At the end of the eighth movement of Plutarch’s essay “How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend,” the ancient wordsmith reflects, “I do not need a friend who changes when I change and nods ‘yes’ when I nod ‘yes’ (my shadow does these things better!); but I want a friend who joins me in the search for truth and, like me, decides for himself” (Plutarch, Adulator 8, translation mine). For me, interactive dialogue with a friend has taken on poignant meaning, for this fall my friend and former colleague Dr. David P. Gushee released a series of blog posts explaining his shift of perspective on Christian sexual ethics and suggesting that monogamous, “covenanted” LGBT relationships should be sanctioned by the church. Hoping the church universal will follow him in this change, the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University has now published a book titled Changing Our Mind.
As a member of the broader evangelical Baptist community, it would be all too easy to either remain quiet or simply dismiss David. But I cannot treat him so impersonally and condescendingly. Until 2007 David served as a professor of Christian ethics at Union University where I teach. During our years of service together, many of us knew him as an articulate, compassionate, thoughtful colleague and an outstanding teacher, one who held the historic Christian view on the topics of sexuality and marriage. For some of us he has been a dear friend with whom we ate, played, prayed, worshiped, served, and faced crises. David and I have been in each other’s homes, tangled on the basketball court, visited each other in the hospital, talked over countless breakfasts, prayed for one another, and walked together through more than a decade of church life. So, for me, a review of his recent work is inevitably and profoundly personal and at times quite literally “gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, accomplished through a flood of tears” (2 Cor. 2:4). David, ever articulate, has always been at his best when calling for compassion, and I gladly join my friend in eschewing (as we always have) any form of violence, hate, or rejection of LGBT people as people. As I will note below, I also agree there’s much we in the church must do to live out biblical sexuality more faithfully and embody the gospel more authentically in relation to the LGBT community.
At the same time, David proposes a radical change in a sexual ethic that, until recently, the Judeo-Christian tradition has embraced uniformly for more than two and a half millennia, and he does so largely on the basis of his own existential experience (124–25). In essence, David is now convinced that to reject homosexual practice among “covenanted, monogamous” LGBT couples constitutes a rejection of them as people. Thus he proposes the church remove the “sin” label from certain forms of homosexual sex. David appeals especially to those of us who are people of faith, issuing a public invitation for us to consider both the authoritative texts and the implications of our interpretations for life in the modern world as followers of Christ. I take up his invitation, for it’s one that has massive implications for my family, my students (both past and present), members of my church, my university, the body of Christ, Christian mission, and, I suggest, everyone in the broader cultures in which we live and move and have our being. I read and considered David’s thoughts and offer the following in return, in due course explaining why I—while embracing dialogue and an opportunity for growth in embodying the gospel—am not “changing my mind” on the beautiful and powerful gift of sex, which I believe God has reserved for heterosexual marriage.
Grounds of Agreement
There’s much in Changing Our Mind with which any fair-minded reader can agree. David often is even-handed, challenging those on both sides of the affirming/non-affirming debate. At times, especially early in the book, he strikes the right tone and makes sound points we all need to consider. So, let me begin by noting three foundational points on which David and I see eye-to-eye.
First, he suggests that “any adequate Christian thinking about the LGBT issue needs to set the question back into its broader framework of historic Christian sexual morality; and beyond that, into a far broader Christian spiritual and theological context” (10). I agree. As C. S. Lewis famously suggested, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. . . . Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” If the error of traditionalism, as Jesus addressed it, is replacing the words of God with “the traditions of men,” the danger of neoculturalism is replacing the words of God with human innovations—insisting that the current cultural “wisdom” inevitably constitutes progress. “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) is a very old question that still carries an aura of “informed” promise for a brighter future. Yet standing over against both traditionalism and sexual neoculturalism is, as David notes, a historic Christian sexual morality that has stood the test of time through the ebb and flow of many cultural moments. To dismiss it from consideration out of hand, then, would be the height of what Lewis and his friend Owen Barfield called “chronological snobbery.”
Changing Our Mind
Second, I agree wholeheartedly that the church today needs to think more proactively about how to believe and embody the compassionate, compelling story of the gospel as we relate to LGBT friends and neighbors. After all, if we get the gospel wrong, we’ll get the response to this conversation wrong. Further, I agree that for those of us who hold the historic Christian position on sexuality, “Much needed change . . . can take place without reconsidering the sexual ethics issues at all” (18).
Third, David is right to note that “precision is needed when talking about these issues” (9). Most of us know how we feel about the issue, but are we thinking carefully about it? When the stakes are high, dialogues can too easily devolve into dogmatic appeals to sentimentality or experience on both sides. Being articulate is not the same thing as articulating sound arguments. Since ideas have consequences, the discussion of ideas matters. Accordingly, the critiques that follow shouldn’t be read as an attack on David, nor on those in the LGBT community. I offer them in response to David’s public invitation to reason together and in a spirit of concerned goodwill.
David shapes his argument by weaving a consideration of biblical texts, moral reasoning, and, above all, the evoking of personal stories. It’s important to attend not only to what he argues but how he does so. In many ways, the stories form the foundation of his paradigm shift—with Scripture and reason being reconsidered in light of those stories. We’ll dig down to that foundation by working our way through David’s approach to the Bible and his ethical arguments.
“Engaging” the Text of Scripture
In chapter 9 David lays the groundwork for his treatment of Scripture and, again, there’s much with which one can readily agree. For instance, Christians have often disagreed on a myriad of issues, and there are often many interpretations of a given passage. No one suggests that biblical interpretation is easy, and none of us has what one scholar has called an “immaculate perception.” All of us are influenced by our traditions and contexts and moments in history.
At the same time, the acknowledgement of Scripture’s complexity should be balanced with the Protestant emphasis on Scripture’s clarity—that it can be read and many parts of it understood by normal people. As David points out, until a few decades ago the whole church, throughout the whole of church history, has understood the practice of homosexual sex as sin. This is certainly due in part to the fact that whenever the Bible speaks about homosexual practice, it is unequivocally condemned. Biblical scholars of all stripes are agreed on this, no matter their theological or even their sexual orientations.
So the key question before us involves how we understand these biblical texts and their significance for believers today. David tells us that he has “retained a strong belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible for the Christian life” (52). Accordingly, he appeals to the text of Scripture as authoritative and foundational for his arguments and promises to present “the main points of the scholarly discussion” (7). Because of space I’m going to focus on the “creation order” passages; we both agree they are central to the discussion, and David’s treatment of them is illustrative of his engagement with the other texts he considers. At least two general patterns emerge, which should be noted by readers of Changing Our Mind.
Missing the Details of the Story
In Chapter 14 David begins a discussion of “creation order” passages, among which are Genesis 1–2; Matthew 5:31–32; Matthew 19:3–12/Mark 10:2–12; and Luke 16:18. Citing Robert Gagnon and William Webb, he summarizes the historic Christian reading on the classic “creation order” texts: “[A]ll have been read to suggest the illegitimacy of same-sex relationships based on God’s original design for human sexuality in creation, often defined as male/female sexual/gender complementarity.” David then highlights the implication: “This design renders all same-sex relations as ‘out of order,’ that is, contrary to God’s fixed plan for creation” (81–82). He goes on to note that the “creation order” argument constitutes “the single most important biblical-theological-ethical issue faced by any Christian wrestling with the LGBT issue” and thus “deserves careful consideration.”
But surprisingly, having pointed to the historic Christian argument on “creation order” and the answer to it as critical for his position, David does little to engage the key passages and fails to walk us through the “careful consideration” he’s promised. In fact, he covers the Genesis texts related to the question of sexuality in a single paragraph (82–83). We’re exposed neither to the details of the exegetical issues related to sex and gender nor to the rich tapestry and beauty of the overarching story (as with, for instance, Walter Brueggemann’s literary analysis of Genesis 1:1–11:29). There’s brief mention but no real engagement with the Hebrew terms for “male” (zāḵār) and “female” (nᵉqēḇāh) in Genesis 1:27, which, as opposed to the terms for “man” and “woman,” very particularly express the binary nature of human sexuality. There’s no explanation of what the text means by the Hebrew neg̱eḏ (the woman as one who’s “opposite but corresponds” to the man) in Genesis 2:20, nor of David’s view of “one fleshness” in Genesis 2:24. He probes neither the story nor its parts, so it’s difficult to see how this constitutes a “careful consideration” of what he himself describes as central to the debate.
Consequently, we miss the power and beauty of humanity’s binary nature, as maleness and femaleness play a very special role in the very foundation of who we are as human beings. In fact, in no other creation story in Ancient Near Eastern literature is woman so exalted, sharing in God’s image—and that exaltation is lost if we overlook the rich particulars of Genesis 1–2. In David’s reading of the broader creation story of Genesis 1, we miss the powerful weaving together and celebration of God’s order of things, an order strategically involving both sameness and difference (e.g., two heavenly lights, one to rule the day and the other the night). In the case of the marriage relationship this has several results, one of which is procreative fruitfulness (Gen. 1:28). Thus, one way of reading the interconnectedness of Genesis 1 and 2 is to grasp that a man and woman becoming one flesh (2:21–24) means giving themselves to each other in an utterly unique act that alone can bring another human into being. To give oneself sexually to a spouse of the opposite gender is to step into the possibility that one’s union will be the means by which God brings another image-bearer into the universe. Beyond dispute is the bald fact that this binary “ordering” underlies who we are as the human family. Every person reading these words, whether gay or straight—indeed, every person on the planet—exists as a biologically binary gift from a male and a female parent. This is one aspect of the order reflected in Genesis 1–2.
Further, the striking, unreserved, unashamed intimacy of naked one-fleshness in Genesis 2:21–25 portrays sexual intimacy as a reveling in heterosexual sex—not just for procreation (children aren’t mentioned in the immediate context) and not merely reflecting a kinship bonding (as with James Brownson’s reading). The heterosexual relationship depicted is embodied and uniquely expressed in a special form of kinship called “marriage.” It’s also sexually satisfying and sacred, not to be transgressed by other kin, strangers, or animals (Lev. 18:6–24; 20:10–22). These restrictions on the sexual relationship to husband and wife—including the explicit prohibitions against homosexual practice (Lev. 18:22; 20:13)—set Israel apart as holy, distinct from the peoples of both Egypt and Canaan. The sexual prohibitions in Leviticus echo the foundational narratives of Genesis 1–2 and form a literary parallelism, setting off in bold relief the community exhortations of Leviticus 19 that Jesus and the early church embraced—exhortations concerning stealing, paying wages with integrity, slander, rendering just judgments, caring for the poor, and loving “your neighbor as yourself” (19:18b). When David deals with the two Leviticus verses on homosexuality, he offers a word study on the Hebrew term ṯōwʿēḇāh (normally translated as “detestable”) and reviews other practices warranting the death penalty in the broader context. But again, we get no sense of how to read this literature as Christian Scripture in its full canonical context. We get no sense of how to read the Leviticus prohibitions in light of the beauty that is Genesis 1–2. We’re simply walked through the details of how difficult interpretation is and (appropriately) warned off from simplistic prooftexting (70–72). Instead of a constructive interpretation of the Leviticus texts, David brackets them off from speaking into the LGBT issue. And rather than deal with the story of Genesis 1–2, David simply moves to the implication of the historic Christian view that the “creation order” teaching has been used for the exclusion of LGBT people. He concludes, “Increasingly today it is noted that core practices referred to in Genesis 1–2, including mutual care for children, helper-partner companionship (Genesis 2:18) and total self-giving, can and do occur among covenanted gay and lesbian couples.” Perhaps—the God of “common grace” causes the rain to fall on everyone—but in David’s treatment we have yet to hear Genesis 1–2 speak to human sexuality, a consideration he himself has underscored as mandatory for those wrestling with how to respond to the LGBT question in the church.
A similar concern can be raised concerning David’s treatment of the other “creation order” texts. His reflection on Matthew 19 is a bit better—addressing, for instance, the issue of celibacy—but it won’t do to simply note that Jesus’s main topic in context was divorce. Of course it was. Moreover, David mentions but doesn’t engage Matthew 19:4, where Jesus lays the foundation for his view of marriage: “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female” (NET). Nor does he deal with the “one fleshness” or the “joining together” of Matthew 19:5–6, nor with the fact that the breaking of the marital covenant happens with adultery—a sexual act (19:9). The primary sexual elements of these texts never have a voice in the discussion, a pattern which dominates most of David’s review of Scripture’s passages on homosexuality.
Thus, in an intellectual sleight of hand (which I’m certain wasn’t intentional) David appeals to the careful consideration of certain texts as central to the discussion without ever revealing how he reads the particulars of them to make sense of his position. His argument therefore has the veneer of being “biblical” (read “Christian” and “authoritative”) despite never actually engaging the details of the biblical material.
Raising the Plausibility of Doubt
Second, if David consistently fails to engage the text itself, he points out the variety of views on offer for the texts in question—a common practice in the best commentaries. But those commentaries go on to make a case for a particular view. Again, notice that David almost never tells us his interpretation of the homosexuality texts in question. He simply trots out a variety of opinions that provide alternatives to the historic Christian view, leading us enthusiastically to the scrolls of ancient Scripture only to leave them tied up on the desk, often choked with the variegated cords of scholarly opinion.
For example, in treating Romans 1 (85–90) David briefly notes William Loader’s work—aspects of which generally support the historic Christian understanding, though Loader is no proponent himself when it comes to application—but quickly moves to other secondary literature that can be set against historic Christian readings of this vital text. There is the view that Paul, not understanding homosexual orientation, is objecting to heterosexuals participating in “unnatural sex,” or the view that Paul has in mind abusive sex, violent rape of the powerless, or perhaps simply excessive sexual desire. We’re also invited to consider that the homosexuality Paul has in mind is the particular form of pagan perversion present in the Roman imperial court (86–89). These views are interesting. Let’s carry the process a step further.
Noticeably missing from the discussion, for instance, is the theologically and ethically astute treatment of Duke University’s Richard Hays, one of the most respected New Testament scholars in the world. In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament Hays reads Romans 1 as referencing homosexual practice in general as a striking manifestation of the moral confusion and blindness of all humanity in relation to God. He also sees homosexual behavior, along with the vice list of Romans 1:28–32, as a manifestation of God’s judgment. For Paul, any expression of homosexual sex skews the “image of God” depicted in Genesis 1 (as related to “male” and “female”). Such skewing is a vivid and representative picture of how all of us disfigure God’s image with our sinfulness and idolatry.
If Hays’s interpretation is correct (and the cosmic and “whole-humanity” framing of Romans 1–3 suggests he is), Romans 1 actually takes in all of the interpretive options mentioned above. All of these various expressions of homosexuality in the ancient world stand under the condemnation of God, according to Paul. Indeed, any expression of homosexual sex is a skewing of God’s divine order. David objects that the “context” of Romans 1 is different than ours, suggesting that those who hold the historic Christian position “decontextualize” Paul’s teaching. With other revisionists David wants to suggest that the homosexuality of the ancient world was not the loving, covenanted, monogamous gay relationships of our modern context (on which see Kevin DeYoung’s article “Not That Kind of Homosexuality?”).
It might be gently suggested that in his failure to deal with the text itself David has missed Paul’s allusions to Genesis 1 and downplayed the apostle’s own crafting of Romans 1 as focused on the universal sin condition of humanity (cf. 85). It is David, with his befogging litany of various expressions of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world, who misses the point, micro-contextualizing Paul in a way foreign to the apostle’s argument.
In chapter 19 David claims to have shown us how his “biblical dot-connecting changed,” but what he actually offers is more of a biblical dot-erasing, using the diversity of scholarly voices to show the “plausibility” that the historic Christian view may have been wrong all along (125). David offers no constructive interpretation of the texts, nor does he put God’s gift of sexuality in the framework of the biblical story. As Ron Sider recently emphasized in his Christianity Today piece “Tragedy, Tradition, and Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate”:
The primary biblical case against homosexual practice is not the few texts that explicitly mention it. Rather, it is the fact that again and again the Bible affirms the goodness and beauty of sexual intercourse—and everywhere, without exception, the norm is sexual intercourse between a man and a woman committed to each other for life.
Rather than building a beautiful and biblical alternate view of sexuality, David’s program simply destructs the historic Christian position by raising a “plausible” doubt about how to read the relevant texts.
The Use of Ethical Reasoning
Given David’s training as an ethicist, it’s not surprising that a second major building block of his argument involves ethical reasoning and moral reflection. Again, there’s much in his discussion both sides in the debate can embrace. Nevertheless, I mention four examples of David’s ethical reasoning that I think are problematic.
1. Distinguishing Contexts
My first concern has to do with a general approach to how those of us in this debate should “reason together” when discussing the church’s relationship with the LGBT community. My friend and colleague Darrell Bock serves as Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. In a recent conversation Darrell suggested to me two things that are vital as we engage the topic. First, we’ve got to get the tone right. Some in the church are killing the conversation by reflecting anything but a loving, thoughtful posture. As David notes (56–57), it’s all too easy for the “affirming” side to simply dismiss those who hold the historic Christian position as backward fundamentalists. Second, those on all sides of the debate must make distinctions between the church context, the broader political/cultural context, and the pastoral/ministry context.
For instance, I have a gay acquaintance. I can be a friend to him, respect his rights as a citizen and fellow human being, and interact with and serve him graciously in the public sphere—all the while disagreeing with him on the question of what constitutes sexual morality. Disagreement is not the same as discrimination. In churches or church-related institutions, religious belief often defines and shapes the basis for membership. A Muslim, for instance, cannot be a member of my church, or teach at my Baptist university, nor can a person who openly practices homosexuality. To turn this around, there are churches or schools where I wouldn’t be welcomed to minister or teach because of my evangelical Baptist beliefs. I understand that and don’t view it as a case of discrimination. All religious (and many non-religious) institutions have their belief boundaries. Yet, in spite of our various institutions and beliefs, we can relate respectfully and graciously to one another in the public square.
The ministry context, however, might move fluidly across such church and cultural boundaries since I am to extend mercy to everyone as my “neighbor” in whatever context I encounter them (see “the Good Samaritan” in Luke 10:25–37). I should care for and minister to anyone with whom I come in contact, but the ministry contexts may vary depending on the individual involved. For example, I might minister to a friend in my church who struggles with gay attraction but is seeking to live a celibate life. On the other hand, I would minister to a sexually active gay single in my community who isn’t asking for my perspective on homosexual behavior but is seeking to understand more about the gospel. Again, I should minister compassionately to both, but the contexts of ministry may vary.
So my first concern with David’s reasoning is that at times these lines are blurred. For example, political/cultural discrimination of the past (in which parts of the church participated but other parts did not) is confused with the belief boundaries of individuals and churches in the present. Consequently, David often equates disagreement on the morality of homosexual practice with tacitly harmful discrimination. Appropriate pastoral ministry is then collapsed into just one option: affirm covenanted homosexual relationships in the church or be in “the community of the bullies” (124). This type of reductionism is not helpful.
2. Poor Use of Analogies
This raises the issue of David’s liberal use of argument by analogy. The use of analogies in ethical reasoning has a long history, and most ethicists note the care that must be taken when employing this rhetorical device. When analogies are used, we must attend not only to the analogous but also to whether there are significant differences in the situations being referenced. In other words, we must ascertain both the nature and the extent of the parallels. For instance, in appealing to anti-Semitism or segregation as analogous to the plight of those in the contemporary LGBT community, we need to probe both the similarities and differences in these situations. Certainly egregious exclusion at times has been the experience of both LGBT people and racial minorities, and I agree harmful or unjust treatment of “the other” is out of bounds biblically. But notice that the minorities evoked by David are racial, and their plight during the mid-20th century was profoundly different from the plight of the LGBT community in our current cultural climate in the U.S.
We’ve already discussed parts of the biblical material on homosexual practice. Consider, by contrast, the broad biblical witness about race. For example, Moses, a Jew, married a black African (Num. 12:1), and the call of Israel from the beginning was to be a blessing to all peoples of the earth (Gen. 12:3). The earliest church communities were filled with both Jews and persons of various races, probably including black Africans (e.g., Acts 13:1). Revelation celebrates the gospel of the Lamb as being for “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Consequently, the embrace of all races has a broad and clear biblical foundation, which cannot be said for the practice of homosexual sex. The racists simply weren’t paying attention to clear biblical teaching. Thus, David’s analogies between the Holocaust/racial segregation of the mid-20th century and the exclusion of practicing gays from church membership are weak at best.
As another example of the misuse of analogy, David evokes the Emmaus Road experience (Luke 24:13–35) and the incorporation of the Gentiles (Acts 10) as analogous to his own encounter of LGBT people, which prompted his paradigm leap on the question of sexual ethics. Appealing to these passages, David suggests there were points in biblical history at which an old paradigm was confronted, with the encounter marking a change in the way Scripture was understood. Yet, the only aspect of the analogy that works is that “people were surprised by an encounter to the point of changing their understanding of God’s Word” (which, by the way, could also be said of Eve’s encounter with the snake in Genesis 3:1–7).
Note the massive differences between David’s “paradigm leap” and the accounts of Luke 24 and Acts 10. Both biblical accounts involve specific revelation in which God intervenes directly and miraculously to reveal divine truth. The Emmaus disciples experienced nothing less than an appearance of the resurrected Jesus himself. Peter had a triple vision of the “unclean buffet,” heard the divine voice, and witnessed the Spirit being poured out on the Gentiles. Cornelius had an angelic visitor. In fact, in the Acts 10 narrative the miraculous events stack up, giving Peter overwhelming evidence that God was including Gentiles among his people.
By contrast, David’s account appeals to his existential experience, which, though important, is not specific revelation from God. Experiences, even “beautiful” and “mysterious” ones (125), must be interpreted and weighed in light of Scripture. Even seemingly supernatural ones can be misleading (e.g., Gal. 1:8). When we choose to believe our experiences over against the teachings of Scripture, we are on dangerous ground.
Further, Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension were generously foretold in the Old Testament, as was the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God. Lots of Old Testament resonances and direct statements were pointing to these biblical “paradigm leaps,” as witnessed by the role of Scripture in the broader contexts of Luke 24 and Acts 10 (e.g. Jesus teaching the disciples hermeneutics after his resurrection; James’s use of the Old Testament in Acts 15). As we have seen, however, there is not a single passage in the Old or New Testament anticipating David’s paradigm leap on the LGBT issue. Thus his analogy is flawed and misleading, suggesting that his own experiences have biblical precedence.
I noted that David fails to lead us in how to read the text of Scripture. Yet in chapter 15 he offers hermeneutical guidance by advancing three proposals for thinking about the creation texts, sexual orientation, and God’s will. In the second he suggests that since design arguments grounded in creation texts like Genesis 1–2 have proved problematic in the past, we should downplay them and lean “forward toward Jesus Christ” as our guide for ethical decisions. He then offers a third proposal—that instead of relying on Genesis 1–2 alone we should more seriously consider the sexual-ethic implications of living in a Genesis 3 world (96). David in effect wants to diminish the role of Genesis 1–2 as a primary foundation for discussion of biblical ethics since we cannot return to “a Genesis 2 world.”
Contrary to his suggestions (97–98), though, evangelicals already believe we live in a “Genesis 3” world, and we understand sexuality and all aspects of life to be affected by the fall. We entirely agree that “everyone’s sexuality needs to be morally disciplined and ordered.” In appealing to Genesis 1–2 on sexuality, it might be gently suggested that we already are “leaning into Jesus Christ,” for it’s Jesus himself who takes us back to Genesis 1–2 when dealing with the marriage relationship (Matt. 19:3–9). From a biblical theology standpoint we live in a Genesis 1–3 world, which is the whole point of the biblical narrative. Both the design of Genesis 1–2 and the fall of Genesis 3 are foundational for understanding who we are as human beings.
In fact, David at least in part still believes this too, for in the next chapter (ch. 16) he argues for a covenanted-marital sexual ethic for LGBT people. He appeals to “texts like Malachi 2, Matthew 19/Mark 10, and Ephesians 5.” But as we read Matthew 19 and Ephesians 5, where do Jesus and Paul take us as they lay the foundation under a covenanted-marital sexual ethic? Right back to that Genesis 1–2 world. In arguing for a minimizing of Genesis 1–2, then, David severely cracks the biblical foundation and thus his own ability to argue strongly for covenanted-marital sex of any kind. His arguments in chapter 15 contradict and impair his argument in chapter 16.
It wouldn’t be surprising if David’s arguments come back to haunt him as he stands against an “anything goes” sexual ethic. What would be his basis for arguing that a bisexual person shouldn’t live out her bisexuality in a “covenanted marriage” relationship with both a man and a woman? The woman is sincere. She explains that she and her two loves love each other and are committed to a covenanted relationship under Christ. The young woman understands her bisexuality to be an essential part of her personal identity and doesn’t believe it should be constrained by David’s conservative views. She loves both her proposed husband and her wife in a complementary fashion and chafes at a traditional stricture being placed on her sexuality, and thus on herself. She points out there’s actually more biblical warrant for polygamy than for homosexual marriage. When David protests that a monogamous, covenanted relationship is foundational in God’s plan, evoking texts like Matthews 19 and Ephesians 5, the woman protests, “But you said we don’t live in a Genesis 2 world!” Cracked foundations make for shaky buildings.
4. Fear of Cultural Marginalization
One oddity among David’s appeals concerns the hostility the church faces from the broader culture. Because we refuse to change our sexual ethic, the “church’s image and evangelistic mission in U.S. culture have been damaged.” We might ask where rapid evangelistic growth is happening in the world. It’s not in the liberal mainline denominations of America and the UK, most of which remain in the sharpest decline of any denominational group. No, evangelistic growth is preeminently taking place in the theologically conservative churches of the second and third world countries, but there are some exceptions here in the U.S. In a recent speech at the Vatican, Rick Warren, whose Saddleback Church recently baptized its 40,000th adult convert, proclaimed, “It is a myth that we must give up biblical truth on sexuality and marriage in order to evangelize.”
Nevertheless, David warns us that we face “total cultural rejection” if we don’t toe the line on a revisionist sexual ethic. As an example he points to Louie Giglio’s disinvitation from President Obama’s second inauguration as sending “a chill down the spine of every Christian leader who ever offended current cultural standards in their preaching or writing on the LGBT issue” (12). (And he confesses that he is “one such leader.”) This greatly clarifies at least one motivation in David’s program, and, as he himself notes, it’s a motivation very much out of step with the experience of faithful embodiments of the church throughout her history. At her best the church has stood over against the dominant culture (which at times was the dominant church culture), even at great cost. I’m reminded of the period just after John Wycliffe’s death. Wycliffe, often considered Europe’s greatest intellectual at the time, supervised the production of the first English translation of the Bible and opposed the corruption of the church and state. He was persecuted and prosecuted. After his death his followers were tracked down, tortured, and sometimes killed. Some recanted. Others died because they wouldn’t. Much of England was plunged into a century of intellectual darkness. Wycliffe’s movement, with its attempt at biblical fidelity, seemed to have lost. But the “Morning Star” eventually rose out of its countercultural ashes, burning brightly in the Bible translations and in the Reformation that would follow.
Admittedly, David’s on the side of a cultural wave of opinion. Yet unlike Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King (to whom he alludes), who stood like rocks against the brutal, crushing waves of dominant cultural forces, David is riding a cultural wave. We might gently suggest that his experience has seldom been the normal experience of devoted Christians in history. Indeed, when the church has aligned herself with cultural power and opinion, it hasn’t bode well for her spiritual vitality or her mission.
Ironically, David agrees with me later:
[Christian ministers] carry profound responsibilities to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. We can’t simply abandon the Bible, or church tradition, or historic Christian beliefs, just because there is a cultural movement of great power bearing down hard on us to snap our views into line with prevailing opinion. This is precisely what church leaders (at their best) have refused to do—from ancient Rome to Nazi Germany to apartheid in South Africa. This steadfast saying no to culture in order to say yes to Jesus Christ was precisely what they were obligated to do by their responsibilities as Christian leaders. (16)
Amen, my friend.
Telling Our Stories
A wise pastor friend, whose “non-affirming” church models a vibrant embrace of LGBT people, explains that the way we respond to this issue will largely be determined by our personal stories. Accordingly, Changing Our Mind isn’t so much an intellectual leading us through the knotty details of how to think rigorously about Scripture or about moral reasoning on Christian sexual ethics. As David recounts in the final chapter, the book constitutes his own story of encounter, compassion, cognitive dissonance, and existential change of perspective. As he met LGBT couples, sat with children who’d been traumatized at home or church, processed his relationship with his sister who came out as a lesbian, heard from a student who’d been pained by David’s past teaching, he seems to have been backed into an existential corner. Something had to give. The way he’d been reading Scripture seemed increasingly implausible. Like the German theological intelligentsia of a century before, David took an existential leap to rescue the church and his own experience of the faith in the face of “the world as we know it exists.” (It bears considering where the trajectory of existentialism led large parts of the church in Germany prior to and during WWII.) At the end of the day, then, Changing Our Mind isn’t so much about David’s reasoned abandonment of 2,500 years of Judeo-Christian teaching on sexuality as it is a telling of his story, a story of seeking to pull together the disparate stories in his world.
Story has come to play a significant role in the church’s debate on how we should relate to LGBT people, and I agree many of us need to interact more with the stories of people who aren’t like us. We must learn to listen. In fact, I think this approach to story needs to be broadened. We all might listen carefully to those self-identified as gay but who’ve chosen celibacy, like Eve Tushnet or Wesley Hill (whom David mentions in passing). In a recent piece titled “The Way God Conducts Us,” Hill writes:
By giving up the solace of an earthly spouse and the prospect of birthing heirs, the celibate gestures with her very body to a future time when “they neither marry nor are given in marriage . . . because they are equal to angels” (Luke 20:35, 36).
We in the modern church have made a poor job of celebrating the gift of celibacy (1 Cor. 7:7–8), admittedly a difficult discipleship at times. Perhaps by our posture toward it we’ve made this biblical option—one both Jesus and Paul embraced—far harder to live out than it should be. What might we in the church do to live as family with our celibate brothers and sisters, whatever their sexual propensities?
Or we might consider the stories of those who like Rosaria Butterfield who’ve transitioned from an LGBT lifestyle and found themselves in a more traditional form of marriage. (I’m making no comment on any form of reparative therapy; Butterfield is critical of such therapies. I’m simply referencing the experience of others among us.) Or consider Stephanie Green, a woman who lives near me, who’d lived a lesbian lifestyle for over two decades but whose life has since been transformed by the gospel. Her sincere experience is that she no longer feels attracted to women. Of course this isn’t the experience of many others, but will her voice be allowed in the discussion? I wonder what David would say to her about her conversion to Christianity and its effect in her life. If these represent only a small percentage of the LGBT experience (say, 2–3%), will their stories be heard and respected by those in the LGBT community or will they be summarily written off as deluded, socially or psychologically ill? Worse, will their authentic experiences and beliefs be labeled as acts of violence against LGBT people?
Further, the abuse of LGBT children by caustic parents is tragic and noted, and churches need to help parents process lovingly a child’s coming out. But what of the stories of parents who’ve faced emotional abuse at the hands of an LGBT child, who’ve been called “bigots” because of their reading of Scripture even though they’ve acted in a consistently loving and sacrificial manner? Will their story be heard and their trauma noted? Pain has many shades in the world. I for one want to do better at listening to all the stories surrounding the LGBT question, including the stories of those who don’t hold my beliefs. David’s book has elevated that need in my own heart and mind, for which I am grateful.
The Enduring Story
The call for the universal church to abandon its historic biblical teaching on sexual ethics has become quite public. As I’ve noted, Changing Our Mind often lacks the precision of argument lauded early in the book (9). Writing clearly and passionately, David manages to mix relational principles, biblical references, mystical spiritual experience, exhortations to tolerance, the logic of revisionist sexual ethics, and Christian language. Thus, rather than a guided intellectual tour into a more biblically faithful Christianity, Changing Our Mind offers a perfect tract for our times. Regrettably, many will resonate deeply with the spirit of the age reflected in its pages.
Some of David’s proposals are well-taken, and his exhortations to love and compassion are appreciated and heard. Many of the proposals, however, remain painfully undeveloped and unconvincing, both in terms of scriptural engagement and ethical reasoning, offering a poor basis for “changing our mind” on a Judeo-Christian sexual ethic that has spanned millennia. Read carefully, the book primarily focuses on David’s “existential leap” to the other side of the debate table. Fundamentally he offers his story and the stories of others, rather than Scripture or reason, as an authoritative basis for others to take the leap with him.
At the end of the day, Changing Our Mind isn’t merely David’s failure to deal adequately with Scripture or moral reasoning. It points to my failure to live out the gospel as effectively as I could have before my friend. I am confident, though, that whatever happens in our cultural moment as the church processes stories surrounding the LGBT issue, the gospel story will be the one that endures. The “good news” that bids us come and die, that calls us to surrender all we are—including our sexuality—will have the last word in this debate.