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!’
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.