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?