I’m often intrigued by those who argue that the church’s stance on sexuality—which usually means the church’s traditional opposition to seeing same-sex sexual unions as equivalent to male-female marriage—as an obstacle to mission. They are quite right that most people beyond the church look at this aspect of its teaching with more or less blank incomprehension. But this stumbling block is really minor compared with the idea of believing in a crucified man being raised from the dead and offering a physical embodiment of the supreme creator of the universe. It’s just worth putting these things in perspective!
But Ed Shaw is quite right, in his new book The Plausibility Problem, that church’s ‘traditional’ teaching on sexuality—sex within male-female marriage, abstinence without—looks increasingly implausible to people within the church, as well as those outside. He introduces us to ‘Peter’, a young Christian man who is same-sex attracted, and ‘Jane’, an older divorced woman who has fallen in love with another woman at work. Portraying their situations sympathetically, he highlights the problem:
It is the Peters and Janes in our churches who are causing many evangelicals to lose their confidence in the Bible’s teaching on sex and marriage. It is the real people like them who are tempting an increasing number of evangelicals to ‘go liberal’ on homosexuality. You might be one of them. How can you look Peter in the eye and deny him sex forever? How can we ask Jane to turn her back on the one human relationship that has brought her joy? It just won’t seem plausible to them. It doesn’t sound that reasonable to us either. (p 21)
This shows why Shaw’s book is essential reading in our current context. If you want to see the church change and accept same-sex marriage on a par with the traditional understanding, you need to read this, because it offers one of the best expositions of a genuinely evangelical pastoral response.
If you are an evangelical (or of any tradition) who wants to see the church maintain its ‘traditional’ teaching, you need to read this because Shaw looks unflinchingly at the errors and missteps made by evangelicals and other ‘traditionalists’. It does not make for comfortable reading, but it is essential medicine.
Against, ‘accepting’ evangelicals, Shaw is clear that the key texts mean what they say, and they do prohibit same-sex sexual unions. (In a helpful appendix, he highlights why the ‘revisionist’ readings of these texts are themselves implausible.) But he is equally clear that trotting out this ‘proof-text parade’ no longer convinces anyone. Most interestingly, he finds the reasons for this not simply in changes in culture, but in the failure of evangelical churches to put them in a plausible context of counter-cultural faithfulness to the gospel in several key areas. These failures mean that many churches seeking to be faithful to scripture are simply not offering a context for those who experience same-sex attraction a viable, personal space.
It’s people, not theology, that seem to be powering the rejection of the traditional Christian ethic. It’s Peter and Jane – and others like them – not the Hebrew and Greek. (p 23)
Shaw begins his discussion by offering a frank account of his own experience. He has never experienced anything other than same-sex attraction, and the book is punctuated by profoundly honest admissions of the struggles (as well as the joys) of this. He pulls no punches about the unhelpful (even if well-meaning) ‘help’ he has received in some evangelical contexts. But he is also clear that the emergence of ‘accepting’ evangelicals has made his faithfulness to Scripture much harder.
Think for a moment of your greatest besetting sin. The thing God asks you not to think or do, but you keep on thinking or doing. Consider how much your efforts to say ‘No!’ to it would be undermined if suddenly you were told it wasn’t wrong any more or, at the very least, if a few voices started to raise doubts in your mind. When next tempted, things would be much more challenging, wouldn’t they? Why resist thinking or doing that if it isn’t really a sin any more? If Jesus doesn’t mind – if Jesus would actually approve!
Welcome to one of the fiercest challenges of my life.
He then explores nine key ‘missteps’ the church has made which has undermined its plausibility on sexuality.
The first is to believe ‘Your Identity Is Your Sexuality.’ Shaw explains why he does not describe himself as ‘gay’, since he believes his identity is found primarily in who he is in Christ—or, better, who he is growing into being in Christ—rather than being found in his sexuality, let alone his sexual orientation. (See this post about Sean Doherty for a different twist on this, finding our identity as human beings of a particular gender, rather than a particular sexual orientation.)
It would be natural to assume that the main target here would be a revisionist or secular approaches to the issue—but Shaw offers an unusual twist. Throughout the book, he draws on writings from the Catholic, contemplative and radical traditions, but is also dependent on Puritan and Reformed writers. And his criticism here is in the direction of the Reformed—those who would constantly focus on Christians as forgiven sinners, rather than redeemed saints.
Church meetings begin with prayers of confession that – badly introduced or understood – give the impression that we are sinners crawling back to God in the hope of getting back into his good books. We don’t remind each other enough that our status permanently changed when we first trusted in Jesus. That I don’t ever need to crawl back into God’s presence – in Jesus, I now live in his presence all of the time. (pp 40–41).
The second misstep is the belief that ‘Family Is Mum, Dad And 2.4 Children’. Here his critique is of the way that many evangelical churches have swallowed the doctrine of the nuclear family, and completely neglected Jesus’ radical teaching on the true nature of ‘family’ in the light of the kingdom of God.
He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (Matthew 12:46–50).
It turns out that Jesus defines his family as those who follow him rather than those who are related to him.
He offers a moving and personal account of relationships in his church which have begun to make that a reality for him, and challenges others to do likewise.
The third misstep is the claim ‘If You’re Born Gay, It Can’t Be Wrong To Be Gay.’ Again, Shaw makes a surprising connection with church teaching, and our failure to be faithful to biblical teaching on ‘original sin’, the idea that we are sinful because we are human, and we cannot assume that any aspect of who we naturally are is necessarily holy just because it is natural.
The fourth misstep is ‘If It Makes You Happy, Then It Must Be Right!’ Here Shaw highlights the way many evangelical churches are indistinguishable from the hedonism and materialism of our culture.
The fifth, ‘Sex Is Where True Intimacy Is Found’, laments the lack of serious friendship in many of our churches, which actually causes problems all around related to sexuality:
Our sex drives are not just lessened by sexual intimacy; they can be satisfied by non-sexual intimacy, by friendship too. My personal experience is that the power of sexual temptation lessens the more time I spend among friends with whom I am non-sexually intimate.
In exploring misstep six, ‘Men And Women Are Equal And Interchangeable’, he argues that Scripture has a radically egalitarian approach to the status of men and women, whilst consistently maintaining difference. In defending the latter, he draw on scientific and cultural insights, on the use of male-female marriage as an analogy with the relationship between God and humanity—and on some intriguing testimony.
Melinda Selmys is a same-sex attracted Christian who has been in sexual relationships with both a woman (in the past) and a man (she’s now married with children). ‘That frank bafflement which inevitably sets in, in any heterosexual relationship (‘Why on earth would he do that? I just don’t understand . . .’) never set in throughout all of the years that my girlfriend and I were together – naturally enough. We were both women, and we chose each other because we seemed to be particularly compatible women.’ (p 93).
Misstep seven was the one I found most personally challenging: ‘Godliness is Heterosexuality’. Here he highlights the way that many evangelical parents long for their children to grow up heterosexual—to the point of paranoia—when their aspiration should be that their children grow into Christlikeness. The notion that heterosexuality is more godly inhibits real honesty about heterosexual sexual brokenness, so that many struggle on alone, not realising that others are struggling too.
Misstep eight ‘Celibacy is Bad for You’ highlights how evangelicals have lost the tradition of celebrating singleness.
In his excellent book on marriage, Christopher Ash poses this question: ‘When did we last see a successful movie which portrayed a contented bachelor or spinster?’ I never have. Have you?… And that’s true inside the church too. When did we last hear a good sermon that promoted lifelong singleness? I never have. Have you?
This loss is astonishing not just in the light of the history of significant single Christian leaders, but most of all in the light of Jesus’ and Paul’s singleness.
The last misstep, ‘Suffering Is To Be Avoided’ is perhaps the most challenging of all. Despite the fact that Jesus suffered, that he calls us to suffer, and that this was the consistent teaching of Paul and other early church leaders, we appear to have forgotten it.
For some reason, in our generation, following Jesus is no longer about our sacrifice and suffering. Western Christians have, by and large, stopped denying ourselves – we now talk more about our right to be ourselves. Our Christian lives are more about self-gratification – seemingly denying the existence of Jesus’ words here. They are a continuation of our previous lives, with a thin Christian veneer: just being nicer to a few more people. (p 118)
If this was my argument, I think there are a few things I would have done differently. Some of the short chapters clearly belong together. ‘If It Makes You Happy, Then It Must Be Right!’ is almost exactly the flip side of the coin ‘Suffering Is To Be Avoided’, and the three chapters ‘Family Is Mum, Dad And 2.4 Children’, ‘Sex Is Where True Intimacy Is Found’ and ‘Godliness is Heterosexuality’ offer a comprehensive critique of Western Christian understandings of sexuality and marriage.
There were also one or two points where I think I disagreed with Shaw. If sexual orientation were found to be genetic, I think it would be much harder to distinguish it from (for example) racial identity, and much easier to say that the Bible is simply wrong. In fact I don’t think that is ever going to happen, since ‘orientation’ is itself a construct of modernity and dependent on a particularly socio-cultural outlook in a way that racial identity is not. He tackles the question of what is natural through the doctrine of original sin; I think it is possible to achieve the same through the much broader theological language of fallenness. And I am not sure I would describe the purpose of marriage as giving a foretaste of the marriage of heaven and earth (as theology from above); it is enough to note that it is a key metaphor which provides an analogy (as theology from below).
But Shaw does achieve three important things in this book. For ‘traditionalists’, he demonstrates that the debate about sexuality is in fact about much more than this one issue. That means that, if ‘traditionalists’ are going to ‘win’ the argument, they are going to have to get their house in order on a whole range of other issues—and would probably be better off not using that label for themselves.
Secondly, for ‘revisionists’, he demonstrates that the debate about sexuality is in fact about much more than this one issue. This means that, if ‘revisionists’ are going to ‘win’ the argument, they are going to have to persuade the church to change on a much wider range of theological issues than sexuality alone—our understanding of fallenness, social constructions of sexuality, and the role of discipline and suffering to name but a few.
Thirdly, Shaw demonstrates that this is, in fact, a crucial issue for the church, and one we would do well to attend to—and he does this with an extraordinary depth of personal openness and honesty. On reading this, I felt I had really encountered the author (whom I have met briefly), and not merely a set of arguments. Shaw presents his case with a personal integrity that it is difficult to be unmoved by. In the end, the book awakened in me a fresh passion to live by the radical and yet plausible demand to follow Christ with renewed commitment and energy.
After returning to his case studies of ‘Peter’ and ‘Jane’, and what his comments might imply for them, Shaw concludes with a striking final observation:
Instead of keeping very silent on the issue of homosexuality, hoping to avoid all of the controversy that it brings us, we should begin to see both the people who experience it and the controversy that it brings as a gift to the church. A divine gift, because it’s just what we needed at this time in our history to help us see the whole series of tragic missteps we have taken, to the detriment of us all, as well as to the detriment of the world we are trying to reach.
Throughout church history, wonderful theological clarity has come out of divisive theological controversy…So the current controversies over sexuality should excite rather than dismay us – it is from times of profound disagreement that our Sovereign God has often brought a return to a radical biblical clarity in the church’s theology and practice.
I have a sneaking feeling that he might well be right.
You can learn more about Ed’s personal story on the Living Out website.
Statement of interest: I was provided with an advance copy of the book The Plausibility Problem: the church and same-sex attraction by Ed Shaw, published by IVP 19th February 2015, electronically and in print.
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