Some explanations from fundamentalists, please

The Christian blogosphere – particularly the more fundamentalist element – has been full of chat about the furore we are witnessing in the run-up to the Church of Scotland‘s General Assembly, due to meet in a couple of weeks.

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s all about a recent decision by Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen to appoint a homosexual minister, Rev Scott Rennie. There’s an increasingly popular petition doing the rounds, calling for the Church of Scotland to prevent such an apparently awful thing from happening.

I was going to ignore this issue for fear of fanning the flames of division and unncessary debate in the church – a lot of Christians, including folk in my own church, read this blog. However, having been emailed twice in the last week or two by people asking me to sign the petition, having read a few articles online about the issue, and having thought and prayed hard over the last few days about whether or not I should write this, I really feel that a counterbalance to the voices against the appointment must be provided.

No doubt those who signed the petition, and who peddle a belief that the Bible is unambiguous and unequivocal in its condemnation of homosexuality are very balanced, reasoned and logical in reaching their viewpoints and in deciding to add their names.

As a result, they’ll be fully able, I am quite sure, to answer the following questions:

  1. Leviticus 20:13 is apparently clear about what should happen to homosexuals: they should be killed. Presumably, it would be against the teaching of the Scriptures to leave them alive any longer: there’s no mention of any period of grace. Can you please confirm when the lynching of Mr Rennie and his partner is to take place? Or is it a secret, that you can at least assure me is definitely going ahead?
  2. The minister in question previously served at Brechin Cathedral. Where in the Bible does it state that homosexuality is permissable in the city and royal burgh of Brechin? I’m not aware of any petition against his ministry there; so either homosexuality is fine in Brechin, or I missed where that earlier petition was posted. Can you enlighten me please?
  3. As instructed in Leviticus 19:27, shaving one’s beard is against the law of God. No mention of exemptions for women either, I am afraid. What is the church to do about a doubtlessly rampant disregard for the Bible? Indeed, I am shortly to have a shave this evening as I am getting a bit stubbly – what will happen to me?
  4. If you have ever eaten pork or shellfish, can you please explain what you are doing to reconcile your disgusting dietary habits with your Lord?
  5. I thought parishes in the Church of Scotland could call whichever ordained minister they are led to call. Can you explain to me why you disagree with this fundamental principle of Presbyterianism and of church law? And why is this matter the business of anyone who is not a communicant member of that particular parish?
  6. All Christians are called upon to be servants of the church and each other. Therefore other members of the church – homegroup leaders, administrators, lay preachers, welcome teams etc – must, I suppose, strive and appear to be as Biblical in their lives as ministers must. Can the petitioners guarantee that there are no publicly or secretly gay people in our churches in positions of authority or influence? And how about gay Christians who quietly, devotedly pray for the church as a whole? Heaven forfend, they could be praying for you and me right now, influencing our faiths and our lives without us knowing! Surely they must be stopped, yes?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should all go out and appoint homosexual ministers. There’s not enough to go around, for a start. I don’t know the individual involved in this case and would hazard a guess that not being in a legal marriage is an inappropriate environment for a sexual relationship (although given that gay marriage does not legally exist, I find it hard to blame the couple involved).

However, as I’ve said before when I wrote about a similar matter a couple of years ago, homosexuality is at the very least an immensely grey area. Those proposing that homosexuality is clearly wrong are exercising an interpretation of the Bible that is loaded with a very human perspective – something which is precisely what so-called reappraisers are accused of doing.

The Bible is a complicated book, and occasionally even seems to be ambiguous and self-contradictory. To take snippets of it without social context (or indeed any other context) while failing to do so with other snippets (such as those which condemn figs, shellfish, pork and so on) is to undermine and damage its message.

Yes it’s the word of God and inspired by God, but written by humans and therefore certainly not the inerrant and infallible word of God. To treat it as such is to misuse it. The Bible has a message we must follow as a result of trying to understand it, not by dogmatically, primitively and unthinkingly following it word for word, letter for letter.

Those on the liberal side of the church are accused of picking and mixing the Bible. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s just as true for those on the conservative wing. We can only read it with human eyes, after all, in the same way that those who wrote it did so with human minds.

This whole wider issue of homosexuality in the church is a tedious, repetitive debate about minutiae of Biblical interpretation. The debate does not deserve the coverage, impact or participation it is receiving. It makes the church look like a bunch of legalistic, sexuality-obsessed pedants who care much more about this issue than the big battles against war, hatred, poverty, disease, spiritual desertification and suppression of individual liberty that the church should be famous for fighting.

Rev Scott Rennie should just be allowed to get on with his job. And we should get on with ours and stop trying to do God’s.

Unless of course, there are answers to the above questions…

12 thoughts on “Some explanations from fundamentalists, please

  1. Thank you for this, Simon. As you say, all of us who are students of the Bible are interpreters of the Bible too, whether we know it or not. I pray we have the grace to accept that fact at the General Assembly and allow the church, and all of its members, to get on with serving the people of this land in Christ’s name.

  2. There are just so many other more important things the church should be focusing on. Like healing the sick, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless. Who cares who you’re sleeping with. I mean really…

  3. I appreciate your points, Peter and Chris, thank you for writing.

    However Chris, I wouldn’t – speaking personally – be sure there’s absolutely no problem sleeping with who you like, but I see your point in that there are bigger fish to fry for the church.

  4. We need to make a distinction between Ceremonial vs Moral Law. Laws of purity were followed because they reinforced the overarching moral law. With the incarnation of Christ and coming of the Holy Spirit, these laws are no longer to be followed. Which is just as well for all of us, eh?

    Most of us “fundamentalists” take our stance based upon Genesis 1-2, which Jesus reflected when he talked about “for this purpose a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife”. Taking scripture as a whole, its trajectory is male/female lifelong monogamous relationships. Anything else is an aberration, and sane sex practice is not looked upon favourably anywhere in scripture. To support same-sex practice, one ought to say with Dairmid MacCulloch, “The Bible is in this, as in many things, simply wrong”.

    My understanding is that Scott Rennie’s partnership was not an isue when he was appointed to Brechin, because he wasn’t in one (they didn’t exist). Now that it’s common knowledge, I know there will be a few concerned people in his current presbytery.

    Prebyterianism, though focussing on the local parish, still has accountability built in, so that the wider church does have a say in who is appointed where. It’s called ecclesiology, and what is important here is that a ministry is acceptable and recognised by the whole church. In the catholic tradition, ordained ministry is not just to the local congregation.

    And no, no-one can guarantee that all ministers or leaders are completely without sin, because they won’t be. But if the sin is apparent and scandalous, it needs to be addressed, which is what is happening here. The fact that some people can no longer accept that sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is sin leads to the mess we are in.

    Those signing up to the petition are not all loons: I know some of them and they are prayerfully and thoughtfully trying to hold to the judaeo-christian tradition which has stood the test of time over thousands of years. Greco-Roman culture accepted same-sex practice and the first followers of Jesus stood over and against that culture, yet stood up for the equality of the sexes and that slaves should be well treated. These latter two things, I guess would have caused some consternation to onlookers as being crazily counter-cultural. The stance on sexual purity must have been even more costly. On that score, nothing has changed.

    This is tough for a lot of us because we have good and kind friends who are homosexual. We are now so culturally indoctrinated that we can’t challenge same-sex practice, without being marginalised, so we simply don’t do it.

  5. I always find this kind of debate to be an appalling breach of the privacy of those at the heart of it. we do not, I presume, have the least idea what this man gets up to in his bedroom. It’s entirely possible that he and the other man he’s in love with don’t sleep together at all, just as the same thing is possible in a heterosexual relationship. I don’t contend that this is any “better” (although I also don’t believe the alternative is morally bad). My point is simply that I do not pry into the bedroom habits of ANY of my friends, and it’s very odd that society feels that knowing somebody’s sexuality informs it of that person’s practices., or gives it any right to that knowledge.

  6. GadgetVicar – thank you so much for taking the time to post, I’m glad someone’s finally risen to my questions! And just to add, I’m sorry that your comment seemed to have spent 24 hours or so in my spam-filter (no conspiracy, I promise!).

    I appreciate your contributions and while I respect your take on this (and indeed any well-argued, polite take on the subject), and I am sure we both do not wish to be caught in a game of argument tennis over this, I really must offer some points in response.

    We need to make a distinction between Ceremonial vs Moral Law. Laws of purity were followed because they reinforced the overarching moral law. With the incarnation of Christ and coming of the Holy Spirit, these laws are no longer to be followed. Which is just as well for all of us, eh?

    There’s nothing whatsoever to suggest that Leviticus differentiates in its layout between ceremonial or moral – the book is a jumble of both, and I know of no later references that make that distinction (which would, in any case, simply be human interpretation). There’s also nothing to suggest that Jesus came to overthrow one part of the old law and uphold another.

    After all, on the one hand, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but fulfil it. On the other, he certainly did come to turn the world upside down. There’s no mention in each model that either his revolution or his upholding of the law applied only to some rules and not others. We either acknowledge the Old Testament law as not being prescriptions for us, or we give up the shellfish, bacon and mixed cloths and get stoning those gays.

    Most of us “fundamentalists” take our stance based upon Genesis 1-2, which Jesus reflected when he talked about “for this purpose a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife”.

    To say that a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, is not to say that he must. Is it? If it is, then to use this text to condemn homosexuality is also to comdemn a life of chaste service, being grown up and still living with your parents, and being a single person (whether willingly or not). You cannot use it to condemn one “non-marriage” option and not others. Given that being an unmarried priest or being a lonely singleton desperately waiting for your future spouse to appear in your life cannot surely in themselves be described as sinful lives, so neither – purely from this verse – can a loving, loyal homosexual relationship.

    Taking scripture as a whole, its trajectory is male/female lifelong monogamous relationships. Anything else is an aberration, and sane sex practice is not looked upon favourably anywhere in scripture.

    Yes, and just look at the male/female relationship in the Bible. Pretty much every relationship is flawed – domestic violence, cheating, incest, polygamy… even Noah tries to drunkenly sleep with his daughters. The Bible is hardly a ringing endorsement of heterosexuality either if you look at it like that.

    To support same-sex practice, one ought to say with Dairmid MacCulloch, “The Bible is in this, as in many things, simply wrong”.

    Sorry, I disagree. To support same-sex practice (in a lifelong loyal relationship) is entirely sustainable, because the Bible is far from unequivocal. To derive a stance that is against homosexual relationships is to add a great deal of human perspective, baggage and interpretation. I’m not saying the Bible is entirely wrong (though there are some flaws) – only that it is often misused and clumsily interpreted. The orthodox case is only as strong as the liberal case, and that’s being generous.

    Greco-Roman culture accepted same-sex practice and the first followers of Jesus stood over and against that culture

    I see nothing whatsoever in the New Testament that makes it clear to me that when it is condemned (and remember, “it” is an amorphous term because we have only in the last century or two used the word “homosexual”), it is the same-sex aspect that is being condemned, rather than its recreational, casual and abusive manifestations. In the same way, you’d condemn heterosexual practice if all you saw of it was rape, mysogyny, incest, and so on.

    And Kieran – good points. Although I can see where the orthodox view comes from, in that they argue that a clergyman preaching the law should also live it. But yes, it is pretty abhorrent that the Christian community seems to be dwelling so much on what this guy gets up to in bed. To so callously ignore privacy and be ambivalent towards the chap’s humiliation is very unChristian. It’s none of my business, and a matter for him and God to reconcile.

  7. Kudos for your original post, Simon.

    ” To support same-sex practice, one ought to say with Dairmid MacCulloch, “The Bible is in this, as in many things, simply wrong”. ”

    David you’ve mentioned this MacCulloch point before , but I don’t think it warrants the weight you give to this. All you’re really saying is that a non-evangelical Christian said something and you agree with it. Scriptural interpretations have obviously changed over the centuries.

    “Those signing up to the petition are not all loons: I know some of them and they are prayerfully and thoughtfully trying to hold to the judaeo-christian tradition which has stood the test of time over thousands of years. ”

    Which doesn’t mean that the actual petition isn’t little more than an ugly bullying tactic, similar to the Section 28 debate a few years back (and you were on the wrong side of that one too). Should the Church of Scotland really subvert normal procedures and make decisions on the basis of how many people (including such subtle theological minds as Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps) sign a petition?

    “Most of us “fundamentalists” take our stance based upon Genesis 1-2, which Jesus reflected when he talked about “for this purpose a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife”. ”

    Yes, and Robert Gagnon builds much of his case on this. However the problem with having fixed male and female roles/natures as the underpinning to objecting to same-sexuality is that changing male/female roles have made a mockery of such assumptions, making anti-gay rhetoric harder to justify. I used to wonder why Gagnon (author of The Bible and Homosexual Practise, which David and other evangelicals tend to regard as definitive) couples serious biblical scholarship with ridiculous and discredited “statistics” about homosexual practise, until I realised that if you did accept Gagnon’s “embodied existence” (i.e. obsession with plumbing) arguments then you would logically expect to see such evidence of inherent harm in homosexuality per se. That you don’t suggests his entire argument is (at best) a castle built on sand. Here’s an in depth look at Paul Cameron (kicked out of the APA for research abuse, that his figures claimed an *average* age of death for gay men of 40 (!) would suggest to anyone with an interest in fairness that they aren’t entirely accurate) ‘s discredited statistics that are (still!) cited by anti-gay types. Lesbians are apparently 200 times more likely to die in car crashes (!). Do buckle up, ladies.

    http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/Articles/000,020.htm

  8. Hi Simon

    I hope you are well. With regard to your original post, one of my main concerns, is that you appear to be placing your views of scriptures over the authority of the Bible. Also your quoting of certain passages, at the neglect of others, suggests ‘shock tactics’ to provoke debate as opposed to presenting a balanced and responsible account on this issue.. I am fully aware that there are many difficulties in society that the Christian Church should be and are also often focusing on in different ways in what is becoming a very hostile climate towards Biblical based Chrisitanity.
    On that note, when the Christian church does not have the Bible at the centre of it’s faith and condones practices that go directly against Biblical teaching (I note that that this is not exclusive to the issue of someone who is a practising homosexual), it greatly compromises Biblical beliefs. This also applies to each and every individual who professes to be a Christian in trying to communicate God’s Word for His glory to which we often fail at. Therefore, such a stance would highly likely cause confusion and discord within the church but also when trying to communicate the faith to those who profess to be outside of it. By what appears to be picking and choosing elements of the Bible, we are effectivley sending out the message that the whole Bible is very flexible and very open to interpretation depending on the issues facing modern day society (which to my knowledge, hasn’t greatly changed since Biblical times thus the universality of this Book). We are then, in my view, in a more dangerous situation than what we are already. I am also concerned that just because, us Christians who try and live by the Bible are labelled as ‘fundamentalists’ or in other reports ‘hardliners’ when teaching in the Bible clearly states our need and duty to do so. I do not believe or support any form of discrimination against any individuals or groups. However, when Christians state that although they accept the person but do not accept someone’s lifestyle or views, they are often branded as ‘bigots’. It appears to go unacknowledged that it is more than acceptable for Christians to be marginalised, mocked and lambasted for their beliefs. As Christians, we need to be very careful in how we witness our faith to society and I include myself in that statement and it should be a challenge to us daily.

    Take care

    Seonaid.

  9. Seonaid, many thanks for your considered and thoughtful comments.

    You begin by saying that I appear to be provoking debate. Well, yes – that’s the whole idea. I do not understand the orthodox point of view, and have asked questions that I hope can help me to do this. Debate is at the heart of faith and Christian community: it is how we learn, share, grow and mature as followers of Christ. Incidentally, I have yet to receive credible answers to any of my questions.

    You also express concerns that I am putting my views of the scriptures ahead of their authority; and that I am picking and choosing parts of them to suit me.

    With respect, this is a highly ironic suggestion, because this is precisely what fundamentalists/orthodox Christians seem to do too. Firstly, viewpoints are put forward that are shaped by human experience and knowledge. And secondly, such conservative Christians are very much picking and choosing parts of the Bible too. This whole debate, after all, is because some Christians are choosing to assert some parts of the Bible (seemingly condemning homosexuality) but inexplicably choosing to ignore others (eg that the homosexuals should be stoned or that we shouldn’t eat pork or let women preach).

    So, therefore, if your criticism of my interpretation and use of the Bible is valid, it is only because it is similarly true for most other Christians. We’re all human, after all.

    You say that the views I express undermine the Bible and its authority, but I would argue that a much more dangerous approach is to take the Bible selectively, literally and utterly uncontextually to reach a view of outright condemnation of homosexuality. That is what undermines its authority and muddies the water for those looking at this debate from the outside.

    It is not good enough simply to say that the Bible condemns homosexuality and any other take on this is wrong. The Bible’s treatment of the issue is scant, vague and loaded with social context and other aspects of sexuality, and simply to lift out extracts is to abuse the book. Articles here and here on the One Kirk website are helpful explorations of the Bible’s few mentions of homosexuality.

    Oh and as a final point, you mention your concern that Christians are branded as bigots when they say they accept the person but not the sin. As you’ll see from this article, Rev Scott Rennie most certainly doesn’t feel accepted – loving the sinner but hating the sin inevitably ends up with the perception for the sinner that they are very much hated. Sad, isn’t it?

    But that, of course, is based on the assumption that it is a sin. And that is to handle the Bible most presumptuously indeed.

  10. Hi Simon

    I hope you are well. I thought I would give some thought as to how I would next respond. I do agree that debating and discussing issues can be a good, necessary and very beneficial thing to do in the church as in other areas of life. However, it sometimes comes to a point where you have to agree to disagree and hopefully the fall out of that stance will be limited. I fear and I believe that this is not the case regarding the ongoing difficulties within the COS. You obviously have built up alot of knowledge regarding your subject topic and it is something that I do not nor would pretend to rival. However, I am certain of my stance and you seem certain of yours so we need to therefore agree to disagree. And you may never find answers to the questions you ask so that is something you will need to consider which I’m sure you have done so.

    However, I will comment on a couple of issues. What I find confusing is all this talk of different groups of Christians i.e Orthodox / Conservative etc. I would always just describe myself simply as a Christian and to do add to that, in my opinion, causes confusion and seperation within the church and doesn’t do much for our attempts for unity and fellowship so goodness knows how confusing it is for people outwith the church if someone like me is bewildered by it. Secondly, your comment on acceptance and correct me if I am wrong, but your possible opinion that it is ineffective? This value/belief is used worldwide in support to people and is essential in working with individuals in specific situations. Outwith that, it is essential in all relationships and it is further key to my Christian beliefs and walk as I know that although God does not accept the sin in me, He accepts me through my faith and trust in Christ which makes me feel accepted and loved and not anything else. However one thing I will add to this is that from my experience, there can be two difficulties in conveying the value of acceptance effectivley:

    1)Ineffective and negative ways of the person communicating this to the listener.

    2) The person listening is not prepared or willing to accept another viewpoint outwith their own and anything to the contrary will result in them feeling judged.

    Maybe either or both of these difficulties happened in the case of Scott Rennie but this in my opinion should not be used as another string to the bow in this current debate in the Christian church on such fundamental issues.

    Take care

    Seonaid.

  11. Hi Seonaid, yes you’re probably right – we should agree to disagree!

    Regarding my description of Christian viewpoints, yes I accept it’s rather divisive language, but these are terms used by others as well as me, and to be honest it helps outline a debate more if you can use labels rather than “the people who believe that…”. It’s clumsy, but a helpful shorthand. And I don’t worry about the disenchantment of non-Christians looking in, because it’s a rather dull, technical debate for them I imagine (and indeed for many outside!). They’ve seen us argue anyway, and all we can do is continue our great commission and get on with our lives.

    As for your point about acceptance, yes you’re quite right that it could have been down to the communicator (petitioners) and receiver (Scott Rennie himself). But given that a message is being communicted by those who opposed his ordination, it is up to them alone – especially in the glare of such publicity – for that message of acceptance and love to be crystal clear. Sadly it wasn’t.

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