Baptists, Bible, and Marriage

In the midst of all the public conversations surrounding same sex marriage, are some issues of greater importance than how the State defines marriage; among them is the Gospel fidelity of Churches and of their ministers.

Simon Carey Holt is the Senior Minister at Collins St Baptist Church in Melbourne. He has written a piece in support of same-sex marriage. This is not anything new as Simon has made his opinions known for some time, but his latest advocacy has reached the attention of The Age newspaper.

Simon has made a series of strong assertions about why Christians should support same sex marriage, and allegations about how Christians relate to LBGTI people. Throughout the afternoon pastors, journalists, and friends have been asking me about it.  While not  intending to respond to everything he’s written, some sort of response is warranted.

1. The Bible or human experience as supreme authority

Simon admits that a key factor for shaping his view of marriage is experience; the personal stories of people whom he has encountered. In contrast to the historic understanding of marriage he says, “my experience says otherwise.”

To be fair, Simon does believe that the Bible is important for Christians, but as he admits, his experiences are what most influence his position on marriage.

Of course experience is powerful, personal, and emotive. Experience informs us of peoples fears and concerns, their values and dreams. But experience is not synonymous with what is true or best. Just because I may feel something deeply and personally does not automatically prove it to be right or good.

It is also true that everyone comes to the Bible with a mixture of personal history, experiences, ideologies, presuppositions and traditions. And those things colour our reading of the Bible, but this does not mean that experience should be read over the Bible, as Simon Carey Holt implies.

This approach to Scripture is fraught with danger. If experience is allowed to speak over Scripture then whose experiences do we listen to? Which ones are authoritative? Our different experiences need to be interpreted by Scripture, not the other way around. Not only that, the Bible’s self-testimony is that life needs to be interpreted in light of Scripture. Here are some examples:

‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path’ (Ps 119:105). It is God’s word that directs our lives, not the other way around.

‘Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction’ (2 Tim 4:2). The word of God preached has a threefold effect on the hearers: correction, rebuke and encouragement. God’s word stands over the Church and influences believers’ lives.

While we appreciate the logic of non Christians refusing the authority of the Bible, the consistent approach of Christians is that the word of God has authority over us. Genuine repentance and faith involves submitting to this Word and letting it interpret us and change us. To put experience over the word, or tradition over the word or human intellect over the word, is to put ourselves God and that is to make ourselves god.

At one point in his article, Simon appeals to the Bible,

“In his letter to the church in Rome, Saint Paul speaks of sexual failings as far more impacting than all others. “Don’t be immoral in matters of sex,” he writes, “that is a sin against your own body in a way that no other sin is.”

First of all, these words are not from Romans, but from the Apostle Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians (6:18).

Second, the Greek word for ‘sexual immorality’ (porneia), is used in the Bible to refer to any sexual activity outside marriage between a man and a woman.

Third, the very same chapter of the Bible earlier describes a range of porneia which all keep people outside the Kingdom of God, and homosexual practices are among them (v.9).

Fourth, if Simon does in fact wish to appeal to Romans, what he will find is another volume of Apostolic teaching that doesn’t support his ideas.

Simon is spot on about one salient point though, and that is, his views are at odds with his own denomination: “The Baptist Union of Victoria defines marriage as being the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

ExperienceScripture.jpg

2. The Gospel of love

Simon also wants his readers to be suspicious of Christians who love LGBTI people. He suggests that such Christians are in fact disingenuous, unless they also support same sex marriage.

He states,

“In much church commentary of recent days, church leaders are at pains to underline their love and respect for LGBTI people, claiming that their aversion to same-sex marriage does not equate with their denial of the integrity of same-sex persons or the worth of their families. The availability of civil unions, they will say, is an expression of this; never have the rights of the LGBTI community been more protected, they argue, and rightly so, but marriage is surely a step too far…despite the current tenor of conversation, the underlying belief has not changed: homosexuality is a dysfunction of personhood. Indeed, the entire argument against same-sex marriage rests on it. To claim otherwise is not only misleading; it is dishonest.”

Sadly it is true that there are religious people who say and do dreadful things to LGBTI people; homophobic behaviour is unChristian. But Simon’s logic is simply untrue. He leans awkwardly toward that polarising rhetoric which so many politicians have adopted – if you don’t support same-sex marriage you are unloving, if not a bigot. Simon is too polite to use some of these words, but that is his meaning.

The reality is of course very different. It is possible to love a person even though you disagree with them. It is quite possible to not affirm a friend’s relationship and yet genuinely desire their good. Can disagreement never be a loving act? Is it never possible to so love a person that you sat to them, “no, I don’t think this is best”?

Love that only ever agrees is a shallow love indeed. A virtue of love through disagreement not only belongs close to the heart of Australian democracy, but comes to close to the centre of the Christian message:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8).

The Gospel isn’t God saying, ‘I agree with you’, but  it is God declaring that he disagrees with us and yet loves. The Bible speaks of a God who acted beyond helping his friends. His Son gave his life for people who are disinterested in him and who don’t approve of him. God didn’t wait to win a popularity vote before acting to redeem and reconcile, but he took the initiative and in doing so God refused the path of blind relativism. God loves too much to agree with every desire and ambition we ignite.

Equally concerning is the way Simon frames his argument around his ‘Gospel formation’. I don’t know Simon well enough to speak to this in any general sense, but on the issue of sex and marriage, the Bible’s position is clear:

The Apostle Paul again,

“We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 9-11)

Over the years I have read all the spectacular hermeneutical gymnastics that tell us how this text means anything and everything other than what it actually says, as though a simple reading of the Bible is the only wrong answer. Perhaps, just perhaps, Paul intends what he says, that the activities listed in verses 9-10 are contrary to the sound doctrine which conforms to the gospel.

While Simon’s argument for marriage contradicts the Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus is for those who have supported views of sexuality and life that are at odds with God. This point is crucial to grasp, for Christians and non Christians alike, because it ought to change our posture toward our neighbours, whoever they may be.

There is scene in The West Wing where the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Joshua Lyman, had been receiving counselling for PTSD, following a shooting in which he was one of the victims. Joshua’s colleagues had grown increasingly concerned for his well being as they observed his even more than usual brittle nature and explosions of anger. Following this counselling, Joshua steps into the hallway of the Whitehouse and notices his boss, Presidential Chief-of-Staff,  Leo McGarry, sitting nearby.

Leo asks, ‘How’d it go?’

Josh Lyman: Did you wait around for me?

Leo proceeds to tell Josh a parable,

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Christians must not be and cannot be those who see someone down a hole and walk on by, or who throw a stone or hurl insults. If we have been justified in the sight of God it is solely on account of God’s grace and love. Having known this wonderful justifying grace, how can we look down on people around us? We can’t walk away, instead we climb down and sit with whoever it is down there, and we point them not to ourselves, but to Jesus.

3. A greater and more fulfilling identity.

A third issue with Simon’s presentation is that he has bought into a popular view of sexuality, one that alleges, “There is nothing that goes to the heart of human identity as much as our sexuality.”

This is of course not the case. I am not diminishing the role of sexuality in a person’s life, but the Gospel pushes back on the idolising of human sexuality, which leaves many single people feeling as though they are lacking, and it leaves many same sex attracted men and women sensing that celibacy is a barrier to true self realisation.

Sam Allberry is a minister in the Church of England. Speaking as a Christian who is same sex attracted, he writes,

“We in the West find ourselves amid a culture that increasingly encourages us to seek ultimate human meaning in sexual fulfilment. Our core human identity is found in our sexuality, which in turn is defined by our desires and attractions. Yet this is an appallingly inadequate way to account for a human being.”

Responding to an author who was advocating ‘Christian’ same sex relationships, Allberry contends,

“this is not a biblical understanding of what it means to be human. My sexuality is not to be found in my feelings but in God having created me male; it is not primarily psychological but bodily. So I am not to read my core identity off my sexual desires, but to receive the sexual identity God has already granted me as a male as a good gift to be lived out and enjoyed. My sexual desires are part of what I feel, but they are not who I am.

This is incredibly significant. If my sexual feelings are who I am at my core, then they must be fulfilled in order for me to even begin to feel complete and whole as a human. My sense of fulfilment is cast upon my sexual fortunes, and everything seems to depend on it. But being a Christian gives me a different perspective. My sexual desires are not insignificant; they are deeply personal. But they are not defining or central, and so fulfilling them is not the key to fullness of life. I suspect our culture’s near-hysterical insistence that your sexuality is your identity has far more to do with the prevalence of torment, self-loathing, and destruction than we have begun to realize.”

 

I have no doubt that Simon will receive much public adulation today, after all a Christian minister has laid aside the Bible and accepted the cultural milieu. Everyone loves a Pastor who repeats the popular mantras of the day. Sometimes though love requires something more, a harder path. As unpopular as it is right now, perhaps following Jesus and trusting his word is the best way to love people.

Mark Dreyfus on the Marriage Debate

My local member of Federal Parliament, Mr Mark Dreyfus QC, gave a keynote address at today’s Freedom For Faith Conference, held in Melbourne.

Mr Dreyfus spoke to the topic of Marriage Equality & the Proposed Plebiscite. I appreciated his candour and contribution, for what has become a stimulating day thinking through issues of Religious Freedom.

download

I wish to offer 6 brief comments in response to Mr Dreyfus’ presentation.

First, Mr Dreyfus began by asserting that the main concern of persons opposing SSM is the issue of religious freedom. Indeed, there are a range of questions and issues relating to freedom of religion should the Marriage Act be changed, and no doubt these are a concern to those not supporting SSM. It is however a mistake to suggest these concerns are the main reason for opposition, which I would argue is, the reasoned belief that marriage by definition is between a man and a woman.

It is important for the public to understand that issues surrounding religious freedom are an important corollary, but  the primary concern relates to the definition of  marriage, and that marriage shouldn’t be redefined to allow two persons of any sexuality for the very reason that marriage refers to the life long covenantal relationship between one man and one woman.

Second, Mr Dreyfus made his argument for SSM saying, ‘it comes down to a simple truth – love is love’. Such an argument however is inadequate. There are many forms of love,  and most of them should surely not be grounds for marriage. Love is a necessary ground for marriage, but it does not stand alone. There are other necessary prerequisites, which include biology, gender, children, social order and good.

Third, Mr Dreyfus suggested that ‘it is not right to judge another person’s love’. I am happy to go a long way in agreeing with this statement, except it must be noted that marriage is not merely a private matter; by nature it is public. Marriage is the formal declaration of a new family unit, separate from other familial relationships socially, physically, personally, and legally. Thus by definition, it is only appropriate that society has a role in determining our understanding of this institution.

Fourth, Mr Dreyfus presented 3 reasons why Australia should refrain from holding a plebiscite.

  1. it will acts as an unhelpful precedent
  2. the cost
  3. the danger to LGBTI people

I have argued elsewhere that the precedent argument is somewhat fallacious, given that Australian Parliaments (both Federal and State) have undertaken 60 referendum and plebiscites since Federation.

Mr Dreyfus’ second and third objections have warrant, although there are reasonable responses to these as well (cf. https://murraycampbell.net/2016/09/08/labor-party-proposal-deserves-attention/)

Fifth, Mr Dreyfus admits that altering the Marriage Act may well lead to significant social changes to society. This is a significant admission, one that we shouldn’t overlook –  as Australia’s Shadow Attorney General, and as a supporter for marriage change, Mark Dreyfus indicated that changing our definition of marriage will forseeably change the fabric of society.

Sixth, Mr Dreyfus challenged the room (filled with lawyers and academics!) to prove that changing the law will lead to restrictions in religious freedom. Several lawyers and academics took up the challenge, citing examples from overseas and even from within Australia, in relation to employees being forced to choose between their conscience or compromising in order to keep their job.

As Mark Snedden noted during the question time, the cost to religious liberty is already being demonstrated including in the Australian Labor Party, where if you wish to gain preselection you must now either give up belief in heterosexual only marriage or be denied preselection.

Once again, I found it helpful and insightful to hear my Parliamentary representative speak to this important issue. However, the concerns of many Australians will not be alleviated as a result of his address, if anything, they have gained substance. But one thing was positive, I witnessed another example of a  civil and serious engagement on the topic of marriage.

More Christian leaders weighing in on the plebiscite issue

Two thoughtful articles were published today by two Australian Christian leaders, critiquing the pros and cons of the marriage plebiscite.

While they are addressing different points, they could be read as complementary pieces.

img_9108

Mike Frost asks the question, ‘is Australia really mature enough for a plebiscite on this matter?’ His answer? No. His reason?  ‘Are Australians capable of debating this matter without descending into a cruel and divisive fight about intensely personal matters like people’s religious views and their sexuality? I very much doubt it.’ Sadly, it is not difficult to find examples, many from people supporting SSM, but deplorable comments have also been made toward LGBTI Australians.

Ray Galea is also concerned with the rhetoric plebiscite; he is concerned for the well being of gay and lesbian Australians, and he is also conscious of how Christianity may be presented to the public during this debate.

This Pastor from Western Sydney offers sage advice for Christians, that we must not let this issue confuse, lessen, or hide the good news of Jesus Christ. He is also right to point out that personal testimony is a powerful tool to persuade people of Christian theology and ethics:

“Our ongoing focus should be on where the battle is really fought. Its in our homes. It’s when we get to present to our family and friends spouses who are loved and respected.”

Whatever the outcome on the plebiscite the real battle for marriage is first and last on the ground, as the world sees husbands and wives under the Lordship of Christ living out order and equality, love and respect (Eph 5:33).

The better our marriages the more powerful is our argument that God’s way is indeed the best way.”

Without taking away anything they have said, the fact remains, someone needs to decide whether the Marriage Act will change to include same-sex marriage or not. If not the people, then the Parliament, but of course  many of the malicious and slanderous comments have come from the lips of our political representatives. If we can’t trust the Australian people with a plebiscite, we certainly can’t trust the Parliament.

The question then is, where can serious discussion take place on this issue?

There are of course many positive examples, although few come to public attention because calm, intelligent, and respectful conversation doesn’t send the news cameras racing to the scene.

I don’t think we should give up on highlighting attractive examples of public debate on marriage, and to encourage Australians emulate these. Sadly, there will always be some who insist on fighting dirty, and we trust that these dreadful tactics will be exposed and seen for what they are. Perhaps some of the vitriol stems from fear, certainly much of it is hate, but most disgraceful of all are those who are using hate and insult as a weapon to silence other points of view. Such methods are unChristian. Indeed, we must go further and not only set an example of gracious dissent, we must be prepared to call out that mud when ‘Christians’ are throwing it, and we should be ready to take those hits for our gay and lesbian neighbours.

Always remember the Lord Jesus. Jesus Christ remains the most true and compelling example of how to engage in conversation where there is significant disagreement. He would never compromise the righteousness of God; the New Testament records many events where Jesus disagrees with the views of 1st Century Jewish society. But Jesus didn’t stop with disagreement; he went much further: he volunteered to lay down his life for the very people with whom he disagreed. His death and resurrection provides us not only with the example par excellence, but it works, it brings about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.

It is encouraging to see more Christian leaders expressing views on this issue of marriage. I share the concerns that my brothers Mike and Ray have raised, but I do not think any of the alternatives will prove to be more reasonable and civil. However, whether there is a plebiscite, a Parliamentary vote, or no vote at all, the Gospel doesn’t change, the way we view our fellow Australians shouldn’t change,  and the partnership of love and truth must remain in our mouths, hearts and lives.

The Primate is right, but don’t twist his meaning

Like many Australians I appreciated Philip Freier’s letter, and there is much to like about his message and the tone in which it was written. There is little with which I disagree.

In relation to the potential fallout from altering the Marriage Act , I suspect Freier’s optimism is misplaced; not that I want to dampen his hope, but there is substantial evidence pointing to the likelihood of decreased religious freedoms in event of the law changing. One only has to look at Canada and the UK to see the growing mountain of legal, political, and social disarray created by legalising same-sex marriage. Indeed, look at the State of Victoria, my own home state, to see a Government using sexuality issues to restrict public conscience and religious freedom.

5723704-3x4-340x453

My attention here, however, is to point out the way this letter is being interpreted by some folk. For example, the headline for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reads, “Religious shift on same-sex marriage.” The underpinning logic is, Archbishop says follow your conscience, rather than the Bible.

The Archbishop is following a long tradition in esteeming the human conscience. *Evangelical Christians have long held that the conscience is an important part of the human psyche, and it should not be easily ignored and contravened.

Perhaps the most famous example from history is that of Martin Luther. As he stood before the council at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther is reputed to have said,

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”

This conviction about the importance of the conscience goes back to the Scriptures itself:

Speaking of people who had not been raised with the Mosaic Law, the Apostle Paul writes,

‘They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.’ (Romans 2:5)

Elsewhere Paul says, ‘My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.’ (1 Corinthians 4:4)

‘One of the requirements for Church leaders is that they, ‘must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.’ (Titus 3:9)

It can be sinful and dishonest to act against the conscience, but this doesn’t mean that the conscience is morally neutral or always right. The conscience is corruptible as is every part of the human being:

“let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebrews 10:22)

In the volume, Conscience in the New Testament, C.A Pierce notes that the conscience does not provide a set of moral norms for the person, as much as it functions as an alarm, alerting a person to their moral oversteps.

All this together means that the conscience is a subjective guide but not the ultimate guide for determining moral and spiritual truth. Of course I don’t expect my non Christian friends to agree with this point, but rather I am explaining a Christian perspective of the conscience. This is important, because while Christians affirm the the role of the conscience, we do not place it above or on par with the Scriptures.

To place the conscience on par with Scripture is to subvert the authority of the Bible and inevitably place the human mind over the Bible. Throughout life there are decisions to make where one must decide, do I accept what the Bible says or what my conscience is saying? Neither is it the case of having two equal but different axiomatic authorities, but when the conscience contradicts Scripture, it ought to be corrected and reshaped according to those words of God.

Philip Freier is right to encourage people not to act against their conscience, but it would be misleading to therefore conclude there are  multiple valid Christian positions on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Archbishop’s words are being celebrated today as a shift in Christian thinking about homosexuality. That is not the case, even as Philip Freier indicated, the Anglican Church is holding to its understanding of marriage; this is true of all major Christian denominations in Australia.

In other words, no Australian should ignore their conscience when deciding their view on marriage, but as far as Christians are concerned, it is the Bible not our subjective consciences, that defines the Christian view of marriage.

Finally, I agree with the Archbishop in that Australian Christians ought to respect the decision made by the Australian public. It may well be that the majority decide to retain the current definition of marriage, but in the event of change, we should respect the democratic process. One question remains, however, will dissenters be permitted freedom of conscience to continue teaching, officiating, and practicing the Christian view of marriage, without fear of litigation?

————————————

* Evangelicalism has nothing to do with right wing American politics. That is a recent sociological phemenemon, which has stripped the word of its theological and historical roots. The word means, euangelion, the Gospel. Evangelicals are Christians who believe & live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ (which of course, by definition is foundational for all genuine Christianity)

Daniel Andrews’ plebiscite letter to Malcolm Turnbull

I’m beginning to suspect that our Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, needs a new media advisor, someone who can help him tone down the rhetoric he is continually spraying at millions of fellow Australians.

In an open letter address to Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Andrews has called for Government to drop the plebiscite on marriage, and instead present a bi-partisan Bill to Parliament within the next 100 days.

AndrewsDaniel58250

In the letter, he writes,

“It will legitimise a hateful debate which will subject LGBTI Australians to publicly-funded slurs and denigration.”

“In Victoria equality is not negotiable. On behalf of my state, I urge you to accept there is no need for a costly and divisive plebiscite and agree to produce a bipartisan Bill to amend the Marriage Act within the next 100 days.”

And apparently members of Parliament who don’t share Mr Andrews’ views, “do not represent a fair and modern country.”

Clearly, the Victorian Premier doesn’t trust the Australian people to conduct a civilised discussion on marriage, and he is also fearful of the possibility that Australians will not support change to the Marriage Act.

I believe there are arguments for and against this plebiscite, and it is undoubtedly an unusual course of action, but it is a valid democratic pathway, and one that was determined months ago.

Given this fact, would it not be wise for our political leaders to encourage Australians to discuss this issue with grace and respect, rather than the unhelpful name-calling Mr Andrews’ seems unable to avoid? This letter is certainly not as offensive as many of his comments which usually include the words, bigot and homophobe, but it still derogatory.  

Let us not pretend otherwise, changing the definition of marriage is no small thing. Australians are not choosing whether to adopt a new tax or funding more schools or creating the NBN, as important as such things may be; we are deciding how Australia will view what is the most essential and basic unit of every society on earth, marriage. Does not the significance of this issue deserve the voice of the Australian people?

As someone who has a voice in the community, albeit a small one, I will gladly stand alongside Mr Andrews’ and affirm that hateful speech and actions against LGBTI people is unacceptable. A marriage plebiscite does not justify spite or slander toward those who wish to change the Marriage Act, nor toward those who believe the Act should remain unaltered.

As important as this plebiscite is, there is something of greater consequence, and that is the good of others. I have no desire to sacrifice people for the sake of a vote. I do not wish harm on any homosexual and lesbian Aussies. But please do not erroneously fuse disagreement with hate as though there is an inextricable link between the two, for this is not the case. To disagree civilly is not to hate, and by thinking as such Mr Andrews’ risks undermining the foundation of democracy.

It is possible, indeed desirable, to show kindness in disagreement. I realise that kindness like marriage is a disappearing norm in Australia today, but showing gentleness and respect toward those with whom there is a different view ought to be basic to our humanity. Is this not one of the reasons why Donald Trump leaves us shuddering?

Mr Andrews’, I appreciate your concerns about the plebiscite, but rather than demeaning those Australians who have a different opinion, will you stand with us in modelling and encouraging a constructive conversation about marriage?