Christians in Northern Ireland haven’t had the best of press lately; ‘gay’ cakes and court cases, same sex marriage and even one would-be MP who wanted to bring back corporal punishment. Nolan (BBC1 20th May) even interviewed Joshua Feuerstein, who most right wing American Christians would consider to be far right wing.
But the Christian church in Northern Ireland is changing; it is, as they say, a ‘broad church’. Over the past months, in all those stories, I have yet to find anyone representing me fully in the mass media. I’m certain I’m not the only Christian thinking that. For that reason, I write this blog. Here, truncated to around eight hundred words, are my reasons for supporting same sex marriage.
To begin with, many things need to be taken into consideration when we read the bible. I believe that God reveals himself through the bible; the bible points us beyond itself to what God is like. It is also human series of documents, set in specific times and places. The bible, therefore, has limits. God is God, and can’t be fully disclosed in one long book. Things that we now know to be true, such as evolution, don’t occur in the bible, because they weren’t a part of the ancient world. That’s why slavery is accepted in the Ten Commandments; it was part of that world. That’s why same sex, committed relationships don’t occur in the bible, they were not part of that world.
(We might also consider the substantial differences between marriage in the bible, and marriage in western Europe in 2015, but that’s another story…)
Yes, there are unavoidable verses in the bible that seem to speak against same sex sexual acts. Some have tried to explain them away, but I have to admit that I’m uncomfortable with manipulating the bible that way. I prefer to say that the bible writers wrote what they wrote, in the world they lived in. But life has changed. Our understanding has changed, and I believe God has worked to bring that understanding about. Maybe it’s a sin, but I prefer to set those verses to one side, for this reason.
The bible is a diverse collection; many writers, different genres, over a long period of time in different places. There are over-arching themes however, and one of those is God’s unstoppable, unrelenting pursuit of people; that they would find him, know something of him and live differently. Maybe it’s too warm and fuzzy for you, but I like the description of one writer who said God is like “the person who clears his throat in hiding, to give himself away”. God is different; he is undoubtedly ‘other’, and sometimes the writers’ description of God is terrifying. Pursuit and embrace, however, remain key themes from Genesis to Revelation.
Back in my church youth group growing up, we used to “joke” about what the day of judgement would look like. The idea that one day, we would all have to give an account of our lives before God. I’ve long since stopped thinking about what that might look like, but I have come to this conclusion. If I have to give an account of my life to God I would far rather say I set aside a small handful of verses so that gay and lesbian people would be welcomed in my church, than say that I held fast to those few verses, and declared, however sensitively, that same sex relationships were sinful, only to find that gay and lesbian people never settled in my church community, because they were never accepted. (Or if they came, they kept their sexuality well hidden, which can’t be good for anybody).
That’s a rather negative argument, so let me add something more positive. One of the key verses in the church I belong to is John 10:10. In another ‘pursuit’ passage Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, and says he came so that we would have life, and life to the full. What has changed my mind most (because I didn’t always think this way) is seeing gay and lesbian people come to terms with their sexuality, and settle into a stable, committed long term relationship with a partner. That relationship has helped them to blossom and grow as people; to my eyes, they are living life in a more full way than before. There is a love, a joy and a peace within them, that even though they are not part of the established church, they are in some way part of the kingdom of God; where the goodness of God is changing the world.
In Christian terms, this is a redemptive thing. People can become more alive in same sex relationships; I’ve seen it. So can I, as a Christian support same sex marriage? In all good conscience, I can’t do anything else.
Dave Thompson is a teacher in Belfast.