Christians united, an analysis and response.

 

Introduction

​The Nashville Statement of August 29 2017[1] reaffirming traditional Christian teaching about human identity and sexual ethics has been met with a number of responses. Among these has been the declaration Christians United in Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church which was issued on 30 August.[2]

This declaration has attracted signatories on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Revd Steve Chalke and Jayne Ozanne, and it represents a significant reaffirmation of the liberal Christian position. The purpose of this paper is to analyse the theological claims made in the declaration and to respond to them.

Preamble

The claim made in the Preamble is that the Church is currently undergoing a period of reformation in which Christians are being led by the Spirit to affirm the LGBT+ community and its relationships. What should we make of this claim?

It is true, as the Preamble says, that ‘like each generation before us, are called to reflect, repent, and reform our teachings and practices to be ever more closely aligned with the heart and will of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.’ If we believe as Christians that God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ (John 1:18) it necessarily follows that we constantly need to ensure that our teachings and practices are in accordance with this revelation, reforming them where necessary.

It is also true that it is the work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to Christ (John 15:26) that shows us where such reformation is required.

What is questionable is the assertion in the Preamble that it is the guidance of the Holy Spirit that has led a growing number of Christians in recent years:

‘…to a renewed understanding of Christian teaching on sexuality and gender identity that includes, affirms, and embraces the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary, queer community as created and fully blessed by God and welcomed in to the life of the Church and society just as they are, without a need to conform to the heteronormative, patriarchal, binary sexuality and gender paradigm that Christianity has come to promote and embrace.’

The question raised by this quotation is how one can assess whether what is claimed to be the guidance of the Holy Spirit genuinely is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The answer to this question is that because the Holy Spirit together with the Father and the Son is the God who had created the world (Genesis 1:2) and because the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writing (2 Timothy 3:16) it follows that any claim to guidance by the Spirit that contradicts the witness of the created order and teaching of Scripture must be wrong.

In addition, if we believe that the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church throughout its history we need to take seriously the witness of the Christian Church down the ages and be cautious about any claim to the Spirit’s guidance that contradicts this witness. It might be that every generation before our own has been misguided, but we would need very strong evidence to convince us that this has been the case.

What this means is that we need to look critically at the claim made in Christians United that some Christians have been guided to a fresh understanding by the Spirit and assess this claim against the witness of creation, Scripture and the witness of the Church down the ages. In order to do this we shall look in turn at the affirmations and denials contained in the ten articles of the document.

Article 1

Article 1 is correct to affirm that ‘every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.’ This is the clear teaching of Genesis 1:26 and 27 and has been universally affirmed by the Church.

Problems arise when the article declares that:

‘… the great diversity expressed in humanity through our wide spectrum of unique sexualities and gender identities is a perfect reflection of the magnitude of God’s creative work;’

and that we should reject any suggestion that:

‘God’s creative intent is limited to a gender binary or that God’s desire for human romantic relationships is only to be expressed in heterosexual relationships between one man and one woman.’

These declarations are problematic for two reasons.

First, both declarations contradict the witness of both nature and Scripture (Genesis 1 and 2, Matthew 19:4), and the universal tradition of the Church based on this witness, that God has created humanity as a binary species consisting of men and women who are distinguished from each other by their physical embodiment and who are created to procreate by means of male-female intercourse. There is no such thing as a created diversity of human beings which can be reflected in a variety of sexualities and gender identities. Human beings are created by God to be male and female and to exist sexually only on this basis.

It is now frequently suggested that the existence of a variety of intersex conditions tells against the idea of a binary division of humanity into men and women, but in fact, as Oliver O’Donovan observes, what we are actually dealing with in the case of such conditions is ‘an ambiguity which has arisen by a malfunction in a dimorphic human sexual pattern.’[3] Just as congenital blindness is a malfunction that prevents people from seeing, so also intersex conditions are malfunctions that means that people have an ambiguity in their physical sex. In neither case however, are we dealing with a separate class of human beings whose existence shows that it is not God’s intention that people should see, or be physically distinct as male and female and live accordingly.

Secondly, the second half of the second declaration contradicts the teaching of Scripture, and the Christian tradition building on Scripture, that romantic relationships should only take place between one man and one woman. The teaching of Genesis 2, on which the teaching of the rest of Scripture and the subsequent Christian tradition builds, is that the God given romantic companion for a man is a woman and vice versa and that the God given context for sexual intercourse as an expression of romantic love is marriage between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24).

Article 2

The affirmation in article 2 that ‘God designed marriage to be a covenantal bond between human beings who have committed to love, serve, and live a life faithfully committed to one another over the course of a lifetime’ is true as far as it goes. However, it contradicts Scripture and the Christian tradition based on Scripture by failing to add that God designed marriage to a covenant bond between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5).

The contradiction then continues when the article denies that ‘God intended human romantic relationships to be limited to one man and one woman’ and declares that ‘that any attempts to limit the sacred or civil rights of humans to covenant and commit to love and serve one another is an affront to God’s created design’ both these statements go against the clear teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition that marriage is designed by God to be limited to one man and one woman.

Article 3

Article 3 is in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms that ‘relationships between fallen humans have suffered great distortions resulting in various forms of infidelity and unhealthy behaviors that contribute to the suffering of humanity.’ From Genesis 3 onwards the Bible describes and critiques these kind of distortions and the Christian ethical tradition has continued to catalogue and critique them as forms of sin. The article is also in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms that God desires ‘all humans to enter into loving, sacrificial relationships with one another.’ Both Scripture and the Christian tradition following it teach that we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 19:19) and that this will inevitably involve some form of self-sacrifice. However, the article’s further suggestion that is right for people to enter into ‘romantic’ relationships ‘regardless of gender or sexual identity’ contradicts the teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition noted above that God’s intention is for romantic relationships to take place between men and women.

There are further problems with what Article 3 denies. It denies that ‘the multiplicity of sexual orientations and gender identities’ is a result of the Fall and argues instead that ‘fallenness manifests in the human capacity to function out of hedonistic self-interest instead of the self-giving love in whose image we are created.’

The difficulty with what is said here is that it ignores St Paul’s specific teaching that same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships are a result of the fallenness of the human race (Romans 1:26-27) and the fact that if, as Scripture and the Christian tradition teaches, God created human beings to be male or female according to their physical sex any claim to gender identity that denies or obscures this truth must likewise be seen as an outworking of the Fall.

It is true that fallenness manifests itself in living a life of hedonistic self-interest rather than self-giving love (see for example Amos 2:6-8, Luke 16:19-31). However, it also needs to be noted that if we truly love someone else then we shall want the best for them. This will then mean that we want them to live according to God’s intention for their lives and that therefore we will not want them enter into any form of sexual relationship outside heterosexual marriage either with us or with anyone else. As a consequence, acting in love will necessarily involve saying ‘no’ to all such relationships.

Article 4

Article 4 is in line with Scripture and the Christian tradition when it affirms thatthose who are born as intersex are full and equal bearers of the image and likeness of God and are worthy of full dignity and respect.’ Since they are human beings they too have been created by God in his image and likeness and as such are indeed worthy of full dignity and respect.

However, the article becomes problematic when it links the claim that Christians must ‘affirm and support intersex individuals in their journey of self-realization and embracing their unique, God-created sexual orientation and gender identity, whatever it may be’ with a denial that ‘intersex individuals are required to conform to a gender binary or a heteronormative sexual paradigm.’

The suggestion here seems to be that an intersex person’s journey of self-realization could legitimately lead them to embrace an identity that was neither male nor female or to enter into a same-sex sexual relationship. The problem with this suggestion is that, as we have seen, an intersex person is not a special sub-species of humanity who form an exception to God’s creation of human beings as men and women. They are human beings whose physical sex is ambiguous as a result of a developmental malfunction and whose true identity as either men or women is for that reason more difficult to determine than is normally the case.

Faithfulness to the convergent witness of creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition, means affirming that as human beings intersex people are still either male or female. This in turn means that as far as is possible given the available evidence their calling is to discern and live out their male or female identity and (like all other human beings) to only engage in sexual activity with a member of the opposite sex.

Article 5

Article 5 begins by following the same problematic path as the previous article. It contradicts the witness of creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition by affirming ‘that while the male and female gender identity reflects a majority of the human family, God has created individuals whose gender identity does not fall on such a binary spectrum.’ The only plausible basis for such an affirmation would be if those who are intersex form a genuine exception to God’s creation of the human race as a sexually dimorphic species and as we have seen this does not seem to be the case.

The article then deviates further from the witness of creation, Scripture and tradition.by affirming that:

‘…there are many transgender individuals who are born with a physical body that is incongruent with their true gender identity, and these individuals should be supported and trusted in regards to their own self-knowledge of who they are and how God has created them’

The difficulty with this affirmation is that it is based on a denial of the truth taught to us both by biology and by the creation accounts in Genesis that human beings (unlike angels) have been created by God as physically embodied beings whose identity as male or female is determined by the particular nature of their embodiment. Human beings are creatures designed for sexual reproduction and they are male or female depending on how their bodies are configured to take part in the reproductive process.

It follows that to say someone’s true ‘gender identity’ (i.e. whether they are male or female) is incongruent with their physical body is a contradiction in terms like saying that a three sided geometrical shape is not really a triangle. A three sided geometrical shape is a triangle and a person with a particular form of human body is either male or female. Furthermore, according to the witness of Scripture and Christian tradition the resurrection of the body that will take place at the end of time (Daniel 12:2, 1 Corinthians 15:35-58) means that we shall be male or female in this way for all eternity. Jesus didn’t cease to be a male human being as a result of his resurrection and likewise we too shall retain our sexual identity in the world to come.

It also follows that it is misleading to suggest that we should accept someone’s alleged ‘self-knowledge’ of who they are when this contradicts their physical embodiment. Such ‘knowledge’ is at variance with reality and thus is not actually knowledge at all. However significant it may appear to be for the individual concerned such alleged knowledge is in fact an illusion since it contradicts the available evidence. Although the consequences are more significant, in principle someone claiming that they have a sex that is at variance with the sex of their body is like someone with red hair claiming that God has made them blonde.

Contrary to the denial in the second half of the article, saying someone with a male body is male is thus not a ‘cultural assumption’ that we are ‘forcing’ them to accept. It is saying who God has made them to be.

The article closes by further contradicting creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition by denying that ‘the heterosexual, male/female binary is the only consistent reflection of God’s holy purposes in Creation.’ What this denial is suggesting is that that if people have sexual relationships with people their own sex or reject the idea that they have been created as male or female then these are reflections of God’s holy purposes in creation. What creation, Scripture and tradition tells us by contrast is that these are examples of those disordered forms of behaviour and thought resulting from the Fall to which St. Paul refers in Romans 1:18-32.

Article 6

The opening affirmation in article 6 is something that Scripture and the Christian tradition completely support. They tells us that as human beings ‘LBGBT+ Christians’ are indeed:

‘…called to live holy and fulfilling lives that are pleasing to God through living in congruence with God’s creative intent for them, and, like all Christians, are called to walk in a rhythm of life that reflects the example of Jesus Christ our Lord.’

However, the article then contradicts the witness of creation, Scripture and tradition when it denies that ‘heterosexuality or binary gender identities are the only legitimate sexuality and gender identities that reflect the natural goodness of God’s creation.’ As we have seen, the witness of creation, Scripture, and tradition is that God has made the world in such a way that people can only truly reflect the goodness of God’s creation when they live as men and women and have sexual relation in marriage with a person of the opposite sex. Living in any other way on the basis of some alleged alternative identity contradicts how God created human beings to be.

Article 7

Article 7 makes two affirmations.

The first affirmation is that:

‘…one may live proudly and openly as an LGBT+ individual and as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and that LGBT+ individuals must be fully embraced and included in every level of Christian leadership, life, and ministry without exception in order for the Church to fully embrace its call to be the body of Christ.’

From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition if ‘living proudly and openly as an LBGT + individual’ means rejecting one’s creation as a man or a woman or being in a same-sex sexual relationship’ then this is not compatible with being ‘a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.’ This is because to be faithful means to seek to live in accordance with God’s will, as when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Genesis 22), or when Jesus acted as a ‘faithful high priest’ by sacrificing himself in obedience to God’s will ‘to make expiation for the sins of the people’ (Hebrews 2:17).As explained above, those who reject their creation as a man or woman or who enter into a same-sex relationship are not living in accordance with the will of God and therefore cannot be said to be faithful.

Scripture and the Christian tradition also affirm that the leaders of the Church in particular must be people who live in accordance with God’s will (Acts 6:3, 1 Timothy 3) and therefore it would be wrong to appoint leaders who do not do so as this affirmation asks for. The Church does not require leaders living in a way that is contrary to God’s will in order to be the body of Christ.

The second affirmation is ‘We also affirm Christ’s call for the Church to be one, united in the midst of our diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities, relationships, and beliefs about the same.’ Scripture and the Christian tradition agree that Jesus prayed for the Church to be one (John 17:20-21), but they would say that this one Church is called to be a body in which God’s truth is taught and lived out (see for example Ephesians 4:1-5:20) and that therefore it would not be right for it to accept and endorse claims about sexual identity or forms of sexual behaviour that are contrary to this, which is what this article appears to be asking for.

The article goes on to deny that ‘teachings on the Biblical interpretation of sexuality and gender identity constitute a matter of orthodoxy and should be a cause for division among Christians.’ What this means is that people should be able to interpret the Bible in whatever way they like without being subject to correction or Church discipline and without the Church dividing. This goes against Scripture and the Christian tradition which warn against false teaching and calls Christians to disassociate themselves from it (Ephesians 5:6-8, 2 Peter 2, Jude, Revelation 2:19-23).

Article 8

Article 8 also contains two affirmations. It affirms, firstly, that ‘non-inclusive teaching causes significant psychological and spiritual harm to LGBT+ individuals in Christian churches around the world’ and it then affirms secondly that:

‘…the Church of Jesus Christ is guilty of preaching a harmful message that has caused hundreds of thousands of individuals to face bullying, abuse, and exclusion from their families and communities, and must publicly repent and seek reconciliation with the LGBT+ community for the harm that has been done to them in the name of Christ.’

What the first affirmation is saying is that the Church’s traditional teaching that people are either men or women depending on their embodiment and that sex should be confined to marriage between a man and a woman causes significant psychological and spiritual harm.

In relation to psychological harm there is lots of evidence that people have experienced severe and lasting mental distress because of the discrepancy between the Church’s traditional teaching and their sense of their own identity and their sexual desires. However the issue that has to be addressed is how this discrepancy should solved.

One way of solving it would be for the Church to abandon its traditional teaching and the other would be for the people concerned to change their understanding of their identity and be willing to say no to the fulfilment of their sexual desires. From the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition the first solution would mean the Church ceasing to teach the truth about God’s will for his human creation, which is something that the Church cannot do. This means that the proper way forward is instead for the Church to do better at helping people to accept how God made them and how he wants them to live.

In relation to spiritual harm there is once again evidence that people have felt cut off from God because of their inability to accept the Church’s traditional teaching. Once again the issue is what needs to change. From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition what needs to change is people’s inability to accept the Church’s teaching. This is because the reason people feel cut off from God is what is traditionally known as ‘conviction,’ a sense that that they are in the wrong before God, and the only proper way to deal with conviction is repentance. Like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, people need to abandon their life in the far country and return to the Father who longs to welcome them home (Luke 15:11-32). Telling people that they should learn to be happy living in the far country will not do them any good at all.

The point that needs to be made in relation to the second affirmation is that where people have been bullied, abused and wrongly excluded, and where the Church has encouraged this either openly or inadvertently, then this has been and is wrong and the Church does indeed need to repent. However, this does not mean that the Church should cease to preach its traditional message. From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition this would simply cause further harm by preventing people from having opportunity to hear the truth about who they are and how God wants hem to live. The proper answer to bullying, abuse and exclusion is not ceasing to proclaim the truth.

Article 8 also denies ‘that any Christian who perpetuates harmful teachings and refuses to openly dialogue with LGBT+ people is living a life modeled after the faithful example of Jesus.’ From the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition there are two points that need to be made in response to this. The first is that traditional Christian teaching about human identity and sexual behaviour is not harmful, but is instead beneficial in that declares that truth about how God has made human beings and how he wants them to live in response. The second is that while it is right for Christians to engage in dialogue with LBGT+ people, such dialogue needs to include Christians explaining clearly what creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition have to say about the matters under discussion. According to the Gospels Jesus declared the truth that he had been sent to proclaim and Christians need to do the same today.

It also needs to be noted that the truths that Christians have been given to proclaim are not subject to negotiation. Christians cannot adjust these truths to make their dialogue partners happier. They can explain them, but they do not have the authority to change them.

Article 9

Article 9 affirms that:

‘….sexuality and gender identity may be expressed in a variety of different ways, including celibacy’ and that ‘commitment, consent, respect, and self-sacrificial love must be the center of any life or relationship that is to be deemed holy and upright for a Christian.’

From the perspective of Scripture and the Christian tradition both these affirmation are correct. However, they would want to say that gender identity means being male or female in line with one’s embodiment and that any ‘holy and upright’ life and relationship must conform to the rule of sexual faithfulness within marriage between one man and one woman and sexual abstinence outside it.

The article also denies that: ‘… any individual, especially minors, should be forced to seek any form of treatment or therapy that promises to change their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to conform to a patriarchal, heteronormative model of relationship.’

While forcing people into treatment or therapy against their will is ethically problematic and unlikely to be effective, from the standpoint of Scripture and the Christian tradition it would seem to be legitimate in principle to offer people help to accept their God given male or female sexual identity and reduce or control unwanted same-sex desire if that is what they want. Why would one not want to try to help people to live in accordance with God’s will?

Article 10

Article 10 consists of an affirmation and two denials.

What it affirms is that: ‘Jesus Christ has come into the world to bring salvation to all people and through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, all are invited into redemption through Christ.’

What it denies is that ‘Christ rejects anyone from his loving embrace because of their sexuality or gender identity’ and that ‘homosexuality, bisexuality, queer sexuality, trans* identity, asexuality, or any other queer identity is sinful, distorted, or outside of God’s created intent.’

What is affirmed in this article is entirely in line with the teaching of Scripture and the Christian tradition. The heart of the Christian message has always been that all people need salvation and that salvation is available to all through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16, Romans 3:23-25). In line with the first denial in the article Scripture and the Christian tradition also teach that no one is excluded from the possibility of salvation because of how they live their life. Providing they repent and put their faith in Christ they can be saved.

However, it does not follow from this that it is right to say that no way of life is contrary to God’s will. There are ways of living that are contrary to God’s ‘created intent’ for his human creatures and entering into the salvation that God offers us through Jesus Christ means being willing to turn from them (Romans 6:1-23, Colossians 3:1-10). The question is whether the various forms of queer identity listed in the second denial in this article constitutes forms of life that people need to turn from in this way. As we have seen, Scripture and the Christian tradition would say that they are in as much as they involve a rejection of God’s call to his human creatures to live as men and women in accordance with their embodiment and to follow a path of sexual discipline involving sexual abstinence outside marriage and complete sexual fidelity within it.

Conclusion

What we have seen in this paper is that the joint witness of creation, Scripture and the universal tradition of the Christian Church is that God has created human beings as embodied creatures who are men and women depending of their embodiment and has ordained marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual intercourse and the procreation of children.

What we have also seen is that the affirmations and declarations in Christians United constitute a rejection of this witness in favour of the acceptance of variety of other forms of sexual identity and behaviour.

It follows that the claim made in Christians United that the ideas it contains are a result of the work of the Holy Spirit bringing about a further reformation in the life of the Church needs to be rejected. Either the Spirit has not previously spoken through creation, Scripture and the Christian tradition, or the Spirit has for some reason decided to say something today that is contrary to what he has said before, or those whose ideas are reflected in Christians United are mistaken in their belief that they have been guided by the Spirit. Of these three options the last one is the one we should accept.

M B Davie 12.9.17

[1] The Nashville Statement, text at https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement.

[2] Christians United in Support of LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church, text at http://www.christiansunitedstatement.org/.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Transsexualism: Issues and Argument, Cambridge: Grove Books, 2007, p.8.

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