Who Are We Listening To?

Bryn MacPhailRev. MacPhail is senior minister at St. Giles Kingsway Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

Let's not beat around the bush. The Presbyterian Church in Canada is divided on the issue of homosexuality. We have formed special committees, we have taken votes, circulated documents, yet resolution appears nowhere in sight. Apparently, we are still "listening." Will someone tell us who we are supposed to be listening to? Are we listening to the Bible, modern scholarship, personal experience, public opinion, or some other standard?

Thankfully, our subordinate standards do tell us who we should be listening to. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that: "The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (I, X). Living Faith agrees, stating that the Bible "is the standard of all doctrine by which we must test any word that comes to us from church, world, or inner experience" (5:1). What then, is our difficulty in resolving this issue?

Differing views on homosexuality within the Christian Church can be traced to differing views of the Bible and its use. Even if both sides of the debate were to acquiesce in some measure to the authority of Scripture, what would remain is the question of hermeneutical approach, and the question of whether Scripture alone is sufficient in resolving this issue.

If the gap between opposing sides in this debate is to be bridged, it must be bridged here. Before we can rightly defend a conclusion that homosexuality is morally wrong or right, we must be able to defend the means that led us to our conclusion. Having taken a firm stand on this issue, I can only state what I have observed regarding the means employed by those who would defend homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle acceptable to God.

What I have observed in those who would legitimize homosexuality is a hermeneutical approach that employs unnecessary ingenuity in asking questions of straightforward biblical texts. For example, take a passage like Romans 1:26, 27:

    God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

One hardly needs to be a scholar, let alone a scholar in Greek language and culture to understand what Paul is saying here. Yet, those who would seek to have Scripture agree with their own preferences are forced to employ a method of interpreting that can be best described as exegetical gymnastics. To suggest that "Paul is merely denouncing promiscuous homosexual relations" is not simply exegetically irresponsible, but it is to boldly go where few biblical commentators have gone prior to this century.

So long as those who advocate the homosexual lifestyle persist in circumventing the plain meaning of passages like Romans 1:18-32, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, we should persist questioning, not only their conclusion, but we should also question the interpretive method they employ.

We should be asking questions like: Do those who advocate a homosexual lifestyle regard the Bible as "the supreme judge" in matters of faith and practice? Do those who advocate a homosexual lifestyle regard the Bible as entirely God-breathed and inerrant, or would they attempt to abate or qualify the Bible's authority in some way? How much weight and credence is allotted to extrabiblical assertions?

Those who would disagree with how the church has historically understood the Bible's teaching on homosexuality often do so because they are working from a completely different theological and hermeneutical approach. Consequently, if we are to have any hope of resolution on the issue of homosexuality, the discussions must aim to bridge the gap between the differing approaches to Scripture as opposed to focusing on the contrary conclusions reached by each side of the debate table.

As the church endeavours to resolve this issue, my prayer is that we will not lose sight of the fact that this issue concerns people. Many of us know homosexuals. In some instances, they are our relatives, our co-workers, our neighbours, and our friends. The apostle Paul, in my view, has a very balanced approach to dealing with people. After explaining to the Corinthians that homosexuals are among those who will not be inheriting the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10), he also says, "And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 6:11).

I would like the Presbyterian Church in Canada to be like that. A place where all sinners are welcome, but a place where sinners are transformed; a place where sinners can be washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.