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.
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.