Now I am conscious that there appears to be no end to the number of people wanting to comment about Israel Folau and Billy Vunipola. For those who have managed to miss it, Australian rugby star Israel Folau published on social media a group of people including atheists and homosexuals and announced “Hell awaits you.” He will probably never play for Australia again. The Saracens and England forward Billy Vunipola liked Folau’s post and wrote his own more nuanced take but included the assertion that man was made for a woman. He has been roundly condemned, warned about his future conduct and has been booed every time he touched the ball in his last two matches. Christians (as well as the non-Christian Matthew Parris) have responded largely by bewailing the loss of free speech in our culture. I entirely agree with that.
But I want to reflect on a related issue that I haven’t seen addressed. How should Christians talk about sexuality in the public arena? Because of my own experience I have ended up speaking on the issue quite a lot. I strongly believe God’s pattern is for marriage to be between a man and a woman. However, I have come to the conclusion that it is scarcely ever worth addressing directly in the public manner that Folau and, to a lesser extent, Vunipola did. (And yes I am aware of the irony of writing a blog to that effect!) But it is why I didn’t engage a few years back with the campaign against same sex marriage. I hope that is not because of cowardice or shame. Nor is it simply that I am personally well aware that the issue is pastorally painful and needs to be handled with compassion rather than a social media sound bite. Rather it arises from a biblical conviction.
In many ways Romans 1 is the key text in terms of the prohibition of same sex relationships (though my normal starting point is Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19.) These are regarded as sin- as indeed is approving of such practice in v.32. But we need to pay attention to the flow of the passage. The initial sin in Romans 1 is that of failing to glorify or give thanks to the God who has given us everything. We live in His world but ignore Him. It is hideous and appalling ingratitude- God have mercy on us. God does two things in response. Astonishingly He will give His Son to die for us. But in the first place- in Romans 1- He hands us over to living without Him. Effectively He lets us live in sin- rejecting His order at creation. Homosexual practice (and the approval of it) is one manifestation of that as it turns aside His plan at creation. But as you see the flow what you realise is that, in biblical terms, homosexual practice is not the cause of a problem but the symptom of it. The primary issue is our failure to thank the God who has provided us with so much (including rugby!) to enjoy.
My suggestion- therefore- is that it is always worth tackling the root of a problem rather than the symptom. If we want to send a message to the world (even via social media!) it might be something like “Stop living in God’s world and ignoring Him!” This isn’t just a minor theological point- it really matters. One of the difficulties we have is the assumption in our culture that basically we all believe the same stuff except that some Christians have this weird hang up about gay sex. But, in truth, the issue isn’t that I disagree with the non-Christian world about gay sex. I disagree with the non-Christian world about pretty much everything- the meaning of life and the reason for the existence of the universe would simply be starters. And, actually, it creates more helpful and less heated discussions when we all acknowledge that.
That’s where we need to begin. Every public talk (as opposed to a Christian discussion) that I give on the subject of sexuality starts with an insistence that we first need to work out the purpose of the universe. Is it about me and my desires or is it something else, even something much better? If it is rightfully the first of those then Christians can have no reason (other than prejudice) to argue against same sex marriage. But if the universe is about something else- like Jesus and our truest identity being found not in a sexual relationship but an ultimate, eternal one- then that’s a different and potentially quite fruitful conversation.
A questions remains though. Didn’t Israel Folau essentially just cite 1 Corinthians 6:9? “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Indeed. But notice the context. This isn’t a message to the world about its sin. It is a warning to the church not to be deceived into simply adhering to the practices of their day. And that really does need to be heard in the church. If I am honest- I struggle to be hugely grieved by the growing acceptance of same sex marriage in the culture because there are bigger issues out there to do with ignoring God more generally. But the shift within the church (of which frankly I get evidence every week) pains me deeply. Because we are the group who are believe that the universe is about an ultimate marriage between Christ and the church, that human sexual relationships now are supposed to be a reflection of that and that satisfaction then is a million times greater than anything we can get now. We must stand firm on that in the church. But 1 Corinthians 6:9 isn’t primarily addressed to a non-Christian audience for the Bible never tells non-Christians to behave like Christians. In the world the Bible goes for the root cause- we have a problem with our Creator that only Jesus can fix.
I feel for my brothers who are experiencing such intense opposition even as I query the wisdom of what they wrote. But maybe it will teach us lessons. Don’t go for the symptoms: go for the cause.