Niggling on a tangent

As I have no idea who reads this, I want to say at the start that this isn’t meant as a  piece of polemic, or an attack on anyone. Nor is it angry, emotional, crusading, righteously indignant or smugly superior. It’s just some calm, intellectually dispassionate thoughts that are rattling around the old noggin following some tangential teaching in a recent sermon I heard. If you know me, then potentially there will be at least one individual you can identify from this – I love them, and I respect them, and I’m not having a pop, even where I disagree with them. I’m just musing without vitriol, random or otherwise …

So, with that out of the way, and bearing in mind that this is very much about a tangent not the core message … the other week one of our pastors was preaching on 1 Corinthians 7: 1-11. There was a lot of good stuff, and a lot of sensitivity. Stuff on not making either a sexual relationship or family the holy grail. On how the church, particularly in its evangelical incarnations, tends to elevate family to the detriment and hurt of those who are single, whether by choice or circumstance. On how our identity shouldn’t be based on who we are (or aren’t) having a relationship with, but in Christ, and our relationship with Him. On the strong socially reinforced lies of liberation and freedom through sexual promiscuity and inconstancy; on the strength of sexual desire, and on the good and the bad within that.

As well as all that, though, there was also this weird little “hang on a moment” tangent. Somewhere along the line we side-stepped into the whole homosexuality and same-sex marriage (SSM) issue. I can understand why: it’s a topical issue, and it’s a hot button issue. It’s arguably tangentially relevant to the passage, as it involves marriage. It’s also an issue that, whatever your views, deserves to be handled respectfully, sensitively and with love; not with foam-flecked ranting and invective. And if there’s anyone who would be gentle, respectful, calm, and loving, it’s the pastor who was doing the talking; and they were, which is cool.

The bit that got me going “Er …” though, was two-fold and, I feel, representative of how the whole thing is often addressed.

Firstly, and this is a specific niggle with the specific moment, when we segued into the SSM thing (unclear) we neatly side-stepped the divorce thing (fairly clear). As far as I can see, vv10-11 are pretty much about divorce and separation. So it’s a slightly odd point to use as a stepping stone to considering SSM. After all, nothing there is teaching on who can get married. It’s teaching into a context where that wasn’t even up for negotiation, and is talking quite clearly about constancy, faithfulness, and the enduring nature of marriage. Now, I can understand the desire (or rather, feeling a responsibility) to speak on the SSM issue at the moment. I can also understand that it’s arguably easier to address that subject to a room with no (openly) homosexual folk present but with a not insignificant number of divorcees, re-married or otherwise. Focussing on the divorce aspect would no doubt have led to a much, much, much, much longer address, possibly more hurt, and no doubt a lot more muttering from people directly affected. In context though it did rather give me a mental hiccough, a bit like being a passenger when the driver takes an unexpected turning with minimal indication.

Secondly, and this is a more general niggle, the arguments used felt a bit left-field, if not actively broken. Referencing back to Matthew 10: 1-11 as “Jesus’ teaching on marriage”; extrapolating that “male and female” is therefore the only valid combination, and implying that to dispute this is to go against Jesus’ clear teaching; I struggle with that. Mostly because that passage isn’t about defining what marriage is. It’s a response to a tricksy question on divorce. So it’s actually Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Flip, the TNIV even heads it up “Divorce”.

Consider: you’re living and operating at a time and place where what ‘marriage’ means is clearly and unequivocally defined and accepted, but divorce and ways out of marriage are controversial. A group that you know are laying traps for you ask a loaded question about divorce, a contemporary hot-button issue, and one stacked very much in favour of the husband and to the enormous detriment of the wife. Homosexuality isn’t even in the room, let alone on the table; it’s therefore not likely to figure too hugely in the context of the response.

The response is, strangely enough, about divorce. Not about homosexuality, and only about marriage in so far as marriage is the context in which divorce occurs. It’s pretty clear. OK, there’s a whole load of other stuff in there which is less obvious without a bit of background study into the history and culture of the time, and the Old Testament laws around marriage and divorce. All the stuff tied up with what’s a “purity” offence versus what’s a “property” offence which we really need to know to avoid mis-application and misunderstanding. But that aside, to me it seems a bit of a stretch to take a prohibition on divorce in the context of marriage as understood by Judaism in the 1st Century AD, and turn it into a prohibition on homosexual marriage for all time.

In recent years I’ve done a lot of reading, thinking, studying etc. around the whole homosexuality & Christianity issue. To date, the conclusions (if that’s the right word for views that are still developing and being refined) I’ve come to are fairly straight forward:

  • nowhere in scripture are homosexual relationships explicitly condoned and affirmed
  • the arguments that they are unequivocally wrong in all ways, for all time, in all contexts are by no means as clear-cut as many may think from the weight of traditional and some current teaching
  • that much as our (well, the majority) understanding of the ‘Christian’ position on slavery, segregation, and the role of women has grown and developed (often with a need for repentance over history) as better, consistent, richer, and more intellectually honest hermeneutics and exegesis are employed, so a lot of the traditional understanding of the classic ‘proof text’ verses that have shaped views of homosexuality needs a major do-over. It seems to me that understanding is based on flawed premises
  • wherever you eventually come down in your views, love should trump everything in how you express them and conduct yourself
Which is why although I disagree with the content sermonal tangent (and it was a tangent), I respect the spirit in which it was delivered, echo their distress that simply holding a different viewpoint in as gentle and loving way as possible can get you labelled as “bigot” and “homophobic” despite having genuine, deep friendships with people who happen to be homosexual and not being in any way bigoted or phobic. Also, I wholeheartedly agree with the core point: sex & sexuality are not the be-all and end-all; obsessing over them and raising them up as the pinnacle of life, the thing that completes us and validates us, is a delusion and a lie; constancy, faithfulness and deep, true, 1 Corinthians 13 love in all relationships, whether marital/sexual or not, flowing from an identity anchored in Christ’s love for us individually and collectively – that’s what it’s all about.


Possibly blogging these thoughts in a random corner of t’InterWebz isn’t the best way to resolve my discomfort and conflict with said tangent. But it does speak to a deeper layer of conflict. On the one hand, it’s a non-issue. The church has long obsessed way too much over sex (along with the world at large!) whilst being comparatively silent on injustice, exploitation, greed etc. (or has it? I feel another musing coming on …). In the immediate context, how valuable and appropriate would it be to take up someone’s time, possibly pile on misunderstanding and hurt, and take them away from doing other good, supportive, life-changing and affirming work for people who need that right now, all over what is, really, something we should just get over and no big deal? On the other, it is a big issue for society right now, and if the ‘Christian’ response (mine or theirs) is built on dubious foundations, surely it’s better to get it out in the open and work through it, lest we (me, they, both of us, all of us) end up doing more direct and indirect damage to other, different lives.

Paradox, eh? Thank goodness for the cathartic benefits of writing a bunch of where it really doesn’t matter at all!

As a final aside, if you’re reading this with mounting horror at what a despicable liberal I am, all I’d say is: go do some reading. Do some research. Look at the arguments, hermeneutics and exegesis from both ‘sides’ of the debate, not just the one you already agree with. Take time to seek out respected, quality commentators. Sift out the obvious foaming lunatics from both perspectives (there are plenty), then weigh the rest against it’s coherence with the Gospel. It may surprise you. It may challenge you. It may just reinforce what you already believe. That’s fine; just don’t hate on me without putting some effort in.
Personally, over the years I’ve found the following helpful, challenging, infuriating and humbling in equal measure and sometimes in surprising ways:
  • the Bible (duh!) – actually reading it all, and reading for context and comprehension
  • on hermeneutics: How to read the bible for all it’s worth
  • assorted sermons and conversations with pastors and friends many and various (yes, actually talking about it with a range of people)
  • the Ship of Fools community forums, particularly on this issue some of the conversations in Dead Horses. It’s probably fair to say that there’s a liberal bias, but conservative viewpoints are far from absent. A place best lurked in for some time before opening your gob, mind, if you want to get and give the best
  • various web articles, both liberal and conservative, links lost to history (although there are plenty buried in the Dead Horses threads mentioned above)
  • from many books, probably this one most of all as an applied hermeneutic and “big issue” discussion, but all kinds of tangential stuff, too much to pick out
Your mileage will probably vary; that doesn’t matter so much, as long as you get some mileage under your belt.