A review article by Gervase Charmley of Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?1 and Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem.2
Homosexuality is the hot topic of the day and age in which we live. After the recent Irish referendum on so-called same-sex marriage, the Roman Catholic church in that nation spoke about having to ‘reflect’ on the result. Now we have no objections to people, even Christian people, reflecting on such things, provided that they do so in the light of the Bible. The problem is that even in evangelical circles there is a growing pressure for the church to conform to the world’s standards on this matter, even as there was a generation ago for the ordination of women as pastors. It would be ironic, if it were not so serious, that we now have evangelical pastors and theologians calling for the church to accept homosexuality as a good gift from God. The call to ‘reflect’, among evangelicals as well as Roman Catholics, is too often a disguised call for the church to change its message and make it more palatable to a godless world.
So we welcome these two works, each different in its own way, that come to us from IVP [see notes 1 & 2], both upholding the historic and biblical teaching of the church on human sexuality. The first, by Kevin DeYoung, is very much an exploration of the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality; the second, by Ed Shaw, deals more with the cultural challenges that face us as Bible-believing Christians. The two books, as one might expect seeing that they are from the same publisher at the same time, complement each other.
Since DeYoung’s book deals with the biblical basis for our thinking, we must begin with What Does the Really Bible Teach about Homosexuality? In an insightful move, DeYoung does not jump directly into his subject, but takes a step back to examine the question of the Bible’s teaching as a whole. ‘What does the Bible teach about everything?’ is the first question we must ask. And by asking that question, we shall discover eventually that the reason why people come up with different answers to the question asked in the title of the book is that they have very different views of what the Bible is, and what its main purpose and message are. Unless we understand, he points out, that the Bible is a book about sin and redemption, and that we live in a fallen and cursed world, we shall never understand either it, or the world in which we live. It is precisely because the Western world has no doctrine of the Fall that it can regard the way things are as the way things ought to be. The Bible’s gospel message is one of forgiveness of sins, not of acceptance of people as they are. And that is precisely where the Bible and Western culture are so far apart today; Western culture does not believe in the forgiveness of sins, but calls for the acceptance of homosexuality as good. The gospel has been subtly but ruinously redefined as acceptance of what the culture accepts, not the forgiveness of sinners who have offended against a holy God. ‘For two millennia the church has focused on worshipping a Christ who saves, a Christ who cleanses, a Christ who challenges and changes us, a Christ who convicts and converts us, a Christ who is coming again,’3 – but this is precisely what the liberals, whether Modernist or Postmodernist, deny. H. Richard Niebuhr’s description of the Modernists of his day still applies to their postmodernist heirs; they teach, ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.’4 The very category of sin itself is very largely rejected, and what is left is a shifting set of culturally determined norms. Anyone who has watched the culture over the last few decades knows how those norms can shift, and the man who believes that the church should shift with them is frankly a fool.
Quite rightly, both DeYoung and Shaw write for Christians; you cannot build a Christian argument on pagan foundations, and the sooner the church stops trying to, the better. ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ asked the early apologist Tertullian in his Prescription against Heretics, and the question must be asked again and again. The question that we must ask, DeYoung points out, is a simple one: ‘Does the Bible teach that homosexuality is a sin?’ If it does, then as Christians we must go with Scripture against the world; there is no way that we can both affirm Scripture and homosexuality. And he does not pretend to begin from an agnostic standpoint as to the Bible’s teaching, but from the historic standpoint of the church. This too is good; there is no reason to pretend to some false neutrality. In an age where people, even some conservative evangelicals, tend to accord the place of ultimate authority to personal experience, DeYoung writes, ‘As painful as it can be, we must interpret our experiences through the Word of God, rather than let our experiences dictate what the Bible can and cannot mean.’5
When we address questions of human sexuality, we must begin with the norm established by God in the creation, in Genesis 1 and 2, before the Fall. Some have argued that this only shows what is normal, not what is normative, and then proceeded to argue that therefore the Bible really has no normative view of human sexuality. To do this, DeYoung demonstrates, is a terrible twisting of the text; the text defines marriage, and sets the parameters for human sexuality.
Only then do we get to the texts that specifically reference homosexual behaviour. Drawing on a wide range of sources, DeYoung explains that the texts do indeed say what Christians for the last two thousand years thought they said, and shows why attempted revisionist understandings of the texts simply do not work. He then works his way through a series of common objections, showing that none of them is in fact sufficient for evangelicals to change their position on the Bible’s teaching.
The second book, The Plausibility Problem, deals with deeper problems, how worldly thinking has infiltrated the church, and therefore made the historic Christian position seem, even within the church, to lack plausibility; not because in fact it does, but because what has too often been communicated is less than a fully Christian position. Rather than articulate a Christian position on human sexuality based on the full biblical teaching about man and God, what has been taught has simply been a superficial tidying-up of the spirit of the age.
The message of the church to those experiencing a sexual attraction to those of the same sex has been for too long, ‘just say no’, Shaw writes. This he says, is not enough. Now we have to actually listen to him, and as I read, I heard an echo of Thomas Chalmers, ‘the expulsive power of a new affection.’ ‘Just say no’ has one problem – it does not articulate clearly what is being said ‘yes’ to! What is more, there are voices like Rob Bell in the US and Steve Chalke in the UK who are effectively saying, ‘Just say yes!’ But, Shaw says, speaking as one who struggles with same-sex attraction, there is a problem with ‘just do it’, and it is a very simple one – it is not Christian! It is not the Bible that has a plausibility issue, it is evangelicals. The church, Shaw argues, has made a number of errors that have meant a step away from the biblical basis that should inform us.
We have, Shaw writes, too often placed our identity in something other than Christ. The Christian is, as Paul expresses it, ‘a man in Christ’. ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me,’6 is how Paul speaks of himself. The Christian does not therefore identify himself primarily by anything other than his position in Christ, and it is this position that is the basis for all the moral exhortations in the New Testament; first of all the writer tells Christians who they are by virtue of the gospel, and then he says, in effect, ‘Now, be what you are.’ To find our identity outside of Christ is pagan, not Christian. The fact that there are those who profess to be evangelicals who find their identity primarily in their sexuality is a sign that something is terribly wrong with the evangelical churches.
In total, Shaw identifies nine areas in which the evangelical churches have by and large capitulated to worldly thinking. Though his focus is of course the church’s dealing with those like himself who experience same-sex attraction, the ‘missteps’ that he identifies are broad in their implications. They amount to a wholesale surrender to the surrounding culture, and are founded in a doctrine of original sin that is inadequate at best and non-existent at worst. The result of this is that the claim, ‘If you’re born that way, it can’t be wrong’ is accepted as almost axiomatic by evangelicals today, despite the Bible’s insistence that we are all born in sin! Rather than viewing all men as sinners who need to be saved, a significant portion of modern (or perhaps we should say postmodern) evangelicalism is functionally Pelagian, or at best semi-Pelagian. ‘We need to stop trusting in ourselves and in our natural instincts,’7 Shaw warns.
Ours is a hedonistic culture; for the most part desires are regarded as intrinsically good and things that should be indulged. The Bible, however, stands opposed to such a view; there are good desires, but there are also evil desires. The call of Christ, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me,’8 stands as opposed to our culture as it did to that of Rome in the first century. The culture of duty and self-denial is dead outside of the church, and the culture of self-indulgence has found its way into the church. Thus postmodern evangelicalism has bought into the culture’s teaching that, to deliberately parody the Westminster Shorter Catechism, ‘The chief end of man is to glorify himself and enjoy himself.’ That means that there is no adequate doctrine of self-denial; our personal happiness becomes all. Yet the Westminster Divines were quite right to phrase their summary of the ‘Chief end of man’ as they did, ‘To glorify God and enjoy him for ever.’ It is only this biblical vision that can sustain the church.
And from this error of placing personal happiness above all else, the postmodern church has come to regard suffering as something that is always necessarily bad and to be avoided. The idea so often heard in Health-and-Wealth circles that ‘Jesus suffered so we don’t have to’ is at odds with the biblical teaching that, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’9 If Christ suffered, his people also suffer, ‘And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.’10 Paul’s words seem strange to us today, but they lay out an important part of what the Christian life truly entails, ‘That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.’11 We have no right to demand an easier way than our forefathers had, nor than our brethren in North Korea and Pakistan have.
Ultimately the cause of ‘the plausibility problem’ is that Western culture has become so deeply antichristian that its categories and ours are incompatible, and that far too many in the church, rather than resisting the spirit of the age, have tried to compromise with it in some way, at times consciously, but also unconsciously. We are reminded of the words of Principal W. M. MacGregor of Trinity College, Glasgow, regarding Victorian attempts to do the same, ‘The victories of the faith have commonly been won … by the proclamation of … things strange and hard to accept, because they are so full of God.’12 Too often has it been forgotten that ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned,’13 and men have tried to persuade the natural man, rather than seeking his conversion, which is quite another thing. The result in the church has been a doctrine of the Christian life that is utterly anaemic and provides no help at all for the Christian who struggles with sin. But the Bible exhorts us to, ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.’14 Shaw’s book, calling for a return to such biblical teaching, is a breath of fresh air that is much needed in all areas and not just the issue he is addressing. Ultimately, the book is a clarion call to serious biblical thinking, and to the recovery of a truly Christian view of God, of man, and of the world.
Both of these books point out that there is so often lacking, even in evangelical Churches, today a sense of the ‘big picture’ of Scripture. This is one effect of a creeping Postmodernism with its suspicion of ‘metanarratives’ (big pictures), and its effect is disastrous. Instead of seeing ourselves as being part of God’s big story, we have been encouraged to ‘invite God into’ our little stories; and while God’s big story is all about his glory, our little stories are about our comfort and enjoyment – and, yes, our glory! When so much of evangelicalism is talking about ‘your best life now’, should we be surprised that teaching on self-denial is almost completely lacking? When the demands of Christ are minimised and the gospel is assumed more than it is taught, of course there is a ‘plausibility problem’ – because all that is sub-Christian!
We would dearly love not to have to deal with the issues addressed in these books, but the fact of the matter is that we have to deal with them – the culture forces us to. The abject spinelessness of some evangelical voices on the issue and the complete surrender of others to the culture of pleasure and death reminds us why we cannot avoid these things. Both of these books call us back to the Bible, because that is the only firm foundation we can have. We welcome both of them and warmly recommend them to all those trying to deal with the present cultural confusion.
1. Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?. Published in the US by Crossway (160 pages, paperback, $12.99, ISBN 9781433549573) and in the UK by IVP (128 pages, paperback, £7.99, ISBN 9781783592876).
2. Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction. Published in the UK by IVP (176 pages, paperback, £8.99, ISBN 9781783592067; due to be published in the US in December 2015, under the title Same-Sex Attraction in the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life.
3. What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?, p. 14.
4. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America.
5. What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?, pp. 21-22.
6. Galatians 2:20.
7. The Plausibility Problem, p. 61.
8. Luke 9:23.
9. John 16:33.
10. Romans 8:17.
11. Philippians 3:10.
12. Persons and Ideals (Edinburgh, 1939), p. 5.
13. 1 Corinthians 2:14.
14. Colossians 3:5.
Taken from Peace & Truth, issue 2015:3, with kind permission of the editor, Gervase Charmley.; republished at THE BANNER OF TRUTH website