Part 1: There’s lots to like

Part 2: General ways it misses the mark

Part 3: Hell and Calvinism

Homosexuality, same sex attractive, same sex marriage

It’s unsurprising this is one of the topics covered… but it is surprising how gently and respectfully this topic is handled. It’s impressive that they chose a church planter who hold to a biblical sexual ethic and assume that this is normal among evangelical churches — rather than somehow claiming that this is a fringe, extremist position and that mainstream Christians don’t hold to a sexual ethic.

But what was curious about this part of the discussion was how the journalist, Eric, considered it a confusing inconsistency for a pastor to love and accept practising homosexuals, to welcome them to church, to even support their ability to marry in a secular society… and yet not believe that Christians ought to engage in homosexual sex.

This is revealing of a general disbelief that such a position is coherent, defensible or liveable. But again, as with other issues I’ve touched on in previous instalments in this blog series, it seems that this strongly reflects where journalist Eric Mennel’s own thinking is at.

At least as he’s quoted in this episode, church planter AJ Smith is not sharp and clear on key distinctions:

  • between sexual orientation and sexual practice.
  • Between accepting and loving someone and agreeing with their sexual lifestyle.
  • Between Christian ethics and civil law.

But it’s not obvious whether he said more in interviews with Eric to clarify his point of view, but Eric didn’t follow these further clarifications, or wasn’t persuaded that they were coherent, so left them out of the final episode.

This illustrates the difficulty that those with conservative moral views have now in communicating to many people in secular Western society. The concepts and distinctions we make in our ethics are no longer considered coherent or meaningful or useful.

The episode also raises the issue of how transparent churches are about their sexual ethics.

Sexual ethics and Transparency

One line this episode pursues, is the failure of churches to be clear about what they believe in general, and specifically about issues relevant to LGBT issues and women in leadership issues. The episode suggests that the church failing to be up front about these things is as best ambiguous and confusing and at worst actively deceptive. They talk with people from an organisation called Church Clarity that is lobbying for all churches to make their policies clear and accessible on their websites:

An organization’s website serves as a centralized location for the public to understand critical information about an organization. It is the main place that people turn to in order to find out what they can expect.

We believe that policies, especially those who have been historically marginalized, qualify as “critical information” because they directly impact people’s ability to participate, or not, in a church. While we recognize the pastoral desire to discuss nuances of a particular theology, actively enforced policies are much more straightforward. They can and should be communicated explicitly from the start (see the question below “Why do you evaluate church “policies” and not “theology”?”).

It’s a fair point. The podcast episode points out how people can get enmeshed with a church community over months and months before they realise where the church stands on some of these key issues that might be ideologically important to them — or painfully, personally relevant. That’s a rude shock to discover once you’ve already become a part of the community and its support systems. Of course, this is something that there is a decent amount of onus on the church goer or visitor to bother to ask. I don’t think it’s a surprising or shocking thing that Christian churches might have convictions on such matters, and it is strange not to think to ask.

This is an interesting issue, and a good demonstration about how churches are perceived. I don’t think it’s true or fair to say that churches are being deceptive on this matter. Rather, three things are going on:

  • churches want to be open to as many as possible, and want to have a simple core message for people to primarily engage with. They are more interested about people being clear on Jesus and his gospel, than being distracted by details of the Christian ethics or church practice.
  • Culture has changed rapidly, so that this would not have been a big issues even 3 or 5 years let alone 10 years ago. It would be assumed that people understand the basics of Christian ethics and theology.
  • Churches are also wary of how snippets from public documents can be taken out of context and interpreted unfairly, so are perhaps defensive for these reasons too.

But this is still a welcome challenge: by being cautious, and focussing on our core ‘pitch’… are we accidentally coming across as deceptive, ambiguous, confusing, hurtful.

It seems to make sense that our church websites would publish our doctrinal basis and key policy statements on these kinds of matters? I’m definitely keen to urge the organisation I’m employed by, AFES, and the local student ministry I work alongside, the University Fellowship of Christians, to be more transparent about these things.