Lent Day 34: John 9-10

I’ve heard a couple of debates hosted by Premier Christian Radio in the last couple of years around the idea of same-sex marriage. In both debates the same line was used at some stage by the person on the traditional side of the argument,

“Are you saying that 2000 years of biblical interpretation on the matter is wrong?”

Neither of the people defending same-sex marriage actually went as far as saying yes, even though that must surely have been their position to hold the ground that they did. I think the reason for this is that, by saying yes, they would have come across as arrogant and, possibly, heretical.

It’s one thing to challenge views where there has always been an element of debate and differing interpretations, but when you start arguing against seemingly universally held views, ones which theologians and leaders have agreed on for centuries, you find yourself on tricky ground. Arguing with people and ideas is easy, arguing with tradition is a different ball-game altogether.

I can understand this. If you start to try and break down those concepts, ideas, beliefs and traditions which have been held for a long time then at which point do you stop? Calling something “the thin end of the wedge” is a typical right-wing tabloid tactic in fighting against such things, but it’s a fair concern. There’s always the worry that, once one pillar falls, the rest of the house will soon crumble around your ears.

Of course, if that’s the case then the house, your faith, wasn’t built on strong enough foundations in the first place.

And, of course, people get things wrong. It’s even the case that perceived wisdom handed down through the ages can be wrong; the Earth is flat, the Earth revolves around the Sun, the universe was created in seven days, left-handedness is wicked, slavery is acceptable and women should not speak in Church. These are all beliefs held for centuries, agreed by most, if not all, and justified by particular biblical interpretations. All of them have been challenged and, for the most part, all have now been abandoned as a greater understanding of God’s word is reached (with the exceptions of the seven day creation, which many still blindly cling to, and the minority who do not accept a woman’s authority to teach.)

However, in each case these were initially challenged by small groups of individuals, all of whom were condemned as heretics or evil. Their ideas and enlightenment took hold, however, as God spoke through them to more and more people until centuries of tradition were abandoned for God’s will.

And that is exactly what the blind man who Jesus heals went through,

“The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  
To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.” (John 9:30-34 NIV)

This man challenges the religious leaders, those whose teachings and views are held as the authority to be listened to by the majority of Jews of the time. He is told he is an arrogant sinner and thrown out.

But he’s right. Just because there is a perceived wisdom, or tradition, or interpretation handed down for years it doesn’t mean it can’t be wrong.

Regardless of your views on same-sex marriage, whether a particular position has been held for centuries by millions of biblical scholars or not cannot be a valid argument. People get thing wrong. Sometimes, the majority get things wrong.

And if you feel that these traditionally held views, that centuries of interpretation is wrong then just say it. On this matter I happen to think it is wrong. I think that a lack of understanding about the nature of homosexuality, thinking that it’s a sexual perversion without having any understanding or concept of two people of the same sex being able to fall in love emotionally, has coloured biblical interpretation. I think that the view that it is a choice, rather than something people just are, has meant that passages about rape and prostitution have been applied to all homosexuality to justify cultural prejudices. I also see the possibility that the main New Testament passages used to justify the traditional view, Romans 1:26-27, could have been written with a similar mind set.

In that, Paul talks of lust. Not love. I feel that either he is applying contemporary cultural prejudices to his own condemnation of homosexuality or, in my view more likely, it’s an overall comment on promiscuity. He’s saying that people were so wrapped up with having sex as often as possible with whoever they could that they even did it with people of the same sex. Shocking!

Paul condemns lust more than once in a heterosexual context as well. He never, however, condemns love. I don’t think that Paul, or any of his audiences, had a concept of a loving same-sex relationship, so never addressed it in his writings. As God is love then I can’t see how he could be against two people in love, harming nobody. Love glorifies him, surely this does too.

So, there you go. This was not meant to be a defence of same-sex marriage when the post started, but it seems to have ended up as one, albeit not the most structured, robustly argued one (mainly because I tend to write these posts in one go, often not knowing where I’ll end up once I’ve started). I guess it is still my way of showing that traditional beliefs can and should be challenged, to either overcome them if they’re wrong (which they can be) or strengthen them if they’re right.

Thanks for listening.

Lent Day 23: Luke 10-12

I was looking at a discussion between a group of Christians brought about by the bringing into law of same-sex marriage in England and Wales today. Some were unhappy about the change in the law, others not so. It came to a point, though, when the argument turned into something a little like this,

“Maybe conservative Christians will stop going on about the gay issue and concentrate on fighting poverty.”

“We conservatives already do, it’s you liberals who go on about the gay issue.”

“No, you do.”

“No, you do.”

(Repeat until the end of time)

There were others, including myself, who let out an exasperated sigh. I’m not entirely sure I remember the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus blesses the conservatives or liberals and says woe unto the other group. These are labels we put upon ourselves which do little but cause internal divisions which end up driving the Church apart. It saddens me.

The homosexuality issue has had this effect on a congregation local to myself. The Church of Scotland have been debating the issue of allowing people in gay relationships to enter the ministry. After much debate the decision was taken to allow churches to opt out of the Church policy that marriage should be between a man and a woman. This decision was seen as a step too far by some in the Church, including my nearest parish church, which saw the minister and many in the congregation leave to set up a new church. This has, obviously, caused a lot of heartbreak and pain for a lot of people and has saddened those of us looking on from other congregations.

It’s happened a lot down the years. If it’s not gay ministers or marriage it’s women priests. Or infant baptism. Or married priests. Or Bibles in native tongues. Or many other issues which have divided the Church down the ages.

Of course, many will say that this is God’s will. After all, Jesus said this

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!  Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.  From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53 NIV)

Jesus came to divide us. It was part of his purpose, his plan. He wants to split us so only the righteous, those who are right on every issue, are saved.

I read it differently. I don’t think Jesus is saying that division is his aim, but simply the inevitable consequence of his ministry and actions. He had just spoken about selling your possessions and giving to the poor. He had been preaching against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the time. He had said that, in order to get entry to God’s kingdom then you simply need to knock at the door and it will be opened. These will have been incredibly divisive messages at the time, going against the accepted religious order of things. These things will have caused argument between those who accepted what he was saying and those who stuck with the status quo. In fact, they caused great division to the point of persecution for Jesus’ followers.

They still do cause great division. His message to us and his salvation are difficult messages to hear in today’s material, self driven world and do still divide this who believe and don’t. His message still leads to persecution and death for his followers in many parts of the world.

But for his followers to be divided by our own readings of issues which Jesus himself never actually spoke of is ridiculous. What divides us is important. We do need debate and discussion over all of these issues, in the way homosexuality and women bishops have been debated recently. But to divide ourselves into camps such as liberal and conservative, evangelical and emerging, traditional and progressive is self destructive. It leads to the situation we have in places where some Christians refuse to worship with others because of their beliefs on one issue rather than share fellowship because of their common ground on so many others.

I’m not saying that we need to give ground if we genuinely believe that we are following God’s will, but I am saying that we should understand three things:

Firstly, those who disagree with us probably believe, just as strongly, that they too are following God’s will.

Secondly, nobody is perfect. We are all wrong on some issues and we need to accept that. Just because the person who disagrees with us on a particular issue may be wide of the mark doesn’t mean that they are further from God than them. We are missing another point somewhere just as badly.

Thirdly, none of these issues are the main, most important thing. Jesus is. This is,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.” (Adapted from Luke 10:27 NIV)

Loving God, loving those around us and helping the poor are the important things. And so is the fact that Jesus died and rose again so that we could forgive and be forgiven. These things all of us in the Church agree on. These things we should all unite around.

We are followers of Jesus. That is enough. It’s all we need to be.