Time to start thinking seriously about Church and State


I remember being puzzled as a student about why law undergraduates were required to study Roman law. Apparently the reason was that it was of historical interest, and a valuable intellectual exercise for honing their abilities in applying legal logic. But it had no relationship at all to the actual practice of law in Britain today.

I think that is how most students of theology, and most ministers, see the theological question of the relationship of church and state. Historically interesting, and a valuable test of theological logic, but since 1689 (in Britain) and 1776 (in America) surely of no actual relevance.

Whether or not that is a correct historical assessment, the extended period within which churches have been able safely to ignore the issue is almost certainly drawing to a close. We do not know the government’s precise plans, but the continued themes of enforcing ‘British Values’ in government policy (clearly repeated in the recent Queen’s Speech), a stated aim to ‘stamp out extremism in all its forms’ without ever defining what it is that is being taken to extremes, and talk of regulation of church youth and children’s work by Ofsted (the government body that regulates standards in schools) all suggest that it is a question of when, not if, the government seeks formally to regulate, assess or control the teaching of churches.

So how should we respond to this? Surely it is time for us to think seriously again about our theological understanding of the church and the state. The application of our doctrine here will be very different to what it would have been in the days of a Christian consensus in the governments of Europe. But we must still think through and apply our doctrine. We must here, as everywhere, obey God and not men.

I want to submit that this is a far more serious issue than one of ‘freedom of religion’, which is a rather more problematic concept than is often assumed. There is a basic issue here of what the church is, and the faithful fulfilling of her commission from Christ to preach the gospel. I want to argue that no faithful Christian ministers can tolerate a requirement to submit our teaching to the approval of the state, for in that we are answerable to Christ alone. And I will end with some proposals for how we are to respond practically if (or when) we are asked to do so.

I shall start with some biblical principles, then set out some historical positions based on them, before considering some implications.

Biblical Principles

Here are some principles more or less universally held among orthodox Protestant churches since the Reformation.

  1. The Church holds a direct commission from Christ to go and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20)
  2. The Church has a real power over people’s lives, which Jesus refers to as the ‘keys of the kingdom’ (Matt 16:19). It is a power delegated from Christ himself. But this is a Spiritual power; to proclaim judgment and salvation in preaching and teaching, and to admit to and exclude from the membership of the church, as marked by the sacraments and as applied and made effective in people’s hearts by the Holy Spirit. The church has no power of coercion by violent or economic means.
  3. The State (‘governing authorities’) has been instituted by God to approve what is good and carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers (Romans 13:1-7). Note that this is not conditional upon the godliness of those in government, nor on their recognition that their authority is a delegated one from God. Given Jesus’ ascension and enthronement at God’s right hand, and his identity as the ‘Son of Man’ to whom all of God’s authority has been given (Daniel 7:13-14; Matt 28:18; Eph 1:20-22) in the age of the gospel it is right to say that governing authorities, like the church, hold a delegated authority from Christ. This is the basic reason why Reformation theologians rejected Anabaptism, which denied any valid authority to the state at all. Thus the state and the church both derive their authority from Christ but through separate commissions.
  4. The state has a real power over people’s lives, also delegated from Christ, referred to as ‘bearing the sword’ in Romans 13:4. So the State’s power is one of the legitimate use of violence and economic coercion. Put simply, the state may run an army, a police force, prisons, and a taxation system; which of course the church may not.
  5. The church’s power includes the proclamation to the world of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as King of kings, Lord of lords, and Saviour of sinners who repent and believe. She has no other gospel to proclaim. She does not have the power to control the state or attempt to wield its sword (this is a basic protestant objection to the position of the Church of Rome).
  6. The state has no power to oppose the teaching of the gospel of Christ or instruct or limit the church in the exercise of her Spiritual power. If the civil authorities oppose the preaching of the gospel, the church’s response is always ‘we must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29)

So far, most Protestants would agree. However, it leads to four (historically-speaking, at least) widely-held views about the ideal relation of church and state.

  1. The Anglican position. Historically this has been known by the rather vague and possibly inaccurate term ‘Erastianism’. While affirming all the above, Richard Hooker argued that the state has the power to make ecclesiastical appointments. That is, God has given the King the power to appoint the Bishops. The power of the keys remained with the church, which alone (not the King or Parliament) may define and teach doctrine and apply church discipline. But the persons who hold and wield those keys are chosen by the state. The Lutheran churches adopted a somewhat similar position.
  2. The Classic Reformed position. This holds that church and state hold separate commissions directly from Christ, and therefore must be distinct. The state has no power over the church’s use of the keys nor of church appointments, ie. who hold the keys. Indeed, the choosing and ordaining of ministers is part of the church’s Spiritual power which must not be arrogated by the state. Meanwhile, the state holds its commission from Christ, and so must endeavour to shape the laws of the land according to the law of God (for what other standard could it hold people to?). The church therefore rightly instructs the state in the laws of God and calls her to submit to them and enforce them. The state has the power to call synods of the church to resolve doctrinal issues, and to ensure that their proceedings are guided by the word of God, but beyond that no power to influence the decisions of those synods. And the state has the duty to oppose false religion when it arises in the land. Put simply, the state is to preach and apply the law of God, the church is to preach and apply the gospel of God. Therefore a single recognised Reformed church should coexist alongside a confessionally Christian state, without either transgressing the bounds of the other. This is the position of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
  3. A ‘modified Reformed’ position. This attempts to recognise that state-imposed conformity to a single established church is extremely difficult in practice. It therefore extends a degree of state toleration to all Christian (or sometimes all Protestant) churches, while the state itself remains Christian in its self-understanding. The separate authority of church and state as distinct delegated authorities from Christ is retained. This is the position of the 1658 Savoy Declaration.
  4. The ‘Secular State’ position. Historically first advocated by Roger Williams, an English Baptist who founded the Rhode Island colony in 1636, this is often confused with the classic and modified Reformed positions. But while it agrees with them that church and state are to be distinct, it radically departs from them in asserting that that they are to be entirely separate. That is, the state is not to be Christian at all, but is to occupy a position of neutrality with reference to all religions. This entails an assumption that it is possible to frame laws by the use of human reason apart from the revelation of Scripture, and holds that this is desirable for the purpose of avoiding persecution on the grounds of religion.

The fourth of these, the ‘secular state’ position, is that adopted by the American constitution of 1787 and clarified in the first amendment of 1789 (though some American Christians argue that the intention was closer to the ‘modified Reformed’ position). It has been the de facto position of the British government since the Second World War, and arguably for a considerable time before that, despite the clearly Anglican wording of the Monarch’s coronation service. Today it is the most widely-held view among conservative Christians in Britain and America. In my opinion it is fatally flawed and fails to apply the Biblical principles outlined above, but I shall not argue that here.

So then, would any of these positions be happy to accept the monitoring and approval of the church’s teaching with the state? The answer is clearly no. Even those who are convinced Anglicans in the tradition of Hooker, and who therefore recognise a strong power of the State over the Church, understand this power to be mediated purely via the bishops. No consistent Anglicans have ever envisaged a situation wherein extra-ecclesiastical powers appointed by the state may directly regulate the teaching of individual churches.

What about those who hold to a Classic Reformed position? The Westminster Confession says that the civil magistrate has a duty ‘to take order… that the truth of God be kept pure and entire’ in the church (chapter 23.3). What the church teaches is a matter for state concern, but there are two caveats to this. First, his authority is only to ensure conformity to the word of God. The fact that he may oppose teaching that denies the gospel does not give him an authority to oppose teaching that affirms it. And second, the only means allowed to him to do this is through the calling of synods and requiring their conformity to the word of God. What is specifically excluded is that he ‘assume to himself the administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven’. He may call a synod of the church to resolve a doctrinal dispute, and intervene to ensure that the business of the synod is conducted according to the word of God consistently with Christian orthodoxy. That is, he may dismiss heretics and those not wishing to submit to the word of God from participation in such synods. What he may not do is steer a synod away from the word of God. Moreover, he has no power whatsoever to interfere in the ministries of word and sacrament as they are exercised in churches. The idea of submitting teaching programmes to the approval of an arm of the state is absolutely ruled out.

Given that adherents to a Modified Reformed or Secular State position do not allow even the limited power to the state that the Classic Reformed position does, it should go without saying that neither of them allow this either. Those who believe the state should be either generically Christian or entirely secular clearly cannot allow that the state should regulate the teaching of the church.

The conclusion of the above is this: none of the historic Protestant understandings of Church and State, despite their wide variation, allows to the state the authority directly to regulate the teaching and pastoral ministry of the church. Indeed, since neither the Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox churches allow that either, it is not too much to say that there is no Christian understanding of Church and State which allows to the state the authority directly to regulate the teaching and pastoral ministry of the church.

The heart of the issue is this. Ministers of the church hold a commission from Christ, which is in no way mediated by the civil government. At our ordinations we were charged by Christ to preach the word. No civil power, not even the Queen herself, had any part in that. How much less any of her lower officials. We are answerable to Christ alone for that commission, via the church authorities he has established.

To state the point succinctly: the Church does not preach the gospel by permission of the State. We preach it in obedience to the charge of the Lord Jesus. Presbyterians will understand that authority to be mediated via the ordained elders of the church, Congregationalists via the collective will of the gathered saints. Anglicans believe it mediated by royally-appointed bishops. But all will agree that in no sense whatsoever is the preaching of the gospel subject to the approval of the government. We will always render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (which is why we are no threat to the wellbeing of the state, but on the contrary are the best citizens any state could have), but this ministry of the Church is God’s alone and we will render it to none but him.

And all of this would be true even if the state were as Christian as could be. Even in Calvin’s Geneva, where the civil magistrates supported thoroughgoing Reformed Christianity to the hilt, the Company of Pastors (who allowed to the state far more authority than would almost any modern Protestants) would not tolerate their intrusion into matters of preaching, teaching, doctrine or church discipline. How much more, then, in 2017 when our governments have not the remotest allegiance to the Christian Scriptures.

So then, what should be our reaction to attempts by the British state to regulate the teaching of churches? If, for example, we are told that we must register our church’s youth work with Ofsted, how should we react?

Well, this would be a straightforward attempt by the state directly to monitor and regulate the teaching of the church, in exactly the manner in which I have argued above that no Protestant Christians have ever allowed. It would be an instruction from government to surrender to the state the commission that Christ gave to us as ministers of the church. And as such I suggest that we must not countenance doing so. Our ordination vows and our ordination charge demand that we do not. Our loyalty to Christ our chief shepherd demands that we do not.

So then, let me recommend the following as a course of action, if and when we are told to register our church teaching and pastoral activities with the state – whether that relates to our children or anyone else.

  1. We must make clear that all the ministries of the church are entirely open. We have nothing to hide; on the contrary, we welcome anyone coming to view the work of our church. We can invite anyone, whether employed by the government or not, to come and see anything we do. This includes Sunday Schools and Holiday Clubs, youth groups, student groups, home groups, and of course principally our worship on the Lord’s Day. Indeed, this is a great opportunity to get others to hear the gospel. Likewise, we should make all of our policies, our doctrinal statements, and our teaching syllabi available to any who should ask for them. Whatever church government structures we have, whether congregational meetings, elders’ meetings, or anything else, we invite and welcome people to observe. All we do in our churches should be a display of God’s glory. There is nothing we want more than for people – whether government officials or anyone else – to see it.
  2. And we must make clear that we will not under any circumstances register any of these activities for the approval of the state, whether that is Ofsted or any other state body. We should tell the inspectors that they may come to anything and everything (with the exception of confidential pastoral meetings of course) but that we will sign nothing. We should explain that this is because the Church of Jesus Christ does not operate by permission of the State. Both the State and the Church operate by permission of Jesus Christ. We welcome them to see all that we do, but they need to know that we will do it whether they approve of us or not.
  3. And we must be clear in our own minds, to our congregations, and to any relevant government bodies, that we will happily go to prison or face any other sanctions rather than back down on this. As ordained ministers of Jesus Christ we would rather face the sword of man than the disapproval of the Chief Shepherd, whose undershepherds we are.

This may seem radical and dangerous, but it is as far as I can see the consistent position that our forefathers in the faith have taken, both under the pagan Roman empire and in the various bursts of state oppression that the church has endured since, particularly in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. And it is only when the church has stood firm like this that, under God, and after often great cost to her ministers and other Christians, that in time the claims of Christ upon the world have come to be heard again and governments have relented and the church has come to flourish and multiply. But even if, in the wisdom and providence of God, that should not happen, and we and the church should simply suffer to no benefit that is obvious to us, we should still be delighted to do so as we follow our suffering Lord.





Why I’m pleased I do not live in a democracy

This is a slightly edited version of a post from the 2015 election. The original post can be found here.

Christians in Britain are getting used to elections where we are faced with a terrible choice of who to vote for. Between them the parties on offer all seem to have policies which in former years Christians would have considered to be uncrossable red lines, things which make it quite impossible for Christians to vote for them. Of the various possible outcomes it seems pretty inconceivable that we will have a government whose legislative priorities will bear even the remotest resemblance to what Scripture would call just government.

Which is why I am so pleased that I do not live in a democracy. Yes, of course, the minor landmass where I live will be governed for a tiny fragment of world history by a group of people whose make-up bears some relationship to the preferences expressed on a single day by a significant proportion of the population.

But as Christians we know that God ‘raised him (Jesus) from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet…’

At the very core of the Christian gospel is the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord. He came to earth proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and he himself is the King. He has always been the eternal Son of God, fully equal with the Father; in his incarnation he became also a man, and as that man he has been crowned by God as King for ever and ever.

Christianity is indisputably and centrally monarchist. Not that Christians must support national monarchs in their individual countries (though I am pleased to call myself a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth); but that the absolute reign of the man Jesus Christ, by the direct appointment of God himself, is at the Christian gospel’s very heart. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King. All authority and heaven and earth has been given to him. No-one elected him. And we can never vote him out.

Jesus reigns, not by popular mandate, but by appointment of the one true God. (Psalm 2)

Jesus entered his reign, not by persuading people to put a cross on a piece of paper, but by obeying God even to death on the cross. (Philippians 2:8-9)

Jesus rules with perfect righteousness, not with human attempts to define right and wrong without reference to God. (Isaiah 11:4)

Jesus has no need to enter coalitions or barter away manifesto commitments in order to gain adequate votes for his legislative programme. (Revelation 19:15-16)

Jesus’ term of office will never come to an end (Daniel 7:14)

Jesus’ opposition will one day entirely submit to his authority, and the whole earth recognise his reign as the undisputed King (Philippians 2:10-11).

If democracy has given us in Britain several centuries of stability and an environment in which the church has been able to flourish, then let us praise God for it. Whether it will continue to do so we do not know, although we must certainly pray that it will (1 Timothy 2:1-4). But let’s not be either too excited about democracy’s goodness or fearful about its results.

I, along with all Christians, rejoice that through his death and resurrection to God’s right hand Jesus has ensured that we do not, and never will, live in a democracy.

Answering Tim Farron’s Questioners: What is Sin anyway? Part 3: Sin is Slavery

It is not just Tim Farron but, it seems, all politicians who now are being asked whether they think gay sex is a sin. That is of course a meaningless question unless we ask what ‘sin’ is. It’s a Christian word and a Christian concept; so the only meaningful answer to that is a Christian one. This is part 3 of my answer. In part 1, I showed that sin is doing things that are wrong, which as a concept can only exist in a Christian view of the world. In part 2 I discussed how sin is not just about actions but is more fundamentally about a rejection of God’s authority to define right and wrong. In this third part I want to show that sin as the Bible presents it, and as Christianity has always understood it, is also slavery.

Jesus is plain about this. ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ (John 8:34). He introduced his ministry in the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘The Spirit of the Lord… has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives… to set at liberty those who are oppressed.’ Of course Jesus would have disapproved of literal captivity and oppression, but his real concern was another sort of captivity, one that oppresses the heart of every man, woman and child. A captivity so serious that Jesus calls it a living death, which he has come to save people from: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’ The slavemaster is not the occupying Romans, not is it material injustice in society or oppressive social norms. The slavemaster is our own desires. ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within.’ (Mark 7:21-22)

In other words – and the centrality of this to Christianity cannot be overstated – men and women have a problem on the inside. Our problem is what we want. Our desires are not good things to be followed but desperately corrupt things that lead us to death. And we are their slaves.

Now the way this is presented at the beginning of the Bible is of great significance. The serpent presented the idea of eating the fruit to the first man and woman as incredibly attractive because it looked like freedom. Eat this and you will be like God, knowing good and evil; you will be free to govern yourselves from now on. Don’t submit to God’s definition of sin; from now on, define it yourself. Be masters of your own souls. And so they ate, but when they did they discovered that what they had found was not freedom but slavery. The desires they sought freedom to follow became warped and twisted and, with no higher authority to hold them in check, seized control of them. Their desire to justify themselves immediately tore their married love apart. That same desire for self-fulfilment leads their first son to murder their second. Within a few generations the capacity men and women to want to do evil unfolded in its full horror. The verdict just six chapters into the Bible is that ‘the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’ (Genesis 6:5).

Because desire, severed from its proper purpose of worshipping and serving our creator, has become a monster that crushes us in its grip. And that pattern, of grasping freedom which leads to slavery, is one which is the endlessly repeated refrain of human misery. Why do we lie, hate, gossip, advance ourselves at the cost of others? Why do we abuse, oppress, rape, neglect? Why do we hurt those we love and despise those we should love? The awful answer of the Christian Bible is that it is because we want to. Our desires are our problem.

Here is how the Apostle Paul described it:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins … we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)

We were dead, says Paul. But the form of this death is what is so striking: we were simply doing exactly what we wanted. Following our passions and carrying out our desires.

This is what Christianity understands sin to be. It is a fundamental dislocation and disorientation in our nature, in which we constantly desire to do things, love to do things, which in the end lead to the destruction of others and ourselves. It is this alone that makes sense of the world we live in. The humanist belief in the essential goodness of humanity is nothing more than a pious fiction. We are not decent creatures who are fundamentally nice to each other. Only the blindest dogmatism could possibly believe so.

So now, back to the original question. You asked us whether homosexuality is a sin. Before answering, let me ask, why are you so sure that it is not? Your answer is probably that it is a human right; people must be free to fulfil their sexual desires; to act in line with how they feel. For to suggest otherwise would be terribly to limit them as human beings; it would prevent them finding fulfilment and satisfaction; it would involve the repression of something inherent in their very nature.

If that is your answer, then, in a sense, fair enough. But you might as well know that what you have described is exactly what Christianity means by sin. Recognise the pattern of the garden of Eden again: here is something desirable, I want it, if I can’t have it it will be a terrible limitation of my freedom; for life to be good I must be free to follow my desire. If I don’t it will damage me and prevent me being who I truly want to be.

But Christians know, because God has taught us through his Son and in his word, that following our desires leads not to freedom but to slavery. Our desires are not the innocent things we think they are. Just because I want something it doesn’t mean that it is good. Quite the reverse; what sin means is that the human heart longs for wrong things all the time. Every sinful human action is an instance of someone doing what he or she wants to do. So when secularists say that people must fulfil their desires to be their true selves, they are saying we are bound to follow them. They are our masters, and we must obey.

And in that insight the whole sexual revolution – not just the LGBT manifestation of it, though that is certainly included – is as perfect a demonstration of the sin principle as the world has ever seen. Here was a great promise of liberation from the shackles of social expectation and the laws of a supposed deity. There are no reasons to limit our pursuit of fulfilling our desires! Let’s embrace all the sexual pleasures we want, of any sort, and the result will be a wonderful future world of sexual freedom.

And the results have been slavery. Slavery of women to men who now can expect sexual favours while taking none of the responsibilities of marriage. Slavery of children to the misery of broken families and absent love. Slavery of countless men and women to the endless chasing after the supposedly perfect sexual experience or provider of it. Slavery of appalling loneliness of countless people in middle age with no stable family structures to love or be loved by. Slavery of all the victims of abuse whose abusers were, after all, simply being true to themselves and obeying the commands of their sexual desires.

And the gay lifestyle too fits the bill. Gay liberation promised a glorious future of sexual fulfilment and the end of discrimination. But for countless men and women who embraced it, it is a lifestyle of loneliness, sadness, disease, and still not the satisfaction that was promised. It is a slavery to unsatisfying relationships, endless pursuit of pleasure, and a strangely unshakeable sense of shame testified to by many. In a slightly different sense the voracious hunger of the LGBT movement – never satisfied with achieving what were its stated goals, always finding a new frontier of sexual liberation to fight for and believing that when it is achieved the fight will be over, but once it is achieve demanding the battlefront be moved on to something more – itself demonstrates this. What began as a cry for freedom is now a social norm which demands absolute conformity. The very question the politicians are being asked shows that what purports to be about freedom has become an authority that may not be questioned.  There is no freedom here. Only slavery.

I say this not out of disapproval but out of empathy. For I too know, as all Christians do, the enslaving power of sin. This is far from limited to sexual desires, though of course for many of us these are particularly acute. Slavery to sin applies across the whole spectrum of human desires; not in the same way for any of us, but really and powerfully for all of us. We Christians know what it is like to pursue what we thought would satisfy us and find that it has really enslaved us. For those of us who became Christians as adults we remember what our lives were like beforehand. For those of us who have had the privilege to be brought up as Christians we nevertheless have felt the clawing, grasping power of sin in our hearts and have often enough been ensnared by it.

But Jesus Christ came to save sinners. ‘If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed’, said Jesus (John 8:36). That is what he has done for us. That is what we have experienced. Come to a church and you will find Christians who were once slaves to alcohol, to pride, to greed, and yes, to sinful sex, including gay sex. And we will be there because Jesus Christ has set us free. We are Christians because we know the power of sin and we found that there was only one person who could set us free from the misery of constantly chasing our warped desires. And that person is Jesus. His death broke the chains which bound us. His resurrection is the power that gave us new life. He gave us a new desire, which we did not have before: a desire to live a life according to God’s laws, reflecting God’s character, a life which is truly good, on his terms and not on ours. A desire to be what a human being should be, rather to be what by nature we naturally want to be. That is why we go to church and sing. That is why we love our Lord and Master. That is why we listen to his word with delight and willingly get on our knees to confess our sins, thank him for his mercy, and ask for what we need. He has saved us from a path of wanton self-destruction that we could never have saved ourselves from.

And so, for a third time, I need to ask, why does the Bible identify sin? Why identify such things as gay sex as a sin (among many others)? Because like all sins it enslaves, controls, and ultimately destroys us. That is why God cares about it. And that is why he sent his Son from heaven to earth, to become one of us, to die the death of a slave: to rescue us from this slavery. He has not left us in the miserable condition in which our sin-slavery has put us. He calls every man, woman and child on this planet – whatever form their slavery to sin takes, including whether it is sexual or not – to hear and receive the true freedom that Jesus Christ promises. He promises you, if you will repent of your sins and believe in him as Lord and Saviour, to make you a new man or woman, no longer defined by the passions of our hearts but newly redefined by the King of Kings himself.

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


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.

Answering Tim Farron’s Questioners


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.