Some friends asked for my response to the division taking place in the Anglican Church over the blessing of same sex legal unions. I write in my own capacity, not on behalf of any church or denomination.
I have been saying for years now: History will prove that the challenge of human sexuality will be the issue of our time. It has been brewing since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, to throw off traditional religious and moral constraints. It has now evolved into the ‘sexualized-political self’ with the LGBTQ+ agenda for social recognition and human rights. Same sex ‘marriage’ and religious ‘gay ordination’ are high on the agenda.
This will split Christian denominations and organisations, churches and followers of Jesus, like few other issues have in church history. Why? Because it’s about human morality. It’s not about agreeing to disagree philosophically on human sexuality, then blessing each other to do our own thing. It’s about sexual ethics, which assumes the biblical vision of human sexuality as God designed and intended for the flourishing of society and creation.
The Anglican split – the prophetic symbol?
The past few decades have seen debate and disagreement in this regard in denominations and churches. Often acrimoniously so. No less in the Church of England (C of E). Founded in 1867 in London, the global Anglican communion of the C of E has 85 million adherents. It is made up of 42 member Churches, also called provinces.
On 20 February 2023 this issue reached a head. Ten primates (Archbishops) of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), representing 22 provinces in Africa, Asia, and South America, sent a statement to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and to the press. “With great sorrow” they informed him that they reject him as head of the Anglican communion, “as the C of E has departed from the historic faith passed down from the Apostles by this innovation… she has disqualified herself” as the mother church. They called for repentance from “taking the path of false teaching.” The Secretary General, Anthony Poggo, acknowledged receipt of the letter “with sadness”.
Why has GSFA done this? Because on 9 February Welby presided over the acceptance of a controversial motion in the C of E’s General Synod. While keeping the orthodox meaning of ‘marriage’ (between one man and one woman), the C of E will allow their clergy to bless same sex legal unions, as long as the prayer-ceremony is not done ‘in church’. This was done in the name of equality for LGBTQ+ people, after years of pressure. Welby said he himself will not bless same-sex couples; however, for the sake of unity in the Anglican Church (between conservatives and progressives) he proposed this compromise. He was “extremely joyful” it was accepted. But ironically, it has made the division open and official.
This is hugely significant because GSFA claims to represent up to 70% of global Anglicans. It is like an earthquake sending seismic shock waves throughout Anglicanism – even in the broader Church of Jesus Christ. Since the communion’s founding in 1867, there has never been such a rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is, in my view, a prophetic symbol, warning all Christian denominations and churches everywhere to proactively face this issue. There is no neutrality or middle ground. Let me explain.
Biblical authority and interpretation – Biblical sexual ethics.
For Christians, this is about biblical sexual ethics for human flourishing. Dallas Willard has shown how moral knowledge has disappeared in academic institutions and in society. What is true or not true? Right or wrong? How do we know that? On what basis or authority do we decide what is true and reliable knowledge of reality? Is human rationalism our authority? Or science (‘research says…’)? My sexual feelings as knowledge of my gender self? Socio-political correctness? Cultural pressure?
Christians, historically, believe the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, our authority and rule for life and faith. Jesus said, if we hold to his teachings we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free (John 8:31-32). Scripture, however, must be correctly interpreted because we can make texts mean whatever we want them to mean – the challenge of hermeneutics, principles of interpretation.
At the end of the day, the Anglican split over blessing same-sex legal unions – and the issue of gay ordination, and the explosion of gender dysphoria with (now) 72 gender identities – is about the authority we give or do not give to the Bible, and how we interpret the texts. This is where orthodox-evangelical and liberal-progressive hermeneutics part ways.
It is essentially about how we interpret the eight key texts referring to homosexual practice: Genesis 19:4-5, Judges 19:20-23, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:24-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, Jude 5-7. I summarise the positions without exposition of the texts.
Orthodox-evangelical hermeneutics holds to the way Jesus and his Apostles and the Church throughout history interpreted and applied the texts. The texts teach that homosexual practice in whatever context is moral/ethical sin, disordered desire that destroys God’s creation design for human sexuality, defacing God’s differentiated image of male and female. God’s loving prohibition on all homosexual practice is universal, for all time, for flourishing society. And God’s loving power is available for sexual redemption, healing, and transformation, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, “such were some of you, BUT you were washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” To deny this is to deny the (power of the) gospel of Jesus Christ. It means working compassionately with the very real subjective struggle of same sex (LGBTQ+) orientation.
The recent development of liberal-progressive hermeneutics regarding human sexuality and marriage is a novelty in church history. It emerged from the 1960s sexual revolution, developing a theology that affirms LGBTQ+ practice, with chosen self-identities, justifying beliefs and legitimising ideology. They interpret the above texts to affirm and bless LGBTQ+ practice in consenting adult, romantic, erotic, monogamous relationships.
Among their principles of interpretation, the most common is ‘irrelevance’. They argue that the narrative texts (Genesis and Judges) are about inhospitality and social injustice of forced rape, thus irrelevant to loving same sex relationships today. The Leviticus texts are about Israel’s ritual purity and impurity laws in light of the idolatrous sexual practices of the Canaanite tribes, thus not relevant to loving same sex relationships today. The Jude text is about sex with angels, not relevant to today. The three Pauline texts are about coercive and exploitative homosexual sex – men with boys and masters with slaves. Paul and the Greco-Roman world did not know about sexual orientation and loving consenting adult same sex relationships (which is simply not true), so his three texts are irrelevant.
One would need to go into much more detail to do justice to how these and other texts are interpreted to affirm current LGBTQ+ orientation, identity, belief, and practice.
It logically follows that…
First, if one upholds the authority of scripture that teaches same sex erotic practice is morally sinful, in whatever context it takes place, then one cannot bless same sex couple legal unions, wherever it may take place. It would be endorsing their sinful lifestyle choice; the most unloving thing to do if one lives by the biblical understanding of God’s love. Jesus didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery, but said, “leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
Second, to allow blessing of same sex legal agreements and maintain the biblical meaning of marriage, is contradictory and untenable. Orthodox-evangelical hermeneutics says that same sex legal unions destroy God’s creation design in his image of male and female, where sexual erotic practice is purposed exclusively for marriage between a man and woman, for the flourishing of human society. Marriage is an ‘ordinance’ of creation.
Whatever one calls it, whichever way one looks at it, same sex couples are both functionally and legally redefining 6000 years of the meaning of marriage. It is their right to have civil legal agreements with all the benefits that accrue, but it is not marriage and never will be. To ‘bless’ it in any shape or form is to permit and empower its redefinition of marriage.
Third, this is an either/or issue, mentioned earlier. To straddle both sides or stand in the middle holding both sides together, or to propose and accept an ethically compromising motion – all with the honourable motivation to keep unity – is unreality, as we’ve seen with the Anglicans. It is, in reality, a pacifying of one side that alienates the other.
Fourth, the GSFA are not “homophobic provinces”, as a Labour MP called them. The meaning of homophobia has been changed to ‘cancel’ anyone who disagrees with same sex practice. It has always meant ‘fear of the same sex’ – for various reasons. Since the sexual revolution it has been used to mean irrational dislike, fear, hatred, and prejudiced discrimination of gays. Google the word and see. Personally, I disagree with same sex practice from a biblical understanding and ethical conscience, yet I know I don’t have any irrational dislike, fear, hatred, or prejudice against gays. Does that make me a homophobe?
Last, it is ultimately a matter of worldview and authority, of true or false teaching, as the GSFA say. Because blessing same sex legal unions in God’s name is a denial of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which saves, heals, and transforms us. The gospel re-identifies us as God’s male and female image bearers, restored in God’s (new) creation design.