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AN ESSAY ON GAY/LESBIAN ORDINATION

by Rev. Dr Robert Bos of the Uniting Church in Australia.

A statement of near universal applicability for all mainline Christian churches

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Sponsored link.

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About Rev. Bos and this essay:

Rev. Dr Robert Bos is Minister and National Director of the agency Theology and Discipleship of the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia -- the third largest Christian denomination in Australia. It which was formed in 1977 as a result of a merger of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches in that country. Like many other mainline Christian denominations, this denomination is embroiled in sometimes bitter debate over the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships, and over the blessing of such relationships by the church.

In the following essay, Rev. Bos gives his personal view on the debate over homosexuality and the church. He addresses issues relating to:

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Homosexuality and sin.

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The relationship between the concepts of
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"celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage" (CISFIM) as the only allowable standard for ordination, and

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What are often referred to as "right relationships" in Australia. These are loving, faithful, committed mutually supportive same-sex relationships. Some consider these as equally valid as CISFIM; others consider them an abomination.

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Instances in the past over circumcision, slavery, and female ordination, "...when the Spirit has led the church into new truth." Other transitions in beliefs not mentioned include dietary restrictions, and divorce/remarriage for Christians.

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Sponsored link:

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Note by the webmaster:

This essay deals specifically with the situation in the Uniting Church in Australia. However, it is equally applicable to the crisis being experienced by the Anglican Communion, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal denominations in the U.S. and other mainline Christian churches everywhere. 

Too many essays on the role of homosexuals in church leadership are strident demands that gays and lesbians be excluded or are equally strident demands that they be given equal rights. We found Rev. Dr. Bos' essay to be reasoned, thoughtful, and wise. It is sensitive to both sides in this divisive debate.

Australian punctuation and spelling have been preserved. BAR

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Homosexuality and the Uniting Church: This is how I see it at present:

The issue of sexuality has been widely discussed in the Uniting Church at least since 1981. We have many documents and resolutions about it. Much prayerful Biblical and theological study has been done. I think it is important if we want to take a strong stand, and seek to persuade the councils of the church of the rightness of our stand, that we honour the reflection that has been done and are fully conversant with it – otherwise we risk relying on half-truths, a few slogans and the arguments of those who simply confirm our thoughts, rather than those who stretch our thinking.

I am not sure why this one area of Christian discipleship has attracted such a huge amount of discussion and passion. Personally, I feel called to minister in other areas. Nevertheless, for what it is worth, I set down where I am at present in the fond hope that it may be helpful to others.

There is no restriction on the circulation of this. It may be freely copied and used as a basis for respectful discussion. I would, however, ask that it be quoted fairly and not selectively with particular bits taken out of context. I would therefore ask that it be kept intact.

  1. I believe that sex is a gift from God and, sexuality rightly expressed, is a blessing from God. As with anything else in life, it needs to be expressed in a way that is consistent with the will of God. It can be a source of great joy, but also of tremendous pain. We are answerable to God for the way we express our sexuality as much as anything else.
  2. Christians have the responsibility to show a radically different attitude to sexuality from that portrayed in many movies, videos and many other media. Much of this is degrading and exploitative of women and sometimes of children. These almost invariably fail to recognise that sexuality is God’s gift and that life is to be lived in a way which worships, reverences and respects God. "It is my body and I’ll do with it as I please" is inconsistent with any Christian understanding. In a society where almost anything goes, and sexual abuse causes untold suffering, to live by clear and consistent standards of sexual ethics is an important part of our witness.
  3. Instances of sexual abuse by ministers, priests and other agents of the church have been widely publicised and roundly (and rightly) condemned in the wider society. The Christian church has much to repent of. This has seriously compromised the church’s witness. In the eyes of many, we have lost the right to speak in the public arena about this issue. It is important that we get our own house in order.
  4. The Uniting Church has procedures in place to ensure Congregations are child safe communities. We also have a strong statement on marriage. The Code of Ethics is a key resource. We also have comprehensive procedures to dealing with complaints of sexual misconduct. It is vital that these be adhered to and upheld. These resources are in place and any further reflection must be seen alongside these. The statements on homosexuality and, in particular, the statement on "right relationships" should not be read in isolation from these.
  5. "Celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage" is a very useful guide. It is clear and simple. I strive to live by it and urge others to live by it. It is what I taught my children.
  6. "Celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage" is, however, not enough. It is not good enough for a Christian to say he or she is sexually faithful to their spouse and then to treat their spouse appallingly.
  7. We therefore also need some statement about the quality of Christian relationship. Such a statement should probably include something about honesty, respect, trust, faithfulness, equality and mutuality, vulnerability, freedom and responsibility, self control, affection, communication and intimacy. These need to be expressions of Christian love (agape) – the most central value in any Christian ethic. Most of these are helpfully spelled out in the document Uniting Sexuality and Faith 2 and are discussed under the heading of "right relationships". "Right relationships" is therefore not a slogan, but rather a reference to a detailed statement which deserves to be considered in full. Some people have come to regard "right relationships" as some sort of licence for loose sexual ethics. This is clearly a mischievous, dishonest and unfair distortion.
  8. To say that sexual ethics needs to be based on "right relationships" is also a very useful guide, but again, for many people it may not be enough. They prefer (or are only capable of comprehending) clear, simple rules to seeing a more complex picture of the structure of Christian character. For many the comprehensive statement about right relationships does not give clear enough guidance in itself. We humans are good at fooling ourselves and rationalising. Furthermore, the whole statement regarding "right relationships" may not say enough to the young who do not have sufficient life experience to make sober decisions (and whose hormones are hyperactive!) Personally, I see it as a very much more demanding ethic than simply "celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage". Just as Jesus wanted people to go beyond the simple prescriptions of the law to the heart of the matter (Matthew 5:21-48), so the more detailed statement in Uniting Sexuality and Faith 2 takes us beyond a simple legalism to genuine expressions of Christian love.
  9. I am sad that the current debate in the Uniting Church has been characterised as being between those who support "celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage" in one camp and those who support "right relationships" in the other camp. I do not see them as "mutually exclusive" positions. I believe both positions have their place and they strengthen each other.
  10. We are all sinners and completely dependent on the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. Most of us have probably committed sexual sins (cf Matt 5:27-30). We should not think we are the righteous and better than others and then look down on others as sinful. Christ welcomes all. Jesus said it is not the well who need a doctor but the sick. God welcomes sinners home. God’s grace is for all and is unconditional.
  11. Once we accept God’s free grace, the Holy Spirit begins to transform every area of our lives to become more Christ-like. That is a life-long journey. Not many of us would therefore claim to be completely mature in Christ yet. No doubt there is much the Spirit wants and needs to do in our lives. This should make us wary of being too self-righteous about the specks of dust we see in the lives of others (Matt. 7:3).
  12. While our society is obsessed with sex, we need to guard against being obsessed with it ourselves. If we are to be “obsessed” with anything, it is God and God’s will. Sexual ethics is only one area God wants to transform. Others include how we talk (especially about others), the use of money, the use of our time and many others. The New Testament probably has more to say about some of these things than about sexuality. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that sexual sins are any worse than other sins.
  13. It is inappropriate to stigmatise particular groups of people. Just as Peter had to be converted from such an attitude (Acts 10), so do we.
  14. There are some Christians who are homosexual by orientation. They did not choose this; they were made this way. Questions about the causes of homosexuality are not theological matters; they are best left to the biologists and social scientists. It is possible that a few may well have been transformed from their homosexual orientation by the healing grace of God. Others have not been changed but choose to live celibate lives. I respect them and thank God for them.
  15. There are some Christians who are homosexual by natural orientation who subscribe to "celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage" and the importance of Christ-like relationships and would like to be married to a partner of the same sex. But neither Australian society nor the church will allow that. They have searched the scriptures and wrestled in prayer and, consequently, have entered a loving and mutually supportive relationship with a person of the same sex. They feel loved and accepted by God, but often feel condemned by other Christians. Some of them demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit to a high degree. I have agonised with some of these people. I am not in their shoes. I neither endorse their decision, nor condemn it – that is not my place. I value their friendship, and love and support them. I recognise that sincere Christians often make different decisions about what career they follow, whether to drink alcohol or not, which political party to vote for, how to spend their money and a host of other issues. It is important that Christians continue to dialogue as, together, we seek God’s will.
  16. I do personally know some (women) ministers who are in close long-lasting friendships with people of the same gender. I do not know if they are actively sexually. (I do not ask them about their sex lives, just as I do not ask my heterosexual friends about their sex lives.) I do know that they are among the most highly effective Ministers I know and the Holy Spirit has blessed these ministries. Given this evidence, along with the fact that detailed and responsible exegetical studies of the scriptures arrive at different conclusions, I do not want to say that they should be prevented or excluded from ministry. If we had been able to come to clear united understandings of what scripture and tradition say, it would be much more straight-forward. If there are obvious victims, then it would also be much simpler. Unfortunately, as with some other areas where Christians have not come to a common mind (but about which we get much less passionate), it is messy.
  17. Some have kept on asserting that Scripture and tradition have been clear and unambiguous on the issue of homosexuality for 2,000 years. The more I read, the less strongly do I want to assert that. The Biblical and historical record is not totally one-sided. The Uniting Church considered the biblical evidence carefully in 1985. We have not yet carefully studied the historical record. It would be nice if it were all simple, but it is not.
  18. Furthermore, there have been previous instances when the Spirit has led the church into new truth. The struggles recorded in the book of Acts about circumcision is one. In spite of the fact that circumcision had been the central sign of the covenant, that Jesus was circumcised and that Jesus had said nothing to indicate that it was no longer required, the early church decided it should not be required. Slavery is not condemned in Scripture. It took the church seventeen hundred years to realise it was inconsistent with the spirit of Christ. There are verses in Paul’s writings which forbid women to speak in church. In spite of that, we believe the Spirit led us, in the twentieth century, to ordain women. More recently we have considered the relevance of the gospel for the international economic order and power politics. A former theological teacher of mine liked to speak about the "time-bombs" in the gospel – implications which we realise only much later. This has helped me to be open to further time-bombs in the gospel.
  19. I am hesitant about the Councils of the church laying down rules about issues which affect other Christians deeply, but with which we have not had to wrestle personally and about which the church (ecumenically) has not achieved a common mind. It is usually unhelpful to deal with matters of relationships by making rules. Such matters are best left in the area of pastoral conversation. In the case of those for whom it is appropriate, this is best left to Presbyteries and their Pastoral Relations Committees.
  20. I am not saying, of course, that the church should tolerate sin. Sin maims, oppresses and destroys. It should be clearly named and exposed. The question we are trying to determine here as a church is, "Is homosexuality, when expressed between two loving, consenting adults in a permanent relationship, a sin?" If we begin with the assumption that homosexuality is a sin, then we cannot ever begin to have the discussion.
  21. It is not the Assembly's role to interfere in the right of Presbyteries to undertake prayerful and responsible discernment about the selection of candidates and the placement of Ministers and others. There are many who would like the Assembly to interfere in the responsibilities of other Councils when it suits them. The Basis of Union, Constitution and Regulations are quite clear. We are committed to "inter-related Councils". The Presbytery is a Council with its own rights and responsibilities through which we seek to discern the will of God.
  22. There are some who think the church should be a democracy and that controversial issues should be decided by plebiscite. The church is not a democracy and is not governed by majority votes. The church strives to be a theocracy (ruled by God) and is governed by Councils (Church Council, Presbytery, Synod and Assembly) who aim to discern the guidance of the Spirit.

I will continue to pray, read and reflect. My concern is that so much of our energy and passion is being consumed by this one issue, and our unity is threatened, when there are so many needs, and so much pain, both within the church and the wider society. There are many areas where there are obvious victims. We have a Gospel to proclaim which brings new life, hope and joy. This is where I feel called to minister. I want to get back to God’s work.

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References:

  1. Robert Bos, "Homosexuality and the Uniting Church: This is how I see it at present." at:  http://nat.uca.org.au/ASC/homosexualitynuca.htm

  2. Assembly Task Force on Sexuality, "Uniting Sexuality and Faith," 1997-JUL, Uniting Church in Australia, at: http://nat.uca.org.au/resources/pdf/UnitingSexuality.pdf You may need software to read these PDF files. It can be obtained free from:

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Originally written: 2003-SEP-5
Latest update: 2003-SEP-5
Author: Robert Bos
Used by permission granted within the essay itself.

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