Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry
The Church of Scotland has published the report of its Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry (available on the Church of Scotland website). The Commission was appointed by the 2011 General Assembly with the remit of bringing a report to the 2013 Assembly to assist it in coming to a decision on whether the denomination should ordain ministers who are in same-sex relationships.
It will not surprise observers of our national Church to learn that the Report makes no recommendation on the matter but offers two conflicting options (namely either to continue on the ‘trajectory’ towards homosexual ordination which was established by the Assembly in 2011 or to depart from it) and leaves it to the Assembly to decide between them. The Commission was made up of seven members with three backing each option and the convener not attaching his name to either.
According to the Church of Scotland website the first option, which emerges from what is called ‘The Revisionist Case’, “offers the Church a way of allowing the ordination of ministers in same-sex relationships who have entered into a civil partnership, while protecting both individuals and congregations who in conscience do not agree with the theological principles which underpin that choice.” The second option, which comes out of what is termed ‘The Traditionalist Case’, “while reaffirming its belief that homophobia is sinful, invites the Church to reaffirm its traditional stance that the only appropriate expression of sexual activity should be within marriage between one man and one woman.”
True evangelicals ought not to have any difficulty in coming to a view on this subject. Indeed as far as we are aware the whole Church in all its variety has not had any difficulty on the matter until now. This uniform position is doubtless a reflection of the fact that same sex unions are as much against the law of nature as the law of God. The idea that people who are openly living in homosexual relationships could be solemnly set apart by the church to serve as ambassadors for Christ has thus far been regarded as so far from what was moral or appropriate that it never entered into the church’s collective mind to give it any serious thought, let alone set up a ‘theological commission’ to look into the question.
Yet the Church of Scotland has wrestled with the issue of homosexuality for twenty years and the particular matter of ordaining homosexuals to the ministry for the last four. That surely tells us something about the Church of Scotland. As with most of the larger denominations today it is a coalition. While it includes evangelicals who subscribe sincerely to the fundamental biblical doctrines of the historic, catholic creeds it tends to be dominated by liberals whose dogmas have more to do with the political correctness of our present day. There is also a large element which seems to have little conviction about anything.
The tensions inevitable in such an unwieldy alliance have now reached the point where two well-known evangelical congregations (St George’s Tron, Glasgow and Gilcomston South, Aberdeen) have left the denomination along with their ministers; other ministers, office-bearers and individuals have departed. More are likely to follow if next month’s Assembly approves the ordination of practising homosexuals.
What of the Report? As it extends to 96 pages we can only touch on a few matters here. The explanation for the breadth of theological opinion which exists within the Church of Scotland is found in one of the opening sections of the Report which would seem to be the work of the whole Commission. Reference is made to the Ecumenical Relations Report on the “Church of Scotland-Free Church of Scotland Dialogue” received by the General Assembly in 2009 which highlighted the radically different approaches to Scripture held within the Church of Scotland.
We are told that while there are those within the Church who believe, according to the language of the Larger Catechism (Q.3), that “the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God” there are also those who, appealing to the Shorter Catechism (Q.2) which states that the word of God “is contained in” the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, believe that there is not an exact equivalence between the words of Scripture and the Word of God.
This is a wilful misconstruing of the meaning of the Shorter Catechism and implies that the Westminster divines did not know their own mind on the subject. It is also a deadly error for it undermines the very foundation of the church’s faith and life.
The ‘revisionists’ are the first to make their case. With this fatally-flawed approach to Scripture in place they are able either to make or to quote approvingly such misguided statements as the following as they “explore those passages [of Scripture] which have become key to the contemporary discussion of persons in same sex relationships”:
“The first passage, concerning the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, and the lesser known but somewhat similar account of the unnamed householder in Gibeah, who gave hospitality to a travelling Levite and his concubine, contain so many anomalies that it is hard to see how they can be considered relevant to the current debate.”
“Can we honestly put loving, faithful, committed same-sex partners, one or both of whom may have responded to a call to Christian ministry, in the same category as ‘idolaters, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, murderers, slave traders and perjurers’?”
“What would Paul, with his understanding of the redemptive work of God, have thought if he had the knowledge of science which is now available to the Church and if he had encountered and heard the voice of homosexual Christians?”
We are pleased to see that when the ‘traditionalists’ get their turn they counter the revisionists’ argument that not all of Scripture is the Word of God, insisting rightly that “this is an entirely novel argument, with no historical credibility.” When they go on to examine Scripture they provide some helpful commentary on crucial texts and expose the inadequacies in the expositions offered by the revisionists. However we believe that there is a weakness in the traditionalists’ position prior to that when they deal with the interpretation of Scripture. They state:
“There are many subjects on which honest and faithful exegetes have come to differing conclusions. In the New Testament, for example, there are strands of teaching on baptism, on the relation between church and state, on eschatology, on marriage and divorce, on women’s ordination [italics ours] and many other matters, where Christians have gone to Scripture, believing it to be the Word of God and reached contradictory positions. These are differences ‘within the family’ and should not bring separation of fellowship. On the subject of homosexual acts, however, we face an entirely different situation. In both Old and New Testaments, homosexual acts are universally condemned. There is not one positive reference to homosexual acts in the entire Bible, rather such acts are regarded as sinful. This is what makes the issue of homosexual acts quite different from all of the matters on which Christians legitimately disagree. To give approval to homosexual acts as being valid within a Christian lifestyle is not, therefore, a matter of the interpretation of Scripture but is rather a rejection of the teaching of Scripture.”
While it is true that the Bible’s teaching on homosexual acts may be more easy to discern than its teaching on the other subjects mentioned and while it is obvious that Christians do disagree on these other subjects we cannot accept the idea that such disagreement is “legitimate”. We feel this is particularly so in the case of women’s ordination, a very pertinent issue in the Church of Scotland. (It is significant that one of the three ‘traditionalists’ is a woman who serves as an elder in Cardonald Parish Church, regularly gives pulpit supply and lectures in Christian Doctrine at the International Christian College in Glasgow.)
If a church can ordain women to the ministry then it is bound to have difficulty in resisting calls to ordain homosexuals to the ministry. Why do we say this? Because the same Word of God which condemns homosexual behaviour also forbids women from occupying the ruling and teaching offices of the church. It does so on the ground of the principle of male headship within the church: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3); “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim. 2:12); “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law” (1 Cor. 14:34).
To this may be added the requirement that bishops (i.e. elders) be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). If the clear scriptural prohibition on women ministers can be set aside then how can the same people at the same time defend a prohibition on homosexual ministers by appealing to Scripture?
The problem goes back to the 1960s, the decade when the so-called ‘permissive society’ is deemed to have begun. At that time many sections of the church failed to maintain the walls of truth and righteousness which are meant to keep out an ungodly world. The Church of Scotland, allowing itself to be influenced by social trends more than by Scripture, permitted the ordination of women to the eldership in 1966 and two years later declared that women were eligible for the ministry of the Word and sacraments.
The root of the problem is a rejection of the authority of Scripture or at best a denial of its clarity. This is hardly a new thing. In the garden of Eden Satan, speaking through the serpent, began his temptation of our first parents by asking Eve: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” (Gen. 3:1) Unless and until the Church of Scotland returns to a belief in the Bible as the inspired and infallible Word of God and the only and all-sufficient manual for its doctrine and practice then it will descend further and further into the abyss of immorality.
In the final paragraph of their report the Commission state: “the prevailing view of the majority within the Theological Commission is that it would be good for the health of the Church if a decision, in principle, were to be taken now and not further delayed.” Perhaps this Assembly will indeed see the debate come to an end, whatever the outcome will be. We sincerely hope and pray that the Church of Scotland will choose Scripture over sodomy rather than foolishly try to marry both.