Hope for the World – Sex and Gender

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Been a while since I posted anything. We’ve just started a sermon series at church called “Hope for the World”. The premise of this 4 week series is to give an expression to Peter’s famous encouragement:

… always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect …

1Peter 3:15

This sentence is often used as a general proof-text for apologetics of all sorts but Peter’s focus is, I think, much tighter. The “hope” he speaks of in his letter is grounded in the Resurrection of Jesus and then his Second Coming (with the General Resurrection). We might paraphrase it as,

always be prepared to explain, when someone asks you, why the hope you have grounded in the Resurrection of Jesus and your own future resurrection makes you live differently

We wanted to then try to model what such a response would look like to some of the key questions Christians are being asked. Not necessarily a typical apologetic response, but perhaps a Petrine one.

Here’s my effort this past Sunday to make some sense of sex and gender.

The internet was ablaze a last month with news that Monty Python’s famous 1979 film, “The Life of Brian”, was going to be turned into a stage play. That wasn’t what got everyone excited. It was reported that a famous scene was going to be cut from the script. The People’s Front of Judea are meeting to discuss their manifesto. Stan, played by Michael Palin [yes, I realise I got this wrong – it’s Eric Idle], utters the now-infamous line: “I want to be a woman. From now on I want you all to call me ‘Loretta’”

Of course, it’s intended to come across as ridiculous, and the film certainly presents it that way. “It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them” says the Stan, now Loretta. “Don’t oppress me”.

“I’m not oppressing you!” Retorts Reg. “You haven’t got a womb!”.

And yet now, just over 40 years later, many people do genuinely believe that it is oppressing to Stan to say what Reg says. To even call him “Stan” is to deadname him. Only 5 or 6 years ago we were debating whether marriage was between a man and a woman but now we’re asking “what is a woman?” and finding more and more people unwilling or even unable to provide an answer.

Despite the apparent uncertainty about sex and gender what we’re ironically seeing at the same time is more and more dogmatic insistence that it is wrong to disagree in this area. If you don’t think two men can get married then you’re a homophobe. If you don’t think that a biological man can become a woman then you’re a transphobe. Not only are people being smeared in this way, they are increasingly finding that their positions are under threat. Teachers are deregistered for not using preferred pronouns. Academics fired for challenging the ideology. A theology lecturer referred to the UK counter-terrorism watchdog and in Tasmania a Catholic intellectual society banned from holding an annual forum at University of Tasmania because it dared to explore these issues.

Of course those are the public cases. They are the tip of the iceberg of what is a quite incredible shift in our culture and philosophical outlook that works its way into so many areas of life. We are at the end of pride month. Lots of companies, educational establishments and other places are festooned with flags and posters. There are events designed to signal increased support and appreciation of any number of different sexual expressions and understandings of gender. The message throughout is clear – this is now fact and to deny the acceptability of such expressions, let alone to disagree, puts you very clearly in a minority. But more than that, a minority of immoral persons – those that seek to harm others. It is harmful not to affirm who others believe themselves to be.

And nobody can deny that there has been much harm in this area. Rates of poor mental health and suicide are much much greater amongst those who experience homosexual attraction to others and especially amongst those who experience gender dysphoria – the feeling that their actual gender is not the same as their physical body. The argument is that this is the result of social stigma. Remove the stigma and awful mental health will fall. Except, of course, the opposite is true. Teenage mental health issues have skyrocketed in the past few years, all the more as it becomes more and more acceptable to come out as trans or some other identity. Suicide rates for gay men show no statistically significant shift in those places where homosexuality is most accepted.

At it’s heart – for the activists and everyone that they influence, this is about acceptance. This is about the right to define for oneself who we are and to not be challenged in that self-assessment. Carl Trueman, in his fantastic book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self calls it the “Therapeutic Society” following on from Phillip Rieff and others. Trueman shows us how our understanding of who we are has been radically internalised. We no longer look to external frames of reference to work out who we are. Now we look inside ourselves and are told that this is our authentic self. It is worth noting at this point that the more internalised we have become as a society, the more desperately lonely we become. Loneliness is an epidemic in modern Australia. But we can’t be surprised. We used to understand who we are in relation to those around us, both in terms of our expectations and our obligations. Now we look not out but in and wonder why we don’t know how to relate to each other.

As we draw breath for a moment you’ll perhaps be noticing that we’ve not opened up our Bibles yet. What I want us to do, however, is properly understand what the issue is that we’re dealing with. The late John Stott called this “Double Listening”; listening not only to the word of God but also to the voices of the world. There’s no point looking to provide an answer, as Peter urges us to do in his epistle, if we don’t get the question right.

The question is no longer about what is right and wrong, what is moral or immoral. In many ways our society has moved on from such things. The issue is now being framed in terms of acceptance. The therapeutic society longs, above all, for approval. It’s approval measured in the spare change of likes on Facebook and hearts on Instagram and in the million dollar cheques of new laws passed in parliament as new flags fly above.

This coming 25 August is the annual “wear it purple day” when many of us will be encouraged to wear purple to signal our support for all those in need of such acceptance. Here’s how the Wear it Purple organisation explains things:

Wear it Purple was established to show young people across the globe that there was hope, that there were people who did support and accept them, and that they have the right to be proud of who they are.

Why We Wear it Purple!

Hope in the therapeutic society is found in being supported and accepted so that we can be proud of who we are. It is ultimately a call for vindication. And it’s something as Christians we’re actually familiar with. It’s a cry of the heart that we recognise – we just know it by a different name. Justification. For the Christian, Justification is a rightstanding before God, the only one who’s opinion ultimately matters. In the therapeutic society justification is a rightstanding before other people – and their opinion is everything. And then we might even go one step further – Justification by Legislation (I wrote more about this here)

A few years ago David Bennett wrote the book “A War of Loves” to describe his movement from gay activist to Christian believer. I want to suggest today that perhaps “A War of Hopes” might be an equally useful way of thinking about things. The reality, as we’ve learned together in 1Peter, is that the Christian has a very very different hope to that of the world and this clash of hopes is seen most strongly when it comes to this difficult area of sex and gender because we find our acceptance, our justification, in such massively different places. So how are we to give an answer, a defense, of the hope that we have in the face of this very very different hope that our society now has? Well let me turn to a number of things we’ll want to consider.

First, it’s not about morality – even though it is about morality.

Jesus’ position on sex and gender is abundantly clear. When challenged on the topic of divorce he gives an uncompromising answer.

Matt. 19:4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

In responding to his critics Jesus quotes directly from foundational texts in the Old Testament. First Genesis 1:28 where we read that God made humanity as male and female. In Genesis 1 this is the climax of the whole Creation; the icing on the cake, the ultimate expression of God’s ordered making of all things. Jesus then moves us immediately to Genesis 2, which was read earlier for us, describing marriage as being between a man and a woman. His logic is inescapable. Marriage is between a man and a woman because that’s how God made us. The binary nature of our creation as male and female is expressed in the binary nature of marriage. This is, he says, what God has joined together and we ought not to mess with it. The negative way that the Scriptures then speak about homosexual activity are an outworking of this. The Apostle Paul makes this point in Romans 1 where he describes homosexual actions as outworking the rejection of God as Creator. In fact it’s striking that this is the first thing that he turns to, as though he cannot find any clearer expression of this basic exchange of truths – the worshipping of the creation rather than the creator. And you can see that that makes sense if, as we see in Genesis 1, humanity’s binary nature is a core expression of the Creation. No wonder that when we reject the Creator we will reject the basic pattern of his creation. And so all Biblical sexual morality and ethics flow from this simple binary created order which Jesus himself enthusiastically affirms.

Now, our temptation if we get into one of these discussions may be to argue this framework. Of course, we wouldn’t be incorrect in doing so, but we might be missing the obvious right in front of us. As I said, it’s not about morality, even though it is about morality. Yes, there is an underlying moral framework, rooted in the very good creation that Jesus affirms. Yes, there is therefore such a thing as sexual immorality. But it’s a million miles from the questions that our therapeutic society are asking. It doesn’t want to know if something is moral, it wants to know if it will be accepted. That’s where hope is found.

Which brings me to my second thing to consider

Christian hope is not about morality, but it’s described in the language of sexual morals

One of the great mistakes we can make is to speak as though our hope, our acceptance in God’s eyes, is a question of morals; be good so that God will accept us. It’s possible that we speak this way. It’s also possible that we can be regularly misunderstood when we take a stand on Biblical morality despite our best intentions. Despite these difficulties we still need to speak in these categories because the hope that we have is expressed in the same language. Christian hope is not about morality, but it’s described in the language of sexual morals. Of course this is not the only category that God speaks in. The wonder of the gospel, the good news that acceptance is found in the forgiveness that only Jesus can bring through his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave – the wonder of the gospel is that there are so many different ways to describe it. Which means that we can speak into so many different areas of life. This ought not surprise us, for  the Bible describes the complexities of the human experience and the Bible is saturated with the gospel. It is, however, remarkable that one of the most dominant ways that the Bible describes the gospel is in the language of sex, gender and marriage.

When Jesus speaks of that wonderful day that he will return, as he often does, the most common image he uses is of a bridegroom coming to get his bride on their wedding day. We’re used to the image of a groom waiting nervously at church for his soon-to-be wife to arrive. Hopefully not too late. But in Jesus’ day it was the other way around. The groom would make his way to the bride’s home where she sat waiting and the celebration would then begin. And that’s the image in our second reading today from Revelation 19. It’s a vision, picture language, but no less true because of it. It speaks of the end of all things when Jesus returns to gather in his people. And the image that’s used is that of a wedding. “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the lamb” says the angel who is giving John a guided tour of these things.

The emphasis in the image is on the bride herself:

Rev. 19:7 Let us rejoice and exult and give [God] the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; 8 it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. 

A bride dressed in white is almost a cliche with it’s symbolism of purity. Without being, well, indiscreet, people often make jokes (don’t they?) about the reason why a bride may no longer be able to wear white. But here it is so much than a cliche about sexual morals. It’s deeply significant. Note the language very carefully. It was granted her. The word here is the same as that of a gift. Here is the gift which the Lamb, Jesus, gives to his bride. He gifts her with a dress of fine bright and pure linen which symbolises righteous deeds. By implication, and consistent with the rest of the Scriptures, she does not have that right in and of herself. Here is the gospel expressed in the language of sexual morals. The church is pictured as a bride who has no right of herself to wear a white dress. We are all sinners – we’ve all failed to love God as we should and our neighbours anything like the way that we love ourselves. But the lamb, Jesus, gifts us our dresses. The unacceptable bride is now accepted. And, of course, his title of “Lamb” points to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that achieves this great gift of acceptance.

Here is the Christian’s hope – on the day that Jesus returns we will be clothed in pure linen. We don’t deserve it. It is a gift from Jesus himself. Blessed are those invited to the wedding supper of the lamb. Here is the ultimate moment of acceptance that all of us so deeply long for.

Christian hope is not about morality, but it’s described in the language of sexual morals

Which brings us to our third point.

Any conversation about sex and gender is going to be difficult but important – because it’s about hope.

Every single one of us is searching for hope. We long for something better and something certain. Our therapeutic society has placed it’s hope in acceptance. Acceptance of us just as we are. But it has taught us to look in all the wrong places. It drives us into ourselves to look for the truth about who we are rather than to our creator. We’ve already seen that as we reject that creator we’ll also reject his created order. So there is a deep irony – the more we look inside and don’t look to God, the less we will understand who we truly are. And perhaps then it’s not surprising that we will increasingly look for our acceptance, our justification, in the only other place we can find it – in other people. Any conversation about this topic is therefore fraught with difficulty. Almost everyone is incapable of discussing this impassively because there is so much at stake for us. But because there is so much at stake we must not be afraid to speak. I don’t know about you, but I dread these conversations precisely because they’re hardly ever simple, they break relationships. We think we’ve said something as objectively and as kindly as we can but the other person hears that we no longer accept them. We strike at the heart of their hope. They feel the rejection keenly, even if they can’t explain exactly why. Yet it is precisely the intensity of these conversations that gives them their power. Don’t we long for others to know where true justification, true acceptance can be found? Is it not our prayer that others would know Jesus, the lamb of God, who never rejects those that turn to him? Peter is right to urge us to always be ready to give and answer for the hope that we have.

So what can we say? Well here’s some suggestions, here’s my best attempt at a framework for always being ready to explain my hope in this difficult difficult area of sex and gender.

First. Speak with gentleness and respect, just as Peter tells us to. We’ve seen that this is a deeply significant issue for people. We all want to be accepted and our society has never been more tender in this area. Gentleness is a must. And respect. Interestingly, maybe even ironically, the word that is translated as respect here is “Phobos” – fear. It’s the same word used by Peter to tell us how to respond to all those that we’re called to submit to (whether God or our earthly masters). So my attitude must be that I am speaking to my superior. I have no rank over them. I am a sinner desperately in need of the gift of acceptance and it must shape the way that I approach any conversation. I may, nevertheless be accused of all sorts of evil but Peter urges us to have a good conscience in the matter, even our good behaviour is reviled.

Second speak about the hope of acceptance, not morals. We can set out a Biblical sexual ethic as clearly as possible but it will miss the mark. Not because it’s incorrect but because it doesn’t provide an answer to the real question being asked. I think this is a mistake that I have made time and time again because, perhaps, I’ve not listened carefully enough. I’m not saying that we should avoid speaking about sexual ethics, it’s just that we’ve got to understand what we’re doing when we discuss them. Which brings me to my third, and most important point.

Keep talking about Jesus. Christian hope is hope rooted in Jesus himself. So with that in mind, here’s a phrase that I now use consistently: “I’m with Jesus”.

And I want to suggest to you that this might be one way forward in these conversations because “I’m with Jesus” addresses so much of what we’ve looked at together. So if someone challenges me in this area I’ll try and say something along these lines.

This is a difficult area but I’m with Jesus. Would you like to hear why? And then if they say yes I’ll say “well I’m with Jesus in a couple of ways and they all hold together”. First, as a Christian my identity is “I”m with Jesus”. I’ve found a total acceptance in the love of Jesus like nothing else on earth. Because he sees me warts and all and loves me anyway. He doesn’t say to me “you’re perfect as you are” which I know isn’t true but “I love you even though you’re not perfect”. Jesus loves me not because I’m lovable but because he loves. So I don’t need to pretend that I’m perfect and I don’t need to worry if other people don’t tell me that I’m perfect. I know I’m not and Jesus loves me anyway.

And that’s why I’m also with Jesus when it comes down to working out what to do with sex and gender. Jesus, the most loving person who ever lived, spoke clearly on the topic. He affirmed that we’re made male and female and that this is why marriage is the way it is. I can show you where in the Bible he says that if you like.

And finally I’m with Jesus because he says there will be a day when he comes back to gather all his people to himself. And one of the main ways that he talks about that day is like a marriage between a man and woman. He’s the groom who loves his bride the church. He accepts her because he’s the one who makes her acceptable by his love. Nothing we’ve done, everything he’s done. And I’m hanging out for that day, I’m hoping for it. It tells me who I am – it tells me that I’m with Jesus. And that’s why I try to live the way that I do and think the way that I do and, if necessary, am prepared to be different to many people around me even in this really difficult area of sex and gender. Because I’m with Jesus who loves and accepts me and I just couldn’t be anywhere else. What about you?

Peter encourages us always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have. There is possibly no greater gulf in the understanding of hope between Christians and the world than over this issue of sex and gender. But could it be that the size of the issue actually gives us an opportunity to speak with gentleness and respect into that gulf so that others might just have hear of that living hope that we have in the resurrection of Jesus – the only real hope for a world desperate to be accepted.

Let’s pray that we would know what to say. 

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