The biggest debate in evangelical circles these days is not over same-sex marriage. It’s whether or not male-female marriage is a “core commitment” or an issue we can “agree to disagree” on. And more and more institutions and organizations are making it clear that marriage is the first, not the second.
That means, institutions are rejecting the “moderate” position among evangelicals, which I’ve summed up this way:
“One’s position on homosexuality or gay marriage is not an essential point of theology. There are faithful Christians who disagree on these matters, just as faithful Christians disagree on baptism, the Holy Spirit, church structure, etc. The gospel is not at stake in whichever position you take. What is at stake is our unity before the world and how we love each other. We can agree to disagree on these issues and still partner in missions and relief work.”
In 2014, I predicted the moderate position would not last:
The Moderates hold to an unsustainable position. They uphold a traditional understanding of marriage and sexual ethics, and yet they downplay the significance of these issues by taking the “agree to disagree” posture or a quiet agnosticism (“since people disagree on this, who can really know?”). I sympathize with those who feel like the culture has thrust upon us an issue we didn’t ask for and those who are weary of the constant cultural clashes between evangelicals and revisionists. That said, this category will shrink the fastest. The revisionists will challenge moderates to stop linking arms with people who affirm traditional marriage because they are “hateful” and “bigoted.” The evangelicals will challenge moderates to recognize the underlying authority of Scripture issues that accompany this debate. Moderates today will be forced to choose sides tomorrow.
I still stand by that assessment.
A Quiet, But Significant Development
Every few months or so, we see an evangelical leader or celebrity go from the moderate position to the revisionist view on marriage. And every time a Christian singer or thinker or pastor moves in this direction, we see numerous news stories, along with commentaries that applaud the courage of their decision. Activists on social media declare, “Being LGBT-affirming is the future of the church!”
But if you look beyond the headlines, you’ll see that there is a quieter movement taking place, one that will have a much greater impact in coming years. It directly counters the popular narrative that evangelicals are moving quickly to embrace revisionist teachings on marriage.
Look at the Institutions
When you look at how institutions and organizations respond to newly invented views of marriage, you get a more accurate picture of what is taking place. Ed Stetzer pointed out a number of examples yesterday, and to follow up, I’m going to dig into the actual language these organizations are using, which shows that more and more institutions are rejecting the moderate position.
Here’s the takeaway: Even though most of the online attention is directed toward the well-known individual who changes positions, the institution that reaffirms or clarifies the traditional position will have the bigger impact in the coming decades.
The CCCU’s ‘Core Commitments’
The CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) went through controversy last year when two schools changed their policies on sexuality and marriage. Union University withdrew due to the council not taking action swiftly enough. This year, however, the CCCU added a statement about Christian distinctives and advocacy, which includes this:
“We hold the Christian belief that human beings, male and female, are created in the image of God to flourish in community, and, as to intimate sexual relations, they are intended for persons in a marriage between one man and one woman. We advocate for the right of Christian institutions to maintain practices that align with this sexual ethic.”
The list of distinctives was prefaced by this statement:
“The CCCU has a robust, necessary and increasingly important advocacy role within the public square. Historic Christian beliefs and practices often intersect with current governmental interests and regulation. These biblical beliefs and practices guide the CCCU advocacy positions—as decided by the Board of Directors—to be in the best interest of advancing Christian higher education in the public square. Among the core commitments that guide our advocacy are . . . “
Note the “core commitments” language. It’s vitally important if you’re going to get an accurate glimpse of what is going on across evangelicalism.
InterVarsity and World Vision Affirm What Is Central
InterVarsity conducted a four-year process of study in how they would reiterate their beliefs on human sexuality. (Four years!)
Then, Greg Jao, InterVarsity vice president and director of campus engagement, invited all employees to take 18 months to work through a nine-part curricula, read a variety of resources, and study the relevant biblical texts to conclude whether they agree with InterVarsity’s unchanged position. In the 20-page summary, the organization clearly states:
“Marriage is defined as a distinctive union between one man and one woman, as husband and wife, in which they covenant with one another to lifelong devotion.”
“We have always expected employees to reflect the ministry’s theological beliefs, as would be true for any church, synagogue, mosque, or religious organization. . . . We recognize employees who disagree, or whose beliefs have changed over time, will leave employment because we have reiterated our beliefs.”
So far, only one prominent evangelical organization has changed its view of sexuality and marriage, only to change it back within a matter of hours—World Vision, the relief organization, whose president Rich Stearns said this:
“What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs. We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position. . . . On the authority of Scripture in our organization’s work [and employee conduct] . . . and on marriage as an institution ordained by God between a man and a woman—those are age-old and fundamental Christian beliefs. We cannot defer on things that are central to the faith.”
Notice both the language of “affirming” and “things that are central to the faith.” More and more evangelicals are stepping up, not to become LGBT-affirming, but to reaffirm what Christians have always believed to be vital and non-negotiable. And marriage is clearly seen as in that category.
Other organizations are doing the same, including Fuller Seminary, a school within the progressive wing of evangelicalism.
Christianity Today, the flagship magazine for evangelicals, has reaffirmed its commitment to “the unity and depth of Christian teaching on marriage,” in the words of Mark Galli:
“It is reality—and a reality that is not going away anytime soon. Any time at all, for that matter, because it is grounded in the deepest realities.”
Last year, Julie Rodgers, an employee at Wheaton College, resigned after announcing “a significant change in her views on integrating Christian beliefs and same-sex issues.” She did so, at least in part, because she had the integrity to recognize that she no longer aligned with the college’s theological and moral commitments.
Also of note: The Anglican Communion has censured its American wing, The Episcopal Church, because the changes they made on marriage “represent a fundamental departure from the faith.” Again, note the language of “fundamental,” another way of implying just how foundational the view of marriage is.
Reclaiming the Foundation
I am not going to rehash my previous articles on why evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, and virtually every other church outside of a subset of shrinking churches in the West, believe marriage is foundational and will never be simply something we can “agree to disagree” on. But I do find it fascinating to see organizations and institutions quietly but firmly restating their views on marriage and treating them as a core doctrine.
So, next time you see a headline about an evangelical who has abandoned the historic position of the Church, remember the institutions.