THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 174
New Testament parallels with today
The completeness of the bible as regards the message of salvation is generally accepted by all Christians but that completeness does not mean that the last word has been said (or, rather, written) on every other subject. Homosexuality for example is accepted by many Christians, but some refuse to countenance it because it is not specifically allowed in the bible - indeed, there are passages that seem to point the other way. That, I believe, is a profoundly mistaken view. Quite apart from considerable dispute about what the few passages concerning homosexuality really mean, it rests on a static concept of God’s continuing revelation to humans and it attempts to put the bible into aspic - to embalm it as ‘truth’ once given, never to be rethought or re-interpreted.
It is also directly contrary to history. The whole history of human beings shows that we are on a continuum of growing understanding, both of ourselves and our world (and cosmos) and also of God’s methods and purposes in his world. The record of the New Testament amply reveals the correctness of this view. The story of the early Church is a living example of how we should understand our ever deepening appreciation of both what God is doing in the world and how he is going about it - and how our understanding of that advances with the years.
So lets examine closely what the bible record clearly tells us - remembering that this book is the basic source of authority for all who call themselves Christian. In addition, we look to the church and tradition - what Christians have worked out over the centuries about how God is working his purposes out. And, of course, we use the best knowledge that has come our way to date and, above all, we use our minds under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
When you read the Acts of the Apostles and the first chapters of Galatians, you see very clearly what happened. Some detail is missing - there are tantalizing gaps, especially about what happened between Paul and Peter subsequent to their meeting at Antioch with the local Christians. But the essence of what happened in those early years is clear enough. What lessons can we draw from this piece of history that might bear on our position today?
What did happen in those very early days of the Christian Church in Jerusalem? I think we can sum it up from three aspects: there was new evidence, new understanding, and new experience.
It is quite clear that the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people shook the early Christians after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was given and there were manifestations of the Holy Spirit - signs and wonders - and this was vivid proof to those early Christians that God was doing something special. So persuasive and pervasive were these new happenings that the disciples began to look for God to heal and help people - as evidenced for example by Peter and John as they walked in the Temple precincts.
Some of the Christians had visions that radically changed their perception of what religion was all about. Peter had the vision of the net descending from heaven in which there were all sorts of creatures and he was told to go and eat. This was clearly against the rules of the Torah - against the religion that they had all been taught and had all followed throughout their lives. It took three repeats of the vision before, eventually, Peter got the message and was subsequently able to support Paul when he asked the Jerusalem Conference for permission for the Gentiles to ignore the rules of the Torah - or at least, some of them.
The fact of the matter was that Gentiles were experiencing the Holy Spirit being given. Subsequently they were showing that they had the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And their manner of life accorded to what Jesus had taught as necessary. The Jewish Christians could no longer maintain that they alone were the chosen race - clearly these Gentiles were also chosen by God - at least to enter the Kingdom, if not to be inheritors of the Jewish tradition. The Jewish Christians realised that God intended the good news of Jesus Christ for all peoples, and not just for them. The experience of the Gentiles was in front of their eyes and they could not ignore it.
The result of all of this was that the Jewish Christians came to a better understanding of what Christ had meant when he had taught the crowds on the hills of Galilee. And their eyes were opened about the breadth and depth of God’s plan for all the world.
What are the parallels with the situation today?
There is powerful evidence in the lives of gay Christians themselves. Of course homosexual non-believers will be just like their heterosexual counterparts, but gay Christians have been seen to reflect exactly the same evidence as heterosexual Christians. They have the same growth in grace, the same evidences of the same Holy Spirit - they have the same gifts of the Holy Spirit and exhibit the same fruit of the Spirit. Impartial Christians, looking at godly gay Christians, cannot but agree that all the signs are there of God blessing in exactly the same way as he blesses heterosexual Christians. And these gay Christians are used in service of their fellow human beings in exactly the same way too. Indeed, it is a fact, for example, that gay Priests have volunteered to work in the difficult parishes in the inner city. Gay people have been just as ready to come forward for difficult Christian ways of serving as heterosexual Christians.
Just as the Christian Gentiles convinced the Jewish Christians by their lives, so too are gay Christians showing other Christians that they too are in exactly the same position vis-à-vis God. They work for the Kingdom in exactly the same way, under the same Holy Spirit.
We now have the scientific and medical evidence to show that homosexuality is normal. Until a decade or two ago homosexuality was seen by many as a disorder. It was considered either a perversion or a sickness. But the evidence of medical science was such that the medical authorities changed their definitions and removed homosexuality from their list of illnesses. It is no longer considered a perversion but an orientation. Something that is caused by any of various causes - genetic, hormonal or upbringing plus early experiences - or a combination of these factors. That is powerful new thinking and we all need to take account of it.
Over the last hundred or more years there has been a huge advance in understanding of the nature and experience of human beings. For one thing there have been great insights into the nature of sexuality - but also of the way the human psyche works. The religious instinct is better understood than previously. All of this we must take into account. I believe it leads us towards an acceptance of gay people as normal people.
It seems to me that the reaction of outstanding Christians across the world should be accepted as real evidence of a changed view of homosexuality. For example it is clear that Archbishop Desmond Tutu is totally in favour of accepting gay Christians into the church on the same basis as heterosexual Christians. Surely that is a powerful reason for reconsidering one’s objections to homosexuality? Surely the fact that some senior figures in the Church of England are in favour of accepting gay Christians into the membership of the church - and that the American Church has already promoted a gay Christian to the post of Bishop - surely this is powerful evidence of the need for a rethink?
The result of all of this is that Christians are coming today to a better understanding of what Christ meant when he had taught the crowds on the hills of Galilee. And our eyes are being opened to the breadth and depth of God’s plan for all the world.
The acceptance of gay Christians shows in my opinion a deepening understanding of the depth of the gospel. The truth is that we shall never exhaust the meaning and significance of the gospel account of Jesus and of how to apply it. We shall go on understanding and learning from him for centuries to come. The meaning of the love of God is like the sea - you can paddle or you can swim. Some in the Christian community are still paddling - certainly as regards homosexuality!
There were probably some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who held onto their traditions and wouldn’t accept Gentile Christians as equal with themselves. Eventually the Roman conquest of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem swept them all away. We don’t know what happened to them - the upheaval of the conquest shattered all record keeping. Probably they were dispersed right across the Roman Empire. We hear nothing more of them. They disappear into the void of the past. All those of us who are Christian need to take care that our refusal to accept God’s leading does not lead us, too, into the detritus of history.