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Church being tested on its sexual ethic

Over a quarter century ago when ChristianWeek was in its infancy, the United Church of Canada began opening ministry roles to persons in same-sex partnerships. ChristianWeek tracked the debate in the United Church as this happened and watched as tens of thousands of members abandoned what was then Canada’s largest Protestant denomination.

Today every denomination—including evangelical ones—is wrestling with the same issue. Only a few short weeks ago, a Canadian ministry that was begun for the purpose of assisting people who wanted help in leaving a gay or lesbian life, or in dealing with same sex attractions, issued a release saying it was now hiring a couple who are planning a lesbian wedding. Previously, the couple had both been in positions with evangelical churches. Clearly the ministry’s mission has changed.

But the struggle is intense elsewhere too. Trinity Western University, an evangelical institution, is facing an enormous struggle to gain acceptance for a proposed law school because of its community covenant, which asks students to abstain from same-sex relations (as well as drugs, lying, cheating, and to observe the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman). Law societies across Canada, with a couple of exceptions, have voted against accrediting graduates of the school, specifically because of the covenant.

Do we know better now and have we come to see that we were wrong in our earlier stance? Or did we misunderstand what the Scriptures appeared to teach? Has the Church in its 2,000-year history been wrong? What has changed and why do some within the evangelical community appear to be changing positions?

Certainly the cultural climate has changed and throughout much of the Western world the acceptance of a spectrum of gender-related identities is now simply assumed. Films like Philadelphia or Brokeback Mountain, television hosts like Ellen DeGeneres and Anderson Cooper, the influence of broadcasters like our own CBC, which has made gay advocacy a major part of its mandate, have played a large role in gaining acceptance for a diversity of gender roles.

But so has the legislative underpinning. This has occurred chiefly through judicial activism. Over the past several decades the laws of many countries have been re-written to provide more than simply protection for those who wish to live in gay or lesbian relationships. The ultimate goal has been to gain approval for gay marriages.

In Canada that happened first by changing the basis for marriage. Rather than making it necessary for marriage partners to be “persons of the opposite sex,” a marriage concept rooted in relationship theory was adopted. It then followed that an intimate, committed relationship of two people of the same sex could become acceptable. And as Brian Stiller has noted, the law not only directs, it also instructs.

Once courts decided in favour of allowing same-sex partners to be married, Parliament made an about face of historic proportions. As late as 1999 Parliament passed a resolution to re-affirm the definition of marriage as “the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” by a margin of 216 to 55. Yet just five years later it accepted a Supreme Court opinion that same-sex marriages were consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and ample protections existed for those who might dissent for religious reasons. The Supreme Court expressed its pride that it could take a “living tree” approach to the Charter, allowing it to arrive at a “large, liberal [and] progressive interpretation.”

That same year a group of academics at McGill University wrote a vigorous argument against what was happening. Entitled Divorcing Marriage, they argued that Canada was embarking on a dangerous social engineering project, whose outcome we could only dimly see. Marriage, they wrote, historically has underscored the bonding between persons of the opposite sex, was supported by the society around them, involved a commitment to permanence, and implied a willingness to have children and nurture them to maturity. While such marriages might not have children, they inherently symbolized and institutionalized that potential. They warned against a giant social experiment to upset such an institution.

It was striking that the 2004 Supreme Court opinion did not mention children at all. Even though it is argued quite regularly that same-sex couples also have children, we haven’t really understood the adult-driven nature of the equal rights claims of same-sex partners, McGill ethicist Margaret Somerville writes.

Does a child have a right to be raised by its biological parents? What does it say about a society which attaches the same value to same-sex as to heterosexual unions, when one clearly carries the burden of raising the next generation to maturity and many studies have shown that stable families with parents of the opposite sex are the optimal setting to socialize children for a healthy future? Nor can we yet see what the long-term effects will be for those growing up in same-sex households. “Law is never neutral,” Somerville argues, “it upholds or challenges our most important societal values.”

We are now in a period in Canadian history when the tide is clearly with those who would entirely normalize same-sex relationships. Indeed, many would accept a range of gender identities (a recent Winnipeg Free Press article noted that Facebook has a list of 58 such possibilities). The suggestion such a position makes is that sexual identity is a very fluid thing, quite unrelated to the sexual organs we are endowed with at birth. One of the inherent contradictions of that position is, of course, that many would make those identities at one and the same time both immutable and fluid: as it were, given to us at birth and like racial identity and yet somehow placed on a wide range of variable identities.

How are we then to respond?

I would suggest, first of all, that we remain faithful to a vision of marriage that the Scriptures portray for us. This is a vision rooted in creational language. Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan describes it as a “structure which was a fact of creation and not negotiable....the dimorphic [twofold] organization of human sexuality, the particular attraction of two adults of the opposite sex and of different parents, the setting up of a home distinct from the parental home....These form a pattern of human fulfillment which serves the wider end of enabling procreation to occur in a setting of affection and loyalty. Whatever has happened in history, Christians have wished to say: this is what marriage is.” And that’s why Jesus could say, “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Mk. 10:6-8).

There is an implication to be drawn from Jesus’ statement that needs noting. It is this: any behaviour that undermines marriage is condemned by Jesus. Adultery, fornication, entertaining lustful thoughts—none of these are compatible with support for what God intended for humans in creation. That intention is that sexual relations should be reserved for the marriage of a man and a woman. And homosexual behavior too is outside God’s will for that reason.

German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in an article published in the London Times put it this way: “According to Jesus’ teaching, human sexuality as male and female is intended for the indissoluable fellowship of marriage. This is the standard which informs Christian teaching about the entire domain of sexual behaviour.” We move away from it only by sacrificing the Scriptures’ ability to speak meaningfully into any part of life.

But what about those among us who struggle with same-sex attractions or other temptations that lie deep within our identity as sexual beings? We must recognize the pain many among us carry. We cannot minimize the complexity of the elements that may have led to acceptance of an identity the Church may say should not be acted upon. As Stanley Grenz said in the title of a book he wrote on this subject, “we should welcome but not affirm” in our response to those with same-sex attractions.

Above all, we ought to be saying that Christ offers redemption and healing, even if the attractions are slow to recede. The words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 remain true: “This is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

Harold Jantz is the founder of ChristianWeek. For many years Harold was a member of the Living Waters Canada and House of Hesed boards in Winnipeg, the former a ministry to those struggling with a range of sexual identity issues, the latter a home and shelter for persons living with HIV/AIDS. This column was written in response to the column “Love: Our highest calling” by Thomas Froese.

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About the author

Harold Jantz is a Winnipeg journalist and editor. He is at jantz@mts.net.