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I am a Fundamentalist

I am a Christian fundamentalist.

This may come as a surprise to you if you have read anything else on this blog. It will come as a surprise to you if you have ever actually met me in person.

It was a bit of a shock to me when I realised, to be honest.

I came to this realisation on the street one day when I was talking to some street preachers who had pressed some of their leaflets into my hand. They started to tell me that it was wrong to be gay (although they probably used the word ‘homosexual’). In the course of this discussion I said the thing that made me realise I am a fundamentalist.

“What does the Bible say? I base my belief of what is right and wrong on that.”

That is a statement that many self-described fundamentalists seem to think belongs to them. It is their shibboleth, their unique selling point. As the discussion continued I did something else profoundly fundamentalist. I quoted passages of scripture, chapter and verse, and talked about what they mean. Again, that is something that many self-described fundamentalists think is something that belongs to them, and them alone. If that is the case then I am a fundamentalist.

Of course, that isn’t the case. It isn’t just the self-described fundamentalist Christians who base their belief of what is right and wrong on the Bible. Lots of Christians do. In fact, I’ve never met a Christian who doesn’t. Many fundamentalists describe themselves as “Bible-believing Christians”, which carries the unfortunate implication that other Christians do not believe it. The truth of the matter is that all Christians are “Bible-believing Christians”. Not all Christians believe that the Bible teaches the same thing – witness the plethora of denominations – but they all believe the Bible.

Scifientology

A few weeks ago I was in a Catholic holy shop that sold various things like Bibles, prayer cards, and religious statues and ornaments. I wasn’t buying anything, I was just there with Michael as he was browsing.

A week or two after that I was in a comic book store. I didn’t go in for anything in particular – I’m not a comic book store kind of guy – but I did browse for a bit. It struck me that the comic book store was similar to the holy shop. It sold books and magazines that people revere (in some senses at least) and had statues and ornaments that featured characters and scenes from those revered texts. In both shops, patrons bought these statues to decorate their homes with objects that had meaning to them.

Although I’m not massively into religious iconography, and I’m really not into comic book paraphernalia, I don’t think there is anything wrong with any of this. How people choose to spend their money and decorate their homes is entirely up to them. Indeed, seeing the parallel between religious and secular icons has helped me understand why people would want, say, a statue of Iron Man. The role that an icon of the Virgin Mary plays in the life of a Catholic is somewhat similar to the role a picture of C3PO plays in the life of an avid Star Wars fan.

I am a lightweight sci-fi fan and I do follow some of the relevant forums. Recently I saw another parallel between sci-fi and Christianity. Sometimes the discussions about sci-fi are full of passion. There are theories that hang on precise interpretation of particular words and phrases, put forward by fans who are convinced that they understood every last detail. There are theological ideas that hang on precise interpretation of particular words and phrases, put forward by Christians who are convinced they understand every last detail. Once again, I don’t see anything wrong with this.

Where it does get weird, and where I do have a problem is where fundamentalists (be they Christian or Scifientologist) encounter other fundamentalists with incompatible theories (or, to a lesser extent liberals like me who don’t feel they have to understand every last detail). That never ends well. In those circumstances people just can’t agree to differ, and things get nasty. I have sometimes wondered if people get into heated arguments because they like arguing (as in fighting not discussing) or maybe because the need to ‘win’ arguments for some reason or other. If you are that kind of person and you are Christian you can find your need to fight in religious forums, and if you are an atheist or agnostic you can have heated arguments over sci-fi or comic books or whatever. For some people arguments over Start Trek occupy the same function as arguments over the book of Habbakuk. Once again, the role that Christianity has in the lives of some is somewhat similar to the role that sci-fi plays in the life of its fans.

Neither is right, neither is necessary, neither is terribly much fun for me to be involved in. However, by and large, the religious arguments do have one advantage over the sci-fi ones. The participants in the former usually believe they are dealing with some form of objective truth. Participants in the latter should know it is just fiction.

Andrew McFarland Campbell’s Very Short Guide to Debunking The Six Traditional Clobber Passages

There are six passages traditionally used to say you can’t be gay and Christian: Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10.

Genesis 19 is about gang rape. Anyone who says this has anything to say about consensual relationships has bigger problems than Biblical interpretation.

Leviticus is part of the Law of Moses, which is not binding on Christians. In any case the verses use an obscure Hebrew idiom that is rather unclear (as can been seen in the KJV translation).

Romans 1 26 and 27 does speak about same-sex relationships in a negative light, but then again verses 25 and 25 speak about opposite-sex relationships in an equally negative light. Nobody believes that Romans 1 teaches you can’t be straight and Christian.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 use an obscure Greek word, arsenokoites, which is also used to refer to heterosexual sin. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 also uses the word malakos, which is not a sexual term. If these passages were supposed to be about same-sex relationships, the writer could have used a lot of other, more common, terms.

Upon Whom the Tower in Siloam Fell

1 December 2012 was my third World AIDS Day in a serodiscordant relationship, and I think it has been my busiest. As I write this, I have just got home from collecting for Positive Life at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, which was a surprisingly extrovert thing for me to be doing.

If you are living with HIV there are still people who judge you. “I don’t know what you were doing when you caught it,” people say,”but it must have been something very stupid.” I’ve even encountered Christians who take that attitude, perhaps with the explicit assumption that if you are HIV positive it must be because of something dreadfully sinful that you did. What sayeth the scriptures?

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13.1-5, NIV)

Do you think that these people were worse sinners than other people because they suffered this way? Christ told us no. As it was for the Galileans whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices, as it was for those who the tower in Siloam fell, so for those living with HIV.

Because HIV can be sexually transmitted, there is a tendency for Christians to look down on people who are living with HIV, almost as though the HIV is a punishment for immorality. Someone who is HIV negative can then look down on someone who is HIV positive. Again, what sayeth the scriptures?

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”–Luke 18.13

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18.9-14, NIV)

When a Christian judges someone because they are living with HIV they are behaving exactly as the Pharisee did in this parable. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—like those living with HIV’.

Living with HIV is not evidence of a sinful life. Just because one group of the population is more likely to be HIV positive than another group does not mean that it is morally inferior. If you think that it is, then you are behaving exactly like the Pharisee. As Christians, our attitude to those who are HIV positive should be exactly the same as our attitude to those with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or any other long-term illness. We should treat everyone with the same Christ-like love.

Same-Sex Relationships: 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy

This is the text of the talk I gave to the Accepting Sexuality group.

Abstract

There are two passages from the New Testament that are often quoted as proof that you cannot be gay and Christian: 1 Corinthians 6.9–10 and 1 Timothy 1.9–10. The New International Version of the former says “men who have sex with men … will [not] inherit the kingdom of God.” If the understanding of these passages was as simple as a superficial reading suggests, then the gay Christian movement would never have started. However, their message is more equivocal, and there are many conflicting translations.

It can be shown that the key words in these passages, malakos and arsenokoites, are not about sex between men, and the latter can even be connected to sex between a husband and wife.

By considering the wider Christian context of these passages, in particular what Christ said about inheriting the Kingdom of God, and allowing this context to guide our lives we can be confident that we have not broken the prohibitions in these passages, whatever they mean.

Download the complete text…

See also:

The Most Frightening Words in the Bible

This is the text of an exhortation I gave to the Belfast Christadelphian Ecclesia on Sunday 16 May 2004. I found it in my archive and thought it was worth republishing here.

Consider the following words:

Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners, uncleanness, lasciviousness, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, whoremongers.

How many of you can honestly say that you understand every one of those terms? What is ‘uncleanness’ for a follower of Christ? What does it mean to be ‘effeminate’? What is ‘variance’?

These words are some of the most terrifying in the Bible. Why? The answer lies in two quotes, both from Paul’s letters: First Corinthians 6, verses 9 and 10, and Galatians 5, verses 19 to 21:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Those words are terrifying because those are the things which we can do that will exclude us from the Kingdom of God.

How many of us can genuinely say we understand each of those terms, and what they mean for us today?

Take the word ‘effeminate’ for example. In Greek, this word is ‘malakos’, which literally means soft, but it also carries connotations of moral laxity and effiminity. To translate it as ‘effeminate’ is an accurate translation. When people writing in Greek in the first century wrote ‘malakos’ in this context they generally meant ‘effeminate’.

But what does it mean to be effeminate? Each culture has its own definition of effiminity. In some cultures for a man to shave would be considered effeminate. In others, a man who wore good clothes would be effeminate. When Paul wrote condemning effiminity, was he condemning the specific behaviours that were effeminate to him, or was he condemning behaving in such a way as to make those around us think we were effeminate? Should we avoid 21st Century effeminate behaviour, or 1st Century effeminate behaviour?

Similar uncertainty surrounds virtually every item in the list. Some of the terms are practically indecipherable. As proof of this, look at 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-21 in a variety of different translations when you get home. Different translators have often translated these terms in radically different ways.

What does this mean to us, today? Quite simply it means any one of us could have been behaving in such a way as to exclude ourselves from the Kingdom of God, and we wouldn’t even know it. Paul doesn’t dwell on theses sins. He doesn’t tell us what each of them involves. Those words are the most frightening in the Bible because we could spend our whole lives learning everything we could about the culture Paul was writing in, and still not know whether or not we had put ourselves into one of the categories he listed.

How should we respond? There are these invisible boundaries that may stop us from inheriting the Kingdom. Should we be afraid?

Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)

God wants us to be in the kingdom. There are no secret barriers. The clean shaven men among us will not be rejected on Judgment day because we are, according to some cultures, effeminate. We won’t be told we are to die because we practised variance, without even knowing what the word means.

We should not be asking ourselves “what are these things that I must not do, so that I will inherit the kingdom?” The key to understanding these passages is to ask another question. What are we told we should do in order to inherit the Kingdom? I think we can be absolutely certain if we live our lives according to the rules that will get us into the Kingdom then we will not commit any of the Kingdom disqualifying sins that Paul mentions.

And what are those rules? Suppose Christ was to be standing physically in front of us right now, and we were to ask him, what would he say? If we were to ask “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” what would his answer be.

Luke 10, verses 25 to 28:

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

There are two things we must do: love God and love our neighbour. That is it. I have been studying Paul’s various lists of sins for some time. Among those terms that we can fully understand, there is always an element of either not loving God or exploiting our neighbour. Among those terms that we cannot fully understand, there seems to be an element of not loving God or not loving your neighbour.

I have been exhorting for nearly five years now. There is one passage that keeps cropping up again and again in my exhortations, and we are going to go to that wonderful passage now. Matthew 25, reading from verse 31 to the end.

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

Paul and Christ are singing from the same hymn sheet. What does Christ say will exclude us from the Kingdom? Failure to love our neighbour as ourselves. What does Paul say will exclude us from the Kingdom? He lists several specific things, but those specific things must be mere aspects of what Christ says will exclude us.

Lets return to the passage where we started, 1st Corinthians 6, verses 9, 10, and this time 11.

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

Washed

Sanctified

Justified

If the words I listed at the beginning were the most terrifying in the Bible, then these are some of the most comforting. Christ was the only person ever to have lived who never did anything that would exclude from the Kingdom of God. Everybody else has. Those things can be forgiven. Those things are forgiven. Those things are in the past: such were some of us, but we are washed, sanctified, and justified.

There is another place in 1st Corinthians where Paul tells us what cannot inherit the kingdom of Good. 1st Corinthians 15, verses 50 to the end:

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

Now we look back to the work of the man in whose name we are washed, sanctified, and justified, and we look forward to the day when the dead shall be raised incorruptible. For as often as we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we do show the Lord’s death till he come.

Luke 22, verses 15 to 20:

And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

A New Ulster Covenant

It is just over a hundred years since the Ulster Covenant was signed. There was a small celebration of this in Belfast yesterday. Reading the text of the Covenant, I was struck by how powerful the language was: it talks about civil and religious freedom, and equal citizenship. These are issues that are at the heart of the marriage equality debate.

It may be because I have lived in East Belfast for my whole life, but it sometimes seems that there is strong opposition to equal marriage from the Unionist end of the political spectrum. This got me thinking. Can the fundamental principles of the Covenant be used to argue against marriage inequality as powerfully as they argued against Home Rule?

BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that continued marriage inequality would be disastrous to the material well-being of Northern Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the United Kingdom, we, whose names are underwritten, men and women of Northern Ireland, loyal subjects of Her Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, humbly relying on the God whom our mothers and fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all legitimate political means which may be found necessary to bring about marriage equality in Northern Ireland. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.

And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.

You can download a copy of this Covenant to sign and return to me for collation.

Reflections on Belfast Pride 2012

People from Faith and Pride supporting the Belfast Pride parade – that’s me on the right. Photo by Phil O’Kane.

Yesterday was the Belfast Pride parade. I was one of a group of Christians who stood in High Street (just outside St George’s Parish Church) to support the parade. During the course of the day I met two interesting people.

The first was a woman called Pat. I was standing, waving at the parade, holding one end of the Faith and Pride banner. Pat was in the crowd standing next to me. During a quiet period I muttered something to myself about my arm being sore. Pat overheard, and she offered to hold the banner for me. Pat was about the same age as my mother, and her banner holding really helped me. If you are reading this, Pat, thank you. It was lovely standing next to you as we watched the parade.

After the parade had gone past and the crowd had largely dispersed, I was standing on High Street, chatting to some of the other Christian parade supporters. That’s when I met the second interesting person. He was wearing a shirt and tie, and looked to be in his late twenties (although I’m never any good at estimating ages). He was handing out religious leaflets — produced by Magherafelt Outreach — and he offered me one. I accepted his leaflet, and offered him one of my Faith and Pride cards in return. A discussion of what the Bible says about same-sex relationships ensued. He said that the Bible says same-sex relationships are unnatural. I asked him where it said that. He said Romans. I tried to talk to him about what Romans means, and how reading it in context leads to a very different understanding. He wasn’t prepared to discuss things with me and ended up telling me I was blaspheming. He refused even to accept a Faith and Pride card. That, to me, is the very anthesis of liberal Christianity. It is a peculiar arrogance that borders on a claim to infallibility coupled with a strange lack of confidence in the strength of one’s own beliefs.

Justify, Justify, Come On Up and Justify!

Sooner or later every openly gay Christian hears an argument that goes something like this:

You offer no Scriptural evidence to justify same-sex relationships in the eyes of God.

Or perhaps:

Unless you show that same-sex relationships are acceptable to God, they are wrong.

Now, that’s a dangerous style of argument for many reasons. First of all, it implies that we can justify ourselves before God. Rather than accepting salvation and forgiveness as a gift that God freely gives, it becomes something we can demand as of right; that’s not a particularly Christian doctrine.

Another reason why it is dangerous is because it implies that if something can’t be shown to be “right” then it must be wrong. That opens the door to a whole host of difficult problems. Chances are you are reading this on a computer of some kind. Can the use of a computer be “justified” from the Bible? What about wearing clothes made from artificial fibres, or using electric lights? How do we justify modern medicine from the Bible? Unless you are living a life exactly as a person from the 1st Century would have done, then you are doing something that cannot be shown to be right from the Bible.

Requiring someone to show that they are “right” or “justified” is a manifestation of that ugly mindset called legalism. Is it not much more Christian to take a more gracious approach to the Bible? If there is a behaviour that is wrong or un-Christian, then the authors of the Bible, guided by God, would surely have made that clear to us. To think otherwise is to think of God as a tyrant who wants to trip us up, rather than the God that Jesus was speaking of when he said “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Who is Harmed by Same-Sex Marriage?

Imagine that the law was changed tomorrow. Instead of  the law defining marriage as being a union between a man and a woman, the law changed its definition of marriage to being a union between two adults. The rules regarding everything else—age, degree of consanguinity, and so on—remain as they are now. The only change is that now two people of the same sex can get married, not just two people of the opposite sex.

Now, ask yourself this question: who is actually harmed by this?

Every existing marriage continues as it was before. Nobody’s relationship is harmed. Nobody’s family is harmed.  No religious group is harmed: those religions that had been allowed to perform marriages on behalf of the state (as long as the couple meets the religion’s requirements for marriage) will still be able to perform marriages on behalf of the state (as long as the couple meets the religion’s requirements for marriage).

Sure, some people may feel uncomfortable at the thought, but am I harmed because you make me feel uncomfortable? True, there will be some people who hold a religious objection to same-sex marriage, but not allowing me to impose my religious views on you is not harming me. Yes, it might become harder to discriminate against same-sex couples, but making it more difficult for me to be prejudiced is not harming me.

So, who is harmed by same-sex marriage?