Published in the Church of England Newspaper, 9th September 2011
Last month the Church of England Newspaper published an article by Stephen Kuhrt, Chair of Fulcrum, on the difference between accepting women’s leadership in the church, and accepting homosexual relationships. Today they have published the following response from Accepting Evangelicals…
The connection between the debate over women’s ministry and that of homosexuals has been a bone of contention among evangelicals for many years. On the one hand, the Biblical texts on the role of women in the church have been re-examined and re-interpreted by ‘open’ conservatives, whilst on the other hand, a similar process has been resisted with much more energy when it comes to homosexuality. In addition, there are those who have prophesied that the acceptance of women into ministry and headship would lead inexorably to the same pressures to reconsider the place of homosexuals in the church on a slippery slope away from Biblical truth.
At the heart of each issue is how we as evangelicals treat verses in Scripture which, at first sight appear to speak out clearly against change on either of these two issues.
In Stephen Kuhrt’s recent article “Women’s ministry and Homosexuality” he meets this issue head-on. He tries to provide a rationale for conservatives like himself who want to follow the re-examination of Scripture in regard to women’s ministry while continuing to resist any movement on homosexual relationships. In doing so, he is attempting to defend that position from attacks from conservatives and liberals alike, while also trying to ensure that the ‘slippery slope’ argument does not hold back the full inclusion of women in the ministry of the church at every level.
And he is right in when he identifies significant differences between the two issues. No-one has ever suggested that women in general are sinful if they seek a loving, faithful, self-giving relationship (except if that relationship is with another woman). No conservative has suggested that women should seek to seek healing for their sexual identity or embrace abstinence in order to be acceptable to God and the church. Women can be clearly identified in the Bible, and are present in almost all New Testament contexts, and Paul is clear in his radical theology that “In Christ there is no male of female”. Indeed it would be profoundly sad and inappropriate if there were people who would oppose the full inclusion of women in the church’s ministry simply because they were opposed the inclusion of homosexuals.
But having said that, there are striking parallels in the process of discernment for both issues.
Both require us to re-examine Biblical texts which, when taken at face value exclude any change in traditional teaching. In the case of women’s ministry, the verses include clear statements excluding women from having authority over a man, and describing the idea of a women speaking in church as ‘shameful’. In the case of homosexuals the verses which exclude are well known to evangelicals, even if their meaning and context is less clear.
The process of re-examination which is needed in both cases is also similar. Proponents of a new understanding on either issue call for the texts to be considered within their cultural context and purpose before being weighed against other passages of scripture which might point to the possibility of a more inclusive approach.
Both issues require an openness from us to be challenged on our own received cultural presuppositions and norms – what we think is ‘normal’ and ‘obvious’ because of the Christian culture we have been brought up in.
The difference, as Stephen Kuhrt points out is the lack of identifiably ‘gay’ people in the early church. While a careful reading of Roman 16 reveals the possibility (or probability – depending on your point of view) of women in leadership, there are no such examples of openly ‘gay’ people. But this absence in Scripture is not surprising, as it is similarly difficult to demonstrate a model of exclusive, partnered, faithful same-sex relationships in secular society at that time either.
The same cannot be said of our society today.
Homosexuality is identified by the vast majority of people as an orientation rather than a recreational choice. There are plenty of examples of same-sex relationships today which exhibit the same characteristics of love, commitment and fidelity as marriage. Indeed, there are partnered homosexual Christians in ministry and leadership in a wide variety of churches.
The joy and blessing which Stephen Kuhrt has found in welcoming women into ministry at his own church is wonderful to read about, and there are many who have experienced that same joy and blessing as they have begun to welcome LGB&T Christians into their churches in a more inclusive way. Those of us who have experienced the blessing which LGB&T Christians can bring, know that full inclusion in the church – of women and of homosexuals – will further demonstrate the joy and blessing of faith in Jesus Christ.
The debates of women’s ministry and homosexuality are different – but the issues which they call us to address have striking parallels, as are the potential blessings which full inclusion in the church will bring.
Rev Benny Hazlehurst
Secretary of Accepting Evangelicals