The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, same-sex relationships and church membership: six problems (Long Read)

I don’t know about you but I’ve never really believed the adage that ‘All publicity is good publicity’. Allegedly it comes from Oscar Wilde who said ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’

Well, speaking of Oscar Wilde, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has sure been talked about over the last couple of weeks. Twitter storms, widespread media coverage inside Ireland and beyond, public resignations, and many and varied responses online all followed its debate on same-sex couples and membership at the 2018 General Assembly in Belfast.

People have asked me what I think; friends in other PCI churches have emailed telling of friends they have who have been exploring faith and coming to church now thinking of leaving; we’ve had animated family discussions around the dinner table and, as usual, I’ve learnt most from those. So here are some thoughts.

An online war of ‘gospel inclusivity’ versus ‘gospel purity’

I’m an elder in a local Presbyterian Church outside Dublin. For most people in it, Belfast and what goes on there during General Assembly is pretty much ‘out of sight out of mind.’ They are Presbyterian with a small ‘p’: people from all sorts of backgrounds, few with any family, cultural or theological ties to Presbyterianism who gather together to worship and try to follow Jesus.

But it’s hard to ignore the fall-out of GA 2018. It has long-term implications both in the official policy of the Church (that all Kirk Sessions are supposed to be trained in) and for the mission of local churches like ours (I can only speak of the context I am in)

Much social media I’ve looked at just dismisses ‘the other’ for being homophobic or a liberal depending on where you are coming from. It’s like an online war of ‘gospel inclusivity’ versus ‘gospel purity’ with both sides feeling virtue is on their side. So I’ll try (and probably fail) not to caricature and will quote from the Report and the PCI directly in aiming to be fair to its thinking and motives.

A point of clarification: this post is not discussing the rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships, ‘active’ or not. It’s responding to the process and new policy of the PCI.

The PCI statement can be seen here (pdf)

The actual report of the Doctrine Committee can be read here – go down to Appendix 2 (pdf)

‘Same-sex couples’ and a ‘credible profession of faith’

In case you have missed it, the furore has been about a Report from the Doctrine Committee of the PCI responding to a

a request from the General Council to prepare guidelines for Kirk Sessions to address the issue of same-sex couples who may seek communicant membership … or who may request the baptism of a child.

And the Doctrine Committee Report therefore focused on

the specific theological question of what constitutes a credible profession of faith and how it is to be understood and applied in these particular pastoral situations.

The ‘credible profession of faith’ is the key phrase: as the Report says

within the Reformed tradition the notion of a ‘credible profession’ is effectively a shorthand for not only a credible profession of Christ as Saviour but also a credible walk in obedience to him as Lord.

And the key conclusion of the Doctrine Committee was

In light of our understanding of Scripture and the Church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith it is clear that same sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children. We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ.

For non-Presby readers, the logic here is the covenant theology around infant baptism. The child obviously cannot make a profession of faith. The parents promise to bring up the child in the faith within the community of the church. To do so they should have a ‘credible profession of faith’ themselves. Since ‘same-sex’ couples have, in effect, an ‘incredible’ profession of faith, they cannot have their children baptised.

The Report was debated at the GA 2018. Rev Cheryl Meban proposed that the relevant parts of the Report (Appendix 2) not be received, but in the debate that motion did not succeed and the Report was adopted as the official position of the Church.

So, if that’s the story, how to interpret it? Here are some perspectives. These, of course, are my personal opinions. Always open to correction, learning from push-back, apology for misrepresentation. There are few more emotive and sensitive subjects than this one. Comments welcome.

Logically Consistent – what’s all the fuss?

Looking ‘logically’ at things, the vote is perfectly comprehensible. The PCI has produced several reports on Homosexuality over the years. They are gathered together in this document (pdf) which has a summary article by Prof Stephen Williams (2013), an original report (1979) and pastoral guidelines (2007). I’d recommend you read them if interested in hearing what the PCI is saying in its own words in officially agreed documents.

In the 2013 summary, it says

The position that has been clearly and consistently adopted in PCI is that homosexual activity is not consistent with Christian discipleship, since it does not accord with the will of God expressed in his moral law.

So, if ‘homosexual activity’ is inconsistent with Christian discipleship, and if ‘credible’ Christian discipleship is required to be a communicant member and have children baptised, therefore, when asked the question, the answer of the Doctrine Committee Report is hardly that surprising.

Fair enough? Not really. For what it’s worth, here’s why I think it is a deeply misguided decision.

6 Problems

  1. Pastorally deaf

The Doctrine Committee Report saw its job as answering one narrow question. In their own words:

The Committee approached this issue in the understanding that the General Assembly has already agreed pastoral guidelines on homosexuality and has offered substantial pastoral advice for Kirk Sessions.

So, after mentioning pastoral guidelines, they are then set aside, effectively irrelevant to the task. Doctrinal implications are then worked out to their logical end.

But when you actually read the pastoral guidelines of 2006, the tone and content is light years away from the abstract, logical and pastorally deaf conclusions of the 2018 proposals.

The 2007 Report was written specifically in request of a resolution of the 2006 General Assembly that accepted that there were homophobic attitudes within the PCI:

“That the General Assembly recognising homophobic attitudes within our Church and society request the Social Issues Panel to prepare guidelines to help our Church to develop more sensitive and effective pastoral care.”

Remember, this is also ‘official’ PCI policy. The 2007 Report says things like this:

many people in churches who have same sex attraction are afraid to be open about it for fear of how they will be treated by those in their church, amongst others. There is no reason to assume Presbyterians are any different. Representatives of the Gay Helpline state that they have regular calls from people belonging to PCI who are unwilling to disclose their same sex attractions.

It is clear that people of all ages who have same sex attractions are very reluctant to tell others because of fear, prejudice etc. Keeping their feelings hidden out of fear has a significant impact on mental health.

The Report tells several stories – here is one worth recounting in full:

Bob’s story. I was brought up in a strong, loving, Christian home and was very actively involved in a lively, evangelical Presbyterian church. I became a Christian when I was young and was well taught and have a real love for the Bible. I was very committed to the youth work in my church and tried to live for Christ and witness for Him inside and outside the Church. During my teens I began to realise that I was different. I found myself attracted to boys rather than girls. I didn’t choose it to be so, it just was. I resisted it, prayed against it. I understood well the Bibles’ teaching on homosexuality and wrestled to overcome my feelings and pretended to be like ‘the lads’. Eventually in my late teens I confided in a Christian friend. He continued to talk to and pray for me over a number of years. Knowing and respecting the churches teaching I practiced celibacy but felt alone, fearful and overwhelmed. The pressure of keeping it to myself, the feelings of shame, the guilt of feeling that I was living a lie and the fear of how the news would affect my parents and my church life eventually took its toll on my mental health. I had to take various medicines for depression and on one occasion came very close to committing suicide.

People in the church would crack jokes about ‘Gays’ and I just wanted to crawl into a hole. How could I open up to them when my struggles were joked about? I respect my minister and his teaching, but when homosexuality was mentioned in church the Biblical position of calling practising homosexuality sin was outlined without ever a word of compassion or understanding for people like me who were struggling so hard and hadn’t chosen to feel the way I did.

One of my greatest struggles was that I had always been brought up to respect and to tell the truth. Yet here I was living and telling lies to protect my family and myself. Eventually I felt I had no other option but to tell my parents about my struggles. They were devastated and so were my friends at church. It is devastating when all who made you and shaped and directed your life turn on you. I am not bitter, I still love my family and respect my church but when I really needed someone to listen to me without judgement, there was no one. I would love to be straight. It would cause so much less pain but for the sake of my own sanity I have eventually had to accept that I am gay. I am both a Christian who loves God and His word but I am also gay.

How I wonder does ‘Bob’ feel now in light of 2018?

It seems to me that the message he, and everyone like him has received, is that the Church has gone backwards, not forwards in its attitudes since 2007. It is not a safe space to share struggles with sexuality. It’s better to keep quiet, whatever the cost. You are not welcome here.

  1. Missionally disastrous

I also wonder about the internal politics of the Church that led the General Council to ask the Doctrine Committee to give an answer to this one specific hypothetical scenario. It seems to me to be an intentional ‘marker’ of orthodoxy setting the Church against a rapidly liberalising culture, particularly around sexuality and gender.

Now I have no concerns about the Church of Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the state let’s not forget, being counter-cultural. That is its job. I agree that a Christian sexual ethic is, and will seem increasingly, bizarre within Western late-modern culture. So be it.

But why proceed in such an oppositional, defensive and exclusionary way? It feels a bit like those under siege, retreating to the Keep, drawing up the ramparts and taking up arms, fearful of the surrounding hoards.

It feels like a retreat from conversation and engagement. Whereas the 2007 Report made serious efforts to dialogue, this is theology done in a vacuum, abstracted from real people.

Such an approach is, in post-Christendom, missionally disastrous. It speaks of a Church Community speaking only to itself. I would have thought that after the 2007 Report, there would have been a sense of humility at homophobia within the Church (that the Church itself acknowledged) and a sensitivity to the relational impact of such a Report.

There is a flood of good theological thinking and practice out there on learning from the multitudes of people exiting institutional Christianity. It is exactly this type of bureaucratic, abstract and un-relational process that puts post-Christendom people off denominations.

A theme that keeps coming up around gender and sexuality is the need to listen, to learn and to apologise for how attitudes and actions in the Church have hurt people like Bob. This isn’t ‘selling out’ beliefs on what the Bible teaches, it is being relational as well as doctrinal.

I’m afraid that this PCI process and Report lacks humility, of learning from the Other and of generous hospitality to those different from ‘Us’. Its tone is that ‘We have nothing to learn’ and we are putting up boundary fences instead.

I’m writing something related to 1 Corinthians at the moment. There is perhaps no more relevant letter in the NT for contemporary Western culture. Yes, Paul puts boundaries around Corinthian sexual behaviour (among other things) but he does so passionately, compassionately, persuasively and lovingly as a father who cares for his children.

This is how theology works – in relationship, inspiring, exhorting, encouraging Christians to live a life worthy of the Gospel. Passing a hypothetical rule about a specific sin that rules hypothetical people out of membership and being able to baptise their children does not seem very biblical to me.

  1. Hierarchy of sin

Choosing to focus on ‘same-sex sin’ as a bar to membership also gives the impression that the PCI has a hierarchy of sin, with same-sex relationships at the top. There are innumerable other sins that Presbyterians commit but are not (as far as I know) specifically singled out to be examined when it comes to membership and baptismal promises.

The irony is, when it comes to infant baptism, it has been the church’s failure to practice it consistently which has all but destroyed the integrity of baptism within Christendom Reformed churches. (See David F Wright’s book, What has infant baptism done to baptism: An Enquiry at the end of Christendom?). The notion of a ‘credible profession of faith’ has been given lip-service for generations. To start tightening up sacramental discipline with same-sex couples speaks of double standards. I know many cases of couples who hardly, if ever, appear in church or show ‘visible’ signs of a living faith, suddenly appearing for a baptism of their baby. Or of couples living together being welcomed as members with no questions asked.

Paul’s ‘sin-lists’ in the NT are pretty catholic in their scope – greed, gluttony, envy, pride, hetero-sexual sin and others all appear and more. If the Church is serious about stricter sacramental discipline, then how is this going to happen? Are other sins going to be specified as that which exclude people from communicant membership?

Now the Doctrine Committee report is aware of this:

The Doctrine Committee recognises the danger of giving the impression that there is the only area where sacramental discipline might apply. However, the current request to the Doctrine Committee asks for guidance in one particular area.

So, the Committee was aware of the problem but, in effect, seem simply to have pressed ahead with their remit anyway. The danger foreseen is now fulfilled: same-sex relationships DO seem to be treated in a distinct way to every other sin when it comes to sacramental discipline.

In contrast, the 2007 Report on pastoral guidelines says this

When we condemn homosexual practice in isolation or single it out as somehow worse than other sexual practices outside of heterosexual marriage then we demonstrate homophobic attitudes.

I’ll say no more.

  1. No consideration of pastoral accommodation

The motive for this Report was to give guidelines to Kirk Sessions (elders) within the PCI. Apart from laying down a law, I am not clear what guidelines are being given.

Not only is there a lack of guidance to elders on how to approach the ‘straight-forward’ hypothetical situation of a same-sex couple seeking membership and / or baptism of their children, there is no discussion of other likely scenarios.

What, for example, of the following example? (I have no agenda in the one that follows. I am just trying to show that the PCI process has not addressed pastoral realities and passing a law is an inadequate approach. I am sure you can think of other scenarios.)

A legally married same-sex couple, with children, become Christians. They want to become members of the church. What should elders do? To obey the recent decision of the GA 2018, such a couple cannot become members and baptise their children. Should they be advised to get divorced and split up the family? What if they stayed married, but celibate? Or can some form of pastoral accommodation be worked out on a case by case basis?

A useful book discussing alternative theologies of same-sex is Sprinkle, P. (ed) 2016. Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church. Grand Rapids. Zondervan. I’m going to zone in on one of the contributors, Baptist theologian Steve Holmes, because he, like the PCI, argues on the non-affirming side. His chapter carefully considers the arguments for Christian same-sex marriage, and for a new form of relationships to be accepted – like Robert Song’s ‘Covenantal Partnerships’. He is not persuaded by arguments for either of these two options (and the book itself gives space for other views which do).

But Holmes addresses a crucial question that the PCI does not – what then does the church do with a situation like the one above? Holmes opens up the question of pastoral accommodation.

“If the Christian theology of marriage is not extensible to same-sex couples, and if there is no space for a new discipline of ‘covenantal partnerships’ that includes sexual activity, what are we left with? The answer, it seems to me, is pastoral accommodation. Churches that believe same-sex partnerships to be wrong might nonetheless find space within the life for people living in such partnerships out of pastoral concern.” (191)

He refers to how Protestant churches have made space like this for divorced people out of pastoral concern. Most now allow remarriage. In Africa, some churches have done similar with regard to polygamy. He says

“We must at least ask ourselves how we can refuse to give the same permission to gay people.”

The PCI Report makes no mention of pastoral accommodation. To begin to answer it, the PCI should, I think, be considering the sort of issues Holmes’ raises. To leave things as they stand after the GA 2018 is deeply unsatisfactory:

  • If addressing issues of sexual practice and discipleship, then there should be a renewed emphasis on sexual ethics for straight people. How can the Church do this before making judgements that exclude same-sex couples?
  • Holmes says “general rules or guidelines are almost always unhappy”. And “pastoral questions are properly answered at the level of individual lives, not at the level of generic themes”. Sadly, the PCI did not take this view. Going forward, there needs to be more thinking about pastoral practice.
  • How do we approach issues of discipleship around sexually active converts in non-marriage relationships (whether same-sex or opposite sex) if they have joined the church? Is it consistent? Will there be limitations on areas of service into which they are invited?
  • How will the church relate to gay and lesbian church members who come out? What space will there be for them to open and honest about their sexuality? What if they are married and likely with children? How can the church support all the family in their discipleship in such a scenario?
  1. Loose language

A not insignificant point in the loose language of the Doctrine Committee Report. Throughout it talks of ‘same-sex couples’. Nowhere does it distinguish between a couple who may, out of Christian conviction, be in a non-sexual same-sex relationship. What difference might that make to communicant membership?

  1. Love

It is unfair to say that the Doctrine Committee Report does not mention love – it does here.

In this context it is important to emphasise that the Church invites and welcomes all who wish to sit under the means of grace at public services and to have access to the pastoral care and counsel available within her fellowship. Like her Lord, she reaches out to all with love and compassion. This posture of grace and welcome should not in itself be confused with moral indifference or approval of any behaviour contrary to God’s Word. It is rather the warmest of invitations to receive Christ Jesus as both Lord and Saviour in all of life.

The problem with this is, it is one thing to claim for yourself that you reach ‘out to all with love and compassion’ but it is of much more relevance to ask ‘Do the people you are reaching out to feel loved?’

I’m afraid that there is very little likelihood that the process and the Report would make a gay person feel loved. It is also pretty unlikely that they would have any prospect of feeling ‘moral indifference or approval’!  It is hard to feel that it represents ‘the warmest of invitations to receive Christ’.

Overall this final paragraph feels hollow in light of the overall content, tone and pastoral insensitivity of the process.

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Voting No on abortion – a personal view from Trevor Morrow

Credit: RTE

Trevor Morrow is a friend, ex-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and retired minister of Lucan Presbyterian, our Maynooth Community Church’s ‘mother church’.

Here are his reasons for voting NO tomorrow in the Referendum, published in the Irish Times yesterday.

Since the only choice before us in 2018 is ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, I feel that I am forced, however reticently, to vote ‘No’

I claim a strange yet personal connection to our Constitution, as one of my predecessors as minister of Lucan Presbyterian Church, Rev. Dr. James Irwin (a great friend of de Valera) helped to draft some of the original document. In his shadow I came to Lucan as a minister in 1983, the same year, coincidently, that the 8th Amendment was added to its text. Thirty-five years on, we are being asked to vote on this amendment again.

I have always had a profound sense that one of the unique characteristics of Irish society is the inherent value that we place on human life – bound up in the shared values that are at the heart of our culture.

From the generous way we give to famine relief, to the manner in which villages and towns throughout Ireland welcomed and celebrated the Special Olympians, to our consistent openness to welcoming strangers from overseas – our cherishing of life has always been about reaching out and being hospitable. This referendum is about life and that is why, for most of us, it creates a dilemma.

As a pastor I am only too familiar with the ‘hard cases’. I think specifically of a mother whose life was nearly destroyed by having to carry, by law, her anencephalic baby to full term. I can see the reasons for wanting to repeal the 8th. On the other hand, many advocating a ‘Yes’ vote do not seem to want to talk about the unborn child whose life is taken when abortion is performed. Human life is sacred. This persuades me to retain the 8th. That’s the dilemma.

Sadly, the Government has not given us citizens a meaningful third option in this referendum – it is simply retain or repeal, all or nothing. For those of us who want to honour the sanctity of human life, while at the same time recognising the exceptional circumstances, there is a profound wrestling within our conscience about how to vote.

I would have preferred something like the tweaking or rewording of the 8th to allow for these ‘hard cases’, while continuing to recognise the sanctity of the lives of the unborn within our Constitution. Instead the Government has proposed that we remove the 8th and allow the Oireachtas to legislate so as to permit unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks and on health grounds after 12 weeks.

David Steel, a Presbyterian and the son of a former Church of Scotland moderator, introduced comparable legislation in Britain in 1967. It was motivated by Christian compassion for women and to avoid the scandal of backstreet abortions, but it has led to the loss of over eight million lives.

Since the only choice before us in 2018 is ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, I feel that I am forced, however reticently, to vote ‘No’. To allow unrestricted killing of our offspring in the first 12 weeks of life, which would in effect be foeticide, is surely incompatible with human dignity and morally unacceptable?

In our faith community I see the Christian scriptures speaking consistently of the importance and value of human life, including that of the unborn. But you do not have to share my faith, or my worldview, to regard every human life as being special. Indeed, I believe the vast majority of my fellow citizens hold this view.

It is for this reason that I am a passionate supporter of readily accessible and appropriate care and support in the perinatal period and beyond for every woman, child and family. Ensuring such provision for those who experience a crisis pregnancy should be the highest priority for Government.

May 25th is not simply about voting to retain or repeal, it is about who we are as a country. It is about how we value human life.

Very Rev. Dr. Trevor Morrow is minister emeritus of Lucan Presbyterian Church and a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

 

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (6): the Church as a Community of Life

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

This is the final post in a series on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

This post will focus on the practical implications of the theology outlined in the previous posts.

What does it look like for the church to be a ‘community of life’ within a ‘culture of death’?

Hays argues that if the biblical paradigms (post 4) were put into practice within the church, then abortion would hardly ever be necessary within the Christian community.

There could be some exceptions. Can the Church act ‘in fear and trembling under the guidance of the Spirit’ to identify those extreme exceptions? Hays suggests such cases: pregnancy as a result of rape or incest [not allowed under Irish law]; and abortions performed to save the life of the mother [are allowed under current Irish legislation].

He also raises the issue of disability. Advances in prenatal testing have been significant since Hays wrote (1996). In the UK, non-invasive screening for Down Syndrome and other genetic conditions is becoming standard.

His position is that

the New Testament summons the community to eschew abortion and thus undertake the burden of assisting the parents raise the handicapped child.

Where abortion is practiced, he argues that

The tragedy is primarily the tragedy of a church that has abdicated its call to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The New Testament envisions a more excellent way.”

The Church in the World

But how then is this community of life to live and witness within the world?

This is a question that tends not to get asked when it comes to Christian campaigns against abortion.

I may be wrong and am happy to be corrected, but it seems as if there is little reflection on the distinction between the church and the world. This suggests to me that there are deep unexamined Christendom assumptions at play like Ireland is, or should be, a ‘Christian country’. This leads towards urgent calls to action that I saw somewhere recently that Christians have a few weeks to ‘save’ Irish society.

Hays calls for Christians to recognise some realities. He writes in an American context.

How does what he writes apply to contemporary Ireland do you think? What are your reactions to these points?

1) Christians “cannot coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture.”

2) Christians should “recognize the futility of seeking to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion.”

3) This is not to advocate withdrawal from society or to propose some sort of dualistic spirituality of the sacred and secular. It is to recognise that Christian rejection of abortion is dependent on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Word – and that the world will never share that rationale for terminating abortion.

4) Christians in post-Christian Ireland need to recognise that we stand as outsiders to our culture. Our primary task is to be a counter-cultural witness. In other words, a community of compassion and love that acts as a neighbour to the desperate, weak and vulnerable; which bears the burdens of others and imitates Jesus in his inclusion of the marginalised.

5) This means that the calling of the church in regard to abortion in Ireland is to show the world an alternative way of life to one in which abortion seems an ‘obvious’ choice. Hays proposes that

“The world needs to be shown another way, not forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’”

I think this is relevant when it comes to the 8th Amendment. From its inception it has been a controversial piece of legislation designed to enforce and copper-fasten Catholic morality on abortion on Irish society in perpetuity. That was the whole reason to add it to the Constitution. I’m not at all questioning the sincerity of those who supported that move – their motive was to protect the unborn from abortion ever arriving in Ireland. But I suspect part of the groundswell of opposition to the 8th today comes from its ethos of legal imposition on what is now a post-Catholic / post-Christian culture.

In contrast to using the power of the law, Hays proposes that the

“The first and most basic task is for the community to act in ways that embody its commitment to receiving life as a gift from God.”

And he closes the chapter giving several examples of the deep cost such a commitment would entail. Here is one, written by William Durland

We should not look to the state to compel women to complete, nor allow them to terminate, a pregnancy. Rather, God calls us to be our own people and our own community – to witness to the world’s scandal, to love and bind up those harmed by its values. If the energy now being poured into attempts to affect Supreme Court decisions were dedicated to establishing viable alternatives to abortion and substantive support and long-range care for victimized women, “unwanted” children and families struggling with poverty, mental illness and domestic violence, perhaps we would begin to see Christian community being born in our midst – a light to the nations and a sure refuge for these needy ones.

Young Irish Christians I talk to have been profoundly alienated from both pro-life and pro-choice politics. It is precisely this sort of voice that they say they have not heard in the Irish abortion debate. As a result, I suspect a surprising number of young Irish Christians may vote ‘Yes’ on 25 May. If so, I think this represents a tragic failure of the church to articulate – and embody – a loving and theologically informed response to the challenge of abortion.

The commitment Durland calls for cannot be made lightly. It calls Christians to inconvenient self-sacrifice, generosity and willingness to open up their lives and communities to those in need. As Hays says

“In other words, it would find itself living as the church envisioned by the New Testament.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (5): tradition, reason, experience

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

In the last post, in the light of how the Bible has pretty well nothing explicit to say to the modern practice of abortion, we discussed Richard Hays’ hermeneutical proposals around these themes

  • God the life-giver
  • Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
  • Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
  • Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty

But there are also other sources for thinking theologically about abortion – namely those of Tradition, Reason and Experience.

(1) TRADITION

Christian tradition against abortion is long-lived, strong and consistent. Early evidence points to Christian counter-cultural witness against pagan practices of infanticide and abortion.

The Didache (late 1st Cent or early 2nd Cent manual of Christian teaching) contrasts the ‘way of life’ against ‘the way of death’ (language that speaks eloquently into the reality of modern abortion practice as well).

“You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor shall you kill one who has been born.”

The entire historic Christian tradition has consistently rejected abortion. Any shift towards acceptance of abortion by some branches of modern liberal Protestantism is utterly out of step with the traditional teaching of the church catholic.

(2) REASON

It is in the area of reason that most contemporary secular arguments for abortion are based. ‘Pro-choice’ arguments on a leaflet dropped through our door and arguments made in general debate include the following:

  • A woman may not procure an abortion in Ireland on the grounds of rape or if she is carrying a child who will not survive after birth. Pro-Life arguments are “cruel” to such women (moral and philosophical arguments around women’s rights and well-being).
  • Over 150,000 women have travelled to Britain for an abortion since 1983 when the 8th Amendment was introduced (pragmatic arguments that since it is happening, it should be made legal in Ireland).
  • Many women take abortifacient pills unregulated in Ireland (medical arguments for abortion as safer for women who will have one anyway).
  • The 8th Amendment equates a woman’s life to that of an embryo (legal arguments on the status of a person).
  • Rejection of arguments that abortion increases risk of suicide and depression (psychological arguments on the health of the mother)
  • Abortion law as a misogynistic affront to a women’s right to have control over her own body (feminist liberation argument)
  • An embryo is not a person (scientific arguments about consciousness, personhood and when human life begins)

There are other arguments, but you get the picture.

Reason is the arena where the abortion referendum is being played out. It is primarily a political, cultural and legal debate, with competition for the moral high ground (defence of the rights of the unborn versus assertion of the rights of women to make autonomous choice regarding abortion).

Here’s the danger for Christians in this debate: all too easily Christians jump right into the middle of these arguments without much awareness that they represent a double-edged sword. Double edged in that these arguments inhabit the thought-world of secular rationalism.

If Christians choose to try to win the argument within these terms I think that they have already conceded defeat before they begin. They become just one more pressure group talking the language of law, reason, pragmatism, rights, psychology, medicine and individual choice. They have nothing particularly distinctive to say. They have (perhaps unconsciously) abandoned the thought world of the New Testament in favour of the thought world of secular rationalism.

To be honest, I am dismayed by how so much Christian activism against Repeal the 8th has taken the form of primarily secular rationalist arguments – whether legal, medical, rights based, pragmatic, or psychological. They have, as a result, had little to say to the Church in helping people frame a Christian response to the issue of abortion.

I’m not saying that a Christian rejection of abortion is irrational – far from it. It makes strong, consistent, moral and ethical sense – but it is an argument that is coherent and compelling within the thought world of the New Testament.

Ok, you may be wondering what I am talking about. Maybe some examples will help.

Richard Hays give 6 examples of “fundamentally inappropriate” ways for Christians to frame their opposition to abortion.

i).  It is inappropriate for Christians to set up the issue as one of competing ‘rights’ – the right of the pregnant woman versus the right of the unborn child. This is not the language of the Bible or Christian theology. No-one has a ‘right to life’ nor a ‘right’ to do what they will with their own bodies. All life is a gift from God, no one can claim ‘rights’ over it. A Christian’s body is not their own (1 Cor 6:19-20).

ii). It is inappropriate for Christians to see the issue as a ‘right to privacy’ or purely a matter of individual choice. No Christian is an unaccountable free-floating individual. She or he is called to be a faithful disciple within a community of faith.

iii). For Christians to appeal to the ‘sacredness of life’ is, Hays says, a ‘sacred cow that has no basis in the New Testament.’ God is the life-giver, this is why Christians respect life, not because of life itself.

iv). It is not a Christian argument to appeal to the question of ‘When does life begin?’ or ‘Is the foetus a person?’. There is no clear scientific or biblical answer to these questions. Usually they are asked with the agenda of defining certain conditions as outside human personhood in order to justify abortion. ‘Jesus’ persistent strategy was, on the contrary, to define marginal cases in.’

v). Deeply anti-Christian is the ‘quality of life’ argument – “no unwanted child ought ever to be born.” Christian witness from Jesus and the church has been to receive the marginalised, unwanted, and rejected – not to ‘put them out of their misery’. Such arguments rationally lead to infanticide and euthanasia of anyone deemed not to have a suitable ‘quality of life’.

vi). Christians should stay well away from feeble consequentialist arguments against abortion like ‘What if Mary had aborted Jesus?’ Such silly questions merely reinforce how the NT never engages in such consequentialist speculation. As Hays says, it never asks ‘What will happen if I do x?’ but it asks ‘What is the will of God?’.

(3) EXPERIENCE

The appeal to experience is probably the most significant factor in the Irish abortion debate.

Proponents of abortion appeal constantly to the experience of women forced to travel to Britain or forced to give birth to a child with a severe disability or forced to carry a child conceived by rape.

Opponents of abortion counter with arguments about the psychological and physical risks of abortion.

Such arguments are going to go back and forth and will be inconclusive one way or the other.

For Christians to base their support or rejection of abortion primarily on experience is to venture into a quagmire of competing claims.

 

Comments, as ever, welcome.

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (4): biblical paradigms

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

If the Bible says little or nothing directly about abortion, then we need to reflect theologically on the issue, using the wider framework of the Bible’s rich teaching on God as the creator and author of life.

Hundreds of texts proclaim God as one from whom all life comes into being. For example, this is true of the beginnings of both Testaments: Genesis 1-2 in the Old and John 1 in the New (where the ‘In the beginning’ of John 1:1 echoes Genesis 1:1).

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:3-4).

Similarly, in Colossians 1:15-16

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.

For Richard Hays this means

“Wherever new life begins to develop in any pregnancy, the creative power of God is at work, and Jesus Christ, who was the original agent of creation, has already died for the redemption of the incipient life in utero. That is why Barth can say, “The true light of the world shines already in the darkness of the mother’s womb.” We are privileged to participate in the creative work of God through begetting and bearing and birthing children, but there can be no new life without the generative power of God.” (450)

This means that life is not ours to do with as we will. Intentionally to end a pregnancy “is not only to commit an act of violence but also to assume responsibility for destroying a work of God” (450).

(The abortion debate directly relates to other life and death questions around euthanasia, suicide as well as war and non-violence. To be consistent, Christians who are against abortion should I think also be committed to not taking life in those circumstances as well).

In this framework, it is a distraction to get into arguments of when a foetus becomes a ‘person’ – he or she is a manifestation of the creative life-giving power of God.

If all life is a gift and does not belong to us, this means that to end life is an extreme act. As Hays says, there might be extreme circumstances in which it may be warranted (I assume he has in mind here examples like fatal foetal abnormality or a major medical risk of the life of the mother) but such action would be very rare and require compelling evidence.

Three lines of metaphorical reasoning

To develop his argument, Hays gives three lines of metaphorical reasoning – three ways the theological world of the New Testament overlaps with the contemporary practice of abortion.

1. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

The subversive double point of the parable is that (1) to love your neighbour means loving your enemy (2) it is the hated Samaritan who shows rather than receives mercy.

In relating this to abortion, Hays argues that the point is not that the foetus is somehow a ‘neighbour’. Rather, it is that we are called to become neighbours to the weak, powerless and helpless. Like the Good Samaritan, to go beyond boundaries to offer life-sustaining care to those whom we naturally would not consider worthy of our compassion.

Such life-giving care would go out to the mother in a ‘crisis pregnancy’ as well as the unborn child.

Such an approach subverts legalistic questions such ‘Is the foetus a person?’ Hays is compelling here – such a question is like the lawyer’s to Jesus: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ He wanted to know so he could limit his obligation of care. Questions about the personhood of an unborn child have behind them a desire to limit obligation and care – ultimately by killing the life it represents if it is not ‘defined’ as a ‘person’.

Instead, Jesus widens the scope of those to whom we have moral obligation. He tells us at the end of the story to “Go and do likewise.”

2. The Jerusalem Community (Acts 4:32-35)

Let’s remind ourselves of Hay’s approach to thinking ethically about abortion.

“The first task of normative reflection about New Testament ethics is to form the thought and practice of the Christian community.” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 445.)

Hays is doing that here. This text is well-known. ‘There was not a needy person among them’.  His point is that within the church there can be no grounds for abortion on economic grounds or on the incapacity for the mother to look after the child. Within the community of the people of God, sharing and love are the answer, not abortion. For the church to acquiesce in abortion on pragmatic grounds is to fail in its vocation to be a radical community that bears one another’s burdens.

Church discipline is also relevant. Men need to be held responsible for children they father: by supporting the woman emotionally and financially; and by being there for the child as it grows up. Within the community of faith they do not do this alone – it can take a community to raise a child and support a family through love, support, prayer and encouragement.

3. The Imitation of Christ

Hay’s third paradigm is the imitation of Christ (Rom 15:1-7; 1 Cor 11:1; Gal 6:2; Phil 2:1-11). The Christian life is cross-shaped. It means giving up rights for the sake of others just as Jesus did.t is a life lived in relationship with others, often at significant cost and inconvenience.

Hays applies this to abortion this way. The pregnant woman cannot just be told ‘You must have the baby, abortion is wrong’ or some such moral imperative. Or the example Hays gives of ‘You must imitate Christ by suffering for the sake of this child.’ Rather, if one part of the body is in difficulty the whole body experiences the trial. While only the woman carries the baby, the church community as a whole can assume the responsibility of caring for the mother and the child when it is born. This is what it means to be a community of welcome. Hays remarks that

“If this proposal sounds impractical, that is merely a measure of how far the church has drifted from its foundation in the New Testament.”

Abortion as a test of authentic Christian community

Examples like these begin to shape imagination, thinking and behaviours that inform an authentically Christian response to the question of abortion.

  • God the life giver
  • Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
  • Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
  • Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty

This is why the question of abortion for Christians is one that first challenges the church and its radical practice of welcome, care, generosity, community and love.

For those in Ireland, how much have you heard this perspective articulated and discussed amongst Christians and churches in the Referendum debate?

How would it change the debate?

If it has been pretty well absent, why is this do you think?

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (3): What does the Bible say?

Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

So what does the Bible say? At one level, the answer to this question is simple – nothing. No text addresses the issue directly.

In a sense this is not that surprising – here’s why. In Scripture, children are seen as a wonderful blessing from God. Not only is the child to be loved, but children are a source of security and a guarantee of future lineage. In the OT in particular, childlessness is a terrible affliction, so having children is a source of great joy

Children are a heritage from the  Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

Psalm 127:3-5

In this sense, the Bible portrays a world, as Hays puts it, “in which abortion would be not so much immoral as unthinkable or unintelligible.” (449)

Various texts are sometimes marshalled to provide biblical support for opposition to abortion. But none of them comment specifically to the issue, and the use of some texts is far-fetched.

To cite Exodus 20:13 “You shall not murder” as an anti-abortion text is to beg the question. Yes, it can be claimed that abortion is murder in the sense that it is intentional killing of a human person. But such a view depends on how human personhood is defined. And Exodus 20:13 says nothing to that question.

The text probably most commonly cited is Psalm 139:13-16

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

Now, this text is relevant in relation to modern debate about abortion, but like any text it needs to be read in context. A Psalm of David, its focus is not a general statement about the status of the unborn, but a song in praise of God’s loving omniscience and foreknowledge, specifically his providential hand of blessing upon David in the face of potentially deadly opposition. Such a lyrical poem is at best only tangentially related to the issue of abortion.

Similar comments can be made about Luke 1:44 (Elizabeth’s child leaping in her womb). The text is Christological – focused on the unique identity of Mary’s son Jesus. As Hays comments, “To extrapolate from this text … a general doctrine of the full personhood of the unborn is ridiculous and tendentious exegesis.” The issue of abortion is simply not in view.

And also Matthew 19:14 “‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Again, to try to use this text about children as one which somehow speaks against abortion can only, as Hays puts it, “be judged as an embarrassing instance of decontextualized prooftexting.”

We should pause here for a moment to acknowledge the fact of the paucity of Bible texts that address, even indirectly, the issue of modern abortion. Understandably, some Christians will either not want to acknowledge this fact or will try to make some texts say far more than they actually do say about abortion. Neither move is helpful.

Better upfront to recognise that, when it comes to modern abortion practice, the lack of direct biblical teaching means that we will need to look at broader biblical principles in order to develop a considered theological response to a contemporary issue.

This is not at all unusual. While there are many contemporary issues that are addressed directly in Scripture (think of how much the Bible has to say about money for example), obviously there are many which are not (think artificial intelligence for example). We do not live in the biblical world, but Christians affirm that the ancient text, inspired by the Spirit, continues to speak powerfully and relevantly into our world. Bridging the gap between the two worlds is what hermeneutics (the methodology of interpreting the text) is all about.

More on that in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (2): Minding our Language

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

“The first task of normative reflection about New Testament ethics is to form the thought and practice of the Christian community.” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 445.)

What Hays argues here is crucial to the challenge of thinking about abortion. Where do we begin? In the last post I listed some possible jumping off points. But notice how none of them fulfil Hay’s primary task above.

Debates about whether the foetus is a person with inalienable human rights is language and thought foreign to the New Testament. Focusing on practical arguments against, and negative implications of, abortion fails to ‘think Christianly’ about the issue.

For example, arguments about the high level of safety for giving birth in Ireland, the negative impact on the life-saving ethos of the Irish health system, the traumatic impact on many women, how abortion favours men, possible gender selection and abortion as a form of euthanasia could be made (and are) by those with absolutely no Christian commitment.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of these are good arguments in their own right. But they are political and pragmatic arguments that fit the norms of secular pluralism. If this is the primary language Christians have for opposing abortion, then we are failing to be salt and light to the world.

For what is the church but a community of disciples called to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord? Our thinking and practice for all of life is to be shaped by this story above all others. To use political and pragmatic arguments against abortion is to fail to articulate who we truly are and what we believe.

At the risk of getting side-tracked, there are, I think, at least three reasons Christian opposition to abortion tends to be framed in the language of secular pluralism. Feel welcome to add your thoughts on comments on others

i) We hope that we will get a better hearing from those in power if ‘religious’ ideas and language are avoided. In other words, we play the political game on its own terms.

ii) We have deep (perhaps explicit, perhaps unconscious) assumptions that society should and can be shaped by ‘Christian values’ and that it is our job to ‘save’ or ‘transform’ Irish society. Our focus is outward, on seeking to influence and shape the public sphere. There tends to be a blurring of distinction between the church and the world.

iii) A more negative one – we don’t actually believe what we say we believe. When push comes to shove, it is in politics and power that we trust to bring justice and hope, not the foolishness of a crucified Messiah. We put all our hopes and energy and money and time in the political process.

So, following Richard Hays and others, when it comes to abortion I’m suggesting that our language needs first and foremost to be that which is forming the thought and practice of the Christian church as an alternative kingdom community in the world.

Hays puts it this way

“Regardless of what others may do or think, regardless of what the law allows, how shall we as people who belong to Jesus Christ live faithfully under the gospel with regard to our treatment of the issues of pregnancy, abortion and childbearing?” (445)

To begin to answer those questions we need to think biblically and theologically for this is the language of the people of God (next post).

But notice how this also shifts the focus of the discussion.

Rather than ‘by-passing’ the Bible and theology and jumping straight to the politics of the world, we first must do business with what Scripture says – and does not say. And we need to listen hard what the issue of abortion says to us – to the Christian community. In other words, abortion is not an issue ‘out there’ which we sit ‘above’ in moral purity, it is one which will challenge our practice and priorities.

It is one thing to be against something, but a deeper challenge is how can the church embody a life-giving alternative vision of a world without abortion?

Comments, as ever, welcome.