Jesus, Homosexuals, and the Grace of God – Wehner Responds to DeYoung

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…

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Jesus, Homosexuals, and the Grace of God: A Response to Kevin DeYoung

By Peter Wehner

Kevin DeYoung, the senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, has written a response to my piece, “An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality.”

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.

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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.

An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality – by Peter Wehner

I’m honored again to have a guest post from my friend Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush. Wehner served also in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, serves now as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and coauthor with Michael Gerson of City of Man and with Arthur Brooks of Wealth and Justice.

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An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality

By Peter Wehner

I recently had a series of exchanges with a Christian acquaintance on the matter of homosexuality. He argues that it’s clear God wishes us to vehemently oppose homosexuality and same sex marriage; that there is a sophistication and internal coherence when it comes to ancient Israel’s legal jurisprudence (including laws in the Hebrew Bible against homosexual conduct); that we need to take those strictures more seriously than we do today; and that sexual purity is a concern to God and should therefore order our personal life and how we encourage society to order its affairs.

My interlocutor’s belief seems to be that if more Christians were more spiritually-minded, they would recognize the threat posed by the legitimization of homosexual conduct and speak out more boldly and forcefully against it.

This engagement afforded me the opportunity to further clarify my own attitudes, as an evangelical Christian, on homosexuality – attitudes that are certainly open to refinement and amendment.

As a starting point, I’d associate myself with the views of Timothy J. Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Dr. Keller, who recently spoke at this Faith Angle Forum, observed that in the Bible homosexual behavior is spoken in every instance in negative ways. It privileges heterosexuality. Now one may disagree with the wisdom of that stance – one may believe it is misguided, or benighted, or no longer relevant — but there’s no real debate about the plain meaning of the text.

At the same time Keller points out that homosexuality is referred to only seven times in the Bible. He believes, too, that we’d be better off, and more in line with the mind of God, if we narrated what the Bible says about sexuality in general. Dr. Keller says the Bible teaches that male and female both have their own unique glories and that we do best when recognizing them. And in all of this, he argues, Christians should be peacemakers, the people who are most willing to say “let’s talk” and to be civil and gracious.

In dilating further on this matter, it’s perhaps worth observing that many of us who are of the Christian faith pick and choose issues we focus on, often issues that confirm our pre-existing views while ignoring or downplaying those that don’t.

For example, it seems to me to be clear, and clearly relevant, that (a) Jesus was more concerned about how a society treats the poor than how it treats homosexuality (which He never mentions in His recorded ministry) and (b) the Scriptures mention concern for the poor and justice for the poor hundreds of times, while mentioning homosexuality only a handful of times.

Now 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. On the other hand it would be unwise, I think, 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, it was enough of an issue that the Apostle Paul refers to it in several of his letters.

Many Christians also employ something of a double standard. We’re told in Malachi, for example, that the Lord “hates” divorce. Jesus spoke in negative terms about divorce because it fractures the marital ideal. And divorce itself has done far more damage to children and society than homosexuality ever has. Yet many Christians approach divorce and homosexuality in very different ways. The fierce opposition to one is missing when it comes to the other. People of faith have accommodated themselves to divorce, for reasons that are understandable and in some cases appropriately sympathetic. There’s a realization that we all make mistakes in judgment and experience areas of brokenness in our lives — and we still require grace. But this bifurcated approach toward divorce and homosexuality may also have to do with our habit of speaking with less sympathy on issues that are largely outside of our experience. Many of us have known more divorced people than gay people.

It also needs to be said that much of what biblical law once considered forbidden (like idolatry or breaking the Sabbath) was never meant to serve as a legislative template for American society. The reason has to do with God’s unique (and non-transferable) relationship with ancient Israel. From a Christian perspective, the covenant with Israel was not intended as the model for human government. While it’s true that the law contained a partial definition of the character of the lawgiver (in this case God), its very severity had the express purpose of bringing about the discovery of sin, which in Christian theology was dealt with on the cross.

And even if you believe, as I do, that the New Testament church is more analogous to how God dealt with ancient Israel than any current nation-state, many of the laws (ceremonial and civil) that applied to ancient Israel don’t apply to the New Testament church. Why? In brief, and in part, because ever since the crucifixion of Jesus, the way Christians are supposed to face certain behavior in our selves and others has changed (for example, we are told in the New Testament to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to pray for those who despise us and to expect persecution). Christians are also to see themselves as pilgrims and sojourners, as citizens of an everlasting Kingdom that (as Augustine put it) we did not build and cannot destroy.

This does not mean Christians should be indifferent to pursuing justice on this earth. What it does mean is that determining precisely how that is done is an enormously complicated matter. For the purposes of this discussion, the task for Christians is to understand which enduring principles inform Biblical laws and injunctions while avoiding a mechanical application of them. Cherry-picking is a bad way to engage in Biblical exegesis. And I think it’s reasonable to say that even for orthodox Christians, how the Scriptural injunctions against homosexual behavior should manifest themselves in modern American law and society are not self-evident.

For example, you might believe homosexual conduct is not what God intended but (like idolatry) that view should not be written in law. Or it may be that you believe the law should favor heterosexual marriage and not go beyond that. But that raises another question: What about putting laws on the books that punish sodomy (something that was not judged to be unconstitutional prior to the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case)? And if one believed anti-sodomy laws were appropriate, should it be viewed as a capital offense (as it was in Leviticus), as a lesser felony, or as a misdemeanor?

Some orthodox Christians I know oppose anti-sodomy laws in principle on the grounds that it’s not the duty of the state to regulate private sexual behavior but it is the duty to regulate marriage because it is the institution established by God for the fulfillment of the procreative mandate. Others would say that at one time it was the duty of the state to regulate private sexual behavior and it should be again, since private sexual behavior has profound public consequences. I raise these questions and different interpretations simply to underscore how fraught with difficulty this matter can be. A “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” mindset is clearly insufficient.

Here I need to insert a few clarifications, the first of which is to acknowledge that in the New Testament the Apostle Paul speaks in critical ways about homosexuality but doesn’t draw any legal or legislative implications from it. The second clarification is to stress that one can make a serious case that society should privilege heterosexual marriage without reference to verses in Leviticus and Romans — a case based on sexual complementarity, teleology and the public good. The third clarification is that some efforts, including government efforts, to pressure Christians to abandon biblical teaching on human sexuality is deeply unwise and threatens religious liberties. What I’m focusing on here, however, is responding to those who invoke the authority of Scripture in shaping their views, including their public policy views, on homosexuality and gay marriage.

Which brings me to my final point. Precisely where one lands on the matter of the appropriate societal stance toward homosexuality and same sex marriage isn’t dependent on Biblical literacy. Faithful Christians can hold different views on when and how to apply a Biblical view on a range of sexual matters, as well as the spirit that animates their position.

What I think this comes down to, as so many things in life come down to, is discretion, prudence, and wisdom. Some of us are drawn to certain issues and rhetoric that we believe honor the righteousness of God; others of us are drawn to certain issues and rhetoric that we believe honor the grace of God. Would Jesus, if He were here today, be speaking out against gays and their political agenda based on what might be called a theological anthropology? Or would He be more inclined to warn critics of homosexuality against stridency, judgmentalism and blindness to many other matters (like acquisitiveness) that we so easily ignore? Or would He be challenging everyone, in different ways, based on their particular challenges and needs and the state of their hearts?

None of us can know for sure. We all see through a glass darkly. And we all are drawn to certain Scriptures and models of engagement. James Dobson has an approach that appeals to some; James Davison Hunter has an approach that appeals to others. For a complicated set of reasons, most of us are drawn toward one pole more than the other — and then we attempt to construct Biblical reasons to justify our predilections. It’s very easy for us to proof-text the Bible and end up in a place that is quite some distance from where the Lord would have us.

For my part, I’m reminded of what Philip Yancey wrote in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? He cites the Swiss doctor Paul Tournier, who said that what patients truly seek is grace. Yet in some churches they encounter shame, the threat of punishment, and a sense of judgment. When they look in the church for grace, they often find ungrace. And Yancey tells of how prior to writing his book, he began asking a question of strangers when striking up a conversation. “When I say the words ‘evangelical Christian’ what comes to mind?” Yancey wrote that he mostly heard political descriptions – and not once did he hear a description redolent of grace.

Yancey then adds this:

Grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it and I am one of those people. I think back to who I was — resentful, wound tight with anger, a single hardened link in a long chain of ungrace learned from family and church. Now I am trying in my own small way to pipe the tune of grace. I do so because I know, more surely than I know anything, that any pang of healing or forgiveness of goodness I have ever felt comes solely from the grace of God. I yearn for the church to become a nourishing culture of that grace.

Now I realize that one common error within Christianity is to use grace as a way to elide wrongdoing; and that those who are willing to stand up for Biblical morality can easily (and unfairly) be caricatured as ungracious. But my point in citing Yancey is (i) his insights are worth wrestling with in terms of Christians and their role and impact on public matters, particularly on social and cultural issues; and (ii) he’s obviously a faithful Christian who sees things at one angle v. those who sees things at a very different angle.

It’s not an issue of who knows the Bible better; it’s a matter of hermeneutics, of what issues we focus on and the manner in which Christians in the public arena carry themselves.

I received a note the other week from Stephen Hayner. Steve, who is currently president of Columbia Theological Seminary, played a crucial part in my life while I was in college and has been a model to me ever since. He mentioned that he’s going through the Gospel of Luke and was struck again with the grace and embrace of Jesus for those whom the religious elite had every reason (they thought) to kick to the curb. People on the low rung of life, including those with frailties and flaws, flocked to Jesus — not because he preached moral rectitude but because He was willing to love them, to listen to them, and to welcome them.

“I’m sure that many were self-justifying and hardened in their life patterns,” Steve wrote me. But Jesus’ main mission was to convince them of God’s love and invitation. And then he went on to speak about those willing to stand in the middle of the tensions that necessarily attach to faithful living in a broken world.

“I doubt whether God will have much to say about our political convictions in the end,” Steve said to me, “but I’m quite sure that he will have something to say about how we loved the least, the marginalized, the outcasts, the lonely, the abused — even when some think that they have it all. Political convictions that lead toward redemption and reconciliation are most likely headed in the right direction.”

That isn’t a prescription for a particular kind of political involvement. It’s certainly not a roadmap on how to deal with issues like same sex marriage. It is, however, a reflection on how Christians might consider engaging the world. It seems to me there is great wisdom in his words, and great richness in these words: Redemption and reconciliation.

Reflections on the Gay Marriage Decision

As ever, a pleasure to offer this guest post from my friend Peter Wehner, a thoughtful Christian and one of the most important voices on public policy today:

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Some Reflections on the Gay Marriage Decision

By Peter Wehner

In light of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, here are some thoughts on what it all might mean:

1. In one respect, the Supreme Court decision won’t radically alter the facts on the ground. Prior to the decision 37 states and Washington, D.C. allowed gay unions  (in good measure because of lower court decisions rather than by referenda or by representatives of the people). Before last week more than 70 percent of Americans were living in states that allowed same-sex marriage. To pull in the other 13 states and 30 percent of the population is a significant thing, but it’s not as if we’re entering a whole new world.

In addition, Americans support same-sex unions by a large margin (60 percent v. 37 percent based on this recent Gallup poll, with the gap even greater among the millennial generation). So we were rapidly heading toward a same-sex marriage world before the court weighed in last Friday.

2. The effects gay marriage will have on the institution of marriage is being hotly debated. Some argue that redefining marriage will be a crushing blow to the institution; others say that won’t be the case, and in fact this moment can be turned to one that strengthens marriage. We’ll find out soon enough. For now, I concur with the words of Justice Samuel Alito: “At present, no one — including social scientists, philosophers, and historians—can predict with any certainty what the long-term ramifications of widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage will be. And judges are certainly not equipped to make such an assessment.”

3. The Supreme Court decision, as a matter of jurisprudence, was quite problematic. What I have in mind is the manner in which the Court decided the case. As the four dissenting justices argued in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court usurped a power that belongs to the people and short-circuited a debate that was being conducted just as it should in a republic. The invention of Constitutional rights is wrong; so is undermining self-government. Both occurred in this instance. There were several avenues open to promoting gay marriage without the Supreme Court disfiguring the Constitution in the process.

4. My overriding concern is that the Supreme Court decision is used to pressure or even attempt to break religious institutions (colleges, para-church organizations and eventually churches themselves) based on the argument that Christians and people of other faiths who oppose gay marriage are the moral equivalent of George Wallace and should be treated institutionally like Bob Jones University. (This exchange in April between Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Justice Alito was not encouraging.)

I don’t expect the broader society to embrace Christian teachings on a variety of topics – but society should allow churches to teach and act on their core beliefs, which, it’s probably worth pointing out, are beliefs that until just a few years ago were held by every human society throughout history. (For those who don’t follow such things, the basis of the orthodox Christian view of marriage includes complementarity between the sexes and living in accord with what the followers of Christianity believe to be God’s design. I understand many people utterly reject this view; I mention it only to demonstrate that it’s not capricious or based on bigotry.)

There are admirable gay rights advocates like Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan who are genuine pluralists – strong advocates for gay marriage and yet who also believe religious institutions shouldn’t be intimidated or coerced into jettisoning tenets of their faith. (Michael Gerson makes the same point here.) I hope their approach will prevail. If it doesn’t, we might well be drawn into a fractious and divisive cultural conflict that would leave people on both sides wounded and resentful and bent on revenge. A good model to look at and build on is the so-called “Utah Compromise” which protects people in the LGBT community from employment and housing decisions based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, while still shielding religious institutions that stand against homosexuality.

5. Social conservatives, having lost the same-sex marriage battle, might be tempted to remain stuck on it, unwilling to move far beyond it; or they might be tempted to withdraw from the debate about marriage and culture more generally. That would be a significant error. As Michael Gerson and I wrote several years ago in COMMENTARY:

far from being a strictly private matter, the collapse of the marriage culture in America has profound public ramifications, affecting everything from welfare and education to crime, income inequality, social mobility, and the size of the state. Yet few public or political figures are even willing to acknowledge that this collapse is happening… the fact remains that our marriage culture began to disintegrate long before a single court or a single state approved gay marriage. It is heterosexuals, not homosexuals, who have made a hash out of marriage, and when it comes to strengthening an institution in crisis, Republicans need to have something useful to offer. The advance of gay marriage does not release them from their responsibilities to help fortify that institution and speak out confidently on the full array of family-related issues. Republicans need to make their own inner peace with working with those who both support gay marriage and are committed to strengthening the institution of marriage.

It would be an interesting test to ask leading Republicans to speak about strengthening the marriage culture for, say, five minutes without mentioning same-sex marriage.

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The reaction to the Court decision is as dramatically different as any I can recall. On the one hand are stories from friends who suffered the emotional pain of growing up gay and feeling they were disordered and defective and treated cruelly, sometimes by the church itself. For them, this is a moment when marginalization ends and being fully accepted by society begins.

I’ve heard as well from Christian friends and read public statements about the feelings that have arisen from the Supreme Court decision, ranging from bitterness to fatalism to calls for disengagement. There is a sense that people feel alienated from their own country in ways that they never have before; that this is a moral inflection point for America. And they are frankly afraid that their commitment to Biblical authority will make them a target. As one person wrote to me, “Christian institutions will be systematically harassed and hunted, with every person I ever attended church with or studied under treated — as a matter of law — as a bigot, the exact equivalent of George Wallace.”

As we sort through the aftershocks of the decision, some Christians are talking about this being a time for the church to “disentangle herself from the morally disintegrating broader culture.” I’m all for attending to our own house, but if I understand the implications of what some are arguing for, I think it would be a mistake, in part because the responsibility we have to pursue justice and a good and decent society hasn’t changed or gone away. It’s not an option in a world that is still marked by too much suffering, too many hardships, and too many broken lives. Regardless of how you react to this decision, it doesn’t change the need to explain why life is, as David Brooks puts it in The Road to Character, “essentially a moral drama” and why “the best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy.” That case can still be made – must be made — in a post-Obergefell world.

Whatever one thinks about same-sex marriage in the context of faith – and I have laid out my theological approach here and here – it’s fair to say, I think, that over the years some evangelical Christians have allowed this issue to occupy far too central a place in their theology and public rhetoric. I’ve referred to it as the Christian version of the funhouse mirror effect, in which certain images are distorted and exaggerated.

This past weekend I found myself writing to two ministers I admire, saying to them what I have said before to others: “Given all that the Gospel represents,” I asked, “and all that it teaches, and all that it offers, how is it that people – when they’re asked about the Christian church – often think of it and us as connected to gay rights? I recognize that a lot of this has to do with the media, which can’t cover our faith without being drawn to this issue like moths to a flame. But we Christians have played a role in it, too.” Mark Galli of Christianity Today has written about what he called “Biblical inconsistency,” by which he meant our passion to root out sexual sins while being relatively indifferent to many others.

Over the years some prominent public voices have made the case for traditional marriage in an impressive and morally serious manner (my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel comes to mind). Yet others have succeeded in portraying Christianity as a faith characterized by judgment, stridency and punishment more than grace and redemption.

A final thought: Christians ought to be among the last people to react to setbacks with panic or bitterness, fear or rage, because we believe – or so we claim – in the sovereignty of God; that we are part of a larger story that He is the author of; and that “in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.” Throughout history the church has dealt with far, far worse than what American Christians are facing today. And even amidst the worst trials – and Obergefell v. Hodges is hardly that — the most faithful among us still find joy in the journey.

In a period of rapidly diminishing influence in culture, those of us of the Christian faith need to reflect on how we can demonstrate faithfulness and grace in a world that is rapidly changing; speak the truths we hold in a manner that can be heard and received; treat others with genuine respect and dignity because they are precious in the sight of the God; and keep open, always, the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 1.23.30 PMPeter Wehner is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. After serving in the Reagan and the first Bush administrations, Mr. Wehner led the Office of Strategic Initiatives in the George W. Bush White House. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues and is coauthor with Michael Gerson of City of Man and with Arthur Brooks of Wealth and Justice.

 

 

 

 

 

Gay Unions and Christian Divisions

It’s always a pleasure to post a piece from the terrific Pete Wehner, whose sojourn has led him through three Republican presidential administrations, to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and now to a position as a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Full bio below.

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A recent Washington Post story on gay marriage and evangelical Christianity describes some of the splits that are emerging. (Tony Campolo, a liberal evangelical leader, and former Christianity Today editor-in-chief David Neff declared their support for same-sex marriage.)

The article quotes Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said, “This issue [gay marriage] will eventually break relationships: personally, congregationally and institutionally.” He referred to this as a “crucial moment,” adding, “There’s not going to be any way around it.”

It’s not clear whether Mohler, whom I’ve had cordial exchanges with in the past, was being descriptive or prescriptive in his comments. Whatever the case, I find the notion of breaking relationships over the issue of gay marriage to be quite unfortunate. Not because I don’t understand the theological point of view of Mohler. He believes, like most evangelical Christians that gay marriage can’t be reconciled with biblical teaching and that for the church to embrace same-sex marriage would be to undermine biblical authority. I understand, too, that this issue will have the effect of causing some churches to leave denominations because they feel a fundamental breach has occurred. There are responsible people who hold differing opinions on this issue.

But what caught my attention is Mohler saying that differences over gay marriage will break personal relationships. If it does, it will be a regrettable development. I say that because I know Christians who are open to gay marriage, some who are struggling with the issue, and many who oppose it with varying degrees of intensity. (My own views can be found here and here.) The idea that relationships would (or should) be shattered over differences on this issue is troubling. On what grounds? Because we disagree? Is that a justifiable reason to break off relationships? If so, what are the other theological and cultural issues over which we should sever ties? Where exactly does this end? The role of women in church leadership? Baptism? Divorce and re-marriage? Abortion? How evangelicals and Catholics view Mary?

I understand people wanting to maintain institutional and theological identity, which I consider in a very different category than maintaining personal relationships. I recognize, too, that I’m open to the charge (made against me before) that I’m pitting “moral rectitude” against love and welcome, and equivocating when I should stand strong. Which is entirely possible; my views contain at best only partial truths. Still, the reflex to fracture relationships strikes me as antithetical to the one Jesus took in his dealings with people. He not only didn’t break with people for holding the wrong doctrinal beliefs; He didn’t break with people who were living lives contrary to biblical teachings. The most difficult relationships Jesus had were, in fact, with the religious authorities of his time – not because they held doctrinal views He disagreed with but because they were self-righteous and hypocritical. Jesus even maintained relationships with those who, like Peter, personally failed him. After Peter’s three denials, Jesus didn’t treat him as persona non grata. Rather, he went on to say, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Breaking relationships wasn’t Jesus’ way; it probably shouldn’t be ours, either.

I want to conclude on a somewhat more personal note that may help explain my reaction to what Mohler said. I’m someone for whom the Christian faith is interwoven into my life, for God’s grace (and the Cross) won my heart over a long time ago. Yet my faith pilgrimage has not been a particularly easy one, at least in the sense that I’ve long grappled with theological issues. It’s nothing I’m particularly proud of, and I rather wish I were hardwired another way.

In any event, people I’m close to – ministers, theologians, people in my Bible studies, and my wider circle of faithful friends – have heard me express uncertainty and confusion, puzzlement and even doubts about certain theological matters and Scripture verses. The list of questions I’ve had over the years is long and not worth belaboring here. My point is that these inquiries have been with me for much of my adult life. And my more important point is this: I’ve benefited mightily from people who are willing to engage with me on these matters rather than try to shut me down. They haven’t responded with platitudes, exasperation, lectures or intellectual contortions. They don’t personalize differences. And thankfully no one has ever broken off relations with me because I held what they perceived to be misguided views.

Many years ago I wrote a very close friend, Steve Hayner, who was president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and later president of Columbia Theological Seminary, concerned that a different view we had on a topic might injure our friendship. (I have written about Steve, who passed away earlier this year, before.) It was an issue that was important to both of us, and I expressed my worry: I’ve been around long enough to know that differences over issues can put strains on relationships. Relationships matter more than politics to me, I told him, but I realize, too, that sometimes politics can adversely affect relationships. I didn’t want that to happen in this case. I still have his response. “I want to assure you that I don’t think that our disagreements on most anything could affect our relationship,” he wrote. “My love for you has nothing to do with your views.”

My relationship with Steve was probably much deeper than the ones Dr. Mohler has in mind, but it seems to me the general point still holds. On the issue of gay marriage, Christians need not jettison their tradition or moral convictions. But they can act in a way that leaves open the path to greater understanding and even reconciliation; that creates the conditions for possible compromise on matters of public law; and that signals to the world, and to others within the faith, that the church is what the author Philip Yancey calls a “nourishing culture of [God’s] grace.” Stridency is not counted among the fruits of the spirit (for the record, the list includes love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness).

What the same-sex debate highlights is much more than simply people’s views on this particular issue or even the authority of Scripture. It also reveals our views toward Christian communion and community. It shows how we understand relationships and friendships in a broken world. We should not expect, and need not insist on, agreement on a wide range of matters. What I think we need is to aim for something else, and something essential: staying in relationship with people despite deep differences of opinion. In the Christian story, after all, God didn’t give up when it came to staying in relationship with us. And He had far more reason to give up on us than we have to give up on others.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 1.23.30 PMPeter Wehner is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. After serving in the Reagan and the first Bush administrations, Mr. Wehner led the Office of Strategic Initiatives in the George W. Bush White House. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues and is coauthor with Michael Gerson of City of Man and with Arthur Brooks of Wealth and Justice

 

Suffering Through the Prism of Faith

It’s always a pleasure to host a guest post from the esteemed Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President Bush and current fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. It’s been some time since I’ve published regular pieces myself, but I expect to resume regular posting soon. In the meantime, enjoy Mr Wehner’s reflections on one of the topics that’s always stood at the center of my own writing and scholarship: human suffering and its complex relationship to divine activity in the world.

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David A. Skeel, Jr., a widely respected legal scholar, is author of the recent book True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World. It makes the case for the explanatory power of Christianity, and does so in a manner that’s intelligent, honest, appropriately modest and respectful of opposing points of view.

The book includes chapters on the origins of conscience and our compulsion to devise ideas about our place in the universe, on beauty and the arts, justice, life and afterlife, and suffering. It’s the last topic, suffering, I want to focus on.

Mr. Skeel admits that the problem of evil and suffering presents the most difficult dilemma for Christianity. Philosophers as far back as David Hume, through his fictional character Philo in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, argued that suffering and evil refute the belief in all-powerful, all-knowing, all good deity. (“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”)

As Mr. Skeel points out, the existence of suffering is puzzling even for materialists, who view certain kinds of afflictions and ordeals to be morally wrong even though they have no philosophical basis for doing so. Yet Skeel also concedes, “In the end, I do not think Christianity can give a complete explanation for why there is suffering and evil in the world.” (He invokes God’s dealing with Job as evidence to support his thesis.)

That strikes me as quite right, as does his warning against trying to glean the meaning of awful events. We simply cannot know the reason for pandemics, holocausts and natural disasters; for a cancer diagnosis, a devastating injury, the death of a child. “The world is more disorderly and more cripplingly unpredictable than we like to believe,” Skeel writes.

The proper way for people of the Christian faith to approach the question may be to accept that God doesn’t ordain suffering but He does allow it and can even produce good from it; that God, rather than being unacquainted with suffering and grief, experienced them (through the Crucifixion) to an unfathomable degree; and that ultimately all things are made right by the Creator, that what we experience now will be seen one day as momentary afflictions set against an eternal weight of glory.

This view of things hardly answers every question. Nor does it directly address the arguments raised by Hume and others. It does, however, offer a different way to think about suffering – and in so doing, avoids some of the glib answers and the tendency to “flatten out complexity” in order to defend the faith. In my experience, those who have this angle of vision on life are the individuals most characterized by grace and joy, even in the face of affliction. When you see it up close, it’s quite a thing to behold.

A final point is important. Faith itself, while not contra-reason, isn’t the same thing as reason. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For someone of my disposition, who tends to prize reason and empirical evidence – who wants answers to questions and resolution to mysteries — the fit isn’t a natural one. Yet I discovered some time ago that the Incarnation is not a series of logical proofs; and that the season of Advent anticipates the arrival of a person, not a philosophy, not even a theology. We’re part of an unfolding story, of “a project going somewhere,” in the words of the scholar N.T. Wright. Within that story are themes, characters, plots and sub-plots, which at any given moment in time can seem random and without purpose but which eventually fit together. Even the heartaches. Even our wounds. Even His wounds.

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Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 1.23.30 PMPeter Wehner is former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush. Wehner served also in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, serves now as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and coauthor with Michael Gerson of City of Man and with Arthur Brooks of Wealth and Justice.

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