God and Sex
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is for ever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6v9-11
Is the Christian Church an inclusive society or an exclusive society? My guess is that most of us would say that we ought to be inclusive, although too often we become exclusive. For inclusivity is pretty much a fundamental value in our culture. We have a Minister of government devoted to the eradication of what is called 'social exclusion'; she is working at the moment on giving to homosexual partnerships the same rights as married partnerships, all in the interests of social inclusion; that no group in our society should feel itself excluded. Except of course paedophiles; and quite a few refugees. Which reminds us that a debate conducted mainly in terms of inclusion and exclusion is morally rather shallow.
For the Christian Church is, or ought to be, at the same time more inclusive than any other human society (in its gracious invitation); and at the same time more exclusive (in its calling to holiness of life). How so? Let us visit Corinth nineteen and a half centuries ago.
"And that is what some of you were."
(1 Corinthians 6:11)
"Well, tell us your story", asks the elder in the Church meeting in Corinth. "I was a thief. I have done time for robbery with violence. I did 3 years in the nick. When I came out I slipped back into the same life of crime. And then I became a Christian. And I left that life behind. I was washed; God put me right with him, gave me his Spirit; and by God's grace I will not go back to that old life."
Next? "Well, I used to sleep around. I had a string of short relationships. Lots of partners. But I became a Christian. And I left that life behind. I was washed; and by God's grace I will not go back."
And you? "I was an alcoholic. But I was washed."
And you? "I was having an affair, cheating on my wife. But I was washed. I have left that behind."
And you? "I was quite respectable. But underneath I was simply greedy. I lived to get as much as I could for myself and I spent it on myself. And I was washed. And I too have left that behind."
As Paul looked round the Church in Corinth there were many stories like that. Myra Hindley would have been welcome there, to be washed in a community more inclusive than any human society. That is what some of you were… If Paul had not believed the gospel of grace he would have answered like that old joke when someone asks the way: "Well, if I were you, I wouldn't start from here." You want to be right with God? Difficult, I wouldn't start from where you are. But he did understand the gospel of grace. That God takes men and women where we are in all our pain and sin; and he washes us and calls us to holiness.
The Church in Corinth was full of that. A community more inclusive in its invitation than any human society, and yet – the lives they had lived were to be left behind and excluded from their futures. Men and women saved by grace and called to holiness. This is the gospel. And it is good news. In our gatherings here we sometimes sense a little of the joy that comes from coming as we are and being rescued and washed.
However, if we did the same today, we might hear a conversation like this: "I was living in a same-sex relationship." "And then you became a Christian?" "Yes." "And so you have left that life behind?" "No. You see, I have always had these same-sex desires. I know the Church officially disapproves. But I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury on television last Sunday and he says it's an open question. He thinks it's alright for me to continue and he hopes the Church will change its mind. So I will continue in my same-sex relationship as a Christian."
What are we to make of this?
This is the second of three sermons addressing the controversy surrounding our new Archbishop. I said last week how important it is that we pray for him and his family at a stressful time; he is entrusted with a great responsibility.
Last week we considered the authority of Holy Scripture in the Church. And I tried to explain why, although there is much that is good and perceptive, I am troubled by his attitude to scripture in his published writings. We must pray that he will be led by God to a faithful submission to holy scripture, for this is the only authority that can lead to harmony in the Church.
Today, with great reservation and a heavy heart, I speak about same-sex relationships. I speak with reservation for two reasons. First, there is considerable danger whenever any of us speak of wrong behaviour to which we ourselves have not been drawn; I expect that is true for most of us here. The danger is that we feel self-righteous, we worry about the speck in our brother's eye and fail to notice the plank in our own.
My second reservation is that same-sex relationships are far from a major concern in the bible. Christian ethics is not all about sex; and where it is, it says little about same-sex intimacy. So in 200-300 sermons here over the past five and a half years I have mentioned homosexual behaviour I think three times only, and then only briefly, when the bible passage mentioned it. I have never devoted a Sunday sermon to this subject, and I hope not to again.
But last Sunday (December 2002 – Ed.) on BBC television the Archbishop repeated his beliefs about same-sex relations, and so it seems to me that I am forced to address it.
As I said last week, Dr. Williams has said many other things; and some I wholeheartedly agree with. But today, with a heavy heart, we must focus on this one issue.
The background is this. On the one hand, all Churches have been unanimous for nearly 2000 years, and Judaism before that, and the overwhelming majority of Churches today, that God's context for sex is the publicly-pledged lifelong union of a man and a woman, which we call marriage; and that this is the only godly context. To be within this context of marriage does not of course guarantee that sexual activity will be godly; sex within marriage may be abusive or manipulative. But it is within this context that God calls men and women to express godly love in sexual intercourse.
And therefore the call to holiness includes leaving behind all lifestyles involving sex outside marriage. Along with greed or slander and many other sins. These things are what we were, but we were washed. We do not condemn those outside the Church; for we too are failures. But sex within marriage alone is a part of the holiness to which we are called; and in the Church we seek gently to maintain this discipline amongst ourselves. In 1998 the Bishops of the Anglican communion worldwide reaffirmed that teaching in a clear but sensitively-worded resolution passed by an overwhelming majority.
On the other hand, in line with trends in our western culture, there is a strong pressure group arguing that we have got it wrong. In Britain the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement has as its fundamental conviction, "that it is entirely compatible with the Christian faith not only to love another person of the same sex but also to express that love fully in a personal, sexual relationship." This movement has been campaigning for the full acceptance of same-sex relationships both amongst lay people and clergy.
In 1989 Dr. Williams gave a lecture for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement broadly supportive of their aims. This year they have republished it drawing attention to the fact that the lecturer is now Archbishop of Canterbury. In more recent writings Dr. Williams makes it clear that his views are pretty settled on these matters.
And last Sunday on BBC2 he said this. "If the bible is absolutely clear, as I think it is, that a heterosexual indulging in homosexual activity for the sake of variety and gratification is not following the will of God… does that automatically say that that's the only kind of homosexual activity that there could ever be? Because what about those people who with prayer and thought and seriousness and adulthood say, 'Well, I've never known anything different'? What are we to say to them? And I don't know that the bible gives us a crystal clear answer to that. That's the question I want to leave on the table. My own personal conviction is that I would see a place for acknowledging faithful same-sex relationships in some way."
So, is the bible clear? That is the question. Have you ever wondered? If you haven't ever wondered that, it may be you have never sat alongside homosexual people and felt their pain. It may be the whole thing is for you purely academic, an issue to be considered from a distance.
But I am sure some of us have felt with homosexual people some of the pain of struggling with their desires. And if we have we are bound to ask ourselves, "Are we right to call them to leave this behind? That is what some of you were…" Or ought we to be encouraging them to seek a faithful long-term same-sex relationship? It is a question I have asked myself.
I want to give you in outline the reasons that persuade me that the Christian Church has been right for the past 2000 years. And I want to address the particular argument Dr. Williams uses. There is more that could be said. But here in outline are three points to consider. They are really three angles on the same truth.
God chose to create humankind male and female. In Genesis 1 we are told he did this that we might "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth"; children are a blessing to be desired; they are the natural outcome of a sexual relationship; so that when children do not come we are rightly sad. Sex between a man and a woman is naturally ordered towards having children. This is how God has made us.
In Genesis 2 we celebrate the delight of man and woman in one another in marriage. In the Song of Songs and the book of Proverbs and elsewhere this delight of sex within marriage is affirmed; it is God's idea, to be accepted with thankfulness. Always sex within marriage is affirmed and sex in other contexts is not.
One of the great images of God's relationship with his people is that he is their husband and they are his bride; he delights in them and they should delight in him. Jesus applies it to himself. He is the Bridegroom. The end of history will be his Wedding Day.
And always and everywhere in the bible story it is a man and a woman in marriage. Every deviation is portrayed negatively. The bible gives a massive centrality to marriage in all its talk about sex.
Of course we have sexual desires apart from one man and one woman in marriage. The unmarried have desires which, if submitted to, will lead to a multiplicity of sexual relationships. The married have desires outside of marriage. And so on. But these desires are to be resisted; they are painful disorders in our broken humanity. Same-sex intimacy is another example of this disorder.
It is in the light of this great principle that we are to approach the particular bible texts that prohibit same-sex relations. There are not many of these; against the massive affirmation of marriage there do not need to be. It was never a matter of debate either within Old Testament Judaism or New Testament Christianity. It was to them obvious that same-sex relations cut across the Created Order.
Jesus spoke in a culture in which it was taken as read that same-sex relations were sinful; it was one of the main ways a Jew regarded Judaism as morally better than the behaviour of the gentiles. When Jesus did disagree with his culture he had no hesitation in challenging it; but on this issue it seems he never did. For him, as for all his contemporaries, this was how the world was.
But working in the gentile world, Paul mentions it. In our 1st reading in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and in 1 Timothy 1:10 by his careful choice of a Greek word, Paul affirms the ongoing validity of Old Testament laws against same-sex relations in Leviticus 18 and 20.
And just as all his Jewish contemporaries believed these sexual laws applied to all humanity – they weren't like the sabbath or circumcision or the food laws – so Paul agrees with them. He coins a word almost certainly derived from the prohibition of a male lying with a male in Leviticus 18:22 (20:13).
He makes it clear that he is not just speaking of the Greek custom of men having sex with boys (pederasty); there were technical terms for this he could have used and did not. Likewise there is no hint that he is only speaking of homosexual prostitution. No, he coins a word that simply means 'a male lying with a male'.
Dr. Williams says that we can only use these scriptures by, "an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts". But this is not so. For these texts in their wider context are far from ambiguous.
This is not the time for a detailed consideration, which would turn a sermon into a long lecture, but it is sufficient to say that the gay lobby's ways of interpreting the texts have signalling failed to persuade any but the already-persuaded amongst biblical scholars. Indeed, unless we came to the texts with the prior conviction that same-sex relations must somehow be right, it is hard to see how the texts could possibly be read as validating them.
I have to say that most in the gay lobby do not try. Most simply recognise that the bible does prohibit this; and then go on to dismiss the authority of the bible. I think their view has more integrity than the exegetical acrobatics needed to persuade us that for all these centuries we have misread the bible and – surprise, surprise – it does after all allow for some same-sex relations. It doesn't.
My third heading is Nature. Dr. Williams interprets our 1st reading from Romans 1 in a particular, even peculiar, way.
Paul is speaking of human sin. It is part of a longer argument. In v23 and v25 he describes human sin as an exchange, whereby we switch worship of the living God to created things or idols. And then in vv26,27 he gives one example this exchange and where it leads. It is only one example. He goes on to plenty of others.
But we must focus on this. v26 Even their women (that is, some gentile women) exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. v27 In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. They committed indecent acts with other men…
What does Paul mean by 'natural', literally 'according to nature'? The Archbishop believes that Paul is speaking of people who are by nature heterosexual (they have desires for the opposite sex) but they perversely engage in same-sex acts, despite not having the desire to do so (what he called on television, "indulging in homosexual activity for the sake of variety and gratification").
This suggested interpretation derives from a writer called John Boswell who said this in 1980. The idea is that by 'nature' Paul means 'what comes naturally to me'. Sin is going against my nature and exchanging sex that is natural to me for the other kind. Boswell was, we may say, flying an exegetical kite; it is not a kite that has flown well. I have tried to be fair and generous to Dr. Williams. But I can only say of this interpretation of Romans 1 that its proponents are living in an exegetical cloud-cuckoo land.
I am sorry to have to put it so strongly. But the word Paul uses for 'nature' simply did not mean 'what comes naturally to me'. Paul and his Greek-speaking contemporaries (Christian and non-Christian) would have listened with utter bewilderment as this interpretation was propounded. For all of them, Christian and non-Christian, 'nature', in this kind of argument, meant objectively how the world is. And for the Christian and the Jew it meant 'how the Creator has made the world'. To act against nature is to cut across the order God has put into this world in Creation.
There are parts of the Bible that are hard to understand; but this is not one of them. The meaning is crystal clear – as Dr. George Carey rightly emphasised recently. Same-sex intimacy cuts across the good order the Creator has placed in his world. That is, quite simply, what Paul means.
And it is precisely what we understand by looking at the human body. A youngster asked his father the other day what homosexual practice was; when his father explained, the boy reacted in astonishment – "But we don't fit!" he said, "our bodies were obviously not made for this." And certainly the health consequences particularly of male homosexual practice are deeply damaging.
So although I have asked myself the question whether the bible is clear, I conclude with Christians down the ages that it is. There are many painful ways in which our fallen humanity is disordered; and same-sex desires are a part of that disorder.
I must conclude with three words of application.
A. Our attitude towards homosexual persons
First, how ought we who are Christians to speak and act towards practising homosexual persons? Answer: surely the same as we ought to speak and act to all others. We ought to love and care for them; we ought to treat them with respect as human beings made in the image of God; we ought to protect them from abuse and violence. And to them as to all others we hold out the grace of God and the promise of washing and new birth in Christ. We are not to hate them, to be homophobic (God forbid!) but to love them.
Had there been a culture of practising homosexuals in the Judea of Jesus' day (which there was not) these would surely have been with the others who gathered around the Lord Jesus. Certainly in Corinth they were there, drawn by the grace of Christ. Along with all the rest of us (the greedy and the rest), they testified, "that is what I was; but I was washed…" We ought to pray that homosexual people will be drawn with all others who are sinners like us to the gospel of the Lord Jesus and the call to be holy.
B. Our attitude towards ourselves
Second, we need to beware for ourselves. Paul's argument in Romans 1 is addressed precisely to self-righteous people, to people who all too readily cry 'hear, hear!' when Paul condemns homosexual practice. And Paul sticks the knife into such self-righteousness later in his argument. The moment you or I condemn sin in another, we condemn ourselves. For we too, very deeply, are rebels against God. We must beware of self-righteousness; we need to repent daily.
C. Our attitude towards wrong teaching
Third, we ought to be be both sad and angry when wrong teaching is given in the Church. Holiness ought not to be redefined in this way. My subject next week is how we ought to respond.