In his book, A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal (SPCK, London 2019) Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats July 2015 – April 2017, wrote: “Many of those who consider themselves liberals really aren’t. To be tolerant of everything except those things that you don’t consider to be liberal, is to reach a stage where your liberalism has eaten itself.” Sadly, in my judgment, these words are true not just of the world of politics, but also the world of the church. In a way which used not to be true of liberal Christians in the past, today’s liberals can be just as intolerant as their conservative counterparts.
Let me say straightaway that I feel uneasy even using the term ‘liberal’ within a Christian context. Labels are dangerous and often misleading and at times downright untrue. I do not want to go back to the days when there was name-calling between ‘fundamentalists’ on the one hand and ‘modernists’ on the other hand. For instance, although I would describe myself as an Evangelical, nonetheless, I dislike the implication that ‘Evangelicals’ alone are ‘Gospel-centred’ people: that is patently not the case. Indeed, there have been occasions when I have experienced more of the love of God outside, rather than inside, the Evangelical fold! However, I am concerned that the inclusivist position adopted by some Christians on same sex issues can end up excluding people.
Let me give an example. Recently some friends wrote to me a letter in which they expressed their sadness about changes which had taken place in their former church.
A rushed decision to be among the first to register for single sex marriages had been taken in such a way that it drove many from the church. We did not object to inclusiveness, although were a bit sad that new terminology was not found rather than hijacking husband/wife etc., but to the way reservations based on scripture were brushed aside rather than taken seriously and addressed.
In particular they were sad that most of those who had left were ‘internationals’ who had been “splendidly active members of the church”. What is more some of some of the younger people had been turned off church altogether. “It is heart-breaking to see people leave as a result of unfortunate attitudes, especially when those stem from the minister.”
My mind went to Paul’s advice to the church at Rome, where some Jewish Christians had scruples with regard to the eating of (‘non-kosher’?) meat, the drinking of wine, and the observance of the Sabbath. For Paul himself none of these issues were a problem (see Rom 14.14). As far as he was concerned, none of these issues were central to the Christian faith. With a degree perhaps of sarcasm he wrote: “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14.17). Nonetheless, he recognised that the fact that these issues weren’t a problem to him did not make the problem go away for others. So he wrote: “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died…. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.” (Rom 14.15, 17, 19). He went on to say “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves”. The fact that our brothers and sisters may be wrong does not mean to say that we are right in exercising our freedom to act differently. Furthermore, instead of criticising those with whom we disagree, we are to “welcome one another” (15.7). As John Stott pointed out, the underlying Greek word here means more than “accept one another’s right to exist” but rather ‘implies the warmth and kindness of love”.
This does not mean to say that those of a more ‘liberal’ persuasion are not free to raise issues they feel strongly about. What it does mean, however, is that they are not free to push through their views without regard to the convictions held by others. There is no doubt that the traditional Evangelical approach to same sex relations is a massive stumbling block to the younger generation, with the results for most younger people the church and its message are a total irrelevance. At the very least we need to follow Jesus and be inclusive in our friendships (see Matt 11.19; Luke 7.34). On the other hand, although Jesus loved ‘the sinner’, he did not love ‘the sin’ (John 8.11). Furthermore, we need to note that although the Apostle Paul condemned gay and lesbian sex, he also condemned gossips, thieves and the greedy (1 Cor 6.9-10); similarly in his Letter to the Romans Paul not only rejected gay sex as unnatural (Rom 1.24-27), he also weighed in against sin in all its forms (Rom 1.29-31). There is no place for double standards in the church!
It is true that the issues are more complicated than they might at first appear. For instance, was Paul’s revulsion against gay sex caused by the wild kind of promiscuous sex which abounded in the ancient world? The truth is that we do not know if he would have equally condemned a same-sex couple loving one another within the context of a faithful partnership. However, I personally cannot see any Biblical grounds for same sex marriage.
But two things are absolutely clear: firstly, whatever our theological position, we need to respect those with different views; secondly, our freedom in Christ is limited by the needs of others in the church. There is no place for intolerance on the part of conservatives – nor is there is a place for intolerance on the part of liberals.