Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind, 3rd edition

Ted Grimsrud—July 20, 2017

David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, is a prominent and prolific writer who a number of years ago, like most other evangelical theologians who ever wrote about the issue, was on record opposing the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the churches. He opposed same-sex marriage. Probably his most notable statement came in a chapter he wrote in what was at the time the standard text book on Christian ethics for evangelical students—Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in a Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press, 2003). The co-authors of this book were Gushee and the late Glen Stassen.

Gushee’s change of mind

More recently, though, Gushee changed his views and became an advocate for the churches being much more inclusive—and blessing same-sex marriage. He wrote a series of blog posts in the Fall of 2014 where he “came out” as an advocate and followed that series almost immediately with a book version called Changing Our Mind. In 2016, he published a revised edition of Kingdom Ethics (now published by Eerdmans rather than InterVarsity) that reflected that change of perspective (that I know from a conversation I had with Stassen not long before his death would have reflected the views of both authors).

Just a few months after Changing Our Mind was published, it was followed by a somewhat expanded second edition. As would be expected, this book met with intense responses. Gushee has decided to bring into print a third, significantly expanded, edition of Changing Our Mind (the final one, he asserts).

I had been eager to read the first edition of Changing Our Mind. I was familiar with Gushee’s work and knew of his stature as a highly regarded evangelical thinker. I had responded quite positively to Kingdom Ethics when it came out and wrote a glowing review of it, though I did not discuss why I was quite disappointed with their treatment of “homosexuality.” I had learned from my conversation with Stassen that Gushee was the main author of that section, so to hear that he had changed his mind intrigued me.

So I read Changing Our Mind as soon as I could and immediately wrote a quite positive review. As the bulk of this third edition is made up of the only slightly revised chapters of the first volume, I will refer readers to that review for my thoughts about Gushee’s main arguments. I want to focus here more on the additions to the third edition, with a couple of brief comments about his overall argument.

Leaving evangelicalism

I don’t think it was especially prescient for me to title my initial review “Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical?” (I repeated that title for this post, just adding the “3rd edition”). The answer to this question now seems to be “no.”

Gushee concludes the third edition with these words: The ferocious response to my book—and the kind of reasoning exemplified by many of my leading critics—has together with other evidence led me to the conclusion that evangelicalism is essentially a made-up name that barely disguises the underlying “biblical” fundamentalism that is its true nature and identity (p. 174).

I tend to agree with Gushee’s sense that evangelicalism is basically a slightly more irenic fundamentalism with the same core theological commitments (I argued this a few years ago in reflecting on the relationship between evangelicalism and Anabaptism). Gushee briefly discusses his “departure” from evangelicalism in the third edition, and has an entire book Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism, forthcoming in September, that will tell the story in detail. His basic theology, as reflected in Changing Our Mind, remains quite conservative. He is outspoken in his support for a very “traditional” view of marriage as the only morally valid context for full sexual intimacy. His story, thus, shows that the boundary maintenance within “official” evangelicalism is not about core theological beliefs but about a particular uncompromisingly strict discrimination against LGBTQ Christians.

I raised the issue in my review three years ago:

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 the book’s 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.

It is pretty sad that he received the kind of responses that he did, which he discusses in the third edition. The responses were beyond criticisms of some ideas; they became personal and hostile. Gushee writes that still three years later he is having speaking engagements that he had arranged before the first edition was published canceled. He recently mentioned online that he had actually contracted with InterVarsity Press to publish the second edition of Kingdom Ethics and only after the revision was finished did IVP decide not to publish it. Gushee says he was told this was not because of the content of the book but because he had become too controversial and his image now is in tension with the image IVP wants to cultivate.

So, it would seem that the answer is that Gushee has given up on the hope of “reforming the movement from within.” I am sure, though, that he still has some kind of (perhaps faint) hope that a book like this—along with his broader work—can contribute to change within the evangelical world. It seems inevitable that more and more theologians, pastors, and other leaders will basically agree with him. Changing Our Mind is not a thick, scholarly treatise, but in an accessible way it does quite ably lay out the outline of the pro-inclusion argument that retains a high view of the truthfulness of the Bible and affirms much that remains traditional in its view of marriage and sexual practice—in other words, an approach many evangelicals will resonate with. A big question may be: Will Gushee’s own story continue to be repeated where changing one’s mind leads one to exit evangelicalism?

A helpful book

Changing Our Mind, 3rd edition, will prove to be a helpful book for many Christians. The core that is retained from the earlier editions gives a nice outline of the basic, theologically conservative argument for inclusion of LGBTQ Christians (an argument made more thoroughly in recent books by writers such as Matthew Vines, William Stacy Johnson, James Brownson, and Mark Achtemeier). Gushee’s book will best serve as an introduction (the third edition includes an excellent study guide prepared by Robert Cornwall that makes this book well-suited for small group discussion) that may set the stage for deeper investigation in those books just alluded to. I should say, though, that I am disappointed that Gushee did not update his footnotes, so though the third edition was published in the spring of 2017, it does not have references to writings published since 2014.

One of the big issues the book raises, as do many other writings on this topic, is the role of human experience plays in discernment on these themes. Gushee briefly mentions that his sister coming out as a lesbian affected him significantly. He also refers to various other LGBTQ Christians whose stories have shaped his thinking. I believe that he strikes a pretty good balance between being attentive to the human issues while not basing his entire argument simply on experience.

The bulk of the new material (along with Cornwall’s substantial study guide) is Gushee’s wide-ranging response to his critics. Helpfully, he gives links to a large number of reviews. He breaks his comments into ten sections. Keeping with the tone of the rest of the book, these responses are brief, clearly stated, and largely irenic in tone. He obviously recognizes that he cannot hope to win an argument with his critics, so he mainly seeks to explain to the sympathetic or neutral reader why he does not accept the criticisms as being valid. I think his comments are helpful. This book is not the place for a full out debate, but Gushee does owe us an account of how he acknowledges the criticisms and why they do not cause him to change his case. He has done that. I would add that what is disheartening for me is the evidence this section gives of what we could call the “weaponizing” of evangelicalism in a attempt deny any possibility of an open conversation among evangelicals about these issues. The effect of the united front against Gushee is to intimidate any other questioning evangelical thought leader who might want to challenge the status quo.

I concluded my review of the first edition of Changing Our Mind with some reflections on whether Gushee’s tone might be a bit too irenic, as he gives the sense that progress on these issues is mainly a matter of careful, logical, mutually respectful discourse. I was a bit doubtful. Largely to Gushee’s credit, the additions to the third edition retain a generally irenic tone. However, the subtext to the book, the story of his departure from evangelicalism, bears witness to the reality of dynamics that are deeper and darker than merely honest intellectual differences. Perhaps in the future Gushee might have some helpful insights to offer about that deeper reality that has rendered evangelicalism such a broken and hurtful environment.

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Can an evangelical support gay marriage—and remain an evangelical? Responding to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind, 3rd edition

  1. From your title, I wondered if you were responding to Sam Allberry’s recent article. After giving 5 reasons, he says, “When so-called evangelical leaders argue for affirmation of gay relationships in the church, I’m not saying they’re not my kind of evangelical, I’m saying they are no kind of evangelical.”

    1. Thanks for the link, Harold (and for still paying attention to my blog!). I hadn’t seen it but will look at it. The title is a direct repeat from the title of my 2014 post on the first edition of Gushee’s book.

  2. It is an interesting question as to whether it is good or not if Gushee somewhat officially leaves evangelicalism, which it seems he is intent on doing as he appears to be writing a book (probably has finished writing it since it is to be in print in 2 months) specifically for that purpose. He is certainly far from the only prominent person who identifies as evangelical to have changed their mind on LGBT issues. There are a fair number of them.

    It certainly seems to be true that a large portion of evangelicalism has moved closer and closer to fundamentalism. It might be more accurate to say that evangelicalism seems to be leaving many evangelicals rather than the reverse. If Gushee officially abandons evangelicalism, will that lead to other prominent evangelicals – and eventually ordinary evangelicals with a broader view – also to forswear evangelicalism. Will that lead to a new movement serving a similar function as the earlier evangelical idea of evangelicalism as a clear alternative to fundamentalism? What will happen to groups such as Evangelicals for Social Action?

    1. These are difficult issues to wrestle with, Ted. In Gushee’s case, evangelicalism is not a denomination per se, so I can’t equate it with a decision to leave MC USA over the issue of the Confession of Faith’s Article 19. It may be more like a decision to leave Anabaptism because an Anabaptist person decided that infant baptism now was scriptural (although Allberry states that infant baptism is only a secondary issue).

      1. That’s an interesting point, Kurt. What does it mean to “leave Anabaptism”? It’s a pretty vague thing. Certainly, Gushee is still a Baptist.

    2. Good to hear from you again, Bill. My reading is that Gushee wanted to stay within the (admittedly imprecise) circle of evangelicalism—hoping to help change things. He was overwhelmed by the negative reaction he received and that forced him to rethink what that circle might mean. I think he might say that evangelicalism booted him out rather than that he left. Or, based on that quote I cited, maybe he is more saying that this experience is helping him clarify what evangelicalism actually is and helping him realize that he is not one of them, and maybe never really was.

      Personally, I wouldn’t mind if the categories “evangelical” and “liberal” Protestant Christian both fell into disuse.

  3. Interesting post, Ted, especially in light of the recent online feeding frenzy over Eugene Peterson’s comments about same-sex marriage.

    A comment regarding this: “evangelicalism is basically a slightly more irenic fundamentalism with the same core theological commitments”. I think that’s exactly right. I was never a full-on fundamentalist, but I was certainly a card-carrying evangelical (and proud of it!). And, looking back, I often describe the kind of theology and worldview I used to espouse as “fundamentalism-lite”.

    1. In my experience, Rob, I was a self-conscious fundamentalist as a young adult who switched to be an evangelical because I wanted a more open-minded and culturally engaged faith. That is, one could say, I moved from reading Hal Lindsey to reading Francis Schaeffer. Then I became a pacifist and learned about Mennonites. It took a few years for me to realize that I was no longer an evangelical and in fact, as you say, my perspective as an evangelical remained “fundamentalism-lite.”

      The issue that highlights all of this for me is the approach to the atonement. The fundamentalist view is more explicitly penal substitution and an angry God. As N.T. Wright (an evangelical) insists, “God is not angry.” He rejects PSA. But in reality, he retains a great deal of a kind of Anselmian satisfaction view. I think the difference may be mostly tone, not substance.

      1. Ted, I agree that one’s atonement theology is central in all this. The day the penny dropped for me as to how colossally mistaken PSA was – and conversely how beautiful the Gospel really is – was nothing less than a seismic shift in my worldview. My belief in nonviolence as the ethic that Jesus calls us to imitate followed directly from this.

  4. Thanks, Ted, for keeping us up to date on the dialogue about the LGBT question going on within evangelicalism. I also started out in the fundamentalist camp but as a young adult I was pleased to note that a more open and progressive evangelical movement gave me another option. So I could please most people by identifying as an “evangelical”: some assumed I meant fundamentalist by that, and others knew I had moved past it. But in my circles I also have noted within the last decade or so that evangelicalism in my church, conference and college has steadily been leaning back toward fundamentalism. Most don’t like it when I point that out, but the evidence is clear. I agree that the question of atonement is central to how we approach other issues. I had meant to write about atonement for a number of years but found I first had to work at some “underbrush” like notions of hell, how we read the Bible, How Jesus read his Bible, original sin, etc. Finally I set out to write about atonement in a 24 essay series. You can find the first essay at https://www.mysteinbach.ca/blogs/7209/atonement-why-bother-now-l/. From there you can find all 24. I found your book, Instead of Atonement,helpful in thinking through this topic. Also very helpful was the book, “Stricken by God?” edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin. Jersack’s most recent book, A More Christ-like God; A More Beautiful Gospel, basically summarizes where I have moved to right now. Thanks for your help. I keep reading your posts and find them helpful.

    1. Thanks, Jack. I appreciate your encouraging words. I started reading your blog series. It looks great. I am glad you found my book helpful; even more I am glad you have come to the clarity of thought that you have. I remember talking with you some years ago when you were in Harrisonburg; I seem to remember you were working a lot of things through.

      In case you didn’t see it, here is my very favorable review of Brad Jersek’s book:

      https://thinkingpacifism.net/2015/05/26/should-jesus-determine-our-view-of-god/

      All the best.

  5. So N.T.Wright is a fundamentalist?

    Within the scope of battle, it is tactically clever to suppress nuance, eliminate the middle ground, and simplify conflict so there are only two positions–mine and the crazies’. Is this the cleverness that underlies the enthusiasm to collapse evangelicalism into fundamentalism?

  6. I left “evangelicalism” for the very reason that it was, in my experience, just an irenic fundamentalism, and from several interactions recently I see that nothing has changed, except on the edges. Loved Gushee’s book. But until we leave Anselm’s quaint view, based on Roman jurisprudence, evangelicals will, in my view, continue with a punitive world view. Thanks for this helpful addition to the debate.

  7. Gushee’s ‘Changing our Mind’ was one of the first books I read as I wrestled with my own evangelical demons, followed by ‘A Time to Embrace’ by William Stacy Johnson. His departure from evangelicalism is not a surprise as the majority determination of evangelicals is to hedge in the faith with clear-cut absolute doctrinal affirmations. It is of the utmost importance for most to be able to determine in an instant who’s in and who’s out, and he’s definitely ‘out.’ Roger E. Olson, in his ‘Reformed and Always Reforming,’ is characteristic of the postconservative wing that wishes to retain the evangelical moniker while reforming it from within. Although I doubt this is possible, I have noticed something subtle happening on the minority, largely Arminian side of evangelicalism…a slow withdrawal from foundationalism, an emphasis on personal relationship above doctrinal propositionalism and a recognition of the failure of systems based on modernist truth arguments.

    I attend a large Assemblies of God church, the denomination I grew up in. Our new pastor never refers to the church as ‘evangelical,’ and uses Emergent church catch phrases like, ‘church is messy,’ or ‘you can belong before you believe.’ He also stresses we need to humbly realize we don’t have all the answers. In a denomination that originally sprung from fundamentalism, this is a very encouraging sign. It remains to be seen if enough of these more postconservative churches sway their denominations as a whole or whether they will eventually go independent. I tend to agree with you, that an irenic world view of Christianity will not suffice for conservative evangelicals.

    1. Well actually the Assemblies of God come out of the pentecostal revival movement. And that movement drew in people from a variety of theological backgrounds. It has moved more towards fundamentalism, but I don’t think fundamentalism is core to pentecostalism. Certainly in the early days, many of its expressions didn’t please many fundamentalists.

  8. Sheesh. I sure wish there were even a hint of something vaguely akin to an argument explicitly from the scriptural revelation of God’s will for the position Gushee adopts, instead of the mere denial that his view is strictly based on peoples’ experience, and oh, that his sister came out and of course, our hearts are rent asunder, not by proximity to God, but, yeah, by our feelings for a dear human friend or relative. It is just too typically transparent, and not nearly persuasive enough for those who are still committed to the biblical revelation of God’s will. God could come back and change his commands, but until he does all we seem to have is His will as revealed to Jesus and the apostles or our experiences and human sensibilities to guide us. Choose this day who you will serve.

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