Friday, 25 May 2012

Uncomfortable questions

‘Where do you think the most dangerous place to be a homosexual is?’ I guessed correctly, ‘Uganda.’ I sort of hoped that the conversation would move away from the topic. These are not comfortable days to be a conservative evangelical who upholds the traditional teaching on sex and marriage. But my friend asked me another difficult question a few minutes later. ‘Does the Bible condemn homosexuality?’ He didn’t want a long answer. He wanted a simple yes or no. How do you give a short answer to such an emotive question?

I told him that I believed that the Bible condemned all sex outside heterosexual marriage. I said that when Jesus condemned sexual immorality he didn’t have to spell out what this meant as the people would have known what was included. Therefore, contrary to what some people say, Jesus forbade homosexual sex. I also mentioned that the apostle Paul appears to condemn homosexual sex, and that while some people try to explain this in terms of a specific cultural context I don’t find such an explanation convincing. I didn’t get time to mention the opening of Genesis, where I believe the debate about sexuality needs to be rooted.

He then said, ‘but is there a specific verse that condemns it?’ He wanted this for a discussion he is having, online, with a Muslim. The specific text that came to mind was from Leviticus (20:13). I mentioned this and tried to explain how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17). Therefore, we respect the Old Testament law as God-given although our relationship with it is changed. Now, this guy is really bright (he is a barrister) but I think he was losing interest as I explained why God’s people in the Old Testament couldn’t wear clothing of mixed fibres whereas we can.

He said he wanted a verse. I told him that I would give him some the following week when we are due to meet up to celebrate Caroline’s birthday. But as I drove home I thought, ‘how will he respond to the fact that the Leviticus text calls for the death penalty for those found guilty of practicing homosexual sex?’

I am not a fan of the death penalty. Not because I think that no one deserves it. In fact, as I watched a report on the trail of Ratco Mladic that evening, I suggested to Caroline that the only appropriate response to his crimes is execution. Yet I struggle with the thought of putting anyone to death. Also, on a practical level, I fear that if the death penalty were a part of our law system there would be some people mistakenly executed. However, you can’t get around the fact that the death penalty exists in the Bible.

In the Old Testament, God’s people were formed into a nation. Therefore, there was no distinction between civil and religious law. The death penalty served, in part, as a reminder that there are certain actions that are simply inconsistent with a claim to be one of God’s people. It removed the offender from God’s covenant community. In that sense it was like the church practice of excommunication. I realise that excommunication has an emotive and troubled history on this island. The church should seek warm friendships with people from all sorts of backgrounds and opinions but removes from its fellowship those who claim that they follow Jesus yet blatantly and persistently refuse to let the Bible shape their lives.

Sadly, the problem with the death penalty is that the Bible says that all of us deserve it. That is shocking to modern ears. I don’t know if my friend will be able to accept this. The Bible teaches us that we are more wretchedly rebellious than we ever realised and that God is more truly holy than we have ever imagined. We have a very little grasp of how repugnant God sees our sin to be. One preacher said that one of the questions we should be asking is ‘how come God saw all the terrible things I have thought and done in the last day and not struck me down dead for them?’ The death penalty is just speeding up the inevitable. We all will die but after death we will face perfect justice. For those who have refused God’s offer of mercy there is a second and eternal death. That is how hell is described.

But the story does not end there. The wages of sin may be death, that’s what we deserve, but the gift of God is eternal life (Rom. 6:23). To guilty people God offers forgiveness. It is offered without compromising God’s awesome passion for justice because it is the result of Christ taking the punishment we owe. God is both just, and the one who justifies those who put their trust in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). This mercy is offered to all guilty people. The Christian is not a person who has lived a faultless life but someone who knows their guilt removed. This forgiveness is offered to all—even to Ratco Mladic.

Next week my friend may ask for the proof-text on homosexuality. I am going to tell him that I wrote a whole blog on our discussion. I hope you read this Philip. I hope that you realise that as someone who claims to be a Christian I am not pretending that I have a more moral past than anyone else. I am just forgiven. While I am now seeking to follow Christ’s lead I am glad that who goes on forgiving my failings.

As for the whole homosexuality question, it is uncomfortable to be out of step with contemporary opinion and run the risk of being judged a bigot. I heard a pastor from a large church in Los Angeles speak about this. His church was friends with many people who were practicing homosexuals. These people loved to come along to hear him speak and enjoy the church gatherings. When it came to talking about homosexuality Erwin addressed these people directly saying, ‘while I may disagree with you I still love you; I hope that you can still love me even though you may disagree with me.’ Is that a more tolerant position than having to always agree with the consensus?

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