frgavin on September 15th, 2009

Faithful?…. Committed?…….. or Deceived?

By David Doveton

In a recent press release by the Diocese of Cape Town, a spokesman for the Cathedral said that “the cathedral needed guidelines to help it provide pastoral care to gay and lesbian members in “faithful, committed” same-sex partnerships”.

One can only infer from the statement that the terms ‘faithful’ and ‘committed’ are meant to define an acceptable moral base for a sexual relationship – but from where does this moral base come?  Certainly nowhere in scripture, which has a very clear base for sexual behaviour; it is a structural basis articulated in terms of biological gender – one man and one woman, united in a permanent exclusive covenant relationship in accordance with God’s express creation purpose.

One can also admire and support wholeheartedly the concern to minister to people who need the love of Christ, but at the same time, to minister to people in compassion without truth is to pervert the grace of God into sentimentality.   To see how the total lack of truth is being played out here let’s just unpack what is being said.

In the first place the statement acknowledges that there are people identified as congregation members and therefore claiming Christian faith, who are living in open homosexual relationships with others. This implies that these members are unrepentant with regard to the scriptural warning about homosexual behaviour. The underlying assumption is that unrepentant persons can live in faithful relationships. Then there is also an implicit acceptance of the situation by those who are responsible for the pastoral ministry. This acceptance has usually been justified by the belief that the church should accept everyone unconditionally – ‘inclusion’ is the usual term.

I wish to examine the use of two words ‘faithfulness’ and ‘acceptance’ as they are commonly used in the debates around how the church should minister to people who have given up struggling with same-sex attractions and compulsions, and instead embrace them and act on them.

The idea of ‘faithfulness’ is rooted in a powerful affirmation that is central to the Old Testament story of the call of Abraham; that is “God is faithful” and that is his nature throughout the Hebrew scripture. Mostly the descriptions echo Deuteronomy 32:4 – describing the Lord as “a faithful God, without deceit, just and upright” Furthermore in the bible this term is only understood in terms of personal relationship, it is the revealed character of God which firstly Abraham, then later the people of Israel apprehend. Out of this faithfulness, God initiates a covenant with his people and in return requires their faithfulness which entails ‘obeying his voice and keeping his commandments, statutes and laws’. Of course Israel fails miserably again and again, and they are described as unfaithful – not because they don’t believe, but because they don’t obey.  To be faithful then is not just a matter of trust or belief, but constant obedience. In fact the obedience of Abraham is cited as the reason for extending the promise of the covenant to his descendants; he was one who ‘obeyed my laws, kept my charge, commandments and statutes’. The New Testament picks up this understanding of Abraham’s faithfulness, as bringing his faith to completion, in James 2:21-23. Jesus himself was the embodiment of Gods faithfulness and also would be the personification of the people of Israel in faithful response, achieving what they could not.

Jesus of course stood firmly in the prophetic Old Testament understanding of one who came to call people back from rebellion or turning away from God into a consequent idolatry. In the Old Testament the prophets were repeatedly sent to call Israel back, but the people did not listen. In Jeremiah, the Lord calls to a rebellious Israel who had turned away from him (Jeremiah 3:13) he asks that they acknowledge their guilt, and turn back (i.e. repent). “Return”, he says, “O faithless Israel”. To maintain that one is faithful without repentance is quite simply to be faithless. The prophetic description of apostasy is the exact opposite of repentance; both words are derived form the Hebrew šûb to turn – to turn away is šôbebâ, to repent is šûbû. Turning away from God or apostasy is a perverse inversion of repentance. Furthermore we are warned against doing this because in doing so we reject God’s grace, and so are cut off from our only hope of salvation. Repentance must involve transformation; John the Baptist says to the Pharisees, “…you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance”[a].  In a similar manner Paul reminds his hearers in most of his letters that to respond to Christ means they must also be transformed in their lifestyles – they must turn from pagan spirituality and from pagan sexuality. Be not deceived, he says, the two are intimately and powerfully linked and to engage in pagan sexuality is to be engaged in idolatry, whether you are a committed member of a Christian church or not[b].

An understanding of Christian faithfulness that reduces being faithful purely to the quality of a relationship with another human being is a one dimensional and thereby defective understanding, because it leaves out the transcendent dimension of a correct relationship with God. To ignore what it means to respond to a faithful creator cuts us off from the transcendent biblical understanding of faithfulness – only God is truly faithful, and we practice faithfulness only when we are obedient to his word. Any lifestyle which flaunts the New Testament moral code maintained consistently and without exception by the church for two millennia can in no way be construed as living in faithfulness. On the contrary it is living in radical disobedience.

‘Acceptance’ in modern parlance has been the favourite mushily sentimental and superficial term which has come to replace the deeply theological term ‘justification’  In a recent interview[c] Bishop FitzSimmons Allison points out how ‘acceptance’ is used as a watered down secular version of ‘justification’. He notes that we all have a notion of what is just and right built into us. If we reject the standards our transcendent creator God has set for us to live by, and choose rather to trust our instincts and desires in formulating our behaviour, we are in effect suppressing the truth, and choosing to live by our own standards of righteousness. We have rejected the standard of God’s transcendent righteousness revealed to us in scripture, and thus only have ourselves as reference points with a resulting individualism and subjectivity.

Christian philosopher Prof. Jack Budziszewski[d] points to certain realities about the created order, realities which continue to operate despite our rebellion. For example, knowledge of guilt (even if suppressed) produces certain objective needs, needs which have to be satisfied. These include confession, reconciliation, atonement and justification. Out of our need for justification, the need to be ‘right’ before God, we develop mechanisms to ‘be righteous’ – such as thinking well of ourselves, or ‘self esteem’. “God accepts us as we are – so we should accept ourselves and others”. ‘Inclusion’ is the term commonly used for this and we are told that ‘Jesus was inclusive in all his dealings with people -he included the outcasts and the sinners’.  So basically what the doctrine of ‘inclusion’ means is that God accepts me as I am. The idea that God accepts us as we are is not a biblical idea. God loves us unconditionally, no matter what state we are in, but that is not the same. God calls us as we are, in the state of rebellion we are in. If we then turn to him in repentance and faith he accepts us in Christ, but if we do not turn to him, we are still lost in sin. Kummel says, “That man must turn around if he wishes to stand before God is one of the basic views of Judaism in Jesus’ time, and thus Jesus also explicitly named conversion as a condition for entrance into, the kingdom of God.”[e] So, in Mark 1:15, Jesus’ message of the good news begins with the call to turn around, and from that moment all gospel preaching is based on Jesus’ commission to his disciples to call all men to repentance  (Mark 6:12) (Acts 3:19, 8:22)

If we reduce justification to mere acceptance we have lost the transcendence and thus the glorious fullness of the biblical understanding of justification: Only God is holy just and righteous, and he imputes his righteousness as a gift to those who respond to him in faith.

FitzSimmons Allison also highlights another common mechanism of self justification – asserting my ‘victimhood’ – I look for ways in which I have been unjustly treated, and cry foul (a cry common to children and immature teenagers – it’s not fair!). This is essentially a self centred and immature approach to life, because while it is true we are victimized in life, if we don’t deal with it we can become maladjusted adults full of self-pity. If I am a victim, I am not responsible for my state, and therefore not accountable. Furthermore, if I deny responsibility for my life it becomes impossible to move from where I am to where I should be. So called ‘gay’ theologies are theologies of victimhood. Paradoxically although this type of theology is soaked in the language of human rights and human dignity to which we are all entitled, we suffer a loss of dignity by it, because if we can’t be held responsible it means we have lost a part of our God given self – our ability to choose and to act, to make conscious responsible decisions. It becomes impossible to move – others (including God) must accept me as I am, and it is others who must change, not us. It is thus implied that it is not at all necessary to make the spiritual journey from rebellion to Christlikeness.

Self justification is a way of trying to limit our responsibility before God. We justify ourselves either by direct avoidance of the truth about our state before God (Luke 10:29) or by appealing to works (Romans 3:20).  Appealing to works can also take the more subtle form in which we make comparisons between ourselves and other people to show that we are better than them or ‘really not that bad’. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector did precisely that. So to say I live in a ‘faithful’ or ‘committed’ relationship is to say I don’t live in a promiscuous one. Leaving aside the fact that the two words have very slippery meanings in our contemporary context, and that they have been gutted of their biblical meanings, all I am saying is that I am not really living what the bible clearly terms a sinful lifestyle. Since when does living according to some morally correct standards absolve me from ignoring others I know about but disobey? It is even worse when those in pastoral leadership go along with the charade by eulogizing the person’s merits and wonderful character. They are only taking part in the sin. It would be the same if a priest were to find out that his churchwarden was embezzling church monies, yet not call him to account and to repentance, but go around telling everyone what a good preacher the man was.

In Romans 2 Paul shows how the denial of the truth about a transcendent creator God and our accountability before him leads to self justification so that we may continue in idolatry. God, he says, wants to lead men to repentance (so that he may justify them by his grace) but because of hard and impenitent hearts, men do not respond to God’s offer. In not responding to God’s call they do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness. They make a choice and reap a destiny (Romans 2:1-9).

What is more, there are grave consequences for people who seek religious sanction for behaviour which in Gods eyes is sinful – they fall under greater condemnation. This is seen in several parables of Jesus. In Luke 10:25 ff after being told by Jesus to love God with all his heart soul and mind and his neighbour as himself, the lawyer in an attempt to justify himself asks Jesus who his neighbour is. Jesus responds by effectively asking the man to consider his own shortcomings as neighbour to all people, thus exposing his hidden motive. Self justification is an attempt our limit our responsibility before God, and one characteristic of the Pharisees for whom Jesus reserved his most scathing attacks. In Luke 16:14-15, the Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for his clear challenge to people not to idolise money. Luke tells us that this was because they loved money. Jesus says to them “you are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts”.  Clearly they want to continue in their idolatry. Self-justification is a mechanism of denying the truth so that we may continue in idolatry.

At the beginning I noted that to love people without speaking the gospel truth to them is to engage in sentimentality. ‘Being sentimental’, Mary Midgely writes, ‘is misrepresenting the world in order to indulge our feelings. It is a howling self-deception’, she goes on, ‘and a distortion of the world’[f]. Mark Jefferson adds that sentimentality is grounded on a fiction of innocence, emphasizing the ‘sweetness, dearness, littleness, blamelessness, and vulnerability of the emotion’s objects’[g]. And as Anthony Savile writes, sentimentality not only requires the idealization of the object but also contributes to self-righteousness or self-deception in encouraging a ‘gratifying image of the self as compassionate, righteous, or just’.”[h] Sentimentality can serve a powerful ideological and rhetorical end; it can be used to sway people emotionally so that they align themselves ideologically with a particular purpose or agenda. It allows the very people we are trying to help and guide to lead us instead into deception and the abandoning of scriptural truth as our standard. Paul warns Timothy against falling into this sort of trap, saying that “…impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived…” (2 Timothy 3:13-17), but that he should continue in the truth which he has learned from his teachers and from holy scripture.

If we really want to minister in compassion to people, we would do well to listen to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who fought a long struggle against false doctrine in the German church, once wrote, “It must be said again and again that for the Church to deny its boundaries is no work of mercy. The true Church comes up against boundaries. In recognizing them it does the work of love towards those men by honouring the truth”[i] Bonhoeffer was clear; we have to speak the truth in love, or we lull people into self deception and that is an ultimate betrayal.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend;

profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”   Proverbs 27:6

Canon Dave Doveton,                                                                                                              September 2009.

[a] Matthew 3:7b, 8.

[b] 1 Corinthians 10:1-14, 1 Corinthians 6:15-19, Ephesians 5:3-6.

[c] Interview with Michael Horton in April 2006, for White Horse Inn Radio,

[d] Budziszewski, J, The Revenge of Conscience, First Things, 84 (June/July 1998), pp 21-27.

[e] Kümmel, W, G, The Theology of the New Testament, Abingdon, 1973, p. 43.

[f] Mary Midgely, Brutality and Sentimentality, Philosophy Vol. 54, No 209 (July, 1979), pp 385-389.

[g] Quoted by Carl Plantinga in Wartenberg and Curran, The Philosophy of Film, Blackwell, Oxford, 2005, p 155.

[h] Quoted by Carl Plantinga op cit, p 155.

[i] Quoted by René Marlé in Bonhoeffer: The Man and his Work, NEWMAN PRESS, New York, p. 60.

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