At the outset of this review I should note that I was given a copy of this book for free to review, though I hope that this does not cloud my opinions. Thanks to The Good Book Company for their generosity.
The late, great, evangelical Anglican preacher and statesman John Stott is one of the most prolific and well-read of IVP’s many authors. A unique figure, with a commitment to biblical Christianity and – as Archbishop of York John Sentamu notes in his foreword to this book, ‘double listening’ – Stott is best known perhaps for his writing on mission, his efforts towards unity, and his clear and winsome presentation of the Gospel. Stott passed away in 2011, but his legacy lives on and his many books continue to inspire and educate Christians the world over.
In recent years the church, and latterly the parts of the church self-describing as evangelical , has been discussing, debating and thinking about the question of same sex relationships. As Stott notes in this book, this has been particularly the case in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, but given that this is one particular flashpoint for the relationship between church and culture, it is a conversation that is either being had or will be had in churches of all flavours. Stott’s little book on this, peppered with personal stories, commended by many, and with dual forewords including the aforementioned Sentamu and Fuller Seminary President Mark Labberton, is a very helpful summary of the biblical discussion of marriage and sexuality, with a particular focus on same sex relationships.
It is worth noting from the outset that one of the things that marks out Stott’s treatment of this topic is genuine compassion and concern, and a firm biblical belief in the value and worth of all human beings. As Romans teaches, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Stott writes, involving everyone in his discussion; “as far as the Bible is concerned, there is no such phenomenon as “a homosexual” or “a heterosexual”: there are only people made in the image of God. We all share in the glory and tragedy of being human and we share it in our sexuality as well as other areas of our lives”. This image of ‘glory and tragedy’ around being human resonated with me, and is one that is held in view throughout the whole book, as Stott engages with the world as it is, even as offering and holding out a view of Christ and the Kingdom of God that is already breaking in.
Stott’s conclusions are well within the stream of historic, orthodox Christian teaching on the subject. His argument – lightly updated by Sean Doherty, Tutor in Ethics at St Mellitus College in London, and a co-founder of Living Out – has relatively successfully endured the test of time. Biblically rooted – but open to the insights of the social sciences, and commentators from across the spectrum – this is an excellent short summary of the biblical teaching on sexuality, with the always vital observation that “the negative prohibitions of homosexual practices in Scripture make sense only in the light of its positive teaching in Genesis 1 and 2 about human sexuality and heterosexual marriage”.
In light of that positive teaching, which Glynn Harrison has distilled in his power book A Better Story (my review here), Stott then turns to engage with some of the contemporary arguments for Christian acceptance or celebration of same sex relationships. Stott is well worth reading here – particularly on his excellent engagement with the ‘justice’ argument, as he writes “True gay liberation (like all authentic liberation) is not freedom from God’s revealed purpose in order to construct our own morality; it is, rather, freedom from our self-willed rebellion in order to love and obey him”. In the present climate of discussion, it is interesting to note that Stott is ahead of many in terms of nuance over the discussion of therapy or change. Stott rightly reminds us that “we have to recognize that the language of “cure” or “healing” is deeply shaming and dangerous”. As an antidote to this, and as part of his suggested way forward, Stott is at pains to encourage the church to create a genuine environment of love, celebrate and encourage the gift of friendship, and invites us to consider again what it means to love and support each other in the time-between-the-times we find ourselves in.
This is a short book, but a timely one. Whilst some will likely dislike Stott’s conclusions, and others may see this re-publication as something that it isn’t, I feel that this is one of, if not the, best short treatments of the topic that manages to both engage seriously with the best of both perspectives, and offer a way forward that is human, gospel-shaped and practical. Stott’s winsome writing is interposed with three real life stories – helping to remind us, again, that this is a conversation about and with people, not mere abstract ideas – and the book ends with a set of discussion questions, which would repay study and reflection for both regular Christians and those involved in any form of church leadership.
You can get it from The Good Book Company here.