On 22 April, on a dusty farm outside the central city of Bloemfontein in South Africa, hundreds of thousands of Christians gathered for a prayer service led by Angus Buchan. Concerned about the state of the country, this group gathered together in response to the promise in Scripture found in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
I won’t go into the many ways this passage has been abused in the past, including pointing out that it is the second half of a sentence, and that it comes in the middle of a consecration of a Temple with many other instructions attached to it. Let’s just focus on what these words themselves say. We are not just called to prayer. We called to sort our lives out, to humble ourselves, to seek God and to turn from wickedness.
I strongly support the desire Christians had to pray for our country. And I strongly support any group of people gathering together to commit themselves to good and to God. But the big question, 48 hours later, is “now what?” What happens next.
I have four suggestions, all flowing from this verse in 2 Chron. 7:14:
1. Choose to humble ourselves
Humility involves thinking of others more highly than ourselves. Humility involves believing the best about others. Humility means I accept that my views, my approaches, my worldview and my way of life are not definitive for others – that other people may have equally valid, but different views, approaches, worldviews and ways of living. Humility means not imposing my beliefs on others. Humility means asking more questions. Humility means seeing the world through other people’s eyes.
How can we truly demonstrate a spirit of humility in South Africa and the world right now?
Disney’s latest real-actor remake of one of their classics has just been released in the USA, and early reviews are effusive in their praise of Beauty and the Beast. Except for a few die-hard conservative, evangelicals – the perennial party-poopers of the modern age. Led, of course, by the increasingly frothy-mouthed Franklin Graham, there has been a loud call for Christians to boycott the movie, and in fact Disney as a whole, because one of the characters in the movie is gay (or, maybe gay).
Conservative Christians have a long tradition of targeting Disney for its stance on LGBTI rights. When Disney pre-empted legislation on gay marriage by extending employee benefits to those in same sex relationships two decades ago, Christians staged a boycott of Disney. But Disney was unmoved, and eventually the pull of Mickey Mouse overcame Christian objections and they went back to Disneyland as they had before. Apparently their children’s need for entertainment overcame their principled objections. More on this theme later.
The concern this week is that in the new Beauty and the Beast movie, Disney made it more obvious than in the original 1991 version that Gaston’s sidekick LeFou may be, as we already suspected, gay. It’s not overt, it’s not sexual and it’s not a theme in the movie at all. In fact, in a 129 minute feature film, this issue takes up slightly less than 30 seconds. Yet, Franklin Graham has said:
They’re trying to push the LGBT agenda into the hearts and minds of your children—watch out! Disney has the right to make their [movies], it’s a free country. But as Christians we also have the right not to support their company. I hope Christians everywhere will say no to Disney.
Of course Disney have the right to make these movies. And, yes, Graham and his accolytes have the right to boycott it. But I also have the right to point out how hypocritical that is. Because that is precisely what it is. Embarrassingly so.
I preached this sermon on 22 January 2017, as part of a series called Jesus Encounter. Jesus calls us to love, unconditionally and extravagantly. He specifically calls us to love those who outside our circles.
The stories recorded in the Gospels and Acts are not merely stories of what happened to a few people 2000 years ago – not just historical record. They were carefully selected in order to show us patterns, and help us understand how WE can encounter Jesus even today. As we read the Gospels and Acts we should be alert for those patterns in the stories, and look carefully for clues and instructions on how we can encounter Jesus and live Christ-like lives today.
It is my contention that one of the foundational problems with the conservative arm of the Christian church is a seriously problematic relationship with sexuality. This affects everything from the church’s views on contraception and abortion to female leadership and gay marriage. Each of these issues is huge, of course, and deserving of in-depth discussion and consideration. That is not the intention of this post.
What I did want to point out is that the conservatives (mainly the Reformed conservatives) don’t even know what they don’t know about this issue. And I want to ask all of you who are willing to engage with discussions about sexuality (especially female leadership and homosexuality) to ask whether you’re happy being in the same camp as Reformed conservatives.
look at Exhibit A: this photo:
This picture was taken last week at The Evangelical Theological Society’s 68th annual meeting in San Antonio, November 15-17, 2016. It was a panel discussion on the topic of “The Trinity and Gender”. Participants were (pictured left to right): Bruce Ware, Matthew Emerson, Malcolm Yarnell, Wayne Grudem, Fred Sanders, Paige Patterson and Evan Lenow.
A few weeks ago, I preached this sermon at my local church. There’s a story behind me asking – and receiving – permission to preach it, and another whole set of stories about the response from the church members – both good, bad and ugly. The senior pastor, Gary Rivas (also Methodist Bishop of Johannesburg), responded to the sermon the week after I preached it, and there’s a few stories there too. I won’t tell any of those stories now. I will just share the sermon with you. There are two versions as I preached it at our main campus and then at our local campus. I have also included my actual sermon notes, and a link to Gary’s response.
This sermon is about one of the most pressing issues facing the Christian church in our generation: how we treat LGBTI people. And it is a call to listen to God’s Word, which calls us to be a community of radical inclusion. Enjoy. And let me know what you think.
The world is changing. More Christians from developing nations are becoming interested in mission. We need more people on the mission field, coming from more diverse backgrounds and finding new methods of funding their work.
Come and join a seminar hosted by OMF International that will investigate some new models of missional business.
NEW WAYS of doing and funding mission
INTEGRATING your entrepreneurial spirit and gifts with mission to the ends of the earth
GOD AT WORK in various parts of the world through Missional Business
We have dealt with Romans 1 thoroughly, but there is one final set of ideas to consider. These come from largely evangelical theologians, who take the Bible seriously as God’s Word, but nevertheless have real concerns about the traditional interpretation of Romans 1. There are seven ways to interpret Romans 1 that do justice to the text, but show that Paul would not be against same sex marriage today:
Paul was a man of his times, and must be understood as such.
Paul is concerned about idolatry, and especially about Cybele, Rhea and the Earth Goddess. And same gender exploitative sexual activity is an effect of idolatry, not a cause.
Paul did not know about loving homosexual relationships or a homosexual orientation as we understand it today. His concern was about abusive and excessive sexuality. He also did not have the scientific understanding we have today of homosexual orientation.
Paul’s issue, in Romans and his other letters, is specifically with pederasty, and not with homosexuality in general.
Paul was wrong. Just plain wrong.
Paul was concerned about Heterosexuals engaging in homoerotic acts, not people born with a homosexual orientation.
Paul is quoting someone else in Romans 1, and will refute this view in Romans 2. From the literary context, it is possible that Romans 1:18-32 is actually a well-known discourse against Gentiles taken from Jewish writings, or at least a well recognised list of sins the Jews accused Gentiles of committing, that Paul pulls into his letter.
There are enough valid interpretative options for Romans 1 that we need to be very careful to not just continue applying the traditional interpretation. You can support same sex marriage without giving up the Bible.
We have spent a lot of time in the book of Romans in this study. For many Christians, Romans 1 is the key passage against same gender sexual activity, so we need to cover it thoroughly. In the last three posts, I believe I have clearly shown that we misinterpret Romans if we believe that we can use it today to argue against same sex marriages. A summary of the key points is:
Paul is not really concerned about sexual issues in Romans 1 – his main concern, which is evidenced by the flow of the whole letter, is the divide between Jews and Gentiles in Rome. The sins listed in Romans 1 are used to show that “all have sinned”. But Paul also points out that some things people think are sinful are just cultural preferences. The issue of homosexuality is similar to that of circumcision for Paul: a cultural preference that should not be used to judge fellow Christians.
Romans 1 cannot be understood alone – Romans 2 and the rest of the letter make it clear that Paul is using homosexuality as a set up for the Jewish readers, and will go on to show them the error of their thinking. Homosexuality is not a sin. The Jewish disgust for homosexuality was a cultural preference, as was the Gentile disgust of circumcision and Jewish eating issues. Paul tells both Jewish and Gentile Christians to stop judging each other.
If you haven’t read the detailed explanations behind those highly summarised points yet, please follow the links above.
In this last section on Romans 1, I want to shift focus and look at a few additional ways in which some revisionist interpreters have approached Paul’s writings. There are varying degrees of revisionists. Some simply abandon the Bible and say it’s no longer relevant. But others believe that we can retain our belief that the Bible is God’s Word and remains relevant, while still at the same time acknowledging that we need to change (revise) our understanding of certain parts of it. We’ve seen many examples of this over the course of this study already, so there should be no conceptual problem with looking at alternative interpretations and evaluating each on its merits.
On 9 October 2015, I participated in a formal public debate with Dr James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries. It was organised by TruthWalk, and the venue provided by Gracepoint church. Dr White is an accomplished debater and professional apologist (see his ministry website here), and took the traditional position against homosexuality and same sex marriage.
I took the affirming position, attempting to put in debate format the work I have been doing on this blog over the past few months.
The purpose of the debate, in this format, was to put forward the for and against views in as dispassionate a way as possible, so that each position could be given fair treatment, and the observer could understand the logic of each. I believe we achieved this, and that the debate was fair.
The full debate has now been uploaded on VEOH.com and is available below or on that site. The introduction has been slightly edited for length, but the debate itself is presented unedited and in full.
Around the world, conservative Christians love to think of themselves as being a persecuted minority. In some countries, of course, they are. But in so-called “Christian” countries, like the ones my family and extended family live in (America, Canada, United Kingdom and South Africa), conservative Christians love to feel persecuted, silenced and outcast. They’re not really – not in countries with freedom of speech and religion. Rachel Held Evans writes eloquently about this topic on her blog this week, specifically referencing recent issues in the USA. It’s a great read – on her blog, or an extract below.
For the sake of the gospel, drop the persecution complex
Did you hear about the pastor who was arrested for not marrying a same-sex couple? What about the publisher that got sued for refusing to censor anti-gay verses from the Bible?
Both of these stories have been exposed as fakes of course, but that didn’t keep hundreds of thousands of conservative Christians from sharing them online this week. When I pointed out to a friend that the story he had just shared on social media wasn’t true, he replied, “well it might as well be. Christians in this country are under attack.”
It has become a familiar refrain. We hear it every Christmas when an unsuspecting store clerk wishes the wrong Christian “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” We hear it whenever a high school drops its traditional pre-football game prayer out of respect for those students who may be Jewish or Muslim or non-religious. An entire industry of books and films has blossomed in the red soil of the American Christian persecution complex, with the first “Gods’ Not Dead” installment caricaturing and vilifying atheists and the second set to expose liberal efforts to “expel God from the classroom once and for all.”