Brother Jeremy wore his Sunday best. His black pinstripe suit and baby blue paisley tie clashed hard. His presence clashed similarly with the room, a serious man against silly walls with random items strung up on fishing wire to serve as quirky decorations. He was the only one over 30 and the only one taking himself seriously. His sermon hit all the usual notes — I had been in these chairs before. Heaven and Hell. Repentance and Salvation. Judgment and Wrath. He wanted to scare us onto the path of righteousness.
We were the company of mockers. Bro. Jeremy had the slightest stutter, and each time he tripped over his words the merciless students in our youth group grinned and looked around. His sermon that Wednesday night meandered through the Romans Road. Already out of breath by chapter one, he read: “For the wrath of God is revealed from h-heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He reached the third chapter when Steve who ran the soundboard tried to adjust the microphone but unleashed a feedback shriek loud enough to pierce my right ear. Bro. Jeremy, distracted and annoyed, tried to continue. America’s sins forced God to destroy her with hurricanes and wildfires. Abortion, drugs and alcohol, fornication and homosexuality, R-rated movies, card playing, school dances, string bikinis, punk music, atheism, Islam, and more were unleashing national destruction and betraying the investment God had made in our promised land. My friend passed a note my way. I opened it to find a crude sketch of Bro. Jeremy. I laughed, hushed but with poor timing, throwing off his sermon again. Across the room a volunteer leader had to tell a girl to please close her flip phone, thank you. “Nothing in this life m-matters if you live for yourself,” Bro. Jeremy tried to thunder. “For all have sinned and come short of the g-glory of God.”
He said nothing new. I listened anyway. The invitation had promised there would be pizza and snacks later. My hunger gnawed at me. I saw some unfamiliar faces at tonight’s revival gathering. Next to Lauren Brooks sat Samatha Reynolds, who was in my algebra class that year but had never been to our church before. She was quiet and unassuming but popular in our school. A few seats past her, Connor Hall, my neighbor down the block, sat and fidgeted. He skateboarded and cussed and drank beer when he could sneak it. He must have believed the invitation. His mistake. “For the wages of sin is death,” said Bro. Jeremy.
Our youth room tried to capture the fun spontaneity that young people brought, but contained it within the cold, disciplined asceticism that old people would fund. Like youth ministry at large, this room sat at the intersection between traditions with deep roots and well-funded spokesmen, and the revolutions brought about by youth culture, motivated by logic inscrutable to the elders. Youth groups trained young whippersnappers to stay off the old man’s lawn, so to speak. They bent our lives into irregular, disjointed forms to satisfy the regretful nostalgia of boomers discontent with the mistakes they made in the age of free love. Here the room consisted of chairs arranged toward the pulpit, an altar used solely for altar calls, and on the left wing, a ping-pong table and refrigerator. Lemon and lime and cherry walls surrounded this kitschy take on the ancient assembly, whose routines we reenacted weekly with more or less earnestness and intensity. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
I glanced at the clock to see how much longer Bro. Jeremy would go on, though no clock could answer that question. Glancing back, something caught my eye. Someone. He was new here. Didn’t go to my school. Blonde hair, green eyes, green shirt. On his shirt a name tag sticker hung half attached.
HELLO, MY NAME IS Noah
I wondered where he came from and who he knew here. In our small town, there weren’t many other teenagers than those who went to my school or went to our church. I kept looking at him. He looked like an athlete, probably popular wherever he was from, and comfortable in this room, despite sitting alone and being new. Somehow he kept my attention. As Bro. Jeremy rambled on, I found my gaze drifting over to Noah again and again. What was he like? Would he become a regular in our group? Would he ever want to be my friend? I looked down at my Bible, trying to focus back on the message. “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But Noah held my focus. I looked back at him.
The summer before, our youth group went to Devil’s Lake State Park up north. Fifteen of us, three leaders and the rest high schoolers, went to the lake there and relaxed for an afternoon. We went to a roller coaster park in town, too. Come nightfall we slept in tents on uneven ground and had to scramble to drape tarps when an unexpected storm rolled through. The trip was not all that religious, it turned out. Just fun activities and some games to help us bond as a group for three days. One day we hiked an uphill trail in the State Park. Our leaders said it was a real hike, but worth it to see Devil’s Doorway at the end. Ancient as the Ice Age, this formation perplexes scientists, our leaders told us, since they can’t explain it using natural processes. Only God could make this pile of rocks. The State Park had gotten its name from settlers who misinterpreted the natives. “Spirit Lake” in their tongue sounded like “Devil’s Lake” in ours, and so it was. To those settlers this rock formation looked like a door, and so it was. Our leaders did not know this history, and spun some yarn about God making these rocks to throw Satan through them into the lake beyond.
We reached the bluffs after an hour struggling along rocky and ill-kept paths. Damp heat made it harder and we hiked with much grumbling and complaining. At the bluffs, you have to make it two feet across a small fissure to reach the Doorway. It seemed benign until we saw the sign indicating that people had died trying to cross it and the liability was all on us. I walked up to that fissure and paused. Others went ahead and started taking pictures on their digital cameras at the Doorway. I went a few paces left and looked over the bluffs, down two hundred, three hundred feet into the dense woods below and the wide lake beyond. As I came closer to the edge I slowed down. The edge attracted me with an unspoken magnetism. My curiosity grew. What was over that edge? Where did it come from? Who does it know here?
Even as the edge drew me closer, something in me recoiled, repulsed by the draw, afraid of what dangers these bluffs hold and eager to stay far, far away in the safe territory. People had died here. The fall could take me too. Polar forces of attraction and repulsion, wanting to come nearer and stay further, left me unsure how to move. I looked over to my group, having fun on the other side of the rock fissure, taking photos at Devil’s Doorway. They laughed and pretended to push one another. Carefree. I crawled backward from my squat position and stood, determined to join my friends. But as I got closer to the fissure my knees bent and I crouched down again, like a reflex built into my legs had activated. I backed up again and stood to try another time but I could not do it. I realized after a minute that I wouldn’t get a picture taken at Devil’s Doorway. I would have to save the sight in my memory, standing from here. I took a long look.
“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Bro. Jeremy now came closer to what in any reasonable sermon would have been the conclusion. An altar call was imminent. As he pressed into Paul’s Gospel, my eyes focused somewhere else. Noah shifted his body weight in his chair, gentle as a breeze might ease a yellow tulip into another posture. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Noah looked up and caught my eye. I looked down.
Where does the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage really rest?
The disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage tends to revolve around the interpretation of the few passages that come closest to the topic: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and some include Genesis 19 as well. We then ask questions like, How should we translate this word? Exactly which sex act does the author describe in this passage? Can we infer from the social setting whether the sex is mutual? These are good questions, and they will matter to some degree at some point. However, we need to start with the wider narratives of Scripture, which ground and frame the particular, topical passages. For example, it doesn’t matter what the Levitical commands in 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit until we hash out, generally, how the book of Leviticus fits into the wider arc of Scripture, and how and why the teachings of Leviticus would matter today.
I do not base my position on Christian same-sex marriage on the outcome of the six exegetical debates. That approach would oversimplify the problem and understate what is at stake. Anyways, I think those passages could all be missing from the Bible and we would still get to the same conclusions, affirming or not — just as a hypothetical seventh prohibition would not necessarily tell us anything more. Instead, I base my position on wider theological convictions that come through a reading of the whole Biblical story and the place of procreation in that story. This method drives us much faster into the heart of the disagreement.
Procreation in the Hebrew Bible
In the beginning, God created humanity in the image of God, and blessed them to rule over the animals and the birds and the land. Genesis 1:26, whether read from a creationist or evolutionary perspective, tells us about the goal for which God created humanity. We are to reflect God back to the world by exercising wise stewardship over the world. The next two verses continue this point: in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. Just as in 1:26 God gives humanity a vocation to steward the earth — to act like God himself acts towards the earth — in 1:27-28 God gives humanity a vocation to populate the earth — just as God himself did when he created humanity in the beginning. We can see this concept linguistically in our latinate word “procreation,” creating forth something new. When we procreate, we participate in the work of Creation that God has already begun, continuing it, blessed to do so as if we were God, in our role as divine image bearers. Verses 27-28 cannot be separated from 26 because the unit 26-28 together claims that God created humanity to extend his own work in Creation. God made us in his image to steward the world (26) which requires sexual difference (27) for the purpose of procreation (28) to fulfill this stewardship of the world.
The rest of the Hebrew Bible illustrates and confirms this theology of procreation. God plans to redeem humanity from its fallen state by saving one man, and through him, one nation, and through that nation, one Messiah. God calls Abraham, creates a covenant with him, and blesses him with a promise to have “more descendants than the sand on the shore, than the stars in the sky.” Barrenness, decedents, legacy, familial blessing, and God’s gift of fertility dominate the pages of Genesis to follow. These themes continue to dominate the Hebrew Bible after Genesis, becoming even more prominent in times of national destruction. Ironically, the national destruction itself usually comes from kings taking many foreign wives, attempting to build massive households with hundreds of descendants. Procreation is a blessing, and when pursued in violation of Torah it becomes a curse, but either way it remains the center of the narratives. Remember the ancient context as well. Israel was a hard and rugged place. You would simply not survive if you could not have kids. Because Israel was always only one generation away from siege, pillage, exile, and destruction, the covenant with Abraham would have given promise for security and hope for a better future. The Hebrew Bible’s extensive genealogies also show us the importance of procreation. Long lists connect everyone in the nation to Abraham, to verify their membership in the promises God made in the covenant. They also helped Israelites who grew up reciting their genealogy to remember that the promise would one day extend through them to their children.
Most people agree up to this point. Few in the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage jump ship before here. (James Brownson and perhaps Sarah Coakley are two notable exceptions). This is because the above is, in my view, incontestable. The themes are too consistent and pervasive to ignore. The disagreements I want to consider in the next section are the ones which start when we move from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament. Does the New Testament teach that procreation is normative? What could change that would nullify the former teaching, which crucially is rooted in our portrait of Creation?
Procreation in the New Testament
Let me give four examples of the kind of analysis that complicates the procreation mandate. Two on each side.
On the one hand, we see continuity with the former portrait. Years ago in a seminary class on Biblical Theology and Interpretation, D. A. Carson took us to Mark 10 to illustrate this continuity. Have you not read? Jesus asks. Jesus uses Genesis 1-2 for the moral question of divorce and draws directly on the older narrative without qualification. He also intentionally undermines the exception that Moses made in Deuteronomy 24. This draws us away from a possible trajectory where if something is true in Creation, but precedents are set later on, we can expand outward following the later precedents. No, Jesus avoids the later legal precedent and builds his command on Creation.
On the other hand, we see discontinuity when it comes to procreation itself. What happens to procreation in the New Testament? Why does it vanish almost entirely from the text? There are a few mentions of children here and there, about allowing them into the Kingdom, about discipling them wisely, to bring them up in the way of the Lord, and so on. These teachings help people who already have children, but they tell us nothing about the procreation mandate. Now consider 1 Corinthians 7, one of the few extended texts about sexual practice in the New Testament. Paul bases his sexual advice on martial duty (1-3), mutual consent (4-5), temptation from Satan (presumably to adultery or fornication) (5-9), God’s call to live at peace (15-16), our freedom in Christ (21-24), the coming apocalypse (25-31), our undivided focus on the Lord (32-35), and the honor of virgins and of singleness as a widow (36-40). Paul’s advice comes from numerous places in moral theology and gives us a rich picture of complex wisdom, as well as the types of sources we should value in making these complex decisions. But where is procreation?
Returning to the first hand, the relationship between early Christianity and the Mosaic Law is difficult, but not really on this question. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 decides to integrate Gentiles into the people of God and commands them to do four things: abstain from meat that has been strangled, abstain from meat that still has blood, abstain from food sacrificed to idols, and abstain from sexual immorality. These commands probably express something like the Law of Noah (though this was not explicitly developed until the early Talmudic Rabbis over a century later), which means laws God gave to all humanity through Noah, the father of all later humans. These kinds of laws are not detailed in the actual text of Genesis 6-9, but the concept lurks behind Acts 15:23-29 and Romans 2:12-16 to provide grounding for universal moral commandments. The fourth command in Acts 15 simply prohibits “sexual immorality,” but presumably all Jews would flesh out this term with Leviticus 18, where the Torah gives a detailed list of what practices count as sexual immorality. By declaring sexual immorality a universal prohibition (not limited to Jews), the Jerusalem Council made it impossible for Gentiles to use an “abolition of the Law” type argument to get around the Leviticus prohibitions.
Returning to the second hand, because Gentiles in the New Testament are “adopted” into the family of God, the need for procreation to advance the ethnic people solely of Israel has faded. The procreation mandate may seem to vanish from the New Testament, but in reality it has been transformed into the evangelism mandate. Converts are like children in the faith, raised to maturity by our faithful parentage, to become bearers of the good news of the Gospel, resulting in their own spiritual children one day. Gentiles receive paternity in Abraham by adoption through Christ (Romans 4), and so procreation is no longer necessary in its function to expand the people of God. You can draw this distinction against the Hebrew Bible too sharply — there are a few non-Israelites who join the family of God, such as Rahab, Jethro, Ruth and Naaman. But overall it seems that the multiethnic movement that begins in the New Testament accompanies the transformation of the procreation mandate because they are inherently tied together. The New Testament’s theology of adoption, then, decenters and transforms the procreation mandate.
Where do we disagree?
My reading of the disagreement leads me here. How you square these circles will determine whether Christian same-sex marriage can be morally good. Does the procreation mandate persist in marriage, or does it fade away with the coming of Messiah? Better, does the current apocalypse (1 Corinthians 7:17-31) interrupt the procreation mandate as a whole, or does it interrupt procreation within marriage? This distinction makes or breaks Robert Song’s argument in his book Covenant and Calling, which I recommend reading. If the apocalypse disrupts the need to procreate generally, then celibacy is affirmed because marriage is not required. But if the apocalypse disrupts the procreation mandate in marriage, then constitutionally non-procreative marriages can become morally neutral or good.
These questions can hinge on the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, not to mention the even wider theological topics I have not addressed here. What about natural law theology? What about gender complementarity beyond procreation (such as gender roles)? What about the sacramental end of marriage, which is that marriage signs to us Christ’s own relationship with the Church? What about gender at the resurrection? Needless to say this disagreement is complicated to an almost endless degree. It works at some of the core questions scholars pose about the relationship between the early Jesus movement and the Jewish context from which it came. The complexity of our disagreement should humble us. When you dismount your moral high horse, it becomes easier to see others eye to eye and recognize the good-faith effort they make, even when they come to conclusions you do not. This complexity may even allow for church membership across the affirming disagreement, since we already have membership with many who disagree on questions much more weighty than the technical issue with Robert Song’s argument above. For example, if your church includes Calvinists and Arminians as members, I find it difficult to exclude those who disagree in good faith on some of the biblical-theological specifics outlined here. However, traditions with a rich confessional heritage will likely come to a narrower set of conclusions, and from there we need to debate the traditions and their confessions on their own merits as such. Like all disagreements in Christian moral theology, the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage leads us down a path, bounded by Tradition and Scripture, to the God with whom we seek one common life.
My point in this post is to encourage Christians to think more widely than the six topical passages in isolation — to attempt to see those passages within the totality of our Christian moral vision and the Scriptural narratives that ground and frame that moral vision. Focusing on those passages alone allows us to misconstrue their value and place within Christian thought, as well as over-interpret them to say what they may never have meant. Submitting the meaning and function of these passages to what we already know is like building your house upon a rock: working from the firm foundation of the most central and clear parts of God’s Word to the peripheral and unclear parts. We already do this on so many other topics. Stronger biblical-theological reasoning could help the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage reach greater understanding, mutual respect, and precision. By the Spirit who guides the church into all truth, it may even lead to resolution.
Sketching a theological use for Christian Sexuality in the world today.
Lunch with my former pastor from high school. He eats a soup. I eat cheese fries. He is on a diet. I am not. We talk about my experience coming out and about his attempts to lead his church into a more compassionate tone on sexuality. In that conversation he backs up and makes a larger point than I expected.
He brings up James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World. We had read this together back when I lived in town. Hunter sorts out four ways that Christians engage culture. Well, three, and the fourth is a proposal.
First, there is the ‘defense against’ strategy. Think Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Sr., or the Religious Right as a political strategy. The goal is to defend the church from a hostile society seeking to destroy the church and everything it stands for. We wage war, cultural war, to keep Christian values established at the national level. Non-Christians and non-Christian institutions are either potential converts, or enemies.
Second, there is the ‘purity from’ strategy. Think the Amish, or to a lesser extent, homeschooling. Since you can’t win the culture war against public schools, you retreat and homeschool, or private Christian school. Rod Dreher has come forward as the leading proponent of this tendency. Instead of trying to win back society, his book The Benedict Option argues we need to begin building institutions for a parallel society which is distinctly Christian. Non-Christian people and institutions are potential contaminants to be avoided.
Third, beyond fight and flight is another option, the ‘relevance to’ strategy. This tendency is to blend in by shedding pieces of Christian faith and practice. Many on the Christian Left attempt this approach. It works for a time but the common logic holds that eventually people stop being recognizably Christian at all. Non-Christian people and institutions are seen as not that different from Christians.
Fight, flight, assimilate. Hunter proposes a fourth route, ‘faithful presence within,’ which he defines with two theological statements:
The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference. For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks; to the words we speak and the realities to which we, the church, point. In all, presence and place matter decisively. (241)
Also helpful for understanding his point is the quote a few pages later:
Faithful presence in our spheres of influence does not imply passive conformity to the established structures. Rather, within the dialectic between affirmation and antithesis, faithful presence means a constructive resistance that seeks new patterns of social organization that challenge, undermine, and otherwise diminish oppression, injustice, enmity, and corruption and, in turn, encourage harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, security, and well-being. In the normal course of social life, the challenge and alternative that faithful presence entails is not so much a direct opposition through a contest of power but, as Miraslov Volf puts it, a “bursting out” of an alternative within the proper space of the old. (247-248)
Here our pose towards the world is not defensive (defense against), distancing (purity from), or naively and uncritically positive (relevance to). Rather, we remain distinctly Christian while living in and for the sake of the world, loving and serving others like Jesus did.
My pastor slurped soup from his spoon. My cheesy fries were long gone. They stood no chance.
That was all background from our conversations over the years. In this meal, my pastor made this point: Far too many Christian leaders view sexuality in church-political categories rather than in pastoral-theological categories.
“Church-political” roughly lines up with defense against and purity from, and “pastoral-theological” could mean in a weaker form a relevance to approach or in a stronger form a faithful presence within approach.That stronger form is the goal.
I’ll give an example. Most conservative churches have done a poor job at pastoral care for gay people who are non-affirming. Even though such a person agrees with the church on how to live the Christian life, just being gay is made more difficult than it needs to be. Different things cause this. Silence. Taboo. Homophobic comments. Homophobic pastors. Unrealistic expectations. Singling out that sin instead of treating it as an equal to other sins. These are bad things, and we could end them without sacrificing our doctrinal stance.
But we can’t have those conversations. For those who view the topic through church-political lenses, straight pastors and ministry leaders should not be criticized. Gay people are the ones who are ‘other’ in a political sense, so they are the ones to be critiqued. Gay people (the distinction between celibate and sexually active gets ignored) are inherently opposed to the social and cultural goals of our church politics. To capitulate is to lose points in the game of church politics. If you acknowledge that there could be reasons why gay people are against the conservative church which were biblically unnecessary all along, you’ve lost the war. Nobody admits any of this, but it defines the underlying logic at work, the deep structure of the conversation. In its worst forms this thinking leads to the explicit denial that gay people “can be” Christians. In lighter form it leads to consistent privileging of institutional and organizational interests against those of gay people. Neither form recognizes the God-given dignity inherent in gay people, and both make the Christian life harder for no good reason.
Such is life when Christian leaders see the world through church-political frames. By contrast, my soup-eating pastor pointed to Wesley Hill as someone whose framing of the topic comes primarily from a pastoral-theological mindset. I would add Preston Sprinkle’s book People to be Loved, which is all about seeing gay people as people and not as ideas, or worse, as enemies.
The Amazon pages for Nancy Pearcy’s book Love Thy Body in print and on audiobook have different descriptions.
The print editions have this description:
Why the Call to Love Thy Body? To counter the hostility toward the human body and biological facts of life driving many of today’s headline stories. Many people absorb pre-packaged media mantras on watershed moral issues without being aware of their hurtful real-world implications. Consider:
• Transgenderism: Activists detach gender from biology. Kids down to kindergarten are being taught their body is irrelevant to their authentic self. Is this affirming–or does it demean the body?
•Homosexuality: Advocates disconnect sexuality from being biologically male or female. Is this liberating–or does it denigrate who we really are?
• Abortion: Supporters admit that pre-born babies are human, but deny that they are persons worthy of legal protection. Does this lead to equality for women–or does it threaten the intrinsic dignity of all humans?
• Hookup Culture: On campus, in Hollywood, and in the boardroom, the sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us for recreational sex. But has it really led to schizoid sex and bodies without meaning?
In Love Thy Body, best-selling author Nancy Pearcey goes beyond politically correct talking points to offer a riveting exposé of the dehumanizing secularist ethos that shapes critical moral and socio-political issues of our day.
Formerly an agnostic, Pearcey was hailed in The Economistas”America’s preeminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual.” Fearlessly and with compassion, she makes the case that secularism denigrates the body and destroys the basis for human rights.
Throughout, Pearcey sets forth a holistic and humane alternative available to all–one that offers reality–oriented solutions that embrace the dignity of the human body and provide a sustainable basis for inalienable human rights.
Now, more than ever, we need to learn to “love thy body.”
Then, there are endorsements by Robert George, Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Glenn Stanton, of the names I recognize.
But now look at the description from the audiobook edition:
Are transgender people discovering their authentic self? Is the hookup culture really liberating? Does abortion lead to equality for women? Does homosexuality contradict our biological sex?
In Love Thy Body, best-selling and award-winning author Nancy Pearcey takes on the hard questions about life and sexuality. She offers a respectful but riveting exposé of the secular worldview that lies behind trendy slogans and political talking points. A former agnostic, Pearcey is a sensitive guide to the secular ideas that shape current debates. She empowers listeners to intelligently and compassionately engage today’s most controversial moral and social challenges.
In a surprise shattering of stereotypes, Pearcey demonstrates that while secularism promises much, in reality it delivers little. She turns the tables on stereotypes that portray Christianity as harsh and bigoted, and invites a fresh look at its holistic, life-affirming principles: It is a worldview that matches the real world and fits with human experience.
All along, Pearcey keeps listeners entranced with gripping stories of real people wrestling with hard questions in their own lives – sharing their pain, their struggles, and their triumphs.
This description is not followed by endorsements.
Where the second description is warm and friendly (“a sensitive guide” “fresh look at holistic, life-affirming principles” “sharing their pain”), the first description is hostile and adversarial (“to counter” “beyond politically correct talking points” “Fearlessly” is fronted in the pair with “compassion”). Where the second frames its rhetorical questions as benign, detached ideas, the first pre-loads its rhetorical questions with declarative statements (“Activists detach gender from biology” “Advocates disconnect sexuality from being biologically male or female” “Supporters admit that pre-born babies are human, but deny that they are persons worthy of legal protection” “On campus, in Hollywood, and in the boardroom, the sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us for recreational sex”). Notice the difference. Now we aren’t arguing against ideas, or proposing our own constructive ideas. We are arguing against “Activists” “Advocates” “Supporters [of abortion]” and “Hollywood, the boardroom [or those who this applies to], and the sexual revolution.” Suddenly things seem less compassionate. The stakes are raised. We have an enemy in this fight. Even the tailing endorsements on the print editions scream Tribal Affiliation, but no such endorsements are to be found on the audiobook.
I don’t know whether this is Pearcey’s own doing, or the publisher’s work. My understanding is that authors have control over their body-text and title, and that’s about it. Nor do I fault the publishers for resorting to this type of politcking. It sells. What I notice, though, is that the rah rah lets fight spirit in one description comes at the expense of the calm, wise, compassionate spirit in the other. A “church-political,” defense against and purity from mindset bleeds off the page.
Can we do better?
As I try to sketch out the contours of a Christian Sexuality that is faithfully present in the world, I am reminded of this post from a friend last year. (I share this with his permission).
“Cold water! Stay hydrated! Be safe!” “Oh, thank goodness. How much?” “Nothing, it’s free.” “Wait, it’s free?” “Yep. You need more than one?” “Uhh, sure. Thanks. Y’all are doing a really, really good thing… Who are you with?” “We’re just a group of Christians from different local churches, here to make sure folks have some water.”
This conversation happened hundreds of times today. Let it be a parable of free grace for your Sunday. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)
Had a great time at my first-ever Pride!
@ Downtown St. Louis
I don’t know if you remember that day, but it was nearly 100 degrees and humid. There was talk about cancelling the parades outright because of the heat risk. So this is not mere political posturing — it has real substance. It also declines to antagonize. This small act of grace does not defend against the parade and all it represents, or seek purity from the potentially ‘infectious’ effects of being too close to sinful (gay) people. Nor does it seek relevance to Pride by sacrificing or eliding critical differences between Christian and non-Christian practice. It exemplifies, even typifies, faithful presence within. Loving and serving others to whom we especially owe that love and service. Not recoiling at or restraining from the ‘other.’ Unlike the first description of Pearcy’s book, it does not center our obvious disagreements and reduce gay people to enemy status to score points in our cliques. This small act can teach us what it means to be gay for the world.
I have tried to hold back and even now will keep holding back. Half of what demands to be said is too hard to say well, for the emotions but no less for the sake of precision. I’m writing about the secret motivations of others, and about my own interior life, and about these big abstract entities called “evangelicalism” and “homophobia.” The margin of error is wider than the target. But something needs to be written so that this time can be known after my memory fades. Put shortly: my life has bled fire and I don’t recognize the person I was a year ago.
Winter and Spring
January, February, and March were spent working up the nerve to come out publicly. I wrote an essay and edited it for months. In conversation after conversation I came out early to those who deserved to know. These months held a sense of rising action, my life animated by plot, suspense. But I was unprepared for the mix of reactions I would receive. I had found an article saying everything would go great. That, along with many conversations with (straight) professors and pastors left me clueless about what would come.
My former employer denied me a job because I came out, and then offered me another, lesser job on specious conditions that amounted to workplace harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. (Of course, I turned that down, as it was not a legitimate offer at all). It was unfair and it burned. I spent hours of those days screaming in my room. I would rant what I wish I had said. Whenever my mind went quiet, the rage would return. One time I remembered it while alone in the car. I beat the steering wheel until my right hand bruised. This lasted for months. At the same time, I had to bottle these emotions because of the reactions I kept getting from others across my Christian life. I couldn’t handle everything at once.
April and May. The anger I felt about losing my job continued. A roommate didn’t talk to me for 3 weeks after coming out. Some people at church said things. [Redacted so that I don’t get another angry message from them for talking about them online]. Another person said another thing, but worse. Most people said exactly nothing ever. I was failing Hebrew, the hardest class I had ever taken. I would open Quizlet to study vocab and start to shake, my blood pressure surging. I would cry myself to sleep the nights before that class. The stress of grad school (for which my undergrad was no help) grew along with questions about whether any church would ever take me as a pastor. If not, why bother with Hebrew? I scraped rock bottom between this class and the rejection I felt from work and alienation from church and school…
Meanwhile, something worse happened. A camper from my cabin in 2016, 17, and 18, who I loved deeply, committed suicide. I have never grieved someone’s death so hard. I felt survivor’s guilt. He had looked up to me. Could I have done more? Said something? My last words to him were that I wouldn’t see him that summer because I wasn’t on staff anymore. His loss gnawed at me, and I became empty and hopeless. I listened to sad songs on repeat and thought about death, immobile on the Lower Waybright couch for hours. I wrote him letters and tore them up, because none worked. While this wound was still raw, every additional perceived slight related to my sexuality was 10x harder. The worst timed example was the day before his visitation, when I was brought into a trick meeting about sexuality [redacted to avoid angry emails etc]. It broke my trust in a few key people.
Summer and Fall
The school year ended, and I lived as a hermit on campus for the summer. Alone, isolated, desolate. Any church conflict froze because we went on summer schedule. My feelings of ostracization and exclusion cemented. But there was a single beacon of hope: the Revoice Conference. Finally, a place where I felt no need to defend or justify myself. Or even explain myself. They already got it. Everything was very warm, very gay, very celibate. I have never felt more at home. But that week ended, and my isolation on campus resumed. I would go half-weeks without seeing another person.
A professor at school recruited me into a high school leadership program for two weeks. I instantly said yes — people! After I decided to join and only logistics remained, I was told to be closeted for the two weeks. Delete social media posts, etc. This was hard for me, but worse, it impacted someone else more than myself. The program slowly became a living hell that I regretted joining. Then, the summer continued. The job that rejected me took me for one week, no conditions, because they were short staffed. This was incredible (and hypocritical). It became a week of joy, healing, and growth. It also compounded my anger. I have a vivid memory of scream-weeping on the floor when I found out that an LGBT student had decided to follow Jesus because of a conversation we had. Why was I there for 6 days instead of 10 weeks? The bitter truth: the gospel does not matter. Keeping the status quo does.
It became impossible to separate the voices. One person’s stray remark over lunch blended into another’s haphazard Facebook screed. The friend “just trying to wrap his mind around the whole thing” and the stranger arguing that gay people are inherently pedophilic were not the same person, but they might as well have been. Those who gave me an awkward cold shoulder for months, those who talked to me with false enthusiasm to make sure I felt “welcomed,” and those who accused me of living in sin behind my back but would never confront me — all different people, all one person. The friend so behind on this topic that his only analysis was that “some people are just behind on this topic.” Everyone became one voice, each guilty of what all the others had said and done.
August. New semester. I got an email that changed everything. [Redacted to avoid angry responses]. My whiplash reaction was a pathetic attempt to hold it together, but everything was falling apart regardless. [Redacted an entire paragraph]. After that experience, it became clear that things needed to change. October. I left my church for good, trying to find a place that would do more than tolerate my existence as a celibate gay man. [Redacted]. I eventually found one. Things have inched towards improving since then. I made it through the fall and early winter. There were episodes of week-long blues, laying around for days doing nothing, unable to make myself try. Gazing out my window, lifeless, watching dry leaves fall, also lifeless. I kept up counseling and have tried to process what has happened, especially [redacted] and the loss from that. The semester ended and I somehow passed all my classes.
In short. I took a huge risk, unaware it was a risk at all, and it worked against me. Then, the various aspects of my life each went up in flames. Other unrelated bad things that happened (Hebrew issues and my camper dying) were accelerants for the fire. The resulting blaze killed the me I used to know. My experience of God, my theology, my most important relationships, my career direction, even my personality have been caused to change. In November and December I have been rebuilding something of myself from the bare foundations: the Resurrection of Jesus, the people who supported me, and my testimony. I don’t have much else.
I turned 22 but aged to 30 at least. Everything looks different now. The world is bigger, more interconnected, more threatening, and more fragile but more worth saving. I overcame my irony poisoning and became more earnest, sincere, and direct. I am less sarcastic, because less things seem funny. I am softer and quieter. My cynicism is deeper. I act like I have a constant headache. When things got really hard, I didn’t have the capacity to care about my skincare routine or exercising or cleaning my dorm. I let myself go in these and other ways. I didn’t and don’t care. It became hard to do my school work even though it felt like it mattered for the first time. Anything unnecessary about my exegetical method melted. What remained was concentrated and serious. Unflinching. My way of interacting with others changed. Little pet peeves became irrelevant. Tap your pencil against the table, leave your coffee grounds in the sink, fake-laugh at my jokes, I don’t care. Just don’t tell me that my faith requires me to “chemically castrate” myself, and we’re good.
I have lost hope that evangelicalism can be a welcoming or even hospitable place for gay people. Burn it to the ground and start over. I don’t know whether I will apply for pastoral jobs when I graduate, but if so, it will not be in the kind of churches I have always called home. If no pastoral routes work, I could continue to nerd away at a PhD program. I hate that the only reason I would do a doctorate would be because virulent homophobia has killed my other options, where my real passions lie (i.e., student ministry). Also unfortunately, my grades have been bad enough this year that I would need to do a successful ThM first. I want to avoid this path if at all possible.
Things will get better. Or who knows, maybe 2019 was tame compared to what 2020 holds. I am not a prophet. But I know that this year has been bitter, and I shouldn’t sweeten it with the conclusion that I have become a better person for enduring it. No. I would be a more faithful follower of Jesus today if it wasn’t for all this. I wouldn’t be filled with rage. I wouldn’t have half-seriously considered leaving Christianity altogether. I wouldn’t have repeatedly lost my will to live. Sure, I gain “having a great testimony,” but everybody just wants the bragging rights that comes with that, not the traumatic experience itself. Everything has hurt. Everything has died. Where did I go? The Ross who lived before will live on only as memory:
They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.
There is a creative freedom to my reading of the Bible’s homosexuality texts that began when I realized that none of the six passages are essential. Everything necessary for a non-affirming stance can come from Genesis 1-3. God has created humans in his image in distinctly complementary sexes. Men are men in the image of God insofar as their relations to women are distinctly male, and Women likewise with men. Genesis creates basic assumptions about the purpose and function of men and women as distinct, sexed, and complimentary products of God’s creation. These basic assumptions continue to resurface throughout the canon. For example, Ephesians 5 is not a text that mentions homosexuality, but I think it matters more in our theology of sexuality than any of the texts that outright name the topic. I think even if the standard six texts — Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1 — did not exist, the Biblical prohibition of same-sex marriage would remain.
In that light, I have come to love the exegesis of these chapters. The pressure is off. They can say whatever they really say, and any number and combination of the affirming or non-affirming interpretations may be right for any of the texts. None of it will lead to an affirmation of same-sex marriage anyway, so some texts may be truncated in their reach by the affirming interpretations. And that’s okay, if the interpretations are convincing. I do not think many of them are, but some, here and there, are actually great exegetical observations. In this post I want to talk about 5 valid considerations on Romans 1 which should shape our understanding of that passage. None of these points are intended to indicate that I’ve changed my mind on the topic as a whole. Instead, I love the text too much to misread it whenever a better reading is on the table.
1. Wisdom of Solomon
I can’t describe my shock when someone first showed me this point. Paul’s discussion of idolatry and sexual sin in Romans 1 looks a whole lot like Wisdom of Solomon’s discussion of those same topics (ch. 13-14). The logic of that text works like this: sexual sin is caused by idolatry. Gentile nations worship idols, which is why we also see that Gentile nations practice wild sexual sin. Israel does not practice idolatry, and so, does not have widespread sexual sin. This is also why marrying Gentiles is so bad. Not because it defiles the bloodline (a 19th/20th century concept), but because it leads to idolatry with their foreign gods and so also sexual immorality.
What Paul, then, is really doing is Romans 1 is this. He is agreeing with Wisdom of Solomon in its straightforward observation that idolatry leads to sexual sin, but he is going to disagree with the reason for that, or that Israel is any less sinful. If that is true, then Wisdom of Solomon, while not scripture, is essential to understanding the argument of Romans. It is a crucial piece of the background noise of 1st century Judaism against which we have to read the New Testament.
There is a book called God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul by Jonathan Linebaugh that I really, really, need to read, which makes this argument at full academic level. In the meantime, reading those two chapters in the link above is a great place to start.
2. Shape of the Discourse in ch. 1-3
That point leads into this point. Romans 1:26-27 is part of the larger context of Romans 1:18-31, and this is often acknowledged. Less often, though, is it put into the even wider context of Romans ch. 1-3 in their entirety. There is a shape to this whole discourse that helps us understand not just what Romans 1:18-31 (and so, 1:26-27) is saying, but also how that content functions in Paul’s argument.
The shape, roughly, goes like this. Paul agrees with the author of Wisdom of Solomon in Romans 1 that idolatry is stupid and that sexual sin and even all kinds of other sins result from idolatry. But in ch. 2 he abruptly pivots to another perspective (“But you”). Where before he had been railing against the Gentiles, he now turns to his fellow Jews and says, “Yes, that’s true about them, and sure you don’t have idolatry, and you even have the perfect embodiment of the law in Torah, but you STILL practice all the same sins as the Gentiles.” Even though Paul has agreed with the content of Wisdom of Solomon’s basic claim, he here disagrees with its argumentative function. The idolatrous Gentiles’ sin is actually not reason to gloat and be proud for our (Jewish) righteousness, Paul thinks. Instead, Paul introduces a different theological principle in ch. 3. Everyone is sinful. The everyone here is not intended to mean “every individual single person,” although that is also true, but it is mainly meant to say “both Jews and Gentiles.” Every national group is sinful.
What Paul does in these chapters is level the ground beneath the feet of Jews and Gentiles alike, affirming the types of sin that result from idolatry, but asserting that non-idolaters also sin anyways. (Later in ch. 5 he goes into why, which is Adam’s original sin impacting all humanity).
I first got this point from a podcast interview with Tim Gombis. He thinks, and he is right, that we need to follow “the whole thrust of the logic of Romans.” Gombis argues (35min mark &f.) that the discourse structure of ch. 1-3 is shaped to condemn exactly the kind of people who would use 1:26-27 as a clobber passage to condemn gay people. How ironic. So then, it would seem that the shape of the discourse in ch. 1-3 would prevent us from taking 1:26-27 out of its argumentative function and using it to isolate one class of people as uniquely sinful.
3. No Concept of Sexual Orientation
There was no concept of sexual orientation in the first century. There wasn’t such a concept until the late 1800’s, for that matter. So, what is Paul referring to in 1:26-27 when he clearly describes men having sex with men and women with women?
I don’t mean they didn’t understand what homosexuality was. I mean that in Greco-Roman society same-sex sexuality was socially constructed differently than we socially construct it today. Today, it is a categorical mark of personhood because it is fixed from birth/puberty/biology and defines how the rest of society interacts with you for your whole life. In our society, in the popular understanding, you are either straight, or gay. If you are bisexual, you are mentally lumped in with gay as “non-straight,” because our society is highly heteronormative.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, same-sex sex was common between male masters and their male slaves. Similarly, adult male tutors would have pedophilic sex with male children students, and it was not condemned as a part of 1st century sexuality. Gay sex was also common in temple prostitution for the local gods and in mystery cults. None of these are “sexual orientation” like we think about that concept today. I have even heard it claimed by someone, I forgot who, that “everyone was just vaguely bi” back then, because there was no defining standard for heterosexuality, and polyamory and free sex were common practices anyways. The Greco-Roman world was far more sexually diverse than 2019 America, and whether that is hard to accept says more about you than it says about Paul’s social context.
So it has been proposed that what Paul must mean in 1:26-27 is not “gay people,” or anything to do with sexual orientation, but instead basically straight people who are so full of lust that they turn to gay sex. I say “basically straight people” because sexual orientation did not exist, and to be male (per Genesis) is to relate to women in a way that is distinctly male, and vice versa. You are attracted to women not because you are straight, but because you are a man. In this reading of the text, Paul must mean that gay sex is not a lesser form of straight sex but a further, more powerful, more raw and lustful form of sex. Paul is criticizing this practice after vv. 24-25 because same-sex sex is an even greater example of the sexual fallenness he describes in those verses.
Notice my move there. I just accepted the affirming argument that sexual orientation did not exist in the Greco-Roman world, but still argued that Paul sees the sex described in vv. 26-27 as sinful, and even, more sinful.
4. Break between vv. 24-25 and vv. 26-27
Shorter point here. One significant feature of the text in 1:24-27 is that they should never be grouped this way because there is an intentional break between them. Paul finishes his point about people serving the creation (idols) with their bodies (sexual sin), then mentions the name of God and promptly lets out a hearty ὅς ἐστιν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν. ([God] who is forever praised, amen). Even without the amen, this sentence would neatly divide 24-25 from 26-27. But with the amen, they become entirely separate points with distinct content and distinct rhetorical functions. We should read 1:24-25 as not being about gay sex at all, which only enters the conversation at 1:26. The payoff of this idea is that now Paul spends as much space in 1:24-25 criticizing straight sexual immorality as he does in 1:26-27 criticizing same-sex sexual immorality. Not that that equalizes or levels the two forms of immorality to be the same. Instead, it makes the second a “step further” than the former. They (1:24-25 and 1:26-27) are not the same point, and the first is logically prior to the second.
5. Gay Sex Joke / Play on Words in v. 27
There is no way I am the first person to argue this, absolutely no way, but I can’t find anyone else making this point. I read 1:27 with a certain innuendo. Paul says that men who have sex with men receive “in themselves” what is due for their errors. The phrase is ἐν ἑαυτοῖς , en + the dative 3mp pronoun. I’m not sure how else to read this other than as a Spatial Dative, they received “inside themselves” what is due for their errors, they received “in their physical bodies” what is due for their errors, they received “in their anus” what is due for their errors. I think Paul is intentionally phrasing this sentence to be a play on words so that the “due penalty” is not some abstract punishment from God but instead it is the physical pain of having to receive gay sex.
There is another possible connection here with Wisdom of Solomon 14:26, which normally just gets translated as “homosexuality” but the particular words are interesting as well. There it reads γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή , “inverted nature” [not philosophical nature/essence, but physical nature]. Could Paul be glossing this verse from Wisdom of Solomon and expanding what he thinks it means?
Or alternatively, it could be that “what is due” is that they receive shame (ἀσχημοσύνην, v. 27) and dishonor (ἀτιμίας, v. 26) for having gay sex. In that case, we go back to the Greco-Roman mindset, where it is not shameful to give gay sex, but it is shameful to receive gay sex, because the receiving partner is the “feminine” of the two, and for a man to be cast as feminine in any way is a source of social shame. This would accord well with the joke Paul appears to be making. Shame and dishonor would be the penalty which someone receiving gay sex receives “in themselves.”
We have been over-simplifying this passage since forever, but complicating it does not need to lead in an affirming direction. It can be more complicated than we learned in Jr. High youth group, and still align with the broader assumptions about men and women in the divine image which began in Genesis 1-3 and continued throughout the canon. This post doesn’t answer every question about the affirming hermeneutic, but I hope it demonstrates the kind of stance I take. I am very open to the exegetical claims, but highly skeptical that they lead anywhere in our broader theology of sexuality.
A trip to the local hospital Emergency Room some years ago alerted me to an intellectual tool that is most helpful in fulfilling our theological responsibility. In recent years, emergency medical personnel have practiced a discipline known as triage–a process that allows trained personnel to make a quick evaluation of relative medical urgency. Given the chaos of an Emergency Room reception area, someone must be armed with the medical expertise to make an immediate determination of medical priority. Which patients should be rushed into surgery? Which patients can wait for a less urgent examination? Medical personnel cannot flinch from asking these questions, and from taking responsibility to give the patients with the most critical needs top priority in terms of treatment.
In the same way, Mohler says, when Christians disagree with one another, we perform a theological triage. We stop, evaluate the significance of each disagreement, and remain in fellowship to different degrees depending on how much each issue matters. Because I was raised in the EFCA, this is my default mindset. We call it the “major on the majors, minor on the minors” approach. Doctrine can be sorted into three orders:
First-order issues are most important to the core of Christian faith. Mohler lists “the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture” as first-order issues. We cannot accept that someone else is a Christian or that their beliefs are Christian in nature if they deny any of these doctrines. If someone believes that Jesus is not divine, I refuse to acknowledge them as a Christian, plain and simple.
Second-order issues are issues “believing Christians may disagree on… though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.” Mohler lists the meaning and age of baptism, and the ordination of women. I would add the historicity of Adam, the penal substitutionary atonement debate, and whether and to what degree we should take the Scriptures literally. Mohler rightly points out that these are the most debated topics in Christianity. Nobody is debating first-order doctrines like the divinity of Christ (at least, nobody who I consider a Christian!), and the third-order issues are less central, so the second-order issues get the most attention. Denominations split over these questions.
Third-order issues are issues “over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations,” but they not necessarily trivial. Like my denomination as of this summer, Mohler includes “most of the debates over eschatology” in this category, which do matter. Issues are not third-order because they “do not matter.” Rather, third-order issues do not have many other doctrines depending on them, or are highly speculative or unclear, or they regard categories that did not exist in Biblical times (like “undocumented immigrant”), or in some other way are highly disputable. Mohler does not list more examples, but in this debate he included the age of the Earth as a third-order issue (24 min mark). I would include under this label worship styles, some beliefs about spiritual gifts, beliefs about church and politics, and evangelism method.
None of these are unimportant, because all have eventual downstream effects on Christian living and discipleship which can be more or less helpful to a walk with Jesus by being more or less faithful to the Scriptures. Some beliefs may seem “trivial” but wholly depend on other beliefs which are not trivial, and so they are implicated in non-trivial beliefs. All these beliefs matter, even if some are more foundational.
So. Homosexuality. Where is it? Is homosexuality a first-order, second-order, or third-order issue?
This question cannot be answered as asked. “Homosexuality” is an umbrella term that encompasses three different debates in the church right now: marriage, orientation change, and labels. Depending on your answer to these three questions, you will land on one of four sides: A, B, Y, and X. By the end of this post I hope you will understand all four sides and why some of these questions fall into higher and lower levels of theological triage.
First-order debates on homosexuality. There are no first-order debates on homosexuality. Sometimes people leave Christianity altogether over this topic. But few if any are trying to remain within Christianity and support homosexuality by radically revising Christian theology from the ground up.
Second-order debates on homosexuality. There is one second order debate on homosexuality, which is the debate over affirming same-sex marriages. Churches cannot both affirm and not affirm same-sex marriages. They have to decide. When a church decides to be affirming, they make a major division with non-affirming churches, because the latter consider same-sex marriage to be explicitly unbiblical. Both churches will consider the other to be seriously wrong, but at the same time, both can recognize that they agree on all first-order issues. Because affirming same-sex marriage is not a first-order issue, we can continue to have personal fellowship with those who disagree. But because it is not a third-order issue, we cannot have public-ministry fellowship with someone who is affirming or invite them to teach in our churches on this topic. If someone is affirming of same-sex marriage, they are in Side A for Affirming.
Third-order debates on homosexuality. There is one third-order debate on homosexuality. This is whether sexual orientation can change or whether it is a fixed or mostly fixed aspect of a person. Belief that sexual orientation change efforts can be effective or that God regularly does deliver people from homosexuality (or “heal” them, if that’s your language), is a third-order issue. Christians should be able to respectfully disagree and coexist in the same churches. Do not hear me saying “ex-gay theology doesn’t matter.” It does matter, because your answer to this question will impact how your church does pastoral care for gay/same-sex attracted people, which makes a dramatic difference in their Christian living and discipleship. This means that, while individual Christians can agree to disagree and still remain in fellowship, it is wise for leadership at the same church to be on the same page. Those who believe sexual orientations will or often do change are in Side X for Ex-Gay.
Fourth-order debates on homosexuality. Al Mohler does not have a category for fourth-order, so I am inventing one. Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way. There are two fourth-order debates on homosexuality right now, and they track together. The questions are, Should Christians use sexuality labels like “gay” and “lesbian,” or use phrases like “same-sex attraction”? and, Should Christians participate in the broader LGBT community? If you think Christians should not affiliate with the LGBT community and should not use sexuality labels, you are in Side Y for “Why Identify as Gay?” Nobody uses that phrase. I just made it up. But the agreed upon letter is Y. Conversely, if you say yes, non-affirming Christians can use sexuality labels and can consider themselves to have affinity with the LGBT community, then you are in Side B, for in-Between the other positions.
Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way.
To be clear, this triage is contested. Some say that you are not saved if you marry the same sex, so, a first-order issue. Others think ex-gay theology is so harmful that Christians ought not associate with it, and they accordingly place it at second-order. Rosaria Butterfield recently commented that those in the Side B camp are “another religion,” then compared them to Muslims and Jews, and then called for their excommunication as heretics — whereas I put that debate at fourth-order, a squabble, not a significant debate. By contrast, this interview at TGC, while loaded with other problems, at least managed to make its anti-labels point without denouncing those who use labels as non-Christians.
If I were to play which one of these things is not like the other with Sides A, B, Y, and X, the first one to go is none of them. That is to say, before we play that game, we should recognize the common theological core that all Christians share which is not changed by beliefs about homosexuality. Then, playing that game, Side A goes first. Affirming same-sex marriage places churches out of fellowship with one another for the purpose of ministry because it regards as acceptable what the other side considers explicitly unbiblical. Denominations need to have a stand on this question. Then, playing which one of these things is not like the other again, the next to go is Side X, because ex-gay theology changes pastoral care practices within each church. Pastoral teams need to have a stand together on this question, though the congregation does not need to uniformly agree. Then Sides Y and B remain. These are similar enough that many have questioned whether there even is a Side Y, or if everyone who is non-affirming and non-ex-gay is just, by definition, in Between those two and therefore under the umbrella of Side B. (Others contest this.) Regardless, I believe the positions are trivially different.
There are more nuances to the state-of-the-debate, but that should capture the big picture. “Homosexuality in general” cannot be ranked on the theological triage scale because it is not one question but three. Nothing necessitates first-order disagreement. Affirming same-sex marriage (Side A) leads to second-order disagreement. Promoting ex-gay theology (Side X) is a third-order disagreement, one with important practical consequences. The debate over labels and the degree to which it is wise to affiliate with the LGBT community or in what ways to do so (Sides Y and B), is particular enough that all Christians should grant one another glad freedom and warm hospitality to decide where they stand.
Katelyn Beaty wrote this opinion piece in the New York Times last month. Read it before continuing here.
A majority of adults who came of age in evangelical churches in the 1990s and 2000s were exposed to “purity culture,” a term for teachings that stressed sexual abstinence before marriage. We had our own rituals, such as “purity balls,” and our own merchandise, such as “purity rings.” I had a “Wait for Me Journal” that I kept as a college freshman; created by a prominent Christian pop singer, the journal was designed to hold letters to my future husband. It held out the promise that if I remained pure, then God would reward good behavior with a husband — surely before I turned 30 so that we could have lots of children.
Somehow God and I got our wires crossed, because the husband hasn’t arrived. Twenty years later, I no longer subscribe to purity culture, largely because it never had anything to say to Christians past the age of 23. Yet lately, I also find myself mourning the loss of the coherent sexual ethic that purity culture tried to offer. Is consent culture the best that we have in its place?
Since this topic will be my Senior Thesis next year (sexuality education and discipleship in the local church) I am very invested in the same questions as Beaty. She wants to navigate between two failed paradigms. On the right, we have the 1990’s Purity Culture with its shame-based, gender-imbalanced, legalistic tendencies. On the left, a teaching “that simply baptizes casual sex in the name of self-expression and divorces sex from covenant faithfulness and self-sacrificial love.” However, there is a massive gulf between these paradigms. Where, exactly, we land between them will depend on the types of constructive theology we use to think about sex.
Beaty gives a few constructive ideas.
Spiritual Covenant. The proponents of purity culture “were trying to offer us the gift of sex within marriage. As Christianity teaches that marriage is not simply a legal bind but a spiritual covenant, so married sex is a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.”
Sacrament. “[T]he Christian teaching on sacramentality is helpful. All creation, including human bodies, by grace reveals deeper spiritual truth. In other words, matter matters. So when a person engages another person sexually, Christians would say, it’s not “just” bodies enacting natural evolutionary urges but also an encounter with another soul.”
More than Consent. “two people can consent to something that’s nonetheless damaging or selfish. Consent crucially protects against sexual assault and other forms of coercion. But it doesn’t necessarily protect against people using one another in quieter ways. I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent — a baseline, but only that — and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.”
I love these ideas. I think they are all good and they belong in every new constructive proposal of Christian sexuality. I also have some notes of my own. Please take these as tentative, debatable, and yet-to-be-systematized, and feel free to reply with your own ideas. This work is done better together.
First, the teaching, “don’t have sex before marriage” has nothing positive to say about singleness. I get what not to do, but what do I do? Does the church have any remaining advice for me as someone intentionally not seeking marriage? Or have I exhausted the church’s teaching on sexuality? Purity Culture implied that singleness does not actually exist on its own, but rather singleness is only the absence of marriage, like cold does not exist but is the absence of heat. This is profoundly mistaken. There really is a positive content to what singleness can be, but by only “enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce,” the Purity Culture church failed to “pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?” The only accepted form of non-marital relationships in our churches are dating relationships which are aimed at eventual marriage. Until we can talk about non-dating (and therefore non-eventually-marrying) relationships in a Christian way, we will not have any real alternatives to the Get Married Quick / Sin Sin Sin dichotomy that surrounds us. If we had any positive vision for what singleness could consist in, we could implicitly — almost accidentally — solve most of these problems.
Second, the proscription against sex before marriage does not help anyone navigate the bounds of sex within marriage. Once you get married, does ‘anything go’? Beaty makes this point by saying that consent does not stop “people using one another in quieter ways.” We need some type of framework for Christian sex within marriage, not just a prohibition on sex outside of marriage. One of my favorite films at the Chicago Critics film festival last month was Pink Wall. The movie follows a couple over six scenes, each in a different year of their six-year relationship. Things are bad, and they only get worse. Interestingly, though there was no sex shown in the film, at the Q&A afterwords director Tom Cullen commented that Pink Wall is about ‘the ways that sex, even consensual sex in a committed relationship, can be used as a weapon against another person.’ I think this is incredibly telling. Can’t the same be said about “don’t have sex before marriage”? Like “don’t rape,” that basic ethic is necessary, but not sufficient. One example in the film (that Paul also comments on) is sexual deprivation. Sexual deprivation is a major topic within the sex life of a married couple, but what guidance does the church have on it? While (1) a spouse is not “owed” sex on any given occasion, and (2) the other spouse certainly does not have a “right” to sex simply because they are married, and (3) yes marital rape does exist and is evil, and (4) this goes both ways, not just deprivation of the man but also of the woman… there still can be ways to weaponize sexual deprivation with the intent to emotionally scar the spouse. This would be wrong and un-loving, and therefore un-Christian, but does Purity Culture have anything to say about it?
Third, Purity Culture placed a major emphasis on virginity. I argue that virginity is not a “grace concept” because it does not have the possibility of forgiveness and it defies restoration. Rather, we should talk about ‘everyday purity,’ or ‘faithful Christian sexuality,’ or some other term that can continue to exist after it has been broken. When the Christian teaching gets over-simplified even further from “don’t have sex until marriage” to “remain a virgin until marriage,” we lose any hope for someone who loses their virginity and therefore is categorically “unclean” for the rest of their singleness. (Not to mention victims of rape). If a Christian loses their virginity before marriage, and their only ethic is “don’t lose your virginity before marriage,” there is a certain “well whatever, might as well keep having sex” attitude that naturally emerges. This licentiousness is the result of our biblically unnecessary emphasis on virginity.
Fourth, the emphasis on virginity has a simple work-around: oral sex, anal sex, mutual or solo masturbation, and use of pornography are all ways to avoid technically losing virginity. Mark Regnerus in his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (2007, pp. 163-182) makes the point, with qualifications. He found that non-vaginal “technical virginity” practices exist. They are more common in Mainline Protestant and Jewish youth than in more conservative groups. But he also found in the same chapter that more conservative youth were highly reluctant to talk about these practices, often opting to skip the question (especially on pornography use). I suspect, given this silence and the 12 years passed since Regnerus’s study, that this practice is significantly more common now than before, especially among conservative religious youth. I have a shocking story about some comments a few students of mine made in this vein, but that deserves its own entire blog post. My point here is that teaching on virginity and against pregnancy and STD’s as the main issue with pre-marital sex does not cover all or even half the practices condemned in Christian sexual ethics. Instead we need a way to understand these other practices as sex, which I would say is that they are embodied. My friend Matt uses the language of “doing what is fitting” and “fittingness.” There are many other views as well. Much more thinking to do here.
Fifth, one real proposal I have for one piece of a Christian sexual ethic is kenosis. Kenosis is the original word for “emptying yourself,” as Paul writes about Jesus in Philippians 2:7. Christians are called in all aspects of life to imitate Jesus’s humility. He emptied himself in the incarnation and made himself nothing in order to serve others. This is the call to unconditional love, altruism, and self-sacrifice. How often do you think of self-sacrifice when you think of sex? Literally never. The cultural conception of sex we have inherited is defined only by receiving pleasure, never sacrificing it. But Christian sex which imitates the sacrificial attitude of Jesus would never be centered on our own pleasure, only on that of the spouse. I had a professor at Trinity who said (and it was very TMI as a college freshman) that the goal of married Christian sex is to bring the other person to orgasm, not per se yourself. Figure out what they like, and do that, at the expense of your preferences. (This only works if both spouses do so equally). Kenosis in sex is radically different from American hook-up culture, with all its self-gratification, lazy sensuality, and casual disregard for the other person. Again, kenosis would be only one aspect of a broader Christian sexual ethic that needs to be built in the wake of Purity Culture.
Sixth, we cannot have discussions about Christian sexuality as long as the topic remains brutally taboo in Christian spaces. I lament the discipleship that happens in youth ministry because I know it ignores 90% if not 100% of the real struggles going on in students’ lives. As much as we don’t want to overplay sexual ethics to the detriment of our students’ young faith… we do more harm when we leave them without resources to understand the Christian teaching on sexuality and without contexts where they can process these things with other students. I worked with Jr. High students the past two years at church, and both years we talked about sexual purity for 90 minutes each year. God have mercy on us on judgement day when we stand accountable for our failure to shepherd these confused and helpless students. We know — we absolutely KNOW — that parents are not doing this either. But those same parents will claim “parents are the primary disciplers of their children,” which is the almighty trump card in youth ministry in 2019. The students are then left without Christian access to sexual information, and the internet fills the void. What an embarrassment. The problem extends beyond youth ministry, where parents censor the conversations their kids have. In adult-aged ministry, everyone censors their own conversations, because of unhealthy norms around “keeping it rated G” and “having no unwholesome talk.” As a result, sexuality in the church remains one of the only topic/context combinations in America that resembles an honor/shame culture. For the sake of our santification as individuals and corporately, this cannot be so.
Seventh, Beaty is absolutely correct when she writes that “Young women, who were expected to manage men’s lust as well as their own, fared the worst.” The gender imbalance in Purity Culture was no mystery to me as a middle school student. Girls were told not to wear skimpy clothes or they might lead the boys astray. More challenging, but more helpful for my discipleship (I am gay and never cared what the girls wore), would have been the teaching that everyone is responsible for repentance of their own lust. Or consider the words of Jesus, that “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (No, this is not out of context, because in verses 22-23 he includes several sexual sins as well). I cannot imagine the additional weight of constantly self-monitoring to make sure that you don’t trigger others. I have never had to do that, thankfully, and in a new model of Christian sexuality discipleship, girls would not face the total brunt of that weight. Anyways, non-Christians will continue to dress immodestly (by Christian standards), no matter what the Church teaches its people. So it is necessary, inside Christian spaces as well as outside, to begin to condition ourselves to hold ourselves accountable for our sin rather than blaming it on others. Maybe the other person does have some culpability for “causing me to stumble,” but my primary concern should always be to eliminate my own sin, not theirs.
Eighth, any teaching on Christian sexual ethics that functions as Law will be subject to the same critique of the law that Paul gives generally. Paul’s general critique is that the law actually is good, but it produces death in us because we are sinful by nature. Maybe in some hypothetical universe where humans don’t have a sinful nature, the law could have worked out well. But instead, in our fallenness, the “gift” of the law is actually a curse that leaves us worse off than before we received it. Now consider the main purity teaching. Being told, “Don’t have sex before marriage” does not actually help a person to not desire having sex, and in fact tells them exactly what to do in order to break the rule, so you can guess what will happen next. Instead of understanding Christian sexual ethics as regulatory law, we need to reframe the entire discussion in other terms, hopefully terms closer to the NT virtue ethics of life in the Spirit.
Ninth, Christian sex should be totally decentered from the meaning of the marriage relationship and the meaning of any person’s life. I’m afraid that Purity Culture was so emphasized in my church upbringing (while simultaneously not being talked about, almost ever!) that I began to understand myself, consciously or not, as a “sexual being” whose main goal in Christian sanctification was to avoid sexual sin. But we will have no such focus on sex in the eschatological kingdom, where we will be like the angels, neither married nor given in marriage, Jesus says. Our eschatological sexlessness should be great encouragement to those pursuing celibacy that sex is not essential to a meaningful life anyways. It should remind married people that their sex serves the greater purpose of uniting them in relational intimacy, rather than being an end in itself. It should warn unmarried but sexually active Christians that they are needlessly conditioning their earthly bodies against the reality of their heavenly body. The sexless eschatological state also serves as a powerful rebuke of our cultural moment and its relentlessly sexual outlook. In each of these cases what needs to be eliminated is not sex but the total and final significance we place on sex.
Tenth, (and I’m tempted to just dump the entire transcript of this talk by Matthew Lee Anderson here), we need to understand sexual desire in more particular categories than those delivered to us by Freudian or evolutionary psychology. In his talk Anderson comments at length about non-sexual attraction and argues that we need an “inadvertant, sidways point of view” on what constitutes sexual attraction, a view that is “deflationary.” He has in mind a view that sees “the formation of our aesthetic vision as the presupposition and context of our sexual desire.” He and Nate Collins have made this point, that sexual attraction is primarily about seeing, noticing, and observing things about the other person. This maneuver breaks down “sexual attraction” into two parts, a non-sexual “attraction” to what is true, good, and beautiful in others, and then in a second part, a sexualization of that attraction. Thinking this way has been fruitful in my own life the past year as I have considered my friendships and what draws me towards certain people. It decouples the parts of those relationships that must be mortified (because they are sinful) from those parts that must be sanctified (because they are not sinful). This means that, in my case, I can be friends with other men! And in the case of straight Christians, men and women can be friends, given certain prudent boundaries, without the friendship being morally suspect. I think the tension in male-female friendships prevents so much good that could be done in the Church. Like our sexuality itself, this tension will not be found on the Mountain of God.
THESE have been my thoughts, with links to other resources that can help continue the conversation. I have very definite opinions about points #1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, but less definite opinions about #4, 5, 8, 9, and 10. In other words, some of my arguments above are loose, speculative, and in need of further reflection. (If you point out flaws in them, I will back down immediately and disown them). Anyways, I still need to elaborate these points into particular applications, naming exactly what I would change and exactly how. That will be my Senior Thesis.
What do you think? How should the evangelical church continue to think about sex, while avoiding the deficiencies of progressive Christian sexuality and the excesses of Purity Culture?
It is obvious that our brokenness is often most painfully experienced with respect to our sexuality. My own and my friends’ struggles make it clear how central our sexuality is to the way we think and feel about ourselves. Our sexuality reveals to us our enormous yearning for communion. The desires of our body – to be touched, embraced, and safely held – belong to the deepest longings of the heart and are very concrete signs of our search for oneness. It is precisely around this yearning for communion that we experience so much anguish. Our society is so fragmented, our family lives so sundered by physical and emotional distance, our friendships so sporadic, our intimacies so “in-between” things and soften so utilitarian, that there are few places where we can feel truly safe. I notice in myself how often my body is tense, how I usually keep my guard up and how seldom I have a complete feeling of being at home.
Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 73.
Compare this paragraph from Nouwen with these paragraphs from the recent Central Carolina Presbytery Report on Revoice. Just before, the Report has established that the Reformed Tradition disagrees with the distinction between desire for sin and actively doing sin. Quoting Bavinck, Calvin, and the Westminster divines, the report settles that desires for sin are themselves sinful. This is standard within Reformed theology, and I don’t take issue with it. But then, they say this:
At this point, some in the Revoice conversation might argue for a qualitative difference between desire and attraction. Anderson, for example, makes this distinction in his category of “aesthetic vision.” Specifically, he says, “It seems to this observer that one thing which remains after the purification of same-sex sexual desires—besides faith, hope, and charity—is the complex set of noticings and attractions toward members of one’s own sex” (emphasis added). While noticing is not the same as desire, it is hard to imagine how “attraction” does not carry some sense of magnetic pull, arousal, or desire. By a simple dictionary definition, to notice is to observe or perceive, while attraction suggests interest and allurement. A mother may recognize that her teenage son is quite handsome or that her daughter has grown into an objectively beautiful woman. These noticings can take place apart from any sexual longing. But if a mother were to experience any attraction to her son or daughter surely we would describe this kind of noticing as illicit, as a perverse response—however unbidden—that should be mortified at all costs. In short, while we distinguish between noticing and attraction, we do not see how attraction and desire are fundamentally different moral categories.
This does not mean same-sex attracted Christians should be full of morbid self-loathing, any more than Christians who constantly battle unwanted heterosexual desires should be consigned forever to the slough of despond. It does mean, however, that when the heart is drawn after an illegitimate end, we must repent of that sinful desire, longing, or attraction and run to Christ for cleanness of conscience and forgiveness of sin. (pp. 7-8).
While I appreciate the report’s attempt to speak in the voice of “some in the Revoice conversation,” they grossly misrepresent at least Matthew Anderson’s position and, from my reading, the position of everybody else involved with Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. Maybe they would have understood Anderson’s position better if they had imbibed the first two minutes of his talk:
Speaking rightly about the Christian formation of sexual desires requires first speaking about something other than sex. Desires are shaped by our theological and communal practices. To consider sexual desire outside this broader context misconstrues it from the outside. I take this to be the heart of the Augustinian legacy on moral formation. Sexual desires are fundamentally about something deeper and more transcendent sex itself. Because of this, chastity requires the reorientation or transposition of the fires that animate sexual passion, rather than their extinction. Pace C.S. Lewis, it is not that the pornography addict’s desires for sex are too strong, but that his other desires are too weak. The intense longing for an immediate sexual consummation is only the lowest form of what is meant to be a more radiant and flowering enduring love. Chastity in our youth allows us to enjoy the full flowering of fidelity as we age, which often looks like a sexless intimacy founded upon years of life together. This form of love is foreign to many of us younger folks — children as we are of the divorce revolution — but it is a deeper and more powerful love than the intensity of sexual passion that occupies so much of our attention and time while we are young. The appropriate formation of our sexual desires then begins in an explicitly non-sexual key. The emergence of the sexual desire for a particular person is the culmination of a long train of reasoning, the premises of which are mostly invisible to us, and the control over which is largely indirect. The path towards ordering such desires towards God’s love begins, then, with posing the question of whether it is sex and its pleasures that they aim at at all — or whether the sexual desire is an echo or a refection of a deeper, a more profound longing for intimacy and love, that sexual union can only imperfectly anticipate. (Emphasis added).
The report authors give such an unclear “summary” of this talk (p. 2) that I am unsure they grasped any of this opening claim. Certainly from their later remarks, they did not grasp it. Anderson’s point is that sexual desires are not, at base, sexual. When he then goes on to talk about “attractions toward members of one’s own sex” he is not talking about sexual attractions. He is talking about non-sexual attraction. This is the value of his and Nate Collins’s aesthetic argument. We first notice things aesthetically: the person’s truth, beauty and goodness. Then, we are drawn to them by merit of these traits. It is only after observing and being attracted to these transcendent traits, in a sinful reflex of the prideful heart, that we spiral these noticings and attractions into lust.
To counter the report’s own example, Anderson is not arguing that a mother’s “attraction” to her children could be both sexual and sinless. Instead he would argue that a mother notices her child’s truth, beauty, and goodness, and then is drawn to them on those grounds (‘attracted’ to them), and only in a third and sinful step would lust after them. I don’t care that in the words of the report “it is hard to imagine” what Anderson means by this distinction. He explained himself, but the report amounts to an accusation that he endorses sin. Instead, Anderson argues for the existences of “a Christian de-sexulaized eroticism,” meaning the last word in the Greek eros for desire-at-large. How much less sexualized need he be then to use the word “de-sexualized”?
There is another word for this non-sexual desire for what is true, beautiful and good in another: love. But the authors of the Central Carolina Report object to that word, too, because someone else has already used “same-sex love” in an affirming book. Yet when Wesley Hill used the term “same-sex love” in his sermon (42:20 and following), he explicitly distinguishes between what he calls “same-sex love” on the one hand and “sexual sin” to which we say no on the other hand. Does it matter how “how most people understand the phrase”? Anderson himself has dealt with this in a similar context:
For [Al] Mohler, though, this is insufficient: “Same-sex attraction is not limited to sexual attraction,” he writes, “but it strains all credibility to argue that this ‘aesthetic orientation’ can be non-sexual.” Mohler doesn’t supply an argument here so much as simply suggest that it is impossible. But why? It strains all credibility to think that someday we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be like the angels in heaven. What we shall be like in the resurrection is indeed impossible to imagine — and yet, one thing Scripture seems to be relatively explicit about is that the particular complex and cluster of sexual desires that so captivate us now will not then. Mohler knows this — but rather than work out Collins’ position along these lines, and so present it in a fair light, he opts to simply dismiss it as defying imagination.
Christian teaching about the nature of same-sex love would shock listeners who bother to hear longer than the phrase itself.
The report also misrepresents Eve Tushnet’s message and makes the same error as before, summarizing that she believes “homosexual desire, though it should not be fully acted upon, can be embraced, celebrated, and redirected.” But the question is not whether homo-sexual desire can be somewhat, partially, fully, minimally, or maximally good. The question is what level of “desire” we are talking about: sexual, or pre-sexual? Because the authors of the Report have an exclusively sexualized understanding of desire, they cannot see past their own “thoroughgoingly Freudian” (Anderson’s term) presuppositions.
I began this post with the quote from Nouwen because he gives another example of the types of non-sexual longing which (through our “brokenness,” though Nouwen is using that word in a specific way) later can become sinful. Like Anderson, Nouwen points to “the deepest longings of the heart” but in addition to Anderson’s ideas Nouwen characterizes the search for transcendence as a “search for oneness” and a “yearning for communion.” These desires are not uniquely sinful. (They may be sinful in the Total Depravity sense that all desires for good which come from a fallen self are sinful. But they are not desires for sinful ends). Because these are not desires for sin, and it is only from our fallenness that we fulfill them in sinful ways, we should find other ways to fulfill them. This is the heart of the Spiritual Friendship project as I understand it: using friendship to fulfill deeper human desires which, if left unfulfilled, will likely lead to sin.
The Central Carolina report (as opposed to the much more thorough Missouri report) made seemingly no attempt to contact the conference speakers, others of whom they have also misrepresented in weak caricature. When one publishes a critique not just on the authority of their own personal blog, or a conference, or a single church, but the Presbytery itself, the standards are necessarily higher. Unfortunately, this level of engagement fails to be the kind of good faith, valuable pushback that advances the conversation.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”
Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
“I called on your name, O Lord,
from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, ‘Do not close
your ear to my cry for help!’
You came near when I called on you;
you said, ‘Do not fear!’
“You have taken up my cause, O Lord;
you have redeemed my life.”
Earlier this week my friend Matt and I went to The Gospel Coalition’s national conference in Indianapolis. This was our second trip and we both thought it was a great experience. Here are my reflections on the conference, on TGC, on some of the talks and breakouts and books, and the themes in our conversations that arose from it all.
What my hair is doing I do not know.
• Three of the sermons are worth watching once TGC posts them online. Ligon Duncan, Trip Lee and David Platt had excellent biblical-theological exposition and preached with intensity from the heart. Avoid the John Piper sermon. The other messages fell somewhere between.
• The Gospel Coalition has shifted its target audience and content over the past 2 years. They focus less on nerdy, technical Bib studies topics and now write about everyday living, missional lifestyle, applied theology, cultural apologetics. This is a good shift! Coincidentally though, I have moved in the opposite direction as I have fallen deeper into the black hole of Christian academia. I have become less applied, more technical, and far more nerdy. (At some point we must have crossed paths. Maybe last Spring?) At the conference Matt and I could feel it. I love this change — now it is easier for me to share the website and conference content with others.
• The conference had a refreshing and normalized diversity. Worship, plenary addresses, announcers, breakout speakers, and the conference attendees themselves represented more backgrounds than the white evangelicalism in which I dwell. And it was so natural. I am very over the train of thought which says “why select for diversity when you could just pick the best people.” We don’t need the absolute best person to give announcements or play piano, and anyways there are tons of qualified people from different race and class backgrounds who can do just as fine a job. (It is weird that I have to talk myself out of implicit white supremacy but this is America). In other words it dawned on me that on-stage diversity should not be a goal but rather is prerequisite to doing ministry in globalized, multi-cultural 2019 America. This should not be controversial but standard.
• Jackie Hill Perry. I went to her presentation which was good. In her talk about sexuality she put a huge emphasis on the identity critique. And I agreed with it! Something that really needs to be clarified is that Revoice, SF, WH, Side B etc. also agree to a large extent with this critique but disagree that LGBTQ+ labels imply identity. I have found myself reflexively disagreeing with the identity critique (because I fall on the other side of the label debate), which is unnecessary of me. The real answer is that Revoice’s language is being misrepresented and that they have much more in common with conservatives than they are being credited for. JHP’s talk also showcased some important points about intersectionality. Many more thoughts here.
• One person I follow on Twitter makes fun of Evangelical Thought Leaders™ for being pretentious brainiacs who care more about getting the messaging right than getting the message right. Yikes, that’s me! And yikes, that was on full display at the conference. Maybe we should dial it down. And something to chew on: maybe this impulse in me stems more from my desire to be famous and publicly-smart than a desire to help people understand God, his word and his world.
• Conversely, at this conference I saw less Evangelical Celebrity Culture going on than usual. Somehow these speakers are humble enough (and not fake humble, “fumble”) to not makes themselves into a huge deal. Matt went to a breakout with Tim Keller and apparently someone asked him a question like, “Since you are such an amazing preacher, and everything about you is incredible, how did you come to be like this?” To which Keller replied “Well I don’t really know how to answer that, or want to. Can we get a question in here about Jonah?” The temptation to idolize these speakers is huge and I was feeling that temptation myself with some of them.
• On Tuesday morning I got coffee with another conference attendee who is same-sex attracted. We had a great conversation about our own stories and some of our thoughts about the current debates. More than anything I was blown away by how different our personalities are. As in, besides being celibate and Christians, we have nothing in common. Maybe this is encouraging because it means that one or both of us doesn’t fit “the stereotype.” He was also encouraging to be around, just himself. I could tell that he prays more than me and that he has more compassion than I do, two traits that are not coincidental.
• I bought eight books.
James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series,
Josh Chatrow’s Apologetics at the Cross, Hannah Anderson’s All That is Good, and Elliot Clark’s Evangelism as Exiles.
And then there’s the gay books.
Jackie Hill Perry’s Gay Girl, Good God, Brad Hambrick’s Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk, Ed Shaw’s Same-Sex Attraction and the Church, and
Preston Sprinkle’s People to Be Loved.
Honorable Mention (books I almost bought):
Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk, Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body, Robert Spaemann, Persons, Trevin Wax, Eschatological Discipleship, and
Paul Gould, Cultural Apologetics.