This is the second in a three-part series by Mark Larratt-Smith. Part One may be found here.
Mark Larratt-Smith’s grandfather was an Anglican Priest and his great-grandfather was Archbishop of Ottawa. He was born in Montreal and studied at Yale, Columbia and the University of Toronto. Mark was a career public servant and served as an Assistant Deputy Minister with the Government of Ontario. For nearly 30 years, he attended Little Trinity Church in downtown Toronto. For the last decade, he and his wife have been members of St. John’s, Waupoos, part of a small rural parish in Prince Edward County in Eastern Ontario.
The Reality of Sin
But there is an even more serious implication to the changes proposed by proponents of affirming same-sex relationships. “Sin” is not much in fashion these days, either as a word or as a concept. Yet the reality of human sin is at the heart of the Christian gospel and of Anglican worship. The bible begins with an account of how sin entered the world and ends with an account of God’s judgement on sin. In between it is filled with stories of human sin and failure. Confession of our sins is an essential element in Anglican worship.
Why Is It Important to Believe in Sin?
Why is it so essential? For me, the most compelling reason is myself. If I am honest, I have to acknowledge that I am a sinner. I can blame others all I want and develop the most elaborate excuses to justify my own actions and failures to act, but deep down, I know that if they were the acts of someone else, I would see them clearly as self-deception. All of us have episodes in our lives where we have hurt others or done things we regret. I am no different. I have to acknowledge that I am a sinner. I may not have committed murder or participated in a genocide, but, like everyone else, I have contributed – and continue to contribute – to the pain and suffering of this broken world.
If my understanding of sin rests on my Christian faith, then I must come to grips not just with the ten commandments and the other “shalt nots” of the Old Testament, but with Jesus’ extension of those laws in the Sermon on the Mount. To quote just one example:
“You have heard that it was said, ”do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5: 27-28)
By that standard, I expect that most men are adulterers. I certainly am.
Sin is a reality in all of our lives, and all the excuses and the “therapeutic” explanations in the world will not cover that reality. Saint Paul’s words to the early Christians in Rome ring true across the centuries:
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my members. What a wretched man I am! (Romans 7: 21-24a)
For me, the compelling attraction of the Christian gospel is that sin is not a dead end. When Jesus raised the Old Testament bar to impossible levels, when he said “be perfect, therefore ,as your heavenly Father is perfect”(Matt 5:48), but it was not to discourage us, but rather to show us another way. At the end of Romans 7, Paul goes on to write: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
I have stated previously that my ability to trust God is based on the fact that He identified Himself so completely with us by entering into this world of sin and death as a man in the person of Jesus Christ. The marvellous good news is that God not only identified with us through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but that through that act of identification, He has washed away all of our sins. Through Jesus sacrificial death on the cross, He has fulfilled the law and set us free from the condemnation of sin and death. As the third Eucharistic prayer in the BAS states:
In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.
There is a superficial view of Christianity that regards any mention of sin as negative, person-destructive, “hell-fire-and-damnation” preaching. I often wonder whether such extreme sensitivity is not a cover for an unwillingness to acknowledge sin and accept forgiveness. Because that is what the gospel is: good news that our sins, though they overwhelm us, are forgiven by Jesus’ death on the cross.
For me, the very heart of the gospel is my relationship with my risen Lord who loves me enough to have died for me, so that all my sins are washed away in His blood.
The Nature of Sin and Same-sex Relationships
How does the current debate over a same-sex blessing relate to the nature of sin? I am not going to rehearse all of the arguments I have read concerning the biblical treatment of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, but I find the record to be remarkably consistent. If the Anglican Church continues to believe that our Creator and Redeemer God communicates with His Church primarily through scripture and the cumulative experience of the Church over nearly two thousand years, then I am convinced that we must accept that God considers all sexual relationships outside of the marriage of a man and a woman as sinful, including same-sex relationships – of whatever commitment or duration.
For me, one of the most powerful stories in the bible is the episode of Jesus’ encounter with the woman taken in adultery (John 8: 3-11) and his declaration to her: “then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin”. His offer of forgiveness is gracious and complete but he does not tell her that sin does not matter or that living in adultery is really OK. He identifies her sin for what it is and calls on her to repent – to go and sin no more. We are not told the outcome of the story, but Jesus’ statement to Peter in Matthew’s gospel, makes it clear that forgiveness is not just a limited “one-time” offer but is available to us unconditionally and repeatedly. St. Peter tells us that “He himself bore our sins in this body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24) The soul shattering implication is that He has done this for each one of us and for all of our sins up to “seventy times seven”(Matt 18:22) .
It now appears that proponents of change have found a better way of dealing with sin than the agony of our Saviour on the cross. Human progress and the latest of scientific studies (no doubt endorsed by a compliant god) have now shown that homosexual practices are not actually sin. They are merely another legitimate alternative mode of the fundamental human right to individual sexual self-expression.
This momentous discovery not only redefines God and His place in the human pantheon, it makes the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ entirely unnecessary. Why bother with a doctrine of sacrificial atonement that is difficult to understand and involves a lot of pain and suffering, if Church authorities can simply redefine sin so that it is no longer sin? An added benefit is that there is no need for guilt or repentance. There certainly is no need for – and no possibility of – anything like forgiveness. Churches can thus concentrate on their true 21st Century calling of affirming the intrinsic goodness of individuals and of providing supportive therapeutic reassurance for their members’ every aspiration.
While this characterisation may appear extreme, its purpose is to demonstrate just how easily a specific change proposed by people, many of them with very good intentions, can have enormous implications. That is why the main issue is not really about same-sex relationships at all. It is about the acceptance or denial of the reality of sin. If human beings can redefine sin at their option, they have no need for the Christian God.
Sin And Sexuality
I do believe that homosexuals have a very legitimate complaint against a Church that has often condemned them as outcasts, beyond any hope of redemption. If we accept that God’s standard as preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is perfection, then no sinner has any hope outside of Jesus Christ. We are all broken by sin and all equally reliant on the death and resurrection of Jesus as our only hope of God’s forgiveness.
In this regard, homosexual activity is simply a subset of a much broader category of sexual sins. While scripture contains references to same-sex activities as sinful, the primary focus of Christian scripture and tradition is not on same-sex relationships but on all sexual relationships outside the marriage of a man and a woman. This is a difficult perspective for our contemporary western culture to accept or even to understand. We live in a permissive secularized society that has deified the self in place of God. Our happiness, comfort, and self-actualization are at the heart of our faith. Sexual self-indulgence is a central part of this worldview, stimulated and shaped by manipulative advertising, popular entertainment and the presumption of entitlement fostered by our rights obsessed society. We have eliminated from our vocabulary uncomfortable words like “lust” and “chastity”. It is not surprising that adultery and promiscuity are now mostly considered to be simply matters of personal preference.
My purpose is not a rant against contemporary society and its sexual morals, but to point out that the issue of same-sex relationships must be considered in this larger context. The result is to make the problem both easier and harder to address. It is made “easier” because the issue cannot – and must not – be treated, or ignored as just a problem for a minority within society. As Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, sexual sin affects all of us. No one can claim clean hands. As sinners, we are brothers and sisters in the flesh.
The hard part is that we face a standard of conduct that is impossible for any individual to achieve, and that directly challenges the cherished values of the society in which we live. How can we ever succeed in such a confrontation when we are all so deeply compromised by our own sins and half-persuaded by the siren song of sexual self-indulgence that pervades every aspect of the culture in which we live?
The problem is made more complex because, if we are honest, we must acknowledge that, in our society, “lust” often cannot be distinguished from “love”. Our society promotes its fuzzy definition of romance and erotic love as the epitome in self-actualization and self-indulgence. How do you address the healing of a situation where these threads are deeply entangled in the specific history of a relationship between two human beings? Obviously this question is even more difficult in a long-term same-sex relationship where Christian marriage is not an option.
I pose these questions not to provide glib answers to them, but to acknowledge just how difficult the implications can be. There is no point in glossing over them. But acknowledging the difficulties posed by our sexual nature and erotic relationships must not lead us into a futile and disastrous attempt at self-justification through redefining the Christian faith. The effort is bound to be futile because it ignores the underlying realities of human nature and motivation. It is disastrous because it results in the loss of the faith that is the only hope of salvation for every one of us.