Over the last few months, it feels like hostility has increased. I have had events cancelled or moved because of a fear that my teaching could be perceived as dangerous or homophobic. (Always an interesting accusation to be levelled at somebody who is same-sex attracted!) I’ve had people tell me that passing on Jesus’s teaching that marriage is for a man and a woman (Matthew 19:4-6) is damaging to people. And the rising temperature around the gay conversion therapy ban has also made life tricky for churches.
How should we respond?
Don’t be surprised
For a while I’ve been convinced that 1 Peter is a vital letter for our time. It doesn’t appear that Peter’s readers are facing intense persecution. There is nobody being imprisoned or executed yet. But they are beginning to feel social disapproval. They are accused of doing wrong (1 Peter 2:12). They are spoken against maliciously (1 Peter 3:16). Their beliefs and behaviour are regarded as strange such that they are abused (1 Peter 4:4).
That feels like where we are at the moment. Holding to the belief that sex is for the marriage of a man and a woman is definitely regarded as strange and, indeed, wrong and harmful by many.
I wish it weren’t the case. I would much rather face opposition because of my belief in the uniqueness of Christ or the reliability of the Bible. I am acutely aware that sexuality is a personal topic containing hidden pains for many rather than an ‘issue’ to be debated. But we don’t get to choose the areas where we are opposed. And Peter’s letter is clear: ‘Do not be surprised’ (1 Peter 4:12). We live in a world where God is rejected – and so it is no surprise that his followers will experience disapproval for following his teaching. It is normal for God’s people to be exiles, conscious that they are living in a world that is not their home.
It is vital that we should have that expectation, otherwise we will assume that if we are swimming against the historical tide then we must be in the wrong. The letter of 1 Peter tells us that going against a prevailing viewpoint is the normal place for a Christian.
Don’t be silent
The initial temptation for most churches will not be to change their position on sexuality. It will be to remain silent, as a way of preserving credibility and perhaps avoiding putting people off the gospel.
But staying silent doesn’t appear to be Peter’s approach. Perhaps picking up his own example in front of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4), he tells his readers not to be frightened but to revere Christ as Lord (1 Peter 3:14-15). And if Christ is Lord, then we must follow what he says on sexuality.
There are two reasons why I fear churches becoming silent. The first is personal. One of the most important moments in my life was when I was sitting as a student in a Christian Union meeting. The preacher was speaking on Ephesians 1 and the refrain ‘in Christ’. He then talked about a senior policeman who had come out as gay. Noting this was a brave thing to do, the preacher then spoke directly to those of us who were same-sex attracted: ‘I want you to know that your chief identity is that you are “in Christ”’. It meant the world to me, and I still remember it over 25 years later. But if the Church falls silent on sexuality, then people like me won’t get that sort of encouragement. Instead, we will have to struggle alone.
Furthermore, if the Church falls silent on sexuality, Christians will increasingly get their sexual ethics from society rather than Scripture. That is tragic because nobody in the world around us is saying that ultimately sexuality is intended to be a picture of the glorious eternal union between Christ and the Church.
We must not be silent in an attempt to avoid hostility.
It does matter, though, how we speak. The response to opposition, according to Peter, is not to shout louder or get increasingly militant. Instead, we go back into a hostile world and ‘do good’ (1 Peter 2:12). We show proper respect to everyone (1 Peter 2:17). Like Jesus, we don’t retaliate (1 Peter 2:23). And when we speak, we do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). When it comes to sexuality, the goal is for Christians to leave a question mark trailing behind us. Those listening to us may not agree with what we say, but the kindness and compassion with which we say it should leave those who aren’t Christians mystified and wondering quite what is going on.
And we are to do good. That should mean that Christians are at the forefront of critiquing homophobia, ensuring that all people are treated with equal dignity and respect. It should include making the church a biblically inclusive place, as outlined in our Church Audit.
Personalities are different – we need to recognise whether our temptation is to stay silent or to shout in a way that isn’t gentle. Then we need to resist that temptation. Because, despite the challenging times, Peter assures us that as we put these things into practice some may ultimately come to glorify God.