Thursday, 7 March 2013

Conservative Evangelical Christianity, Gilcomston South et al and the Homosexual Debate

So far, two of the large conservative evangelical churches in the Church of Scotland have pulled out of the denomination over the controversy about allowing practising gay people to be ministers.

I received through the post the other day, a DVD from a group within the C of S who are against allowing gay people in active homosexual relationships to become ministers. It's called "Facing the Reality". It's well presented, careful and gentle, and has some heavyweight intellectuals and academics as contributors, as well as a celibate gay Christian Church Development Worker. I do not think this group are interested in splitting the church but want to have a reasonable and informed debate about this issue. Good for them. Running time is 37 minutes but you can cut out the credits and fast forward some bits. It has been sent out I think to ministers and others in advance of this year's General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May, when a report on this issue will come before the Assembly.

The DVD served to emphasise for me, the essence of the debate, which is on the one hand people saying, "The Bible says..." and on the other, "The teaching of Christ leads us to...". The DVD is quite clear and simple about this and gives us "The Bible says", point of view and puts the point across as well as it can be put. It does not give the other side of the argument, but that for me is no criticism of it.

The problem for me personally is that I can no longer accept "The Bible says" as a substantial argument to support a moral or even theological point of view. This I think began to cross my horizon at quite an early stage in my own spiritual development when I discovered that our Trinitarian position as Christians was based on the weight of Biblical evidence rather than proof texts, although then I didn't give it much head space and simply went along with what I felt to be spiritual common sense. Over the years, other dilemmas broke over the shore of my conservative evangelical faith, like the reluctance of many of my conservative evangelical peer group to embrace Charismatic Christianity in its fulness. This reluctance had to be supported  by spiritual pragmatism and theological manoeuvering across Biblical texts.  The Bible said that the charisma (spiritual gifts) were part of church life, but it could be explained why for some of those gifts, that was not a mandate for today. Some very notable figures in Gilcomston South during the arrival of the Charismatic movement in Scotland (the 70's) had to become closet charismatics. Then came the rise of women from positions of Sunday School teachers and missionaries, to Ministers and church leaders (not Bishops, yet!). The Bible said "No", but we could explain why it was ok. Again, the weight of evidence argument was used, this time by those more liberally minded. The argument ran thus: some women around Paul had influential positions in the church, and there were some formidable Old Testament women leaders too, so let's resign the proof texts to the bin. On this particular issue, some conservative evangelical churches would not give way. My own church then, Gilcomston South, did not ordain women to the eldership, despite the Church of Scotland saying that it was right to do so, and despite the fact the Presbyteries were tasked to ask individual congregations if they were doing this, when the 5 yearly visit was being made. Gilc held out, because "the Bible said". Of course no position statement was ever made, it was simply the case that no suitable women could be found. (I suspect that very few women if any at all who were totally bought in to Gilc would have wanted to be elders anyway.) Whilst feeling this to be wrong, I was far too bought in to Gilc to ever raise this as an issue at any level. I felt this to be wrong because I was more and more buying in to a weight of evidence argument myself by then and I felt that the weight of evidence suggested that the Holy Spirit was gifting women to preach, teach and lead, and that God was calling them into every kind of church leadership. Many conservative evangelicals contra churches like Gilc, accepted this argument and it became another one of the minor running sources of difference of opinion in the Crieff Fellowship.

So, over the years, I began to see a certain hypocrisy in myself when I used "The Bible says" argument. I realised that the boundaries were not static and that everyone could find reasons for disagreeing with "The Bible says" when it suited them. It was this struggle that led me personally to look for a way of interpreting Scripture which felt more integrated, more consistent, and gave to Scripture the honour, respect and place it deserved. I know this is seen to be a desperately dangerous journey by some. When you start to resign certain texts to the bin of cultural conditioning and cultural relativity, where do you stop? Personally, I feel that the high principles of love and forgiveness, of grace and acceptance, have to be our interpretive principles. But  I understand the depths of passion felt on both sides of the debate. I understand that many Christians don't like saying "No" to allowing practising gay people into ministry, but feel they must. In the DVD in question there is strong attempt to make the point that there is a welcome for practising gay people in conservative churches. But ultimately, that part of the DVD feels to me to be deeply patronising, and I think the presenters know that and feel that at some level too, because I felt embarrassed as I watched that part. There is a welcome, but there is no real place for them. Worse, there is condemnation for something that many of us can see no reason for condemning, other than, "The Bible says".

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