L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between famously begins, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But for many Western Christians today, it’s not the past that’s unfamiliar territory, but the present. Everything, it seems, has changed.
Our legal systems—once used to persecute the gay community—are now used to prosecute Christians who refuse services to gay customers. The fear of coming out as an evangelical Christian in the workplace today is perhaps similar to the fear of coming out as gay to colleagues a generation ago. Dictionaries are changing definitions of words like “marriage,” and schools are asking parents to indicate their child’s preferred gender identity. More and more young people talk of a fluidity in their experience of gender and sexuality.
It’s important for us to recognize and articulate that not all the changes have been bad. The past is not necessarily a better country. Yet we also must recognize that it’s not good that Scripture’s teaching on gender, sexuality, and marriage has been largely rejected by Western society—and by increasing numbers within the church. We desperately need to call people back to God’s life-giving Word.
For that call to be effective, however, it must come from those who can answer this crucial question: Where have the changes come from?
Four Major Changes
The pace of social change has been so great that our focus has often been on merely keeping up—or resisting what we can. Lost in the fog of our own Christian subculture’s nostalgia, we’ve failed to pay enough attention to what’s creating the new weather conditions in the culture at large. There have been four major changes.
1. What We Regret
Society has finally awakened to the horror of the well-chronicled cruel attitudes and actions toward gay people in the past. The 1980s AIDS epidemic turned out to be a key turning point in bringing about societal repentance. Andrew Sullivan—a gay journalist—has written of his experience of this time:
What had once been a strong fear of homosexual difference, disguising mostly silent awareness of homosexual humanity, became reversed. The humanity soon trumped the difference. Death, it turned out, was a powerfully universalizing experience. Suddenly, acquiescence in gay baiting and gay bashing became, even in its strongholds, something inappropriate at a moment of tragedy. The victimization by a disease ironically undercut their victimization by a culture. There was no longer a need to kick them when they were already down.
Genuine homophobia didn’t disappear overnight (it’s sadly still present in many human hearts), but its cultural power was massively diminished. People were rightly moved by the severe suffering of the gay community, and impressed by how they loved and cared for their dying members—both strangers and friends. Sullivan argues it sadly took the death of countless gay men to wake Western societies up to the cruelty of genuine homophobia.
But such right feelings of regret aren’t enough to account for how much has changed—and how quickly. We also must pay attention to changes in how we even determine what’s good.
2. How We Determine What Is Good
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues the most important factors in determining right and wrong have changed significantly in recent decades. These factors are now dividing conservative religious believers from their liberal secular neighbors. To illustrate, he has drawn a helpful moral matrix of Americans:
The top three are most influential in determining morality for a modern-day liberal. They care most about not harming others. Freedom of individual expression matters too and, most restrictions are seen as oppressive.
The bottom three factors exert much less influence over most of our contemporaries, but Haidt points out they’re often most determinative for conservatives, including many religious believers. We can apply Haidt’s work and recognize that the moral matrix works—in many ways—in reverse order for evangelicals. Christian ethics regularly speaks of sanctity or holiness and degradation or sin. Evangelicals hold up the Bible as their primary authority, so attempts to reinterpret it are seen as subversive, and departures from traditional sexual ethics are seen as disobedience. Though all six factors matter to evangelicals, we care about moral dimensions that tend not to resonate with our secular neighbors.
Haidt’s matrix helps us see why our condemnation of permanent, faithful, stable same-sex relationships gains little traction in society, especially with younger generations. “Where is the harm in such a loving monogamous relationship?” they ask. “Is there not more harm in denying anyone that experience?”
Replies focusing on God’s definition of sin, the authority of his Word, and adherence to biblical standards fall on deaf ears.
3. How We Change Our Minds
The classic evangelical response to this problem is to teach more effectively. If we give people the right biblical information, they will repent.
This response shows we don’t understand how humans make decisions. We are driven far more by our intuitions than our intellects. Philosopher James K. A. Smith observes:
I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church.
How does this contrast work out practically at a local church level? Perhaps once a year a young person in an evangelical church hears a faithful, clear, intellectually persuasive sermon on the traditional Christian view of gender, sexuality, and marriage. Yet in an average week they are bombarded with YouTube clips, shows, films, and other messages contradicting traditional Christian sexual ethics. And these messages engage them emotionally and visually, resonating with their desires.
The youth pastor’s carefully prepared sex talk is often powerless against the expertly crafted short film. A few minutes on YouTube can undermine years of biblical teaching as the world connects with our desires for perfection, intimacy, and beauty.
4. What We Worship
Contemporary culture seems to worship sex. As Christian anthropologist Jennell Williams Paris reflects:
The idol of sexual fulfilment has two faces: One says each person has the right to be sexually satisfied and having sex is a necessary part of happy, mature adulthood (or even adolescence). The second is a Christian one that says the reward for premarital sexual virtue is great marital sex.
In some churches today, prohibiting sex before marriage is presented as the way to better sex after marriage. We’ve merely moderated society’s obsession with sex by being obsessed with sex in its right context. We’ve unwittingly communicated that sexual fulfilment is essential to the good life, despite the fact that the only perfect life ever lived—that of the incarnate Christ—proves this wrong.
What Can We Do?
While we must not modify biblical truths on gender, sexuality, and marriage, we can alter how we incarnate and communicate them in several ways:
- We must keep apologizing for genuine homophobia in the past and present.
- We must work hard at using all parts of Haidt’s matrix. If we’re speaking into debates on sex-change operations, for example, let’s talk as much about the potential harm it does as we do about what Scripture says.
- The Bible’s great narrative of how gender, sexuality, and marriage all point to God’s love for us in Christ must be better connected to our God-given desires for perfection, intimacy, and beauty. I recently heard of a youth conference where this was done by acting out a marriage service and explaining the symbolic significance of each part.
- We must confess our idolatry of sex and communicate a vision of life to the full without it. Our churches need to value and celebrate singleness as much as marriage. Both intimate friendships and also strong marriages should be encouraged.
Society is not alone in needing change, in other words. We do too.
Where Are We Now?
We are living in a foreign country, but all is not lost. If we get our cultural bearings, we’ll start making good gospel connections again. And that might not be as hard as it looks because, as author Ferdinand Mount reminds us, we’ve been here before:
So much about society that is now emerging bears an astonishing resemblance to the most prominent features of what we call the classical world—its institutions, its priorities, its recreations, its physics, its sexual morality, its food, its politics, even its religion.
In many ways we have come full circle. Rather than depressing us, this similarity should fill us with hope. It means the church has faced many of these challenges before and grown despite them. The present might not be so foreign to us after all.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted version of an article published in the FIEC’s Primer.