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It’s become the most volatile issue in American Christianity. But what does Scripture actually say about homosexuality and gender identity? Join us today on Theology Unplugged as we begin our series on homosexuality in the church.
Michael Patton (MP): Welcome to Theology Unplugged. I am here with Tim and Sam and JJ. Once again, I’m Michael Patton. I’m gonna be your host here and we are going to continue discussing unplugged theology. That’s what we do here. And what do we mean by theology unplugged? It’s theology that’s what? What is it JJ?
JJ Seid (JS): Unscripted and probably helps simulate what it would be like to be asked a tough question in a coffee shop when you didn’t have a chance to prep.
MP: Yeah, we’re trying to do things that are real.
Sam Storms (SS): I like that.
Tim Kimberley (TK): Yeah, I think it’s good not to always have this scripted response. I think it’s good to show that this is how we struggle through these issues. It’s not always that you talk in sound bites. You know, you struggle through things, you come to terms with things, you wrestle with things. And that’s what we’re doing here.
MP: Well, we are in a coffee shop, at the Credo House, so that’s a good way to do it.
TK: Yup. I’m drinking a Bucer right now.
MP: Bucer? Who’s Bucer?
TK: Martin Bucer was one of the greats of the Reformation that tried to unite all of the reformers and have them minister together.
MP: He was a very gracious man, wasn’t he?
TK: You know, I didn’t know him personally, but that’s what I hear.
SS: So what does that say of me, that you’re having a Bucer and I’m drinking a Diet Coke?
TK: Yeah, you know, we have to talk later is what it means.
MP: OK. We’re gonna discuss here in this broadcast about something that is fairly controversial in the church today. I mean, Is that a good way to put it?
SS: It is the single most volatile, controversial, pressing issue the church has faced probably in the history of this country, and it probably will be until Jesus comes back. How’s that for overblown?
MP: That is big.
SS: Is that an over the top, off the cuff, unplugged exagger… not exaggeration, it’s true.
TK: And the only thing I would say about that is if it’s not the number one issue that our country has faced, I think it’s the biggest issue it’s faced since theological liberalism of the 1930s.
JS: What’s so difficult about that is that immediately certain Christians don’t feel confident in the authority of Scripture begin feeling self-conscious, as though the Church is picking on people who have been picked on historically – marginalized, abused, made fun of. And now it seems like we’re sort of piling it on by making this the touchstone issue. I think it’s important for people to remember that it’s become a touchstone issue because it’s not really about this issue. It’s about the functional authority of Scripture. What happens when popular opinion and culture is strongly opposed to the fixed Word of God. What are we gonna do?
MP: Well, we’re gonna talk about homosexuality in the Church—homosexuality and Christianity, homosexuality and the transgender debate—will be our topic for this broadcast, and possibly further broadcasts as we move on. And it is, it is a volatile issue. It is an important issue; it is an issue that is, Sam, you said the most volatile, but how much is this becoming a part of the Church’s discussion? Something can be volatile and on the side. Is this the center issue? Is this the debate that people need to be discussing – are discussing?
SS: I think that it is. And we compare this to the abortion issue, which was perhaps more so at the forefront of the Church’s engagement with the broader culture in the last, what, 40 years or so, more than anything else. And it’s not that the abortion issue has been marginalized or set aside. It’s not that we don’t talk about it any more, but for some reason, this one seems to be of such a nature that there’s never gonna come a time when it goes away. And I think part of the reason for that, and I know this is kind of a strange way of putting it, abortion—for all of its evils—is what you do to somebody else. This one is wrapped up in a person’s sense of identity. ‘This is not just what I do,’ for many people, ‘This is who I am.’ And when you get something so deeply entrenched in a person’s self-awareness and the way they conceive of themselves and who they are – it’s not an issue that’s just going to be tangential to the life of the Church. And, of course, all of the legal ramifications for how the Church is to respond to this and deal with people who struggle with these sorts of issues are so massive that I think we are in – I know we’ve seen a lot already within our society—I think we are in for a massive, I don’t know what we want to call it—a moral conflagration? A collision of monumental proportions. Again, not trying to overblow the significance of it, but I’m saying that because I want Christians to be aware. I think a lot of Christians, their tendency is, we just say, ‘Well, the Bible’s against it.’ And call it sin and go on. That doesn’t work. That doesn’t work when you’ve got such a substantial number of your people in your church who are really wrestling with this.
MP: Well, why is it a bigger issue now?
JS: Let me sound a culturally sensitive note to maybe answer your question. Too many Christians are unaware of the massive number of presuppositions that have led people to being tipped over on this issue. Charles Taylor, one of the most influential philosophers in the world today, wrote a tiny little book called The Ethics of Authenticity. It’s fantastic! Christians can rail against what seems to be the sort of Bridges of Madison County theology that people have – follow your heart, do what feels good, put yourself first. What they don’t understand is that the culture has been teaching people that if you don’t do that, you’re inauthentic. You have to do those things to be the true you. So all of that is now converging, as Sam said, and it’s become very personal. One Anglican wrote in the Anglican Theological Review, ‘The norms for sexual activity in relationship turn out to be the same whether for heterosexual or for same-sex.’ And the norms include: do no unjust harm, free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness and social justice. And so, Margaret Farley says, ‘They’re checking all those boxes. How can you say it’s wrong?’ So, our culture now has been prepared to say, ‘How can you call something sin that seems to be so moral and virtuous?’, by the culture’s definition of what being moral and virtuous is.
TK: Yeah, and I totally agree with that. One way I like to put it is through Wesley’s Quadrilateral – with reason, experience, tradition and Scripture being authorities. And I think for maybe a couple hundred years now, the Church, in America especially, has been very anti-intellectual. And because we’ve been so anti-intellectual we have almost allowed a cultural Christianity where reason and experience are actually directing us more than Scripture is. And because reason and experience are directing us more than Scripture, what has happened, in maybe 20 years or so, the last 20 years or so, is reason and experience are now switching to be pro-homosexual. So when you talk to teenagers today, their reason and their experience is 100% pro-homosexuality. And so now we have gotten used to living with Scripture being there, but not being in the driver’s seat. And so now that reason and experience have changed, now the entire church is changing rather swiftly to be pro-homosexual.
JS: And trying to have a civil discussion in the public square is becoming almost impossible. You know, someone like Justin Lee in his book Torn, said: ‘The church’s anti-homosexual reputation isn’t just a reputation for opposing gay sex or gay marriage, it’s a reputation for hostility to gay people.’ So we can’t talk about the debate anymore. It gets collapsed into ‘we’re unloving’ if we disagree with them. And if we’re opposed from a theological conviction to a moral choice someone is making, it’s automatically unloving.
TK: That’s right. And so now the pro-homosexual Christians are seeing themselves as reformers. They’re seeing themselves as being the next step from Martin Luther. Now they are seeking to reform the Church, and we are now the institutional church that needs to be reformed.
MP: And we do find that a lot. I find that a lot – is people comparing this, saying ‘you want to be on the right side of this’ because in 20 in 50 in 100 years it will be a lot like slavery was in America. To where you are embarrassed to have argued for one side, like the slavery movement. And what I’m confused about is, I guess, and maybe you guys touched on it a little bit, maybe we don’t need to touch on it anymore – but why now; why so much, why has it become such a big issue? Why is it the biggest issue in the church?
SS: Well, that’s a good question. I guess you could come at that from a number of different angles. One is just the sexualizing of our culture. You compare today with the 1950s. I know you guys have a hard time because you weren’t here in the 1950s. I was. And things were – you go through the 60s and the cultural, sexual revolution and, of course, the birth control pill, the abortion issue, Roe v. Wade, the massive explosion of technology in terms of the availability of sexually explicit materials. And I’m not just talking about homosexual – I’m just talking about the massive intrusion into our lives in which people at a much younger age now are being exposed to things that when I was a kid, you might find in a magazine in a trash can somebody threw away in the alley. But that’s the closest you would ever come to finding anything remotely approaching pornography. So the whole culture has undergone a massive shift and a massive overexposure to these issues. And again, I think it’s, and then there’s just the kind of sociological, philosophical, psychological—whatever you want to say—dimension of where basically there are only two truths to which each individual is obligated: be true to yourself and don’t hurt others. Nothing else matters. There is no higher moral standard; there is no objective authority. As long as you’re true to yourself and you don’t hurt other people, anything goes. And that’s the rampant, dominant theme. And when that is the case, when there is no sense of a transcendent moral authority that governs our lives and our choices, then it’s to be expected that these sorts of things are going to emerge the way they have.
MP: And we also find the general tendency toward moral relativism across the board, where people—and trying to put this in a positive way, from a standpoint of people who may be engaged in this issue and accept the issue in a different way than we might—it’s that many people are confused about what is right and what is wrong. And many people are trying to find some type of way to sustain a higher morality than the small morality we held to before maybe. They’re thinking there’s a greater moral endeavor that we should be after, and this moral endeavor should be kind of this acceptance of one another. And this, instead of trying to find individual issues where people go wrong, morally speaking, trying to find ‘true to yourself’ type stuff because we don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. There’s so many different opinions out there, and there’s so many different good arguments for the varying opinions that are out there. Why don’t we just quit arguing about the individual subjects and issues, and try to find some higher moral ground, which is this ‘true to yourself’ type thing.
JS: And let’s not forget, even looking inward, before we rail on the culture, it’s as we’ve been saying: let’s look inward, and the Church is sounding more and more like the culture. When we try to coach somebody for faithfulness and celibacy, patient waiting either for heaven or for marriage, you hear the same rhetoric. They feel like less of a person because the culture has sold them this bill of goods that unless you’re using your sexuality physically, you’re less of a person. You have to be actively sexual to be whole, to be complete. And so, we’ve lost the theology of celibacy even within the Church. And then you take a same-sex struggler who’s maybe staring down a lifetime this side of heaven without sexual activity, unless God renews their sexuality this side of heaven, and they suddenly find they have no theology of celibacy. They feel like less than a person, as do our non-same-sex strugglers who are celibate in the Church and longing to engage sexually. You know, we were raised with quotes like: ‘Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive and go and do that because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’ And that’s fine to a point, until it becomes its own theology. ‘Oh, I feel like I’m dying here.’ And we realize we don’t have a theology of self-crucifixion, self-denial; we have a theology of self-fulfillment.
TK: Yeah, and I agree with that. I just think, generally speaking, we’ve just crossed a tipping point. You know, I think that we’ve had like the Scottish law-maker that said, ‘You write the laws of the country. Let me write the songs of the country.’ You know, and I just think the songs of our country, the media of our country, and it’s kind of like that age-old ‘does art imitate culture, or vice versa?’ But there’s just been a general tipping point where maybe people who previously were in the Church and were afraid to speak out, are now men like Matthew Vines and many other people are now writing best-seller books, saying ‘I’m a Christian and I’m gay, and I think Jesus is fine with that.’
MP: Let’s go there for just a moment. ‘I’m a Christian and I’m gay.’ I think another transition in this discussion is that we have so much within the Church now. So many people within the Church that are arguing for both sides. And it used to be that maybe it was the Church against culture; maybe Evangelicalism against culture. But now you find even conservative Christianity beginning to pick this up and wrestle with it in a different way to where it’s not so black and white to everyone, and we’re not so sure as we used to be about the morality of homosexuality and maybe we’re wrong on this. And even for the conservative Christians – I find conservative Christians who are saying, ‘I’m just not gonna stand on this issue one way or the other. And I’m backing off on it.’
JS: We’ve moved from Brian McLaren saying, ‘I’ll get back to you in 7 years,’ when asked about it, to people like Ken Wilson and Matthew Vines who are saying, ‘Good news! You can have your cake and eat it too.’
MP: We’re back to you, and everything is okay.
JS: You can hold to the authority of Scripture. You can stay within Evangelicalism and you can embrace monogamous, loving, same-sex relationships.
SS: Yeah, you mentioned those individuals. There are many—we mentioned a few names here—who want to say, ‘We hold a high view of Scripture. We believe in its inspiration its authority.’ Some of them would even say, ‘We believe it’s inerrant. We believe that it’s an ultimate moral standard for us.’ And what they then attempt to do is to re-interpret the text and try to read them in a different manner, such as Matthew Vines does. Then you have the sort of – which by the way, I must say I have very little respect for that approach because it is such a disingenuous interpretive approach to the Word of God, which we’ll get into in many cases. I have far more respect for a New Testament scholar like Luke Timothy Johnson. Luke Timothy Johnson is a very prominent New Testament, he’s written numerous commentaries, who basically said, ‘Look, we have to be honest. The Word of God is very clear – it does not approve of any homosexual practice. It is very explicit in its denunciation of it. The fact of the matter is, therefore, I just simply reject the Word of God. I have a higher authority, and basically it is the sense of psychological well-being, self-fulfillment, the trends within my culture, what is gonna be necessary in order to facilitate life and health and growth and all the other kind of arguments you want to use. At least I respect the fact that he says, ‘No, I can’t reread the Word of God. I can’t rewrite it. It is what it is. It denounces homosexual practice as sin, but I’m just simply gonna reject that as the Word of God. I’m simply gonna embrace a higher authority – the cultural norms, the sense of individuality and self-fulfillment that we see in our society.’
TK: Well, and I think the self-fulfillment is a huge part. Like Matthew Vines, I think, uses it as a strong argument too. He basically says, ‘How can you have kids that are in your children’s ministry that are hearing about Jesus, and they’re loving Jesus. Then they’re in your youth group, and they’re loving Jesus. Then they start having feelings of homosexuality – your church has taught that that’s wrong and so they commit suicide. You know, and he gives examples, he names names of kids that have committed suicide in the youth group because they find out they’re gay. And he basically says, ‘The Bible cannot, Christianity cannot be against this because look at the monsters you guys have become.’ And, I agree, it’s a similar type argument that: why in the world would God ever call someone to be against this? The Bible must be discarded for the sake of peace in a community and having these kids be alive.
SS: Well let’s not, we’re getting into some deep issues. Let’s not forget the fact that people, professing Christians, have committed suicide for a multiplicity of reasons other than their struggle with homosexuality. They have committed suicide because they’re depressed; they’ve committed suicide because…
MP: Because their girlfriend broke up with them.
SS: That’s right, or they can’t break free of an alcohol addiction. And there are a massive number of other reasons why that’s the case. And if we say, ‘Well, because you’re inclined to commit suicide because you’re made to feel like you’re a sinner, and given your particular practice, then we’re not gonna have anything that we could ever speak to from a moral high ground from the Word of God, so…
TK: But it kind of gets to the point of what you were talking about with Timothy Johnson though, is this idea that we need to lean toward what is best for all people, with this presupposition that allowing people to do those things is the best, and recognizing that the Bible must take a second seat.
SS: Yeah, and let’s make known, let’s be very clear – we don’t want our listeners to be misled – we think it is tragic that somebody within the Church, or even in society who’s never even crossed the threshold, would take their own life because they feel ostracized and condemned. Our hearts break for them! We want to minister to them; we want to hold forth the promise of life to them. So, we’re not just dismissing them casually and say, ‘Oh, come on. Get over it.’ We realize the profound struggles that they have, the fear that dominates their life that somebody’s going to find out that I struggle with same-sex attraction or whatever it is. You talk about becoming an object of bullying! So the Church needs to develop an approach, an attitude, of compassion, sensitivity and love for these individuals. But at the same time acknowledging, without qualification, that the most loving thing that you can do for another human being is to awaken them to the teachings of God’s Word and the kind of life that is going to lead to eternal bliss, rather than eternal condemnation.
MP: And, you know, we’ll talk about the compassion thing very much soon, I imagine. But I want to talk about the kind of defining of the terms here, because we’re gonna have to get into the arguments on each side. And I think when we talk about the arguments on each side, we’re talking once again—what I said earlier—within conservative Christianity. And what I mean by that, at least, is this: that don’t we want to discuss, Tim, where people are taking the Bible and they’re saying, ‘I believe the Bible, but I now believe the Bible teaches that same-sex attraction is okay’ – against the more traditional view that it’s not okay. Whereas, beforehand it wasn’t so much this. This is something that’s more within conservative Christianity than before. And there’s arguments on each side, right? These are people who want to hold to the Bible. They want to be Christian. They want to follow Jesus, and they want to say that at the same time it is okay to be homosexual and follow Jesus.
TK: Well, and I would even, I think that they would not like that you’re using the word want. I think that they would say they are. So they are following Jesus. They are following the Bible. And they believe that homosexuality in a monogamous relationship that is honoring to both of those men or both of those women is honoring to God.
SS: Here’s another thing that I’m just going to throw out there that we’ll maybe take up in another broadcast – we’re facing what one particular author I read recently called ‘sexual atheism’. And I thought it was a profound insight. His point was that Christians who struggle with this and other areas are more than willing to say, ‘Yes, the Word of God governs my life ethically when it comes to interpersonal relationships. It tells me I shouldn’t steal – I won’t steal. It says I shouldn’t lie – I won’t lie. Says I shouldn’t take another life – I won’t take another life.’ In other words: ‘Every area of my human existence is covered and governed by the authority of God’s Word, except my sexual behavior. That is outside the parameters of anybody to dictate than my own passions, my own desires and my own sense of who I am.’ So when it comes to sex they act, in essence, as if they are atheists. There is no God; there is no transcendent law or individual who can tell me what is right and what is wrong. Can do that in every other arena of life – tell me I have to obey the laws of the land; I have to pay my taxes. Okay, yes, I will abide by that. Do not tell me how to govern my sexual behavior. It’s like – I’m going to be a robust, Bible-believing Christian in every other ethical dimension. When it comes to sexual behavior, I’m an atheist.
TK: And that’s pervasive throughout Christianity. With internet pornography – this is not as it relates to homosexuals, this is as it relates to a majority of Christians in the Church, I think. I think, systemically, sexuality is broken in our culture – across the board. And yes, how we relate to homosexual might be different than how we relate to a 20-year-old or a 50-year-old that’s hooked on internet pornography. But it is broken nonetheless in all those categories.
JS: Well we’ve bankrupted so many of our youth because we haven’t given them a hedonistic view of self-control. That it is actually one of the fruits of the Spirit, and that saying no can actually lead to fulfillment.
MP: Well, we’re gonna have to take this up further in another broadcast. But I do want to ask the question in the next broadcast, at some point is: has the Church dealt with this well historically? Are we paying for something in some ways? But we’ll have to pick that up next time.
Theology Unplugged is presented by Credo House. For more information visit CredoHouse.org
DISCLAIMER: All quotations are transcribed as spoken by the participants. They have not been checked for accuracy or citation.