It is by no means a novel insight to declare that the great testing ground for western Christians in the 21st century is in ethics. What is moral? What is sin? What is holy? What is right? It is in these areas that the witness of the Bible and of the teachings of the church are being put most severely to the test.
It is most evident in discussions about sexuality and gender. Specifically homosexuality and transgender. But these are just the last & present pressure points. It’s a bit like waves on the sea – inside the church the wave of pressure to change your mind on same-sex marriage is still growing & cresting. Inevitably behind it is a smaller wave, still some way off but present and it’s picking up speed. Other waves are coming too. They always do.
One cliché often cast about is that we need to get onto the right side of history, it being 2017 and everything. Except history, when it comes to the progress of religions does not always go where you might think.
Trevin Wax explores this idea and references how in the 19 & 20th century the miraculous elements of the Bible were downplayed to make it more appealing to the modern mind. Instead what happened was this stream of thought became what we call ‘liberalism’ & suffered massive decline. Pentecostalism on the other hand, which feeds off miracles, has experienced exponential growth. He writes,
It’s easy to think that the best way for Christianity to grow is to emphasize the palatable parts for a culture and avoid the offensive. But surely the last century shows us that the very claims that were most embarrassing to a scientific age became the most attractive elements of Christianity.
His parallel is straightforward:
What if, a hundred years from now, the Christians who have exploded in growth and passion across the world are the ones that sought to reaffirm and embody the historic Christian teaching on sexuality and family? What if we are on the verge of a 21st century of attractive Christian witness because of our morality, not in spite of it?
The very simple point is that no one knows how history is going to unfold and no one knows which history will see as the right side or not. It is only possible to do what is right now and for the Christian, that surely must be grounded in the faith of the church and ultimately that revealed in the Christian Scriptures.
Knowing, therefore, and being confident in what the Bible teaches and why is crucial. What matters today is a posture of learning, an openness and willingness to engage in debate and conversation. Wesley Hill is an excellent example of this. He recently engaged Justin Lee of the Gay Christian network in a debate and reflecting on this wrote,
As the Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan has written, “The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process [of dialogue between ‘gay-affirming’ Christians and ‘traditionalist’ Christians] is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.”
Then came the key moment. Justin focused on the ‘clobber passages’, the overwhelmingly negative verses that the Bible has about same-sex relationships (Genesis 19:1-29; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:10-11). Wesley on the other hand came to the following realisation:
I think there is a consistent Scriptural teaching on marriage—aptly summarized by Augustine’s three “goods” of fidelity/exclusivity, procreation, and sacrament, and traceable from Genesis to Revelation—and that the so-called “clobber passages” are merely ancillary confirmation that same-sex sexual intimacy is ruled out of bounds for Christian believers. Even without those passages, I’m convinced I’d still hold the views I hold about marriage: that is a covenantal bond between a man and a women, ordered to procreation, and bearing witness to Christ’s love for the church.
Which is why we’d do well to pay closer attention to the key issues of faithfulness, fruitfulness and other-ness (or complementarity). For an example of that, watch this excellent little video.
Photo by victoriagoldveber