The Plausibility Problem: A Review

Steve Ward
Reviews 3 mins

Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction (IVP, 2015). Published in the US by IVP under the title Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life.

Here is a voice I need to hear and a book I am so grateful to have found. As a church leader, I seek to serve a broad community within my church family and beyond. Many in that community will identify as same-sex attracted or have related questions. I have longed for a book like this that helps me support, teach, and pastor well.

I have longed for a book like this that helps me support, teach, and pastor well.

Ed Shaw is well placed to write meaningfully about this topic. He is, according to his own description, an evangelical Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. This book is the product of his own wrestlings. The writing is bravely honest, even raw in places, as Ed explores his life choices, the implications for his relationships, and the truth or otherwise of Christian teaching and practice.

Faced with what seems like a tidal wave of change within our culture, many within the Church are cautious. We believe, or would like to believe, the Church’s long-held beliefs about sex and marriage. But even if our teaching is biblical, is it practical? Are we setting standards that no one can live up to? We suspect, as Ed puts it, that we have a plausibility problem: is the Bible’s teaching on sexuality actually plausible for those who experience same-sex attraction?

Ed’s approach is to challenge areas of our thinking, our practice, and even our absorption of the culture around us. There are potential wrong turns that he calls ‘missteps’. You may think that three or four such missteps would provide food for thought. But Ed identifies no fewer than nine! This is a broad scope, which by itself should pique your curiosity, whether you affirm same-sex sexual relationships or not.

Ed’s starting point, rightly, is to consider the kinds of issues that individuals may need to grapple with. The first misstep, ‘Your identity is your sexuality’, speaks directly into a belief that is deeply ingrained within our culture. He shows how our sexuality cannot ultimately provide a firm foundation for any of us and challenges us to find our identity in what God says about us through his word. Other chapters address such topics as ‘If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay?’, misstep 3, and ‘If it makes you happy, it must be right’, misstep 4.

As well as addressing the needs of individuals, there are missteps that challenge the Church. In the chapter ‘A family is mum, dad and 2.4 children’, misstep 2, Ed describes the influence of the cultural norm of the nuclear family and calls on the Church to recognise the Bible’s vision of family as something more all-embracing. ‘The impression that we unintentionally give is that the Church is made up of biological families, and that unless you are part of one of these conveniently shaped building blocks, you won’t ever fit in’ (p.47). Equally, when addressing the need for intimacy, misstep 5, he highlights that churches today often lack a culture of deep friendships. Can churches recover a community ethos, enabling those called to singleness still to have family relationships that are rich and fulfilling?

Can churches recover a community ethos, enabling those called to singleness still to have family relationships that are rich and fulfilling?

Addressing some missteps will require pastors and teachers to reflect on how the Church can communicate complex topics with greater depth and relevance to those who are gay.  Key among these is misstep 6, ’Men and women are equal and interchangeable’. In many contexts, this statement would go unchallenged. However, Ed carefully dissects the statement, fully endorsing equality but challenging interchangeability on biblical and practical grounds.

You will find that Ed’s book is Scripture-based and uses a rich mix of biblical arguments along with arguments drawn from experience, common sense and cultural analysis. Two appendices deal with the key Bible passages that mention homosexuality. However, there are other books that deal with these in more detail, such as Preston Sprinkle’s People to Be Loved.

So, this book is not first and foremost a Bible study or a handbook of doctrine. Running throughout, you will find a thread of compassion and a genuine pastoral heart, one that weeps with the hurting, sensitively holds the hand of the confused, and lovingly draws us all towards the Scriptures. Can this life be lived out? Are the answers accessible to gay people, to pastors, to worried friends or anxious parents? Is the case for plausibility well made? Check out this book and see for yourself.