Many will have noticed the media fuss caused by an Instagram post by Israel Folau, the Australian rugby international. He posted on his public Instagram account:
View this post on Instagram
You may well question the wisdom of posting something like that on social media, but it was one word that caused him to be sacked. It was not the adulterers nor the atheists who were outraged. It was his mentioning of homosexuality that was the source of fury. Why is this?
Being true to our feelings is viewed as essential to human flourishing in the 21st century. Denying ourselves is seen as bad. Looking within to discover who we are is good. This is true even in the magical world. Back in 2007 the final Harry Potter book was published and Harry’s heroism was seen in dying at the hands of a dark lord in order to save the lives of others. By 2018, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the tragic boy, Credence, is forced by his mother to deny who he is. Yet suppressing his true magical self causes him and others devastating harm, in the form of an ‘Obscurus’. It’s a very modern message – you have to be true to your feelings; to deny them is outrageous! Consequently, anyone who prevents someone expressing themselves is evil. It’s important to recognise the power of this message – to declare that people with same sex attraction should not indulge in gay sex is now viewed as an oppressive and evil opinion.
So, how can Christians speak about this topic? It’s no good stating that “homosexual practice is wrong”. The vast majority of a younger generation will think you’re mad. Some will have friends who are same sex attracted and enjoy committed and fulfilling relationships. I don’t think communicating on this topic on social media enables Christians to relate to others with kindness, dignity and respect. I don’t think it’s wise or persuasive to a world which assumes we must be bigots. However, we do need to remember that for all his mistaken tone and poor use of media, Israel Folau is theologically correct. He was only paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves, nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is an issue upon which salvation can turn. The apostle Paul is clear that you cannot be a Christian and practice unrepentant gay sex.
Now I think it unlikely that we would want to engage on specific Bible passages, in an initial conversation with an unbeliever, on issues of sexuality (even if we desire to open a Bible with them at some stage). What can we usefully say? Let me suggest three things:
The purpose of marriage
The Bible begins with a marriage in Genesis 2 and ends with a marriage in Revelation 19. It is one of the dominant metaphors of the Bible for how God relates to his people. God loves us faithfully and will never let us go and human marriage is meant to demonstrate that. This is why adultery is viewed as the worst of sexual sins (it features in the 10 Commandments and in Deuteronomy 22 it is worse than sex outside of marriage). Adultery is a denial that God is faithful to us. The longest reflection on this theme is in Ephesians 5 where Paul declares that marriage between a man and a woman is a picture of Christ and his church. But you cannot replace husband-wife with husband-husband or wife-wife, otherwise you’re saying that Christ is the same as his church or that the two are interchangeable and we are the ones who make him holy. You cannot swap them around!
I don’t think this will persuade a non-Christian to change their mind, but it is perhaps an explanation, which can make sense to people, of why it matters to us Christians.
The importance of sex
Perhaps we might ask a question: “Do you think someone can only be fulfilled if they are sexually active?” Modern culture is a little divided on how to view sex. For some it is a mere appetite like hunger or a recreational activity like swimming. Yet for others it can be exalted as the source of relational intimacy. The assumption is that without consensual sex you cannot be fulfilled. It’s worth questioning that. Does it mean that every unmarried person is emotionally unfulfilled?
I don’t think many would put things that strongly. I would want to talk about the church family and the quality of friendships that people find there. In a healthy church there will be plenty of single people – be they never-married, divorced or widows – who can say that they have a number of fulfilling relationships amongst their friends. In many of our churches will be people who are same-sex attracted yet say they are not defined by their sexual desires. They choose to follow Jesus and place great value upon their friends. I would want to gently suggest that the view that “You can only be happy if you’re having sex” is a weird one. Hopefully our church families model that there are plenty of people of different ages and sexual inclinations who are very happy living celibate lives due to the friendship of others.
The friendship of Jesus
I think it’s worth being frank and telling people that they’re unlikely to understand the Bible’s view on this unless they grasp how wonderful Christians think Jesus is. A friend of mine is a senior executive in the fashion industry. Many of the people he worked with and loved described themselves as gay and sometimes would ask him, as he was known as a Christian, what he thought about their sexuality. He always answered the same way:
i) The Bible teaches that every man and woman is made in God’s image and he loves all of us – whatever our age, race, nationality and sexual inclination. He made us all and he loves each one.
ii) Jesus is clear that marriage is designed to be between a man and a woman. It’s meant to teach us of his commitment to us.
iii) You know that I care for you as a friend, but if you think I can’t work for this organisation holding the personal views that I do then I shall have to resign. I don’t want to do that because I love working here. But if I’m forced to resign, I’ll do it because I don’t want to cause you distress and it’s a faint echo of Jesus’ sacrificial love. He was willing to die unjustly for the people he loved, so I think I can resign so that you know that following Jesus is so great that it’s worth giving up everything to know him.
He’s challenging, isn’t he? In the end, I wonder if what we say may be less important than how we live, and what people see that we love. Can our friends and colleagues see that we value the friendship of Jesus above all else?
Standing firm in loyalty to Jesus, may cost us in a world which is sexually confused. We must ensure that our conversation is respectful, thoughtful and kind. Communicating on this issue in emails, texts and on social media is probably unwise. But if we treat all others with respect and dignity in our personal conversations, yet still suffer mockery, exclusion or a warning from HR, then we need to remember that standing with Jesus is worth it. He did warn us that we would not always be popular, but he also tells us that we cannot really lose: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” Luke 9:23
Matt Fuller is Senior Pastor at Christ Church Mayfair. Matt explores these ideas in more detail in his forthcoming book Be True To Yourself (The Good Book Company, January 2020).