I wrote the following article for Contemporary Christianity’s monthly PS forum. The post can be found here. Contemporary Christianity (formerly ECONI) addresses issues of faith in the public square and hosts many significant discussions.
The phrase ‘talks about talks’ has come to encapsulate our frustration at the inability of politicians to actually address and deal with real issues. Yet, sometimes it is right to spend time agreeing how a conversation is going to be held, before actually having the conversation.
The big issue of the day for the churches is sexuality, obviously reflecting the prominence of the issue in society. In my experience it is an issue on which many people have very firm opinions on both sides of the argument. One of my biggest concerns is about how the conversation is being conducted. In fact, it does not feel that there is a conversation at all, but an impasse of fixed positions and judgementalism on both sides. I know many people on both sides. I also know many people who are conflicted over the issue and who feel that there is no space for them to think it through for themselves. They feel that they are not allowed to say, ‘I’m not sure’, but are forced to come down on one side or another.
Hence my plea for ‘talks about talks’, for some agreement about how we in the church, in the broadest sense of that term, will talk to each other about this issue.
My own suggestion would be to begin with some passages by Paul that we often struggle to see as relevant to our context. He spends a considerable amount of time in Romans and 1 Corinthians discussing whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, or might have been sacrificed to idols (see Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10). Obviously this was an issue that people were passionate about, on which they had strong opinions and on which people made judgements about each other’s faith (sound familiar?)
Living among the relatively young Christian church in Nepal gave me an insight into the seriousness of this issue. Christians in Nepal are surrounded by a Hindu culture in which worship of other gods is ubiquitous. New Christians often make a costly break with their religious background, and often family relationships, in order to commit to Jesus Christ. First generation Christians often reject everything remotely connected to their religious past. However, as a second generation has emerged they are questioning whether of some of the things that have been rejected are Hindu religious practices, or simply expressions of Nepali culture. There is often no clear dividing line.
So, there are disagreements over what Christians should, or should not take part in. These are taken very seriously because they are understood to go to the core of the faith. The question is whether or not, in taking part in this activity, are you worshipping God or worshipping idols? This is not a secondary theological issue, especially to people who have lost family relationships or been imprisoned because their commitment to worship only this God.
Given the primary importance of the issue, Paul’s response to the Romans is, perhaps, surprising. In many places Paul is not afraid to be directive, yet on this issue, of primary theological importance, he says that each person should be able to make up their own mind (Rom 14:5). The responsibility lies with each person to make up their own mind as to what faithfulness to Christ on the issue allows them to do or not to do. Simply going with the flow of society is ruled out. But, so too, is simply accepting, without examination, the party-line of my particular church grouping.
There is another big challenge in Paul’s response. He calls on those with diametrically opposing views on this issue of primary theological importance to accept each other. The person who sees another member of their church do something that they consider to be anathema to the core commandment to worship God alone, is to recognise them as seeking to be faithful to Christ. The person who feels that others are wanting to restrict their freedom, and to impose a legalism on the church, is to recognise them as seeking to be faithful to Christ.
If we could agree to hold our conversations about sexuality with these principles in mind, I think the tone of the conversation could be changed. And even if others do not agree to this suggestion, or do not adhere to it, I believe that it is my responsibility to try to act according to these principles.