Responding to the Shift in Evangelical Thought

Boston GlobeOn January 12, 2014, Ruth Graham, a classmate of mine from both high school and college, published a piece in The Boston Globe titled, “Can the evangelical church embrace gay couples?” The subtitle read, “A new wave of thinkers says yes — and is looking to Scripture for support.” (Click here to get to the piece—unfortunately, last I checked it had been moved behind a paywall.) In her piece Graham documents a change in the perceptions of American Evangelicals. After noting the traditional Scriptural position regarding homosexuality (that it is clearly proscribed), she moves to several interpreters who are working to alter this perception. Highlighting Matthew Vines—a homosexual who is openly attempting to change the church’s thinking about sexuality—Graham points to his efforts to remove unpleasant interpretations from Scripture. Possibly recognizing that Vines’s approach is too caustic for many Evangelicals, she turns next to James Brownson, a New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan. Brownson has written a book, published through Eerdmans, which argues Scripturally for a revision in Christian perceptions of gender. In short, he argues that the Bible’s focus is more on monogamy than on sexual orientation. Therefore, as long as homosexual relationships are committed (i.e., ‘marriage’), then Scripture-believing Evangelicals ought to have no issues embracing them as normative.

BrownsonGraham’s point is not to engage with Brownson and Vines, but rather to identify the shifting position of Evangelicalism. Vines is one example of the change—although self-identified as a conservative he is still somewhat threatening to the core group. Brownson, published through Eerdmans, is much closer to home. Graham takes this to imply that Evangelicalism is inevitably shifting toward greater acceptance of homosexuality. Graham cites further evidence as well, such as other figures within Evangelicalism arguing for change and Christian colleges and seminaries with LGBTQ student groups. Along with these changes, she cites the overall perception that a defining factor of Christianity is “anti-homosexual,” as well as rising awareness of friends and family who are gay. Graham’s concluding words are highly informative:

In the end, it may not be theology or psychology that changes the most evangelical minds. Human relationships have a way of doing what academic arguments cannot. James Brownson was what he calls a “moderate conservative” on the question of homosexuality until his own son, a well-adjusted 18-year-old, came out to him and his wife eight years ago. “When I had to deal with my own son, a lot of the answers that were part of the tradition I’m part of and that I had assumed in the past just didn’t work,” he said. “We have to be able to talk about real people here.”

Graham has done a fine job of documenting the changes she perceives on the horizon of Evangelicalism, and in what follows allow me to say that there is nothing personal whatsoever between me and her. Nevertheless, the arguments documented in Graham’s article are deeply troubling. They are troubling because they offer the impression that change is inevitable. They are troubling because the logic of the argument is false. They are troubling because they assume, and promote, an incorrect perception of the core of Evangelicalism. But they might be most troubling of all because when I consider the people of faith under my care I don’t perceive that they are equipped to answer these arguments. Then, when I consider those friends of mine who struggle with same-sex attraction and yet seek to be faithful, Scriptural followers of Jesus, I fear for them. What real hope is offered to these believers? Increasingly, none, and they are finding themselves marginalized both from the church they love, and from an affirming community which rejects the Scriptures they hold dear. In the end, followers of Jesus who consider themselves both Scriptural and orthodox (small ‘o’) must be challenged and then equipped to lovingly re-ground their faith in the Scriptures they hold as authoritative.

Tube SocksSo let’s take several aspects of Graham’s piece and answer for them in turn. First, let’s address the perception that change is inevitable. This is powerful rhetoric, and it is powerfully disheartening. Convicted Christians in America have felt for years now that they are losing their place in the culture war. The ability of the media to successfully label Christians by what they are against (i.e., anti-abortion, anti-homosexual), combined with a number of inept attempts at preserving the Christian position in culture through political power, have been devastating to our social position. Traditional Christianity is genuinely on the retreat in the public sphere. The consequence is that Christians begin to feel, where once they were on the inside of the heartbeat of America, that now they are increasingly on the outside; and the feeling of exclusion is a powerful motivator for change. When I was in grammar school all the kids used to wear long tube socks pulled up above their knees. I still have a first-day-of-school picture of myself somewhere all decked out in my knee socks. But one day, unannounced, I came to school and discovered that everyone had begun rolling their socks down to their ankles, and I was the only one with my socks up! I quietly bent down and rolled my socks to be like everyone else. I think that Christians today feel a bit like we’ve come to class and everyone’s socks are rolled at the ankles.

But Christianity, and Evangelical Christianity in particular, is under a misrepresentation. The assumption of the broader culture is that we are a movement of culture rather than conviction. The perception has stuck that Evangelicals are a giant sleeper cell in America which the political and marketing agencies are eager to crack. The runaway success of The Passion of the Christ and political postulations about George W. Bush’s reelection are both significant examples of this. Sadly, American Christians have been more than happy to let this perception stand, and none have done more damage with it, perhaps, than those American Christians who led the culture wars of the 80s and 90s. In those conflicts, the morally appropriate intentions of Christian thinkers were admixed with a morally reprehensible desire to preserve power. Morality became a lever employed to preserve a political position, and in becoming a tool for power our morality became wicked. Whether this is the inevitable consequence of a latent triumphalism in American Christian thought (i.e., “Everything will be okay if we can get a Christian in charge!”), or the inevitable backlash of our need to preserve power, I’m not able to say. What I can say is that in mixing morality, culture, and power, we have opened ourselves to the perception that we are nothing more than a cultural movement—votes, Nielsen ratings, and dollars. In turn, it is our reliance on our own perceived cultural identity which gives power to the argument, latent in Graham’s piece, that “If you wish to maintain your relevance, you must prepare to change.”

evnagelical idea

When I searched for “Evangelical” on Google images, a significant number of images looked like this. There were remarkably few bibles.

Since the time of Luther, when the word “evangelical” was invented as a means to describe this new (or renewed) form of Christian faith, Evangelicalism has been a movement grounded above all else in the conviction that God’s Word sincerely applied is the source of life for the believer and change in the world. In other words, what defines an Evangelical is not his or her purchasing choices or voting habits, but rather his belief in the authority of the Christian Scriptures in faith and life. It was that conviction which sparked the Reformation and has been so globally influential for the past 500 years. And perhaps the first thing Evangelicals must do in responding to the changing cultural climate around us is to re-commit ourselves to the book which gives us identity in the first place. Evangelicals must restore their convictions and eschew the culture. When we do this, it will become clear (as it already is true), that it is not our stance on homosexuality which will marginalize orthodox followers of Jesus, but rather our commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. It is not so much that our beliefs are strange, it is that we have beliefs at all. We must prepare to pull our socks up. We will look strange.

Evangelicalism is a movement of conviction which is grounded in the Christian Scriptures. As such, arguments which purport to be based on the interpretation of Scripture make a powerful claim. But Brownson’s argument is based on false logic, and to see the falsehood is the first step in answering his claim. The first part of Brownson’s argument for acceptance of gay ‘marriage’ within Christianity is to claim that, in fact, the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality. To quote from Graham:

[Brownson] devotes no fewer than four chapters to Romans 1, unpacking Paul’s definitions of lust, purity, shame, and natural law in detail, and emerges with the claim that contemporary believers shouldn’t understand “shameless acts with men” as meaning the same thing we’d now mean by gay sex. For liberal Christians, this kind of argument is common: Passages like Romans I are often dismissed as artifacts of the prejudices of their time. Not so for Evangelicals, and accordingly Brownson walks a careful line in his writing: He makes the case that it’s possible to affirm these verses completely and also affirm same-sex relationships.

Scripture readingBrownson may well be right about many aspects of Romans 1—the language in some parts is slightly ambiguous. But Paul’s overall point of identifying how rejection of God leads inevitably to a repeat of Sodom and Gomorrah seems to link his perception of idolatry and homosexuality rather strongly. But this is not the end of the Scriptural story, because in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul condemns homosexual behaviour in the strongest terms, employing not one but two different Greek words for the activities of homosexual sex (i.e., essentially dividing between the active and passive partners in the relationship). On top of all this, it is a principle of both theology and Scripture that God is one (meaning undivided), and Jesus is God. When Philip asks Jesus in John 14 to “Show us the Father,” Jesus answers by saying, “Don’t you know me?” And at John 10:30 Jesus announces, “I and the Father are one.” The voice of Jesus in the New Testament, and the voice of the Father in the Old, are perfectly consonant—and this means that the business of claiming that “Jesus never says anything about sexuality; Paul invents it” (which Brownson doesn’t make, to my knowledge, but is common in these discussions) is absurd. God speaks authoritatively in both the Old and New Testaments.

It is in the next step, however, that Brownson’s arguments enter into false logic. Again quoting from Graham:

[Brownson] points out that in the ancient world, as other theologians have also observed, gay sex was viewed by Christians and Jews not as the expression of an innate orientation, but as a symptom of lustful excess—what Brownson calls “a kind of endless search for exotic forms of stimulation.” But today it has another meaning: Sex with either gender can be an expression of love within a long-term relationship. Christians, therefore, can support Paul’s condemnation of lustful or degrading sex outside marriage, while embracing a category of monogamous, committed same-sex relationship that did not exist in the Biblical world.

The overall logic goes like this: (1) the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality; (2) the Bible supports monogamous relationships; therefore (3) monogamous homosexual relationships are acceptable. As far as I can tell, Brownson’s argument, here documented by Graham, is in fact the standard presentation made by many proponents of same sex marriage.

It's okay when we kill Nazis, right? Right?

It’s okay when we kill Nazis, right? Right?

Proposition 1 is false from the start—it is unprovable apart from significantly limber exegesis of the text. But the false step in logic is in using proposition 2 to explain a change in proposition 1—that the answer to the problem of the Bible’s rather explicit words about homosexuality is to begin talking about monogamy. But this is absurd—we don’t excuse one action by appeal to another. Stealing doesn’t become acceptable if we steal only to help the poor; murder doesn’t become acceptable if we only murder Nazis. Virtue in one aspect does not equate righteousness in another. We’ve been handed a bait-and-switch.

Furthermore, the Bible is remarkably unclear about monogamy—I would suggest even less clear than about homosexuality. In the Old Testament and the Patriarchs polygamy is the order of the day. Of course, you’re only allowed to sleep with your wives. Oh, and their handmaidens as well. (As an aside, this fact—that the Bible’s presentation of marriage is decidedly less than crystal clear—has done little service to Christians who want to ground the “traditional” view of marriage in Scripture. Defining marriage both culturally and Scripturally will take a great deal more careful exegesis than has been given it so far.)

This might sound like I’m throwing out belief in the Scriptures, or at least giving them a hard rap. Not so. I think there are reasonable explanations for a shift from polygamy to monogamy, and reasonable exegesis which can back that shift up. The real point is that using monogamy to explain a change in homosexual acceptance is not one of those reasonable shifts, and is emblematic, moreover, of terrible exegesis.

Graham closes her piece with Brownson’s story—that he adjusted his theology when his son came out as gay. In his own words, “When I had to deal with my own son, a lot of the answers that were part of the tradition I’m part of and that I had assumed in the past just didn’t work.” We will be forced to change, Graham suggests, because the cost of maintaining our convictions will become in time too strong, too close to home. In reality, those who consider themselves Evangelical will be forced into some life-changing resolutions: Do I believe the Scriptures? Does God determine what is right and wrong? And am I willing, in Jesus’ words, to take the Body of Christ as my new family?

Evangelical Christianity (that is, Christianity which takes the Scriptures as its final authority), may exist in its weakest cultural position since the founding of America. Perceiving our ‘weakness’ keenly, arguments which successfully piggyback on our incorrect self-perceptions have enormous power. We have placed our identity on false footing. Consequently levers which challenge that footing succeed. The answer to the loss of cultural power is not to lament the loss, nor to wrestle with the lever itself, but rather to refocus our grounding. It is not that culture is more powerful, it is that we have left firm ground behind. Doubtless, many people will follow these new teachings; in the process they will subtly cease to be Evangelical at all.