The Time for a (Long Overdue) Evangelical Conversation on Sexuality

Tony Campolo in 2009
Tony Campolo speaking in 2009 – Wikimedia

Few posts here have received as many views as the quick one I tossed off Monday, noting the convergence of three stories related to evangelical views of homosexuality: Tony Campolo’s announcement that he would now fully affirm committed same-sex couples; a New York Times story on a conversation about sexuality at Biola University; and a Pew poll showing that 70% of evangelicals still oppose same-sex marriage. And the day just kept going: it came out that Franklin Graham had pulled the business of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association from a bank he deemed too LGBT-friendly (and give it to another); and retired Christianity Today editor David Neff announced his support for Campolo, prompting a quick rebuttal from his former publication.

(Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a nice summary of Monday’s events and exchanges at the Washington Post.)

I understand that this issue complicated set of issues evokes strong feelings, but it was dismaying to see so many leading theological conservatives not only hasten to argue against Campolo and Neff but to treat them as having departed from evangelicalism, if not the larger orthodox (small-o) Christian tradition. I sympathized with the response from Books & Culture editor John Wilson:

I was tempted to simply reprint what I wrote in the wake of last year’s World Vision kerfuffle, but it’s rather long. So let me summarize:

I remain uncertain “that we evangelicals can maintain unity in spite of differing beliefs related to human sexuality and marriage” but I still “can’t imagine how we can continue to call ourselves evangelical if we don’t at least make a serious attempt at it.” Like historian Tal Howard, I believe that, in light of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, it is fundamentally “dys-evangelical” to worsen the already terrible fragmentation of the Church. So I argued that, on issues related to human sexuality and marriage, evangelicals need to seek what John Stott called “a greater degree of discernment, so that we may distinguish between evangelical essentials which cannot be compromised and those adiaphora (matters indifferent) on which, being of secondary importance, it is not necessary for us to insist.”

Fourteen months later, I think that’s still true.

Now, I’m sure that there are those on both sides of the debate who think this is a settled question: Christian conservatives who think Campolo, Neff, et al. have fundamentally compromised their evangelical/orthodox standing (CT, at least, refused “to condemn the converts and distance ourselves from them”), and Christian progressives who think that Campolo didn’t go nearly far enough in departing from traditional teaching. (Or, as I saw someone self-righteously post on Facebook, that he took ten years too long to change his mind.) For such absolutists, any further conversation is, at best, a waste of time and energy.

I suspect, however, that there’s a huge population of Christians lying somewhere between those two poles: people who want very badly to be both loving and faithful, who believe that sola Scriptura neither means rejecting tradition out of hand nor refusing to look anew at old texts, who want to live “in the world, but not of it” and yet agree with Caleb Kaltenbach (one of the pastors quoted in the Times story) that “Not everything has to be a culture war.”

For that group, this feels very much like the right time to have a long overdue conversation about sexuality.

"The Conversation" (1963)
1963 painting of “The Conversation” – U.S. National Archives

A real conversation. Not the silent one that many of us have within our divided consciences, kept from public view for fear of judgment. Not the false one that plays out on blogs and cable news shows, whose disembodied combatants are committed only to winning arguments and gaining readers/viewers, not building communities. As I wrote last year,

the conversation needs to take place in thousands of settings at the level of “two or three gathered together” (or perhaps slightly larger gatherings, like congregations and Christian workplaces), where people who already know each other in all their imperfection and yet still love each other as sisters and brothers in Christ can listen to each other. It should not take place primarily in the blogosphere, with polemics written to reassure and animate anonymous masses of the already-convinced, who never need hear out an opposing view.

For that matter, I’d reiterate the other principles I suggested last year:

  • “Nor, to sound what might now be a tired refrain at this blog, should such a conversation take place in national isolation, as if the 16% of evangelicals who live in North America get to make decisions for the 84% who don’t.” (Here I’m halfway sympathetic to Mark Galli’s CT editorial: while he disguises the diversity of views on sexuality and marriage among the hundreds of millions of Christians who don’t live in this country — how many of the African Christians he thinks would say a “resounding ‘no’ to gay marriage” also say a resounding “yes” to polygamy? — he’s right to have readers step back from a perspective bonded too narrowly by our own culture, and our own time.)
  • “It’s going to be hard to have a serious conversation if each side treats sexuality as a mere surrogate for other, undoubtedly central issues,” whether commitment to loving neighbors on one side or biblical authority on the other. For that matter, “In all such discussions, we should assume that evangelicals will appeal to the authority of Scripture alone, and not reserve ‘biblical’ solely for our own position.”
  • “…if evangelicals have always been especially attentive to the ways that God works in the lives of individuals, whose stories help to proclaim the gospel, then I can’t imagine claiming certainty about any position without first listening to testimonies” from LGBT Christians — hardly a monolithic group. Here too, I appreciate how Rev. Kaltenbach represented evangelicalism in the Times: “…evangelical Christians need to do more listening than talking right now.”

One other suggestion: pastors need to be especially careful about how they add their voice to this conversation. Granted, they have leading roles to play in their faith communities as members of a common priesthood specially called and gifted to preach and teach (or, in some traditions, to prophesy). But I think John Stackhouse is right to warn that evangelicals have long tended to defer to powerful pastors: “Indifferent, and sometimes even hostile, to authority based on tradition, institutional validation, or the election of elites, evangelicals expect their leaders to appeal directly to the populace and to earn the right to lead the democratic way. Such leaders can be strikingly autocratic—but they maintain their positions of authority as long as they maintain a popular mandate.” (Stackhouse is very much on one side of this debate, but I think the implicit warning is valid for those who disagree with his position.)


7 thoughts on “The Time for a (Long Overdue) Evangelical Conversation on Sexuality

  1. You are such a pot-stirrer, Professor Gehrz!

    I totally agree that those conversations should be had. One sure obstruction is the way we ingest information these days. I can only speak for myself, but I often have to shake myself free from the constant temptation (instinct?) to immediately place every piece of news/opinion I see under one of two tents: I agree, and I do not agree. Not only that, but they are accompanied by a silent nod in one case, and a huff of disgust in the other. The individual I agree with is on a pedestal for the moment, the one I disagree with…a lost cause.

    In this era it seems words don’t even have to come out of our mouths in order for us to be placed under those tents in the eyes of others as well. There doesn’t seem to be much room for having a strongly held opinion while also participating in genuine conversations about emotionally charged subjects.

    Not only that, but we’re in the twitter society, as your post showed. So there often isn’t room for fully-formed (or more accurately, constantly forming and reforming) ideas and opinions. I know for myself, I maintain many strong convictions that are still entirely insufficient for truly deciding issues even in my own mind. That’s part of the beauty I guess, of how we were created (one of my convictions 🙂 ), that even with a vast array of firmly held principles and a resolve to abide by them…our conclusions, and the actions that follow, are up to us. Entirely imperfect people with fickle minds trying to be authentic.

    1. That’s me: the pot stirrer. 🙂 But thanks for the long, thoughtful comment, Seth. I especially like the last paragraph: “constantly forming and reforming” is right on.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful approach. What might listening/discussing sessions look like in a local body of believers? Could people have the courage to admit questions and doubts? Surely the small groups of two and three gathered are a good place to commence talking.

    1. That’s the question: I’d trust small group settings more than, say, congregational meetings to lend themselves to safe, honest discussions. But even starting those conversations can be difficult.

      1. If I were leading such a discussion, I would invite friends to leave their polemics at the door and pick up an ear-trumpet on the way in. We’d start with innocuous talk just to hear our voices and then gradually circle toward toward the topic. It would take a while.

  3. Great post! Two quotes that really hit the nail on the head:

    1) So I argued that, on issues related to human sexuality and marriage, evangelicals need to seek what John Stott called “a greater degree of discernment, so that we may distinguish between evangelical essentials which cannot be compromised and those adiaphora (matters indifferent) on which, being of secondary importance, it is not necessary for us to insist.”

    I could not agree more with that statement.

    2) I suspect, however, that there’s a huge population of Christians lying somewhere between those two poles: people who want very badly to be both loving and faithful, who believe that sola Scriptura neither means rejecting tradition out of hand nor refusing to look anew at old texts, who want to live “in the world, but not of it” and yet agree with Caleb Kaltenbach (one of the pastors quoted in the Times story) that “Not everything has to be a culture war.”

    This is a constant struggle that requires prayer and thoughtfulness, two things to which I am guilty of devoting too little of my own time.

    Thanks for this, Prof. Gehrz!

    Oh, and as usual, I agree with everything the wise Seth Rima said.

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