They no longer define us; he does. ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’. In the place of the works of the flesh we are given the fruits of the Spirit.

And so – and this cannot be emphasised too strongly – the divisions in the Church of England are not over the rightness or wrongness of certain sexual acts, nor even over the definition of marriage. They are mere symptoms. The division is over what the gospel is. For a century and more the liberal wing of the church of England has been redefining Christianity as being essentially an exercise in moral self-improvement; we are by nature good, albeit with some problems, and Jesus’ function (and the Bible’s too) is to have set us an example and given us moral ideas and inspiration for how to improve ourselves and our world. In that century Liberalism has shown itself quite willing to amend the moral example and ideas it sees in Christ according to the prevailing winds of the culture, from Victorian moralism to wartime nationalism to today’s liberalism. That is of relatively minor significance; what matters is that it is a version of Christianity which is essentially Pelagian, a belief that human nature is fundamentally sound. Who we are is definitively good, our natural instincts, desires and capabilities are to be valued, and God merely offers his help to our programme of self-improvement.

Over against this stands historic Christianity. Which is, fundamentally, about redemption. That is, that God in Christ has come to do for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves. He has come to save us from sin, as his very name tells us (Matt 1:21); which, as the entire New Testament demonstrates and teaches, includes both the guilt of our sins and the power of our sins. Christ died to save his church from the wrath of God. And along with that, he died to save them from the enslaving power of sin. What we naturally are is glorious, for we are the images of God; but also so drastically twisted by sin that for our desires to do anything other than lead us to condemnation before God’s throne, they need to be first overcome and redeemed by the miraculous work of the Spirit in our lives. Being a liar is part of who I am; being an idolater is part of who I am; being proud and self-centred is part of who I am. And at the heart of the gospel is that the eternal Son of God became flesh, lived a righteous life, suffered and died and rose again in order to deliver me from who I am. So let me say: my sexuality is part of who I am too. And I, like everyone who has encountered the grace of God in Christ, I am eternally grateful to him for having delivered me from who I am, my sexuality included. For my sexual desires, like those of every human being, are twisted from their God-given function in marriage towards all sorts of destructive ends. And it is only by the grace of God that I have been delivered from slavery to them. ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romand 7:24-25)

So the height of the tragedy of this case is that this bishop – and countless others like him in the Church of England – has apparently never known the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ stands ready to save us all – including him – from who we are, and from God’s righteous judgment upon who we are. Christ gave himself up to death in order to deliver all those who will come to him from the slavery that our passions and desires are to us. Christ commands all of us, this man included, to repent of our sins and believe in him. And he promises to all who do that, although it might feel like plucking out our right eye and cutting off our right hand, that nevertheless it is the entrance into an eternal life of freedom from sin and enjoyment of God himself that infinitely outweighs what we have lost. No-one who has experience what it is to be delivered by Jesus Christ from what we naturally are could possibly want to cling on to it, or be identified with it, any longer.

If the conservatives in the C of E want to stand firm on this, that is what they need to be saying. It is the gospel of salvation from sin which is at stake here. And that is Christianity itself.