Same sex and the church

This week, the Baptist Union Council, following two years of consultation with churches, issued a statement on ministers and same-sex marriage. At this point, the decision is to uphold the traditional definition of marriage for accredited BU Ministers. Many denominations have debated this topic, which has become, at times, emotive and deeply hurtful. But we are called to disagree well.

Chris is Associate Minister at Lymm Baptist Church and takes a “traditional view” on marriage. A stone’s throw away, Ashley Hardingham is Lead Minister at Altrincham Baptist Church and has taken his church through an 18-month conversation to a “fully inclusive” view. They are good friends with contrasting opinions, but both feel that continuing the discussion in a spirit of love and openness., is more important than either of their opinions.

Opinion by Chris Goswami

Ashley, thanks for this engaging discussion — it’s only by understanding each other’s views that we enrich our own.

I believe that God’s ideal, and his original design for union, is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. But interestingly, the strongest argument for traditional marriage might lie outside the Bible. Let’s go there first.

the strongest argument for traditional marriage might lie outside the Bible

Thin end of the wedge 

This of course is the “slippery slope” argument that, once you change an established norm in society, further shifts then take place over time, leading to situations far beyond what was initially envisaged.

Consider the 1967 Abortion Act. This was brought in as a highly regulated, “last resort” for exceptional cases, but, gradually, society accepted abortion in more and more situations.  It illustrates how society’s norms can evolve beyond their original boundaries.

Divorce follows a similar trajectory. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 was intended for cases of desertion, adultery, or cruelty. Then the Divorce Reform Act 1969 allowed couples to divorce after two years of separation. And, by 2021, we had the introduction of the “6‑month no-fault” divorce.

Finally, in those countries where it is legal there is a progression to normalise euthanasia. The Netherlands has seen a year-on-year increase in euthanasia cases since legalization (2002). The law has now evolved to include mental illness, and minors as young as 12 with parental permission.

Notice, I am not judging the rights and wrongs of these incredibly traumatic situations. Sometimes they are necessary. My own parents divorced and, frankly, it was a much-needed relief from years of pain. I’m simply saying, in all these cases, that there is a creeping expansion beyond the original well-intentioned law, so that behaviours never envisaged become the new normal. It always starts with a well-intentioned first-step followed, by a chain of events over time.

How does this argument apply to marriage?

How does this apply to marriage? If we move away from the traditional definition, what changes might we see?

Consider “ethical, non-monogamous relationships” that are gaining visibility. This is where a couple agrees to have additional sexual partners. (Non-monogamy also existed in the Old Testament of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s God’s will for us, it was the culture of the day). It’s highly likely that, at some point, a group of people, in such a relationship, will eventually demand the right to marry. Eg let’s say 3 older men and a teenage girl all state unequivocally that they love each other — why can’t we get married?

Is that preposterous? … no more preposterous than the idea of a 6‑month divorce was in 1969.

And this gradual slide continues. I’ve written extensively on AI — relationships between humans and AI are real. AI sites that enable users to create their own “friends” are advancing rapidly (try searching for “AI girlfriends”). These relationships can feel meaningful to some, and at least one AI-site offers “erotic roleplay” behind a paywall. With ongoing developments towards artificially conscious AI, the idea of marrying a non-human entity is no longer science fiction.

Is that absurd? Perhaps, but remember, same-sex marriages, even interracial marriages, in some societies at specific points in history, were considered absurd.

Of course you could argue that none of this is inevitable. That, each new situation on any “slippery slope” can be individually gauged with safeguarding and ethical concerns. But historical trends undermine this idea.

Is all of this bad for society? That’s debatable – some might say it’s progressive. But I would say there will be implications that go further than I suggest above, and these do not benefit our society.

Then there is the scriptural argument — much debated in recent years — summarised in part below …

Reply by Ashley Hardingham

Hi Chris, it’s great to be able to engage as friends over this question, and I wholly endorse your comment  about disagreeing well and maintaining good relationship. So I appreciate the opportunity to model this.

Thin end of the wedge

In my experience, this “thin end of the wedge” argument is a commonly stated challenge to an inclusive position. While some say it is not inevitable, you say, ‘historical trends undermine this idea”.

I recognise the examples you give with regard to divorce and euthanasia. I, like you, am no fan of divorce and take Malachi 2 and Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 with all seriousness. Interestingly, you cite the divorce of your own parents. You seem to indicate that whilst having strong resistance to divorce, you recognise places where it is permissible, even helpful, from a Christian perspective. Over the past 100 years the legislation may have become lax, but was there a point where the law gave your parents the possibility of a more fulfilled and hopeful future, more in line with what God wanted for them?

I too am concerned about changes that legislation might bring to end of life care – and disagree with views recently expressed by Esther Rantzen. As I understand it her views are based on difficult cases – but an adage of the legal profession is that ‘hard cases make bad law’. Therefore the logic that relates to especially difficult situations may unravel when extrapolated into general principles.

So, returning to LGBT+ inclusion, is ‘thin end of the wedge’ the only lens by which we view changes in faith and understanding? Are changes to what we believe and practice always inevitably downward? The broadly evangelical church has undergone many changes over the past 50 years, so why does this change stick in the throat? Might there not be examples of upward developments in our faith and understanding?

Are changes to what we believe and practice always inevitably downward?

For example, what about the appointment of women to leadership positions, including ordained ministry? The transformation of the church through the charismatic renewal of the 60’s and 70’s has brought many lasting benefits. There have been positive developments in our biblical and theological development, and we should not simply be defined by reformed theology or the evangelical response to the Enlightenment and scientific age. I’m sure you agree that textural criticism, the search for the historical Jesus, inter-denominational and inter-faith dialogue have helped us in many ways.

Then, what about the campaign in 1986 which was victorious in staving off Sunday shopping, but failed later in 1994? (We now seem shameless about popping into Sainsburys on the way home from church.) Evangelicals now drink alcohol more readily than perhaps they ever did, and even the most conservative now recognise a difference between sexual-orientation and sexual-practice.

We have managed to assimilate all these changes, which at the time appeared to be “the last straw”. So why is this the issue under which evangelical faith will somehow crumble?

This argument is selective and overlooks positive changes to faith and practice

Lastly, we haven’t talked about your own Indian heritage, and how you now feel fully integrated into the UK church. My experience as ‘white British’ is that the casual racism, which, I regret, I was party to in the 1970’s and 80’s, is gradually being eradicated within our churches through teaching, leadership appointments and multiculturalism which enriches our church experience.

So Chris, I don’t buy the slippery slope argument, because it is very selective in its examples and overlooks the positive changes to faith and practice.

Let’s move on to your arguments from the Bible …

Ashley Hardingham and Chris Goswami 1

Scriptural perspective

by Chris Goswami

First, God affirms his created order. In the foundational texts of Genesis, God creates male and female and instructs them to be fruitful (Genesis 1, 27–28). This narrative culminates in the statement that a man will leave his father and mother, be united to his wife, and become one flesh (Genesis 2,18–24).

These texts are later re-affirmed. Psalms such as 127 and 128 and Song of Solomon celebrate the relationship between a man and woman and the idea of pro-creation. Most importantly, Jesus himself affirms this in Matthew 19 emphasising that God made humans male and female, and that in marriage, the two become one.

The Biblical arguments come to us as affirmations, and denunciations

God also denounces same-sex relationships in a list of “immoral behaviours” — from Leviticus 18 to Romans 1, to 1 Corinthians 6. However, folks, like you Ashley, who argue for committed, same-sex relationships, comment that the acts condemned by Paul are not “faithful, same-sex marriages”. The Bible writers, writing in a very different world, were not condemning committed same-sex relationships between adults because these didn’t exist or were extremely rare. I think this argument is fair, and we need to give it due consideration.

We, in the “traditional camp”, must also note that Biblical lists of immoral behaviours include: being drunk, stealing (in any form), slander, and greed. Which of us can say we have never succumbed to any of these? Not me. Those who aspire to take planks from their brother’s eye should take heed.

Chris Goswami & Ashley Hardingahm - 3

In closing

More important to any position we might adopt, is the fundamental idea of how we welcome and care for one another. As someone said, “God is concerned about how we stand, not just where we stand”.

It’s easy to welcome people ‘like me’ but, when Christ laid down the commandment to love one another, he didn’t just mean “… when they’re like you”. Saying “we are welcoming” has in some traditional churches become a façade for letting ourselves off the hook, when people coming to our church have a different sexuality and we would prefer it if they went somewhere else. We have been guilty of using the Bible in anger to condemn them, without understanding them.

Its easy to welcome people ‘like me’

In conclusion Ashley, I realise of course we live in a world that is far from ideal. In such a world I actually support the notion of committed, faithful relationships, over casual relationships — and that would apply to same-sex couples. However, I believe that actively embracing same-sex relationships ultimately leads to behaviours detrimental to society. And, with the guidance of the scriptural texts, I would strongly argue for the church’s historic definition of marriage.

Scriptural Perspective — reply

by Ashley Hardingham

Can I first, hold my hand up and cite the Baptist Declaration of Principle (the only statement around which Baptist churches gather as we don’t have a statement of faith). I affirm, ‘That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures…’ A small but important difference from the EA statement of faith, which prioritises scripture alone.

Biblical arguments, traditional and affirming, have been well made, for me, no better than in the book Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church, written by four authors with differing views, each open to examination by the others.

But let me pick up your references to Genesis 1 and 2. These are not listed in the dreadfully named ‘clobber texts’ (including Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6) but have been crucial in evangelical orthodoxy.

You rightly quote the content of these verses. However, in relation to the LGBT+ debate the citing of these verses is usually given with direct and unequivocal interpretation as word-for-word truth for today. Fine, that is indeed one way to interpret them, as it is Genesis 1 and six-day creationism. But let’s apply the “one man and one woman” to the biblical marriages, say, of Jacob (two sisters), David (eight, including the wife of someone he murdered) and Solomon (700 wives and 300 concubines). If you are correct, ‘Non-monogamy also existed in the Old Testament of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s God’s will’, why not apply that reasoning back to Genesis 1:27–28? I’m not saying you should, but I do want consistency, or nuance, or better exegesis.

If we adopt the same “literal approach” to: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it’, it would mean that every Christian couple should have multiple children – far more than the 1.7 UK average. Do we preach and encourage this? Do churches support infertile couples with funding for fertility treatment? Were my parents, with the looming fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis, wrong to wonder, about the wisdom of bringing children into the world?

Given the expansion in world population and pressure on resources, is further filling the earth really what God calls us to? I once spoke with one of the authors of the Church of England’s ‘Living in Faith and Love’ report and asked him about these verses. His response was that it was categorically sinful not to comply with the instruction of Genesis 1:27–28 which he believed to be having many children.

Can you provide a single consistent interpretive tool that I can apply across scripture? If not, who gets to decide which is the right one for each passage, and can these interpretations rightly be challenged?

who gets to decide which is the right interpretation for each passage?

In closing

One final thought Chris, well more of a confession really. The truth is I am biased on this issue. Biased because my understanding of Christian faith is shaped by my upbringing and experience. But then so is yours; and so is that of everyone reading this article.

Some young (Christian) people today may well be aping culture on this issue, but then again, are we not all aping the culture that has shaped us? Can we admit that? All of us are trying to understand the Bible, through the lens of Jesus, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and within the redeeming influence of the Christian community.

Ashley and Chris also engaged in a radio discussion for Premier — you can listen in here: The consultation and the compromise: Gay marriage and the Baptist Union

This article was originally published in a shortened form by Premier Christianity as 2 articles.
Here is Chris’s.
And here is Ashley’s

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily any specific church or organisation.

If you enjoyed this, try reading Why I won’t quit the CofE despite the chaos over same-sex relationships, by Ed Shaw

Commenting on this blog
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Martin Rich
Martin Rich
4 months ago

Its amazing what debates are had here these days, not even worth reading, the theology is so simple it is frustrating to see the obvious debated when there is so much real need in the world. We should not indulge clearly worldly false prophets, scripture is clear on how to deal with them whatever the cost to meaningless church reputation, it is holiness before God that matters

Name Witheld
Name Witheld
4 months ago

Thanks — Your “slippery slope” argument was particularly meaningful to me, if I may say. It is applicable to the kernel of the issue; once you say SSA relationships are ok and that they are of equal status with a heterosexual marriage, they are normalised increasingly. Would we have expected a programme like “Naked attraction” to be on mainstream TV or to have to pass a law to prevent people ” cyber flashing” in 2024, when in the 60s Miss World was “out there” to the general public, and we know that a huge number of women and girls have to… Read more »

Ian Mason
Ian Mason
4 months ago

You mentioned in your article the difference between the BU — The authority of Jesus and the FIEC The authority of the Bible.  I don’t understand why the difference?