Christianity is not to be considered as a single point or a narrow, repetitive line, but as a circle which provides form but within which there is freedom to move in terms of understanding and expression. Christianity is a circle with definite limits, limits which tend to be like twin cliffs. We find ourselves in danger of falling off on one side or on the other; that is, we have to be careful not to avoid one sort of doctrinal error by backing off into the opposite one.
We must ask God to help us, and we must help each other, not to fall off the cliffs. There is room for discussion within each circle, but we must not forget that there is a circle to be in.1
A few years ago, I came across this quote from the late, great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer. Its wisdom has kept growing on me – especially in the light of recent increasingly divisive conversations around identity, sexuality, and gender in which some are drawing ever-narrower definitions of orthodoxy – sometimes a definition representing their single point of view, or that of a few others like them in the world today, or from the past.
I much prefer Schaeffer’s portrayal of Christian orthodoxy as a circle – a space with clear boundaries, but with room for a variety of emphases and perspectives. Someone may not entirely agree with me on how I talk about, or apply Bible teaching, on issues of identity, sexuality and gender, but that does not necessarily mean that I am no longer an orthodox Christian. And yet Schaeffer is still rightly saying that there are things I (and they) could say or do – including in relation to these topics – that would clearly not be consistent with Jesus Christ, his life and teaching. I’ve been comforted by the thought that there is room for a conversation rather than just condemnation, without having to bin the truth that there are limits to how much that conversation is distinctly Christian on all sides.
But I have also been challenged by Schaeffer’s talk of the circle of Christianity having cliffs: cliffs that we can back ourselves off in overreaction to those elsewhere in the circle. This is my greatest danger – disliking so strongly the perceived theological pedantry of those who see Christian truth on matters of identity, sexuality and gender as a point or narrow line that I back myself off the opposite side into the sea (I’m stretching his analogy now) in which anything goes, and a distinctly Christian voice is drowned.
Here at Living Out we’re asking for God’s help for our contributions to the ongoing Church conversations about identity, sexuality and gender to be clearly within the circle of Christian orthodoxy (sometimes, as individual team members, taking different positions within it) without backing ourselves, or anyone else, off the cliffs.
To take just one example: there are ongoing conversations about the doctrine of concupiscence. Any precise definition will be disputed, but the current debate is focused on the belief that the desires that tempt us are sinful in and of themselves.
At Living Out we want to be those that take sin seriously, that don’t excuse it or encourage ourselves (or others) to embrace it: Jesus didn’t; we shouldn’t. We seek to be clear that we regard same-sex sexual activity and lust to be sinful and in need of our repentance and God’s forgiveness: We get a lot of grief for going around saying so!
But we are also wanting to help ourselves (and others) see the good, God-given purposes to our sexual desires, and how same-sex attractions are not all about sex, in ways that can help people like us grow in love of God and neighbour. As we do this, we are aware that we’ll sometimes cause others concern that we don’t perfectly line up with a particular denomination’s, or confessional statement’s, understanding of concupiscence. This is inevitable: as a team we come from different denominations and would most associate with different confessional statements. Concupiscence has been debated by orthodox Christians for years without total agreement – we don’t want to put ourselves under pressure to do what other far wiser, and godlier, Christians have failed to do.
So, we aren’t, and won’t be, developing a Living Out line on concupiscence (though we will offer some reflections in a forthcoming webinar for church leaders). As a team we will articulate things about our desires in different ways because we do, sometimes, believe slightly different things. But we do live within the wider circle of biblical teaching on original sin and how it has pervaded every part of human experience, alongside orthodox sexual ethics. We are aware of the dangers of backing off the cliffs and do have uniting doctrinal parameters and pastoral principles that we seek to think, speak and act within. We’ll keep asking for God’s help to do this well, and are so grateful for the help that others provide in their feedback at events and constructive criticism (both publicly and privately) of what we’ve shared in other contexts. We know that we can’t do this alone and hope that ongoing conversations bless us, and others, within the Christian circle.
- Francis A Schaeffer, The Church Before the Watching World (IVP, 1972), p.93.