Thinking rightly about love

(Photo: Unsplash/Maico Pereira)

At the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops last month, a statement was issued by 175 bishops who were 'keen to affirm and celebrate LGBT+ people.' This statement runs as follows:

So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God' - Ephesians 2:19

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.' - John 13:34

God is Love! This love revealed by Jesus, described in the Scriptures and proclaimed by the

Church, is Good News for all - without exception. That is why we believe that LGBT+ people are a precious part of God's creation - for each of us is 'fearfully and wonderfully made' (Psalm 139:14), and all are equally loved.

We recognise that many LGBT+ people have historically been wounded by the Church and particularly hurt by the events of the last few weeks. We wish to affirm the holiness of their love wherever it is found in committed relationships.

We therefore commit to working with our siblings across the Communion to listen to their stories and understand their contexts, which vary greatly. However, we will never shy away from tackling discrimination and prejudice against those of differing sexualities and gender identities. Together, we will speak healing and hope to our broken world and look forward to the day when all may feel truly welcomed, valued and affirmed.

Most of the signatories of this statement were from The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States and those who are familiar with that church will recognise the theology underlying the statement as reflecting the general theological approach taken by TEC in recent decades. As Philip Turner explains in his perceptive essay on the 'working theology' of TEC. this theology begins with the belief that:

.... the incarnation is to be understood (in an almost exhaustive sense) as a manifestation of divine love. From this starting point, several conclusions are drawn. The first is that God is love pure and simple. Thus, one is to see in Christ's death no judgement upon the human condition. Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are. The great news of the Christian gospel is this. God wants us to love one another, and such love requires of us both acceptance and affirmation of the other. From this point we can derive yet another, accepting love requires a form of justice that is inclusive of all people, particularly those who in some way have been marginalized by oppressive social practice. The mission of the church is therefore to see that those who have been rejected are included and that justice as inclusion defines public policy.

What we see in the Lambeth Conference statement is the application of this general theology to the particular issue of the place of LGBT+ in the churches of the Anglican Communion. The basic argument is that LGBT+ people are loved by God and therefore as a matter of justice they must be unconditionally included in the life of the Church and their committed relationships must be affirmed as holy (which is code for the acceptance of same-sex partnerships and marriages).

The problem with this argument is that it fails to take seriously the nature of God's love .

We often think of love in terms of benevolence or affirmation, but that does not get to the heart of the matter. True love is the tough and inexorable desire that the object of love be the best that they can be. In the words of the Scottish theologian George Macdonald:

Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy...For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected - not in itself, but in the object...Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love's kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.

In this quotation, MacDonald connects the nature of love to the fact that 'Our God is a consuming fire' and he is quite correct to make this connection. This is because according to the Biblical witness the God who is love and the God whose judgement is as a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 9:3) are one and the same.

In the biblical story, after Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden, God makes a new start for humanity by calling Abraham and promising to make him a great nation and a source of universal blessing (Genesis 12:3).

In order to keep this promise, God enacts terrible judgements upon the Egyptians and the peoples of Canaan and, when she strays from her calling, upon Israel herself. Finally, when God fulfils his promise to Abraham by coming to his people in the person of his Son all but a small remnant of Israel refuse to believe and thus come under God's judgement - a judgement embodied in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

However, as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, even this judgement implements God's loving purposes in that it gives the Gentiles opportunity to believe which will in turn eventually lead Israel back to God.

Furthermore, the salvation of Jews and Gentiles alike is not the end of the story for the full redemption of humanity will usher in the redemption of all of God's creation (Romans 8:18-21).

If we ask where the cross fits into this story of the outworking of God's inexorable love, the answer is that on the cross God enacts his most severe judgement. He enacts the sentence of death on sinful humanity in the person of his Son.

We see this in Romans 6:6-7 where we are told: 'We know that our old self was crucified with him that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.'

The cross is an act of God's judgement in that on the cross the penalty for sin, namely death (Genesis 3:3, Romans 6:23), is carried out on us as sinners. Our sinful existence has no right to exist before God and is therefore brought to an end.

It is at the same time an act of love since the purpose of this judgement is to destroy our enslavement to sin in order that we might become free to be the people God intended us to be. This purpose finds its fulfilment in Christ's resurrection which is an act of divine re-creation in which a new way of being human is opened up in which we are not only dead to sin but alive to God.

That is why Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17: 'If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come,' and why he writes in Romans 6:10-11, 'The death he died he died to sin once and for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.'

That is why Christ declares in John 11:25-26: 'I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.'

The cross and resurrection therefore go together. They are a twofold act of divine love enacted in Christ in which, to quote John Stott, 'We have died and risen with him, so that our old life of sin, guilt and shame has been terminated and an entirely new life of holiness, forgiveness and freedom has begun.'

However, this new life which is the fruit of God's immeasurable love for us is not a life in which we can simply live as we want to live. Rather it is a life in which we are given the freedom to live as God made us to live and the biblical witness is clear that this means either living a life of complete sexual fidelity in the context of a lifelong marriage between one man and one woman or living a life of complete sexual abstinence (Genesis 2:18-25, Matthew 19: 3-12).

Living in any other way means rejecting God's love for us and carries with it the danger of this rejection becoming permanent with the consequence that we are cut off from God for ever (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

What all this means is that the statement issued at the Lambeth Conference is not only theologically misleading but also spiritually dangerous and as such unloving, since if acted on it would mean the Church encouraging people to reject what God has done for them and risk the possibility of damnation by so doing.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.