Is gay marriage an acceptable Christian development?
Is gay marriage a primary issue?
After listening to Jesus we seek answers to both these questions through
Listening to the Holy Spirit
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …
Acts 15:28 NRSV
Jesus did not say anything direct about the inclusion of the Gentiles. The overwhelming weight of Scripture was to maintain the centuries-old understanding that non-Jews who want to become part of the People of God need to adopt the Laws of the People of God. Yet the Holy Spirit guided the Church in a different direction. Luke describes the Council of Jerusalem as being clear that the Holy Spirit was the primary authority by which this decision was made, not Scripture. Now that the book of Acts is included in the Christian Scriptures, we say that Scripture points us not to itself as the authority to guide us in our decisions but to Jesus and then to the Holy Spirit. Jesus had said that the Holy Spirit, not the Scriptures, would lead his followers into all truth, taking his words and applying them afresh. In the book of Acts we see this happening. This record of the decision to include the Gentiles is a record and model of how we are to make Church decisions listening to the Holy Spirit over listening to the Scriptures.
The book of Acts describes vividly how the Holy Spirit guided the Church – through a vision given to Peter and through making His home among Gentiles. To this we can add that the Holy Spirit took the words of Jesus about what goes into and out of the mouth, and led the Church logically to see that this meant that all foods were clean, and that full table fellowship with Gentiles was now the will of God.
Visions and prophecy
Peter’s vision is a remarkable feature of the book of Acts, repeated for emphasis. The Holy Spirit who had come at Pentecost, to create a people who will prophecy and see dreams and visions, gave to Peter, the acknowledged Church Leader, this slightly odd prophetic waking dream or vision. Acts, Holy Scripture, shows us that the Holy Spirit comes to guide the church through prophecy, dreams and visions, fulfilling what Jesus had said.
Most Churches are not, generally, comfortable with prophecy, dreams and visions, especially not as part of serious debate about Church policy. This is a dimension which, compared to the Church in Acts, is lacking among us. As we are divided and undecided about gay marriage, should we not deliberately invite the Holy Spirit to come and speak to us in prophecy, dreams and visions, and should we not facilitate that coming, opening ourselves to that speaking as well as we can? This is a whole area which needs to be explored more. The Church of England Bishops’ Report ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ ended, in the last section before the conclusion, by stating ‘we must beware of ignoring the work of the Spirit.’ (9.6.60 p317) Perhaps this is in itself prophetic, calling the Anglican Church and others to begin a process where the authors leave off?
Manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence
Another remarkable feature in Acts, which was instrumental in the Church’s decision, was that the Holy Spirit made His home in Gentiles just as He had done in the disciples. It is significant that this is the Holy Spirit, who is understood not to be able to make His home within an unholy, unclean person. Rather, the unholy person is home to unclean spirits. It was generally assumed that Gentiles, not least through their connection with idolatrous religion, were not holy, but, rather, harboured unclean spirits or uncleanness from which God’s people should keep themselves separate. The great second shock to Peter, after the shock of being told to eat unclean animals, was to see the Holy Spirit coming to, living and flowing in, unclean Gentiles, particularly through the gift of tongues. If the Holy Spirit was demonstrating that these Gentiles were counted as holy, who was he to count them as not holy, who was he to not welcome them into God’s people? Noticing how the Holy Spirit comes to people whose lifestyle we might consider ‘unholy’ is a key indicator of how we are to treat these people.
Many Christian gay people report being given an intense personal experience of God’s love and acceptance for them through the Holy Spirit. Jeffrey John has written about his own experience. Others, not least on the internet, have written of similar experiences of the love of God being brought to their hearts by the Holy Spirit. The Church needs to take these experiences seriously, reflect on them and be guided by what they reveal of the acceptability of these gay Christians.
These experiences are often, mostly, inner experiences which are hard to assess. In Acts the Holy Spirit gave Cornelius not only an inner experience but an outward expression and evidence of His flowing within – the gift of tongues. It is good for the Church today also to look for such outward evidence of the Holy Spirit, especially what Paul called the gifts of the Spirit, as these are more suited to an objective assessment. These gifts include and, according to Acts, often begin with, the gift of tongues. Although many Churches have not always welcomed, certainly not promoted, this gift, more recently, especially through the Alpha Course, the gift of tongues is being welcomed and promoted by many more people. Paying attention to the operation of all the gifts of the Spirit among gay Christians would be a way of looking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we learn from Acts, from Scripture.
Change in sexual attractions
Some Christian people report the Holy Spirit bringing about a measure of change in their sexual attractions, from homosexual to heterosexual. Sometimes this comes through a process of prayer and counselling, sometimes it is spontaneous. It is clear that the likelihood of such change has been exaggerated and we must listen to the people for whom the expectation of change is a burden or is experienced as a rejection of who they are. We must also listen to the, fewer, people to whom change has come through the Holy Spirit continuing Jesus’ re-creative works of God, blowing as unpredictably as the wind.
One remarkable of testimony of change is recorded in Not for Turning, a book published by gay Christians to call the Church away from the expectation of such change. ‘Ruth’ wrote,
‘I now experience sexual attraction in heterosexual not homosexual ways…’ ‘I now see homosexuality primarily as a regrettable psychological handicap open to God’s healing. I have no easy way of accounting for the fact that I have been given what many others who struggle with their orientation long for and do not experience. In the end healing is a mystery and we must trust in the rightness of God’s way for each individual.’
Although not mentioned in Acts, it is clear from the Gospels that the Holy Spirit also guided the Church in the decision about Gentiles through a logical drawing out of what followed from Jesus’ words about what goes into the mouth not defiling a person. This process is mostly hidden; we only have Mark’s comment ‘Thus he declared all foods clean.’ (Mk. 7:19) ‘Thus’ here can be expanded to mean ‘it follows logically from this that…’ Who first came to this conclusion and how, we are not told. It is a prime example of the Holy Spirit working anonymously in the Church and Church leadership pointing out the logic that accompanies the prophecy and signs of His presence in people.
Our Churches have been much more comfortable with such logic, or reason, has developed and used and honoured openness to such reason far more than the openness to the Holy Spirit in other ways. We must continue to do this, continuing, with the Holy Spirit, to draw out what follows logically, primarily from what Jesus said, and also from truth that is gathered from other sources.
It seems that reason, and the science which is the application of reason, no more than Jesus, gives a definite answer to the acceptability of gay marriage. Current thinking, apparently, is that sexual attraction is more of a spectrum between heterosexual and homosexual, than an unambiguous ‘orientation.’ It is also increasingly accepted that attempts by people deliberately to move their sexuality along the spectrum, especially towards heterosexual, away from homosexual, do not generally succeed. Some research by Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse, however, shows that such change is as possible as other changes in deep-seated personal matters. The Church needs to keep listening to all this logical reasoning as part of our listening to the Holy Spirit. But, having attended much to reason so far, it is probably more fruitful to attend to the Holy Spirit in ways which have not been given so much attention.
It is possible also to be led astray by the ‘spirit of this age’ or even by the current state of scientific thinking. Paul warned the Christians in Colossae to beware of being led astray by ‘philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ…’ (Cols 2:8) It is one thing to be led by the Holy Spirit into new truth and new developments, it is another to follow fashion. Hence the need for specific Christian listening to the Holy Spirit following the example in the book of Acts. For the sake of Christian clarity and a common trinitarianism it is better to talk mostly of ‘the Holy Spirit’ rather than ‘the Spirit’ recognising that there are spiritual voices which are not the Holy Spirit. Discernment is needed.
Open minds and hearts
It is important not to restrict too much our expectation of the truth into which the Holy Spirit might lead us. The Holy Spirit will take what is of Jesus, and we can expect the Holy Spirit to be always in tune with Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. The Holy Spirit is a also a different distinct Person, with a different distinct voice; we should not limit our expectation of what the Holy Spirit says only to what Jesus is recorded as saying, or to other writers inspired in the past. As with the inclusion of the Gentiles, the truth into which the Holy Spirit wants to lead us may be against the overall witness of Scripture. The same was true of slavery. The overall witness of Scripture is that slavery is an acceptable part of life. Jesus said nothing directly about the continuation of slavery. But, when people were able to bear it, the Holy Spirit spoke to the Church, taking the second Great Command of Jesus and leading into the truth that slave owning is incompatible with loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. The Holy Spirit can and does lead God’s people into truth beyond the truth set out in the Bible as a whole.
The Holy Spirit’s leading is not at the time necessarily incontrovertible. In Acts and at the time of Paul’s letters there was much controversy. The authoritative leading of the Holy Spirit was only recognised through discussion and debate, and a coming together of Church leaders in order to seek the truth of the Holy Spirit. We can expect discussion and debate in our time also, and need not be dismayed by our current inability to come to a definite conclusion. We look to our leaders to come together and, together, to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to our Church.
It is good also to bear in mind the example of Gamaliel, which has an honourable mention in the book of Acts. His advice was not to forbid the new Jewish development focused on Jesus of Nazareth, whose followers stubbornly refused to fade away. ‘So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail;
but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’ They were convinced by him…’ Acts 5:38,39 NRSV Our listening to the Holy Spirit could include allowing some people to go ahead with the new development of gay marriage and waiting to see if it fails.
At the moment our listening to the Holy Spirit does not indicate clearly if gay marriage is an acceptable, Holy Spirit-led, development. More, and different, listening is needed.
Because there is no clear indication from the Holy Spirit about gay marriage, this matter cannot be one of primary importance. If this were a matter of vital importance for the Church and for people’s ultimate salvation, both Jesus and the Holy Spirit would speak clearly. Gay marriage is a matter about which we legitimately have different approaches and different practices. Allowing the latter can be, following Gamaliel, a way of listening more to the Holy Spirit.