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Same-Sex Relationships: Sorry Bishop, But The Meaning Of Holiness Does Not Change From Generation To Generation

Same-Sex Relationships: Sorry Bishop, But The Meaning Of Holiness Does Not Change From Generation To Generation

By John Stevens
February 7, 2019

One of the notable features of the debate raging in the Church of England over issues of human sexuality is the poor theological arguments used by those in favour of revising the historic position of the church, which reflects the clear Biblical teaching that sex is only appropriate for heterosexual marriage and that sex is determined by biology at birth.

I heard a recent example of woefully inadequate argumentation on the Sunday programme. Paul Bayes, the supposedly evangelical Bishop of Liverpool, was responding to criticism from over 1800 clergy of new pastoral guidance issued by the House of Bishops, permitting the use of a liturgy for transsexuals who have changed their gender. You can listen to his interview in full here, (between 18.40 mins and 22.40 mins).

The essence of his argument was that the Church of England should revise its attitude and accept LBGTI people because, whilst God is unchanging, the meaning of holiness changes from generation to generation. He compared the current desire to revise the church's understanding of sexuality with the way the church had changed its teaching on divorce and remarriage.

Superficially this argument might seem compelling, but it is deeply flawed and self-contradictory. God is indeed unchanging, but this is exactly the reason why the church cannot change its teaching on human sexuality. Holiness is an eternal and unchanging characteristic of God. He is, as Isaiah heard, the "thrice Holy" Lord. His holiness refers to his moral character and is the root of his judicial hatred of sin and his just wrath against sinners. In the Bible it is a quality that is at least as basic to God, if not more so, than love. God is love, but he is also "Holy, Holy, Holy."

God's immutability, the fact that he does not and cannot change, means that what he regards as holy cannot change from generation to generation. Holiness is an objective and eternal quality defined by God's unchanging moral character. He cannot regard the same behaviour to be unholy in one era or culture, but holy in another.

The analogy with divorce simply doesn't work. It is not that God's standard of holiness has changed, but rather that the church was forced to recognise that it had not faithfully listened to Scripture, where the holiness of God is revealed. It was never the case that divorce and remarriage were entirely prohibited. Whilst God's ideal is life-long faithful marriage, he made provision for human sin, and in some limited circumstance a marriage is potentially ended by acts of unfaithfulness that sever the covenant bond between man and wife.

The mistake the church made was to regard marriage as a sacramental relationship rather than as a covenant relationship, which is an inheritance from Roman Catholicism. Both Old and New Testament attest to the possibility of divorce where there is a fundamental break of the marriage covenant, as for example where there is adultery. God himself divorces Israel because of her covenant unfaithfulness to him and does not thereby cease to be Holy. In the New Testament Joseph is explicitly affirmed to be a righteous man when he determines to divorce Mary quietly because she is pregnant.

Bishop Bayes argument from the comparison with divorce somewhat ironically falls apart when it is remembered that Jesus explicitly stated that homosexuality was a ground for divorce (Matthew 19v9 - using the work porneia for "sexual immorality" which includes homosexual acts as well as heterosexual acts outside of marriage). This verse therefore affirms both that divorce is holy and permissible in some circumstances, and that homosexuality is unholy and a ground for divorce.

When it comes to homosexuality the Biblical message is entirely different. Whereas divorce is permitted in both Old and New Testament, and by Jesus and by Paul, there is not a single text in the entire cannon of Scripture that would suggest that same-sex sexual relationships are pure, holy and pleasing to God, In fact the exact opposite is the case throughout. Homosexual acts are forbidden in language which negatively contrasts them with the purity of holiness, and sex is to be rightly enjoyed solely in the context of heterosexual covenant marriage. This is true in both Old and New Testaments. It is a position taught not just by Paul but also by Jesus, who upheld the Old testament teaching about sex and marriage and condemned "sexual immorality" using language that in the cultural context clearly included homosexuality.

There can be no viable case made that the Scriptures indicates any change in God's attitude towards homosexual acts, and not even the hint of a "redemptive trajectory" in this direction. He is a holy God and remains implacably opposed to all sexual acts that fall short of his holy standard. We are not at liberty to revise our understanding of holiness to fit with contemporary cultural mores.

The idea that God has revealed a different standard today is equally flawed. The Holy Spirit is himself God, and just as unchanging as God the Father. He cannot reveal something to be holy today that was condemned as unholy in the Scriptures that he breathed-out. The Holy Spirit is not a liar, and he has not learned anything new about human sexuality in the two thousand years since the closure of the Canon.

Ultimately Bishop Bayes seems to be willing to affirm same-sex relationships on the grounds that they manifest love, commitment and faithfulness - as if these are the very definition of holiness. Whilst God does indeed honour these three qualities they do not, in and of themselves, identify what God regards as holy. No doubt Bishop Bayes would reject the idea that incest or polygamy could be "holy", and yet such relationships can display these three qualities.

Bishop Bayes has become a patron of Liverpool Pride, thus manifesting his affirming credentials, but the Pride movement is not a celebration of love, faithfulness and commitment, but rather of the sexual freedom of the LBGTI community. Many members of that community use Pride, as they are perfectly entitled to do, to celebrate their freedom to enjoy sexual promiscuity and their "liberation" from the oppressive restraints of love, commitment and faithfulness as prerequisites for sexual intimacy. It is not a festival of "holiness" even as understood on Bishop Bayes own terms. Does Bishop Bayes condone the behaviour being celebrated?

Bishop Bayes is right in his interview to stress that churches ought to welcome everyone who comes, but the welcome Jesus gave to sinners was very different to the unconditional acceptance and inclusion that is being advocated by many in the church today. Jesus would welcome anyone, and associate with anyone, but his message was clear: "Repent for the kingdom of God is near." Sinners are only included and accepted by Jesus into his new family of disciples if they acknowledge and turn away from their sins.

This might seem bad news for the LGBTI community, but in fact it is good news for everyone. We are all sinners, and none of us are accepted and included by Jesus unless we repent of our sin and put our faith and trust in him. We meet Jesus on level ground -- whether we are LBGTI "sinners" or straight "sinners". There is no acceptance for any individual or community on any other basis, because by nature we all fall short of God's eternally unchanging holy standards.

Bishop Bayes comments in his interview hardly bode well for the outcome of the debate on sexuality within the Church of England, and it is especially galling to hear that he makes them as an "evangelical" bishop who ought to take Scripture, not culture, as his final authority. I am not an Anglican, but I am an evangelical, and it is deeply frustrating to hear Christians leaders in the public eye claim the label of evangelical, but then disown its cardinal tenets.

If we are to stand firm for the truth we need not to be taken in by arguments that seem superficially attractive, but which on closer examination have no substance at all.

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