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Jonathan Saunders: Don't panic. This is not new. God is still God.

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The world is changing fast, especially in the area of sex and sexuality. It can feel like we don't know how to respond as Christians. But the Bible has wisdom for every generation. Christian Concern's Jonathan Saunders takes an extended look at Romans 1 and explores how it reveals the theology of the sexual liberation movement. What Paul wrote nearly two thousand years ago gives us confidence that God is still in control and Christians have no need to panic.

This is the script of an address given at the New Life Assembly, Dulwich on 14 March 2017.

Meeting your neighbours

Meet Jenny. Three years ago Jenny married the love of her life, Jane. They had all their family and friends there, great food, and the dancing was something else. It was like any normal wedding. And what was clear to anyone who was there is that Jenny and Jane love each other very much. They both wore white dresses. They said vows, they signed certificates, they sang songs. They are so happy together. But what is astounding is that they had to wait until 2013 to get married. Because until 2013, gay people could not get married. Think about that. Jenny and Jane love each other, just like so many heterosexual couples across the country. They wanted to get married, but they couldn't, just because they are gay. They say that they are pleased that the law no longer discriminates against gay people. A great inequality has been overthrown. They've now been married three years, and they want to have children. After all, isn't that what every normal married couple wants? They thought about using a sperm donor, with Jane carrying the baby. But they are going to wait. They saw on the news that scientists are now able to create babies with DNA from two women. Finally, Jenny and Jane can have they child they always wanted, and it will be their child. Everyone has the right to get married and found a family. That's in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Who would deny them their fundamental human rights?

Meet Sam. Sam's always known he was a bit different. On the outside, Sam looks like a boy. But from a very young age, Sam didn't feel like a boy on the inside. He felt like a girl. Sam can remember trying on his big sister's clothes when he was 5, and he always preferred playing with dolls to playing with cars and trucks. He was bullied at school because he tried to use the girls' bathroom once, but it was just to see what it was like in there. Now Sam is 15. He's been reading a lot on the internet lately, and he now knows he's not weird like people say he is. Sam is trans. Trans is when you are really a girl, but you were born in a boy's body. There's lots of really helpful information and help on the internet. Sam now knows that his biology doesn't define him; that would be so restrictive! What's important is to be Sam. You can even change your biology if you want to. Sam wants to take female hormones, and maybe have surgery too, so he can become Samantha. There's no need to rush things though. His parents are a quite resistant. They got a doctor to meet him. But Sam knows that the doctors have to do what he says now. And so does the school. And so do his parents. After all, they can't discriminate against him, just because he is trans. One day Sam hopes that he might have a baby.

Meet David. David grew up going to church, and now he's at university, but he's left church behind. He's not gay or trans, but he stands up for the rights of those people. How could it be wrong to do something that feels so right? How could it be wrong to just be who you are? Christians say that their religion is inclusive and welcoming, but it's actually exclusive and shames gay and trans people, just because of who they are. How dare Christians tell anyone else how to live their life. They are so intolerant. David can't stand intolerant people. He wants nothing to do with them. David's living with his girlfriend. They are sleeping together, but they don't want to get married; who would want to be tied down at such a young age? His parents tell him it's wrong to have sex before marriage. But it's none of their business. He and his girlfriend aren't hurting anyone. What they are doing is private, and they both consent to it, so it's fine.

The pace of change

How do we respond to this? Does it make you angry? Fearful? Despairing? What would you say to Jenny, Sam and David?

It's hard, isn't it? We've never seen anything like this before. It feels so new to us. And it's all changing so fast. It's hard to keep up. It's affecting everything. Last night on University Challenge there was a contestant who was born a man but was wearing women's clothes and had clearly taken hormones to make him appear more feminine. Last week a BBC radio presenter was given a warning for saying that men who have surgery in an attempt to become women are not real women. Last month the government announced it is going to bring in compulsory sex education. And what are our children going to be taught? All this is radically opposed to God's pattern for humanity as laid out in the scriptures. Medical textbooks are being rewritten to distance homosexuality and cross-sex identification from mental illness. Disney has just announced that there is going to be a homosexual romance in its upcoming remake of Beauty and the Beast. Christians are losing their jobs for speaking out on these issues. It all feels like new and uncharted territory and we don't know how to respond. Perhaps the worst thing is the effect this is having on the Church. The Church of England is under huge pressure to accept and bless same-sex unions, and the pressure isn't just coming from outside the church, it's coming from inside. Christians are now accepting the claims of the sexual revolutionaries. And it sounds relevant, progressive. After all, you wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of history, would you? Do you want to be a bigot?

When the tide is coming against us so fast, it is no wonder that we have lost confidence in God's pattern for humanity.

But don't panic. This is not new; God is still God.

Romans 1

We're going to look at a bit of the Bible together, Romans chapter 1. And I hope that we can see that there is no need to panic. What we are facing is not new, and God is still God. Let's read together:

21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.(Romans 1:21-27)

There is so much that we could learn from these verses, but we are going to focus on the three exchanges that are made. Did you spot them as we were reading? Have another look down.

23: they…exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images

25: they exchanged the truth about God for a lie

26: they exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature

As Paul writes to the church in Rome and shows them why the culture they are living in is so morally depraved, he wants to show them the process. He wants to show them why people do the things they do. And here it is. Three exchanges. God for an image, the truth for a lie, natural relations for unnatural relations. And one leads to another. We'll take these in turn and see how the world we live in is not so different from the world Paul lived in. This situation is not new, and God has not changed, so we have no reason to panic.

So let's get into it then. We start with the first exchange. God for an image.

God for an image

21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:21-23)

Here's the first exchange. God for an image. It's a religious issue. What is ultimate? What is worthy of worship and thanks? God is. We know this. He made us, he loves us, he gave us a wonderful pattern in which to live. He blessed us with everything in creation, he gave us a special place above the animals. We have so much to thank him for. But the people in the Bible didn't thank him or honour him. No, they swapped him out. And what for? For images. They worshipped idols. Most of all, idols that looked like themselves.

With God out of the picture, we can rule. We can be like him. There is no one to tell us what to do. We make the rules, and we are worthy of worship. But is it wise?

The Bible says no. Why? Because it's not the real thing. Exchanging the glory of God for an image? It's like exchanging your husband or wife for a picture of them. Imagine that! 'To have and to hold, from this day forth, till death us do part…' with a photo? Or would you rather have the real thing?

God is immortal. He cannot die, he is always good, he doesn't change, he knows everything, he is forever trustworthy. He is the fountain and definition of all beauty, goodness, life, light, wonder, love.

We are mortal. We die, we are often not good, we are fickle, we don't know everything and we let people down all the time. What were we thinking trusting in ourselves?

But it is attractive. The opportunity to be like God, to set the rules and be in charge, is so attractive. So this is what we choose.

And this is at the heart of the sexual liberation movement. It is not first of all about sexual license, or politics, or anything else. It is about a desire to be like God and be in charge. It is the attitude that says 'you decide, don't let anyone else tell you what to do'. We even get to decide who we are. We become the creators, we choose, we self-define.

We hear this all the time. We hear that God is not real, that he is not good, that he is restrictive, that he wants to hold us back from our true potential. We hear and believe that we would do a much better job than God at running the universe.

But it is not a new idea. It is as old as the serpent's promise in the garden of Eden that "you will be like God" (Genesis 3:5). And as we have seen already this evening, it only leads to shame, regret, destruction and tyranny.

The sexual liberation movement wants to destroy God. It wants this because every person naturally wants this. I want it. You want it. It is so important to understand this point. The movement is not really for anything. It is against God. Because if God is out of the picture, we can be in charge.

But God is still God. And he is still good. He has not changed. He is still "a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6). Don't panic.

Truth for a lie

24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.(Romans 1:24-25)

I think it was Thomas Cranmer who said that "what the heart wants, the will chooses and the intellect justifies". If we want something, we will believe anything in order to get it. We tend to think it's the other way around; that we are rational and reasoned thinkers. But we know from experience and from scripture that we don't really think with our heads, we think with our hearts.

Should I really have that second bowl of ice cream? I really want it. It might make me fat. But I'll go on a run tomorrow so it will be ok. Anyway, I've had a long day, I've earned my second bowl of ice cream. Much more seriously, you'll know if you've ever tried to reason with someone with an addiction that there is no end to the lies that people will come up with to justify acting on their desires.

And if God has been exchanged for an image, if God has been exchanged for ourselves and our own desires, if we rule the universe, then it is no surprise that we come up with a new truth, a set of 'alternative facts', in order to justify what we want. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie.

God says that he created us male and female, and that the only proper place for sex is in marriage. One man, one woman, for life. He says that this reflects who he is. This is the real deal. This is good. It is liberating. It is what we were made for. It produces children. It fits how our bodies are designed. It is beautiful.

But we are tempted not to believe this; we are tempted to exchange God's truth for a lie.

One of the biggest examples of exchanging the truth for a lie in the sexual liberation movement is the idea that sexuality is innate, fixed, and private. It's innate; 'I was born this way, it's who I am. Some people are gay, some people have ginger hair.' It's fixed; 'it cannot be changed. Attempts to change desires are harmful'. It's private; 'it's about who you are attracted to, and only you can know that. No-one else can tell you who you are attracted to.'

To show how prevalent this has become let me read from a United Nations fact sheet on 'LGBT rights'. This is being used to campaign at the UN to put pressure on governments around the world to change their laws.

"Sexual orientation refers to a person's physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction towards other people. Everyone has a sexual orientation, which is integral to a person's identity…a person's sexual orientation…cannot be changed. What must change are the negative social attitudes that stigmatize LGBT people…attempting to changes someone's sexual orientation can often involve human rights violations and can cause severe trauma."[1]

Do you see it all there? Innate, fixed, private.

But these things are not true. Science tells us that sexual desires are caused by a range of biological and environmental factors, not solely by our genetics. That doesn't necessarily mean that we choose who we are attracted to, but it does mean that sexual desires do not define us. There's much more to being human than that. Many people have experienced changes in their sexuality over time, whether they tried to influence it or not. And do you really believe that sexuality is private, unknowable to anyone else? I asked my medical friends if they knew of any biological characteristic which is innate, fixed and only knowable by the patient. There are none. It is a fiction.

So what is really going on? Well, let me read from a book. This was written in the 1990s by two homosexual activists.

We argue that, for all practical purposes, gays should be considered to have been born gay–even though sexual orientation, for most humans, seems to be the product of a complex interaction between innate predispositions and environmental factors during childhood and early adolescence…To suggest in public that homosexuality might be chosen is to open the can of worms labeled 'moral choices and sin' and give the religious intransigents a stick to beat us with. Straights must be taught that it is as natural for some persons to be homosexual as it is for others to be heterosexual: wickedness and seduction have nothing to do with it. [2]

Do you see what is happening? We are being fed lies in order to justify what people desire.

My sexuality is innate, it's who I am, it's fixed, I can't change it, it's private, only I can know it. How can you stop me expressing who I am? How can you stop me being someone I can't change? What gives you the right to invade my privacy, you know nothing about me!

And just like that, we have put ourselves beyond critique. No one can challenge us. The lies have reinforced our desire to be like God. 

It's just the same with the concept of 'gender identity'. This is a new one for most of us. It's about the difference between sex and sexuality. The way the LGBT lobby would put it is that 'sexual orientation' is who you go to bed with, and 'gender identity' is who you go to bed as. So it's not actually got much to do with sexual activity, it is about how you feel inside about your sex. The Bible tells us that God made us male and female, but the lie says 'did God really say that'? 'Gender' used to mean the set of social associations that go with a person's sex. It might include what you wear, what sort of jobs you do, how you relate to other people in society. It can change a bit over time as cultural attitudes change.

But now we are being told that 'gender' can mean anything we want it to mean. 'gender identity' is about how you feel inside, and if you want to change your 'gender', you can do it, and really become the opposite sex, or anything in between. Nobody else can tell you who you are or what to do.

But it is a lie. It's not true. No matter how you feel inside you cannot change your sex. We are lying to people who are suffering if we believe that you can. We are made male and female, in God's image.

And the lie is destructive. It sounds attractive to be beyond critique. But what if you're wrong? What if you really thought you felt like a girl but actually now you realise you are a boy? What if you want to go back? What if you regret something you've done? What if you don't like your homosexual desires anymore? The lie cuts off all ways of going back to the truth. If I put myself beyond critique, I actually put myself beyond help. I can't get help even if I want it.

Just like swapping God for an image, the lie is not new. It is as old as the lie in the garden of Eden when the serpent tried to undermine God's word by saying "Did God really say?" (Genesis 3:1). And we don't have to believe the serpent. We would rather believe God, wouldn't we? God, who cannot lie (Titus 1:2). The lie was destructive then and it is destructive now. But God's word has also not changed. He is still God. Don't panic.

Natural for Unnatural

26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

There is a natural way. God has written it into creation, and again it is beautiful. Men and women are wonderful. Created equal, in the image of God, and created different, with different bodies and different strengths. And they were created for each other. The first woman was made out of the first man's side, and this is very significant. One Christian writer put it like this:

The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved. [3]

We are made equal, made different, and made for each other. Our bodies show us this. Look at the reality. Men and women can have sex, and when they do, they can produce children. Our sexual organs are perfectly designed to fit into the other. And relationally we are made for each other, we need each other; men with a particular responsibility and gifting to lead and protect, and women with a particular responsibility and gifting to care and bring up children.

The pattern is broken. We don't always get it right, and there are sometimes exceptions, but the pattern is good and it is deliberate. We are interdependent. We need each other.

God has given us marriage and the family as the place where this interdependence happens. It is the most basic unit of society. We are all part of a family. We all have parents. Even if we are single, can we appreciate the beauty of marriage? God's pattern is that everyone would experience marriage either first or second hand. Either you get married, or you are born to married parents.

There is a reason that marriage and family breakdown is so painful. Married couples are meant to stick together, and so are families. Sex has a powerful effect in doing this. It is the glue that binds a married couple together. When parents stick together, families stick together. It is beautiful and good and natural and should be celebrated and promoted.

But it isn't. There's another exchange. Once we swap God for an image and the truth for a lie, there is nothing to stop the third exchange; it is inevitable: natural relations for unnatural relations. It is a dangerous thing to say today, but homosexuality is unnatural. God says it, right there, in verse 26. They exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature. It is unnatural because it cuts against the grain of the difference between men and women. And so does any sexual activity outside marriage between one man and one woman. The same is true of trying to change your sex. God made us male and female, and it is unnatural to try and cross those divides. I don't want to sound harsh or blunt here. But if this is true it is actually the most compassionate thing; to show people that this is what is natural, and there is a difference between this and what is unnatural.

Despite this, we know that we have exchanged natural for unnatural. In our attempt to dethrone God, to swap him for ourselves, we have to destroy all the images of him too. We have to get rid of every trace of God from the world. And that means destroying all distinctions between male and female (because this is what it means to be made in his image), married and unmarried, natural and unnatural. It means destroying the family.

The most ardent LGBT activists do not deny this.

Listen to this, from the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto, 1971:

The oppression of gay people starts in the most basic unit of society, the family, consisting of the man in charge, a slave as his wife, and their children on whom they force themselves as the ideal role models. The very form of the family works against homosexuality…We must aim at the abolition of the family, so that the sexist, male supremacist system can no longer be nurtured there. [4]

How will the family be abolished? By technology:

Although this struggle will be hard, and our victories not easily won, we are not in fact being idealistic to aim at abolishing the family and the cultural distinctions between men and women. True, these have been with us throughout history, yet humanity is at last in a position where we can progress beyond this…modern science, by drastically lowering infant mortality, has made it unnecessary for women to have more than two or three babies, while contraceptives have made possible the conscious control of pregnancy and the freeing of sexuality from reproduction. Today, further advances are on the point of making it possible for women to be completely liberated from their biology by means of the development of artificial wombs. Women need no longer be burdened with the production of children as their main task in life and need be still less in the future. [5]   

The destruction of the family is the destruction of humanity.

This is heavy stuff. But the apostle Paul wrote this nearly two thousand years ago. It is not new. It is as old as Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. They believed the lie, they thought they could be like God. "[Eve] saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate." (Genesis 3:6). She gave some to Adam as well. They wanted it, and they took it. It was destructive. It led to shame, regret, division, relational breakdown.

But God is still God. And Jesus specialises in crushing serpents. We have no need to fear, or despair. God's pattern is still good. Don't panic!

Moving forward in confidence

Do you believe this? Will you believe the truth over the lie? Will you worship God over an image? Will you embrace natural relations over unnatural ones? In the Bible we have a vision for humanity which is beyond your wildest dreams. It is a vision where everyone finds a place within a family, where humanity is fruitful by bringing forth the wonderful gift of new life. It is a pattern which has been grossly corrupted by sin but it is wonderfully restored in Christ. It's a pattern we can all be part of. And it's a pattern of good news which we can take to the world. The world wants to hear it. It doesn't know it, but it wants to hear it.

What do we do, then?

We need to hold on to God's pattern. Immerse yourself in the scriptures, where God shows us how to live. The claims the Bible makes about the goodness of marriage and family are astounding. Take a closer look. This is what these evenings are all about. We'll be looking at the truth in more detail, dissecting the lies, and seeing just how mind-blowing God's plan for sex and marriage is.

We need to hold fast to God's pattern. As Christians we need to model it to the world. Husbands, love your wives. Wives, submit to your husbands. Children, honour your parents. Single men and women, uphold the goodness of marriage by abstaining from sex outside marriage and supporting those we know who are married.

And we need to hold out God's pattern. In our families, in our churches, and in public life we need to hold out this word of life to the world. The world is hurting. It is wounded. It is bending under the weight of God's wrath against sin and it desperately needs the gospel. It needs the life-giving message of repentance from acts which lead to death and faith in Jesus the giver of life. But we need to call the world to repentance in a specific way too. In this area of marriage and the family we must call them to follow God's way.  

[1] UN Free & Equal Campaign, Fact Sheet on LGBT Rights
[2] Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America will conquer its fear and hatred of gays in the 1990s, (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p.184
[3] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible
[4] Gay Liberation Front: Manifesto, London: 1971
[5] Ibid.