Ethics flows from ontology: reflections on theology and change in relation to sexual attraction

Presentation to the Transformation Potential conference, London, Tuesday 14 April 2015


There are two issues which I have been asked to look at from a theological perspective this morning. The first is ‘Is change possible? ’ and the second is ‘What do we mean by change?’ In my comments I shall look at each question in turn. My overall starting point is the principle that ethics flows from ontology, that how we behave needs to express who we are.

Is change possible?

What we are asking in relation to this question is whether change is possible for those with unwanted same-sex attraction.

My answer to this question is that change is not only possible, but is actual for all Christian believers regardless of whether they have unwanted same-sex attraction, wanted same-sex attraction or no same-sex attraction at all. I say this because the witness of the New Testament is that those who are united to Christ through faith and baptism have been made new people, people who have been redeemed from the power of sin and death.

This truth is set out most concisely in 2 Corinthians 5:17 where St. Paul declares: ‘Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.’

The same truth is spelled out in more detail in two other key Pauline passages. The first is Romans 6:1-11:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The second is Ephesians 2:1-10:

And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

The Christian message is therefore that by the grace of God we have already been changed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our calling is to live out that change in every area of our life, including our sexuality.

Furthermore, this is not something that we have to do in our own strength, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. To quote St. Paul again:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. (Romans 8:1-11)

The challenge for the Christian is therefore whether he or she is willing to allow God to so work in them through the Spirit that they manifest in their behaviour the new life already achieved for them by Christ’s death and resurrection. Ethics flows from ontology.

What do we mean by change?

If we go on to ask what we mean by change the answer given to us in the New Testament is not that we will no longer be people who have the desire to sin, but that we will be people who are able to say no to sinful behaviour. We can see this in Galatians 5:16-24:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

This description of the Christian life contains no promise of deliverance from the ‘desires of the flesh,’ among which are our fallen sexual desires. What it does promise is that the Spirit will enable us to say no to acting out these desires if we are willing to let this happen.

As J I Packer argues in Knowing God, the fact that the Christian life thus takes the form of continuous struggle is, paradoxical though this may seem, an aspect of God’s grace towards us. How, he asks, does God achieve his purpose of drawing us closer and closer to himself?

Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh, and the devil, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and drive us to cling to Him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another – it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. (p.281)

All this being the case, I do not think we are doing anyone any favours if we suggest that if you are a Christian God will necessarily take away your same-sex attraction. I am not saying that God could not do this, or that he does not do this, but what I am saying is that there is no promise in Scripture that this will be the case (any more than Scripture promises deliverance from any other form of sinful desire) and in addition experience does not suggest that this is what normally happens.

In my view teaching people to expect that God will take away their same-sex desire is not only misleading but also potentially dangerous, because when people are led to expect this and it does not then happen this very often leads people to give up on the biblical teaching on sexuality altogether, as has happened recently in two well publicized cases in this country.

What we should be teaching people is that the Christian life is a daily battle against sin and that what is important is not whether we have sinful desires, but what we do about them; whether we give in to them or acknowledge our need of God and seek the help of his Spirit to live out the victory which Christ has already won for us by resisting them. Where counselling and therapy fit into the picture is in helping people to learn how to seek God’s strength to live as the new people God has made them to be. Ethics flows from ontology.

M B Davie 15.4.15