[This blog is a summary of the book in some detail, with some added comments]
Ed Shaw’s Plausibility Problem is a powerful indictment of the state of the church today, all the more so because it avoids any histrionics in its presentation, focusing on the flawed arguments that largely remain unchallenged in the church today. Although it is written by a same sex attracted writer to critique the church’s failure to address the gay issue properly or effectively, the issues it identifies are such that it ends up revealing that much of what is normal in the church today is badly flawed. Having introduced us to ‘Peter’ and ‘Jane’, two Christians whom the church is failing to enable to live as God requires, it then carries on identify nine missteps which the church has taken over the past few years that have made the church’s position on the issue of homosexuality difficult to maintain. It ends with a call for all church leaders to realise their need to address these issues, or be complicit in the probability that ‘Peter’ and ‘Jane’ will adopt gay lifestyles, and so reject God’s rule in their life. Most significantly he argues that the failure of church leaders to address the issue at all much of the time means that their claims to be ‘orthodox’ on this topic are meaningless, and leave the same sex attracted Christian in their congregation effectively unsupported. Yet the implications of the missteps extend far beyond just the gay issue; overall they are mistakes that make the gospel harder for all Christians to live, as well as implying many have joined the church without understanding what they’ve done; we’re preaching a fake gospel!
Peter and Jane
‘Peter’ is the stereotype of the teenager growing up in a sound church who from puberty finds himself drawn to boys not girls. At university, faced with the church’s expectation that he will live and lonely and miserable life unable to have a legitimate sexual relationship, he comes to identify himself as gay, drifting into the orbit of a gay-friendly church, and eventually returns home with a boyfriend in tow. His home church has no idea what to say, and many are heard to mutter: ‘I hope they’re very happy together’.
‘Jane’ is the middle aged single recent convert mother who, after an satisfactory marriage, finds herself drawn in lesbian relationship in which she finds the love, support and family life that she ‘needs’. Her involvement in the church of her conversion fades as the relationship causes problems, but ultimately many, once more, are heard to mutter: ‘I hope they’re very happy together’.
The author’s testimony
Shaw grew up at a time when the church’s traditional teaching was enough to convince him that he couldn’t have a gay relationship whilst remaining faithful to Jesus; however he feels that for many the church’s missteps mean that this simple teaching is ever more implausible, and so they find themselves struggling to declare it for others. His struggles with ‘Same Sex Attraction’ remain a source of grief: he has ‘kitchen floor’ moments when he finds himself crying in pain at the loneliness he is experiencing. Yet he chooses to be faithful to what he believes to be God’s will, and uses the term ‘Same Sex Attraction’ to differentiate himself from those who are gay and willing to endorse gay sex as a legitimate option for Christians. He is currently a church leader in Bristol in a church which seeks to live out a rejection of the missteps in its life, though his ‘kitchen floor’ moments show that it’s not made it entirely.
Misstep 1 is to self identify as gay primarily. This problematic feature of a person’s life comes to define them, rather than being a Christian. It’s the same issue as disabled rights campaigners identify when they want the disabled identified as people who are disabled. We are Christians first of all: saints saved by the grace of God.
Misstep 2 – a family is a mum and a dad and 2.4 children. The expectation that family life is lived out in nuclear families means that those who aren’t members of one of those units are left without family. Shaw argues that singles should be actively included, and offers his own experience of being a part of many ‘families’ during the average week, both such nuclear ones and others. Crucially he argues that including singles is of benefit to everyone and isn’t, in practice, a burden, although that’s an idea that many families have come to believe. Of course the church talks the talk on this: ‘we are the family of God’ is proclaimed, but the lived experience for many church goers is very different. We must do better to be plausible.
Misstep 3 – if you’re born to be gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay. Despite trench warfare on this topic in some circles, Shaw’s attitude is that it doesn’t matter: we are all sinners, so a propensity to one form of sin over another is irrelevant in a fallen world and we are always responsible for our sin. Therefore the church should be comfortable with people being SSA yet still asserting it’s wrong to live it out. And ultimately much sin feels ‘natural’, yet it gets us into trouble all the time, such as in the environment, economics and relationships. Although Shaw doesn’t argue this, for me the clearest demolition of this is to be seen in the problematic comparing of homosexuality with paedophilia. Because of the toxic history of the justification of homophobia by assuming this, it is a minefield, yet is one we need to cross.
Misstep 4 – if it makes you happy it must be right. Whilst often heard, once examined for more than a second it becomes clear that it’s false. And yet it is often trotted out without thought, and guides people’s intuitive reactions. There are at least two fallacies here: the first is that this raises your happiness to the status of an authority to be obeyed; the second is that this trumps actual experience. It has given permission to people to give up on ‘unhappy’ marriages, when longitudinal studies show that two thirds of such marriages become happy after five years, as well driving the legitimation of remarriage after divorce. And of course sexual promiscuity will make me happy – briefly… Yet the only hard line that most churches proclaim is against gay relationships – so it’s not a surprise if the dam on this is leaking. Shaw also comments that what makes the world happy tends to change over time – so the church merely endorsing today’s sins will make us looking like idiots in a few years’ time. The reality is that if we are wanting what God doesn’t want us to have, it won’t really make us happy. Choosing God’s way may make us unhappy in the short term – but the final outcome will be glorious.
Misstep 5 – Sex is where true intimacy is found. Somewhere in recent years this idea has emerged, and given the need that EVERYONE has for intimacy, to have a people with whom to share your life, this has come to legitimate sexual activity in a way wholly alien to the Christian tradition. Part of the problem is that marriages have come to be seen as the only place for intimacy, putting a serious strain of excess expectations on them and again leaving single people more isolated than they should be. The assumption that the relationship of David and Jonathan was sexualised is an instance of this – whereas historically all readers would have seen it as an example of an easy friendship in contrast to their polygamous and iffy marriages. We need to work at such relationships in our lives – and there should be other friendships, even if we are married. In the absence of adequate intimacy elsewhere, the drive towards other attractions, such as porn, is accentuated. We live in a ‘world of terminally casual relationships’; we need to do better, with a willingness to risk personal disclosure to deepen friendships beyond the casual.
Misstep 6 – Men and women are interchangeable. In reaction to the abuses of the past, the Christian ideal of equal status but different roles has been delegitimated and replaced with a demand for total equality. Yet the distinction is from creation, and Paul’s clear teaching in his household codes that men and women do have different roles makes it clear that this continues into the church. Shaw points beyond the traditional but pastorally inadequate issues of procreation and companionship to sexuality being to tell the story of His love for us; sex is the trailer for the world to come! The understanding of marriage as a model for God’s covenant with Israel is found in Hosea and Ezekiel 16, whilst Revelation 21 is the marriage of Jesus to the church. The clearest statement is Ephesians 5, where Paul teaches that marriage is the pattern of the relationship of Christ and his church. To reject these indications of complementarity for interchangeability is to equate creator and created and to suggest that any of us could be the bridegroom in Revelation 21.
Shaw also quotes a woman who had been been in lesbian relationship before marrying a man, who comments: ‘It is because of the differences marriage works; two men or two women understand each other too well and thus excuse rather than forgive.’ Overall the church needs to do better at affirming the equality of status as well as the importance of the differences. Only then will our message be plausible.
Misstep 7 – godliness is heterosexuality. Here the church is failing to address a residual disdain for the same sex attracted, seeing them as uniquely ungodly in their temptations, as well as failing to be honest at how problematic sexuality is for straight Christians. Sexual purity is an important element of godliness, but is by no means the only issue, and marriage does not resolve all the issues. Whilst Shaw reports that his being SSA did wonders for keeping his self-righteousness under control, the idea that same sex temptations are inherently more evil than straight is deeply flawed and SSA Christians must not be held to a higher standard than the rest of the church.
The issue of looking for changing in orientation is a fraught one; certainly it must NOT be seen as a measure of progress in Christlikeness. In the world honesty about sex – or at least talking about it – have made it less of a mystery; sadly the church hasn’t benefited from this. The largely ignored instruction to ‘confess your sins to one another’ is a gateway to more intimate relationships, reminding us that we are not unique in our struggles, and we all need to be honest, not just the SSAs.
Misstep 8 – celibacy is bad for you. There are almost no TV shows with contented bachelors, and the message there AND IN THE CHURCH is that celibacy is a bad thing and to be avoided; an encouragement to consider permanent singleness is never heard from Evangelical pulpits. Instead the tendency is to marry young as the best solution to a sex obsessed world, and celibacy is seen as promising lack of intimacy, repression and loneliness. Yet married people can be lonely… If celibacy is bad, then SSA Christians have a right to marry. Yet Jesus modelled celibacy, and Paul encouraged it to enable ministry. Christian history offers many single people at the forefront of ministry. Being childless is to affirm that the church is now the primary focus of your loyalty; your heirs will be your spiritual descendants. It’s not saying sex is bad, rather it is a bold declaration that heaven is real; to die a virgin is to have missed out on the brief foretaste that sex is meant to be of the eternal reality of the perfect union between Jesus and His church for ever. We need more celibates to benefit the whole church. Does your church celebrate singleness or only married people? Where are the parties equivalent to wedding anniversaries for the celibate?
Misstep 9 – suffering is to be avoided. Modern society – apart from where there is a clearly defined objective – is opposed to suffering. Yet Jesus embraced it on the cross, and we are called to do likewise. The crosses we bear should not be the niggles in life that we struggle with, but the chosen paths of denying ourselves. Yet it is to God’s glory and purpose – but it is seldom visible in our gospel presentations. Instead a struggle free Christianity is presented, and so it’s no surprise if SSA Christians, and others, don’t get that the struggle is normal. Although Shaw doesn’t mention it, the bible uses both the imagery of Christians as soldiers and athletes, and those are two groups for whom suffering in order to do their job is still understood in our culture.
Overall God uses suffering to accomplish his best, and if we could appreciate what it achieves, we’d be rejoicing and choosing it. And
‘any man who reaches heaven will find that what he has abandoned has not been lost; that the kernel of what he was seeking even in his most depraved moments will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in the High Countries’
(CS Lewis ‘The Great Divorce’)
Shaw’s book shows that the crisis over homosexual practice is a symptom of many years of failure by the church to preach true Christianity. The missteps occurred because the church absorbed the beliefs of the world without thought, and together they leave her unprepared for major challenges. The experience of my former church, where the 2014 suicide of a 14 year old girl because she assumed that the church and her family would not cope with her same sex attraction, led to its becoming an ‘inclusive’ church, abandoning its previous commitment to the traditional position. And yet its rapid transition once the suicide had occurred showed that the rot was already in place in what had a reputation as a Evangelical church. If your church isn’t talking about this issue regularly and visibly, then not only could such a suicide occur in your congregation, but your members’ response may well be as flawed. Yet too many churches prefer to avoid the issue as being ‘decisive’, and ‘endangering our commitment to evangelism’ because a label of ‘homophobic’ may come to be hung around their necks. Yet if we fail to address it – and the missteps that lead to the confusion over the issue – it is inevitable that more will be lost. We must do better.