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.
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.