In this concluding post I want to continue my reflections on how we deal with those with whom we disagree regarding how to interpret the Bible.
There is a tendency in conservative evangelical circles to divide a mixed denomination like the Church of Scotland to divide the Church into "us" who believe in what the Bible says and "them" who don't. But that's rather an oversimplification, isn't it? The truth is rather more complex. Over the issue of homosexuality, those who would permit the ordination of practising homosexual ministers are actually composed of at least two broad groups.
First, there are those liberals who do not have as high a view of Scripture as evangelicals do. For them, the Bible is a testimony to God's people's experience of God down through the centuries. The Bible is therefore a fallible human document that reflects the times it was written in. For this group, the Church is not bound by the Bible's teachings. This group likely regards contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality as more enlightened, more loving and more Christlike than the biblical prohibitions. I suspect that most "revisionist" supporters in the Kirk would broadly fall into this group. We could call this group the "liberal revisionists" for convenience.
But second, there is probably also a group who may have as high a view of Scripture as the Word of God as any other evangelical. This group accepts that what the Bible says is true and should be obeyed by Christians, yet rather than interpreting the biblical prohibitions as applying to all homosexual acts, they regard the Bible passages dealing with homosexual acts as merely condemning homosexual activity in certain specific contexts. For example, this group would see the Bible as condemning homosexuality connected to pagan worship and practices, as condemning homosexual rape, as condemning homosexual promiscuity, etc. Such an interpretation would leave the Bible at least silent on the question of same-sex acts within a committed, loving, consensual and monogamous context. This in turn would leave the possibility open that such relationships would not be against God's revealed will for people with a same-sex orientation. We might call this group the "evangelical revisionists" for convenience.
There is not much to be said about the liberal revisionists. Liberals have been the majority in the Church of Scotland for probably a century or more. It would appear that there is still a liberal majority in the courts of the Kirk - certainly in the General Assembly if the recent votes are anything to go by. Like it or not, we evangelicals are in this kind of denomination and have been all our lives. We have learned to live with this group while not really being in meaningful fellowship with it.
The second group is more interesting. People in this group might believe 99% the same as any other conservative evangelical about the big issues - the authority of the Bible, about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about sin and and about salvation. They differ from the majority on one point - they interpret the fairly scant references to homosexuality in the Bible not as general condemnations but as context-specific condemnations.
While I am not convinced by this line of argument, I do recognise that there is at least a possibility that it may have some truth in it. Someone who believes this, in good faith, is not rejecting the Bible's teaching, they merely understand it differently from me. The same could be said for people holding any number of theological or ethical positions I would disagree with while nevertheless accepting them as evangelical brothers and sisters.
So how should we deal with people in this second group? Conservative evangelicals differ on a whole range of important issues including such important matters as:
- Spiritual Gifts
- Sabbath observance
- Church Government
- Women's Ordination
We don't normally consider such matters as primary doctrines - we do not normally break fellowship over them when we disagree with other Christians.
My personal view is that the evangelical revisionist position should be regarded as being on the same level as these other second order disagreements, and on that basis there can be fellowship with people holding these views. Our relationship with liberal revisionists will be different, but not because of the issue of homosexuality. Rather, the differences are over primary level doctrines and any break in fellowship should be over those primary doctrines, like denying Christ is the only way to God or that salvation is by good works.
In fact differences in views over Sabbath observance are directly relevant here. Those who insist on a strict Sabbath observance think the Bible is very clear on the issue - as indeed are the Presbyterian creeds - and for them disobeying the Sabbath commandments is a sin issue. Those who do not believe the Sabbath commandments apply to Christians because the Sabbath is part of the Old Testament administration will do things on a Sunday that the others consider is sinful, yet they will be unrepentant about it and in fact refuse to accept it is a sin at all.
No doubt in the more strict parts of the Presbyterian world, a person who took a non-Sabbatarian view of the Lord's day would be barred from leadership, but I doubt that many evangelicals in the Church of Scotland would think this an issue worth leaving over. We simply agree to disagree, and each person is allowed to follow his own conscience in the matter.
I would like to suggest a similar approach may be possible between those who think the Bible condemns all homosexual acts in any context as sinful and those who think that such acts may be morally permissible in some contexts. The question is not whether a person agrees with you or I on every doctrinal or moral question, but whether that person loves God, trusts in Jesus Christ and seeks to follow his teachings as a disciple.
In closing, perhaps we need a timely reminder that our salvation does not rest on getting our doctrines or ethics perfect. God knows that if it did, none of us would be able to inherit the Kingdom. Certainly no one would be fit to be a minister if that was the standard. None of us is correct in all our views. We do our best to be right and trust in God to forgive us where we have gone astray. And God accepts us and loves us despite our failings. We are saved in Christ alone, by grace alone and by faith alone, not by our views on homosexuality. And so for me, this issue is not a line in the sand or a hill to die on.
So where do we go from here? I think those who are committed to the authority of the Bible on either side of this particular issue need to keep talking to each other. One side needs to make sure it is the Bible and not tradition that is guiding them. The other side needs to make sure it is the Bible and not their feelings that is guiding them.
In the Church of Scotland context, we need to continue to work to guide the Church on the path we believe to be correct. It is not too late to change things. Wasn't it our founding father, John Knox, who said that one man with God is a majority?
There are still many votes to go before anything will actually change. We need to be in those debates and in those votes. And most of all we need to show the love of Christ in this debate especially to those who don't interpret the Bible the same way as us. I suggest that the single most important thing in this whole debate is that whoever wins it in the end makes their first and highest priority looking after and seeking the best for those on the other side.