Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind

Ted Grimsrud—December 19, 2014

Back in 2003, David Gushee co-wrote (with Glen Stassen) what became a standard text book on Christian ethics—Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Published by InterVarsity Press, this book especially has been widely read in evangelical circles. I liked the book a lot and wrote a quite positive review (Conrad Grebel Review, Spring 2004, 108-10). I didn’t like the book’s discussion of “homosexuality” (it affirmed the “restrictive” view—somewhat in tension with the generally liberative tone of the book as a whole), but all I said in the review was that it was “rather superficial”).

Several years after the book’s publication, I had a conversation with Glen Stassen and mentioned how much I appreciated the book. Glen told me that they were working on a revision. He said Gushee had written the section on “homosexuality” in the first edition and Glen was hoping to be more involved in rewriting that part—and moving it, he implied, in a more “inclusive” direction. I don’t know how close to finishing the revision the writers came before Stassen’s recent death. But based on a new book by Gushee, Changing Our Mind (Read The Spirit Books, 2014), even if a revised version of Kingdom Ethics was to continue to use only Gushee’s views on “homosexuality,” the content would be quite different than the first edition.

The long subtitle of Changing Our Mind makes it clear that Gushee has shifted his views in a major way: “A call from America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church.” With refreshing directness, Gushee describes how his views on this issue have done an about face. He now affirms same-sex marriage and expresses regret about the hurt his earlier writing caused: “I end by apologizing to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue. Where I have the chance to amend my written work I will do so. I ask for your forgiveness. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get here” (p. 126).

Gushee dates his own “change of mind” to just the last couple of years, though obviously this change is the culmination of a much longer process. So this short book is kind of a preliminary expression of his new thinking. It is actually made up of a series of opinion pieces (blog posts) published online by Baptist News Global from July to October 2014. So the book has the advantage of being lively, current, accessible, direct, and winsome. What it’s not, though, is a detailed, scholarly, in-depth analysis of the many issues.

I find a lot to appreciate in Gushee’s book. I welcome its publication. In fact, I am delighted that a prominent evangelical leader would take such a clear public stand. The raises several questions for me though. The first is about evangelicalism—Will Gushee remain an “evangelical leader”? Will he want to? Is a book like this going to be part of a significant shift within evangelicalism and a movement within that arena toward more openness? Or is it more going to lead to a shift with the boundary lines of who counts as an evangelical—with Gushee now located outside the evangelical circle?

It is clear that Gushee here still wants to take an “evangelical” approach to sexual ethics in general—the only change, he would say, is that he now wants to include same-sex marriage on the “morally acceptable” side of the clear line he still affirms between appropriate and inappropriate sex. But I wonder about this approach. I also wonder about Gushee’s strong effort to remain irenic and reasonable throughout. While admirable in many ways, might such a thoroughly irenic approach leave some of the key issues unaddressed? Let me elaborate on these questions.

Many good insights

Given the brevity of this book, I think it’s too bad that Gushee spends as much time as he does on “throat-clearing preliminaries” and as little time as he does on the biblical and theological issues that are at the center of the divide (especially because what he does say about the latter often is quite perceptive—it’s just too bad there wasn’t more). However, the (slightly longer than average) chapter devoted to Leviticus is quite good. He mainly raises perceptive questions about the “traditionalist” (his term) approach to Old Testament law.

Gushee likewise raises perceptive questions about the traditionalist use of the three short references in Paul’s writings that are usually applied to the “LGBT issue.” He argues here about how inappropriate it is to read the two key and obscure Greek words that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6:9 as if they condemn “every homosexual person.” He concludes, “Very high-level scholarly uncertainty about the meaning and translation of these Greek words, together with profound cultural and linguistic differences, undermines claims to the conclusiveness of malakoi and arsenokoitai for resolving the LGBT issue” (p. 80). The bottom line in relation to these “direct” texts for Gushee seems to be that they are not actually clearly speaking against our current possible acceptance of same-sex marriage—but they have clearly been used and continue to be used in ways that cause great damage. And that damaging use is both unwarranted from the texts themselves and deeply hurtful to “vulnerable people made in God’s image.”

The most important texts, Gushee suggests, are the ones that speak to “the most significant theological issue: God’s design for sexuality in creation” (p. 81). I think that Gushee is correct that now the place where the rubber meets the road in evangelical theology is the issue of whether same-sex marriage violates the fundamental created order for marriage that requires that the partners be one male and one female (see one of the  most recent books by evangelicals on this theme, Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage—review coming soon!).

I am a little disappointed that Gushee does not quite provide the decisive theological-ethical response on this issue that we ultimately need. But he does make some good progress. He suggests that one key in moving forward—and moving in a welcoming direction—is to “think differently about how to relate our Christian account of God’s design in creation with the existence of a small minority of gay and lesbian neighbors, some of whom are devout followers of Christ” (p. 102). My reading of Gushee here is that he means to say that when we hold together (1) the reality that most of what authentic marriage relationships involve can be expressed in a same-sex marriage, (2) that some exceptions to the model are already allowed (such as childlessness, divorce and remarriage), and (3) that the small minority of people with strong attraction to people of the same sex are condemned to life without an intimate partner otherwise. Therefore, we are bound to conclude that same-sex marriage should be affirmed and that it does not threaten the institution of marriage in general.

So far so good! And it is sad to think that this quite moderate proposal would be seen as blatantly non-evangelical by many of the gate keepers for that brand of Christianity.

What about evangelicalism?

I’m a little uncertain what to make of the label given to Gushee in the book’s subtitle: “America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar.” On one level, that is the kind of unverifiable hyperbole all too common in book promotion. But on a different level, it seems to signal a challenge to those American Christians who affirm the label “evangelical.” Here is one of your top academics, and he is now advocating “full acceptance”!

It will be interesting to see what kind of responses this book will get. Because of Gushee’s prominence and the book’s accessibility, it will surely be given quite a bit of attention. Will Gushee lose speaking engagements? Will he become a lightning rod for hostility like it seems that two of books endorsers, Brian McLaren and Matthew Vines, have become?

My sense from this book is that Gushee takes pains to present his general theological outlook as still being very much in the mainstream of American evangelicalism. He seems to want to reform the movement from within, not to step outside of it and try to rally like-minded people to leave the anti-gay forces within evangelicalism to their own devices (which may be more like what McLaren has done).

I hope Gushee does stay within evangelicalism (whatever that means) and is an influence for reform. I hope LGBT folks who find themselves a part of evangelical congregations and schools and their allies will find guidance and inspiration from Gushee’s work. But we’ll see. Many powerful people and institutions have a lot invested in sustaining at least the appearance of evangelical certainty and unity in opposition to the “full acceptance” Gushee advocates. So it surely will be a struggle.

A traditional sexual ethic

Gushee takes pains to emphasize that he is not challenging the traditional Christian ethic that “bans all non-marital sex, infidelity, abandonment and divorce (with rare exceptions), making celibacy the only alternative to marriage” (p. 103). The only change he wants to see happen is that our understanding of marriage be broadened at one point—the acceptance of same-sex couples who otherwise accept the traditional approach.

I tend to agree with this (see my blog post, “A basic Christian argument for affirming gay marriage”). But there is something about Gushee’s tone when he discusses this that troubles me a bit. The tone seems a bit moralistic and legalistic. And maybe a bit too certain. In his analysis, we may see three basic types of sexual ethics in our setting. (1) “Mutual consent ethic” that’s basic anything goes as long as no one gets hurt. (2) “Loving relationship ethic” that is basically a commitment to serial monogamy. And, (3) the “covenantal-marital ethic” that sees sex as morally appropriate only within “a binding lifetime marital covenant” (p. 103).

Gushee writes, “I am a covenantal-marital sexual ethics guy….I loathe the mutual consent ethic; I think it is disastrous. I am sure the loving relationship ethic ultimately fails as well” (p. 105). This strikes me as too simple, maybe even a bit smug. Sure, when the marital-covenant (two people committed to a mutually self-giving and committed lifelong relationship) ethic works in our modern world it’s great. But how well does it work for most people? Gushee cites appalling divorce rates and numbers of children born to single mothers. He seems to imply that these problems are the result society’s moral permissiveness—as if people simply turn away from commitment by choice.

I don’t know how best to understand our cultural dynamics. It is certainly the case that intimate relationships are the source of a great deal of pain with deeply problematic ripples down through the generations. But I don’t think the failures can be explained as simply as Gushee seems to imply here—nor that making inflexible assertions about the moral rightness of this one model will solve many of the problems.

I don’t think the covenantal-marital model has actually been the traditional practice of Christians over the past 2,000 years—at least not if this model assumes an essential equality between the two partners who make the covenant together. It would seem that at least one factor that has contributed to changing mores related to intimate relationships in the past fifty years has been the difficulty in actually practicing the covenantal-marital approach in life-giving ways.

As I said, I do affirm the mutual, monogamous, life-time commitment approach to intimate relationships—and like Gushee (p. 105), I can attest to the beauty of such a relationship, when successful, based on my own experience. But I am a bit uncomfortable with making strong assertions about this model being the norm when it seems to be so unusual and difficult (and to have a much spottier history than Gushee seems to allow for).

Too irenic?

Finally, I appreciate Gushee’s successful attempt in this book to be reasonable, respectful, attentive to possible common ground, and in general optimistic about the possibility that his own testimony might gently encourage others who think like he used to think to change their mind. And yet, this approach leaves me with some serious questions as well.

Personally, I have found that “reasoning together” seems to take us only so far.I recognize that we all need to be patient, that difficult and contested conversations take time to resolve. Nonetheless, I remain pretty pessimistic about this one being resolved in the foreseeable future. The college where I teach has been engaged in a “listening process” as part of a discernment process in relation to whether we will hire openly gay faculty and staff. One of the elements of the process was a series of 20-person roundtables last Spring where the participants all shared their thoughts about the possibility of EMU establishing a non-discriminatory policy. On the one hand, the various roundtables resulted in open sharing, allowing people to hear each other’s perspective. That surely was a good thing. The effect seems to have been, though, in my perception, mainly a hardening of the viewpoints of those on the restrictive side with a widespread sense that the outcome of the process was settled before it began. That perception may not be accurate (I actually don’t think it is), but that it is strongly held by many in the community underscores how talk, talk, talk will not likely provide for a sense of resolution.

Why is this issue so difficult? I have some opinions, but this post is not the place for me to spin out my ideas. But I think that is the question that those such as Gushee who are passionate about helping the churches work things through will have to wrestle with more. Despite the commonly stated view that people on both sides are equally intransigent and harsh in their invective, I truly to think that the sharpness comes mainly from the “right.” Which is what one would expect, in part because those on the “left” have a lot more invested in being nice and in the possibility of people coming to a common understanding through “dialogue.” So, they tend to hope for the best….

I happen to be doing some work in Paul’s letter to the Romans these days. In reading Gushee’s book, I was struck with how, in some important ways, Paul’s story parallels Gushee’s. Paul was involved in persecuting followers of Jesus; Gushee was involved in teaching against the “full acceptance of LGTB Christians in the church.” Paul had an epiphany that turned him around and he became himself a follower of Jesus; Gushee had a enlightenment experience that turned him around and led him to become an open advocate of full acceptance. Paul profoundly regretted his earlier violence; Gushee profoundly regrets his earlier harshness.

However, there is a big difference, at least for now, it seems to me. There is a lot of debate about the dynamics of Paul’s thought in Romans (as well as the earlier letter to the Galatians). One way to read Romans is to see that Paul is engaging in a deep and thorough deconstruction of his earlier theology that had led him to his hurtful actions. In this view, the “opponent” Paul sharply argues against in Romans and Galatians, at least in part is Paul himself before he met Jesus. He explains why he did what he did and why it was so wrong—instead of being an act of faithfulness, his persecution of Jesus’s followers was an act of rebellion against God.

It will be interesting to see if at some point Gushee might do the same thing. Could do a more thorough deconstruction—that would even echo some of the heat Paul brings to critiquing his own former theology? Doing so would move the conversation in a decidedly less irenic direction. However, such a move might lead to some more insightful awareness of why, precisely, this issue is so difficult—and thus, help move us toward resolution, even if such a move might actually be, in some sense, even more conflictual.

I also wonder, if Gushee did such a theological deconstruction, would he be able to limit himself only to deconstructing evangelical views of “homosexuality”—or would he have to end up with a much broader deconstruction of evangelical theology as a whole?

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7 Comments

Filed under Evangelicalism, Gay marriage, Homosexuality

7 responses to “Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind

  1. Ted, this is a very thoughtful review. I will be presenting at Society of Christian Ethics in a few weeks — further detail, scholarship, and development of my thinking, will be evident there. The experiences I have had since publishing the book are pushing me in some of the directions you suggest.

  2. Ted, I recognize that this post is not an exposition of your own position, but after reading it, two questions come to mind.

    First, I am puzzled by your rather sharp critique of Gushee’s irenic approach and his rejection of the “Mutual consent ethic,” the “Loving relationship ethic,” and the “covenantal-marital ethic.” In spite of what seems weak affirmation of these norms, your questions about how these function seem to imply that you might not hold them as solid norms. Because you think that the covenantal-marital model has not been the traditional practice of Christians over the past 2,000 years and because you see “changing mores related to intimate relationships in the past fifty years” create “difficulty in actually practicing the covenantal-marital approach in life-giving ways,” are you soft in your affirmation of “the mutual, monogamous, life-time commitment approach to intimate relationships?”

    Second, I may have missed it in your voluminous writings on this topic, but what is your answer to the Creation argument? Of late, I’ve been arguing that “It is not good for human to be alone” points to companionship as the primary need to be fulfilled in marriage. True, that the Genesis account expresses that companionship in the predominant model of male/female, but that this is incidental rather than primary due to the prevailing pattern. Since you say, “I am a little disappointed that Gushee does not quite provide the decisive theological-ethical response on this issue that we ultimately need,” I would appreciate knowing what you see as an adequate theological argument.

    • Is that you, John?

      I don’t see myself as making a “sharp critique” of Gushee being irenic. I mean to raise as a possibility that an irenic approach will only get us so far because the deepest issues will require a theological deconstruction of the “restrictive” view parallel to Paul’s theological deconstruction of his former “works of the law” approach to faith—and “irenic” is probably not a characteristic of Paul in that context. I infer from Gushee’s brief comment above that he might be agreeing. I deeply appreciate his work in this book and his irenic tone—while also wondering about the limits for that tone.

      I also don’t mean to make a “sharp critique” of his affirmation of the “covenantal-marital ethic.” As I say, I agree with it and have experienced its beauty in my own life. My question is with how best to articulate that viewpoint in a way that is not moralistic or legalistic. If you are meaning that not to be moralistic or legalistic is to be “soft,” maybe I’m guilty….

      I haven’t really responded to the creation argument yet. In my upcoming review of the new book by McDowell and Stonestreet, Same-Sex Marriage I will work on that some. It seems to me that it’s kind of a new area of emphasis—it used to be more a “Bible commands against it” approach, which is what I have focused on more.

      Like you, I have been thinking about the “it is not good to be alone” motif as central to how to think about marriage. But I haven’t written much about that either. That’s why I wanted more from Gushee—I hope he will develop that theme further. Matthew Vines has some helpful points in his book God and the Gay Christian. But there is definitely more work to do.

  3. As a divorced Mennonite woman thank you for your “softness”. There is enough pain involved in the breakup of a family without church members adding to it.

  4. Ted, I don’t want to belabor this point, but I do seek clarification of your thinking. The statements in your post that raised questions in my mind were these:

    “ . . . nor that making inflexible assertions about the moral rightness of this one model will solve many of the problems.
    “ . . . It would seem that at least one factor that has contributed to changing mores related to intimate relationships in the past fifty years has been the difficulty in actually practicing the covenantal-marital approach in life-giving ways.
    “As I said, I do affirm the mutual, monogamous, life-time commitment approach to intimate relationships—and like Gushee (p. 105), I can attest to the beauty of such a relationship, when successful, based on my own experience. But I am a bit uncomfortable with making strong assertions about this model being the norm when it seems to be so unusual and difficult (and to have a much spottier history than Gushee seems to allow for).”

    I wonder at the wording, “making inflexible assertions about the moral rightness.” Is it not right to lift up a firm moral standard. Does the fact that there “has been the difficulty in actually practicing the covenantal-marital approach in life-giving ways” mean that we should adjust the norm? There is also great difficulty in meeting the norm of sacrificial love that non-violence requires.

    You continue to express your unease with holding this norm when you say, “I am a bit uncomfortable with making strong assertions about this model being the norm when it seems to be so unusual and difficult.” Is it really that unusual?” And again, is difficulty an adequate rationale for adjusting the norm?

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