An Evangelical approach to sexual ethics

I am just back from the annual meeting of the American Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in San Antonio, TX. It is only the second time in my life I have been to the ETS conference, but they offered a slot for us to launch a book, Two Views on Homosexuality, that I’ve contributed to, and I decided quickly that I owed it to the publishers (who have been very generous) and to my fellow contributors (who in the process of arguing our points have become friends) to be there.

I don’t suppose that it is a state secret that we were offering the launch around the conferences. If we’d got at slot at AAR/SBL, Wes Hill and I, who argued the conservative side of the question, would have been under fire, and would have looked to Megan DeFranza and Bill Loader, who argued the affirming side, to support us; at ETS it was rather definitely the other way around; Wes & I were—I think ‘denounced’ is the right word, but I will live with ‘challenged’—on the basis that even accepting the possibility that someone may find an affirming doctrine in Scripture was already a fundamental betrayal.

I struggle with this because I am, by deep conviction, evangelical. I believe passionately in the core evangelical impulse, that I—not just can, but must—make common cause with all those who preach the necessity of the new birth, regardless of other disagreements.

I live in a village where, in 1679, James Sharp, Archbishop of St Andrews and Professor of Theology in my own College, was murdered by those who thought that accepting episcopacy was repugnant to the gospel, and where in retaliation the Anglican establishment murdered six convinced Presbyterians, inhabitants of my village, who had no involvement in the crime, because the established church thought presbyterianism equally repugnant.

When, sixty years later Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans would invite each other into their pulpits because of a shared commitment to the gospel something quite miraculous had happened. What Americans call the Great Awakening and Brits call the Evangelical Revival was a move of the Spirit of God, not just in renewing the gospel of salvation by faith alone, but in breaking down the ecclesial barriers that separated believers in the gospel.

I was slow to understand what went on in our session at ETS; the Rottweilers were out in some force, and challenging Megan and Bill on their understanding; OK, I did that sharply enough in the book. But there was repeatedly an extra step stated or implied in the questions, from ‘this is wrong’ to ‘you are not a Christian’. I admit I did not understand where this was coming from.

Then someone came up to me at the end, and asked why I had been defending my friends. I began to say some stuff about love and loyalty but he cut across me, ‘They are leading people onto the highway to hell!’

Oh.

I’m generally bad in live debate—my mind moves slowly enough that I need time to find an adequate response to challenges. But this one wasn’t hard—I am, as I say, by deep conviction, evangelical. ‘No, I know Megan and Bill, I know that they call people to believe in Jesus. They are leading people on the highway to heaven (even if I presently think that they are fairly seriously wrong on at least one aspect of the nature of that highway).’

The memory troubles me. I do not know who he was—his badge was turned around—but his conviction was clear: teaching false sexual morality was damaging the salvation of the hearers.

Maybe I’m sensitive, because of the village I live in, because the blood flowed where I walk, but it matters to me desperately that salvation depends on our embracing of the forgiveness offered in Jesus and on nothing else. Nothing else. ‘Sola fide’ is not an interesting theological slogan for me. It is—literally—gospel truth. Add this or that condition, and you begin to justify the murder of members of my college or inhabitants of my village. More importantly than that, even, you begin to query the salvation of those who have put their faith in Jesus.

Sola fide. I have to stand on that. Because the Blood flowed where I walk, and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice, complete, once for all, offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.

25 Comments

  1. James
    Nov 19, 2016

    Interesting stuff!

    Here’s what I don’t understand though…If we take for the sake of argument that the traditional position is correct and the affirming position is wrong…

    Then why hasn’t the Holy Spirit revealed to your friends that they are living in rebellion and sin and need to repent? You might say this will happen in the future. But what if it doesn’t?

    And in calling people to Jesus aren’t they in reality leading people astray if they also teach there’s nothing wrong with homosexual behaviour? It all just seems like a mess.

    I know its not nice to declare other people ‘not really Christians’, but when it comes to a gospel issue like this, I think we have to deal with the tough questions. If the Church can’t agree on what is sin and what isn’t sin then how on earth can we call anyone to repentance and salvation? We don’t even agree on what needs repenting of!

    Would deeply appreciate any guidance you can give me on all this…Thanks.

    • steve
      Nov 19, 2016

      Wes and I, who argue the traditional side in the book, happen to disagree about bishops and about whether children should be baptised. If I am right and he is wrong on this, why hasn’t the Holy Spirit revealed that to him–after all, baptism is far more central to the gospel biblically than even sexual ethics? It seems that in God’s good pleasure we have been invited to learn to love each other by struggling with such questions.

      • Dan
        Nov 20, 2016

        Hi Steve, I am trying to understand your response to James who commented above. It seems to me that he asked you for guidance on answering a question about the role of the Holy Spirit: why does the Holy Spirit convict some believers that certain sexual acts are sinful while helping other believers have a clear conscience when they engage in those same sexual acts? In response, you brought up the issue of baptism, about which believers have different points of view and practices; and thus you claim that God has invited us to learn to love each other by struggling with difficult questions. Your response leaves me with another question: should I think about the practice of baptism like items in sin lists in the Bible? I personally find it difficult to think about baptism, whether I was baptized correctly or not, the same, or at least in a similar, way I think about sexual morality. I am also still wondering about James’ question. Is there an inconsistency in the way the Holy Spirit convicts believers about their sexual actions? I am also asking for guidance on this issue. Thanks.

        • steve
          Nov 21, 2016

          No. We absolutely should not think about baptism like items in sin lists; it is far more basic than that.
          Baptism (and verbal confession) are the only things listed in the Bible alongside faith as conditions for salvation (Mk 16:16; Rom. 10:9); baptism is the last command of Jesus before his ascension (Mt. 28:19) and the first command of the newly Spirit-filled church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38).
          Theologically, baptism is the basis of the Christian life; all other obedience is co-ordinated to the claim ‘baptismus sum’ (to quote Luther).
          To suggest that sexual ethics belongs alongside baptism is to make the error of fertility cults down the ages, of thinking sex is of fundamental importance. It isn’t. Baptism is.

          • Christopher Yuan
            Dec 3, 2016

            Dr. Holmes:

            I think your analogy between baptism and same-sex marriage breaks down. Neither paedobaptists or credobaptists are saying the opposite of each other. One is not arguing that baptism is not necessary. The issue is about the means by which or the time that baptism should occur. However, as a person who prior to conversion was an agnostic gay man, my views are the opposite of those who believe that same-sex marriage are not sinful.

      • James
        Nov 20, 2016

        With all due respect Steve, don’t really feel like you’ve answered the question. Dan is absolutely right…Care to try again? (Don’t wish to sound demanding, but this is a big question for me and I would really value you input…)

        • Simon Hall
          Nov 21, 2016

          Evangelicals are pacifists and Just War supporters (and frankly, unjust war supporters). As a pacifist, I have to fellowship with fellow believers who condone the sinful murder of millions and claim it to be a moral good. Do you think I should proclaim them all to be not Christians?

          To me the teaching of Jesus is so clear I find it hard to believe that any of his followers could ever point a gun at another human being. It seems to me that over centuries Christians have sinfully sought and worshipped power and security instead of trusting God. But I have listened to my Just War brothers and sisters and some of them are definitely following the same Saviour and Lord as me.

          I can’t say why they read the Bible differently to me (even though they can describe the logical processes they go through), I can’t say why the Holy Spirit hasn’t corrected them. But we are doing the same thing – prayerfully reading the scriptures – so I cannot dismiss them. Heck, it may turn out to be me that is in cultural captivity and not them!

          Speaking of cultural captivity, we really do need to have a think about why we obsess over sex so much. Gluttony appears on those ‘sin lists’ you mention, but I don’t hear evangelicals calling for the expulsion of the overweight. Some of our favourite theologians would be declared not Christian if that were the case.

          • Dan
            Nov 21, 2016

            Hi Simon, I did not state that any particular person should be “proclaimed not to be a Christian” due to his or her beliefs about homosexuality, if that is what you read into my comment. With that said, I would like to respond to some of the points that you brought up.

            It seems to me that you made an argument from analogy in order to recharacterize homosexuality. A similar argument can be made regarding issues like divorce, slavery, and the role of women in ministry. Using these examples or war as an analogy ultimately breaks down because up until quite recently, Christians unaminously believed that Scripture condemns homosexual practice. The same cannot be said about war, for example.

            Steve made a case that it is God’s desire for us to learn to love each other by allowing us to disagree on church practice issues like governing and baptizing. Therefore, the reason why some believers disagree on the issue of homosexual practice is so that they can learn to love each other in spite of having a conflict (Please correct me if I misunderstood your point, Steve). To me, as I stated above, Steve’s analogy breaks down and does not adequately answer James’ question, which was about the Holy Spirit.

            Simon, you also brought up the issue of “the overweight” in the church; and I think that you argued that since theologians who overeat are still declared Christian, then believers who engage in homosexual practice must still be declared Christian. I appreciate your thoughts about inclusion, and I will state again that neither James nor I above has made a statement about who is or who is not a Christian, let alone who ought to be expelled from Christian fellowship altogether.

          • Simon Hall
            Nov 21, 2016

            Thanks for your gracious reply Dan.

            I was reflecting on Steve’s reflections on comments made to his dialogue partners, not your comments in particular.

            I agree that the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation feels very new and unprecedented. This is in part because the science of understanding sexual orientation and gender identity is still in its infancy, and also because as far as we can see there has never been an established practice of same-sex marriage in western cultures before. So we are dealing with an original context and therefore need to look again at what we have thought and taught.

            I was significantly influenced by William Webb’s ‘Slaves, Women and Homosexuals’, which (for me) fatally undermined any literal reading of biblical ethics, provided a reasonable foundation for a progressive understanding of Christian morality, and claimed that there was no sign of any progression with regards to same-sex love in the scriptures. I agree.

            However, it was Megan DeFranza’s work on the place of intersex people in God’s ecology that made me realise that the world does not conform to our neat binary categories and therefore our theology may need to be slightly more nuanced as well.

            So I certainly used to think that it was impossible to (for example) affirm same sex marriage and have a high view of scripture. While it’s definitely true that some (probably many) of those who affirm SSM treat the Bible in ways that would upset an evangelical (and of course the feeling is mutual), I do now see that there are evangelicals who support SSM because of their reading of scripture, not in spite of it.

    • Tinah
      Nov 20, 2016

      The Holy spirit always convict a genuine Christian of the truth. It could be that they are not listening to the Holy Spirit. As Christian we are to love each other but not the sin in each other. Also, thd Holy Spirit give us discernment of wrong teaching so that those who belong to Christ will not be led a stray. Steve your answer to James is not very mature. We all have difficult questions at times but atleast be honest about them.

    • Phil
      Nov 20, 2016

      A couple of things occur to me reading this, and the associated comments: First, anything beyond sole fide depends on me. The idea of 100% grace seems more appropriate to who I am and who God is. The second is that God is big. When we make ‘hiw can that… If not that…’ type statements, it seems to me we’re in danger of forgetting how big an understanding gap there might be between creator and created. In God’s world there’s Solomon, there’s David, there’s Jesus. There’s Mary, Rahab. Jacob. The accounts of their lives are enough to convince me I don’t have the full picture – I can’t make them fit any neat formula. Scientifically speaking, that means there may be variables I’m missing. Which wouldn’t be all that surprising I guess.

  2. Dave G- J
    Nov 20, 2016

    I appreciate the tone and passion in your post, and thank you for your work in evangelical theology. But my guess is that your “challengers” have specific NT texts in mind – doesn’t 1 Cor 6:9-11 say that “believers” who continue in greedy, deceitful or sexually immoral lifestyles will not inherit the kingdom of God? And Jesus is pretty harsh on teachers who advocate sexually immoral lifestyles in Revelation 2-3. Jude is probably in their minds too. If saving faith is evidenced by its fruit and goes hand in hand with repentance I dont see how such a view goes against sola fide?

  3. Philip Whittall
    Nov 20, 2016

    Hi Steve,
    In your new book do you & Wes tackle the warning passages of the NT (so 1 Cor 5 & 6 for example)? It seems to me that the passion of your interlocutor stems from the conviction that (unlike bishops & baptism) the practice of sexual immorality (in which they would include homosexual practice) would seem to explicitly exclude those who live in this way from inheriting the kingdom of God.

    Therefore there is a logic to the man’s position that those in the revisionist side are promoting a way of life that does not lead to life. From that perspective those that then teach this would very likely to be seen as ‘false’ teachers and not as brothers or sisters with whom we disagree.

    Repent, believe & be baptised was the apostolic cry and that faith in Christ alone includes as a necessary component repentance from sins committed, as James noted.

    I look forward to reading the book in due course. Thanks

    • steve
      Nov 21, 2016

      The folk from my village who murdered a bishop believed–as did almost every C16th or C17th theologian–that disobedience to (what they believed to be) a Biblical church order would exclude people from the Kingdom. I happen to think they were wrong, just as I happen to think that the guy who challenged me about same-sex marriage was wrong.

      All our repentance is imperfect; often (mostly?) because of our imperfect understandings of the gospel call. The blood of Jesus covers those sins, too.

  4. Alan
    Nov 20, 2016

    “salvation depends on our embracing of the forgiveness offered in Jesus and on nothing else”

    Exactly – those who would affirm homosexuality are teaching that you DON’T need to embrace forgiveness, that you don’t need to struggle with your sin. That’s the problem the person you encountered is addressing.

    I look forward to reading your book, blessings.

    • steve
      Nov 21, 2016

      ‘those who would affirm homosexuality are teaching that you DON’T need to embrace forgiveness,’
      Sorry, but no they are not. Read them and see. Just as I believe that I need forgiveness for my failures to love my wife perfectly, so they believe that same-sex partners need forgiveness for their failures to love perfectly. They say so clearly, repeatedly, and explicitly.
      I differ from them on whether a same-sex marriage is an appropriate discipline to grow in holiness, but we agree that every human life is broken and fallen, and in need of Christ’s forgiveness in its every aspect.

      • James
        Nov 24, 2016

        But surely you’re missing the point Steve? Yes those gay people believe they are failing to love perfectly. But they’re still failing to repent of an underlying sin, which is pretty serious, isn’t it?

  5. Bev Murrill
    Nov 21, 2016

    In years gone by, I had a lot of the answers and I was very firm on who was right and who was wrong. Those who were wrong, were just plain wrong and therefore, unless they got it right, they would have to suffer for it. Clearly I had no understanding that by taking that stance I was inferring that I was right on all counts. (Yeah, I know… ugly)

    The older I have grown, the more aware I am that I know very little, and the little that I do know has come because Jesus Christ has graced me with understanding, not because I’m so smart.

    I don’t happen to agree with same-sex marriage and would choose not to marry someone under these circumstances, however I have good relationships with some people in this circumstance because I have come to the conclusion that unless I”m asked, it’s not my business to tell other people how to live. The reason for this is that every sin outside the Church is also inside the Church. We have no moral base on which to stand in order to tell other people what they should/should not do.

    I appreciate your post, Steve… faith in the saving grace of Jesus Christ is what gives us freedom from sin, even our ongoing petty little issues that we continue in without knowing. There cannot be a bar from which we choose how much is too much and how far is too far to invalidate that salvation.

  6. Malcolm Pritchard
    Nov 21, 2016

    I wonder if there is a paradox here? To make an appeal to Sola Fide is to substitute faith in Jesus Christ with a dogma? And in so doing crucial elements of that faith are excluded.

  7. steve
    Nov 21, 2016

    Thank you all for your interactions, and my apologies in not replying before now; the day job got in the way…

    What of 1Cor.6:9-11 and similar?

    First, can we agree that Scripture clearly teaches that salvation is by faith alone? If so, then however we understand other passages, they cannot deny this truth, because Scripture does not contradict itself. (For an example, consider 1Tim. 2:15; I have read endless commentaries on this verse, and still cannot say how to properly understand it–but it clearly does not mean what on a naive reading it appears to say, that ‘women will be saved through childbirth’, because that claim stands in opposition to core biblical truths.)
    Second, 1Cor.6:9-11 also lists drunkenness and gluttony; it is easy to find Christian writers who regard any use of alcohol as prohibited by the first, or who think that anyone who does not fast regularly is condemned by the second; are they justified in regarding people like me as unsaved? If not, then nor can I regard my friends who have an equally high view of Christian sexual ethics to me, but can find space within that for same-sex marriages, as unsaved.
    Third, the line I took with my interlocutor on the day was to reflect on slavery (I had been to the Alamo the day before, and was wondering still how slave owners could be feted as defenders of liberty). Jonathan Edwards owned at least one slave, and at least once in his life traded in slaves. OK, slave-trading is not listed in 1Cor. 6, but I hope we can all agree that it is a grievous sin, certainly the equal of what is listed there. Is Edwards in hell because he was an unrepentant slave trader? No–he, like me, and like a Christian who affirms same-sex marriage, is saved by faith in Christ, despite all his/my/their errors. That, really, is all I am trying to say.

    • Andrew Wilson
      Nov 23, 2016

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for this. I tried to contact you via Twitter, but you may be more of an occasional user these days!

      I don’t think you’ve done justice to 1 Cor 5-6 in this brief response (or implicitly various other Pauline warnings, like Gal 5 & Eph 5). It seems to me like you’re saying, “yeah, we know Paul said that those who do X won’t inherit the kingdom, but we know they probably will, because sola fide.” That doesn’t fit with the specifics of this text, or indeed the way Paul presents the tension between warnings and assurances (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:9-11; 10:1-22)–faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is not alone–let alone with James, who (it seems to me) is specifically trying to address the claim that sola fide means that works have nothing to do with justification. If you are wanting to say that no ethical behaviour could ever disqualify someone from salvation, and therefore we should not warn them as if it could, then I think you need to present an alternative reading of the warning passages, given how marginal this reading is historically and theologically.

      That said, your thought-experiements are interesting. So: would someone who regarded me as an unrepentant drunkard be justified in regarding me as being unsaved, or at least in serious danger of it? Given their (wrong) premises, yes. Would someone who unrepentantly stole people, sold them into slavery and then trafficked them be regarded as unsaved, or at least in serious danger of it? (I don’t know enough of the specifics of Edwards’s situation here, hence the abstraction.) Yes. More pointedly, if I regularly and unrepentantly committed adultery, or murder, would you be justified in regarding me as being unsaved, or at least in serious danger of it? Yes. And if somebody answered No, especially to the second hypothetical, then I would have to wonder not just what they thought the Pauline warnings meant, but what they thought much of Jesus’ ethical teaching meant (Matt 7:21-23 etc).

      I may be misreading you, but it seems to me that you (and Alan Jacobs) are implicitly saying that there is no ethical behaviour that can disqualify a person from salvation; that the doctrine of sola fide means that no actions, of any sort, can affect whether a person is saved. That is a position I cannot see in Scripture or the tradition, and it has ramifications that go well beyond your ETS panel!

      Once again, thanks for starting (and hosting) this conversation. It has been an elephant in the evangelical room for a while, and it’s a good thing we’re talking about it.

      Hopefully see you soon,
      Andrew

  8. Ian Hamlin
    Nov 24, 2016

    I’m concerned. I love a good theological debate as much as the next woman, but, as Andrew mentioned, some of this goes beyond the confines of the ETS. What if it turns out I’m on the wrong side of this debate? What if the messy lives of those I’ve sought to serve in 25 years of pastoral ministry haven’t cut the mustard? What if it comes to pass that their sexual immorality, or hairstyle, or gluttony, or method/timing of their baptism has rendered my hopeful certainty at their funerals so much hot air? They would’ve repented I’m sure, had they had more time and read a few more books, but what if they succumbed to that rampaging bus so beloved of youth evangelists of the 1980′s? Furthermore, what about me? Maybe my lifestyle of extraordinary affluence and ignorance while half the world starves puts me the wrong side of the line wherever we finally agree to draw it when the dust settles and we reach a compromise somewhere between cheap grace and hard legalism. Sorry, but if any of this is the case then our, or my, gospel preaching has been selling a pup and the Church has simply become, again. the means of promoting and proscribing whatever is deemed to be the most appropriate moral code of the day, for its own ends not necessarily societies! It’s faith alone, or I’m out!

    (no desire to offend of course, my tone here is intended to be somewhat tongue in cheek – I’ve spent some time of my current sabbatical in Wittenburg, can you tell? )
    Blessings all

  9. Chris Wooldridge
    Jan 3, 2017

    Steve,

    This sounds like antinomianism. I’m not saying it is, but it sounds a lot like it. How would you explain this in such a way as not to fall into that trap?

    I’m definitely a proponent of justification by faith alone, but as Andrew Wilson said in a comment above, the faith which saves is never alone. There are many warning passages in scripture, and we must take their teaching seriously if we are to honour all that God has to say.

    Chris

    • steve
      Jan 3, 2017

      Welcome, Chris. Sorry, but this is nothing like antinomianism, pretty much by definition. Antinomianism is the teaching that Christians are not obligated to obey any moral precept; it follows therefore that no participant in a dispute about which moral precept Christians should obey can possibly be antinomian.

      Of course, historically the issue around Anne Hutchinson in 1638 was far more about authority than theology: she was convicted for presuming a woman can teach, for believing in liberty of conscience that cannot be bound by human government, and for holding that the Holy Spirit still inspires prophets today (Hall’s excellent collection of the documents makes all this clear). If that’s what you mean by ‘antinomianism’, then I am happy, indeed utterly delighted, to plead guilty on all three counts…

      • Chris Wooldridge
        Jan 5, 2017

        If I’ve misunderstood what antinomianism is then fair enough! Either way, one still has to account for the warning passages and the judgement according to works passages such as Romans 2, 2 Corinthians 5 etc, which is where I feel that your personal take on the doctrine of justification by faith alone does not hold up.

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