Answering Tim Farron’s Questioners (2) – What is sin anyway?

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Tim Farron continues to be asked whether he believes that homosexuality is a sin. The question is of course meaningless until we have defined what sin is. I started to answer this in my post last week, which you can find here. Today I want to look a bit more at that question. What is sin anyway?

The assumption of the questioners is that sin consists a list of certain actions which God disapproves of, and which (by implication) many people are innocent of. This seriously misunderstands. Christianity (in any of its mainstream historic forms – Eastern, Roman or Protestant) has always understood that while sin may be expressed in actions what it is describing is an attitude. It is first and foremost not about whether something is right or wrong but about how we think we should decide whether something is right or wrong.

This is plain in the Bible’s archetypal sin: Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. This event is narrated in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, chapter 3. It is quite plain that there is nothing inherently wrong in the fruit itself: it is a ‘delight to the eyes’, we are told. So why did God forbid eating it? The clue is in the name he gives the tree it hangs on: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The issue which God puts at stake by placing this tree here is the simple one: who gets to decide what is good and what is evil? Who has the knowledge of what is good and what is evil? God gives the command not to eat from it. So now the question facing the man and the woman is this. Will they accept that God knows what is right and what is wrong – or will they decide that they are competent to make that decision?

That is why eating the fruit was so offensive to God. It was not a minor foible but an attempted coup d’etat against God. It was a decision of human beings, made in God’s image, to seize the crown from God and place it upon their own heads. It expressed an attitude to God which was, ‘We refuse to accept rules handed down by a so-called God. We are able to make up our own minds about what is good and evil, thank you very much.’ Sin is believing that we are better at being God than God himself is. The heart of sin is, if you like, to believe that we can redefine sin. Sin is declaring moral independence from God.

This is what ‘sin’ fundamentally means in the Bible all along. First-time readers of the Bible are often surprised to discover that it is full of deeply dysfunctional people acting in abominable ways. This is because the Bible is all about showing us the full horror of a world gone wrong, identifying for us what has gone wrong, and showing us God’s spectacular intervention to put it right. The thing that has gone wrong is sin. It is the sheer hubris of humanity in thinking that we are fit to make our own moral codes to live by that underlies all our problems. That is why Jesus condemned the rigorously religious and meticulously moral Pharisees, because the commands they followed were invented by men (Mark 7:6-8). It is this sin principle, this assumption by human individuals and human societies that we can govern ourselves, draw up our own moral codes, decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, that underlies all of the evils of human society. All the social problems of abuse and neglect, all the horrors of war, even the miseries of sickness and death, stem from this.

So now let’s fast forward to 2017. How, today, are we to decide whether given actions are morally acceptable or not? Leave aside the question of whether gay sex is a sin. Ask the question, how will we decide whether any action – sexual or otherwise – is right or wrong? The secular answer to that question is, of course, that we human beings are to make that decision for ourselves. We certainly will not take the decrees of a so-called God into account in making our decision. Well, if that is your position, in one sense we Christians shall say fair enough. But you might as well know that the position you are taking is the one which Christianity calls ‘sin’. That is what sin means. In asking Tim Farron to make his own declaration about the sinfulness or otherwise of something you are asking him, in fact, to sin. In assuming that it is in the power of human beings to do that you are sinning yourself. For that is not the universe we live in. The real universe is one created by the good, perfect God, and defining good and evil is his preserve alone. It is in our arrogant attempt to seize his throne that Christianity says the root of all human problems is to be found.

Let us return to the question of homosexuality. Tim Farron rightly said in Parliament last week that being gay is not a sin. That is correct, inasmuch as being gay is not even a category that Christians, if they are being consistent, can recognise as having meaning. People are not defined by their sexual desires (which are disordered to some extent in all of us) but by the vastly higher value of being made in the image of God.

But the philosophy of the gay movement is one which Christianity certainly has an opinion on. There is an ethical principle which has underlain the entire gay liberation movement from its inception, which is that no external constraints to the fulfilment of sexual desires are to be allowed. Each individual is to be allowed (provided other parties involved consent) to decide for him or herself what sexual practices to pursue. I don’t think I am saying anything here which anyone who supports gay rights would disagree with.

Nor, of course, is this saying anything which is particularly different from what the rest of mainstream western society is saying either. The gay liberation principle is one example of a much broader one, which we might call the libertarian principle: we as modern human beings are able to, indeed we must, decide for ourselves without reference to any so-called God what is right and wrong. Again, I don’t think I’m saying anything here which any atheist in 2017 would find offensive.

So if that is where you stand, then, in a sense, fair enough. You are simply agreeing with where mainstream culture in 2017 is. But you need to realise that this attitude is exactly what Christianity means by the word ‘sin’. Jesus Christ takes not one or two sexual practices and condemns them, but casts the entire understanding of morality which our world operates on into the balances and finds it wanting. Christianity does not condemn one or two groups of people we particularly dislike. Rather, Jesus shines a fearsome spotlight on the failure of the whole world – Christians included – to recognise God as God, and pathetically (and wickedly) to attempt to substitute ourselves in his place.

Which leads us to a final question about sin. Why do the authors of the Bible – why does Jesus in particular – shine this spotlight at all? Why identify an attitude in the hearts of all individuals and societies and give it the name ‘sin’? Jesus’ answer is simple:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’

Jesus came not to condemn us for our sin but to cure us of it. For this commitment to judging for ourselves what is good and evil, rather than accepting that such things are already defined for us by the God who made the universe, is not only an offence to God (though it certainly is that) but is also disastrously damaging to ourselves. It destroys our happiness, our relationships, and our society; it alienates us from the God who alone can satisfy us; and it ultimately leads us to unending destruction. For each and every one of us our belief in our moral autonomy is the cause of all the miseries we experience in life, and unless and until we give up on it they will only ever grow and will never end. To name sin as sin is not a jibe at people unlike us whom we dislike; it is a diagnosis of a disease which is devouring us and all those like us from the inside out.

And Jesus’ mission is to save us from that. He alone has the cure, for cultures, nations and individual people. His cure was to take the devouring power of sin in his own body as he bore God’s righteous wrath on a sinful world. We are Christians because we have heard Christ’s description of what sin is, realised that he is perfectly describing us, and have thrown in our lot with him as the only one who can rescue us from it. He has shown us that there can be no ultimate peace, justice and security in ourselves, our families or society while we persist in believing that we mere humans have the wisdom to create those things. Only in submitting ourselves to the rescue and rule of God’s perfect, sinless Son is there hope for ourselves, our communities, and our country or any other.

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Answering Tim Farron’s Questioners

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Not many Christians would envy Tim Farron’s task in answering the questions he was asked on Tuesday night on Channel 4 news, and yesterday in the House of Commons. Does he believe Homosexual sex is a sin? Does he believe it is a sin to be gay? Those are not the same question, but they are fair questions in themselves, and Christians owe a clear answer to those who ask them. So here goes.

We need to ask what the questioners in fact meant. Is it a sin? That presumes we know what a sin is, so let’s start by considering that.

We Christians hold, without any shame whatsoever, that there is such a thing as a sin. That is, there is such a thing as an action which is, objectively, morally wrong. For that to be the case there must be a fixed moral order to this universe, such that certain actions are in line with it (they are good) and other actions cut against it (they are bad). Sins are the latter. It is part of the glory of Christianity that we are able to say that some things are, in fact, bad. Rape, murder, pride, genocide are all wrong, in all circumstances, regardless of the opinions of any of those involved. And we are privileged to be able to hold this because it is not at all obvious how anyone who does not believe in the Christian God can say the same. If right and wrong are not an original part of the structure of creation – because they originate in the character of the God who stands behind it all – then they cannot exist at all.

So we note a peculiarity in the questioning that Tim Farron has received. It is quite obvious that the questioners – Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News and Nigel Evans in the House of Commons – believed that it would be wrong to have answered ‘yes’ to their questions. They would have considered that morally unacceptable; a ‘sin’, to borrow Christian language. But if the universe really were what atheists imagine it to be, how could that possibly be so? What makes those who approve of homosexuality morally superior to those who do not? If there is no moral order to this universe that stands in judgment over us and predates us and to which we much conform, then why is the ‘liberal’ position superior to the Christian one? The very asking of the questions appears to display a secular atheism stealing the moral categories of the religion it is seeking to disparage. Be atheists if you wish, but if you do, then you have no business implying that anyone else of any views at all are morally inferior to you. All views, even those you find the most odious, are merely brain states of certain accidentally-formed lifeforms on one of countless planets in the universe. And the same would go for actions as well as views. Murder, even genocide – not to mention rape and paedophilia – are just things which certain lifeforms do. Perhaps to considerable Darwinian advantage. Morality doesn’t enter into it. So if you are going to ask us questions about sin – which we are perfectly happy to answer – you need to ask yourselves whether you believe there to be such a thing. Because if you do, you’d better ask yourself what that belief is based on. If it’s just the consensus view of a large number of people in a certain society in a certain age (in this case, ours) then that is not good enough. And if you don’t, then why are you asking the question? Why do you care?

But Christianity, wonderfully, is able to look evil in the eye and call it evil. It is able to say with absolute integrity that some things should happen and other things shouldn’t. It is able to have a vision of what is good that is, truly, good. Because we know that goodness was here before us, that there are moral laws to this universe as fundamental – in fact, more so – than the laws of gravity and electromagnetism. For this is God’s universe, God was here first, and God is good.

So now, let’s answer the question. And we need to first recognise that there were in fact two different questions. On Channel 4 news, Cathy Newman asked whether homosexual sex was a sin. In the House of Commons, Nigel Evans MP asked whether being gay was a sin. The fact that much of the media, including the BBC, appeared to think that these two questions – one about an action, one about an identity – were the same question is revealing. For it is precisely this assumption of a gay identity which Christianity denies.

So let’s take Nigel Evans’ question first. Is it a sin to be gay? The only consistent Christian answer to that question is that it is a non-question. For the idea that people are defined by their sexual desires is, to us, a tragic denial of the extraordinary value of every human being. To consider a man or woman, made by the infinitely good God to be his image – to reflect his glory, to model and act out his goodness, and to declare his praises – to be defined by nothing more than the urgings of his or her loins is to us an appalling and miserable misrepresentation of what he or she is. God does not look at you and see a ‘gay’ person, or a ‘straight’ person, for that matter. What God sees is one of his creatures, endowed with his very image, designed to display and share his infinite glory in thoughts, words and deeds. That is your identity, and mine. That is who we are.

But that is not all God sees. For he also sees in each and every one of us our refusal to accept that this is who we are. He sees our attempt to redefine ourselves as something other than his creatures made in his image. He sees our determination to define for ourselves what a ‘sin’ is, despite that fact that (as we saw earlier) that can have no meaning unless it is defined for us by God. And so he sees us as both designed for infinite value, but dreadfully spoiled and indeed guilty of treason before him. That is what sin is. That is what it means to be a sinner. And that is what God sees when he looks at all of us. He sees people he made for himself trying to deny what they are – their very existence – and live as something which they are not.

And so to Cathy Newman’s question. Is homosexual sex a sin? Unequivocally, the answer is yes. Indeed, as she correctly quoted, God calls it an abomination. But before you scream ‘bigot!’ and stop reading, remember what a sin is. It is a denial of the very order of reality, the goodness of God stamped across all that he has made and particularly embedded in the nature of human beings as his images. And in the matter of sex that good order has a particular, and glorious pattern.

We are designed to be like God. And at the centre of God’s good character is his love. His love is his absolute unchanging faithfulness. God is love, and has been love within himself, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for all eternity. It is in his nature to love another, different to himself, as himself, and for that love to form a perfect unity.

At the centre of God’s purposes for his creation is that he should bring his love to bear upon those whom he has created to be his images. He made humanity with the intention that he and us should come to a complete and permanent union forever. That intention centred upon his Son Jesus Christ. God’s plan for all of history is for a wedding: for his Son to become human flesh, and at the cost of his own life to rescue his bride from the clutches of her own sinful false self-definitions, and bring her to himself. God’s love consists of the  unbreakable vow of Christ to love his bride forever, and to become one flesh with her for all eternity.

And so that is what we are designed to do too. Our identity as male and female is part of how God has hard-wired the image of his relationship with us his people into our very nature. We are all of us born as men or women, and the difference between us is a mirror of the difference between us and God. So our duty to God as men and women is to live and love in the way he has designed. We are designed to marry, for the love of a husband for his bride and the love of a bride for her husband is the only form of sexual love which really is love in God’s universe. The union of husband and wife is the great image in humanity of all of God’s purposes for history. Sexual union is designed by God to follow on from and be the fulfilment of an unbreakable vow of love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man. All human attempts to extract sexual pleasure from the lifelong union of husband and wife are as violent and destructive as extracting a beating heart from a living body. True love makes vows and expresses sexual union within them. So it is the duty of men – all men – to love women and men in the ways defined by marriage: sexually for the one woman he has made an unbreakable vow of faithfulness to, if he is married, and absolutely non-sexually for all other women and men too. And it is the duty of women – all women – to love men and women in the ways defined by marriage: sexually for the one man she has made an unbreakable vow of faithfulness to, if she is married, and absolutely non-sexually for all other men and women. Our personal inclinations to other forms of sexual activity are of no significance whatsoever.

What is clear from this is that it is not gay sex alone that Christianity objects to. It is the whole spectrum of sexual licence: adultery, prostitution, child abuse, and the morasse of teenage sexual carnage, which combines elements of all of these, and which we now encourage our young people in this country to think of as healthy and normal. What is more, increasingly people well into adulthood, without the healthy structures of marriage around them, are trapped in a permanent adolescence of moments of sexual pleasure in a matrix of loneliness, betrayal and sadness. And this is without mentioning the countless children whose lives are blighted by the sexual incontinence of their parents, who may never know their fathers, or for many thousands have their lives cruelly taken away in the womb, victims of their parents’ thirst for pleasure without commitment. The belief that sexual desires define us and that their limitless fulfilment is necessary for happiness is one which, far from being good, brings untold evils. Homosexual sex is just one star in this constellation of self-inflicted human misery.

So yes, homosexual sex is a sin, a serious sin, which takes its place in the multifarious ways in which human beings try and fail to redefine themselves as something other than God’s creations. It is a denial of what we are, a refusal to be men and women made in God’s image, a determination to be something different from our true identity. But so is every other form of sin. It is a particularly stark and obvious form of that; but for God who sees the heart, the thing that it is a particularly stark and obvious form of lies embedded deep in every one of us.

But as yet we have not finished the story of what Christianity has to say about this. For Jesus Christ was sent from heaven to claim his bride. And his bride, far from being beautiful, was nothing other than the sexually broken wretch which humanity has become. But Jesus Christ loved her anyway. And his love was not in response to her beauty, but to make her beautiful:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27 ESV)

This is the Christian gospel. Jesus Christ came not to approve our invented identities or our indulgences of our desires, be they sexual or any other: he came to bear God’s righteous condemnation of sin on behalf of his bride. Like a bridegroom who marries a woman desperately in debt, he took the cost of our sin on himself. As a loving husband should, he stepped in front of his bride and allowed all of God’s condemnation of her sins – homosexual ones included – to land on him instead. So that when God raised him from the grave he could take her hand and raise her to share his risen life too.

So in summary: this was a question – two in fact – about sin. Yes, we believe in sin. It is part of the glory of Christianity that we can call evil by its name. But God does not highlight sin in order simply to condemn it. He highlights it in order to save us from it. If you want to see what God does with sin, look at Jesus Christ on the Cross. That is how seriously God takes sin, and that is how seriously God takes saving us from sin. That is how much Christ loved and loves his bride, the Christian church.

So if you consider yourself gay, God does not condemn you for that identity. He says it is no identity at all. He does not condemn you for what you are, he says that that is not what you are at all. You are in fact a man or woman created by him to be like him, and he sent his Son to call you out of your false identity to be remade in your true, intended identity as part of his bride, the Church, sharing the true image of God which Jesus Christ alone can give you.

And if you are guilty of sexual sin, homosexual or otherwise, that certainly is enough to condemn you on the day Christ returns, for what you have done is a terrible denial of who you are and who God is, in whose image you are made. That of course is true of almost all of us, myself included. But God sent his Son the first time not to condemn you but to save you. Listen to him, respond to him, believe in his promises and start to obey his commands, and you will find that all of God’s condemnation for your sin fell on him. He will rescue you from the futile way of life you are living at the moment and bring you into a whole new way of life, in which the effects of your and others’ sins on your life will start to be reversed, in which you will begin to taste the new life of the world to come as you join his church, and which will become complete freedom from all evil when Jesus raises you to new life the way God raised him on Easter Sunday.

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

3-13-14_gender_neutral_symbol

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…

ashers

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.