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laying a foundation

Stress-testing our Christian beliefs

Have you ever questioned your faith or had doubts whether you are right about sexuality? (For what TFT believes, see our Basis).Those of us who hold to biblical teaching on sexuality are increasingly out of step with the culture. We can also find ourselves at odds with some who identify as Christians.

It can feel as though we are caught in the cross fire and that is hard. 

And, let’s be honest, the world’s teaching can sometimes sound attractive. There are times when it is attractive to believe that we could have a same-sex partner, with all of the associated blessings of being in a relationship, and be celebrated for that. 

But truth is not determined by how attractive or comfortable something is. However enticing a viewpoint might be, unless it is also true, it is an empty hope, and that’s not actually that attractive. 

Truth is not determined by how attractive or comfortable something is

How can we test our faith and examine what others are saying to ensure that we are building on rock and not sinking sand? I listened to a podcast series last year called “The Witch Trials of JK Rowling”. It is a six-part series hosted by American political activist Megan Phelps-Roper who used to be a member of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) (famous for its distasteful pickets and obnoxious views). Megan Phelps-Roper left WBC when she found that she could not reconcile her beliefs with those of WBC. She isn’t, as I understand it, a Christian. The series looks at how JK Rowling has been put “on trial” by the media following the expression of views on gender/transgender issues. Megan’s approach is to encourage discussion of different viewpoints and she has six questions which she uses to assess her own beliefs. Here are my reflections on the six questions, which are listed below:

Open to doubt?

Q1: Are you able to entertain real doubt about your beliefs or are you operating from a position of certainty?

It takes humility to accept that we might be wrong in what we believe. It takes open-mindedness and wisdom to listen to someone’s else’s view and to weigh it. Being able to entertain real doubt about our beliefs may be about our entire worldview or it may be about what the Bible teaches on a specific point. I came to faith from an atheist background, in part because I was willing to open my mind to the possibility that I might be wrong. A while back I asked a friend to help me wrestle through a secondary theological issue and I ended up changing my mind on the basis of the evidence. That led me to change churches and to give up something I enjoyed doing. So, I would say yes to the first question - I have a track record of being willing to entertain real doubt about my beliefs.

Views unfalsifiable?

Q2: Can you articulate the evidence that you would need to cede, in order to change your position, or is your perspective unfalsifiable?

The strongest evidence for Christianity is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Anything which showed that to be untrue would be a cause for me to change my faith. 
Similarly, something which showed the Bible to be untrue/not the word of God would cause me to re-evaluate my faith. The Bible needs to be read in a genre-appropriate way, so I don’t mean taking poetic language (e.g. “storehouses of snow” in Job 38:22) and try to make literal sense of it (e.g. by saying that because of modern science we understand that there aren’t literal storehouses of snow and that therefore the Bible is wrong and cannot be trusted). But I also need to approach this with humility recognising that human knowledge is imperfect and that later archaeological or scientific discoveries may challenge current understanding, so I would not want to walk away over a minor point. 

When it comes to interpreting the Bible, I’d need to be convinced that the Bible said something different on a natural reading of the text and look at all the different passages that dealt with the issue. I’d want to be alert to what CS Lewis called “chronological snobbery” (i.e. assuming that something is right or better just because it is new and assuming that we have reached the pinnacle of knowledge in our day) and also to personal and cultural pressures to re-interpret the Bible. Looking at this in the context of sexuality, it is noteworthy that the vast majority of Christians throughout time and across the world have held to traditional teaching that sex is only for marriage and marriage is heterosexual. Now they could all be wrong, but, before we jump to the conclusion that they were unenlightened, it is worth taking a step back and acknowledging that there is cultural pressure in the West at this point in history, not only to permit, but also to celebrate same-sex sexual relationships. For those of us who experience same-sex attraction, we need to be especially aware of personal incentives to change our theology. But we aren’t the only ones with skin in the game. Those who aren’t gay, lesbian or bisexual/who don’t experience same-sex attraction may feel that changing their view would win them popularity points, help them to keep a relationship they care about, help them to get promoted or even just to keep their job, or they may feel that it will help to attract younger generations to church. We are not the only ones facing pressure to change our view. 

We need to make sure that we are reading the Bible to inform our judgement on what it says. To me, it is very clear that marriage is a picture of Christ (the groom) and the church (the bride), and that all human marriages are intended to be a little picture of that. It is also clear that just as God is three persons, each different and yet equal in value and united in love, human beings are made male and female in the image of God, different and yet equal in value and (in some cases) united in love in the context of human marriages - another picture. 

There are also passages which are very clear that homosexual sex (whether between two men or two women) is sinful. The most natural reading of the Bible is that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and that any other form of sexual relationship is not permitted. If the Bible wanted to condemn only older men sleeping with teenage boys (as some have argued), it could have done that, but it didn’t.

“Straw manning”?

Q3: Can you articulate your opponent’s perspective in a way that they recognise, or are you “straw manning”?

John Stott once said that we should attack our opponent’s viewpoint at its strongest point. There is integrity in that, and I would agree that we should seek to do this. It can be hard to slow down and make sure that we have understood what someone is actually saying, but it is important. We may need to be wise in terms of how and when we expose ourselves to views which may be unhelpful for us. For example, it may be best to do it in community with other believers who are committed to biblical truth and with a critical eye, or to avoid it in seasons where we are going to find it unhelpful. I have confidence that the Bible stacks up, but our emotions can sway us.

Ad hominem attacks?

Q4 : Are you attacking the ideas or the people who hold them?

We need to be able to attack the ideas, not the people. I’d agree with that. We should seek to love everyone, including those who disagree with us or who are rude about us, although that can be easier said than done. 

We probably also need to define what is meant by “attacking” the person. Someone might perceive something to be an attack where the other person is questioning whether gay relationships are OK. That isn’t an attack on the person, but may feel like one if the other person fears that their rights may be taken away.
We as Christians are also judged by the way we live and especially by how well we live out what we say we believe. So, it is not unreasonable for us to expect others to live out their beliefs as well. Questioning why someone is not living out their beliefs may feel like a personal attack (and we should try not to make it sound like one), but it is reasonable to ask why someone’s life doesn’t match their expressed beliefs. We should also be prepared to answer the question when there is a gap between what we say we believe and how we live. In my case the answer is that I am a sinful human being living in a fallen world.

Overreacting to difference?

Q5: Are you willing to cut off close relationships with people who disagree with you, particularly over relatively small points of contention?

I find this one tricky as there is a wisdom call here. Cutting people off because they have a different view on something minor sounds like quite an extreme reaction. We do of course need to ask the question “What is a small point of contention?” Re-interpreting (in an unfaithful way) or disregarding the Bible is not minor. Permitting gay weddings in churches, or having church leaders who do not submit to biblical teaching is not minor. The difference for us personally between living a single celibate life (or a life with an opposite sex spouse) and having a same-sex partner is not minor. 

It follows that there may be people with whom it is unhelpful for us to spend a lot of time because of their beliefs or behaviours. We need to be wise about which friendships will be helpful or unhelpful for us. I did some serious thinking about who was in my ‘inner circle’ a number of years ago. I concluded that there were too many non-Christians and not enough Christians. That isn’t to say that I cut off previous relationships, but I did re-balance the amount of time I was spending with different people and what I was sharing with whom. 

Punishing opponents?

Q6: Are you willing to use extraordinary means against people who disagree with you (e.g. forcing people out of their jobs or homes; violence or threats of violence; celebrating tragedy)?

We should never celebrate tragedy, as we are people who are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Violence, threats of violence and trying to get someone removed from their home or job simply because they hold a different view is unloving. There may, however, be some behaviours based on someone’s beliefs which mean that a particular job is not appropriate for them. It is also possible to envisage scenarios where a commitment to this viewpoint might be tested, particularly where the beliefs in question might be viewed as harmful or where the behaviours that would naturally flow from the beliefs would be harmful. 


What do you think of Megan Phelps-Roper’s questions? Are they helpful? Are there any you would add, remove or change? How would you answer them?
I’m not sure that I’ll adopt the six questions wholesale, as I prefer the shorter and more biblical question “What does it look like to love God and love my neighbour in this?” But it has been interesting to think about these questions.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2024 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.

Download the Spring 2024 edition of Ascend