Controversy was caused a couple of weeks ago when it was announced that the Church of England had appointed a gay bishop who admits that he is "in a relationship" but maintains sexual celibacy.
Reactions to this news by evangelicals has been varied. Some have stated that the appointment is a "dangerous" step, especially in the light of the "facilitated conversations" about homosexuality that are taking place within the Church. Others have taken the view that his sexual orientation is completely irrelevant to his appointment because he abides by the rule of discipline required by the Church.
I am in no place to know or comment on the personal circumstances of this particular bishop, but the appointment does raise important questions as to the circumstances in which a man experiencing same-sex attraction can be appointed to pastoral office in the Church. This is of wider theological and pastoral significance than the current political issues raging within the Church of England.
There is no doubt that many men who experience same-sex attraction have served, or are serving, as church leaders. Where they are faithful to the gospel they have been a great blessing to the Church. However in determining a biblical approach to homosexuality I fear that contemporary evangelicals have focused too simplistically on sexual behaviour as the dividing line between qualification and disqualification for ministry (or indeed church membership). It is certainly noble for those who face the struggle of same-sex attraction to maintain celibacy, but this alone cannot be sufficient to settle the question of suitability for ministry.
While the New Testament makes clear that temptation is not itself sin, sinful desires are to be recognised for what they are, and resisted. The Biblical injunctions are to flee from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 1 Corinthians 6:18) and to mortify the desires of the flesh (Romans 8:13). This is true for both heterosexual and homosexual desires. It is not, therefore, sufficient to remain celibate while at the same time affirming and approving the desires that the Bible regards as sinful.
It is therefore difficult to understand how it can be compatible with the New Testament teaching to be "in a relationship" with someone of the same gender, even if such a relationship is celibate. In the common currency of contemporary culture to be "in a relationship" is not the same as being in a friendship. It indicates an exclusive and romantic commitment. It is not platonic but inherently erotic in nature. It is similar to the difference between sharing a house with someone and "living together". David and Jonathan were in a relationship of friendship, and we have a real relationship with everyone with whom we are "friends", but they were not "in a relationship".
I would hope it would be uncontroversial that a married man would be disqualified from ministry if he were also "in a relationship" with another woman, even if that relationship remained celibate. I would imagine that a man would not be qualified to become a Roman Catholic priest if he were "in a relationship" with a woman, even if that relationship was kept sex-free. I don't think it would be appropriate for a single heterosexual man to be appointed as an elder if he were "living with" and "in a relationship" with a women.
The point is that being "in a relationship" appears to be incompatible with the rejection of the ungodly desire from which it flows. Those who struggle with same-sex attraction and maintain the discipline of singleness are to be honoured for their gospel faithfulness, but neither Paul nor Jesus seem to allow of an intermediate state of being "in a relationship" that is neither marriage nor ordinary friendship.
Bondage to sin
Those who maintain that this is an unfair demand of those who struggle with same-sex attraction are ultimately denying the power of the gospel to free people from bondage to sin. God does not allow his people to be tempted beyond what they can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). All Christians, whether heterosexual or homosexual, have to battle against sinful desires, resisting them rather than indulging them. Jesus is the perfect example for us of a man who was single, was tempted in every way, yet fully faithful to his Heavenly Father.
Even more important is the question whether a person whom experiences same-sex attraction is willing to teach and maintain "sound doctrine," as this is the essential task of church leaders, be they elders, pastors, priests or bishops (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:9). Does a person who struggles with same-sex attraction teach that such desires are sinful and urge others to repent and resist? Are they willing not just to abide by the discipline required by their Church (if it reflects the New Testament), but do they also believe that such discipline is right and good? If the discipline requirements of the Church were changed would they feel free to change their own practice, or would they continue to maintain celibacy because they are convinced that this is required by God?
In many Churches in the UK there is an ongoing debate about how to treat those who struggle with same-sex attraction. It seems to me that those who experience same-sex attraction and yet who uphold biblical teaching and maintain celibacy are qualified for ministry, whereas those who do not experience same-sex attraction and yet advocate the acceptance of those who practise gay sex ought to be disqualified from ministry because they have become false teachers who will lead individuals and the Church astray from Christ and his kingdom.
It is vital that we support and encourage our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction yet who flee from sexual immorality and mortify the desires of their flesh. They are true heroes of the gospel and the Christian life. Their godliness will be revealed not just in their celibacy but by their faithful testimony to, and teaching of, others. They are the ones who are best placed to speak to our lost and confused world about the beauty of the Christian life and power of the gospel to overcome sin. We do them a disservice if we think that the issue is celibacy alone.
For further resources on the proper biblical approach to same-sex attraction go to the excellent website Living Out. Both Sam Alberry and Ed Shaw have contributed to the forthcoming edition of Primer, the FIEC theological resource, which will be devoted to the issues of sexuality and gender. You can buy Primer from The Good Book Company.