What Happened in 2015?
I believe I am quite an astute observer of cultural trends and especially how they affect church life in America. I am puzzled by something that I believe I have noticed—a turning point, a before and after, that causes me to question many American Christians’ commitment to resisting cultural trends.
Let me explain. Now, this is a blog about evangelical Christianity especially but not only in America. By “evangelical” I mean relatively conservative churches, organization, and individuals who claim to believe in the Bible as God’s word written. They may and do disagree about the details, but all at least claim to believe that the Bible’s clear instructions, especially in the New Testament, are to be followed as much as possible. Many of these churches, organizations, and individuals have dropped the label “evangelical” because of its political connotations, but they are still evangelical in “my book” even if they don’t use that label anymore.
Here I am addressing only churches (and their leaders), organizations, and individuals who at least used to be openly evangelical and that includes many, many who never really used that label but their general approach to Christianity was what I call evangelical. (Baptists in the South especially have often eschewed the “evangelical” label but they are often the most evangelical in terms of David Bebbington’s “evangelical quadrilateral” which includes “biblicism”—belief that the Bible is inspired by God, different in kind, not only in degree, from other great books of religious wisdom.)
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
As a student, maybe even a scholar, of American religious traditions, I can say without doubt that before 2015 hardly any of these evangelical churches, organizations, or individuals affirmed gay marriage, that two people of the same sex can marry in the sight of God and his people. I well remember a small “smattering” of churches that broke ranks and did begin to include gay couples as married. I attended one several times as it went through that transition. It was clear that that transition was also a larger theological transition—away from what is generally considered evangelical. (The pastor was ordained with the Christian Reformed Church even though the church was independent. He told me he would probably have to surrender his CRC credentials due to the paradigm shift he was going through together with his church.)
So, 2015 was not an absolute turning point. However, I have observed that since 2015 numerous churches, organizations and individuals I would have considered evangelical, in a broad sense, that would NOT have even considered becoming “welcoming and affirming” before 2015 have done just that. In fact, I would say it is more than a trend; it is a rather sudden avalanche. Yes, it can be seen as beginning earlier but not much earlier. In 2014 World Vision changed its policy toward hiring openly practicing gay people. But in 2014 many states had already made gay marriage legal.
You may disagree with me about 2015 being such a huge turning point, but I will stand by that as I know that I am an astute observer and interpreter of American evangelical Christianity.
Almost every week I hear of another notable evangelical church, organization or individual that/who has publicly “come out” in favor of gay marriage—something clearly and unequivocally not part of traditional American evangelical life. Before 2015 that was extremely rare and evangelical churches, organizations and individuals who did that were at the very least marginalized by most other evangelicals and at the worst expelled from their denominations or other “umbrella” organizations/networks.
So, I ask again, why 2015? I think I know the answer, but if I’m right I’m deeply troubled by it.
Especially progressive Christians, including many evangelicals, have talked for many years about not accommodating to culture, not compromising doctrine or ethics just to fit in with cultural trends. They (we ) have pointed our accusing fingers at many conservative evangelicals who they (we) think are succumbing to American culture with regard to treatment of immigrants, of the poor among us, of war, of guns, of consumerism, and I could go on and on. Being counter-cultural has long been promoted by the more progressive “wing” of American evangelicals. I well remember the first name of Sojourners which was The Post-American. I felt that I was mentored into the “left wing” of evangelicalism in America by people who fervently stood up against evangelical churches, organizations, and individuals accommodating to American culture.
My question to my progressive evangelical friends who have become welcoming and affirming is only this: Are you sure that what happened in 2015 did not tip you over into being welcoming and affirming—as opposed to real study of the Bible?
Around the world, evangelical Christians are mostly horrified by this trend in America. Almost none of them (churches, organizations, individuals) believe in the legitimacy of gay marriage. Now, many of the people in America who sent them missionaries who facilitated their conversions to Christianity are breaking rank with them over this issue in particular.
Again, I ask, why 2015? I know that hardly any, perhaps none, of American evangelicals who have embraced gay marriage within their churches will admit that anything happened in 2015 that influenced that decision. But I am asking them to at least ask themselves if that is really the case.
I am not here at all interested in debating gay marriage; I am only interested in asking us, evangelical Christians, whether we call ourselves that or not, what really led to this paradigm shift away from evangelical tradition. Was it solely reconsideration of biblical interpretation? I have trouble believing that. Most of the explanations I have read and heard hardly refer to the Bible at all except to how Jesus was inclusive of sinners. But that doesn’t help because he told them “Go and sin no more” and those who decided to follow him changed their lives radically.
“Including sinners” is fine; no evangelical that I know has ever balked at that. The issue is deciding that what was always considered sin and that the Bible calls sin is not sin. Why have most evangelical type churches, organizations and individuals who embrace and promote gay marriage only done so after 2015? What was discovered in 2015 that led to this near avalanche of evangelical churches, organizations and leaders deciding that gay marriage is okay? I know that 2015 was a turning point. I could have counted with the fingers on one hand the evangelical churches, organizations, and leaders who affirmed gay marriage as godly before 2015. Now I don’t have enough fingers or toes even to begin to list them.
Again, my question is only to American evangelicals who have made the “switch” to being welcoming and affirming since 2015—Are you confident that 2015 had nothing to do with it? I have so say as a close observer of American religion that it looks like 2015 had a lot to do with it. And that raises some questions about who makes our decisions for us? I mean, how do we make our decisions about theology and ethics? Is the Bible still our (your) primary authority? Is it fair to criticize conservative Christians who want to “Make America Great Again” with extreme nationalism and oppression of immigrants (apparent xenophobia) for succumbing to a cultural trend and yourself be influenced by an opposite cultural trend?
But, of course, I know you will say 2015 had nothing to do with your particular church’s or organization’s or individual decision to becoming welcoming and affirming of people of the same sex being married to each other—something almost unheard of among evangelicals of any kind, conservative or progressive before 2015. But stop and think about it and ask yourself if you can deny with absolute certainty and argue that the change came about on the basis of biblical study and sound theological reasoning.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).