A recent article by Elizabeth Dias for TIME magazine seeks to chart a shift among evangelicals on homosexuality. “Inside the Evangelical Fight Over Gay Marriage” (preview version, though I’m a subscriber) is engaging, well-sourced, and includes perspectives from both sides of the issue.
As you engage the material, see my Southern Seminary and Boyce College colleague Denny Burk’s typically piercing response, and consider this prudential First Things piece from Andrew Walker on a similar issue.
Dias begins her piece by suggesting that a quietly LGBT-affirming Seattle congregation, EastLake Church, is a harbinger of things to come:
It’s not surprising that EastLake is an early adopter. Seattle has a higher percentage of gay-couple households than San Francisco–1 in 17 couples living together in the city is gay. Nearly all of Meeks’ 30 staff members are under the age of 35 and plugged in to cultural shifts. But theologically, it is daring. If evangelicalism is famous for anything, it is opposition to homosexuality. For Meeks, that’s all the more reason to take a stand. “We talk about it in D-Day terms,” he says. “So many other pastors are afraid, trying to figure the upside. Perhaps our contribution is to die to let others take the beach.”
Matthew Vines argues that the church has committed a “profound moral failure” in failing to embrace the LGBT cause:
“The LGBT issue has been one of the most obvious forces behind the increasing loss of regard for Christianity in American culture at large,” Vines says. “It’s like slavery and anti-Semitism, where the tradition got it totally wrong. It’s one of the church’s profound moral failures.”
Dias gets two matters precisely, center-of-the-bullseye correct. First, she grasps the heart of the conflict over “gay Christianity”:
The roots of the conflict are deeply theological. Evangelical faith prizes the Bible’s authority, and that has meant a core commitment to biblical inerrancy–the belief that the words of the Bible are without error.
Second, she rightly connects adoption of egalitarian gender roles to acceptance of LGBT lifestyles:
So far no Christian tradition has been able to embrace the LGBT community without first changing its views about women. The same reasoning that concludes that homosexuality is sin is also behind the traditional evangelical view that husbands are the spiritual leaders of marriages and men are the leaders in church. It is one reason gay men have an easier time as evangelical reformers.
Let’s consider a few matters regarding what I’ve cited above.
1. Capitulating to the culture is not courageous.It may seem kind-hearted, and it may be motivated by intentions perceived as gracious, but in reality, it is anything but. Homosexual desire and practice are alike prohibited by the moral witness of Scripture. To call good what God labels an abomination is to place oneself in mortal jeopardy, as I have previously argued.
There is nothing heroic about silencing or twisting Scripture to force it to endorse LGBT views. There is nothing good. There is nothing worth celebrating. To leave behind Scripture is the essence of folly, and the stuff of cowardice. We are all tempted to do so; we all carry the spirit of Peter, who denied Christ, in our heart. But his action was not courageous. It was treasonous.
This is especially true for a pastor and a church that professes to be evangelical. Pastors have to lead their people in discerning good from evil according to biblical exegesis, not cultural pedagogy. This is loving. It is kind. It is warm-hearted, gracious, future-oriented, and revolutionary. All around us people bend the knee to received cultural wisdom. As I’ve said in this 9Marks article and in my forthcoming book The Colson Way, the pastor is the figure appointed by God out of love to train his sheep in the truth and shape their convictions.
As a result, however positive you might think your intentions are, it is not loving to lead your people to affirm what God calls evil. It is loving to reach out to sinners of every kind, generously welcome them to worship, talk with them about the gospel and the imminent possibility of total redemption, and then invite them to repentance and faith. This is what Jesus did, over and over again. This is what we do, reaching out to sinners just like us.
But failing to love in this way, I fear, queues up an entire congregation for judgment and destruction. These are heightened tones, I recognize. But the church–and all evangelicalism–finds itself in a battle for its very soul. Courage is conditioned by faithfulness to God’s Word, not by capitulation to the culture.
2. Confessional churches are best-positioned to weather this storm. None of us knows where this struggle will terminate. But it is clear to me that many evangelical churches are not well-suited for major cultural challenges. Too many of our congregations have no confessional foundation. We have a vague commitment to Scripture and a desire to reach people. But even this desire, which is laudable, is conditioned by our world. We do gymnastics to give no offense. We bend over backwards to avoid proclaiming those doctrines which turn unbelievers off.
Like a building with an infrastructure that looks like concrete but is in truth hardened sand, this core simply will not hold against the forces that now oppose our theology and ethics. I endorse winsome, shrewd outreach to the full, as I’ve written before. But such ministry cannot mean hiding our light. It cannot mean presenting ourselves as half-Christians, Christians who like the salvation-and-free-grace part of the Bible without the sticky ethical and doctrinal material.
I fear that, in the end, this weakened brand of Christianity–half-Christianity–ends up deceiving many people. It asks for a faith commitment, but no life-change. It offers a neutered gospel, with no call to transformation. It presents a straitjacketed Jesus, who is so nice that he wouldn’t ask anyone to give up their sin. This Christianity seems sound, and it sounds appealing, but it has been robbed of its otherworldliness.
In such an environment, lax-hearted faith will flourish, and false conversions will pile up. These false conversions will be, as Mark Dever boldly and rightly said at T4G 2012, the “suicide of the church.” (Watch this video, post-haste. It is simply an outstanding message, one of the rarest words heard in recent years, because it is so clear on a largely unconsidered, culturally unpopular, but manifestly biblical, teaching.)
Jesus and the apostles did not hide the light. They announced who they were. They proclaimed a message of holistic repentance, total renunciation of sin, and cruciform abandonment to God. They were “all things to all men,” but this meant not that they played down the hard truths of the faith, but that they gladly laid down personal matters in order to preach the gospel to all people (1 Cor. 9:22). Becoming all things to all men did not mean failing to call for ethical transformation; it meant full-throated evangelism that crossed over unnecessary social bounds like the ancient Jew-Gentile distinctions, for example, or the social codes that prohibited male-female interaction (see Galatians 3; John 7).
Churches that tie themselves to the mast of Scripture will be best able to see these truths. They are grounded not in vague doctrine or the desire to be liked, but in the rich, world-defying, soul-transforming Word of God. This is the place to plant your flag. This is the foundation that will hold up. Any other will, like a building reinforced by sand, crumble.
The age of adoctrinal evangelicalism is passing, as the King of Rohan says in Two Towers, like shadow on the mountains. Only what is sturdy will stand.
3. The debate over “gay Christianity” is most assuredly theological. It’s cool in certain circles to distance oneself from inerrancy. I could say a great deal here, but I’ll say just this: it’s fascinating how those who subscribe to the allegedly backwater doctrine of inerrancy are also those who end up promoting biblical ethics. There is something dangerously close to a connection there.
The church has not committed a “profound moral failure,” as Vines says. It has done the opposite. It has stood for the truth. To do so is loving. For the many serious problems with Vines’s exegesis, theology, ethics, and history, see God and the Gay Christian?, edited by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (It’s free, short, and quite readable–here’s my post about it.)
4. Complementarianism really is the last dam holding back the waters that would sweep over evangelical churches. Dias gets it. If complementarianism falls, then the last bastion of resistance to full-fledged endorsement of both homosexual and transgender identity falls with it. This is it. We’re down to the last refuge.
If the church gives up its overwhelmingly-held historic position–being complementarianism–then it will no doubt, with tremendous speed, endorse both homosexuality and transgenderism as not only viable for believers, but good.
I am quite certain that young evangelicals have very little sense of how high the stakes are, and how important complementarian churches and organizations truly are. You look around in the culture, and aside from fellow religious groups that are fighting tooth-and-nail over these same issues, we’re the last group standing. There’s no one else coming who will stand for biblical truth. Outside of a miracle from God, there is no great doctrinal deliverance to expect. Until Jesus returns, we–empowered in full by the Holy Spirit–are the last refuge.
Complementarianism, taught in hundreds of thousands of churches and represented organizationally by the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, is very well positioned to survive and even thrive in days ahead. It is grounded in the Bible. The exegetical and theological infrastructure already exists. Our calling now is to winsomely and convictionally promote complementarianism, to show that it brings joy, and to make clear that it is not simply a seven-point position, but a worldview.
Our enemy, to be sure, is no man or woman. It is a force who would destroy the church and eviscerate alongside it all traces of goodness, truth, and beauty in the world. We are sobered by this, but not one percent scared by it. Believers have faced these prospects before (see Hebrews 11). The way is given to us. We simply have to walk it.
The future seems ominous but is in truth bright, impossibly bright. This culture is not our home. We are traveling, after all, to the new heavens and the new earth, to a city where the lamb is the light of the city of God.