Recently Peter Wehner reflected here on homosexuality, grace, and Christian witness — a matter very much in the news as Alan Chambers of Exodus International recently issued a very public apology for the hurt many gays have experienced at the hands of the church, and announced he is shutting down the ministry. Pete is a friend with an extraordinary wealth of experience in the policy world (info here) and I’m always honored to share this thoughts on this platform. Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition responded, and Pete offers his reply below. So, without further ado…
Jesus, Homosexuals, and the Grace of God: A Response to Kevin DeYoung
By Peter Wehner
While I appreciate Mr. DeYoung’s generous words about me, I want to untangle some of his objections to what I wrote. I’m eager to do so, since he levels a fairly serious charge against me – namely, that I repeat “many of the worst arguments Christians often use” when “equivocating on homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular.”
To begin at the beginning: in my post I associated myself with the views of Timothy J. Keller, co-founder of The Gospel Coalition (where DeYoung blogs), and I point out that homosexuality is referred to in a negative way in every instance it’s mentioned in the Bible. Scripture clearly teaches homosexual behavior is wrong. So in that respect DeYoung and I share the same theological starting point. (For what it’s worth, I also oppose same sex marriage as a matter of public policy and have stated so in books I’ve co-authored and debates I’ve participated in.) Mr. DeYoung’s objections, I gather, have to do with my further reflections on the matter. So let’s deal with a few of them.
#1. According to DeYoung,
…it’s hopelessly anachronistic to expect Jesus to directly address all our contemporary concerns. Jesus never said anything explicitly about child abuse, domestic abuse, bestiality, abortion or dozens of other sins. He never preached a sermon on homosexuality because no one in his circles by any stretch of the imagination would have approved of homosexuality under any circumstances.
Now here’s what I wrote: “the frequency a topic is mentioned doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about its importance. For example, Jesus doesn’t speak against genocide, even though we can say with confidence that He would be horrified by it.” My genocide example would easily fit in DeYoung’s child abuse/domestic abuse/abortion list. So DeYoung isn’t contradicting my claim; he’s amplifying it.
I went on to add — quite reasonably, I think — that it would also be unwise to act as if the number of references to a topic isn’t an important indication of what was most on the mind and heart of the Lord. And while homosexuality may not have been a particularly live moral question in much of the first century world, I pointed out, it was enough of an issue that the Apostle Paul refers to it in several of his letter.
Richard B. Hays, a widely respected New Testament scholar, has written,”the Bible hardly ever discusses homosexual behavior. There are perhaps half a dozen brief references to it in all of Scripture. In terms of emphasis, it is a minor concern – in contrast, for example, to economic injustice. The paucity of texts addressing the issues is a significant fact for New Testament ethics. What the bible does say should be heeded carefully, but any ethic that intends to be biblical will seek to get the accents in the right place…” Hays goes on to parenthetically add this:
Would that the passion presently being expended in the church over the question of homosexuality were devoted instead to urging the wealthy to share with the poor! Some of the most urgent champions of “biblical morality” on sexual matters become strangely equivocal when the discussion turns to the New Testament’s teachings about possessions.
I’d add this as well: If Jesus and the Scriptures spoke about homosexuality as often as He/they speak about caring for the poor, the downtrodden and disposed, I’m quite confident that would be taken into account by people like Mr. DeYoung. The sheer number of references would magically become significant.
#2. Mr. DeYoung writes, “It’s misleading to suggest that Jesus had no discernible opinion on homosexuality or that sexual sin was not an important concern for him.” True, but for our purposes it’s irrelevant, since I never said (and don’t believe) that sexual sin was not an important concern to Jesus.
What I did say was (a) how a society treats the poor was a greater concern to Jesus than how it treats homosexuality; (b) Jesus spoke in negative terms about divorce because it fractures the marital ideal; and (c) the Apostle Paul wrote critically of homosexual conduct, and that needs to be taken into account. As for what I said about Jesus not mentioning homosexuality in His ministry: It has the virtue of being true. And for reasons I explained in my original post, this fact, while not dispositive, is worth taking into account.
#3. On divorce, I’m quite happy to have people read what DeYoung and I said and decide who offers the best and truest account of things. I would simply reemphasize that among many Christians there is a double standard, a bifurcated approach, on the matter of homosexuality as against, say, divorce and adultery.
An example from politics might help illustrate this point. Over the last few decades one of the more celebrated political figures by conservative Christians has been Newt Gingrich, a man who has been married three times and committed adultery on multiple occasions. If Newt Gingrich as a single man had been involved in a gay relationship instead of committing adultery and being responsible for breaking up two marriages, he would have been treated entirely differently. To have been involved in a homosexual relationship would have been viewed as more serious, a greater offense against God, and the consequences to his career would have been lethal.
#4. An example of my “imprecise language,” according to DeYoung, is when I wrote “one can make a serious case that society should privilege heterosexual marriage.” To which he adds this:
True enough I suppose, but why the word “privilege”? Evangelicals and other social conservatives argue that there is no such thing as gay marriage (it’s a contradiction in terms) and that the state has no interest sanctioning it as such. The word “privilege” suggests that there is heterosexual marriage and homosexual marriage and the debate is which one we like better. But to frame the conversation in those terms is to lose the debate before it starts.
The phrase “privilege heterosexuality,” used in the context of marriage, comes not from me but from Tim Keller, whose views I was summarizing in the paragraph in which I cite that phrase. That DeYoung chose to focus on this phrase demonstrates how anxious he is to find areas of disagreement. Remember, the purpose of his response to me was supposedly to respond to “many of the worst arguments” being made by evangelical Christians. Now whether or not you like the phrase “privilege heterosexuality” – and I have no objections to it — it hardly qualifies as a major point of contention. Unless, that is, one is eager to turn minor semantic differences into major theological divisions.
#5. Yet another example of my choice of language being “just imprecise enough to be misleading” is this:
Wehner contends that Jesus was very concerned about “how a society treats the poor.” This can mean “Jesus loved the poor and admonished the rich who cheated the poor,” which he certainly talked about, but the word “society” (which Jesus never uses!) starts to bring us into the realm of social justice and state-sponsored programs. It’s hard to know what Wehner means. It sounds good and true that Jesus was concerned with “how a society treats the poor” but depending on our definitions Jesus may have actually said very little about the subject.
This is a revealing reversal by DeYoung. When I wrote that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality in His ministry, I was chastised by him for forgetting that “an evangelical understanding of inspiration does not allow us to prize instructions in the gospel more than instructions elsewhere in Scripture….All Scripture is breathed out by God, not just the red letters.” Yet when it comes to examples from the Old Testament of even pagan kings being held responsible to care for the needs of its poor and weak citizens, suddenly we’re asked to focus only on the red letters.
As for Mr. DeYoung’s fear of entering the reality of “social justice,” let me cite Dr. Keller again:
When the two [Hebrew] words, tzadeqah and mishpat, are tied together, as they are over three dozen times [in the Bible], the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “soclal justice.” It t is an illuminating exercise to find texts where the words are paired and to then to translate the text using the term “social justice.” Here [is just one]: “The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love — Psalms 33:5.
It’s worth noting that this last quote from Keller appears in his book Generous Justice – and in 2010 DeYoung interviewed Keller on the book and said this: “I’m reading through Tim Keller’s new book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. Keller treats his subject carefully and with the necessary nuance… Just as important, his passion (and God’s passion) for the poor and vulnerable comes through in a contagious way. Both those on fire for ‘social justice’ and those suspicious of it will benefit from Keller’s latest.”
#6. Mr. DeYoung correctly says that I suggest that “part of the problem in our churches is that we have a reputation for political agitation rather than grace.” He clearly believes that this reputation is unfair, adding, “Jesus never taught us, nor did he demonstrate, that something must be wrong when people revile us in the first place.”
That’s true, and the way the media frames stories needs to be taken into account. But DeYoung’s observation can also be evidence of a logical fallacy, which is to assume that being reviled is per se a demonstration of righteousness and faithfulness. The problem with DeYoung’s account is that nowhere does he concede that perhaps somewhere along the way politically active Christians have made some mistakes. Let me suggest a few.
“Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews,” Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority said, “so liberal America is now doing to evangelical Christians.” In 1994, a conspiracy-mongering video promoted by Falwell associated President Bill Clinton with drug dealing and murder. The Reverend Falwell also showed a remarkable ability to divine the mind and motivations of God over the years. “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals,” he declared. “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” And in responding to the September 11, 2001 attacks, Falwell put things this way: “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say ‘You helped this happen.’”
On the left side of the spectrum, Jim Wallis, during the Bush presidency, said, “I believe that Dick Cheney is a liar; that Donald Rumsfeld is also a liar; and that George W. Bush was, and is, clueless about how to be the president of the United States.” Mr. Wallis added that Americans and Iraqis died “because of their lies, incompetence, and corruption.” Wallis went on to say he favored investigations of the top officials of the Bush administration on “official deception, war crimes, and corruption charges.” And if they were found guilty of these “high crimes,” Wallis wrote, “I believe they should spend the rest of their lives in prison. … Deliberately lying about going to war should not be forgiven.”
Over the years both Mr. Falwell and Mr. Wallis have on many occasions shown more agitation and shrillness than grace. My point is that because some evangelical Christians put people off is not by itself evidence of godly courage or speaking truth to power. Recriminations should not always be viewed as a badge of honor. Sometimes it’s evidence of a hardened, harsh spirit.
* * * *
I’ll conclude with some thoughts on the main mission of Jesus.
As DeYoung points out, people do flock to Jesus for any number of reasons — but key is that He first goes to them. That is what it means to say that the mission of Jesus was to convince people of God’s love and invitation. The incarnation, and all the resulted from the incarnation, was an unequivocal demonstration of that love.
A friend of mine once told me he doesn’t try to equivocate about truth. But he does believe it’s far too easy for us to think that we “know” the mind of God. He also worries, as I do, that in the name of “truth” we sometimes re-create the exclusionist religious culture of Jesus’ time.
In this context he pointed out that it was not because the Scribes and Pharisees were wrong in their theology, at least as far as it went, that they ended up at odds with Jesus. It was because Jesus hung out with the “wrong” people – the lowly, the marginalized, the despised and the unclean — and because He actually claimed the authority of God in doing so.
I’m fully aware, however, that in the end neither DeYoung nor I can prove whose understanding of the primary mission of Jesus is less imperfect. If you read what we have written, you will see that we are drawn – for reasons undoubtedly having to do with temperament and disposition, with life experiences and pilgrimages along different paths — to different characteristics and understanding of the Lord. Clearly my interpretation of things is not one shared by DeYoung; he believes I’m pitting moral rectitude against love and welcome, and equivocating when I should stand strong.
Perhaps he is right. All I can do is to testify to what I know, which is this: What won my heart over to the Lord is His grace rather than His moral demands, His wounds rather than His miracles. He entered my world; I didn’t enter His. What He got when He entered my world was nothing terribly special — areas of brokenness, struggles with doubts, a wayward heart. In short, a person in need of grace and redemption. That is what He found, that is whom He embraced, and that is what I can never forget.