At a recent meeting of Baptists, I found myself in conversation about the issue of same-sex relationships. A friend made the case that since God had made each of us, he must have made us to desire in the way that we do. If someone is sexually attracted to people of the same sex, then this is something that God has done and so it cannot be wrong for people to put this desire into practice. This seems to be an argument based on the biblical idea of God as creator. At the time I argued rather clumsily that there might be some desires it might be wrong to act upon. My friend graciously accepted the point and said he would think further. I do not know what conclusions he has reached, but the exchange has led me to try to understand the roots of his argument.
I am sure he would claim that his is a biblical position. It seems to rely on the kind of ideas we find in Psalm 139 where the devotional language of the writer can be read in terms of God’s creative attention to each of us as an individual. However, we should note that the Psalmist ends with a longing that shows that they are aware that their own desires might be flawed. They ask God to reveal if there is any wicked or hurtful way within them. The writer does not presume that that all their longings or actions are pleasing to God.
It seems to me that in fact the roots of my friend’s argument may reflect aspects of a postmodern worldview. In this way of thinking, all metanarratives are regarded as oppressive and the only authentic measure of anything is the self. Accordingly, our key responsibility is ‘to be true to ourselves’ or to insist that ‘I am what I am’. The measure of a person is the extent to which they self-actualize. Human fulfilment lies in giving expression to the desires that come from within, for these represent our true selves. Anything that seeks to challenge or to prevent the expression of those desires is – by definition – repressive. True liberation, it is therefore argued, lies in escaping that repression and actualizing our desires for this is the highest possible good. If God comes into the argument at all then it is as the one who has made us with all our longings and who urges us to act on them because that is how we fulfil his purposes in creating us. In other words, our highest value is human desire and, if we are not very careful, we have created God in our own image.
This is, of course, potentially a form of idolatry. The god of this argument may be far from being the God who is revealed in the Scriptures. The God of the Bible creates humanity to fulfil his purposes, not our own. God judges humans when they choose their own purposes rather than his. The Bible teaches us that human desire is distorted by the human tendency to value ourselves over God and therefore to be disobedient. As a result, our desires alone cannot be trusted as a reliable guide to anything. Both the Old and the New Testament spend a great deal of time addressing the manifestations of distorted desire and arguing that they should be renounced; these include idolatry, covetousness and a range of sexual activities.
There are many words used in the Bible to describe inappropriate sexual activities and their exact meaning is not always clear. By contrast, it is clear that loving, lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual relationships are acceptable to God. We can be sure such marriages are a part of God’s purposes for humanity as they are revealed in the Bible, (and we can also be sure that being single is an approved way of being). The same cannot be said with any degree of certainty for other forms of sexual relationship.
I fear that the truth is that there are any number of sexual relationships that emerge from human desire, and I note that some Christians are already making a case for their being acceptable. These include polyamory, bigamy and polyandry. Once we abandon the clear biblical channels in which sexual behaviour is endorsed, we have no basis for assessing any of these things other than the will of those involved. While I do not doubt that a theological argument could be mounted in defence of these lifestyles, it would not be one based on the biblical revelation.
In my mind, one of the reasons the current debate is so vital is that it goes to the heart of whether or not we want our shared life as a Union of churches to be one of unity, coherence and biblical commitment. We are being encouraged to abandon our understanding of marriage without any alternative being put in place. We are being urged to do this on the basis of theological and cultural ideas that have the potential to lead us pretty much anywhere. We are in danger of saying that the human heart rather than the transcendent God is now our highest value.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but I know that my own desires are conflicted. Some of my desires seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, but some do not. If I allowed the latter longings to find expression, I fear I would be, among other things, adulterous, covetous, and idolatrous. My heart is not to be trusted as a means of discernment, especially where it conflicts with the Scriptures. I dare not make it the basis of my theological opinions.
Stephen Finamore has been a lawyer, led a community development project in inner London and worked for a rural development project in the Andes of northern Peru. Having trained for ministry and read theology in Oxford, he is currently Principal Emeritus of Bristol Baptist College. He has been elected to serve as President of Baptists Together for 2024–25.
Stephen has written a number of books, and his short commentary on Romans is available free with Bible Reading Fellowship: www.brf.org.uk/product/romans-unwrapped/