Young people who are same-sex attracted (SSA) experience victimisation, harassment and abuse because of their sexual identity. Those who are open about their sexuality frequently experience abuse and rejection by family and friends. Consequently they do not feel safe about ‘coming-out’ and instead prefer to keep their feelings hidden. This silence can lead to self-harming behaviours including substance abuse, indiscriminate and unsafe sexual practices, running away and even suicide. Community ignorance, prejudice and discrimination are key contributing factors to the ongoing invisibility and isolation of SSAY. Families also struggle with prejudice and discrimination and are not always equipped to support a young person questioning their sexuality
Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health (AeJAMH), Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2002
Although written twelve years ago a recent literature review found suicide rates remain high among same sex attracted people suggesting that victimisation, harassment and abuse continue (Skerrett, DM, Kõlves, K & De Leo, D, 2012. Suicidal behaviours in LGB populations: A literature review of research trends. Brisbane, Australia: Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention.)
In recent years I have been privileged to hear the stories of a number of gay Christians. Some have not made their sexual orientation widely known; some have and are seeking to lead a celibate life; some have entered same-sex partnerships. What they almost all share in common are periods of their lives where they felt they were, at the core of their being, unacceptable to God, the church, the world. This shame often ran so deep they many lived with deep depression, fear, and thoughts of suicide.
In this, we in the church have failed our LGBT brothers and sisters. We are supposed to be a community of grace, a collective of sinners humbled by God’s gracious welcome who extend that welcome to one another. If there is any place a person should feel really safe to be honest about their sexuality it should be the church. Yet time and time again I hear LGBT people describing church as an unsafe place for them to be open and honest about their sexuality.
This is all the more surprising when we recognise that the dominant view even among conservative biblical scholars is that the bible speaks to the issue of sexual behaviour but not sexual orientation. The behaviour that is called for is usually understood as sexual intimacy between a husband and wife and celibacy for all those who are not in such a relationship. When it comes to sexual orientation, the emerging consensus among evangelical biblical scholars is that the Scriptures simply don’t speak to this.
This means sexual orientation is not a problem to be solved. It is simply part of the make up of our humanity. Jesus’s words about eunuchs, that some are born that way, some are made that way, and some choose that way, are instructive ( Matthew 19:12). A eunuch was a man whose sexual organs were absent or deformed. In the case of those born eunuchs neither their sexual identity nor their sexual orientation will have been what we now call heterosexual. More likely we would describe them as asexual. Jesus does not see this is problematic. He does not insist that heterosexual orientation is normative for all people. Rather both the eunuch and those who were not eunuchs were to lead lives of faithfulness to God.
When we make sexual orientation an issue, when our comments and attitudes leave people feeling that they are somehow deficient as human beings if their sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual, we do not reflect the teaching of Scripture. We reflect an ungodly and destructive bigotry.
If the orientation/behaviour distinction is accepted, a person can live as a disciple of Jesus whether gay, lesbian, bi, hetero, transgendered, or any other variation. For each of us the key question is how to live the values of Jesus whatever our orientation.
As already noted, within the evangelical world these values are usually understood as requiring celibacy for those not in a husband-wife relationship, though there is a small but growing number who contest this interpretation. Whatever we believe the ethic to be, our message to all should be that:
1. There is nothing wrong with your sexual orientation. We will welcome and celebrate you, whether that be the gay-you, the bi-you, the hetero-you, or any other-you. You should feel free to wear your orientation openly;
2. All of us are called to behave in a sexually godly way. We will stand with you and offer all the wisdom we can as you explore what God requires of you;
3. All of us will struggle to one degree or another to live in accord with God’s call. We will not cast stones when you fall, but will welcome you, love you, and encourage you to keep following Jesus.
1. A mature debate on same-sex marriage
Within the Christian world there are a variety of principled perspectives on same-sex marriage, including diverse views within the conservative wing of the church. Yet it seems that this discussion is surrounded with hysteria. The moment anyone urges anything other than opposition to same-sex marriage they are pilloried. It is my wish for the church that we could conduct a mature debate in which we listen to one another, carefully consider what each has to say, and recognise that neither the faith nor the well-being of humankind is threatened by our different points of view.
2. A bold prophetic voice
Since being elected the Abbot government has unwound the aid budget, brutalised refugees, all but destroyed collective action on climate change, and responded to Australia’s structural deficit problems with measures that are harsh towards the disadvantaged. Unfortunately critique of the government in those areas is all too often portrayed as partisan politics. Surely it is the role of the church to offer prophetic critique to whoever is in power? It is my wish for the church that we will exercise a strong, bold, powerful critique, calling our government to repentance and justice.
3. Finally come to grips with the end of Christendom
Part of the challenge for the Church in exercising a bold prophetic voice is coming to grips with the end of Christendom. In the era of Christendom the Church looked to the state to legislate Christian virtues, to enact legislation that made society “Christian”. We no longer live in Christendom but in a pluralist society, where the role of the state is not to tell people what virtues they should live by but to preserve justice. It is my wish for the church that we would finally let go of efforts to get the state to impose Christian virtue and instead call upon the state to enact justice.
4. Recovery of confidence in the gospel
In the past two or three decades the experience of pluralism and the rise of interdisciplinary studies have caused many followers of Jesus to abandon both the doctrines and the approach of their fundamentalist youth. We are more comfortable with shades of grey, ambiguity, and openness to the insights and wisdom of other faith traditions. This however has sometimes meant an erosion of confidence in the good news of Jesus as God’s means for repairing that which is broken in our lives and world. It is my wish for the Church that we would retain our openness while at the same time discovering fresh ways to proudly and confidently articulate our understanding and experience of Jesus.
5. A rich personal experience of Christ
Underpinning all our prophetic witness, all our confidence in the gospel, all our ability to conduct mature debates on controversial issues, will be the personal experience of Christ in the lives of believers. So it is my wish for believers that our experience of Christ would be deeply personal, deeply enriching, and transformative of every dimension of our existence.
In the last few years I’ve noticed a shift in the language of politically engaged Christians. Increasingly rare is talk of Australia as a “Christian” nation whose heritage must be preserved and increasingly common is talk of “the common good”, with Christians asking how they can contribute to it
This is a welcome change. I don’t think it’s possible for a nation to be “Christian”, let alone that Australia ever was one. But I am concerned that the new discourse of “the common good” is often little more than a semantic shift.
The argument that is put is this: “We flourish when we live the way God designed us to, and those ways are made clear in the Christian Bible. Therefore we should ask the State to legislate Christian values, because whether people accept it or not, God’s way is the way to achieve our common good.”
This is nothing other than the Christendom project under new language.
I think a Christian contribution to the common good needs to be built on the following principles:
1. The way of Jesus must be chosen, not imposed. Jesus never forced people to live under the reign of God. Rather, he invited people into that way;
2. The common good is built on the foundation of some bedrock freedoms, such as the freedom of thought/conscience; freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of movement; freedom from violence; etc. No effort to create a common good should violate these foundational freedoms;
3. The role of the State is to provide public goods (things such as roads, schools, hospitals, etc that need to be provided for on a collective rather than individual basis) and to protect the freedoms of its citizens.
These principles mean that people must be free to live by values completely different to mine, and this should be protected by the State. What they are not free to do is exploit, oppress, or mistreat others, and this should be prevented by the State.
The Christian contribution to the common good is then threefold:
1. To embody and proclaim the way of Jesus an alternate and convincing pathway to human flourishing;
2. To engage in acts of service to others;
3. To exercise a prophetic voice to the State, calling it to secure justice for its citizens and to act as a just member of the international community.
This means we should distinguish between justice, by which I mean action to free people from exploitation, oppression, and other forms of mistreatment, and virtue, by which I mean the values a person lives by. Governments are responsible to secure justice but not virtue. We should engage politically around justice, and personally around virtue. That is, we do not pursue the common good by asking governments to legislate virtue, which in fact undermines the common good by violating people’s fundamental freedoms. Rather, we promote the common good, on the one hand, by standing with the exploited and oppressed, serving them as best we can, and calling governments to do justice and, on the other hand, by embodying Christian virtues and commending them in such a way that people freely choose them for themselves.
So when it comes to political engagement my question is simple: who is being exploited, oppressed, or unfairly treated and am I standing with then? If I can’t answer this question I am probably in the realm of virtue and politics is the wrong place to be looking to create a virtuous society.
A number of years back a group of women from my church started attending the Colour conference run by Hillsong. Every year most of them come back with a bigger vision of who God created them to be and a determination to be those women.
While those of us outside Hillsong often stand back and take potshots at its theological and ecclesiological weaknesses – and like every church there are many – we easily miss the fact that the church has really understood how to proclaim the good news about Jesus to suburbanites. The bulk of the Australian population live in the suburbs, where the dominant approach to life is aspirational. I was reminded of this during a very helpful discussion earlier this week with one of Australia’s leading missiologists. Suburbanites tend not to think of themselves as broken and in need of fixing, but as competent and wanting to get as much from life as possible.
Yet on the rare occasion they show up to church we try to convince them they are broken and in need of fixing, and unsurprisingly, the message is rejected. But what if we told the gospel story in a way that spoke to their aspiration? What if we spoke of the amazing, world changing people God created them to be? That God wants to help them become the very best version of themselves they can be, and use them to create the very best communities and world that can be? That the risen Christ shows us the way to this, exposing the failure of consumerism and hedonism and individualism and all other isms to deliver what we really want, and points us to a far superior way?
Would this not be a positive, powerful presentation of the good news?
On Saturday night I attended a dinner run at New Hope Baptist Church in Melbourne. A joint effort of New Hope and nearby Anglican and Churches of Christ churches “Dinner Tonite” has been running for a couple of years. The premise is simple: if you need a meal you can get one here and it’s free.
I sat across the table from a man named Tom . Unkempt, unshaven, he took the initiative to introduce himself. He gladly volunteered his life story – a nervous breakdown that saw him lose his business, his marriage and become estranged from one of his children. He had been coming to Dinner Tonite for two years and loved it. After he finished his meal he eyed off mine. “Do you think I could have one of your sausages?” he asked. After I surrendered it he asked for another.
To my right sat a Nigerian family. They had just arrived in Australia where the father, Titus, is enrolled to undertake a Doctorate in Theology. New Hope was providing accommodation for them.
Between Tom and Titus sat Allan, senior pastor of New Hope, a Canadian living and ministering in Australia. I watched as Allan gave his attention to this newly landed Nigerian family, expressing welcome and interest.
A woman in her fifties approached the table and spoke to Danny, another of the pastors. “I’ve got me court case this week Danny” she announced. The tone with which she spoke exuded confidence that Danny knew what it was all about and that he cared. And he did.
Stories like these were repeated around the room which was abuzz with conversation and laughter as the disadvantaged and the advantaged, the mentally ill and the mentally more functional, the faithful and the faithless, shared fellowship.
And in that half hour or so I was there I caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God – a kaleidescope of humanity sharing food, life and friendship without pretence, rank or judgement, at the table of a welcoming God.
“Can I pray for you?” It’s a question I am often asked. Just once I’d like to say “no”.
I preach and teach at a lot of different churches and there is always someone moved by the sight of my Parkinsons driven tremors to seek me out to pray with me. Some are very confident, others are very nervous. They have often just completed a course on healing prayer and their approach is an act of stepping out in faith. They always have the best intentions. We find a quiet place and they pray. Man, do they pray. Always for healing. Always with great conviction.
It’s quite touching and a lovely expression of faith. So I always try to receive it with the goodwill with which it is intended.
But I do wonder if people consider that it may be quite discouraging to have a continual stream of people praying fervently for your healing and to remain unhealed. I am pretty comfortable with the knowledge that God may heal me and that he may not, and that if probabilities are anything to go by it’s likely “not”. I am content with the knowledge that whether healed or not my condition will be an opportunity for growth I would otherwise have missed out on. So I am not distressed by those who claim the authority to cast out my disease in the name of Jesus, but what about those who are?
So here’s my request. Pray for me. By all means pray for me. Approach me and ask if you can pray with me. I mean that. It’s a wonderful expression of care. But pray carefully. Please don’t command the disease to leave my body (it’s a cellular dysfunction – it can’t hear you or obey you). Please don’t claim God’s healing power over me (be honest about the fact that God rarely heals major diseases, although he does seem to be good with sore backs and necks). Rather pray for God’s grace to be manifest in my life, to make me more like Jesus. Acknowledge that you don’t know whether God will heal me this side of eternity, that it’d be great if he did, but that whether healed now or in the kingdom that I might know his goodness and strength to live the life he has called me to. And be aware that one day when you ask if you can pray with me I just might say no. It won’t be anything personal. Indeed I hope you will pray for me when you get home. It will just be that I may grow weary of being prayed for all the time. Not very spiritual I know, but I am only human.