Bearing Faithful Witness:
Unchanging Convictions in Changing Times

Jonathan R. Wilson

I write this essay reluctantly and with some difficulty. We have reached a point in our society and in our discussions of homosexuality that make it almost impossible for us to understand one another. Communicating clearly about homosexuality is a hard process that requires ongoing discussion about our disagreements. Knowing this, I choose to write because my calling as a theologian is to help the church witness faithfully to the good news of Jesus Christ.

That’s what we all need to be concerned with: bearing faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Biblical Interpretation
Although the traditional interpretation of biblical teaching on sexuality has sometimes been stated naïvely, I believe that traditional teaching is faithful to God’s plan for human living. I am persuaded that even a more sophisticated understanding must acknowledge that the trajectory of Scriptural teaching identifies sexual activity outside a covenanted relationship between a man and a woman as falling short of God’s design, as straying from God’s instruction, and as rebelling against God’s intention for human flourishing.

I do know that we have sometimes “over-interpreted” the biblical passages that refer to various kinds of same-sex relationships and activities. I also know that revised interpretations have been proposed. The sin of Sodom is violence and the sexual violation of others, both same and other sex. The proscriptions of Leviticus are set within the purity regulations of the OT, many of which we have casually set aside. Paul’s description in Romans 1 may be interpreted as referring to the unnatural “thrill-seeking” of heterosexuals rather than the natural longings of homosexuals. And his vocabulary in the Corinthian letters may refer to specific cultural practices and not “same-sex marriage.”

I am not convinced of these interpretations; but even if I were, I am struck by the fact that every biblical reference to same-sex activity interprets that activity as contrary to human flourishing. I find this trajectory of biblical teaching compelling. So even if I accepted the revised interpretations (which I do not), the trajectory of biblical teaching in specific passages and more general themes identifies same-sex activity as contrary to human flourishing.

In the rest of this essay I am more concerned that as we bear witness to this biblical teaching we must understand the times in which we live and the ways in which we may miscommunicate our witness.

Two changes in our society present us with challenges in communicating our witness: the rise of expressivist morality and the end of Christendom.

Expressivist Morality
One change that challenges us is the rise of expressivist morality. In many parts of Western culture, this change is already complete. In many parts of Canada and generally in Western Canada, however, I think that we are in the midst of change. What I say here will apply to different degrees in various parts of Canada.

The change that is taking place is a change in our understanding of the nature of morality not just the content of morality. The traditional understanding viewed morality as conforming our lives to the way we were designed to live. This did not mean that everyone agreed on the content of morality. Aristotelians, Atheists, Communists, and Christians disagreed on the content of morality. And even Christians might disagree among themselves. But they all (well, almost all—one can always find an exception) agreed on what it was they were arguing about: what were humans made for and how best to line up our lives with that conviction.

In our society, morality is seldom viewed as the means by which we conform to that for which we are made. Today, morality is increasingly understood as the unfettered expression of my individual identity and the exercise of my individual lifestyle choices. In this situation the one basic immoral act is inhibiting or prohibiting my personal expression. Any such opposition is a direct personal attack and an attempt to suppress or prevent my flourishing as a human being.

With these developments taking place in our society, our Conventions and Unions face enormous challenges in bearing faithful witness. Our statements on homosexuality and same-sex marriage will appear to many to be not merely a disagreement about moral judgments but profoundly immoral acts that threaten the freedom of expression that is basic to being human.

So if we are to be faithful in our witness, we must not merely make our statements, we must also explain the reasons for our statements. We must identify and challenge the basic moral (and theological) error of our times, namely the erroneous belief that human beings are free to choose how we will live. Our Scriptures are filled with the declaration that life is found on one path, the Way of Jesus Christ. All other paths are death.

But once we have arrived at this insight, we must also recognize that none of us follows that way in perfection or by our own strength. We live by grace through our relationship to Jesus Christ, who alone is faithful to the Way of Life. So in our witness we must always find ways of pointing to him through our statements. Christian ethics is a means of bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in those places where the lives of his followers intersect with the lives of those who have not acknowledged him as the Way, the truth, and the Life.

The End of Christendom
As we seek to bear witness in a society marked by expressivist morality, the second challenge that faces us is the end of Christendom. “Christendom” stands as a convenient label for the period of time when the church seemed to be (and often, perhaps, was) a dominant social institution. When the church spoke, people listened.

Although there are pockets where that is still true, it has changed in many places and is changing rapidly in most other segments of Western culture. We must learn to live with this history, come to terms with the changing circumstances, and discern how to bear faithful witness.

We must not be bullies or appear to be bullies. When Christianity was the dominant moral force in Canadian culture, the church could simply announce its judgment and that judgment might not be liked or even accepted by everyone, but it would be regarded as the morally proper position. So people who lived contrary to the church’s teaching simply accepted that they were immoral or sinners.

Today the situation is changed. People now merely want various social institutions to make it possible for them to maximize their expression of personal freedom, identity and choice. When the church mistakenly thinks that it is still the dominant moral force in society and simply declares its judgments, the church appears to be a moral bully seeking to impose its preferences on the larger society.

Bearing Witness in a Changing Culture
We must not bully, not because we want people to like us or even because we want our views to be heard, but rather, we must avoid bullying so that we faithfully declare the gospel in a changing culture. The gospel and the life that it calls us to does not change. It is the path to human flourishing (the abundant life of John 10:10) for all times and places. But to communicate that gospel faithfully, we must know the times in which we live and what must be done in those times. Paul proclaimed the same gospel in all places, but he proclaimed it differently, depending upon the place. The prophets of the OT all served the same God, but they proclaimed that same God in different ways for different times (comfort from Isaiah, judgment from Jeremiah; love from Hosea, justice from Amos).

In our times, we must learn how to bear witness to the biblical teaching that homosexual practice is contrary to human flourishing in such a way that we convey our passion for human flourishing, not “disgust” at a particular community or practice. When we make our statements on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or any other moral issue, we do not do so to throw our weight around or arrange society to our liking. Rather, we do so because we believe that the church is called together by God for the purpose of bearing witness to the good news that in Jesus Christ human beings can become what we are meant to be.

Our primary aim and disposition must be love. And that must be true even when some homosexual activists revile us and persecute us. Let’s recover the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:11; and let us repent of those occasions when we have betrayed our master by reviling, persecuting or lying about others.

When we announce “our position” on any particular moral issue, we may be perceived as simply expressing our feelings about that issue. But we are not announcing our likes and dislikes when we take moral stands, nor are we establishing who is in and who is out. Rather, when we declare a position on a moral issue, we are bearing witness to what we believe to be God’s intention for the lives of all human beings.

So, to say that homosexual practice is wrong is to say that as we have gathered around Scripture, we have been led by the Holy Spirit to the conviction that such practice is contrary to God’s intention for humankind.

The Path of Human Flourishing
Given these convictions that I have just articulated, certain implications follow for how one lives. I recognize that our culture resists moral advice to others and that what I am going to say will seem like a power play and moral authoritarianism to many. But I do not believe that our culture is right at this point. If there is one way to live before the Creator and Redeemer, and if that one way to live is the path to human flourishing, then I also have the difficult responsibility of bearing witness to that life that leads to human flourishing. Of course, I must not be too dramatic here. The argument that I am making is not one that costs me a lot, though I would rather remain silent.

So, given the convictions that I set out above, I also believe that GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered) persons should strive to live celibate lives by God’s grace. This means bearing the burden of one’s unfulfilled sexual longings in this life. This is not easy to bear in our culture, because our culture has made the physical fulfillment of sexual longings central to human fulfillment. However, while the Bible teaches that sexual identity is central and fundamental to humans made in God’s image, the physical completion of our sexuality in orgasmic experience is not central or fundamental. So, I believe that as GLBT followers of Jesus Christ commit themselves to bearing the burden of unfilled sexual longings, they will have much to learn and to teach us about God’s grace and mercy. And in those times that they fall short of that commitment (as we all do in various ways—heterosexual lust, adultery, divorce), they may also learn something about God’ mercy and forgiveness.

This is not to place higher expectations on celibate homosexual disciples of Jesus Christ. Celibate, single, heterosexual disciples will have their own lessons of grace and mercy. And faithful, married, heterosexual disciples will as well.

The Challenge for Churches
Our convictions and the changing culture in which we live will present particular, local challenges in our communities and congregations. How can we be places of welcome and hospitality when our disagreements are so deep? How can we recover some sense of discipline in relation to other sexual expressions that are contrary to human flourishing? How can we extend grace and mercy to one another across these divisions?

As a church we are called to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ for all creation. Christian ethics is the means by which we do that in the places where our lives intersect with those who are not Christians. In this mission we bear witness by declaring God’s intention for human flourishing as taught by the Holy Spirit through Scripture in the church. When we fall short of full faithfulness, the church still bears witness as we confess our sin and depend upon God’s mercy and forgiveness. May God be with us as we seek to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to our world.