At the National Day Rally this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the Government’s intention to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code (“377A”) and decriminalise sex between men. PM Lee also announced that the Government would protect the definition of marriage between a man and a woman from being challenged constitutionally in the courts and would amend the Constitution in order to protect it.1
We would like to reiterate that The Methodist Church in Singapore has not changed our stance, as outlined in our response to the announcement,2 Methodist Social Principles,3 as well as our agreement with the statements made by the National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS) on this matter.4
Engagement with public policy for the common good
Even though our consistent position on marriage, education, and religious freedom is shared by people of different faiths or none, there are some who criticise the Church for commenting on issues of law. Others may accuse Christians of a sinister desire to impose Christian morality as law. Some construe any move to enshrine the traditional understanding of marriage as an undermining of the secular character of the Constitution. The truth of the matter is that correlation is not causation. Just because the Government intends to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage does not mean that it has arrived at that decision by way of specifically religious reasoning.
Only Parliament has the authority to promulgate laws and has the responsibility of doing so. However, like any citizen and local association, Christians and our Church have an equal right and responsibility to express our concerns on matters related to our country and social well-being. Our public statements are guided by a fundamental principle: to serve the common good of our nation. There is a well-documented tradition of Christian theology that counsels the Church to direct political reasoning towards the good of the community. Christian faith, in this sense, does not supply a political agenda. Rather, it compels us to exemplify a care for our common life and future. Thus, the safeguards we urge are not because we want to preserve Christian morality for its own sake, but for the sake of the well-being of society.
Our Church does not believe that individualism, writ large, seen for example in what Charles Taylor et al has critiqued as atomistic individualism, is the standard of human flourishing by which to measure public policy.5 Our beliefs are grounded in a vision of human flourishing that stands apart from, but does not deny, personal choices and benefits. In this vision, every institution—like marriage, family, or schools—exists for the common good. Our request that the Government put in place safeguards in these areas is based on the conviction that Christian morality can serve the common good of all.
The distinction is important: we believe that what serves the common good is ultimately beneficial for all individuals; conversely, not every freely chosen individual choice is beneficial for all. Our expressing this is not an attempt to impose a specifically Christian morality. It is rather to engage in a robust conversation about differing visions of the Good drawn from shared morality. There will be differing views and emphases, but it is obvious that one does not need, in principle, to affirm any specific religion to concur with these broader concerns.
As Christians, we are called neither to privilege nor pliancy. We do not want to participate in either religious or secular sectarianism. Rather, we believe it is our God-given responsibility to seek the common good and the welfare of our country. We are committed to public engagement for the sake of the good of all. This vision of communion—of a good that would truly be common—is what energises our engagement on substantive matters of public interest.
There is no doubt that our Christian vision of human flourishing may be at odds with ideals or priorities held by others. We do not claim to be the sole arbiters of what is good for society. We do not seek to be the main actor on the national stage. We also do not deny the right of others to express their views and ideas, even when it is in opposition to what we believe. However, we do strongly disagree with attempts to mischaracterise Christian beliefs as harmful discrimination. Furthermore, we are concerned that our right to share our convictions stemming from (but which are definitely not exclusive to) our Christian beliefs, may be excluded on the ground that they cross over into politics. As our Social Principles state, “decision making by consensus is fair and effective only if the people have sufficient and safe channels opened to them to participate in meaningful and honest discussion, without fear of reprisal”.6 How we engage in dialogue and public reasoning, even when we are opposed to begin with, may be as profound a priority as what we profess.
We therefore affirm the Government’s call to exercise restraint, and to avoid extreme demands. We fully agree on the need to protect our capacity to live together peacefully and render mutual assistance to each other.
Repealing 377A: What Methodists can and must do in response
The recognition that we need each other recalls the Wesleyan commitment to social holiness—holiness that is pursued and achieved in community, not solitarily. We welcome anyone who wrestles with sexuality into the hospitality of the Church. True freedom is found not in atomistic individualism, but in bringing our desires into accordance with our Creator’s design. We will not abandon anyone to the vagaries of human experience and desire. Let us be unequivocally clear: our Methodist churches are open to everyone.
The reminder of the Methodist ethicist Paul Ramsey is wise: “Let the church be the church and let the magistrate be the magistrate.”7 The Bible teaches us that the hope of the world does not lie in the realm of legislation or public morality, but in the advent of a new creation in Christ. We do not expect God to save the world through our human reason, our pursuit of justice, our struggle for human rights, or even by our best efforts to order the world for the better, important as they are. But while we live in the world, we submit to the God-given authority bestowed on a legitimate Government, for the ways of judgment. We will not project our hopes for public life upon the world by sheer force of will, or by drowning out other voices in the public square.
A Wesleyan voice in public affairs is not just a voice per se, but “action… in the form of community”.8 A genuinely Methodist response to developments surrounding 377A will neither consist primarily of public proclamations of our moral stand, nor merely in seeking to influence the Government to instantiate our moral vision or policy goals. The call for Christians to love God by loving our neighbour remains. Methodists must, through the Spirit’s help, demonstrate a community of love to the world. It is our joy to remind all, regardless of sexual inclinations, of their sacred worth before God. It is also our duty to surround all persons with the love and support needed to live faithfully before the face of God.
The repeal of 377A and the safeguarding of marriage and other aspects of law, though vitally important and deserving of our attention and representations, are not, finally, our highest priorities. The world will not end if, or when, 377A is repealed. The God of our Christian faith is sovereign over the universe, and the arc of history bends inexorably towards his throne. We appeal for all Methodists to keep everyone involved in this discussion—the Government, members of Parliament, community stakeholders, advocacy groups, and all the inhabitants of this city—in prayer.
In all things, we are empowered by the love of God to manifest his love through our concrete acts for others. Expressing our concerns about 377A is one, but not the only, expression of our love for our neighbours. Let us not become weary in doing good. When the dust on this debate settles, may it be said of Methodists in Singapore that it was not coercion but rather the conviction of the holy love of God that illuminated our response to the repeal of 377A and that in our response we have reflected the God whose Nature and Name is love.
4 https://nccs.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/NCCS-Statemt-on-Repeal-of-S377A-20220821.pdf. See also https://nccs.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/NCCS-Response-to-Minister-K.-Shanmugams-parliamentary-speech-on-the-Court-of-Appeal-Ruling-on-Repeal-of-Section-377A-.pdf, or https://nccs.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/NCCS-Statement-Retain-377A.pdf
5 See, for example, Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
6 Methodist Social Principles, “The Sphere of Politics”, §1c.
7 Paul Ramsey, Who Speaks for the Church? (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1967), 157.
8 Ryan Nicholas Danker, “Early Methodist Societies as an Embodied Politic: Intentionality and Community as a Wesleyan Political Vision”, in Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology (Nashville, TN: Wesley’s Foundery Books, 2020), 65.
Rev Dr Nathanael Goh is the Assistant Pastor at Sengkang Methodist Church. Rev Dr Daniel K S Koh is a Pastor of Barker Road Methodist Church overseeing Oasis BRMC Mission at Bukit Batok. Both writers received their PhD degrees in Theology and Religion from Durham University, UK and specialise in Christian ethics.