Is it wise to debate biblical sexuality?
This article is an edited extract from a much longer conversation about disagreeing well with those holding to a revisionist view of scripture. The full podcast interview explores some ideas from a talk given in late 2020 by Andrew: www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/is-there-a-spirituality-of-good-disagreement/
Stuart Parker (TFT) was in conversation with Andrew Goddard (AG) for the Ascend Higher podcast. Andrew is an Assistant Minister at a church in London and a tutor in Christian Ethics. Over the last three years, he has deeply involved himself in the Church of England’s project “Living in Love and Faith”, which has brought together church leaders from both traditional and revisionist perspectives.
TFT: Andrew, I know you encourage Christians to engage constructively in dialogue with those from a revisionist point of view around biblical sexuality and learn how to disagree with them in a godly way, but is this a wise path for all Christians to follow? I wonder if I might describe what makes you especially qualified for such conversations, if I may. You’re a tutor in Christian ethics. You’re obviously very well versed in the Bible. You seem crystal clear about what you believe. In some ways, because of the position you have, you debate this area publicly on behalf of all Christians who hold to the traditional understanding of biblical sexuality. And, by publicly debating it, you help us clearly understand what we do. You influence policy and doctrine within the wider church. You’re also not same-sex attracted: you’re married to a woman, Liz, and therefore you can grapple with these issues without your personal life choices being too much at stake. In contrast, I want to explore what it’s like for people who aren’t in a position like yours and, in particular, should they be engaging in these debates with people who hold to a more liberal point of view?
AG: I think you’re right to pick up on what you said. I think this is really important: different people have different callings with different gifts and roles, and you’ve described some things that have made me who I am and the role that I have. I think it would be very wrong to say every Christian needs to be doing this. Each of us needs to reflect prayerfully on how God is calling us, what it is safe and sensible for us to do, and the risks we have in terms of temptation or mental health. All of those sorts of questions are important, and I wouldn’t want to downplay those or say everyone has got to go down a particular path.
TFT: So, I’m wondering whether it’s risky for those of us who experience same-sex attraction to enter these conversations, particularly where we recognise inside that we might like the revisionist viewpoint to be true. Is there a danger, by getting deeply drawn into these conversations, that this viewpoint might seduce us into believing that same-sex partnerships are ok with God? And would you caution the same-sex attracted believer against getting too embroiled in these conversations?
AG: Again, I think that picks up and sharpens some of what we were talking about a moment ago, in terms of different people having different callings. Different people are in different situations, and we each need to take care of ourselves. All of that is important and, clearly, there are lots of other factors there. One of these is to discern the extent to which this is something that has a serious existential, faithfulness and discipleship impact on your life, so that you can determine how much is personally at stake. I think it’s imperative that one thinks and prays that through and works out what that means for each individual.
However, I also think we need to remember that regular biblical refrain of “do not fear”. We can put our trust in God and the scriptures and the Spirit. In particular, we can rely on scripture as a trustworthy and reliable guide of what God says for how we should live our lives. If we come back to scripture as a touchstone during our discussions, this is one way we can ensure we’re not just letting ourselves be tossed about by every wind of teaching (Ephesians 4:14).
The reality is that there are liberal perspectives out there. And in our own congregations there are probably some people who might hold those views. We’ve got to work out how are we going to respond to that reality. The sense I get sometimes is that some of those who have significantly changed their position are people whose pattern of story is often something along these lines: the person has been in the closet (or maybe even in denial towards themselves) about their sexuality; they’ve been wrestling with it on their own, not having support, not having the sort of fellowship that TFT provides; and then they eventually go off and read something and find something that makes them feel, “Oh, I don’t need to struggle in this way on my own anymore”. When this happens, they become powerful advocates for a different, liberal revisionist perspective. This sort of story illustrates that there is also a danger of hiding away from other views. We need to recognise that the dangers are not just on one side.
One lesson we can learn from such stories – particularly if we are same-sex attracted – is not to go about it alone. Engage with friends, with support, with people who are praying for you. If you’re reading and exploring ideas that may tempt you, talk it through with people, pray it through with people. Don’t just go, “Oh no, I’ve read this book. I’ve now changed my mind!” Be honest about those doubts with people and pray them through. Say, “Lord, I really want to know what Your will is. I know that might be hard for me, but I want to know what it is, even if it is hard because doing Your will is what matters.” Then go back to the scriptures and do it with openness, support and honesty with people who are there to help you.
Some of us are confronting revisionist arguments in quite a prominent way, but there are many ways. I remember having a conversation at the TFT National Conference years ago where, for that person, it was only at the TFT conference or in similar groups that he could talk about these things. He didn’t feel he could talk to other people in his church, but he did have support, and that’s really important. How you then work out how you engage with viewpoints or people that take different views is a matter for wise discernment. Take counsel with others so that you don’t put yourself in a position where you’re actually going to hurt and harm yourself, even if you aim to benefit yourself and others.
TFT: Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and experiences with us, Andrew
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Summer 2021 edition of Ascend
Listen to the interview
To give space to discuss certain topics in greater depth, the TFT staff team record occasional podcasts under the banner “Ascend Higher”, covering the issues raised in a more conversational style. To hear it for yourself, you can use the audio player below