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6 November 2023

The meaning of words depends on the framework they are embedded in. This framework forms a kind of reality in which these words exist and from which they draw their meaning.

Take, for example, the word “ball”. Within the game of golf, it refers to a small spherical object. In the sport of rugby, however, the “ball” is not of the same size and shape. When we talk about a co-worker being “on the ball” or a rich man hosting a “ball”, we are not referring to anything remotely like the earlier “balls”. There are also people whose family name is “Ball”, and the term could also refer to a brand of watches.

When we see a word being used, it therefore pays to ask, “Within what framework do you use the word? What is the larger reality you operate in?”

This may seem obvious, but it is surprising how often Christians fail to make this interrogation when faced with challenges to our faith. For example, it is common to hear opponents of the traditional Christian position on marriage claim that it depicts God as both unloving and unjust. Those of a heterosexual orientation are permitted to find fulfilment in marriage and family life. Yet those attracted to persons of the same sex are denied this same privilege. How could a loving and just God allow this?

Christians sometimes find ourselves agreeing with such arguments. What we may have failed to realise is that the terms “love” and “justice” in this argument take on their meanings within a particular framework, and this framework is a world away from the reality depicted by Christianity.

The framework within which this argument operates is one which sees human desires as morally neutral. We therefore have equal right to pursue the paths our desires lead us on, diverse though they be. This framework also sees human beings having the capability to correctly discern what is truly best for us. After such discernment, we have complete autonomy to make the choice to pursue these good ends. With this set of conditions in place, love and justice demand that a person’s choice for their life journeys should be honoured and facilitated to the greatest possible extent.

Another way of describing this framework is that it is one in which the Fall never happened. The Fall is a momentous event in the Christian narrative. As a consequence of our rebellion against God, our human desires have been misdirected, such that a significant portion of what we want goes against God’s will. In this regard, it makes little difference whether these desires are innate (a product of nature) or acquired (the result of nurture) or a combination of both. Christianity understands the effects of the Fall to be so profound that they may impact even our innate characteristics.

Sin has also blinded us. We are often not able to judge accurately what is good, even for ourselves. This is why we go against God’s will—the will that seeks true fulfilment, joy and peace for us. The Bible also calls us “the slaves of sin” (Rom 7:14). Even in the instances where we are able to discern what is right, we may not have the ability to choose accordingly. There are powerful malignant forces which exercise an undue influence over us.

In the light of the Fall, genuine love and justice cannot operate in the fashion prescribed in the argument above. God’s love cannot consist simply of allowing us fallen creatures to walk our chosen paths towards the fulfilment of our desires, as these might be paths which lead us away from God’s good plan for us. Similarly, God’s justice cannot reside in the sanctioning of all manner of human choices, when these choices are actually not equivalent in God’s eyes, as they lead to drastically different outcomes.

It is worth clarifying that the severe consequences of the Fall apply to all human beings, whether heterosexual or homosexual in orientation. The former are equally plagued by sinful desires and wrong judgements, and are equally the slaves of sin. Therefore, God’s love and justice also significantly constrain the choices available to those of a heterosexual orientation, and they do so in all aspects of life, including the decision whether to get married. For example, should two persons of the opposite sex seek to enter matrimony “unadvisedly or lightly” (to cite the phrase uttered at the beginning of the wedding service), the church should urge them to desist because God’s love and justice demand so.

All this may sound terribly paternalistic to modern ears, but it represents the Christian view of reality. We are free, of course, to reject this reality and turn to alternatives, but we should be aware that we would no longer be functioning under a Christian framework if we do so. The words and phrases we use may then take on very different shades of meaning.

One reason why Christians have been slow to undertake such exercises of critical questioning could be because we are unfamiliar with the Christian understanding of reality. Some of us might even be unaware that Christianity presents a view of reality different from that given by the world—these would include those who have embraced the faith mainly in order to obtain supernatural help to achieve success according to the world’s framework.

There is therefore an urgent need for our churches to inculcate the Christian view of reality in our members. We do this in our preaching and teaching, as we paint the reality portrayed by the gospel and invite others to enter it. We do this through our church practices (like the liturgy and sacraments), which shape us and our perspectives as we carry them out habitually. We do this through practical acts of love and witness, and in so doing demonstrate that this new reality is not a myth but a living fact in this world.

Unfortunately, many of our churches today have decided that the best way to attract people is to make them feel comfortable, and the easiest way of doing so is to throw out much of our traditional teachings and practices (which tend to appear strange) and remake the worship service and the church’s life so that they fit more smoothly to the norms, practices and perspectives of this world. In doing so, we lose much of the power of the gospel—the power of a world-challenging reality.

Reality-building needs to happen again. May God give us the grace to do it well.

This article was first published in the Aug-Nov 2023 issue of “Trumpet”, a newsletter of Trinity Theological College (TTC). It is reproduced here with the permission of TTC.

Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.