About those evangelical whispers on same-sex marriage

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

Faithful readers of this blog will know that, back in the mid-1980s, I took this question to a very symbolic evangelical leader, the Rev. Billy Graham:

So you might assume that the world’s most famous evangelist has an easy answer for this tricky political question: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?”

If you assumed this, you would be wrong. In fact, Graham once bounced that question right back at me.

“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.”

You can see this confusion in the pages of most dictionaries. Take, for example, the online Merriam-Webster. Check out this take on the relevant noun:

evangelical — noun, often capitalized

* one holding evangelical principles or belonging to an evangelical party or church

Wow. A perfect circle. How about the adjective?

evangelical — adjective …

* of or relating to a Christian sect or group that stresses the authority of the Bible, the importance of believing that Jesus Christ saved you personally from sin or hell, and the preaching of these beliefs to other people

Ah, but what body of believers gets to judge what the Bible says on a given issue? Who determines how to apply a high or low standard of biblical authority?

What about the Associated Press Stylebook? What does it have to say? Let’s go back to my column about Graham:

The Associated Press Stylebook notes that “evangelical” once served as an adjective. Today it is a noun, referring to a “category of doctrinally conservative Christians. They emphasize the need for a definite, adult commitment or conversion to faith in Christ. … Evangelicals stress both doctrinal absolutes and vigorous efforts to win others to belief.”

The problem is trying to agree on the “doctrinal absolutes” that define evangelicals.

So what happens? Do the leaders — keep watching the boards of major colleges and parachurch groups — simple raise their hands and vote to defend or to change 2,000 years of Christian doctrine? Do they simply do the math, considering budgets and the emerging legal climate? And what about that law articulated by Father Richard John Neuhaus: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

Not to pick on one institution, but I think you could sell Wrestlemania pay-per-view tickets for the first meeting of the board of trustees at, oh, Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater) in which this issue is openly debated. However, I would assume that doors will be locked shut and, Sarah is right, all people will hear is the whispers. Wait a minute: Where did Sarah Pulliam Bailey go to college?

Stay tuned. There is no way to avoid the showdown that is coming.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Reformed Catholic

    Exactly what is a ‘progressive’ evangelical ?? One that holds true to Scripture, except where some people decide that Paul didn’t mean something that has been understood for 2000 years ??

  • gigi4747

    “Ah, but what body of believers gets to judge what the Bible says on a given issue? Who determines how to apply a high or low standard of biblical authority?”

    Exactly. This is why so many non-Catholic Christians are finding their way into the Catholic Church. It’s hardly unreasonable to believe that the Church that compiled the Bible has the authority to interpret it. Honestly, honestly, I’m not saying this to be insulting, but so much of non-Catholic Christians’ energy seems to be spent in reinventing the wheel.

    • Daniel Merriman

      Don’t brag, your Church will fold to the culture, too. “Who am I to judge?”

      • tmatt

        Read the actual comments containing that abused quote:

        http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2014/01/journalists-editing-pope-francis-who-are-we-to-judge/

        Don’t trust to edit this pope accurately.

      • gigi4747

        Bragging? I simply pointed out the trend of countless knowledgable non-Catholic Christians coming into the Catholic Church, which is not “my” church, it’s Christ’s. And why do you quote the Pope? He doesn’t have the authority to change Christ’s teachings. (Nor do I believe he has the desire to. He has spoken against abortion and same sex marriage.) Ironically, some non-Catholic Christians, with their acceptance of the validity of personal interpretations of the Bible, give themselves more authority than the Pope has.

        • Daniel Merriman

          I merely intended to point out that it isn’t just Protestants who are reinventing the wheel. The sexual revolution has pretty much swept all before it. I would expect that within the next decade, for example, the rules governing offering communion to divorced and remarried Catholics will be substantially loosened or annulments made virtually no fault.

          As to your other point, I have no interest in debating where Christ’s church might be found. Your opinion doesn’t break my leg or pick my pocket.

  • PalaceGuard

    Just for the record, that crystal cathedral on the Field Guide’s cover? It’s Catholic.

    • Guest

      So what, do you want a cookie?

      • PalaceGuard

        Nope. Cookies are blocked!

    • Nils

      Well, it is now, but at the time of the printing of that satirical field guide, it wasn’t.

      • PalaceGuard

        Ah. Thanks! Didn’t know/notice that!


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