Photo credits

The Embalse de Riano in northern Spain. The picture was taken by .... me!

Wednesday, February 27

Lions on a saggy trampoline

Sometime ago I preached a sermon in which I included concepts based on Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. I talked about how we should treat our doctrines as springs on a trampoline rather than bricks in a wall. Obviously the ‘wall’ of our doctrinal statement is often intended to differentiate us from the other church down the road – that is to say to exclude. But the trampoline is a place of shared experience, where the doctrines can be explored, stretched, and tested. So it is inclusive.

But the second level of the analogy is what happens when one of your treasured doctrines turns out to be mistaken. In the wall analogy, when you take out the brick the wall falls down and your faith crashes. But if the trampoline loses a spring you can still bounce.

I have been needing to hold tight onto this idea recently as my wife studies ‘Apocalyptic writing’ as part of her theology MA, in particular with reference to the book of Daniel. Her tutors and the books on her list all take the view that Daniel was written during the Maccabean period, and that hence the stories of the lion’s den and the fiery furnace are King Arthur legends rather than historical events.

This does not disturb her faith at all: she is quite content to see the stories on the same level as the parables of Jesus – fiction, but true.

I find that it does disturb my faith very much.

I am happy to see Job as fiction, because there is no attempt within the book to anchor it into a specific time or place by mentioning kings and locations. But Daniel does actively fix itself in a certain time and place. So I want to see the stories as accounts rooted in real events, even if they have been subsequently fictionalised and told with a bit of colour and drama.

Why does this matter to me? Well, if it says that God shut the lions’ mouths, when in fact he didn’t, then I feel that I have been lied to. And that I have lied to my children. The principles being related through parables are more abstract. But if I say based on a story that God will protect us from a danger, but that story never occurred, and God did not protect, then the foundation of that element of faith is removed.

In fact, it sows doubt about everything else. Did the 10 plagues happen? Did the exodus happen? Did the signs and wonders in the New Testament happen? Did Jesus rise form the dead? ….. and so in a few climactic milliseconds my doctrinal wall has collapsed.

So I am on the trampoline. But even that is looking decidedly saggy.

Fortunately, remembering the old hymn:

My Hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' Name!

On Christ the Solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand*

And also, as the NIV Study Bible points out (even if it is a rather dodgy document) the language used in Daniel was obsolete by the time of the Maccabees, to the extent that the Septuagint translators got it wrong and so it must have been written during the exile.

So the ‘consensus’ that my wife throws at me is not as solid as she would like to think. And of course the ‘consensus’ once used to support the documentary hypothesis, etc.

Come back, lions!

* This is from memory.  Sorry if I am breaching anyone's copyright.

Wednesday, February 13

Lessons on 'One-flesh' from the hermaphrodite nudibranch

Radio 4 this morning was discussing the case of a nudibranch (sea slug) which is hermaphrodite. That is to say it is both male and female. They both have both male and female organs. They both produce both sperm and eggs. When they meet and mate, they both inseminate the other.

On Genesis, we read that God made them ‘male and female’. This is the basis for the doctrine that in marriage it is required for a man and a woman to be united to become ‘one flesh’.

One must be careful drawing lessons on sexual morality from nature because animals exhibit every variation imaginable. But what I believe the nudibrachs teach us is that it is not necessary for all of the ‘male’ to be confined to one individual and for all of the ‘female’ to be confined to the other. The ‘male’ and the ‘female’ can be distributed across both individuals. In fact, my understanding is that all of us are on the same spectrum of gender, mostly concentrated at the ends in predominantly male and predominantly female individuals, but all of us have characteristics of the opposite (eg we all use both testosterone and oestrogen). Gay and transgender people are those at other positions on the same spectrum.

So in any marriage between any two individuals, both male and female will be represented across the two, and so the one-flesh image of God will be complete and complementarity will be satisfied.

And finally, if it says ‘God made them male and female, presumable I am one of the ‘them’, and so one could say that God made me male and female. And so I am no different to the gay person who is also male and female.

Punishment, not crime

Regular readers of my blog will have followed my transition from a strongly conservative position on homosexuality to a new position that describes itself as ‘liberal for conservative reasons’.

I feel that by digging a little to find the real intention of the various ‘proof texts’, I find that they do not relate to general homosexuality.

The one sticking point for me in this road has been Romans chapter 1.

The first approach which I found acceptable for a while was that it relates to temple prostitution. This follows from the interpretation of Leviticus 18 as temple prostitution (which I believe I can demonstrate but not in this short blog post), and that Paul’s use of ‘arsenokoitai’ in Corinthians and Timothy derives from Leviticus, those letters being addressed to cities where fertility cults prevailed. The theory then followed that Rome, as the centre of the empire, suffered the same pollutions as its provincial cities of Corinth and Ephesus. But I never found that final step in the logic to be strong enough to convince me let alone an opponent.

A second approach is that the ‘unnatural’ in Romans is the same ‘unnatural’ that Paul uses of a man with long hair. Well, OK. But perhaps we should have more sermons against long hair.

Others have suggested that Paul was a conservative Jew, so of course he would say all of that that, and given his cultural context he was right to say it, but it doesn’t apply to homosexuality in general. I can’t work out how one can argue that Paul was right for then but wrong for now. Personally, I believe that ‘all scripture is God breathed and profitable for teaching, correction and reproof’. I believe that the scripture is in itself timeless*. So I don’t buy the excuses that Paul was wrong, that he didn’t know about homosexuality, that he was talking about pederasty, etc.

So Romans 1 has been the fly in my pro-gay-marriage soup.

But I have come across a line that is new to me, and which for now at least I find satisfying. The book it came from also contains some utter tosh which I dismiss with complete disdain. But I think this bit is worth salvaging.

In Romans 1, homosexuality is the punishment, not the crime.

The crime is idolatry, failing to recognise the creator and worshipping the creation instead. “Therefore, God has given them over …..”

So for example, if you indulge in the sin of gluttony, you will be ‘given over’ to obesity.

This does not mean that obesity is in itself sinful. Nor does it mean that all obese people have committed the sin of gluttony. Many eat a lot less than I do, but I am gifted with a more efficient metabolism. For some obese people, it is congenital that they will put on the pounds just by smelling a cake in the house next door.

There is however, in our society, a certain shame around obesity. It’s embarrassing to be fat. It’s not the done thing. It’s a poor show, old chap.

So those Romans who worshipped the creation found themselves as a consequence in a position of shame in the society, like the obese. But Gay people are in most cases congenitally homosexual. They know even as children that they are gay, long before they have started to make religious and moral choices or decided to experiment with sex. And so it is unreasonable to equate congenital homosexuality with the homosexuality newly inflicted on the pagans by God in Romans 1.

(*In saying timeless, I mean its core message is for all time. One does need to account for the cultural context in the sense that it helps to understand what the intent and meaning of the words is, and there is an extent to which the modern cultural context needs to be understood to know how to apply it, and also some argue a dispensationalist case that God spoke law in ancient times to Israel but grace to the household of faith after the resurrection, but the underlying message that God intends the passage to have remains for all time. So in Leviticus 11 it classes a bat as a bird. In their language the word ‘bird’ includes ‘bat’. So what?)

Wednesday, February 6

Gay Marriage - passed first reading by MPs with clear majority

.... of course there is still the committee stages and the House of Lords, etc, but it will be hard to overturn such a large majority.

There was a time when a vote such as that seen in Parliament yesterday would have been a big blow to me - a really gutting defeat, another example of prayer not answered, another case of Satan apparently having the upper hand while God sits impotently on the sidelines.

But actually, the Kingdom of God is advancing.  The Kingdom of God is of course the church, primarily.  But it is not just the church - the whole world belongs to God.  He does with it as he pleases.  He brings peace and righteousness, sometimes having to push the church aside to do so.  One is reminded of the story of the church warden introducing the new vicar to his parish: "There have been many changes and I have opposed every one of them".

The Kingdom of God is about Justice.  It is also about sexual morality.  But in order of priority, Justice far outweighs the other, especially when the 'sexual morality' in question is a layer of European medieval homophobia overlain onto shallow readings of Scriptures that do not in fact support it.

There was a time when the Church of England opposed the abolition of slavery.  Over the last century it was the emancipation of women that the church so openly opposed.  Now it is other oppressed groups. 

My Christian colleague, who has a prophetic gift, sees a time of persecution of Christians coming.  Well, you don't need much gift to see that, but I say that such persecution is both unnecessary and self-inflicted.  We said we 'hate the sin but love the sinner'.  Yet the alleged sinner's experience was of being hated, not loved.  We treated gays astonishingly badly, now its payback time.

If a huge section of the Christian Church gathers and prays on an issue, including its most powerful prayer warriors and church leaders, then I feel that the outcome is probably from God, rather than from the Devil.
The Church has prayed earnestly for God's will to be done in Parliament, and we must accept that it has been done.

Personally, I have stopped praying against God's move in this country, prayed for it instead, and so I am happy with the vote.

Tuesday, February 5

Gay Marriage

The bill to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales is being debated in Parliament as I write.

Given the standard but very conservative position I held on homosexuality only a few years ago, I find it quite astonishing that now I hope that the bill passes.

I have moved from the standard assumption that homosexuality is a sin, and that we should love the sinner but hate he sin, to a new assumption that the emancipation of homosexuals is part of the ongoing work of God, which as ever proceeds despite the church rather than because of it.

I have heard all of the secular arguments against gay marriage, and frankly, they don't hold water. 

I have heard all of the Christian arguemnts against it, and again, the position is by no means secure.

As a good Evangelical, I believe that the Scriptures are our guide.  Part of this belief is that verses should not be taken out of context; you have to look at the whole book.

Starting with 1 Corinthians 6, then.  The 'homosexual offenders' - arsenokoitai in the Greek.  This word is only used one other time in the NT, in Timothy, and there it is NOT translated 'homosexual offenders'.  So there must be some doubt about its meaning.  In fact, arsenokoitai is not a normal Greek word.  It is one Paul made up.  Etymologically it has arsenos - man, and koitai - sexual bedding.  So its easy to jump lazily to the 'homosexual offenders' translation.  But where did Paul get it from?  Leviticus 18, where in the septuagint it says [from memory here] ho an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gunaikos.  I think Paul lifted it from here, and that what Leviticus means, he means.

So lets look at Leviticus 18.  titled neatly in the NIV as Sexual Sins.  But in the text it is bracketed top and bottom as 'Things the pagans do'.  The first part of it, rather than miscellaneous sexual sins, is all about incest.  Then as you read on you trip over the verse that says you should not offer your children to Molech.  This is not a sexual sin at all.  Sin yes but not sexual.  It is a sin of idolatry.  The next verse is the notorious 'abomination' verse, and then one about sex with animals.  The latter was an idolatrous practice - in the fertility cult sex with an animal in the presenceof the god would ensure fertility.  Likewise sex with a person in the temple - hence temple prostitution, hence the verse we are looking at.  Looking at the passage using my good Evangelical study tools, it is pagan idolatry that is condemned, not gay marriage.

Still looking at the verse:
  • Do not lie with a man as MEN [note the plural] lie with a woman [note the singular] <-- its="" prostitution.="" temple="">
  • A minor point: most of the Bible is written in the male voice to a male audience, so it is reasonable to assume that it is telling men not to lie with men, but it is possible it is telling WOMEN not to lie with men in the same way that men treat them.
  • In the NIV the phrase 'Do not have sexual relations with ...' is used throughout, but in the septuagint it uses one phrase for the incest sins and another for the pagan temple sins.  I think it is naughty of them to blur a distinction that is made in the Scriptures.
More importantly, comparing this verse to its equivalent in Deuteronomy (the Second Law), it says 'no man or woman of Israel is to be a temple prostitute'.

So I think that's quite conclusive - its not gay marriage, its temple prostitution that is an abomination in the OT.  Supposrting this I have read soe documents that indicate that the Hebrew word translated 'abomination' actually implies something idolatrous in itself, and again form memory I think the otherplace it is used is also a pagan idol matter, but I might be wrong on that one.

So what about Sodom?

Compare the story of Sodom to the story of Gibeah.  They are very similar. At Gibeah the offer of a female substitute was accepted, but the city was still severely judged.  The issue is a breach of hospitality and general wickedness, not specifically homosexuality.  Ezekiel 16 says the sin of sodom was arrogance, greed, and lack of care for the needy - no mention of perversion.  I trust the Scriptures themselves to judge what the sin of Sodom was!

Now, Romans chapter 1.  I have heard several pro-gay responses to this, and I admit that they are not 100% convincing.  It goes on the other side of my decision-making process.

Complementarity ... 'It takes both a man and a woman to represent the image of God'.  This is apparently a relatively new doctrine, form sometime in the 1800s.  But in the case of homosexual people, the genders are not coneniently divided and both have aspects of both genders.  So both male and female characteristics are present in the gay marriage, just distributed differently. 

... and so on

My arguments FOR gay marriage are not completely watertight.  But on balance, I would rather be judged for compassionately tolerating a thing that turns out to be wrong than be judged for perpetrating historical persecutions.

I must go.

Monday, February 4

What accord has Christ with Belial?

My Christian daughter has a non-Christian boyfriend.

She is only a couple of months off her 18th birthday, so its not really the time to be issuing harsh decrees that she should dump him.  But please join my prayers that this will come to a natural end soon.

The boy is actually very nice, and form a nice family.  If we were not Christians ourselves, we would be delighted.

But he has always found it hard to feel accepted in our house.  He has been literally afraid of me - not that I am going to do him violence but that I disapprove of his relationship with my daughter.  Well, yes!  I genuinely have nothing against him; it's just that relationships between Christians and non-Christians do not work.  Quite apart form the theology and the verse quoted in my title, if people have different goals, different world views, different moral foundations, its not going to work.  And its usually the Christian who changes (losing faith) rather than the other way (the non-Christian coming to faith).  This is already illustrated by him converting her to support the local blue soccer team when we are a red family.

But the bit I don't really get, is that while trying to win our favour and prove he is a good man for our daughter, he proceeds to post onto Facebook quite vicious attacks on Christianity.  Mostly aimed at American Fundamentalists (who in my opinion get what they deserve, but it is guilt by association).  He is poking us in the eye while complaining we don't accept him.

So, pray please for a natural end with minimal mutual hurt and heartache as soon as possible.