Advent 2 -- 7 December 1997 | DB Home | RCL Resources Index | Questions and Comments Templestowe Uniting Church|

Truth and mercy in the sexuality debate

[Note: For an update on developments in the Uniting Church please see What happened at Assembly 2003 leading to the Reforming Alliance. This sermon was writtten six years earlier for extended study in my last parish. A briefer version was actually preached. It is offered as part of the ongoing discussion. See also, Tolerance, Speaking the truth in love and Homosexuality and Ministry in the Uniting Church .]

In the past I have spoken to you of the spiritual meaning of sex and marriage (eg One Flesh, Loyalty in the body: Sex and faith and Sermon at a marriage service), and more recently of divorce (Divorce and Christ's humanity), the but the vexed question of homosexuality that has caused much distress and threatened recently a national division in the Uniting Church remains to be directly addressed. The mere fact that the National Assembly seriously considered a proposal for recognising a place in ministry for people living in homosexual partnerships has been sufficient for some people to leave the Church, even though the proposal was not accepted. Others have seen failure to act as a failure of love and denial of justice. I am aware that in this congregation different opinions have been held so that it was not possible for a clear opinion to be passed on to the Sexuality Task Group as a congregational response to their draft report. We had to report a range of opinions. It remains a highly contentious matter, although it is important to recognize that the overwhelming majority of Uniting Church people were shown in a national survey to disapprove the kind of recognition that was proposed. It remains an issue and should not be avoided because it will have continuing affects in the Church. I think it is the one remaining topic on which I undertook to preach that I have not covered in my time at Templestowe [concluding December 1997]. Time is running out and I cannot fit it in easily with any of the remaining themes in the lectionary for Advent this season; but there is some relevance for us in the combination of light and mercy in the song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) which we have used in the place of the psalm this morning.

The lectionary gospel theme today is the coming of John the Baptist as a herald running ahead of a greater one to follow, and calling on people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We have recited the ancient hymn known traditionally as the Benedictus: the song of Zechariah the father of John the Baptist. It concludes,

If we would have lasting peace on contentious matters we must allow ourselves to be guided by that dawn which broke long ago to give light to those who sit in darkness. Christians believe that the light of the world has dawned upon us in Jesus Christ. At Christmas we acknowledge that he is the Word of God made flesh, who is the light that was coming into the world, the light to which John bore witness.

Christians believe the claim that Christ himself made, that he is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6); so we are bound to test what we believe about the nature and will of God by reference to him (John 14:7-11). His life, death and resurrection shed light on the nature and will of God. We are not likely to discern how we are being led if we fail to centre our search for the truth on him. Church members on opposite sides of the debate agree on that, but they point to different aspects of his life and teaching. Some say he was a friend of outcasts and sinners. He gave the example of the Good Samaritan as a good neighbour but an outsider. So it is argued we too must accept people regardless of how they differ. Others point to the reluctance of Jesus to say anything contrary to the law of God which had been revealed to the ancient people of Israel, and point to how he called people to holiness of life, and how he taught about the marriage of one man and one woman as a gift of God to be honoured by all people. How do we resolve this? If we are to centre our inquiry on the Christian revelation, we must test whatever we teach about it by reference to scripture, accepting the authority of the Bible because it witnesses to Christ who was himself the Word of God made known to humankind. (See also Scripture: Christ the key to interpretation, and The authority of scripture. )

He is the light of the world, and it is the function of light to reveal the truth which may be hidden under darkness. The chief darkness that hides the truth about God is sin, which is separation from God through human rebellion against God. To us it is not just a matter of human wisdom. When we look to God in Christ we rely upon him not only to teach the truth about God, but also to set us free from sin so that we can enter again into the kind of relationship, the covenant, through which the truth is revealed. It not just and abstract legal statement of some general principle of human conduct that will give us the truth. It will be knowledge formed and accepted in a relationship of trust. What matters will come to us through faith. That leads to the role of love and mercy, so that, while we seek the truth, we are not likely to see it if we ignore that fact that the dawn which broke upon humanity in Christ came to us by the mercy of God. It was out of mercy and not vindictive judgement that the truth was to be revealed: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us (Luke 1:78). Zechariah sang of how God looked favourably upon his people and redeemed them. These twin themes of mercy and truth are central to our understanding of the contentious issue which has threatened to divide us, out of which we must find the way of peace.

Jesus demonstrated in his life the virtues of both mercy and truth. There will be no peace in his name unless both truth and mercy are honoured, even if there is great tension between the implications of truth and those of mercy when they are held together in our limited understanding. It is all too easy to resolve the tension by opting for one side and dismissing the other as completely unchristian, believing it to be incompatible with the mind of Christ.

The struggle for unity has never been easy. It was the principal reason why Paul wrote to the new Church at Corinth:

When I speak of the need for mutual respect, of how unity is of the very essence of the church, of how both mercy and truth must be maintained together, or of how difficult it is in the midst of controversy to agree on the mind of Christ in a particular matter, I not mean that we should not have definite opinions. It is only by being honest with each other as we struggle to learn the truth, that we can hope to work out together the way we should go. There is nothing to be gained by saying it is simple a matter of opinion. No one will be satisfied in the long run with the view that one opinion is as good as another. I do have a definite view and it is that it is not possible to justify homosexual partnerships similar to the marriage of a man and a woman; nor can we endorse any alternative casual or permanent sexual and domestic partnership between people of the same gender. I believe it is contrary to the purpose of God for human life in creation and to the revealed purpose of sex in human life, on which I have spoken on other occasions.

Ten years or so ago, although I accepted and defended traditional teaching, I was prepared to consider the possibility that scientific research and biblical scholarship could lead us to see that traditional Christian teaching was wrong, and we should take a new position. Some interesting research findings were being published and I wrote to the church paper saying that they should be received without fear, for Christians have nothing to fear from the truth. Change is possible. After all, have we not changed our view on women taking positions of leadership fairly recently as far as official church recognition is concerned? Did it not take a long time for Christian teaching to come clearly to the view that slavery must be abolished? It was possible that traditional teaching had been wrong. However, now after listening to the arguments, the research results and the interpretation of scripture, I am quite convinced on both scientific and theological grounds that this is one point at which traditional teaching must be upheld, both for the sake of humanity and the integrity of the Christian faith. In the wider church my disagreement with the way this matter has been handled is well known from what I have written although I have not said much about it locally.

Let us, however, keep things in perspective. I still believe we must listen carefully to different opinions and that it is more important to guard the unity of the Church than it is to insist on any opinion. The main contribution I made on the subject when the draft report was being debated was to persuade the Synod to vote for a motion to have any decisions in the report which could cause divisions referred to the Church at large, the first priority being to maintain our commitment to unity.

I should also say, in regard to general social attitudes, that I have not objected to recognition of homosexual partnerships in the University when decisions were being made on personnel policy in committees of which I was a member. The university is any case bound by state law which prohibits such discrimination whether we like it or not. And, years earlier when I was responsible in University administration I would not allow any discrimination in their employment against people who I knew to be openly homosexual in their private lives, because I believed it was irrelevant to their work and in that sense no concern of their employer. The same cannot be said of the ordination and appointment of ministers in the church, because the church is not bound by law to act contrary to its teaching on sexuality, and the behaviour in questions is relevant to the work. For us, apart from the divisive consequences of our going along with the demands of the dominant culture, it would undermine completely the basis of Christian teaching to approve behaviour that is condemned in scripture and contrary to the teaching of the church in all cultures and in all periods of history. It is the moral endorsement of behaviour that is at issue for the church, not the acceptance of people. Such moral endorsement is what people in general and the media in particular would see implied in any decision to allow the ordination of people who are living in homosexual partnerships. (As a Jewish friend in America said to me of the scene in the San Francisco area, "What they seek is endorsement". That is something we cannot give, no matter how much we accept them as equals in social and economic affairs.)

If we are to be honest in our rejection of the demand for recognition, it is necessary to feel the strength of the opposition to traditional Christian teaching. The simplest form of the case for acceptance of homosexual partnerships is represented by the attitude of Mr Justice Kirby who was quoted in the church paper a few years ago before he was appointed to the High Court [and has since in 2000 declared himself gay and made several widely reported statements attacking the church] as saying it is just like skin colour. Some people are born one way and some another, and there is no excuse for treating them differently on that account. Many people appear to believe that after one of the most successful public relations campaigns ever mounted by a minority group. It is a very strong moral claim once you have accepted the premise that sexual preference or orientation is like racial differences, an arbitrary given characteristic which no one can do anything about. All the moral opprobrium of racial prejudice can then be called forth. Anyone who questions it is likely to be subject to shaming tactics and told this is [nearly] the twenty-first century or whatever, so it is time to leave behind such outdated fear and prejudice. When that general attitude of progress and tolerance is combined with the personal testimony of people who clearly believe it is true in their own life experience it becomes a powerful challenge, especially if the personal claim comes from a close friend or relative who says, "This is way I am, you had better know the truth, if you are prepared to accept me, you must accept this fact about me." So, whatever a person might think morally, few are prepared to speak up and say, "That is what you claim, and I know it is a popular view these days, but is it really true? And anyway, even if you feel that way, does that make it right to behave as you do?"

It should be acknowledged that not all homosexual advocates make that claim to a fixed sexual identity. Let me quote from an ABC interview at the time of the last Assembly. Denis Altman was introduced as "a gay activist, and a lecturer at La Trobe University, who's followed the debate [in the church] from the outside." He was asked about the idea that homosexuals are made in the image of God, and therefore should be accepted by the church.

From a scientific psychological point of view (and let me for once dust off my Harvard PhD in Psychology and my many years of teaching and research in the field and say as one qualified to understand the research literature) I do not think there is any doubt that human sexuality is a very fluid thing. It is one of the ways in which human beings differ most clearly from other species. For people, a lot about sex has to be learned. Almost anything that can be imagined can be done, and has been done, somewhere, sometime. Anthropological and historical literature has described an enormous variety of sexual behaviour and customs. Very little is given as a fixed pattern of behaviour which occurs automatically, or instinctively, as a response to particular stimuli, as is commonly the case with mating behaviour in the animal kingdom with the same patterns repeated, more or less, by all members of the species.

The fact that human beings are different and depend more on learning does not mean that nothing about it can be inherited, as with other examples of complex human social behaviour. For example there is evidence that extreme aggressiveness such as might result in assault and murder can have a genetic component among the many factors which contribute to the actual behaviour; but as anyone can see, that does not make it right, though it might help to make a case for diminished moral responsibility. It is because it might similarly be regarded as a kind of pathology or genetic disease that in some circles, homosexuals have been strongly opposed to reliance upon genetics as a justification. Nevertheless, it has been a popular claim and one which has inhibited many people from saying what they think about the morality of homosexual intercourse; and there have been some scientific research findings of a genetic factor in the homosexual behaviour of men (less so for women) which is inherited by some men from their mothers. The researchers reporting this say that the genetic factor is neither necessary nor sufficient for homosexual intercourse to occur: ie, some people engage in the behaviour without the inheritance and other have it but do not behave as predicted, so we are not talking about determination but one factor among many influences in behaviour which remains under conscious control. Nothing is proven yet and other researchers have been unable to replicate some studies that have received a good deal of publicity. The publicity has often been wildly misleading, which led probably the most respected international scientific journal Nature, to publish an editorial in July 1993, where the recent excitement over the suggested genetic basis of homosexuality was described as wilful public misunderstanding of genetics.

Confusion and misrepresentation in that regard does not, however take away from the fact that homosexuality can be experienced as a given essential part of a person's nature, so that people are quite sincere when they say, "This is the way I am", and in these days of self definition, "This is who I am". It cannot be denied that a sexual identity once formed is highly resistant to change although some therapists have published accounts of successful methods to help people who wish to change, and they have given a theory of the effectiveness of their methods of therapy. Most clinical experience is that it is extremely difficult. In that respect it is like paedophilia; and, obviously as with that example, the fact that it is difficult to change once it is well established does not make it morally right, nor is it necessarily wrong on that account. [I should also be acknowledged that there are Christian groups whose members are prepared to witness publically to their having once been active in a homosexual life style, but who have changed and taken up normal heterosexual lives.]

Nor is the claim new or modern that people have to be accepted as they are in such a way as to accept behaviour that would otherwise be wrong. St. Augustine dealt with it in general terms about 1600 years ago, when he wrote:

Logically and morally, you cannot claim a right to behave in a certain way just because you are that sort of person. The rightness or wrongness of the behaviour has to be decided without regard to a person's claimed or ascribed identity. There is practically nothing that could not be justified on that basis. Again some homosexuals do not seek to justify their behaviour in that way, but simply claim a right to behave as they chose or in the way that feels right to them. That is a claim which not different from libertarian claims in general. It becomes a question of whether we allow that much freedom to individuals. It is interesting that we have come to this point after considering the idea of sexual identity, because the idea that people have a given sexual character rather than saying that people engage in different kinds of sexual behaviour is relatively recent. It seems to have developed in the late nineteenth century in Europe and to have been associated with modern libertarian philosophy. It certainly did not spring from any great scientific discovery. There was no Newton or Darwin who suddenly cast light upon it. It is reasonable to believe that it is a social and political construction of the same kind that any group of people with a common interest could develop. Obviously, nothing follows necessarily from that in regard to the morality of their preferred behaviour, any more than it does if paedophiles make similar claims.

But what if I am wrong and as a matter of fact it is like a racial differences, are we not then required to accept people without expecting them to conform to our ways? Did Jesus not teach us to include everyone and not to be exclusive. No. Not exactly. He did not actually teach that, but something like it. It became a big issue for the early church when people of other races and nations became believers. This is very important because the principal basis on which Christians have argued from the Bible for acceptance of homosexual partnerships is that it is like the acceptance of the Gentiles into the church. I have dealt with that principle on other occasions and I cannot go over it all again now, but the evidence from the New Testament is that while Gentiles were not expected to become Jews or to accept all of the Jewish law they were expected to change and not simply to continue in their old ways. I covered some of this a few months ago after the Assembly under the topic Speaking the truth in love.

In the new churches Paul founded, the fact that they came from a different culture did not excuse people from living a holy and disciplined life. They were required to change, not to become Jewish, but to change nevertheless. It was in this context that Paul talked about speaking the truth in love. After using that phrase and spelling out its purpose to promote growth in the fellowship building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16), Paul continues:

He insisted, you must no longer live as the Gentiles live. They had lived licentious lives and that, said Paul, was not the way of Christ:

There is much more evidence of this requirement of Gentiles to change. Acceptance of the people did not mean acceptance or endorsement of their previous behaviour. But how much can scripture guide us? Are we bound to do what was expected of new Christians in a very different culture nearly 2000 years ago? This is where we come to the testing question of the authority of scripture. We do not follow all of the Old Testament law that many of the Jews tried in the time of Jesus to follow, so are we bound by rules such as against sodomy?

We certainly do not follow the old law about punishment for this offence:

The destruction of the city of Sodom for its evil ways after men from that city tried to force themselves upon the guests of Lot (Genesis 19) is a well remembered event in the folklore of Israel, but whether it now tells us anything about the morality of what the Bible calls sodomy is often doubted. The Old Testament tends to be disregarded by many modern Christians despite of the way that Jesus often quoted from it as if it still had authority, and the way that the apostles repeatedly referred to it to prove their claims when telling people of Jesus. They looked the Old Testament for confirmation of the signs that he was the Messiah. It cannot be easily dismissed, but we do interpret the Old in the light of the New Testament for that is where we learn what Jesus revealed about God. If, however, you rely only on the New Testament there is still no doubt that sodomy and what they called unnatural acts were consistently condemned.

It is not at all like attitudes to women, for those attitudes varied a good deal and some different customs are acknowledged; and, what is more important, Jesus clearly set a new direction in the way he treated women; nor is it like the Christian understanding of the evil of slavery, which moderns often say did not develop until many centuries after New Testament times. In fact, in one verse I will quote in a minute you will see that slave traders were condemned in the New Testament along with sodomites. The progressive view of morality as taking us beyond the primitive ideas of the biblical period does fit the evidence. The scriptural attitude to sodomy and unnatural acts is consistent and quite unlike the varied opinions on the role of women and slavery. Not only did Paul in writing to the Romans rule it out (Romans 1:18-32), but the whole Bible is perfectly consistent from the earliest times of the Jewish law represented in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible to latest period of New Testament writing beyond the time of Paul to Jude and 2 Peter. There is not one instance of homosexual intercourse being in any way approved although strong affection between people of the same sex is described at some points.

If you want to say, well they were still wrong about that: we can accept what the Biblical writers say about other evils like greed, lies and adultery but not this, then how do you chose what to believe and what not to believe? You might say we should instead by guided by the greater law of love, but it is not that simple. There is a great deal of detailed instruction, which we are never told to disregard. There are two significant lists of wrong doing which should test anyone in trying to justify accepting what is condemned in the New Testament. You will see in the following quotes an expectation of change with membership in the body of Christ in a process of sanctification. They should be read along with the requirements of gentiles following the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15: whatever might have been permitted or required in their cultures of origin there were some things pertaining to sexual behaviour and idolatry from which they should abstain. Differences from the Jewish traditions did not confer complete freedom from the law and the prophets or license their previous behaviour.

Consider the following lists:

My question, for those who would choose not to accept the direct teaching of scripture on this matter, is this: can you find in these lists any other behaviour than sodomy which you would wish to justify as acceptable to God in Christ? How about perjury, or murder or the slave trade? If not, why should sodomy be different from all the others? Why should the same kind of arguments you use to dismiss the authority of scripture in regard to what is said here about sodomy not be applied to any or all of the others? If you can justify sodomy from scripture is there any behaviour that you could not similarly justify? Once you have rejected scripture at this point, there is little reason for accepting it at any other point where it might come into conflict with contemporary wisdom or popular opinion. It has the most serious consequences for the whole enterprise of Christian proclamation. According the Basis of Union,

Not to allow our behaviour to be nourished and regulated by the witness of scripture to the Word of God is a clear violation of the covenant with which our union was formed. To walk away from this commitment is outright cheating. Many of us would never have voted for the union had we thought that the authority of scripture would be so blatantly disregarded as it had been in the Sexuality Task Group report and in much of what has been offered in debate in defence of it.

In scripture the unchallenged standard for sexual behaviour is the one that Jesus set when he spoke of the origins of marriage in the creation of humankind as male and female:-

Sex is about gender. It is about the difference between male and female. You would think that should be obvious. And it is the common experience of humanity. Everything other than the marriage of a man and a woman is something less valued than what people in general have found to be the best way to live. Because marriage is part of the natural order, it is relevant to observe that no human society anywhere at any time, whether ancient or modern, a preliterate tribe or an advanced industrial society, and no matter what cultural variations there may be in marriage and sex roles, as far as we know from historical and anthropological research, has ever recognized homosexual marriage. No matter how tolerant they might have been of people whose behaviour differs from the norm no nation has defined marriage without regard to gender. It has always and everywhere been the norm. I am not talking about a piece of paper or the ceremony of blessing and recognizing a marriage, but the actual relationship of a man and a woman in a sexual and domestic partnership. That relationship is universal. What Jesus taught was not some peculiar way of thinking for a peculiar group called Christians, but the universal truth for the whole of humanity.

So I conclude that it is a very serious error to advocate the acceptance of homosexual partnerships in the Church. There are no scientific or biblical grounds on which it can be justified. Yet I have to admit that I know many people of good will and more than a few teachers of scripture in the church who profoundly disagree. Amongst the scholars there is no agreement. You can find good people on both sides. Yet, there are times, I believe, when ordinary believers must hold on to what they know to be right and wait for others to come to their senses.

But, some may say, you started out talking about truth and mercy being held together. What about love? You have talked a lot of truth, on which some equally well qualified people disagree anyway: what about mercy? Of course, you are right. The degree of uncertainty that is widely recognised, I agree, does require us to be slow to condemn, as if we did not have reason enough anyway from the example of Jesus himself in similar matters; it is something that is in any case always required. A degree of tolerance would be called for in ordinary human terms in any society when there is confusion and the moral guardians are teaching with many voices. Furthermore, Jesus had a word of restraint to say in regard to punishing a different type of sexual immorality, but one which I think is in many ways similar:

At the same time, he did not approve of what she had done. He refused to condemn the woman guilty of adultery, but told her to go and sin no more. He was merciful to her, clearly accepting her as a person in need of God's mercy, but in no way endorsing adultery as acceptable behaviour. So I believe we should regard people whose homosexual way of life we believe to be immoral. Be merciful but do not compromise the truth.

A few months ago I concluded a sermon on Speaking the truth in love with a testimony given at the Assembly by a woman who lived as a lesbian for a number of years and then, quite some time after becoming a committed Christian, she gave up that way of life, married and lived what we would regard traditionally as a normal family life. One point she mentioned is most important in this matter of truth and mercy. She said that what made it possible for her to find her way through to a new life was the complete acceptance of her without judgement or discrimination in her local church. May we all be so blessed.

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