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David Gushee’s Changing Mind: Evangelicals and Sexual Ethics

On November 4th David Gushee published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “I’m an evangelical minister. I now support the LGBT community–and the church should, too.” Here, Gushee makes his case for rejecting the traditional Christian teaching on homosexual conduct, framed in terms of the LGTB community as a sexual minority. He summarizes it thus:

For me, the answer to this debate has become simple: There is a sexual-minority population of about 5 percent of the human family that has received contempt and discrimination for centuries. In Christendom, the sexual ethics based in those biblical passages metastasized into a hardened attitude against sexual- and gender-identity minorities, bristling with bullying and violence. This contempt is in the name of God, the most powerful kind there is in the world. I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors. I also now believe that while any progress toward more humane treatment of LGBT people is good progress, we need to reconsider the entire body of biblical interpretation and tradition related to this issue.

Put simply, it finally became clear to me that I must side with those who were being treated with contempt, just as I hope I would have sided with Jews in the Nazi era and with African Americans during the civil rights years.

A caveat: I understand that this op-ed reflects thinking Gushee develops in more detail in his recent book Changing Our Mind (David Crumm Media, 2014) and in his series of 17 posts for Baptist News Global. I haven’t read the book and have only scratched the surface the BNG posts, so what follows here is focused on Gushee’s Washington Post piece. (For a critique engaging the broader project, see Matt Franck’s excellent piece for Canon & Culture.)

The Logic: As I make it out, the basic structure of Gushee’s argument goes like this:

  • Christians are oppressing sexual minorities (based on contested scriptural interpretation);
  • The Gospel requires standing with the oppressed;
  • Christians should drop their ethical claims about sexual behavior as part of standing with the LGTBQ community.

Gushee’s logic here is worth noting. The last step–dropping traditional Christian claims about sexual ethics—rests on two rationales: 1) the fact of being oppressed; and 2) Gushee’s judgment that the clarity of scripture on this issue is “questionable.” In his Washington Post piece, the first of these claims bears the lion’s share of his argument; the second is merely mentioned in passing. I believe the first claim is flawed and the second to be unsubstantiated. We’ll consider each in turn.

What Gushee gets right: It’s helpful to recast Gushee’s language of “standing with” in terms of a biblical conception of love. The fact of being oppressed does indeed call for a loving Christian response to suffering. Gushee’s exhortation to treat those who identify as LGTBQ with love is thus well-taken: he describes a history of “contempt and discrimination” towards those who so identify and rightly treats “bullying and violence” as un-Christian. In addition to the compassion Gushee calls for, we might add that where Christians have sinned, love also requires repentance and confession. So far, so good. Moreover, Gushee wants to compassionately account for the suffering of those who identify as LGBTQ–an important aspect of showing love in a fallen world, and an issue that resonates with the experiences described by the likes of Wesley Hill.

Divine love: welcome with an agenda: Where Gushee’s argument gets into trouble lies with the implications of love for our ethics: Does the call to “love the oppressed” change the substance of Christian ethics? Many would say yes. Christians sometimes talk about God’s love as “unconditional” and there is a sense in which this is quite right. God does not wait for sinners to reform themselves before He reaches out to them. Instead, God is like the father in the story of the two brothers in Luke 15. He runs to meet the prodigal son–the one who knows he is helpless and cries out: “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” (v. 21, NIV). But thinking of God’s love as “unconditional” can easily distort the agenda that God’s love entails. When confronted by the Pharisees in Matthew 9 for the keeping company with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replies in Matthew 9:12: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (NIV) The implication is that those who mistakenly think they are healthy wrongly fail to call the doctor–just as in the Luke 15 story where the “good” brother is in danger because he does not know his need. Gushee frames the LGBTQ issue as “not primarily an issue of Christian sexual ethics” but rather “primarily an issue of human suffering.” Here, he seems to endorse the first aspect of divine love (the welcome) while avoiding the second (love’s agenda). But the need to take love’s welcome more seriously does not, ipso facto, abrogate any aspect (jot or tittle?) of love’s agenda.  Thus, while the fact of being oppressed does support the argument to love, it does not provide any support for changing the transformative content of that love. To push the point further, any time that we suggest that love is only welcome (and thus not also transformation)—a gospel of “I’m okay; you’re okay”—we encourage each other to think of ourselves like the older brother in Luke 15 who stays at home and who see no need to repent. To the extent that we reduce love to “welcome”, we accept that false claim that ethical disagreement is itself dehumanizing. Insofar as Gushee makes this reduction, he seems to go beyond opposing political oppression (dehumanization) to requiring a positive affirmation of a new sexual ethic.

Interpreting scripture: Given the above, the substantive merits of Gushee’s rationale for altering Christian sexual ethics must rest entirely on his account of scripture’s witness regarding sexual ethics—a matter that gets minimal treatment in Gushee’s op-ed (and thus also by me in this post). In it, Gushee describes “Our argument has centered on six or seven biblical passages that appear to mention homosexuality negatively or appear to establish a heterosexual norm: the sin of Sodomthe laws of Leviticus and the list of “the unrighteous” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.” He describes “endless debates over how to interpret that handful of biblical passages.” Gushee attempts to resolve this debate with the claim that, “I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable.” If we should reject any apparent biblical teaching that has ever been subject to the sort of questioning Gushee describes with respect to sexual ethics, then no major teaching of scripture that has ever been questioned should be held securely, including, for instance, Christ’s divinity, the trinity, and the nature of justification. Put differently, this would mean that the existence of a question–such as the disagreements that required councils of the Church to iron out creedal commitments–should preclude accepting the Bible’s apparent meaning. I understand that Gushee has devoted significant attention to the scriptural and theological questions tied up in Christian sexual ethics and I look forward to reading and engaging his arguments. Suffice it to say, however, that more than being “questionable” should be required to reverse course on the Church’s long-held interpretations of the Bible.

Implications: Finally, we should recognize that more is at stake than just how to interpret a handful of passages on specific sexual acts. To make this claim suggests a case of serious theological myopia. Strongly implicated in questions of human sexuality and relationships are other matters of no small import to Christians: the doctrine of creation, especially as regards marriage and the family; the relation of God to his people as a bride (Hosea, Ephesians 5); the theology of Divine covenants, which are always made with familial implications; and the very model of relational plurality-in-unity: the Holy Trinity. I expect that Gushee knows all of this; indeed I believe he engages some of these issues in his more extensive arguments. But he would do better to resist casting LGTBQ  issues as a “love vs. questionable passages” dichotomy in which Christians should choose “love.” Of course we should choose love, but that love must be understood in theological context, in all of its rich fullness and breadth—to the extent that we can comprehend it.

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