Earlier this year I was asked to speak on the subject of homosexuality on a pastoral care course down at WEST. I decided that I probably ought to increase my range of reading on the subject so worked my way through Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian. Vines speaks movingly about discovering his own gay identity as a teenager and relates how he set about exploring whether the Bible teaches what it has traditionally been thought to teach. He comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t and so arrives at a position that affirms monogamous homosexual relationships. The book is written winsomely with a charitable tone but the case isn’t made. Whilst on the surface Vines appears to affirm biblical authority, much of the teaching on issues such as Romans 1 and the extent to which marriage between man and woman reflects Christ and the church is swept away under the rubric of being only explicable and applicable in terms of what Paul and others knew at the time. Vines argues that if they knew what we know about sexuality and gender- well they would have said something different. In reality, therefore, Vines actually undermines biblical authority for a plain reading of the text is made subservient to the views of our modern culture on how we understand issues like sexuality and gender.
My point, though, isn’t particularly to offer a critique of the book (Sam Allberry does a fine job of that here) but to note the process. Vines identifies himself as gay and then starts revising his position on what the Bible teaches. For the vast majority of Christians who are also revising their position, the same process is at work. Either the Christian themselves identifies as gay or, more likely, a close friend or relative does and it feels impossible to hold to an orthodox biblical position without seeming to lack love or be a cruel hearted bigot. So the temptation is to set off to re-examine the Scriptures and start reading the crucial texts in a way that you would never read any other text.
I do want to suggest there is another way forward. In part, as I argued last week, that is about finding identity in being joined to Christ rather than in sexuality. But it is also about finding meaning and purpose in living with something that feels painful. That means it is possible to stay in line with God’s revealed will rather than depart from it.
That was the path that the Lord, in His kindness, took me down. By the time of my student days I was aware of being attracted to other men rather than women. I was also a Christian. Potentially these days I could have gone down the path taken by Matthew Vines and others. However, the Lord used two sermons powerfully in my life to take me in the opposite direction. I mentioned the first sermon last week. The second was on 2 Corinthians 12- and has become the main lens through which I view my experience of same sex attraction.
The apostle Paul has had various spectacular visions of the third heaven. So “to keep him from becoming conceited”, Paul is given a thorn in the flesh. This thorn is described as a messenger of Satan- yet the result is the purpose of God in Paul’s life. He has to depend on the Lord’s grace which he is promised will be sufficient for him and will be stronger in the Lord’s service as a result.
Now, as it happens, I don’t think that Paul’s thorn was some form of same sex attraction. But I do remember the Lord applying the sermon on 2 Corinthians 12 very directly to me. I hadn’t been to the third heaven but I had been relatively successful in life- I could speak confidently in public, had been head boy of a public school (though I’m still not sure how that happened!) and was, at the time, studying for an Oxford degree. My family background had been wonderful. There was just one aspect of life that I found very painful- my attraction to people of the same sex. The pain came in two main forms- temptation to engage in something that I knew was wrong and the likely suffering of not having a family of my own. A thorn in the flesh sounded like an accurate description of this- particularly a thorn that Satan might try to use. By this point it would be fair to say that I had prayed more than Paul’s three times, “Take it away from me.” Gloriously, though, as I listened to the sermon on 2 Corinthians, suddenly I could see the purpose in the Lord not answering those prayers- to keep me from becoming conceited and that, in needing to depend on Him, I might me made stronger and more useful. Partly as a result of that sermon, the rest of 2 Corinthians began to open up for me. So my experience of suffering and comfort in this area of life became the means by which I could encourage others along the lines of chapter one. Or my experience of same sex attraction was part of what it meant for me to be a jar of clay to show that the power is from God and not from me along the lines of chapter four. Those reflections haven’t always removed the reality of temptation and suffering but they have always assured me that the experience was not without meaning or purpose.
My experience over the twenty years or so since I heard that sermon would bear out the truth of 2 Corinthians 12. I am pretty sure I would have been a useless pastor without living with this thorn- without empathy and proud. If there is any sense of useful empathy in my ministry then it has come from the Lord not answering my prayer for the thorn to be removed. Certainly if there is anything resembling humility (I am not sure I am the best judge of that!) in me it would be down to this. And His grace really has been sufficient for me. There used to be a raw pain attached to living with this but that has gone- replaced with a sense of acceptance that this is the life the Lord has given me and that He is good.
I have probably written more personally here than in any of the previous posts. The point I want to make, though, is this. Just because we have to live with something that is difficult is not sufficient reason to seek to re-write biblical ethics. It may be that the Lord has other purposes in mind that will be challenging but, in the deepest sense, good.
And, of course, none of these reflections are limited to issues of same sex attraction. As I have got to know others well, I have discovered that virtually everybody is living with something. A painful challenge that they wish the Lord would take away but He isn’t doing so yet. And so we go back to the Scriptures that assure us that none of those experiences is meaningless but they are part of the Lord’s dealings with us for good.
I want to say that we don’t need to re-write the Scriptures when it comes to this issue. But nor should the biblical prohibitions be the only word. Rather, we need the whole sweep of the Scriptures which assure us there is the deepest meaning and purpose in living with challenging circumstances that the Lord chooses not to remove.