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Courage and the Evangelical Alliance part company

by Jeremy Marks

Following the Press Release issued by the EA on the 6th March 2002 – as a joint statement from the EA and Courage – I have been asked for further comments. I do not really want to add to the Press Release, but it might be helpful to fill in the background to my thinking, that led to our contention with the EA, and prompted our spending almost a year in discussions on the matter.

Because the Church has been polarised for so long over the issue of homosexuality, the EA/Courage dialogue presented me with the opportunity to explain the reasons for some fundamental changes in our ministry perspective – and why, having come from the traditionalist mould myself, I now believe that we should accept gay people and their need for intimate companionship. Only a respectful willingness to hear one another’s perspectives will help end the polarisation in the Church. To give them their due, the EA made considerable effort to listen to and understand our position. The outcome is that they don’t agree, and of course they are perfectly entitled to disagree! I just hope that other churches and Christian denominations will not simply take the EA’s decision as their cue to dismiss everything we might say. Time will tell.

The crunch issue is whether or not Christians should accept that gay people need relationship and that this may (almost inevitably) include an erotic dimension. We have no difficulty in accepting such a need as legitimate between men and women, but of course historically and biblically there is a socially acceptable provision for sexual intimacy in marriage. The EA cannot see from the scriptures that a similar intimacy in same-sex partnerships could ever be acceptable, whereas my pastoral experience and study of scripture suggests that it may be-but that in any case, this is a matter for our personal conscience. I would, however, want to emphasise three important provisos: firstly, if one chooses to relate to another person at such an intimate (erotic) level, this must be a decision between mature adults. This is not pastoral advice for youngsters. Secondly, this must be a decision taken with a clear sense of personal and mutual responsibility. Then above all, Christians have a personal responsibility to study the scriptures and seek God in prayer for themselves. Maintaining a good conscience is essential for one’s spiritual well-being, because ‘everything that is not of faith is sin’ (Romans 14:20–23).

Now I understand well enough the trauma for evangelical Christians when they feel that their stand for moral righteousness, as they see it, is being challenged. However, my contention is that a stand for moral righteousness is not the issue here. The issue is that, in my own pastoral work with people of a homosexual orientation over 14 years, it has become quite obvious that the Church’s hard-line anti-gay stance (and Courage’s too in earlier years) has not only failed to ‘preserve our moral purity’ but, on the contrary, has proved to have an extremely destructive effect on the lives of many gay people and their families. Worse still, such a doctrinaire stance has had an extremely corrosive effect on their faith in Christ. Besides, an anti-gay stance is not consistent with Jesus’ command to bring the Good News to all people. Nor is it consistent with the call to Christian discipleship, which requires that we follow Christ. In turn, following Christ does not require that we sign up to a particular pre-specified stance on marriage or gay relationships that precludes the possibility of ever giving such matters any further thought. Moreover, I do not believe that the Church’s traditionally hard line offers even a reasonable interpretation (never mind an appropriate one) of the supposed anti-gay passages.

At the same time, I recognise that any view espousing a ‘free-love/anything goes’ approach, can be just as destructive in its effect. I am not setting out to beat a drum for gay rights here, nor do I support an ‘anything goes’ approach-which the EA recognises.

I also appreciate that taking a view that supports freedom of conscience prompts many difficult pastoral questions. For instance, what should we teach young people, who are grappling with strong sexual desires where abstinence is the wisest course for their own protection? They may be nowhere near ready to take on the responsibility of adult sexual relationships. How do we respond to the complex issues for married folk, who come to recognise that they are gay, which they may have denied in the past? A whole host of difficult pastoral situations emerge. But if we fail to face up to these ethical dilemmas and seek appropriate answers, then we play a significant part in causing immense, and I believe needless, hardship for gay people.

During the twentieth century, more and more young people believed in and sought loving relationship, as the most important ingredient for a good marriage. Following the Second World War especially, which brought about huge social changes, people increasingly rejected the more traditional motivating factors for marriage-for reasons of social convenience, family or financial expediency. Of course sexual attraction always had a strong underlying presence, but during the early part of the last century this was not as ‘in your face’ as it is today. Nevertheless, sex was normally seen as intrinsic to marriage, albeit partly motivated by the fear of pregnancy and the lack of available preventative measures at the time, or fear of sexually transmitted diseases for which there was no cure. Wise parents taught their youngsters a sense of responsibility and a healthy self-respect.

In today’s world, for many young people especially, sex has largely become disassociated from marriage or even serious relationship. An increasing number of folk seem to think that to go out and have sex with someone you fancy is no different to going out for a good meal. Personal responsibility has become reduced to carrying a condom! Consequently, prohibitive rules about sex are seen as a pointless legacy from a bygone era.

As Christians we must realise that in today’s world, the Church no longer has the credibility or influence it had in the early twentieth century. If we remain in reaction to the secular social norms of our day we will not receive a hearing at all. Moreover, our modern age has spawned a generation of very lonely disenfranchised people, with the highest proportion of single households in human history. Lonely people are almost bound to go searching for intimate relationship. In such circumstances, I cannot see that taking the moral high ground and legislating against sex for people who are unwilling or too damaged to consider the responsibilities of marriage, or banning sex between same-sex partners, will ever re-establish respect for traditional moral values or encourage a healthy restraint on sexual behaviour. We have to take a fresh look at the challenges of our day and find new and appropriate ways of communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ, in terms that today’s world will understand.

Therefore, I believe, we would do better to accept with dignity our God-given need for intimate relationship, with a confidence that God, our heavenly Father, cares about our need. In turn we need to foster a healthy respect for ourselves and our fellow human beings. Recognition of people’s fundamental need for relationship gives us the perfect introduction to the Good News of Jesus Christ, providing an ideal opportunity to draw attention to Jesus’ primary concerns-for restored relationship with God with compassion and a concern for justice towards our fellow men. Developing a healthy fear of God our Maker, to whom we must all one day give account, and cultivating a love and respect for our fellow man, is the basic premise underlying all of Jesus’ teaching. We need not overly concern ourselves with policing other people’s sexual behaviour.

A man or woman’s need for companionship and belonging is normal and God-given
(Genesis 2:18).

So, whether a person is gay or straight, if he/she is denied the possibility of companionship, especially on the grounds that their longing for intimate connection is deviant and contrary to the will of God, the personal consequences can be potentially catastrophic. At Courage we have seen that this prescriptive approach can cause alienation from one’s family and the Church, serious dysfunction in relationships, a spiralling into severe depression, a total loss of faith in God, and even attempted suicide.

Of course, loneliness is a much wider issue than just for gay people. It is a significant reality in today’s world. And it is worth noting here, for any of us who do not have a companion, that there can be a positive aspect to accepting, at least for a period, that our solitariness can become a potentially fruitful time in our lives. If we face the pain we feel and draw close to God in the situation, we can grow in new ways. But the potential for growth in times of walking alone with God should never preclude the possibility of embracing intimate human relationship, if and when God provides it. Besides, whether that relationship opportunity is in heterosexual marriage or the gift of a same-sex partnership, both can provide a vitally important opportunity for us to learn to love. This is not only good; such a partnership can be life-transforming in developing personal and spiritual maturity. I must at least mention in passing that the Church is historically known for its emphasis on celibacy for unmarried people. However, while sexual abstinence for single people may be virtue, I do not believe that the EA or any other Christian organisation will find celibacy as a requirement in Scripture. The word is never even mentioned. This is a tradition of man!

In 1 Timothy 4:1–5 (NIV), Paul savagely criticised the teachings of those who forbid marriage-declaring this to be a doctrine of demons. Though I acknowledge it is unlikely Paul was thinking of gay people in any sense at the time of writing (homosexuality was an unknown concept until recent history), I do not think it is an unreasonable corollary to see the relevance of his words in our contemporary setting. Any doctrinal posture that forbids us to seek or even hope for fulfilment of our God-given needs for companionship and intimacy-a need that prompted God’s provision of marriage in the first place-is surely a dangerous heresy causing incalculable damage to the lives and faith of gay people. Rather, we should seriously take heed of the lesson Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 3:6 :

‘He [God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’

When Dr Ralph Blair, of Evangelicals Concerned (USA), visited us last year, he mentioned that when he became a Christian, he recognised at once that if the gospel is true-that is God’s grace available to sinners to bring about our reconciliation with the Father through faith in Christ-then the Church’s anti-gay attitude cannot be right. In recent years, I have come to see this truth for myself. By God’s grace I have repented of my former anti-gay attitude and since then I have spoken of this publicly, to try and help reverse the damage done to so many gay people in the past, through our own ignorance and the historic prejudices we have imbibed. I believe the time has come for the Church to apologise to gay people for the prejudices we have carried and the hurt we have caused.

In Romans 1:16–17, Paul asserts triumphantly that ‘in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed that is by faith from first to last.’

He quotes the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4) to support this point, and there are many other New Testament scriptures which confirm that salvation by faith was God’s plan from the beginning-predating the Law of Moses by generations. The passage that follows (going back to Romans 1), which condemns men who, along with many other debauched behaviours, become ‘inflamed with lust for one another’, serves to illustrate the consequences for a society that refuses God’s grace and turns its back on him. But Paul’s words (vs 18–32) were hardly written to be an expression of pastoral concern for those seekers of God who happen, through no fault of their own, to be gay!

The EA and other supporters of the traditionalist interpretations of scripture will no doubt continue to disagree with me. But I believe that gay people, including those in same-sex partnerships, are as welcome in the Kingdom of God as anybody else-just as long as they believe, and trust in, and are ready to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. Their faith will bear the good fruit of godly living. And God requires no more of us than that.

‘Therefore, since the promise of entering God’s rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did but the message was of no value to them, because those who heard it did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest ... ‘
Hebrews 4:1–3 (NIV)

© Jeremy Marks March 2002

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