Same sex marriage and the failure of evangelical ethics

S

I was out for dinner this week when someone wondered whether in 20 years time gay couples will be welcomed and affirmed in our churches and whether we will be as embarrassed by our present opposition to gay relationships as we are that Christians once argued in support of slavery, racial segregation, and female subordination? If history is anything to go by, rightly or wrongly, I think the answer is “yes”.

We evangelicals fondly declare that in Jesus and the bible God has given us his universal moral absolutes. Yet our history  is littered not with examples of Christians discovering God’s universal moral absolutes and sticking to them but by constant and dramatic changes of mind. To the examples given above add complete about-faces in our ethics of war, government, wealth, sex, environment, divorce and remarriage, and more.

The pattern is almost always the same. We baptise the prevailing view of our culture or sub-culture and equate it with biblical teaching. We declare the bible is crystal clear and our only responsibility is to obey. Then as culture shifts we take another look at Scripture and develop new interpretations. Once the genie’s out of the bottle there’s no putting it back. As culture shifts Christians will gravitate toward interpretations of the bible that provide the best fit with the new cultural context and a new Christian norm comes into being. Conservatives, wedded to the culture of the past, declare the sky is falling in and question the faith of those challenging the ethic of the past, while progressives, wedded to the emerging culture, make the case that God is calling us to a different way and that should we not follow we will wound  the vulnerable and consign the church to irrelevance.

It it seems to me that we have a methodological problem, which is built on our belief that Scripture provides universal moral absolutes. Convinced of this we over-read biblical texts, either to support or challenge the status quo.  But what if the ethical centre of Christianity is not finding and observing universal moral absolutes but cultivating Christlike character, building lives and communities that reflect the character of God revealed in Christ – just, loving, compassionate, generous, forgiving, graceful, merciful, faithful, etc? What if ethics is no more and no less than this? What if the imperatives of the bible are not universal rules for every generation to follow but examples of how generations long past lived out the character of God within the cultural setting of their time?

I fear we are about to become embroiled in yet another nasty debate where the same old nasty patterns will be repeated only this time the issue will be gay partnerships. Rather than being captive to the character of Christ we will once again show that our ethic is little more than a pale and belated echo of culture. Isn’t it time we admit that the real problem isn’t the presenting issue but a flawed methodology that can’t deliver the universal moral absolutes we demand of it?

 

 

 

 

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Philip Zylstra
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Excellent.

Steven Moore
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I have been thinking about this subject. And my thoughts are this. Starting from the book of mark4; 36-40 Jesus was standing in the middle of men fearing . he stood up and rebuke the wind and the waves, he was rebuking the god of this world. The guy population is a minority and is being blown along by the god of this world not the mighty wind of the creator of this world. The theorizing the moral ethics of sinful man is a distraction from God’s call.Satan just wants to get in our face Jesus tells us to put… Read more »
Richard
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Dear Scott,
Is your rejection of universal moral absolutes absolute?
I confess to being convinced that in our universe the nature of reality does include distinctions, white is different to black. And while there may be shades of grey, to choose white is not to choose grey or black. I endorse your Christ centred approach but fear you may be overstating the case.

Scott
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Hi Richard,
I agree that reality provides the context for ethics and that it has an objective shape. The problem I see is that when we try to derive moral absolutes from it or define it in terms of moral absolutes we tend to articulate views that diverge from earlier Christian claims. So who got it right and how will we ever know? On the other hand I think there are virtue/character absolutes that are consistent across millenia but demand fresh expression in different historical settings

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Gary Low
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Food for thought for sure. 🙂

Scott Higgins
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Thanks Steven and Brian. I think Jesus proclaimed absolutes but they were character/virtue absolutes. also wonder how you deal with the fact that the things we take as moral absolutes have changed through Christian history?

Mary Fisher
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Sorry but this article is poor. It does not deal with family law issues related to surrogacy and sperm donation at all. It fails to deal with issues relating to psychology of children whether pro gay marriage or contra and it has from a theological viewpoint no discussion of marriage as found in Scripture including polygamy and concubinage. It is a very very weak “let’s get evangelicals guilty bent”. And I happen to believe the evangelical church has done poorly in dealing with the issue. I am sad that such a weak article has been posted.
Annette Bartlett Davis
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Annette Bartlett Davis

If the Bible, which is God’s word is not morally absolute then why do we bother following any of it? If we keep giving ground and moving with the current culture there will be nothing left of Christianity. Being a Christian is all about being counter-cultural. Jesus himself was the ultimate counter-culturalist. I like what John Piper had to say on this http://www.churchleaders.com/daily-buzz/257174-called-sex-marriage-lamenting-new-calamity.html#.VY5DgebkqqQ.facebook

Scott Higgins
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Hi Annette, I value the bible because it brings me the story of Jesus and God’s work in the world, a story that calls me to craft a countercultural narrative of justice for the oppressed, mercy for the vulnerable, love for my neighbour, and faith in God.

Keith Mascord
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I really enjoyed your article, Scott, though you perhaps could have clarified what you later acknowledge in discussion, that there are moral absolutes – with Scripture itself providing two of the most obvious: love God with heart, mind and spirit and love neighbour as we love ourselves, which commandment is well spelt out in the Golden Rule – found in most of the world’s religions – including religions older than Judaeo-Christianity.

Keith Mascord
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On issues of slavery or patriarchy or homosexuality, I like the approach of James Brownson who in his very skilful exegesis of relevant texts seeks to unearth the moral logic underlying relevant texts. What this does is to show up a movement within Scripture – guided ultimately by principles of love – which, even within the pages of Scripture begin to eat away at customs such as slavery and patriarchy – and which, with the benefit of hindsight (as you point out) we may see can also guide us on this most recent hot-topic of same-sex marriage.

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Dan Ford
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Hi Scott, I agree that the NT documents were primarily pastoral, and written to particular people/churches who were simply trying to work out what it meant to embody the character of God (as revealed in Jesus) in their particular context and culture – and this is what the church is called to do. However the debate surrounding same-sex marriage really has nothing to do with whether or not homosexuality is morally right – whether it is or not is irrelevant. To simply say that a relationship is morally right does not make it a marital one. This is rather an… Read more »
scott
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Hi Dan,
you may well be right about the historic meaning of marriage, but i don’t see why we must be bound to it

Dan Ford
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HI Scott, Can I just say I love the work you’ve done on ‘the end of greed’ and with refugees and asylum seeks – truly a big supporter! However I don’t understand how you can assert that we don’t have to be bound by the creational meaning of marriage. The problem you have is the fact that we are indeed bound to the reality of creation (whether you attribute it to Yahweh or not – it’s reality) – you can call black white no doubt, but the reality is black will never be the same colour. If marriage has no… Read more »
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Scott Higgins
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Hi Keith,
i would argue for virtue absolutes – love, compassion, justice, etc – and a certain giveness to reality rather than rule/duty based absolutes. In hindsight i agree this could have been clearer. http://scottjhiggins.com/?p=5203#comment-20449

Carolyn Francis
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This is really well said Scott. Your replies to the comments are also incredibly gracious and well considered. Much respect.

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Andris Heks
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I re-read your article having experienced a mainstream Church stand claiming that heterosexual marriage is ‘God’s word’ as expressed in the Bible. Instead of saying that their INTERPRETATION of God’s word is such and such, they appeal to God as if God would have stated God views on marriage unequivocally. This I find most disturbing, because it attempts to present the conservative view as THE correct view and only view sanctioned by God whereas the marriage equality view as sacrilegious. To me marriage in a Christian sense is ultimately the declaration of a sacred union two loving persons wish to… Read more »
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