The Church of England is considering introducing services of blessing for same-sex couples. On the fact of it, this sounds entirely reasonable. Society has changed, so why shouldn’t two people who love each other be given the blessing of the church? Isn’t it cruel and harsh to deny this to them? This briefing addresses both this and related questions.
I write with some nervousness, for anyone daring to express concern about this development is soon labelled homophobic, or even abusive. The impression is given that those who hold to what is unattractively called a ‘traditional’ (as opposed to ‘progressive’) view are hateful and bigoted. I have no such motives! Rather, as a Christian pastor, my task is to examine the Scriptures with honesty and to apply them. For here are the words of life, from our Maker who in love wants our flourishing. He calls us to trust him, not our own (however deeply felt) views: Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.1
What’s the big deal with same – sex blessings?
We begin with our Lord Jesus Christ. Questioned by some Pharisees about divorce, he replied: “Haven’t you read… that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?”2 He takes them to the divine design in Genesis.
This beautiful blueprint has a pattern (male and female) and a sequence (leaving father and mother, then cleaving, then becoming one flesh.) Part of its purpose is the procreation of children, and – based on God’s faithfulness to us – it is to be faithful.
This divine design – marriage – creates a context for sexual intimacy, and sets a boundary around it. Such a boundary is for our flourishing; we know where we stand with each other. As Rebecca McLaughlin has written, God’s boundaries gives us “great freedom to pursue nonsexual intimacy” 3
With this background, the Bible sees homosexual activity (along with other sexual intimacy outside marriage) as sinful. Its spread was a sign of a society run amok.4 This was assumed in Jewish society in Jesus’ day, so there is little about it in the gospels. When his Apostles took the gospel to the Gentile world, however, they encountered cultures at ease with homosexuality, and so we find the letters of the New Testament having to address it: read Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 7.
It’s important to note that what’s in view here is not normal patterns of friendship – for there can be marvellous friendships between people of the same sex – but relationships based on sexual desire. Nor is this the only kind of relationship the Bible condemns. But it is one of them.
But isn’t this a matter of equality?
Many of those advocating change see this as a fundamental question of justice, like racial equality. Gay people are seen as similar to an ethnic group, and it is as outrageous to deny them their rights as it would be to deny rights to someone of a different skin colour.
It is very important to grasp that the Bible does not view the issue this way. I must hit the bold key: This is about behaviour, not orientation. It is not like race. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul uses the normal Greek words for homosexual about men who actually practise homosexuality, rather than those whose feelings point that way. Such, he tells his readers, were some of you – clearly referring to behaviour now in the past. He is not referring to an orientation which has been changed but a set of behaviours dropped. It cannot be orientation, because his pastoral purpose is clearly to help people with a present, on-going temptation.
We need to see through the confusion at this point. In most of the rhetoric about treatment of LGB people, orientation and practice are not distinguished. If you are gay, it is assumed you will enter gay relationships. But God’s Word distinguishes behaviour from temptation. All of us are called to live with self-control, not giving in to some of our desires. There are many Christians who face the particular temptations of homosexuality and who choose not to give in to them. Because the word “gay” makes no distinction between orientation and practice, they prefer the term “same-sex-attracted.”
Almost everyone is tempted sexually in one way or another, and more could be same-sex-attracted in certain situations. In our sex-mad society we assume that only a person who has sex is fulfilled; we forget about the Lord Jesus, who was single and fulfilled – and the large number of single Christians, to whom God holds out a positive vision.5
Is the Bible really clear?
Some have claimed that the Bible isn’t actually clear in its condemnation of homosexual practice; since it is not, Christians are free to disagree on the matter, and the door is open to “committed, long – term” homosexual partnerships. However, the rise of the LGB agenda over the past 50 years has led to deep re-examination of the Bible’s teaching, and it cannot honestly be said that we have come to a fresh understanding of the relevant passages. Only a tortured, twisted exegesis (of the kind that would never be acceptable with any other passage) can make them say something else. A good place to follow this argument is in Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?, Rachel Gilson’s excellent Born Again This Way? or Ed Shaw’s book The Plausibility Problem.
If the Bible is so clear, how can church leaders argue differently?
Many simply do not regard the Bible as authoritative in this matter. It is, they argue, fallible and a only a book of its times. This tragic misperception can ultimately be traced back (via poor theological education) to a lack of gospel preaching in our churches, for it is only the work of the Spirit of God which makes us trust and love the words of Jesus, and his apostles and prophets.
Others do know Jesus, but are simply ignorant of the Scriptural teaching because they have not had the Bible preached fully to them. Perhaps their preachers are afraid of venturing on to this territory!
Yet others do read the Bible, but have fallen for the teaching (widespread for the past 50 years in Western churches) that the Spirit’s words should not be identified too exactly with the Bible; they suggest that God’s Spirit may be leading us into new things.
What motivates those arguing for change?
But my guess is that for many church people wrestling with this issue, the primary driver is fear. In a society in which rejection of homosexual practice is labelled “homophobia” and “bigoted”, who wants to be seen to be speaking thus? Moreover, won’t this damage our evangelism, by driving people away from a church that is so harsh?
In reply, it is not as if we are to make this the first thing in our conversations with non-Christians! However, we must also note that the Bible’s own key to how to be effective evangelistically is not to give in to the world’s pressure, but to be distinct. Peter says: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.7
It’s actually courageously distinctive Christian living which will lead to conversion – even though for a time people will accuse us of doing wrong. The shocking truth is that if, as individuals or churches, we just seek to blend in, we’ll succeed! Rather, as the Lord Jesus said, we are to be salt and light in the world.
But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.8 As we lovingly live in the way Christ calls us to, we’ll get flak – but witness the truth to the world. May God help us, by his Spirit.
Does this actually matter?
Some Christians say that while they personally think that homosexual practice is wrong, this is a ‘secondary’ matter on which Christians may legitimately agree to differ. They point to passages such as Romans 14:1-15:13 in which Paul deals with disagreements about diet and Sabbaths in the church in Rome, and encourages the believers to get on with each other. This view appeals to many bishops in the Church of England, because it allows them to keep the peace between people who are pro-and anti- gay blessings.
We must recognise, however, that homosexual relationships are not to be found amongst the disputable matters in Romans 14-15, but in Romans 1, as an example of sin. Sexual morality is never regarded in Scripture as debatable. As Paul put it, writing to the Corinthians, Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.9 This being so, we dare not affirm such practice or we will be leading them down a path that excludes them from God’s kingdom.
We must hear the words of the Lord Jesus: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”10 No wonder the risen Christ in Revelation warns the church at Thyatira as he does!11 How terrible it would be for our children, and all those in our churches who are tempted in this area, if the churches bless what God declares sinful. We would be liars.
What about ‘celibate’ partnerships?
One way forward that is suggested is that same-sex-attracted people should be able to form covenanted relationships such as civil partnerships so long as they don’t engage in genital sexual activity. But if the relationship is fuelled by mutual homosexual desire, it is actually based on a temptation, and we are called to flee temptation. The basis for the relationship would not be the covenant one God has established (marriage), nor could it be heading for that. Rather, all of us should seek to serve one another’s deep need for friendship in the means that God has appointed, particularly loving our sisters and brothers in our church family.
Is it any of our business what other churches do?
It is possible that any proposed change will be left at the discretion of the local church; we wouldn’t be required to implement it. We might think, therefore, that this is only a matter for those churches who went that way.
To an extent, this is true. But as members of the Church of England, we are legally and financially related to the denomination. It is also difficult in the public mind to differentiate between what we teach and what, for instance, our bishops teach.
In our personal evangelism, one of the objections that’s most often made is, “The Bible’s just a matter of interpretation.” Different churches teaching differently on this very visible issue will inflate that objection.
If same-sex blessings become available, it is possible – though of course untested in law – that we might be vulnerable to anti-discrimination law for failing to provide them.
Moreover, such a change would be no help to Christians who struggle in this area, experiencing same-sex attraction. Friends of mine who do face this struggle have told me they’d be betrayed by such a change.
Doesn’t holding the Biblical line encourage bullying or abuse of LGB people?
Sadly, some same-sex-attracted people have experienced bullying or rejection in some churches. There can be no place for such attitudes in the Christian heart; we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness humility, gentleness and patience.12
But we must also be alert to the growing propaganda claim that even saying that homosexual relationships are wrong is itself abusive. If so, the Apostles are abusive!
Aren’t we looking down on others?
This is a great danger for us in this situation. We must look out for the attitude of the Pharisee in the story Jesus told, with his sense of moral superiority. We need to recognise our own sinfulness. But sin is still sin.
Aren’t we condemning people to loneliness? Loneliness can be a real issue for same-sex-attracted people, as it can be for many. But church can be family – and should be. All of us should do what we can to love one another deeply, from the heart. 13
In his book 7 Myths About Singleness, Sam Allberry debunks the myths that singleness means no intimacy and no family.
For some same-sex-attracted people, heterosexual marriage is possible and can be very good, though of course not for all.
At StAG, do we provide for those who struggle in this way?
Yes. We are a gospel church. We have good news, and are there to help each other to live for the Lord Jesus. Our ‘Thessalonians’ group exists precisely to give mutual support for members of the church who find themselves (in whole or part) to be same-sex attracted and want to live holy, Biblical lives. You need to be a member of an existing church small group.
What might happen, following the authorisation of same-sex blessings?
It is hard to see how, having conceded that such unions can be blessed, full same-sex marriages would not follow. This would necessitate a redefinition of the church’s understanding of marriage. (This has already happened in the Scottish Episcopal Church.)
What process is the Church of England following?
The official position of the world-wide Anglican church is expressed in Resolution 1:10 of the Lambeth Conference 1998, a conference attended by all serving Anglican bishops worldwide. It is very clear in its upholding of the Bible’s teaching as well as the need to listen to, and serve, those for whom this is a struggle. This is what, however imperfectly, we seek to do as a church. This conference included nearly all the Anglican bishops from the global south of the world, many of whom would be outraged by any change to our arrangements.
However, the House of Bishops is producing resources (Living in Love and Faith) which could be followed by a vote in General Synod opening the way to such blessings. A policy which breaks with Lambeth 1998 resolution 1.10 is a real danger.
Everything has the appearance of due process and decency. But we must not let this blind us to the overall trajectory. Read the account of the original temptation in Genesis 3, and you will see that the way temptation works is to make sin seem reasonable. That seems to be exactly what is happening.
What can we do?
First of all, pray! Then, be sure we are clear on the issues and arguments ourselves. Next, we must be a community which reaches out to all people, and lovingly supports sisters and brothers who struggle with same-sex attraction. Please pray, too, for our own parochial church council (PCC) as they consider the godliest way for us to respond.
1 Proverbs 3:5-6
2 Matthew 19:4-5, citing Genesis 2:24
3 Rebecca McLoughlin, Confronting Christianity (Crossway, 2019), p159
4 See for instance Genesis 19:1-29; Judges 19:1-30
5 See 1 Corinthians 7:1-40
6 See Jude 1-7
7 1 Peter 2:12
8 Matthew 5:13
9 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
10 Luke 17:1-2
11 See Revelation 2:18-23
12 Colossians 3:12
13 1 Peter 1:22