A response to the recent article by Steve Chalke urging a reconsideration of same sex partnerships
Scriptural Faithfulness, Inclusion and Truth in Pastoral Care
A response to Steve Chalke
by Martin Kuhrt
Steve Chalke has declared that his understanding of the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion which sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message lead him now to embrace homosexual unions. He claims that this is the result of his ‘grappling with Scripture’ and that he is not meaning to enter the debate about gay marriage. His argument can be summarised under three headings; scripture, the inclusion imperative, and pastoral necessity. I have made this response to the extended article on the Oasis website rather than the slightly abridged version in Christianity magazine. The link is:
Chalke’s explanation of what he believes the Bible to be is worth quoting in full from his article. He says “Through my hermeneutical lens, the Bible is the account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity. It is a conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, human voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus. But it is also a conversation that, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon, continues beyond it involving all of those who give themselves to Christ’s on-going redemptive movement.”
Rather than try to offer an immediate critique of this ‘hermeneutical lens’, I’d like to examine what Chalke sees through this lens regarding the subject of sexuality in the Scriptures. At times he seems to say that the Bible is misunderstood by orthodox Christians, just as Luther misunderstood Joshua 10.13 by thinking it ruled out Copernicus’s theory of the solar system. At other times, he seems to imply that Scriptural prohibitions are either irrelevant, wrong or super-ceded as the ‘conversation’ develops. So with regard to the negative material about same gender genital activity in the Old Testament (in particular Leviticus 20.13) he implies that here the ‘conversation’ is still at quite a primitive stage, and hasn’t got round to recognising the principle of ‘inclusion’, which he sees as clearly breached in Leviticus 21.16-23 where disabled descendants of Aaron are forbidden from approaching the altar of the tabernacle.
With regard to the Old and New Testament, he sees some of the material as irrelevant because the biblical writers ‘knew nothing of the stable gay relationships we see today’. He says that Romans 1 is only talking about wild promiscuous sex, or ‘experimentation’ or male shrine prostitution. His exegesis is underpinned by his feeling that the gay Christians he knows seem not to share any of the deplorable characteristics of fallen mankind as listed in that chapter.
The New Testament conversation, Chalke seems to say, is also incomplete in the same way that its conversation regarding women and slavery is incomplete. But he seems to go further than saying Scripture leaves some things open-ended and needing further conversation. With regard to slavery, he says that both Testaments endorse slavery and therefore (he implies) can now been seen to be plainly wrong. He says, citing 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14, that ‘the Scriptures are very clear [my emphasis] about the role of women in Christian communities’. In saying that we haven’t allowed Scripture to have the final word on the subject of women’s ministry he is using rather smooth language to suggest that actually these Pauline injunctions are rightly seen as prejudiced, ignorant or misogynistic and it is a jolly good thing that we have moved on. And so in the same way that we moved on over women and slavery we should do so about homosexuality.
It’s not easy to engage with Chalke’s arguments because they do seem to slide in a rather slippery way between these two different tacks. On the one hand, he espouses a kind of evolutionary, progressive revelation, ‘Scripture as conversation’ approach in which the Old Testament is now effectively to be seen as bad, the New Testament better (but only marginally in the case of Paul), and ‘modern understanding’ the best. On the other hand, he sometimes argues that Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) has been misunderstood and is not really negative at all about men ‘having sex’ with men or women with women, but only negative about ‘experimentation, promiscuity and shrine prostitution’.
Chalke offers little in the way of coherent exegesis of the relevant texts. His treatment of Genesis 1 and 2 and Jesus reflection on this in Matthew 19.4-6 is to suggest that Jesus had a deeper purpose in mind than merely pointing to the intentionally indissoluble physical union of male and female and was only using an example of what was the ‘norm’ (rather than the ‘ideal’, or the Creator’s intention). Thus the union of husband and wife is no more ideal than right-handedness. Just as left-handedness is not the ‘norm’ (in the sense that left-handed people are in the minority), so gay people are not ‘the norm’ but their sexual relationships should not be regarded as less than ideal. Chalke doesn’t say what Jesus’ deeper purpose was though I would guess he would say something like ‘loving faithfulness’ without really defining what that might mean in terms of practical living.
Jesus’ conclusions from the first two Genesis chapters concern the Creator’s intended permanence of marriage, and the physical union of man and wife is seen as the symbolic enactment of that intended faithful permanence. Only the union of male and female in marriage is ordained by God to be both an exclusive relationship and a symbol of permanence. Only marriage as revealed in the bible brings the sexes together in loving complementarity, engendering life.
Chalke’s method of biblical interpretation allows him easily to dismiss Leviticus 20.13 because he assumes the ban on disabled priests offering food at the altar is clearly nasty to disabled people. It is contra the inclusion imperative. But symbolic exclusion was an integral part of the Old Testament sacrificial system which God instituted, in order to teach the Israelites something of the holiness of God. It was not just disabled people who could not offer food at the altar, it was anyone who was not a descendant of Aaron, or an adult, or a man, or free from a skin disease. It was clearly a ritual or ceremonial law designed to be appropriate for Old Testament times as part of the old covenant but not part of the new when the sacrificial system has been fulfilled in Christ.
However, as the Reformers understood and Article VII of the Thirty Nine Articles declares, the moral commandments in the Old Testament are still relevant to ethical behaviour among Christian people. This is because they concern the unchanging character of God. The Leviticus commandment in chapter 20.13 is clearly a moral commandment because it also occurs in Lev 18.22 as part of a lengthy list of sexual sins (including incest, adultery and bestiality) which are said to have defiled the nations who lived in the land before Israel. These commands must all have been clearly moral ones if the pagan nations were condemned for breaching them.
The one puzzling command in Leviticus 18 is verse 19 which forbids a man from approaching a woman for sex during her period. This appears to be a ritual or ceremonial law only, because it doesn’t seem to us today that it is immoral to have intercourse during menstruation. My tentative view on this is that one consequence of this law was that it would have prevented men from having carte blanche to have sex with their women whenever they felt like it with no consent from the women. Women were given some dignity and protection within marriage. To violate a woman who was bleeding (and presumably who had informed him of this and thus not given consent) was perhaps akin to marital rape and therefore was a moral command as well as a ritual and ceremonial law making the woman ‘unclean’ during the period of menstruation.
Chalke does not pay much attention to the epistles. His treatment of Romans 1 is very weak and he fails to grasp what it is really saying. Romans 1.18-32 does not say that people who engage in homosexual practices are the worst specimens of humanity or have deliberately set out to push the boundaries of wickedness as far as they can. What it says is that same sex sexual desires are a symptom of a fallen world in which idolatry has taken the place of the worship of the true God. Homosexual practices and drives are a judgment on the whole of godless society rather than on a few, especially evil, people. The sins listed in verses in 28-32 are not associated necessarily with people who commit sexual acts with people of the same gender but on a godless society in which the corruption of sexuality is a prominent feature in a spiralling down into general depravity.
Chalke’s ‘developing conversation’ approach set out in his explanation of his ‘hermeneutical lens’ leads him to say that Scripture endorses both slavery and the oppression of women, and as we are now enlightened enough to take a different view on these things, we should do so in a similar way with homosexuality. However, his treatment of Scripture in coming to this conclusion is woefully simplistic. In the Old Testament and New slavery was often the lesser of two evils (the greater being death as a result of war or famine). It was recognised as a fact of life in the ancient world and regulated humanely under covenantal law in the Old Testament. In the New Testament the practice of slavery was subjected to Gospel implications. The transatlantic slave trade abolished by Western Christendom in the 19th century was the worst of all possible evils as it involved ‘Christian’ nations in sheer unmitigated cruelty and barbarism on an industrial scale, largely for reasons of commercial greed. Nowhere does the bible ‘endorse’ such evil. Bible-believing evangelical Christians like Wilberforce recognised this and were far more in tune with the bible than those whose motivation was to misuse Scripture in support of their own interests. It was the establishment that opposed abolition and used seemingly knock-down quotes from establishment clergy whose biblical understanding was shallow.
Likewise Chalke falls over himself in his eagerness to agree with the most chauvinistic, reactionary and crudely unintelligent interpretations of texts about women. He dismisses the many examples of women exercising leadership in the New Testament. He downplays Phoebe, sidelines Junia, completely ignores Priscilla and Old Testament authority figures such as Deborah and Huldah. This is in order to argue that, just as we no longer feel bound by an anti-women-in-ministry stance, we should no longer have to pay heed to restrictive boundaries regarding sex. This verges on the dishonest as he wouldn’t treat other parts of Scripture that way – let alone the ones relating to homosexuality. Anyone assuming Paul was a misogynist who we should rightly ignore as a dinosaur would have no correction from Chalke’s perspective. Chalke needs to do some more study on 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 because, given the other Pauline references to women leading, prophesying, teaching and evangelising it is decidedly unclear on the surface what Paul is exactly saying. Some good exegetical work has been done demonstrating that Paul is more likely to have been forbidding women from exercising a very unpleasant and manipulative domineering over men akin to some aspects of pagan religion, rather than orderly, Christ-like, servant-hearted authority.
What makes the gay debate so different from the debate about women’s roles is that there is some good biblical evidence counteracting the seemingly restrictive texts. In relation to homosexuality, as Chalke concedes, there is absolutely no positive material whatsoever. It is not true that to be ‘liberal’ over ‘women’ is necessarily to be ‘liberal’ over the gay issue. As my brother Stephen Kuhrt has pointed out, appreciation of women’s ministry is partly based on the enrichment gender complementarity brings, a fact which underpins heterosexual union.
The Inclusion Imperative
Chalke follows other revisionists in basing his inclusive approach on the widespread assumption that some people are ontologically ‘gay’ and the principle of loving inclusion should be determinative if we are to ‘love our gay neighbour as ourselves’. For him we cannot love a gay person unless we accept, affirm, and indeed facilitate their desire to be in a ‘stable’, ‘monogamous’ sexual relationship with someone of the same gender. Presumably we can though still be loving towards gay people without accepting or welcoming promiscuous behaviour, experimentation or prostitution.
Chalke doesn’t engage at all with the view that disciples of Christ cannot defiantly and unrepentantly persist in identifying themselves as belonging to a class or people who are defined by behaviour which is sinful. We do not and should not welcome into intimate fellowship or leadership gossips, slanderers, God-haters, heartless, faithless, senseless people as gossips, slanderers, God-haters, heartless, faithless, senseless people. Repentance includes a choice to embrace a new identity in Christ. Doubtless we all struggle at times with putting to death our desires to gossip, slander, hate God, etc and people will struggle to put to death their desires for sinful sexual behaviour. Everyone should be loved, supported, disciplined and helped to lead a new life in Christ. It would be bizarre if a ‘gossip’ claimed that they should not be challenged because ‘gossips’ should be ‘included’ and not rejected, stigmatised or denied the opportunity to ‘be themselves’. In the same way ‘gay’ people cannot enter intimate fellowship or leadership within the church as ‘gay’ if that means they trumpet their right to flout the clear teaching of Scripture.
Chalke urges a re-think by Evangelicals because of the damage he sees being done to those he sees as being excluded, stigmatised and rejected. He feels that a negative stance toward homosexual practice inevitably means terrible suffering for gay people who thereby become estranged from the church and often suicidal. He says it is ‘anti-gay stigma’ that causes most of the health problems for gay people, rather than anything unhealthy to do with homosexual practices. As example of pastoral damage done he cites the case of a youth leader trying to exorcise a demon of homosexuality form a vulnerable young person and of instances he knows of gay people being denied ministry roles, communion, church membership or adult baptism.
At this point I will do as much as I can within a written paper to get across where I am coming from in pastoral terms. First, I know and like and have known and liked several gay people (including people I have had pastoral responsibility for). Some self-identify as ‘gay’ and others, through a mature Christian understanding, do not label themselves as gay although others certainly would label them as such, as they admit they experience same sex sexual attraction. I have had in-depth conversations with and read books and articles by such people, both Christian and non-Christian. Secondly, I wholeheartedly agree that our foremost duty towards gay people is to love them. (What love really means is where I differ from Chalke). Thirdly, I recognise much opposition to the gay movement in the past and today does not reflect deep Christian understanding or real knowledge and sympathy. Some attitudes seem akin to racism or sneering distaste. Committed Christians have also made grievous mistakes in treating homosexuality as a simple ‘deliverance’ issue and being hypocritical and judgmental when they should have been compassionate and supportive to people struggling to come to terms with their sense of orientation. Gay people have a God-given need for intimacy and it is not good for any man to be alone. They have been and still are failed by churches that offer no real Gospel, no healing and no real community. Some aspects of civil partnerships I agree with (although the way the legislation was put together made it way too close a stepping stone to re-defining marriage).
However, to go back to how we love our ‘gay neighbour’. It is not loving to commend a way of life as blessed which God has cursed. It is not loving to obscure the clear scriptural guidance to young people (who need clear boundaries) about the place of sex. It is not loving to promote behaviour that has inherent and manifest health risks. Chalke’s claim that it is stigma rather than behaviour which causes most of the health problems is staggering. It is not loving to concede that ‘experimentation’ is condemned in Scripture but to hold out gay couplings as options for young people. This is pastoral naivety. If homosexuality is promoted experimentation will of course increase, as young people are encouraged to ‘experiment’ in order to ‘explore’ their sexuality. Are they straight, gay, bi, transgender, poly-sexual or should they just do whatever feels good at the time? The range of options grows and grows. It is not loving to promote an agenda which will destroy what remains of the true concept of marriage and change an institution designed by God for the good of the whole community, especially children, into another selfish manifestation of individual bourgeois choice.
Chalke claims that he is not entering the gay marriage debate. But everything about his intervention, from the timing of it to the arguments and the tone he uses, supports the government in its proposals to redefine marriage. If honouring, supporting, blessing and facilitating gay unions is an inclusion imperative and a pastoral necessity about which scripture is permissive, then this must mean hearty affirmation of ‘same sex marriage’. Chalke cannot pretend otherwise. I feel a huge sadness that a high profile Christian (who has done and I’m sure is still doing so much good and inspiring work for the Kingdom) appears to have allowed himself in this area to be conformed to the pattern of this world. I sense with grim foreboding that this year will bring much strife and disunity to the church.
Martin Kuhrt is Vicar of the Church of the Holy Spirit, Bedgrove, Aylesbury
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum