The bookstore in Glasgow was packed. The talk on science and the Christian faith went well. The time came for questions. The bookstore manager was desperate to be first – "What do you think about homosexuality?".
"Why are you asking me that?" I replied. "This is a discussion on science and faith. Are you really interested in what I think, or are you just making an accusation – 'why are you such a homophobe?'" The bookstore manager smiled ruefully and agreed that it was the latter. It is an experience I have had up and down the country. No matter the subject or the age group, the question is probably one of the top three I am asked. It is clearly one that is a stumbling block to many people, and is used as a 'shibboleth' issue in our culture. If there is anything that proves that Christianity is regressive, then surely this is it?
Given that only 1-2 per cent of the population are homosexual, why has this question become so important? Is it because the Church is so sex obsessed? All that Catholic guilt, Calvinist angst and fundamentalist hypocrisy? Sometimes it might seem as though the Anglicans, Catholics, Church of Scotland et al, have nothing else on their agenda. The truth is that while there are some Christians who seem to have an unhealthy interest in this issue, the vast majority of Christians and churches are not constantly talking about sex and sexuality. I think in 30 years preaching I may have preached on the subject four times, out of at least 3,000 sermons! It hardly amounts to obsession. The truth is that it is our culture that is obsessed with sex and sexuality. Attitudes to homosexuality have become the touchstone issue. Government funded lobby groups ensure that the 'gay agenda' is kept to the forefront. Every potential politician is vetted by the LGBTI activists to find out if they are gay friendly. Companies are investigated, schools assessed, journalists vetoed. It takes a brave person to stand against such an overwhelming tide.
Capitulation: One way for the Church to deal with this is just to go with the flow. Although the Bible's teaching is actually quite clear – sex is to be within the context of marriage and marriage is between a man and a woman – there are those Christians who want to suggest that it is not. They engage in a kind of theological/linguistic gymnastics that leave one gasping at its ingenuity, bored at its constant 'expert' repetitions and amazed that once again humanity falls for the devil's oldest trick, 'did God really say?'.
Having removed or at least caused doubt about their biggest problem (what God has revealed) they then play their strongest card. Surely as an act of love and compassion, we should be supportive of those in same-sex relationships? After all love is love and God is Love. They seem pretty sure about the love thing... it's just that they are not so sure about the God bit, and therefore prefer to define God by their understanding of love, rather than let love be defined by the biblical understanding of God.
As I write this I have just read that the former evangelical, Steve Chalke, and his Oasis church are now to offer gay marriages. This hardly comes as a surprise but it does indicate how far some sections of the Church have moved in such a short time. Although to be honest, it is not that short. When I was a student at Edinburgh University 30 years ago, the main gay activism took place within the Anglican chaplaincy and the Church overall was a fairly welcoming place to those homosexuals who did not particularly want to join the gay club scene.
Confrontation: Perhaps as a response to this, there are sections of the Church which have accepted that this is the crucial issue. After all, do we not need to be fighting where the devil is attacking? And so we have the culture wars, where some Christian groups accept the challenge of Queer theory, recognise that it wants to change the basic human roots of sexuality, marriage and gender, and fight in every last ditch to every last man. I think the main problem with this is that it seems to be fighting a spiritual battle with carnal weapons. It also means that while those who capitulate are following the culture, those who confront, end up chasing the culture. I don't think either are helpful to the cause. Is there a third way?
Compassion: Those who argue for capitulation are in one sense right. God is Love. Human beings are broken people in a broken world. Although by nature we hate God and are his enemies, he loves his enemies. The gospel is that there is good news for everyone, good news which does not depend upon sexuality. But the confrontationalists are right too. God created us male and female. He created us as sexual beings, but he gave us the instructions. And there is where compassion kicks in. To go against the Maker's instructions means that we will end up damaged, delusional and ultimately destroyed. It is not compassionate to affirm people in their sin. It is not compassionate to encourage people to walk down a path that ultimately leads them further away from God. It is not compassionate to encourage our society to turn away from God and into a darkness that can only harm us all, but especially the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. Equally, it is not compassionate to write off any human being because of their sexuality. Of all places the Church should be welcoming to sinners.
Therefore when we are asked these questions we need to answer them only in the broader context. Before we can talk about specific sexual relationships we need to talk about what human beings are, whether it is even right to use sexuality as a means of identity and what our purpose is in life. As Christians we must not be homophobes. We have no reason to be phobic about homosexuality or homosexuals. We see all people as human beings made in the image of God, sinners in need of salvation that is freely offered to us all. And our response to gay pride marches is surely not to have Christian pride marches, but rather to act with the humility of the person who knows that they are the chief of sinners.
This does not mean that we do not engage in the narrower cultural conversation, but when we do so it must always be in the light of the gospel background.
Many Christians are impressed with what I call the Lady Gaga 'Born this way' philosophy. The argument is that if people are born homosexual, is it not then cruel for anyone to deny them the expression of that sexuality? There are two basic responses to that. First of all it is perfectly possible to live a fulfilled, holistic, happy life without sex, just as it is possible to live a shallow, narrow, miserable life with it. The myth that sex is the be all and end all is one that we need to disparage, without turning into prudes! Second, there is no scientific evidence of a gay gene. One gay activist told me that this fact delighted him because for him being gay was a conscious choice and he wanted it to be that way. Most scientific studies have shown that homosexuality is not genetic.
This is not to say that genetics, as well as upbringing, culture and other factors, do not play a part. We are complex beings! Those who argue that people are just 'born that way' are as wrong as those who argue that homosexuality is always a simple choice of lifestyle.
I have debated these issues with many people over the years – both in large public forums and in personal private conversations. One of the highlights for me was this debate with Peter Tatchell.
Thatchell is a fascinating character, from an evangelical Pentecostal background but now a committed atheist and gay activist. His view of sexuality is actually very close to the biblical view, at least in some respects: "Overcoming homophobia will result in more people having gay sex but fewer people claiming gay identity. The medieval Catholic Church, despite all its obscurantism and intolerance, got one thing right. Homosexuality is not, it suggested, the special sin of a unique class people but a temptation to which any mortal might succumb.
"It now seems fairly certain, in the light of modern research, that most people are born with a sexual desire that is, to varying degrees, capable of both heterosexual and homosexual attraction. Once homophobia declines, we are bound to witness the emergence of a homosexuality that is quite different from the homosexuality we know today. With the strictures on queerness removed, and same-sex relationships normalised and accepted, more people will have gay sex but, paradoxically, less of them will identify as gay. This is because, in the absence of homophobia, the need to assert gayness becomes redundant. Gay identity is the product of anti-gay repression. When homosexuality is disparaged and victimised, gay people understandably feel they have to affirm their desires and lifestyle. However, if prejudice is vanquished, and if one sexuality is not privileged over another, defining oneself as gay (or straight) will cease to be necessary and have no social significance. The need to maintain sexual differences and boundaries disappears with the demise of straight supremacism. Homosexuality as a separate, exclusive, clearly demarcated orientation and identity will then begin to fade (as will its mirror opposite, heterosexuality). Instead, the vast majority of people will be open to the possibility of both opposite-sex and same-sex relations They won't feel the need to label themselves (or others) as gay or straight because, in a non-homophobic culture, no one will give a damn about who loves and lusts after who."
This is why we are seeing a move from people describing themselves as homosexual, to bi-sexual. The whole gender fluidity philosophy is going to make this even more confusing. Marriage fluidity has led to sexual fluidity (or is it the other way round?) and now we are on to gender fluidity.
I think the most fascinating and helpful material I have read on all of this comes from a former lecturer in Queer studies, Rosaria Butterfield, now a Reformed pastor's wife. Her books Tales of an Unlikely Convert and the even better Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ are this weeks books of the week. She has also produced some excellent video talks.
In summary then, we answer this question by having an understanding of the bigger picture, the Christian worldview. We have a love for the individual and all the complex issues they are facing. We love the Lord and his word, and we never move from it or rearrange it to suit the current zeitgeist. And in all things our aim is not to defend ourselves, or accuse others, it is simply to point them to the only one who can bring the fulfillment, forgiveness and joy that we all desire. Our aim is not to change their perceived sexual identity. Our aim is to give them a whole new identity in Christ.
David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee. Follow him on Twitter @theweeflea.