How Buddhism Points to Jesus

Let’s be honest, it’s the world’s most fashionable religion. Buddhism has an exciting mystique about it, especially for us spiritually starved westerners.

Mindfulness has gone mainstream, along with Zen gardens and the Dalai Lama. Buddhist themes light up our cinemas, from The Matrix to Kung Fu Panda and every Star Wars film in history.

Christians are sometimes known for their fear of other religions. But what if we got over ourselves and asked what we can learn from Buddhism—and how it might point people to Jesus?

Origins and Influence

The Buddha lived long before Christ. He was born Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu prince, in the 5th or 6th century BC. A prophecy foretold that he’d become the greatest founder of the greatest religion in the world. Fearing this, his father kept him safe inside a palace.

But that would never last. One day Gautama ventured outside, and on his travels he encountered an elderly person, a sick person, and a corpse—confronting him with the reality of human suffering.

He called this the wheel of suffering, and he made it his life’s mission to find an escape from it. At age 29, he abandoned his wife and son and gave up everything to live as a poor man. Following the Hindu tradition, he wandered the Ganges river to mediate, fast, and learn from gurus.

“A prophecy foretold that he’d become the greatest founder of the greatest religion in the world.”

Desperate to be free of suffering, Gautama sat under a tree and vowed not to get up until he was enlightened. Six years after his search began, the moment arrived. He became the Buddha or enlightened one—and a new world faith was born.

The Buddha’s teaching career continued until his death at age 81, during which time huge crowds followed him. 2,500 years later, Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion; the dominant faith in a dozen countries; and is practiced by half a billion people.

The Heart of Buddhism

Buddhism is complex and varied, drawing on Hindu ideas like karma and reincarnation, and mixing with many other beliefs as it spread through Asia. But in all its diversity today, it’s built on one simple idea: escape from suffering. The Buddha developed this in his Four Noble Truths.

1. The Existence of Suffering. To live is to suffer. Sadness, fear, worry and loss are all part of life. Even pleasure is fleeting. This too is a form of suffering.

2. The Explanation for Suffering. Suffering is caused by desire. We experience the pain of hunger, for example, only because we desire food; we experience grief and fear of death only because we desire life.

“Buddhism is built on one simple idea: escape from suffering.”

3. The End to Suffering. Suffering ends when desire ends. The end goal of Buddhism is nirvana—to end all desire by realising that we don’t really exist, so we can live in this world with complete detachment.

4. The Escape from Suffering. There is a way to be free. The Buddha had been a prince and a pauper, but neither experience dealt with suffering at its root. Under that tree, the Buddha found a Middle Way between these two extremes—also known as the Eightfold Path to end suffering:

Right understanding | embracing the Four Noble Truths

Right direction | aiming for a life of detachment from this world

Right speech | speaking truthfully, kindly, and gently

Right conduct | acting non-violently and compassionately

Right livelihood | finding a vocation fitting with Buddhist beliefs

Right effort | endeavouring to live a worthy and meritorious life

Right mindfulness | realising that all sensations are illusory

Right concentration | meditating to remove all distraction

This, in a nutshell, is Buddhism. Notice that God wasn’t mentioned? That’s because the Buddha was silent on the existence of God. In fact he was even silent on the origin of the universe. His goal was simply to discover a life of serenity that transcended suffering.

(Religion is still an accurate word to describe Buddhism. Most Buddhists today pray and take part in other rituals; one branch worships the Buddha as a god).

The Buddha and Jesus

In comparing Buddhism and Christianity, we must avoid two extremes. One is syncretism: combining these two faiths and ignoring what makes them unique and incompatible. The other is ostracism: rejecting the Buddha and his teachings completely.

There is a better way—a middle path, if you will. It involves caring enough about Buddhists to find points of contact between their beliefs and the gospel; taking down our walls and instead building bridges; asking how Buddhism can deepen our gratitude for the good news of Jesus.

“The Buddha’s goal was to discover a life of serenity that transcended suffering.”

First, the Buddha’s spiritual commitment is astounding, and it puts many of us Christians to shame. Am I seeking Jesus as passionately as the Buddha sought enlightenment? Am I as desperate to be free from sin as he was from suffering? Do I meditate on God’s Word—at all?

But let’s go a level deeper and explore Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. How does Jesus answer the Buddha’s deepest questions about life?

1. The Existence of Suffering. Suffering is part of our life in this world. Scripture says that Adam and Eve’s sin brought a curse on the world, and now all creation groans as we long to be released from sin and suffering.

2. The Explanation for Suffering. Left unchecked, our desires do lead to misery. In the words of James, they entice us, drag us away and lead to sin, which gives birth to death. The Bible even describes us as slaves to sin—caught in our own endless wheel of suffering.

“The Buddha’s spiritual commitment puts many of us Christians to shame.”

3. The End to Suffering. The gospel offers a remarkable solution. Not unlike the Buddha, Jesus stepped down from his heavenly palace to identify with a broken human race. But rather than seeking an escape from it, Jesus took our sin and suffering into himself at the cross. All who are enlightened to this, God welcomes into an eternal serenity where suffering is no more.

4. The Escape from Suffering. Jesus himself is the path to end suffering. He is the way, the truth and the life. Suffering will still touch us in this life, but as we follow him, his Spirit enables us to live detached from sin, and to act with truth, gentleness and compassion—and many other virtues the Buddha taught.

Not so that we can earn our escape from suffering, or finally reach enlightenment. But because we’ve already experienced this in Jesus, the truly enlightened one.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my blog, please like it, leave a comment, and most importantly, share it on social media. To receive new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of this series:

Buddhism  |  Islam  |  Hinduism  |  Atheism  |  Judaism  |  Pluralism

 

Sources

Cioccolanti, Steve. From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity. Oxford, UK: Monarch, 2007.

Claydon, David. Connecting Across Cultures: Sharing the Gospel Across Cultural and Religious Boundaries. Melbourne: Acorn Press Ltd, 2000, 99-108.

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 47-84.

The Compelling Case For and Against Same-Sex Marriage

Part 2 of 3

Over the next two months, Australians will be asked by postal vote whether they believe federal law should be changed so that same-sex couples can marry.

Like most Australians, I’m concerned that any public debate around this issue is conducted with respect, given that this isn’t merely an “issue”. We’re discussing real peoples’ lives and loves.

My social pipes are already choked with views for and against, but I’m heartened: what I’ve seen so far has been overwhelmingly civil with little evidence of the homophobic Australia I’ve heard exists. Maybe I just have a lot of polite friends.

“This isn’t merely an “issue”. We’re discussing real peoples’ lives and loves.”

As a Christian, I’ve given a lot of thought to this subject. Jesus told us to love God with all our minds, and I assume he says what he means and means what he says. As such, I refuse to vote either “yes” or “no” without considering both sides. And there are compelling arguments either way you look.

Here I have summarised what I see as the three strongest reasons both for and against followers of Jesus voting to change the definition of marriage. You’ll have to keep reading to the end to find out where I land. (Scroll to the bottom now if you’re closed-minded and can only think in black and white).

For #1 | It’s not the church’s place to tell society what to do

I agree. The church once had a privileged position in the West, and while I’m convinced this enabled Jesus’ teachings to impact the world for unspeakable good (check out my series on How Jesus Shaped the West), sadly that status also seduced Christians into grave abuses of power.

Doubtless, those abuses are a big reason for the church’s waning influence on culture. That influence has been a huge loss, and it’s enough to destroy anyone’s faith completely—but only if we’ve confused Christendom with the Kingdom. Christendom has fallen, but God’s Kingdom has never ceased to be in our midst.

“The early church turned the world upside down.”

When I look back in history, the Christians I find most inspiring didn’t occupy halls of power; they spoke with a marginal but powerfully prophetic voice. In short, the Christians who impress me most looked most like Jesus.

Christianity has once again been driven to the margins of society. So it’s time to stop modelling our conduct on the Holy Roman Empire and instead, take our cues from the early church.

“Christendom has fallen, but God’s Kingdom has never ceased to be in our midst.”

For those first 300 years, the church didn’t speak with an air of entitlement. They didn’t legislate or pontificate the moral choices of their secular counterparts. But they did turn the world upside down. And they did it from their knees.

For #2 | Many same-sex relationships outshine straight marriages

The other day I saw a cartoon depicting three weddings. The first was an overnight Las Vegas fling; the second was a couple who had divorced and remarried on repeat; and the third was a loving same-sex couple. The caption read, “Guess which kind of marriage religious people are against?”

It was convicting. In many ways, the church has lost its moral authority, not only by dropping our standards on what marriage should look like, but by making people who sin differently to us feel like they’re in some ugly category all on their own. It’s hypocrisy at its worst.

“In many ways, the church has lost its moral authority.”

Happily, those cartooned examples of heterosexual marriage are the exception rather than the rule, but the illustrator has a really good point. If so much already passes for marriage that shouldn’t, isn’t it unfair to stand in the way of marriage for same-sex couples who set a far better example of love and commitment?

For #3 | Jesus showed the greatest love to the most marginalised

Jesus was a divisive figure. His claim to be God offended everyone. But in particular, he was disliked by progressives for his stuffy moral values, and by conservatives for keeping company with sex workers, white collar criminals, and blue collar dropouts.

Which is a sobering reminder to me as a follower of Jesus that if everyone who thinks I’m a jerk is further left than I am, then I’m probably so far right that I’m wrong.

“Jesus was known as a friend of the marginalised.”

If my convictions about sex are christian but my behaviour isn’t, then I’ve sawed off the branch I’m sitting on. And I must take responsibility when people quote Gandhi, saying, “I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians.”

On the contrary, in my conduct I should look something like Jesus. Religious people were often upset with him, but he was known as a friend of the marginalised. He opposed the proud, but to the humble he showed grace and unexpected love.

“If everyone who thinks I’m a jerk is further left than I am, then I’m probably so far right that I’m wrong.”

Which means that in 2017, I’m more like Jesus if I’m misunderstood as endorsing same-sex marriage than if I’m misunderstood as hating LGBT Australians. I hope I’m not misunderstood at all—but if I err in this way, may I err on the side of love.

Every human being is made in the image of God and has inestimable worth: any convictions I have about sex must come second to that.

So am I voting yes? Well there are a few things I haven’t mentioned yet.

Against #1 | Social moods are an unstable foundation for legal change

Every definition of marriage discriminates. I’m confused by the term “marriage equality” because even if Australia passes it, certain people will still be excluded—namely children and those already married.

I’m not trying to incite fear; I’m not suggesting same-sex marriage will lead to pederastic or polyamorous marriage; I’m not drawing moral equivalence between any of these camps; I’m not assuming any overlap in their agendas.

I’m simply pointing out that zeitgeist is a shaky reason to tamper with a very ancient institution. Those who would like children to marry, or marriage to include three or more members, are today rightly considered odd—even dangerous. But they also make their case in terms of human rights, discrimination, and love.

Zeitgeist, n. the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history.

I’m not fearful that such arrangements are “coming next”. But in seeking to be like Jesus, I care about my civilisation, and I’m concerned about us breaking our moral compass.

If feelings of love and attraction are the overriding rationale for same-sex marriage, then at best, in the future we will be guilty of unfair discrimination towards other “marriage” configurations where those same feelings are present. At worst, we will have convinced ourselves that this, too, is progress.

It seems so unlikely. But as we’ve seen with the current debate, social moods change quickly, even on a global scale.

Against #2 | The rights of adults shouldn’t trump those of children

Many who marry don’t want to have children. Some who want to have children can’t. Medical advances and adoption provide choices—including for same-sex couples. But none of these scenarios annul one simple observation.

The human race will only progress towards its unfolding history through the bonding of male and female. Marriage has existed through time and culture to honour and protect this profoundly unique reality.

“The human race will only progress towards its unfolding history through the bonding of male and female.”

Same-sex couples now raise families—and many do a better job than married heterosexuals. But to call such a union marriage is for me and many others a definitional oxymoron (kind of like a square circle or a married bachelor), for the simple fact that it lacks the most basic attribute (and therefore potential) of marriage.

To others, this might all sound like semantics. But if marriage is this destiny-shaping institution that same-sex couples want access to, and same-sex marriage enters the fray, there is another considerable problem.

Every child conceived in such a family will be deprived in advance of one of their biological parents. Their natural-born right (recognised even by the U.N.) to be brought up by their mum and dad will have been taken away before they ever got a say in the matter.

“It may be no one’s intention to turn kids into commodities, but the result is the same.”

Irresponsible dads can inflict the same wound, as can sexual abuse, or the death of a parent. But we universally acknowledge these as unwanted scenarios. To enshrine same-sex marriage in law is to bless this absence and call it desirable—in our society’s bedrock institution, no less.

It may be no one’s intention to turn kids into commodities, but the result is the same—all because the rights of adults have been put before the rights of children. To me, that doesn’t seem much like Jesus.

(And ironically, while our society fights for equal representation of the sexes in every sphere of life, same-sex marriages will lack that too).

Against #3 | Human histories and cultures aren’t so easily dismissed

You might have noticed that I’m yet to quote Scripture in discussing the against case. That’s because I don’t assume everyone reading this views the Bible as a legitimate authority.

Jesus certainly did quote Genesis to teach that marriage is between a man and a woman—and considering he was a Jew in first century Israel, if he was radical in approving of same-sex relationships, we’d need radical evidence for it. And that does seem to be missing from the gospel accounts.

I don’t expect much praise for it, but even in my convictions on human sexuality, I hope to be like Jesus. (I’ve written about the views that Jesus and other biblical authors held on sexuality here).

“Jesus taught that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

But whether it’s Judaism or Christianity; Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism; cults or schisms or other isms, almost every human culture through almost all of human history has understood marriage to be the union of sexually complementary spouses.

This deep history is why I’m shocked that classical marriage is now being framed as controversial, or even intolerant. (I have a few thoughts on this unusual new morality). Those who believe in it are only agreeing with almost every one of the tens of billions of people who have ever lived.

Traditional doesn’t always equal true. But I pay attention to what cultures have done en masse from the dawn of civilisation to the present. And as a Christian, Jesus’ views on sexuality must be my views on sexuality.

How I’ll Vote on Same-Sex Marriage

When I look at the relationships Jesus had, what strikes me most of all is his ability, in the words of John Dickson, to flex both the muscle of ethical conviction and the muscle of compassion. To profoundly disagree with people, yet befriend and love them all the same.

As I weigh up my options, I’m struck that a vote for same-sex marriage won’t allow me the opportunity to flex both of those muscles. To do this—to be like Jesus—I have only one option: I must vote for the ideal of marriage that Jesus upheld.

When I cast my vote, like in any election, I’ll vote not as a representative of the institutional church, but as me. Sure, I’m a Christian, but my conscience and opinion counts like any other Australian. And I’ll also vote with humility, aware of the past failures of many who said they represented Christ.

“I’ll vote not as a representative of the institutional church, but as me.”

If that doesn’t sound progressive enough, consider C. S. Lewis: “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

~

If the opinion polls are right, by November same-sex marriage will be law in Australia. The media pack, led by the ABC, seems to have all but ensured that. (I tend to think the media is at its best when it’s trying to inform, rather than form public opinion—especially when it’s taxpayer funded).

In the midst of this, some of us need reminding that if same-sex marriage does pass as law, the sun will actually rise the next day and life will go on as usual.

If I’m honest, in the years to come, I’m concerned about what that might look like for my freedoms, particularly as a pastor. But what concerns me more in the present is being the kind of voice and hands and feet that society will miss—and wish they hadn’t suppressed—if it ever comes to that.

“If I err, may I err on the side of love.”

There’s no point in winning the battle but losing the war. I don’t want to go down fighting. I want to go down loving. In that too, I want to be like Jesus.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

Read the rest of the series on Same-Sex Marriage:  PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 3

Same-Sex Marriage Might Set the Church Straight

Part 1 of 3

Last night on a mild winter’s evening in Adelaide, hundreds of people packed an auditorium, spilling into foyers and corridors in what became a standing-room only event.

During a week of wall-to-wall media focus on same-sex marriage, it was by happy coincidence that a UK pastor had come to our city to call on Christians to better support those who identify as LGBT+ or same-sex attracted.

Doubtless what drew such large crowds is that Sam Allberry (who has also authored the book “Is God Anti-Gay?”) is himself same-sex attracted, but because of his love for Jesus he’s chosen to remain single and celibate.

“People spilled into foyers and corridors in what became a standing-room only event.”

Much about the night struck me, including Sam’s common-sense perspectives and his deeply pastoral approach to the topic. Most of all though was how uncomplicated his call to Christians was: that the church simply be the church, and embody the love of Jesus.

So uncomplicated in fact that as a single person, I realised that all of Sam’s advice for providing care to the LGBT+/SSA community is just as relevant to the church in providing care to singles like me.

“One of the unexpected perks of singleness is a unique perspective on the world.”

As Christians we’ve often been so intoxicated by the world’s ideas that we’ve drifted asleep at the wheel. A nation-wide debate on the definition of marriage is waking us up from our slumber.

For which reason, if marriage legislation in Australia does change, maybe it’s as much an opportunity for us as it is a threat. I have as many reservations about this mass cultural experiment as the next person, but if it does pass as law, consider how same-sex marriage might set the church straight. It would awaken us to:

1. A truer grasp of the purpose of marriage

One of the unexpected perks of singleness is a unique perspective on the world. Call me a cynic, but I think Christians have idolised marriage.

Marriage is a gift from God. I love celebrating weddings, and I cheer on all of my married friends—and I look forward to being married myself when God’s timing comes. But secular doctrine says a fulfilled life orbits around a sexual relationship. Rather than critiquing this, the church has simply insisted that said idol be blessed with vows.

“Call me a cynic, but I think Christians have idolised marriage.”

But as Sam points out, when Jesus taught about the sanctity of marriage in Matthew 19:3-12, the disciples’ reaction was to ask why anyone would dare embark on such a high and costly calling. In response, Jesus encouraged them to seriously consider singleness. And with that, the discussion ended.

In other words, marriage and all of its blessings are worth it—if you’re willing to pay the cost. The primary purpose of marriage isn’t to make all of your dreams come true but to conform you to the image of Christ. Marriage isn’t the holy grail of satisfaction. Biblically, it wasn’t actually created to fulfil us, but to point us to the One who can (Ephesians 5:32).

2. A deeper love for those longing for intimacy

Another dogma of the present culture is that sex and intimacy are synonymous—so much so that we can’t even imagine an intimacy that’s not sexual.

But as Sam explained, in the Bible they’re distinct. It’s possible to have a lot of sex and no intimacy—and just as possible to have a lot of intimacy and no sex. Jesus, Paul and saints through history have shown us that it’s possible to live without sex, but no one can live without intimacy.

To be intimate means to be deeply known and loved. One of the biggest struggles for those who are LGBT+/SSA (and may I add, single) actually isn’t sexual temptation, but loneliness.

“It’s possible to live without sex, but no one can live without intimacy.”

And this is great news, because it means the solution isn’t more PhDs. It’s love. In fact, it’s a particular brand of Christian love: the forgotten art of biblical friendship where soul meets soul and where church is family. Sam’s heart cry is for the church to become the kind of community where anyone choosing to forsake an ungodly relationship for the sake of the gospel would find themselves with more intimacy at the end of that transaction, not less.

We should never treat anyone as a sort of project for our own self-congratulation—but we must aim to love well. Nuclear families whose highest purpose isn’t merely their own joy but the enfolding of others into that joy are all the richer for it.

3. A greater disgust at our own sin than others’

Said Sam, when Paul called himself the chief of sinners, he hadn’t surveyed the entire first century church to make that discovery. He was simply choosing to be more disgusted at his own sin than that of others.

And such must be the case for us too. If our internal reaction to anyone in the LGBT+ community is, “eww, they’re icky,” then we’re far more influenced by Victorian sensibilities than by the gospel. The gospel guards us from hypocrisy by showing us the log in our own eye before we offer to help our friend with their speck.

“Paul chose to be more disgusted at his own sin than that of others.”

As Sam says, none of us are straight. We’ve all got skewed and twisted desires. Even if he were healed from homosexual lusts, Sam explains, he’d still have heterosexual lusts to deal with, leading to no net increase in holiness.

To follow in the footsteps of Jesus, all of us are going to have to say no to some of our deepest sexual desires, simply because that’s a part of what it means to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

4. A clearer vision of the good news of Jesus

Where my heart most resounded with Sam’s, where I looked at his same-sex attraction and saw my singleness in the mirror, was in a quote he shared by Aiki Flinthart: “Those who hear not the music think the dancer is mad.”

Jesus is that music. The world will never understand the choices we make in following Jesus until they understand just how much Jesus means to us.

“Those who hear not the music think the dancer is mad.”

Same-sex attraction is a unique struggle, but to see it as an altogether different struggle than any other is to miss the radical sacrifice Jesus calls every believer to. But more than that, it’s to miss the highest privilege all of us have—which is to point the world to Jesus as the all-satisfying bread of life, who is worthy of even the greatest sacrifice.

“I am the bread of life,” said Jesus. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.” (John 6:35).

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

Read the rest of the series on Same-Sex Marriage:  PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 3

How Jesus Shaped the West: Equality

equality

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Equality.

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Last year, two young women aged 15 and 23 were gang raped in a rural town and paraded naked through the main street. This was the “punishment” handed to them by an all-male, unelected village council. Their crime? Their brother eloped with a neighbouring girl who came from a higher caste than theirs.

Violence against women is a global epidemic, not just limited to India’s untouchables. The statistics are gut-wrenching.

One in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence. 98% of those trafficked for sex are female. Worldwide, 200 million women and girls are demographically “missing”—they’ve been murdered or have died through mistreatment, and their story has been lost.

“In the West, equality is part of the air we breathe.”

This is all part of a bigger picture of inequality. Across the globe, people are being abused and marginalised based purely on their culture, ethnicity, beliefs, political allegiance, gender or sexual expression. It’s enough to overwhelm us.

Aren’t we all for equality? Don’t we all stand for universal human rights?

The sobering, even shocking, answer to these questions is actually no.

In the West, equality is part of the air we breathe. We yearn for it, our civilisation sets the pace for it, and when we as westerners are treated unfairly, we appeal to equality as a fixed, universal axiom. But strange as this may sound, the idea that every human being has equal and inherent value is entirely foreign to many we share the planet with.

“If karma rules the cosmos, minorities deserve whatever misery they’re suffering.”

The village justice described above is a case in point. While Ghandi fought for reform of the caste system, ancient Hindu beliefs don’t disappear overnight.

Much of Indian society is still built on the conviction that people have been created precisely unequal, and that your caste was determined by your actions in a previous life. Untouchables are so inferior to the other five castes, says Hindu tradition, that cows, monkeys and rats have greater dignity.

To us this is unthinkable, and must be challenged. But for many in Indian society, to challenge this or to dream otherwise is to rebel against karma. In fact, even to help the poor is to curse them further by preventing them from paying off their karmic debt.

“Inequality has been the norm in most cultures for most of history.”

Such inequality isn’t unique to India. The epicentre of child marriage, death penalties for homosexuals, and forced female genital mutilation is the Middle-East and North Africa—the heartland of Islam.

If your blood has started to boil, I trust that it’s because of the injustices I’ve described, not my geographical honesty. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Am I promoting inequality by making these observations? In fact I am—if we’re discussing the equality of worldviews. Let me be clear: not all beliefs are created equal.

But all people are created equal. And it is exactly this conviction that compels me. I must blow the whistle on any worldview that denies basic human equality and thereby fosters oppression.

The simple reality is that inequality has been the norm in most cultures for most of history. Mesopotamian creation myths held that the king was created in the image of the primary god, while the poor and the slaves were created in the image of an inferior god.

The ancient Greco-Roman world knew nothing of equality. Infanticide was commonplace. Plato had extremely elitist—even fascist—political views. Aristotle believed in natural slaves. In fact in the ancient world it was slaves that enabled the elite to pursue philosophy at all.

“If the world’s ‘races’ are descended from ape-like ancestors then we are by definition unequal.”

Equality is a modern idea that came to us through the Renaissance. And while Renaissance writers are famous for quoting ancient Greeks and Romans, there was only one place they could go to establish a high view of humanity. And that place was Jesus.

From his parable of the ninety-nine sheep abandoned while one was searched for, to his teachings about the Creator knowing the number of hairs on our heads, to his charge for costly, practical love to “the least of these,” this peasant carpenter from Galilee stubbornly insisted that every life matters.

Jesus inspired his fanatic disciple Paul to write that “there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male now female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” To Paul, even a priest-class that’s closer to God must be a defunct concept if “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace.”

“Equality is a thoroughly Christian conviction—one so ingrained in the Western psyche that we’ve forgotten where it came from.”

If the world’s “races” are variously descended from ape-like ancestors then we are by definition unequal. If karma rules the cosmos, minorities deserve whatever misery they’re suffering. If truth is relative, then tomorrow some of us might wake up more equal than others.

But if God created human beings—male and female—in his own image, then we possess non-negotiable dignity and perfectly equal standing in the universe. In fact if God became one of us, far from violating his majesty (as Islam teaches) the incarnation would be the ultimate affirmation of our value and worth as humans.

The second sentence of the U.S. Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But this is not true. All people are created equal—yes! But this is not a self-evident truth, if we take historical and contemporary facts seriously. Equality is a thoroughly Christian conviction—one so ingrained in the Western psyche that we’ve forgotten where it came from.

“If God created human beings—male and female—in his own image, then we possess non-negotiable dignity and perfectly equal standing in the universe.”

It came from Jesus. This conviction that each of us possess inherent worth, share equal value, and deserve unprejudiced treatment has birthed the human rights movement, shaped national constitutions, and utterly transformed Western ethics.

Long may it drive us to keep fighting for equality where it does not yet exist. God knows, around the world there is much still to be done. But may we never forget or disdain its origin. After all, there is no ground more level than at the foot of the cross.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Morality.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

When Religion and Politics Collide

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“You’re entitled to your beliefs, but keep them out of politics.” So goes conventional wisdom. The public square is religiously neutral. Religion and politics shouldn’t mix.

The separation of church and state—an important principle of democracy—is the phrase most often used to justify such an idea. But it surprises many to learn that the original motivation for the separation of church and state was to prevent political overreach into religious life—not the other way around.

The reality is, everyone’s beliefs influence their politics. This goes for the Atheist as much as it does for the Christian. Who we vote for, and even whether we think voting matters, in some way arises out of our beliefs about the culture we live in. Ideas have consequences.

Hence, the “secular state”—the idea of a religiously neutral public square—is a myth, an impossible dream of the Enlightenment. Politics and religion (or irreligion, as we’re increasingly seeing in Western nations) will forever be mixing.

“The reality is, everyone’s beliefs influence their politics. This goes for the Atheist as much as it does for the Christian.”


I’ve felt settled about this question for some time. The question that has remained unanswered for me for years is how two different Christians, both deeply admired by me as people with mature faith and strong biblical convictions, could end up on opposite ends of the political spectrum: left (“progressive”) and right (“conservative”).

In Center Church, Timothy Keller recasts Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, discussing how Christian movements have engaged culture through time. And while he barely mentions politics, he has shed buckets of light for me on this subject. Below is a combination of his insights on Christian cultural engagement with my thoughts on Christian political allegiance.

politics

Mapping over Niebuhr’s original categories, he uses the titles Relevance, Transformationist, Two Kingdoms and Counterculturalist to describe the various camps. (I commend Centre Church to you if you’re curious about where he locates various theological traditions. I have borrowed his categories and descriptions, but have reinterpreted the questions he asks).

“The main factor determining the political allegiance of a thinking Christian is best framed eschatologically, hinging on one’s belief about the kingdom of God.”


So what does determine a Christian’s political allegiance? For example, to pick a very emotive and current topic, why are some Christians right now upset with Tony Abbott for not accepting more Syrian refugees, while others want him to address the same crisis by taking a tougher stance against Islamic State?

The discovery I made surprised me. Of course countless factors influence someone’s political allegiance. Even the word “political” I am using to refer mostly to moral-political issues. Nevertheless, with all these caveats in place, I’m going to suggest that the main factor determining the political allegiance of a thinking Christian, even if they aren’t particularly conscious of it, is best framed eschatologically, hinging on one’s belief about the kingdom of God. Let’s call this one’s theology of cultural virtue. Namely, is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign, and therefore inherently good? I contend that answering yes to this question will tend to land a Christian’s allegiance on the left of politics, while answering no will tend to land them on the right.

Why? Well, to bring it back down out of the clouds, look at it this way: the left tends to emphasise inherent goodness in people, and so believes that social ills must mainly relate to a lack of equality or opportunity; while the right tends to emphasise the inherent fallenness in people, believing that social ills must mainly relate to a lack of restraint on evil. It is remarkable how much these simple unspoken convictions seem to animate opinions across the political spectrum. In your mind, apply this to immigration, gender roles, abortion, welfare, drugs, same-sex marriage, crime and punishment, and the size of government (to name just a few) and see if you don’t agree.

“If you just can’t understand why another Christian has such different political convictions to you, it’s probably not because they’re a nasty or suspect person.”


Beliefs also influence a Christian’s level of engagement with the culture: what we might call one’s theology of cultural change. This too, surprisingly, is an eschatological question. Namely, does the advance of God’s kingdom involve seeking to change the culture? Christians who answer yes to this will place much greater value on living out their faith in the public square than those who answer no.

While I must be quick to concede (as Keller does) that categories and diagrams are bound to limitation and caricature, there is still immense value in a framework that helps us think about our political allegiance and public engagement as Christians. Let me give three concrete applications.

Understanding | If you’re a Christian but just can’t understand why another Christian has such different political convictions to you, it probably has a lot less to do with them being a nasty, suspect person than it has to do with their theology of cultural virtue. Neither of you might have framed the situation in these terms, but underneath it all, they answer the question, is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign and therefore inherently good? differently to you. So discuss that. No need to hold them suspiciously at arm’s length.

It is remarkable how much the left’s emphasis on inherent human goodness and the right’s emphasis on inherent human fallenness seems to animate opinions across the political spectrum.


Persuasion | If to the question of is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign and therefore inherently good? you answer yes, then know the Scriptures that teach the kingdom’s “now-ness”, and use these to persuade your friends who don’t. If you answer no, know the Scriptures that teach the kingdom’s “not-yetness”, and use them to persuade your friends who do. Likewise, if to the question of does the advance of God’s kingdom involve seeking to change the culture? you answer yes, then know where the Bible compels Christians to influence culture, and use those passages to persuade your friends who think otherwise. If you answer no, know where the Bible compels Christians to remain distinct from culture, and use those passages to persuade your friends who believe differently. Ultimately this is going to have a lot more traction than “you should vote left/right like me” (which is a crude but often accurate summary of my social media newsfeed).

Balance | And with that last point, I’ve given the game away. As you can see, it’s also my conviction that Scripture holds both of these questions in a yes-no tension. To cite just a few examples, by virtue of the fall from a once-perfect creation, people are a complex mixture of goodness and fallenness, carrying both the dignity of the Imago Dei (James 3:9) and the depravity of sin and rebellion (Romans 1:21). The kingdom is both now (Luke 17:21) and not yet (Matthew 7:21)—and advancing it involves both influencing the culture (Matthew 5:16) and remaining unstained by it (James 1:27). Maybe we need to call some of our Christian friends back to a more balanced position. Maybe we need to find a more balanced position ourselves.

How exactly we live these realities out is the question that remains for us. But one thing is certain: religion and politics will always be mixing, because what we believe—religious or otherwise—affects how we live. Ideas have consequences. How could it be any other way?

Why Christians should love their LGBTQIA friends the most

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Disclaimer 1: This is at least a 20-minute read, but I think it’s worth your time.

Disclaimer 2: This is a highly contentious topic, and even though my heart isn’t to be divisive, there’s probably something here to offend everyone—including, and especially, Christians (equality, right?) But let me forewarn you: if you tap out before the half way mark, you’ll only hear one side of the story. If part way through you start thinking I might just be another bigot, please scroll down to “love” and be surprised.

“Don’t judge others. Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?”—Jesus


Around a month ago, five judges in the US changed the course of history for their nation, legalising same-sex marriage in all 50 states. It hit saturation point in the news media; Facebook supplied a rainbow flag app used in profile pictures by 26 million people; and the world was abuzz for weeks.

I found it interesting that just a few days earlier, 300,000 people from all over Italy converged on Rome to show support for traditional male/female marriage—and all the major news outlets were silent.

Likewise, the same week as the US decision, Pitcairn Island, a tiny Pacific nation of 48 people (and no gay couples) legalised same-sex marriage—a story picked up by many in the news media. But a month previous, when a same-sex marriage bill in the Austrian parliament suffered a landslide 110-26 defeat, journalists had more important stories to cover.

Zeitgeist, n. the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history.


We all tend to think of ourselves as objective. We’re freethinkers; we make our minds up for ourselves. But are we actually aware of how much we’ve been shaped by the influences around us—especially the media?

Everything is awesome


Every era of history has a defining spirit or mood. There’s a fantastic German word to describe it: the “Zeitgeist”. The Zeitgeist of our time is this: I decide truth for myself. It’s no one else’s place to tell me how I can or can’t live my life. With just a few exceptions (like terrorism and paedophilia and Christianity) everything is awesome. The more diverse, the better.

So today, not only is homosexuality an equally valid lifestyle choice, it’s in fact a hallmark of progress. The media celebrates diverse forms of sexuality with pioneering zeal. Opposing same-sex marriage is like denying basic human rights—freedom for slaves, or the right of women to vote.

This is the story being told by the major influences around us. Increasingly, Christians are finding themselves in the minority, unsure what to make of it all. Do they roll with the Zeitgeist? Do they challenge it?

They’ve often reacted in one of two ways (or, at least, the media has caricatured it as such). They’ve either made truth their motivation, and been very unloving. Or they’ve been motivated by love for their gay friends and family, but in the process, have kissed God’s truth goodbye.

In Ephesians 4:15, Paul talks about “speaking the truth in love”. Apparently you can have both. My heart is that Christian communities the world over would be places of both truth and love—especially to our LGBTQIA friends, family and neighbours. So let’s look at both truth and love.

Truth (what’s the big deal?)


How come this is even contentious? Christians are the biggest religious bloc in western nations, and by-and-large are the main people still opposing the LGBTQIA cause. Why?

It’s quite simple really. Their sacred text, the Bible, though penned by human authors, is believed by them to be the very words of God: his expressed will for how they should conduct their lives—both for their highest joy, and for his. And in that book, the seven places that homosexuality is addressed, it’s always portrayed as being against God’s will. (“Sin” is the Christian swear word used to describe things God doesn’t like).

People who are same-sex attracted should be made to feel completely at home in every Christian community on the planet.


Before we look at those texts, there’s a distinction of eminent importance to Christians (even if to no-one else) that must be made. Same-sex attraction and homosexuality are not the same thing. Same-sex attraction means having an internal romantic affection towards someone of the same sex. Homosexual describes someone who acts on those feelings and enters into such a sexual relationship. The reason this distinction is important to Christians is because the Bible nowhere calls same-sex attraction a sin.

For which reason, people who are same-sex attracted should be made to feel completely at home in every Christian community on the planet, right alongside the rest of us who struggle with all sorts of inward temptations and sinful tendencies. And while people who are living a gay lifestyle generally won’t feel comfortable in Bible-believing churches, they should certainly be made to feel loved and welcomed like anyone else.

This distinction is important because the Bible never calls same-sex attraction a sin.


Given that all the Bible’s references to homosexuality are negative, one of the following must be true if LGBTQIA lifestyles can be celebrated:

(A) The God of the Bible doesn’t exist
(B) God’s laws change with time and culture
(C) On closer inspection, the Bible doesn’t actually forbid homosexuality

(A) is how many resolve the issue: possibly there is no god, or maybe there is, but he or she is fine with whatever, and is far less opinionated than the Bible’s God. This leaves (B) or (C) as the solution for Christians who embrace not only LGBTQIA friends and family, but their lifestyle choices too.

Do God’s laws change with time and culture?


(B) essentially goes like this: In the ancient world, people were more homophobic, and were unaware of modern concepts like orientation (internal desires that are wholly independent of conscious choice). The people who wrote the Bible were speaking with relevance into their situation, but surely God’s standards for our world are more culturally appropriate now.

The problems with this position are at least threefold:

1. Paul (who we’ll hear from a lot) wrote, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” (Romans 7:15,19). That sounds a lot like orientation.

2. Paul was in fact being culturally inappropriate by opposing homosexuality. Homosexuality was practiced and defended in the ancient world, and he made himself very unpopular by writing against it.

3. If God’s standards on homosexuality have changed, what other standards have too? Adultery? Drunkenness? Love for neighbour? How do we know which of them have changed and which he still wants us to uphold? And if homosexuality is the stand-alone case, why does it get special treatment?

For obvious reasons, (B) is a difficult (and not very scholarly) position to hold, which is why most LGBTQIA-affirming Christians will opt for (C). So let’s inspect those seven texts more closely.

Does the Bible really forbid homosexuality?


Genesis 19:1-29 tells the story of Lot, a man living in the city of Sodom, who hosts two visiting men in his home. “The men of Sodom, young and old, came from all over the city and surrounded the house and shouted to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to spend the night with you? Bring them out to us so we can have sex with them!’” Lot begs them, “Don’t do such a wicked thing.” The story goes on, ending with God destroying the city of Sodom with fire and brimstone for its wickedness. (The Judges 19 story bears many similarities to this one, so I’ll let you hunt it down).

Some point to Ezekiel 16:49—“Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door”—arguing that these are the sins God judged Sodom for, not homosexuality. But this creates a false “either/or” dichotomy when clearly it’s “both/and”. True to Ezekiel, Sodom was punished for neglecting social justice. But it’s undeniable from Genesis that their sexual sins were also cause for God’s judgment.

The objection is also made that homosexual rape, not homosexuality per se, is what upset both Lot and God in the story. Possibly that’s true. But the further we look in the Bible, the less likely that appears.

Which brings us to Leviticus. “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.” (18:22). And, “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offence.” (20:13).

If Christians are happy to eat oysters and wear mixed-fabric underpants, why do they insist the Leviticus teachings on homosexuality matter?


To be sure, Christians today do not believe that those who identify as homosexual deserve the death penalty. If they do, they need to scroll to the half way mark of this blog, and examine their hearts. Christians know that this was the law God gave to Israel; capital punishment for this “detestable act” was specific to that nation in that time of history.

And relevant to this, God also called things like eating shellfish and wearing mixed fabrics “detestable” in Leviticus. He had his reasons: another (culturally complex) topic for another time.

So if Christians no longer believe in the death penalty for homosexuality, and are happy to eat oysters and wear mixed cotton/lycra underpants, why do they insist that this teaching about homosexuality in Leviticus is still relevant now?

“God made them male and female from the beginning of creation. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife…”—Jesus


Simply put, as a minimum, Christians believe that any commands from the Old Testament that are repeated in the New Testament still apply to them today. And while the New Testament has nothing to say against oysters or Bonds underwear, it does warn against homosexuality.

And this brings us to Romans 1, a passage that describes a whole world that has turned against God, with homosexuality addressed as one example:

God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies… Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” (v24, 26-27). More to come on this.

And the final two we’ll look at are the so-called “vice lists”:

Don’t you realise that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

The law is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother or commit other murders. The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts wholesome teaching…” (1 Timothy 1:9-11).

Homosexuality was as widespread in the ancient world as it is in ours.


Those who bring new interpretations to these texts rest their case on the “not that kind of homosexuality” argument. It goes like this: What the Bible is condemning is wrong or abusive gay relationships common in the ancient world, not the healthy ones we have today. Pederasty (a sexual relationship between a man and a boy) was common in the ancient world. Some of these relationships were even exploitative. It’s these that God condemns. Or perhaps what’s going on, at least in Romans, is that God gave heterosexual attraction to some people, and same-sex attraction to others, and what God forbids is heterosexuals who go against their God-given orientation.

Again, the problems here are at least threefold:

1. This is an argument from silence. The texts don’t specify that pagan pederastic practices, abusive relationships, or heterosexuals are in view—this is a novelty of modern interpreters. And without such qualifications, all three passages evidently forbid homosexuality in general.

2. Homosexuality was as widespread in the ancient world as it is in today’s. And not simply pederasty. Every kind of homosexual relationship known today was known then, from lesbian relationships to gender-bending marriages to lifelong same-sex companionships. And there was no more moral consensus among the ancients about it all than our world has today.

3. All such arguments ignore key phrases in the texts themselves—phrases making it clear that both people in the relationships described were willing participants. In Romans the phrase “each other” appears three times, and the fact that “they burned with lust for each other” especially rules out both abuse and heterosexuals. And without being too descriptive, 1 Corinthians uses two Greek words behind “male prostitute” and “homosexual” that actually identify the receiving and giving man in the sexual experience. Both are held responsible.

Many would add that “Jesus never condemned homosexuality, so neither should we”. However, in Mark 10:6-9, Jesus makes his views on marriage and human sexuality very clear: “God made them male and female from the beginning of creation. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.

God’s true purpose for our sexuality


In fact Jesus wakes us up to the bigger picture. See, for Christians, it’s not just a question of God’s opinion on homosexuality, but in fact his true purpose for human sexuality in general. And as Jesus points out, the entire storyline of the Bible speaks to that purpose.

In the beginning, God didn’t create two men or two women—or a tribe of ape-like hominids on the plains of Africa. Here’s where a Christian’s stance on Genesis as history or myth really comes into play:

God creates a man. Then saying that “it’s not good for the man to be alone,” from Adam’s rib he makes Eve—“a helper who is just right for him”. God then declares, “this explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one”. He blesses their union and tells them to make lots of babies and fill the planet. And they could, because he’d given them the biological bits and pieces to make it happen.

Song of Solomon is a book of the Bible dedicated entirely to the beauty of sex—inside marriage, of course. (Curious that it never mentions babies. Apparently God created sex for pleasure as much as for offspring). The two players in this book celebrating intimate love are, no surprise, a man and a woman.

From beginning to end, God’s plan for human sexuality is clearly and beautifully portrayed as one man, for one woman, for life.


Throughout the Bible, marriage is used as a metaphor by God to describe the relationship between the groom, Jesus, and his bride, the church. In fact the Bible is book-ended by a man/woman marriage: Adam and Eve in Genesis, and Christ and the church in Revelation. From cover to cover, God’s plan for human sexuality is clearly and beautifully portrayed in the Bible as one man, for one woman, for life.

Why is this topic so contentious? Because for a Christian to wholeheartedly celebrate LGBTQIA lifestyles, they must go against the testimony of Scripture, the views of Jesus and the apostles, the understanding of the church for two millennia, and—many would add to this—the fundamentals of biology and reproduction. And for most Christians, that’s understandably far too great an ask.

Love (the half-way mark)


Well done, you made it. So we’ve looked at truth, from the perspective of the Christian God. What about love? Why should Christians love their LGBTQIA friends the most?

Many don’t. Many stop at truth. On meeting a gay person, all some Christians have to say is, in effect, “You’re wrong. You’re sinning.” Maybe they don’t even bother to engage at all, thinking that if someone has chosen a gay lifestyle, they’re beyond the reach of God’s grace—so why bother?

If Christians want to be like Jesus, they must love radically the way he loved.


If you’re reading this and you’ve been hurt by that kind of Christian, I want to say to you, I’m so sorry. It was wrong that you were treated like that. That’s not okay.

Being a Christian is about far more than believing the Bible. It’s not less than that, to be sure. But primarily, being a Christian is being a “little Christ”. That’s what the word Christian actually means. And the Jesus I know cared most for those who felt the most marginalised and the most distanced from God.

Love. Don’t marginalise.


I began by saying that the Zeitgeist and the media are pro-LGBTQIA. That is true. But it’s also true that, in 2015, same-sex attracted people and those who identify as gay are mistreated and misunderstood in many homes, families, schoolyards, workplaces and religious settings around the world. In some Islamic nations they are even put to death.

It’s the misunderstood and mistreated that, in my reading of the Bible, Jesus had the most time for. So if Christians want to be like Jesus, they’re not just going to hold radically to the truth he held to, they’re going to love radically the way he loved.

Let’s start with something simple. The blog you’re now reading was the sermon I preached last night to the church at which I’m a pastor. Last night, I dropped this one on our youth and young adults: using the word “gay” (or even the concept) as some sort of insult or joke is one of the quickest ways to completely undermine your witness for Jesus today. To many, it’s as offensive as the curse “Jesus Christ!” is to us. Convicted about this a few years ago I stopped doing it, expecting others would too—but I’ve continued to hear it in Christian circles. Let me be really frank: it absolutely has to stop.

Luke 7:36-50 tells a story, known to many Christians from Sunday School, about a prostitute (who elsewhere we discover is called Mary) who interrupts a lunch date between Jesus and a holier-than-thou Pharisee by the name of Simon.

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Christ at Simon the Pharisee | Sir Peter Paul Rubens | 1618

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Uninvited, she joins them and breaks an immensely expensive alabaster jar filled with perfume, pouring it over Jesus’ feet, mingling it with her tears. Kissing his feet over and over, she then dries them with her hair. (In the ancient world, only the lowliest of servants would touch feet stained by the dusty roads—so try to capture the gravity of this moment).

It’s a silly Victorian-era sensibility that has lead many Christians to follow the culture in marginalising the people they are called to love the most.


Simon’s internal thoughts are central to the story. He thinks to himself, “If Jesus was a prophet, he’d know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!

In other words, “Eww, she’s icky.” Sadly, for many who have grown up in the church, and who are also products of their schoolyards, their reaction is exactly this towards the same-sex attracted or gay. “Eww, they’re icky.” And it’s this silly Victorian-era sensibility that has lead many Christians to follow the culture in sidelining and marginalising and even hating the people they are called to love the most.

Christians, take the plank out


Let me get preachy. Christians, are we like Simon the Pharisee? Do we simply find homosexuality alien and distasteful, completely apart from any gospel convictions we might hold, apart from any desire to see people restored to sexual wholeness, enjoying their sexuality the way God intends? If so, that’s the flesh in us, not the Spirit. And it’s horrifically ugly.

Christians are quick to point out “big sins” like homosexuality. But are we as quick to recognise the sins in our own lives that make us just as unqualified for God’s kingdom?


One of the greatest ironies in this story (and one you’ll only find by looking at the parallel account in Mark 14:1-9), is that Simon the Pharisee used to be Simon the leper.

In that culture, disease made you unclean. Leprosy, like other sickness, was seen as evidence of your sinfulness. Culturally you were required to call out “unclean” as you walked down the street so all the nice “clean” people wouldn’t accidentally touch you on their way. Simon used to be that guy. Now here he is, cut and polished, well housed and fed, and looking down his nose condemningly at a prostitute.

Simon wasn’t guilty of so-called “big sins” like prostitution. His sins were more respectable. Petty sins like theft and greed and cheating and lying and breaking promises. Where did I pull those examples from? You remembered: they come straight out of the “vice lists” of 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1.

“I am as undeserving of God’s love as the worst of sinners, but Jesus rescued me. So how dare I look down my nose at people who sin differently to me?”


See like Simon, we Christians are often quick to point out that “big sins” like homosexuality are forbidden by God and bar people from heaven. But are we as quick to recognise that the sins in our own lives are equally as serious and make us just as unqualified for God’s kingdom? Sexual sin is also mentioned: that includes things like pornography and sex outside of marriage. Do we take them as seriously as we do homosexuality? According to God, we should.

The Gospel, remember!?


Jesus said that people like Mary who’ve been forgiven lots, love lots—and that people like Simon who’ve only been forgiven a bit, love only a bit. Truth be told, it’s not that Simon was only forgiven a bit. It’s that Simon thought he’d only been forgiven a bit. He was a true Pharisee. He had self-righteousness nailed. He had a black, judgmental heart. Christians, are we the same? Or do we realise just how much we’ve been forgiven?

“The gospel is this: We are at the same time more sinful than we could ever dare imagine, and more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope.”—Timothy Keller


I was once disqualified from God’s kingdom because of all my sins. I was once a spiritual leper, unclean and unwanted. What made me eligible for heaven and for a relationship with God had nothing to do with me cleaning my life up. It had everything to do with Jesus cleaning my life up for me. Jesus said to me, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.

I am as undeserving of God’s grace and kindness and love as the worst of sinners, but Jesus rescued me. So how dare I give up on anyone else, or look down my nose at people who sin differently to me?

Timothy Keller has said, “The gospel is this: We are at the same time more sinful than we could ever dare imagine, and more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope.”

Jesus came to us in our brokenness and sin and transformed us by his grace. If we can’t radically love our gay friends and family and neighbours, then we’ve completely missed everything he came to accomplish.

Our task isn’t to judge people outside of the community of believers for not living the right kind of lifestyle. It makes zero sense for Christians to assume that those who don’t know Jesus and don’t have the Holy Spirit empowering their lives, either can or want to live like a Christian. Our task isn’t to judge, but to love.

If we can’t radically love our gay friends and family and neighbours, we’ve completely missed everything Jesus came to accomplish.


The verse that directly follows 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says, “Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus.” Can someone turn around from a homosexual lifestyle? Absolutely they can. (The media won’t tell you these stories, but there are plenty out there). People did in Corinth, and people can today.

And whether God uses our love to work a new creation miracle in someone’s life, or whether our love makes no noticeable difference at all, we are still called to keep on loving. In the decades to come if we’re hauled before courts and dragged to prison for standing our ground (as many Christians fear—perhaps rightly), our commission remains the same: to love like Jesus.

Are people born gay or do they choose?


There’s one objection I haven’t addressed: “I was born gay: God made me like this, and surely he wants me to live a fulfilled life.”

Behind this idea is an assumption that says, “God made me perfect just the way I am.” That sounds great in greeting cards but it’s not a teaching of the Bible. Once again, a Christian’s view on Genesis as either myth or history has great relevance.

All of us are broken. Everyone struggles with sinful desires.


God did make creation perfect in the beginning, but we stuffed it up. At the fall of Adam and Eve, the world came under a curse, the effects of which we still experience daily—including in our genes. I was born with bad joints just like my mum, and a bad temper like my dad. Others are born with cleft palates and epilepsy—and genetics are also a factor in some mental illnesses. If we think all these things are perfect, why do advanced nations spend billions of dollars trying to fix them?

Every one of us is loved by God and made in his image, but we’re also full of imperfections. The reason the “born this way” versus “it’s a choice” debate has no relevance for Christians is because even if there are genetic factors in sexual orientation (which may well be the case), it’s actions, not attractions, that the Bible calls “sin”. All of us are broken. Everyone struggles with sinful desires.

The reason the “born this way” versus “it’s a choice” debate has no relevance for Christians is because it’s actions, not attractions, that the Bible calls sin.


The church of the future


Life is messy, and dealing with these realities in our lives won’t always be straightforward. But can I suggest four words for Christian communities to consider as we seek to love our LGBTQIA friends the most?

Community | As communities of believers, we absolutely need to be a soft place for people to land. What if this Sunday your friend sitting next to you in church turns to you and says, “I’ve never told anyone, but all my life I’ve felt same-sex attracted”? Without flinching, without a hint of “that’s icky”, without a word of judgment, we need to be able to turn to them and say, “I struggle with all sorts of things too. Isn’t it so good that we both have a home here.” The church is a hospital for the sick, not a museum for saints.

Healing | Many LGBTQIA people, including some who are friends of mine, can clearly point to an abusive event in their past that triggered same-sex attraction for them. This isn’t the cause for everyone, but it is certainly the cause for some. Jesus heals. He absolutely does. Churches need people equipped to walk that healing journey with those who have been hurt. I’m so thrilled to be part of a church that has such a ministry team. If your church is yet to equip such a group, what needs to happen for you to get there? What can you do?

The church is a hospital for the sick, not a museum for saints.


Sacrifice | For some people, on this side of eternity, same-sex attraction may remain a long-term struggle. Jesus and Paul talk about those who choose not to marry for the sake of the kingdom. That might be you. (Or you might happily marry heterosexually, but continue to deal with same-sex attraction). And it might not seem fair. Reality is, every Christian has a cross to carry. If life had gone a bit more according to my plan, I would have met and married the right person ten years ago. There are a lot of struggles that come with being a single 30 year old trying to live a pure life. But if you’re someone who chooses not to marry, more loudly than anyone else you are declaring to the world, “Jesus is enough”.

Identity | I look around in the media and the story I’m consistently hearing about homosexuality is that coming out is some sort of all-defining salvation experience. Coming out is literally promoted as the modern-day equivalent of being born again. In our world today, sexual experimentation is nothing less than a search for identity. Founding identity on sexuality is an empty promise, and one guaranteed to disillusion. Our sexuality is a great and awesome thing, but it wasn’t designed to bear a load so weighty. We are so much more than our desires. Sex is not the pinnacle human experience. Psalm 42 doesn’t say, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for sexual fulfilment”—but rather, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God.” Our sexuality isn’t our identity. Jesus is. Sex is good, but Jesus is far better. And he is enough.