‘The ayes to the right, 400, the noes to the left, 175; the ayes have it’ – Speaker John Bercow’s brief announcement confirmed that MPs had passed the first reading of the government’s ‘Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill’. The Prime Minister, a vociferous campaigner for the change, saw a majority of Conservatives – eighteen members of government included – withhold their support. Mr Cameron described the outcome as ‘a good step for the country’, but he has faced sharp criticism from within and without his party.
Sadly, the lack of principled leadership is not unique to the world of politics. Many mainstream churches have long rejected Biblical teaching on homosexuality. Back in 1979 the UK Methodist Church’s Division of Social Responsibility declared, “For homosexual men and women, permanent relationships characterized by love can be an appropriate and Christian way of expressing their sexuality”. An Anglican working party did not dissent, though its approach was more cautious. Such views have prepared the way for our present predicament. And current proposals find support among present-day church leaders, professed evangelicals included.
Baptist minister Steve Chalke – who, infamously, denied the doctrine of penal substitution – announced that “a proper understanding of certain passages in Romans” points to Biblical acceptance of same sex ‘marriage’! This is hardly surprising from one who ‘blessed’ a same sex ‘partnership’ shortly before the Prime Minister launched his crusade, but it is nevertheless disappointing and disturbing.
Important questions arise. Are the opponents of change so blinded by traditional, conservative views that they cannot see the legitimacy of same sex ‘marriage’? Why is it that some ‘believers’ advocate a re-definition of this age-old institution? Christians claim adherence to Bible teaching – so what does Scripture actually say about the matter?
The Bible and homosexuality
Both Old and New Testament passages address the subject of homosexuality. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, some of whose inhabitants attempted unsuccessfully to inflict their homosexual practices on visiting angels, has given rise to the term ‘Sodomy’ (Genesis 19:1-13, cf the case in Judges 19). Attempts to suggest that the desire to “know” the angels (v5) did not mean a physical relationship merely an introduction, and that other Scriptures do not confirm the precise nature of Sodom’s offence, will not stand. Would it be appropriate to describe a mere breach of hospitality as “grievous”, “wicked” and “vile” (Genesis 18:20, 19:7, Judges 19:23-24)? Doesn’t the Judges episode, and how it unfolds, argue strongly for a physical connotation (19:24-25)? Is it not true that the Hebrew term at issue can, and does, refer to a physical relationship (cf Genesis 19:8)? Are Christians at liberty to set aside the verdict of New Testament writer Jude (Jude 7)? Doubtless there were many kinds of sin in Sodom (see, for instance, Isaiah 1:10f, Jeremiah 23:14, Ezekiel 16:49f); it is clear that homosexual behaviour was among them.
The laws set down in Leviticus include prohibitions of homosexuality, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13. Although some have sought to associate these directions purely with idolatrous religious practices, and judge them to be, therefore, irrelevant for today, theologian Sherwin Bailey, hardly a conservative, admits “that both the laws in Leviticus relate to ordinary homosexual acts between men, and not to ritual or other acts performed in the name of religion”.
In the New Testament, Paul issues clear condemnation of homosexual behaviour. Romans 1 outlines a series of decadent practices, including unnatural physical relationships (v26-27). 1 Corinthians 6 lists those sinful actions incompatible with the kingdom of God – among them is homosexual practice (v9). The Apostle’s analysis of those wicked deeds outside both law and Gospel in 1 Timothy 1 refers to those guilty of similar perversion (v10). Arguments continue to be offered on the premise that these prohibitions all relate to specialised circumstances, and not to homosexuality per se. However it is difficult to disagree with the conclusion of Peter Coleman: “Taken together, St Paul’s writings repudiate homosexual behaviour as a vice of the Gentiles in Romans, as a bar to the kingdom in Corinthians, and as an offence to be repudiated by the moral law in 1 Timothy”.
It is simply untenable to say that Christian opposition to homosexual practice rests on a few isolated, obscure texts, whose traditional interpretation may now be overthrown! Neither do we pursue a purely negative agenda. We hold to our position in the light of the very positive presentation of the institution of marriage from the beginning of time.
The Bible and marriage
Genesis 2 establishes some fundamental facts.
First, man was created a social being, with a need for companionship (v18). God has given us a capacity to love and be loved.
Second, the need of man was met by a special Divine creation. God created woman out of man and brought her to Adam (v21-23).
Third, a consequence of this provision was the institution of marriage (v24). Man would leave his parents and commit to woman, entering into physical union with her, by which union their love would be consummated and children born (v24, cf 4:1).
And Christ Himself endorsed this teaching. Quoting Genesis 2:24, He affirmed that a marriage involving a lifelong union between one man and one woman was ordained by God at creation (Mark 10:6-8). Thus Scripture is clear that the marriage instituted by God is to be understood in terms of heterosexual monogamy. No other kind of marriage is envisaged!
And this is true as much for the twenty-first century as it was for the first, or indeed for the very beginning of human existence. Marriage was established by creation not culture, and so it is an institution both permanent and universal.
What of those who argue that homosexuality is ‘natural’ for them? It is God who determines the ultimate standard of what is natural or unnatural. Thus when Paul condemned the conduct of certain individuals in Romans 1, he was indicting them not for acting against their nature but against Nature itself, that is, against the order that God has created. And, as we have seen, that order is clear from the beginning.
Nor does the alleged ‘quality’ of a relationship overturn Biblical teaching. Just because a homosexual relationship is deemed ‘loving’, and therefore ‘good’, does not mean it is
acceptable. Love is not the ultimate absolute – it must be guided and governed by law. Christ reminds us that true love cannot be divorced from keeping the commandments (John 14:15, cf Romans 13:8-10). To say that ‘love’ is all that matters is to validate other illicit relationships – polygamy or adultery, for instance.
But are ‘traditionalists’ not guilty of being less accepting than the Gospel? Must we not accept homosexuals as they are, and seek to facilitate their relationships? While God accepts sinners ‘as they are’, this means that He forgives those who come to repent and renounce their sin (Proverbs 28:13). He does not condone their continuance in sin. Those now part of His kingdom have been made “new creatures” (2 Corinthians 5:17 cf 1 Corinthians 6:9-11) and are expected to live accordingly.
Christians, then, must bow to the lordship of Christ and seek to conform to His Word. They have no mandate to jettison this commitment, sacrificing it on the altar of expediency. They speak against the sin, but with compassion for the sinner, praying that God’s grace may yet redeem those in bondage and recover them from a life of disobedience.
Rev. Timothy Nelson