I don’t know if you’re like me and feel that the way us evangelicals handle the issue of homosexuality leaves something to be desired? I want to reconsider our approach, but first let me spell out what dissatisfies me about what normally goes on.
First, we let the world set the agenda. A small vocal minority is pushing homosexuality hard in the media, so it seems like everyone’s talking about it. In reality, most ordinary Aussies are not talking about it, it’s not an issue that’s looming large on their horizons. The vast majority of people are of course heterosexual in inclination, and never consider a homosexual lifestyle. But for the media it’s a good stick to beat the churches with, and it makes for sensational copy. So they push it.
And we play along with them. We let ourselves be drawn in to public debate about this far too often. As though it were a core concern of ours. Or to put it another way, we’ve let the media paint us into this little corner.
It’s a mistake to let the media dictate what we talk about. Let’s stop doing it.
Second, our way of talking about this obscures the gospel instead of making it plain. We have let this become an argument almost exclusively about Biblical authority. Which for most people feels like a pretty abstract concept. So the debate goes like this:
Them: people should be free to be homosexual if they like.
Us: no, it’s wrong.
Them: why do you say it’s wrong?
Us: because the bible says so and that’s the rule book.
Them: (pull incredulous faces).
There’s nowhere to go after that. The whole thing shuts down about there. In particular, there’s no room for Jesus in this debate. We take an approach that excludes him. By making this an argument about biblical authority, we narrow the whole thing extremely. At the end of the debate, no one has spoken or heard any gospel.
Related to this, we confirm people’s idea that Christianity is all about rule-keeping and the Bible is basically a rule book. This is disastrous. The world likes to paint us in these colours, as heartless legalists. And on this issue we are helping them do the painting. Whether we ‘win’ or ‘lose’ this battle, we make it that much harder to win the war. Which is the war for people’s souls.
Even worse, by excluding the proper context for the bible’s prohibition, we give the impression that the rule itself is arbitrary. Why is homosexuality wrong? Because the bible says so. That’s it. Why does it say that? Because God says so. Why does God say that? God gets to make the rules. Who are we to question him?
At the end of this discussion no one is any the wiser.
So the message we give the world is that Christian ethics are about unquestioning adherence to an abstract moral code. This is unhelpful, and indeed unfaithful to the gospel. In our concern to defend this issue, we’ve fallen into some serious theological distortions.
And need we add, it doesn’t get much traction out there… In fact, I think our position often sounds a lot weaker than it actually is, the way we put it across.
I have more concerns about our approach. We talk about this as ‘a battle we can’t afford to lose’. It seems we feel obliged to push back on this until we’ve successfully swayed society to our point of view. But is this really the role we want to have ? The moral policeman, the parent figure who guards and monitors the behaviour of the children?
The truth is, the church has for so long seen itself as an institutional power, a big hitter in the social realm. It has a long history of taking this ‘moral policeman’ role, and finds it hard to give it up. Is it possible there’s a residual sense of entitlement at work here – a feeling that we are authorised to tell people what to do? If others contradict, we’ll speak louder, we’ll insist, we’ll fight for our position. We feel it’s our duty.
My question is, who has called us to do this? What does this have to do with the mission of the church, this lecturing our neighbours? My impression is that ‘the church as moral censor’ is exactly what people have been turned off by in the past 50 years.
Related to this is the matter of tone. Our talk about sexuality in the public sphere is too often negative and anxious in tone. We give the impression that we experience the whole sex thing as a problem. That’s not good. We’re seen to be reactionary, tearing down but not building anything helpful.
I would argue that much of what we say about homosexuality in public is counter-productive and gives ammo to the gay lobby. For that movement has a narrative in which we are oppressors trying to crush and humiliate them, while they are brave freedom fighters who have thrown off the shackles of our hateful prejudice and found the courage to be true to themselves. All their arguments with us go on within this narrative framework. And all our replies are filtered through it also. As long as this story goes unchallenged, everything we say, no matter how true or reasonable, strengthens their position, and wins sympathy for their cause. Ordinary people are not very keen on homosexuality, but once they’ve had a dose of the narrative, they find themselves wanting to stand up for gay rights. As Jeeves would say, it’s Psychology. Unless we can dislodge the narrative, our every effort just pushes people further the other way. Every shot we fire is into our own collective foot.
This alienating approach from our spokespeople has a cost at the local level. It’s making our mission that much harder. By entrenching negative stereotypes of the church and the Christian faith, this sort of polemic against homosexuality is burning the very bridges we’re working so hard to create. It’s one thing for people to be offended by the gospel of Jesus – if it causes offence, so be it. But it’s another matter for them to be offended by all this stuff above.
Well, that’s my beef. In the next couple of days I want to set out an alternative approach to ethical issues like homosexuality that I think will get us more mileage and do less damage to our mission.