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One Flesh

[Note: This sermon was preached in 1996 in circumstances of great stress in the church when people on both sides of a divisive debate were leaving or threatening to leave. The situation actually became more serious over the following year or two (see also Truth and mercy in the sexuality debate and other sermons linked to it), and serious threats to the unity of the church and integrity of our preaching remain, but I have taken a different more positive approach in the sermon Arise, my love, my fair one because I believe that in the long run people are more likely to be convinced by the positive value of marriage as a gift in God in creation than they are by any authoritative word on the rules by which we are called to live.]

The Uniting Church has before it a document prepared by a Task Group of the National Assembly entitled Interim Report on Sexuality. It is important to note that it is an Interim report. It has not been approved by any council of the church and it is before the Church now only for discussion. Comments are requested by mid November to be taken into account in the preparation of the final report to be submitted to the Assembly when it meets in July next year. No decision will be made until then. Nevertheless the mere fact that a Task Group appointed by the Assembly has produced the Report that is now before us has already given rise to much controversy.

This report has been greeted in the press as "radical" with the suggestion that a "progressive" move is being made. Many members have reacted with anxiety and some with dismay and disgust. Some have left the Church without waiting to see what the Assembly does with the report. One group of ministers has proposed setting up structures in which dissenting congregations and presbyteries can prepare for formal separation depending upon what the Assembly decides when it meets next year. Some criticisms published recently [in The Auburn Report] have represented the report as a clear sign of corruption in which the Church has moved so far from the commitments made at the time of union as no longer to be the same Church. For example, The Rev. Warren Clarnette, the former editor of Church and Nation wrote that the report "has the potential to destroy the first genuine attempt at organic union between major Australian churches". He claimed that:

The report does irreparable damage to the Uniting Church, regardless of how it may be revised before the 1997 Assembly. Its biblical and theological assumptions show that the church we once knew has ceased to exist. ... Despite its vigorous parish life, its loyal membership and its institutional strength, the church as we have known it has passed into history.

Or as the Rev. Malcolm Hay wrote:

Many church members are asking if the UCA is still the church they were accepted into, or into which they were ordained. Not that they are considering leaving the church. They feel that the church they joined no longer exists; it will have deserted them.

So the question of loyalty which has been with us for some time is now heightened by the possibility of schism, that is, of a destructive split in the Church.

Some will say that you must expect strong emotions where sex in concerned. Both sides in such a controversy might be inclined to overstate their claims and to feel too strongly about behaviour that is different from what they think best, especially when it challenges what they have learned from childhood and sought to practice all their lives, sometimes with difficulty and even sacrifice. Then there is a tendency on the part of some advocates of change to reject all opposition as pathological -- "If you think that way there must be something wrong with you!", and to suggest that if you feel strongly in your disagreement you must "feel threatened" and the problem is with you if you "can't cope" with change. I hope, nevertheless, that members of the church will be able to listen to each other without making that kind of personal judgement and will, at least, allow for the possibility that people who differ can have good and honest reasons for what they think and feel. We will be setting up some local groups for discussion of the report, and we have plenty of time to prepare our response to it.

Unity, truth and the authority of scripture

In conflicts of this kind there is tension within and amongst us between our desire to hold firmly to what we believe to be true no matter what the consequences and an equally strong desire to avoid a breach of fellowship. In some respects it is like trouble in a marriage, and our attitudes to marriage are very clearly an issue in this matter. I remember an old professor saying many years ago when I was a teenager, "It is better to be wrong together, than right separately." At the time I could not understand it, wondering how you could ever say it is better to be wrong. As the years have gone by I have become more tolerant and more aware of human frailties and limitations. Yet, the hard point remains that, if the church does not stand clearly for what we believe, we will be compromised to the point where we will have abandoned the gospel and have nothing worthwhile to say. So on a related matter I wrote to the Moderator saying, "Unity without truth is like peace without justice, it cannot endure."

In these circumstances I wish to emphasise the fundamental importance of both truth and unity to the nature of the church. The Uniting Church was formed with a deep commitment the unity of the whole body of Christ and to the testing of all that we teach by reference to scripture. Through the union of the churches we sought to recover or at least to move towards unity in the whole church through renewal in the light of the teaching of the apostles. One of the key issues was then, and is now, how scripture should interpreted -- In this context, we ask how much and what kind of authority the Bible should have for us today in what it says about sex. That is the central question in the present controversy. The authors of the Report have taken a very different view on this than their critics have, although both sides quote scripture and claim to accept its authority. To quote Warren Clarnette again:

Or as the Editors of The Auburn Report said:

So Biblical authority is absolutely central to this debate. We need to know how to interpret the Bible. I hope you will remember that I have pointed to Christ as the key to scripture. He is the Word of God that was made flesh, and for Christian believers the whole meaning of scripture is centred on him. You cannot maintain unity in the church without the truth about God, and he is the truth which holds it all together. So I hope very much that when people are discussing the report and related matters they will not speak only in terms of human wisdom, or current opinion. At the same time to I hope that people will not take a fundamentalist attitude to scripture, but that it will be possible to develop an informed opinion by serious open minded study of scripture with Christ as the central point of reference.

I should also say that I do not believe that a preacher should offer his or her my own personal opinion as if it were the Word of God. I hope what I say leaves you free and better equipped to reach your own conclusions in the light of scripture and the traditions of the church. Today I do not wish to address the report directly, but to illustrate how we can work out from scripture what a Christian attitude should be. A good guide is how Jesus used the Jewish scriptures when he was asked about marriage.

What Jesus said about sex in creation

In our text for today Jesus referred back to creation when he was asked about divorce. That is, without rejecting the Jewish law, the law of Moses from the first five books of the Bible, he went back to a more basic principle in creation. This way of answering the questions gives us a guide to how we might find answers to some perplexing questions about sexual relationships today.

As they often were, the Pharisees were trying to catch him out by testing whether he would say something that was against the Jewish law, and he answered by asking them how they understood the law:

We are not told why they asked this question, but from what Jesus said on other occasions and what Paul tells us of his teaching it would seem that he strongly advocated faithfulness in marriage and disapproved of divorce [for direct treatment of the topic of divorce see Divorce and Christ's humanity] , so they might have expected that he would speak against divorce which the law of Moses allowed [Deut 24:1-4].

I understand this to mean that we can accept the law of Moses at this point as a concession to human weakness, but that we should try to do better. We should try to fulfil God's purpose for us in creation. To help in this Jesus went back beyond the law [Deuteronomy 24:1-4] to a basic principle in creation.

In a sense his teaching was more demanding, as on other occasions [eg Matthew 5:17,21,22,27,28] he called for higher standards of holiness than the law required, but he was never less compassionate than the law. We see that, for example in his refusal to condemn the woman caught in adultery:

You will see that he said "Go your way, and from now on do not sin again." He was not saying she did no wrong or that the law should be abolished. His attitude was one of compassionate tolerance without endorsing her immoral behaviour.

Law, liberty and licentiousness

I would ask you to remember that distinction: tolerance without endorsement of behaviour that falls short of what God expects of us. It is absolutely critical in the current debate in which some people are calling for endorsement of behaviour which others are only prepared to tolerate (and some might not tolerate at all). I think tolerance without endorsement was also the attitude of Jesus to divorce. But we should not imagine that going back to a basic principle in creation rather than to the law of Moses allows for a libertarian attitude. The early church had to deal with this when the question arose of whether new believers who were not Jews were bound by the Jewish law. Led by Peter and James the church at Jerusalem agreed with Paul and Barnabas that Gentile Christians should not have the whole Jewish law imposed upon them: after the conference they sent messengers with a letter to the Gentile churches to tell them that they needed only to observe certain essentials.

I will not pause now to explain why these things were considered essential, except to say that blood and sacrifice had to do with communion and allegiance to the one true God, while sexual immorality also carried with it the same implication of unfaithfulness to God. (In their understanding, when they spoke of blood or sex, they were dealing with the source or essence of life itself.) As Paul said to the Corinthians:

Being free from the Jewish law is one thing, being bound to Christ is something else. And it is not only Christians who are called to fulfil God's purpose in creation in the way we deal with our bodies. In this, as in other ways, Christ was fulfilling the purpose of God in creation.

Sex in the natural order

All people everywhere have been given some understanding of what the Creator expects of them and they are responsible for what they do about it. Going back to creation for basic principles does not mean that we can behave as if there are no rules or standards except what we choose for ourselves. As Paul wrote to the Romans:

That raises the question of how we know what is natural and what God intends in creation. In regard to our present concern with the Report, the question of what is natural has tended to focus on homosexual intercourse and partnerships. There is too much in this for me to deal with it today (see Truth and mercy in the sexuality debate), and perhaps you would prefer that we did not talk about it; but it is in the Bible and we are confronted with real choices today.

Let me say in passing that I do not think this is a question that can be settled by scientific research, though further insights might be gained. As a psychologist I am certainly interested to learn of any new discoveries, but from a philosophical point of view, even if we did have a better scientific account of sexual preference it still would leave significant ethical questions unanswered.

In regard to Biblical scholarship the present situation is one of a direct clash of basic assumptions. While some claim to be lead to new insights by the Holy Spirit others say that it is not the Holy Spirit but the 'spirit of the age' that leads to conclusions that differ radically from traditional Christian teaching. I will only point out that if we are prepared to test what we believe and teach by reference to scripture we must see that the New Testament is just as consistent as the Old in its condemnation of sodomy. That is very different from what we find in reference to a subject such as the roles of women in which there is great variation the New Testament. The old law about unnatural intercourse was consistently maintained in the New Testament, and it was clear enough not be misunderstood:

Is in important to note that this did not mean than strong affection between people of the same gender was not known and accepted. One example is David and Jonathon, so that when Jonathan died David included in his lament words of endearment that were sung all over Israel:

Not that we would want to take King David's love affairs as a good example! He was condemned by the prophets for some of the things that he did (and he even had many wives, which we would not approve), but there was no censure of his love of Jonathan. Homosexual love is not the same thing as sodomy. Nor is this a case in which the old law was set aside as not applying to the new Christian believers. For example, it was listed among grievous sins at several place in the epistles in addition to what Paul wrote to the Romans.

It is also quite clear that there were some people in the early church who tried to introduce practices from the pagan world that were unacceptable and which included sodomy. We see this in the little letter of Jude:

Is that the situation we are in today? Many people feel that it is. Or is it that we can and should accept changes in our attitudes to people who live in homosexual relationships just as we have accepted other social changes. We do not allow what Paul said at some points about the subservient position of women [eg 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:24; 1 Timothy 2:17] to prevent us from accepting women in positions of leadership. We are pleased to have women in ministry, ordained to the same ministries as men are. In the Uniting Church we have a policy of no discrimination on grounds of gender. Is it the same with people who identify themselves as "gay" or "lesbian"? The claim is being made that it is just the same; and in an attempt to a more basic principle than the texts I have quoted reference is often made to the way Jesus identified himself with outcasts and to Galatians 3:28: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female.

The question is whether this general principle of inclusiveness in the membership of the church should be extended to include in positions of leadership people who are different in any way that is important to them, even if it is only a difference in their perception of themselves. Especially, are we to accept in positions of leadership those who identify themselves as a special group that has been subject whose claims have always been rejected since apostolic times and in the earlier biblical revelation of the will of God? Does a general principle of inclusion of all sorts of people apply without regard to their behaviour even it is explicitly condemned with complete consistency in scripture? If they say it is essential to their identity, are we required to accept and to endorse what they do? This question needs much more detailed treatment, but I would have to say, that I do not think so. If we take our lead from Jesus, we can see that he introduced changes which took a long time to be worked through, but we can see the trajectory of change being initiated in the way he treated women and his praise of Samaritans and Gentiles, for example, but there is no indication that he wished to see the moral law abandoned in regard sexual behaviour. He did not initiate any great change there, but recited ancient law while calling on people for even greater holiness. He was compassionate and tolerant without approving adultery or divorce. Accepting the facts of human weakness and failure in the most understanding way, and including people in the fellowship without being judgmental is what he seems to recommend, but he never attempted to overturn what people believed to be the plain truth in the way God had made them male and female. I believe that Jesus would point back to creation again and to the fact that we are made male and female as the foundation of sexual relationships. I do not think he would have agreed to any demand on the part of people who have chosen to identify themselves as homosexuals that we endorse their way of life as a condition of their being happy to be in our fellowship.

The sacramental meaning of marriage

God can also be known especially in a celibate life in which the essential quality is a sense of completeness in oneself without a sexual partner. It is not the same thing as sexual abstinence, and it is a topic for another time. Marriage is what we celebrate today as the great gift which flows from the fact that in creation God made them male and female.

I want to conclude on a positive note, by going back to where we began with Jesus quoting the creation story about the man and the woman becoming one flesh. Marriage is for us more than a natural phenomenon though as we see from the Song of Songs in the Bible it is that too. Sex has a spiritual significance. This is something which non-believers know too. We might almost say that it is natural that it should have a spiritual significance. For Christians its meaning is sacramental. It is one of the means of grace by which God is known to us. Marriage is a covenant in which the faithful and redeeming love of God is reflected.

Just as God takes the ordinary food and drink brought to the Lord's Table and gives himself to us as heavenly food for our pilgrimage to eternal life, so too he takes the ordinary stuff of human relationships and through them relates himself to us. So the fellowship of believers is called the bride of Christ [2 Cor. 11:2].

Through marriage sex has a heavenly purpose. It is part of the natural order of creation which is developed in human life for a spiritual purpose. So it is more than a mere human convention subject to the fashion of the times: it is a gift of God based in our nature as sexual beings. When Jesus was asked about marriage he referred back to the story of creation to point out how the fact that we made male and female is one of the means by which God's plan and purpose for us as spiritual beings in fulfilled:

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