Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality

An introduction to a recent Evangelical Alliance resource on homosexuality

Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality

by Andrew Goddard

Steve Chalke’s recent contributions have led to discussions about evangelical responses to homosexuality. The Evangelical Alliance have issued a statement and article by its Director, Steve Clifford, and an article by Steve Holmes on hermeneutics. For those looking for a fuller discussion setting out an evangelical view they have also made available free as a PDF their publication issued in July 2012 which was the fruit of over eighteen months work - Resources for church leaders: Biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality.

In this resource Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance and I have drawn on the work of a commission and input from dozens of evangelical theologians and church leaders to offer a thoroughgoing update of the Evangelical Alliance’s 1998 publication (Faith, Hope and Homosexuality) and address a range of important issues. That was a ground-breaking evangelical contribution to the debate on homosexuality but it has been clear for over half a decade that, although its central message remains relevant and theologically sound, it needed to be articulated afresh for our new cultural context. In particular there needed to be much fuller evangelical discussion of the personal and pastoral implications of evangelical teaching.

The 144 page booklet comprises five chapters structured around the fundamental 10 affirmations which define an evangelical position (a light rewording and restructuring of those made in 1998). The first affirmation starts with the gospel as the basis for the content and manner of an evangelical engagement with this subject.

1. We recognise that all of us are sinners, and that the only true hope for sinful people – whatever our sexuality – is in Jesus Christ. Our earnest prayer is that his love, truth and grace would characterise evangelical responses to debates on homosexuality, both now and in future.

The opening chapter therefore explores our common humanity in Adam and in Christ and the universal inclusive scope of the gospel before examining issues relating to the terminology we use and providing some basic information about gay and lesbian people in the UK today. It sets out a framework which structures much of the resource by developing further the standard longstanding distinction between orientation (a person’s sexuality) and practice (a person’s conduct). In the former it distinguishes attraction from orientation and also highlights the important and distinct issue of identity. In relation to practice it distinguishes between relationships and sexual behaviour. The final section highlights the two themes of grace and truth which also shape the remainder of the resource.

Chapter Two – “Truths to Live By” – expounds and defends the next two affirmations which are foundational for all that follows:

2. We affirm God's love and concern for all human beings, whatever their sexuality, and so repudiate all attitudes and actions which victimise or diminish people whose affections are directed towards people of the same sex. We are encouraged many Christians now recognise and deeply regret the hurt caused by past and present failures in their responses to those who experience same-sex attraction.

3. We affirm that marriage is an institution created by God in which one man and one woman enter into an exclusive relationship for life. Marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations and homoerotic sexual practice is incompatible with His will as revealed in Scripture. We do not accept that holding these theological and ethical views on biblical grounds is in itself homophobic.

It offers a summary of a biblical ethic rooted in love and loving relationships, marriage as God’s intention for sexual relationships and the call to chastity and the form of this for those who are single. In this context it then turns to a careful study of the biblical texts relating to homosexuality before noting the clear witness of Christian tradition. The final section stresses the importance of the second affirmation and the need to combat homophobia.

Drawing on these two affirmations the third chapter sets out to develop “a framework for pastoral reflection and practice”. This highlights two key areas. First, it explores further the orientation/practice distinction and the five categories within this which were set out in chapter one. Second, it examines the complex inter-relationship between the private and public realms in relation to sexuality. These yield four further affirmations – number four is a new one added to those in 1998, the following three are restatements (with additions for recent developments in relation to civil partnerships and proposed changes to marriage law) of the Evangelical Alliance’s earlier stance.

4. We encourage evangelical congregations to be communities of grace in which those who experience same-sex attraction and seek to live faithfully in accordance with biblical teaching are welcomed and affirmed. Such Christians need churches which are safe spaces where they are able to share and explore their stories with fellow believers for mutual encouragement and support as we help each other grow together into maturity in Christ.

5. We oppose moves within certain churches to accept and/or endorse sexually active same-sex partnerships as a legitimate form of Christian relationship and to permit the ordination to ministry of those in such sexual relationships. We stand prayerfully with those in such churches who are seeking to resist these moves on biblical grounds.

6. We oppose church services of blessing for civil partnerships and other forms of gay and lesbian relationships as unbiblical and reject any redefinition of marriage to encompass same-sex relationships.

7. We commend and encourage all those who experience same-sex attraction and have committed themselves to chastity by refraining from homoerotic sexual practice. We believe they should be eligible for ordination and leadership within the church, recognising that they can bring invaluable insights and experience to the sphere of Christian pastoral ministry.

The final two chapters, comprising almost half the booklet, then relate all these affirmations to what it calls “pastoral practice for a community of grace and truth”. The pattern here is to explore a number of fictional but hopefully realistic case studies and consider how the affirmations might shape a response to them. It is recognised that there will be a variety of ways in which evangelicals will apply the affirmations. This is in part because denominational differences will have an impact (perhaps particularly a contrast between Anglican and some other church traditions). In addition, as every individual and church is unique it is “neither desirable nor possible to give detailed guidance” and “evangelicals cannot expect an answer book”. Rather we “need the wisdom of Christ and the discernment given by the Spirit to determine a godly response in each particular situation”.

Chapter Four examines situations which relate to sexual attraction, orientation and identity and so, in relation to the foundational principles, it focuses more on the outworking of affirmation two as the issues relating to biblical teaching on sexual ethics in the third affirmation are not directly relevant. It does this by means of reflection on four different scenarios. The opening scenario relates to the “outing” of someone in church leadership who is thought to be gay. This is followed by exploring issues relating to someone seeking a change in their sexuality and someone living with same-sex attraction and seeking to be faithful to biblical teaching. The final scenario explores issues relating to sexual identity (particularly among young people) and the impact of someone coming out on their family. The affirmation shaping this discussion and building on earlier affirmations reads:

8. We welcome and support the work of those individuals and organisations who responsibly seek to help Christians who experience same-sex attraction as in conflict with their commitment to live in accordance with biblical teaching. This help will involve counsel and pastoral support to live a chaste life and, as part of this process, some may seek and experience changes in the strength or direction of their same-sex attractions.

The final chapter explores what pastoral practice in a community of grace and truth might look like in relation to a range of situations which involve same-sex relationships and sexual behaviour. Here affirmation two continues to be vital but affirmation three relating to biblical teaching about sexual behaviour also needs to be considered. Five different situations are outlined but rather than exploring each in turn (as in chapter four), the chapter identifies and then discusses eight different issues which bear on one or more of these and are also likely to arise in other situations. The first two relate to the distinctions drawn earlier between behaviour and relationships and then between the public and the private spheres. Attention then turns to the challenges when people are exploring faith or are new Christians and, fourthly, the place of conscience in making decisions. Continuing to draw on the five scenarios, attention is given to the fact that those involved in homosexual behaviour may have different attitudes to their conduct and that in some cases there is a need to consider the demands of existing personal commitments. The last two sections explore the question of civil partnerships and the issues relating to church membership, leadership and provision of rites.

In addition to seeking to work out the earlier affirmations, the pastoral responses in this final chapter are shaped by the final two affirmations:

9. We believe both habitual homoerotic sexual activity without repentance and public promotion of such activity are inconsistent with faithful church membership. While processes of membership and discipline differ from one church context to another, we believe that either of these behaviours warrants consideration for church discipline.

10. We encourage evangelical congregations to welcome and accept sexually active lesbians and gay men. However, they should do so in the expectation that they, like all of us who are living outside God's purposes, will come in due course to see the need to be transformed and live in accordance with biblical revelation and orthodox church teaching. We urge gentleness, patience and ongoing pastoral care during this process and after a person renounces same-sex sexual relations.

As explained in the conclusion, the vision shaping this resource is similar to that set out by evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz in his “Welcoming but not Affirming” book. The goal is to create a situation where “evangelical churches are welcoming and accepting of all those who experience same-sex attraction including sexually active homosexual people” but “not affirming of sexual activity outside marriage, including within same-sex relationships”. That vision is summed up in the ten clear affirmations and then explored in more detail through the pastoral scenarios with an acknowledgment that there will be “a range of faithful evangelical responses” and “differences in patterns of pastoral response” to be found within the boundaries of the affirmations that seek to ensure that “pastoral care is principled and not simply pragmatic”.

The booklet ends with suggested further reading and an 8 page bibliography mainly of works published since the original 1998 publication.

As one of the editors my personal hope is that this resource will enable evangelicals and others to understand, engage with and put into practice a genuinely evangelical response which is both biblical and pastoral. Some will disagree with elements of the affirmations. Clarifying where and why there is disagreement – particularly if those who disagree consider themselves evangelicals – will be important. Many will, I hope, warmly welcome the affirmations as a restatement of biblical teaching but may have questions or alternative approaches to the pastoral realities such as those discussed in the nine scenarios. This is somewhere evangelicals have much to learn and need to listen carefully to one another and particularly to those evangelicals who experience same-sex attraction. Only by such careful listening and learning will we be empowered not only to teach the truth but to live it out and to live it out in love. My hope is that this resource and the responses to it – both positive and more critical - will enable us all to understand better the truths we are called to live by as followers of Jesus and to become more faithfully the communities of grace and truth we should be in our response to those with same-sex attraction and more widely.

Resources for church leaders: Biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality can be downloaded free from here and a hard copy can be ordered from Lulu here for £10 including postage and packing.

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