Evangelicalism after Obergefell: Reformed and Always Reforming

U.S. Supreme Court building
U.S. Supreme Court – Creative Commons (Daderot)

In the wake of Friday’s landmark ruling from the Supreme Court, affirming that the right to marriage extends to same-sex couples, there’s already been much speculation about what’s next for evangelicals — who constitute something like a quarter of this country’s population but, according to opinion polls, are markedly less likely than their fellow Americans to support same-sex marriage. Much has been made of the new external challenges looming for evangelical churches and colleges, with the tax-exempt status for Christian universities like my employer certainly in question. But New York Times reporter Michael Paulson points out that the challenges are also internal to evangelicalism:

To a degree that is rarely acknowledged in the public square, many evangelical churches are also grappling with internal questions. Especially in and around large urban areas, pastors increasingly report that some openly gay and lesbian Christians are opting to worship in evangelical congregations (“more and more are coming to our church,” Mr. [Lon] Allison [a pastor in Wheaton, IL] said) and that heterosexual worshipers are struggling over the church’s posture because friends or family members are gay.

If my Facebook status is any indication, there is a significant generational shift happening among evangelicals: among my former students who responded to Friday’s decision, opinion was running something like 4:1 in favor of the majority opinion.

It would be easy for more conservative evangelicals to respond to all this change and challenge with fear. But I want to suggest that this is a moment pregnant with possibility for evangelical renewal.

First, as we’ve already seen, the Obergefell decision may nudge even most the conservative of evangelicals to confess and repent of the harm our people and institutions have done to LGBT individuals and families. Reaffirming the Evangelical Covenant Church’s stance on human sexuality just hours after the decision was announced, president Gary Walter told delegates to my denomination’s annual meeting to reject “selective indignation around matters of sexual practice,” grieved the Covenant’s failure to welcome and serve those struggling with their sexuality, and pledged to do better at equipping churches to do ministry.

“Our heart is not to fight a culture war,” insisted Walter, “but to love people with the love of God.” If so, I hope that the SCOTUS decision will redirect the activist impulse at the heart of evangelicalism, with the energy and resources invested in a costly legal battle shifted to help meet more pressing needs. Without denying that internal debates over sexuality will continue, Ed Cyzewski argued that “When the Supreme Court ruled to make same sex marriage the law of the land, American evangelicals received a gift that many don’t want: official permission to fight for people in need instead of fighting against same sex marriage…. That isn’t a call to relativize our sexual standards. Rather, I see Jesus pointing us toward the issues that pertain to the most basic aspects of human dignity: food, shelter, clothing, justice, and sickness.”

Finally, I hope that evangelical scholars, pastors, and laypeople agree with Mark Woods that we’ve received “an invitation to do some theology.” And not just about sexuality and marriage, though we ought to have conversations about those topics. We are being prompted to think courageously and humbly about a wide array of questions. Just to name two:

What is our relationship to the government? “Most Americans have always been keen on the separation of Church and state,” observed Woods (a British Christian), “well, now’s the chance to find out whether you mean it.” Is he right that “It is entirely up to the state to declare what relationships it will recognise as marriage” and “entirely up to the Church to declare what relationships it will recognise as Christian marriage,” with neither questioning the other’s judgment?

And if threats to the tax-exempt status of our churches, colleges, and charities do come, we can welcome them as opportunities to reexamine and rearticulate how we serve the common good — and to rethink just how closely we’re bound up with the powers and principalities of this world.

What is our relationship to the broader culture? I don’t know if she meant obliquely to address Obergefell, but our pastor made one theme of Sunday’s sermon (on the story of Gideon from Judges 6-7) the importance of being obedient to God when surrounded by a hostile culture tempting or coercing us to stray. In his sexuality report Gary Walter reflected on the lessons he’d taken from the Book of Daniel: neither to be absorbed into the culture nor to refrain from engaging it. Meanwhile, Roger Olson wished that evangelicals already understood that “true Christianity is always, everywhere, a counter cultural remnant,” not invested in defending the unsustainable notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

As I’ve written before, we’re both too prone to ignore our identity as “resident aliens” and to embrace feelings of exile and persecution. The first instinct leads us compromise our allegiance to God for the sake of our allegiance to earthly political, economic, and legal systems; the second to cut us off from serving the culture — and perhaps from gaining new insights from voices speaking outside of the church.

Luther bust in Eisleben
Bust of Martin Luther at the Luther birth house in Lutherstadt Eisleben – Creative Commons (Con2tto)

On these and other theological questions, I think the overriding spirit needs to be this: If evangelicals are heirs of the Reformation, then we are reformed and always reforming.

Former Bethel and NAE president Carl Lundquist thought there was “no virtue in having an open mind toward that which God has closed,” but the evangelical list of settled questions ought to be short. If we find it easy to claim “biblical” standing for “traditional” marriage, we may not be taking the first adjective seriously enough. Sola Scriptura is not an argument-ender but a conversation-starter, calling us continually back to the written word to hear anew the voice of the living Word.

And all members of the common priesthood need to ask such questions. This can’t be the work of theologians and pastors alone, though they undoubtedly have special gifts to offer the church here and need to be given the freedom to ask questions and offer new interpretations.

None of this, by the way, presumes that we will change our minds. Sometimes renewal isn’t innovation, and we may well wind up back in the same theological place. That, to make a long story too short, was the nature of the Catholic Reformation, whose leaders repented of corruption, reaffirmed traditional interpretations of Scripture, and revitalized their church.

But even if we wind up with an Ignatian result, we should start with Luther’s courage.

6 thoughts on “Evangelicalism after Obergefell: Reformed and Always Reforming

  1. Chris–thanks for this thoughtful response. I like your optimism and broadening of the mission. It really does seem an opportunity to not turn away from need–much like Jesus would have done. You’ve walked an interesting line here.

  2. Protestants wishing for a Tridentine outcome on this issue in the post-conciliar era — isn’t that anti-modernism all over again? As a historical analogy it is also one that connects directly to intense culture-warring. I think you might be looking to the wrong council as a model; an ecumenical ressourcement seems more fitting. Luther too is problematic; he and other early reformers never wanted a permanent schism, but that is what they got. The cost of “always reforming” has been “always splintering.”

    The “resident alien” identity too s a difficult one for conservatives to rally around, since those protestants within or influenced by the confessional traditions of the reformation share with catholics a universalizing vision of the church that tends to slide into a totalizing vision with theonomic overtones when hitched to conservative politics. Behind that too is a legacy of half-forgotten philosophical buttresses that were designed to ground points of faith and morals about sex, marriage, and everything else in revelation if not nature. Especially for those still reeling from scientific findings that seem to extinguish the literal and spiritual significance of basic texts and beliefs, it may feel like a knockout punch to be told, in essence, that “male and female He created them” is incomplete and inadequate. If it is easier to let this stuff go from a pietist perspective, that will only feed the credible fear among others that “letting go” is an anti-intellectual capitulation they cannot survive with their identity (or churches) intact.

    1. Like every historical analogy, mine is a flawed analogy. (As is yours to ressourcement and Vatican II.) In any case, I didn’t say either that I’m “wishing for” any of these outcomes, or that I’m especially interested in replicating the Council of Trent. (I’m more interested in the Jesuits here — unlike Rod Dreher, I’m more intrigued by an Ignatius Option than one named after Benedict.) All I meant to suggest was (a) that there’s something to be said for sticking with an imperfect church and trying to reform it from within, and (b) that this will not be a genuine conversation if progressives approach it from the assumption that it will inevitably ratify beliefs they already hold. (Or vice-versa — per Mark Bruce’s “In Dubiis Libertas” post — if Christian college administrators are okay with a “conversation” so long as it’s understood that it can only endorse the “traditional” position.)

      1. Sure, that makes sense. I just wanted to prod you to take seriously how much conservatives may have riding on this issue and how problematic any historical analogies will be. Ressourcement is more than analogy, however; it is a viable model and strategy. In fact it seems to be what many thoughtful people on all sides of this issue agree on when they talk about the need to rethink what marriage and sexuality will mean in their church context and daily lives rather than trying to define it for everyone legislatively through the state.

  3. Right – the allusion to Vatican II made me think you meant the analogy to refer to the specific historical location of mid-20th century Catholicism. (Wasn’t sure how much you meant to suggest a recovery of Thomistic Scholasticism in particular…) But as a general strategy or model, sure. Ressourcement will be part of my follow-up post, on the value of tradition.

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