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

Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism

Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2017

It is common in my circles of friends and acquaintances to encounter people who are former fundamentalist or evangelical Christians and who now distance themselves from that past faith perspective. Often, the rationales for the changes have to do with the Bible. For the sake of opposition to violence, to religious arrogance and exclusivism, to judgmentalism and the like, my friends will say the Bible is so hurtful, so damaging. Maybe they will add that they like Jesus but they see the Old Testament as profoundly problematic—and maybe Paul and Revelation too.

 I am sympathetic with such sentiments. I spent a period of my life in my late teens and early twenties as first a fundamentalist and then evangelical Christian. Starting with my embrace of pacifism at the time of my 22nd birthday, I fairly quickly came to distance myself from those traditions (I tell the story of that evolution here). And I agree that the way the Bible is used by many conservative Christians is problematic and helps underwrite violence and other hurtful attitudes and actions. And I do think it is true that there are materials in the Bible that do lend themselves to hurtful uses.

However, at the same time I love the Bible and most of my theological work consists of engaging the Bible as a positive resource for peace (several of my books focus on the Bible and peace: see, for example, Triumph of the LambGod’s Healing StrategyInstead of Atonement; and Arguing Peace). I often have been told by post-fundamentalist friends (and others) that while they admire my attempts to wring some peace from the Bible, they think I am engaged in spin, at times even in ways that seem dishonest or at least overly and misleadingly optimistic.

I had one such conversation just recently after preaching a sermon. As we talked, I realized that my friend was actually still reading the Bible in a quite conservative way. It’s just that now she disagrees with what she finds there. So I suggested that it would help if she could move past her fundamentalist hermeneutic. She agreed, but also noted that such a move is very difficult. Not so much because she still wants to believe in that approach, but that it is so deeply ingrained in her psyche that she can’t simply by a quick and easy decision get rid of it.

One small aid to help a post-fundamentaist move away from a fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic might be simply to articulate what a post-fundamentalist approach to affirming the Bible as a peace book might look like. Continue reading “Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism”

A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2016

Back in the early 1990s, Neil Young recorded a song, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” that protested social circumstances in Reagan/Bush America. It included this line, referring to the language of the Bush campaign calling for a “kindler, gentler America” and pointing to “a thousand points of light” that reflect the goodness of the country: “We’ve got a thousand points of light for the homeless man, we’ve got a kindler, gentler machine-gun hand.”

Young called out the Bush campaign for its misleading message, its claims to seek a more humane country that was contradicted by the actual policies that only exacerbated the dynamics leading to homelessness and that sought expanded militarism.

I’m a little uneasy with using this rhetoric in relation to the current discussion in evangelical Christian circles about whether and how to be welcoming toward sexual minorities. However, I think the question raised by remembering Young’s critique applies.

Is the effort Preston Sprinkle makes (echoing numerous others) to emphasize the call to love gay people actually a signal of a “kinder, gentler” evangelical community—or is it only reflecting a façade of “kindness” that does not actually signal much of a change at all? I’m afraid my reading of the book People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue (Zondervan, 2015) leaves me with a strong impression of a deeper-seated “machine-gun hand” that remains solidly in place.

Do actual people really matter much?

Sprinkle is a New Testament scholar with a PhD from the University of Aberdeen and is currently an administrator at Eternity Bible College (Boise, ID). He has written several widely circulated books. He begins and ends People to be Loved with attractive reflections on the need to “love the sinner.” But he also spends the large majority of the book focused on how the Bible supposedly clearly describes and condemns the “sin” that must be hated. These dual foci, “love the sinner; hate the sin,” widespread in evangelical writing on these issues, are difficult to reconcile.

Continue reading “A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

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.

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

God and the (celibate) gay Christian

Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2014

We are in the middle of an extraordinary moment in the United States with regard to the acceptance of same-sex intimate relationships. Most states now have legalized same-sex marriage, a reality undreamt of just a few years ago. There is still a lot of resistance to such acceptance, mostly under the name of “Christian values.” It’s still uncertain how the marriage issue will ultimately play out, though the momentum toward acceptance seems irreversible.

The ferment on these issues is seen quite vividly among American evangelical Christians (see my reflections on two books that show that even among evangelicals, there is movement toward acceptance: Does Jesus Really Love Me? and God and the Gay Christian).

Wesley Hill’s book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality takes a quite different stance than the two books just mentioned. I wonder if the impressive popularity of Hill’s book (it’s still one of Amazon’s best selling books in its “Gay and Lesbian” category even though it was published in 2010) reflects a bit of desperation among those evangelicals opposed to gay marriage. They may be thinking, we need some kind of effective counter to the tide toward acceptance. What better counter than a thoughtful, first-person account from a self-acknowledged gay Christian who recognizes that he has a fundamental and seemingly irreversible attraction toward other men but still affirms the standard account view that leaves him with no option but to embrace a celibate lifestyle?

The changing terrain

It used to be common for evangelical Christianity to offer gays full healing from what was categorized a fundamental disorder. A person with sufficient faith, and perhaps some help from a praying community, Christian therapist, and/or spiritual healer could have their same-sex attraction taken away and live a “normal heterosexual lifestyle.” Numerous ministries, the best known of which probably was Exodus International, promised to help this “reparative therapy” process.

As it turned out, such “reorientation” was never as easy or permanent or widespread as claimed by its supporters. In time, even many of those who believed “homosexual practice” is always wrong came to accept that for some same-sex attracted folks, change was not a realistic option. Exodus International is now defunct and one of its former leaders has issued a public apology for the trauma the organization visited upon many of those who turned to it for “healing” their “disorder.” Continue reading “God and the (celibate) gay Christian”

A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part three)

Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2013

This final part will focus on the main reason many Christians offer for rejecting gay marriage—the belief that the Bible commands against it (that is, that the Bible commands against “homosexual practice” [sexual intercourse], which certainly means marriage is out of the question). The argument I develop in this series of posts proposes that the biblical call to hospitality (part one on hospitality is here) and the positive value we place on marriage (part two on marriage is here) should make us start with the benefit of the doubt in favor of embracing gay marriage—unless we have some overriding evidence that requires us to overcome that benefit of the doubt.

In much of the literature and in most discussions of which I have been part, the basis for arguing against gay marriage is the belief that the Bible does provide clear teaching against “homosexual practice.” This teaching requires Christians to overcome this benefit of the doubt in favor of welcome. Maybe we should be welcoming in general, they may say, but we also must stand against sin (“welcome the sinner but require that the sin be left behind”). And the Bible teaches that “homosexual practice” is sinful. So, I will here examine the biblical teaching to discern whether this belief about the Bible being against “homosexual practice” is well founded.

First, let me suggest that it is not merely semantic nitpicking to note that the Bible does not contain the word “homosexual” (in spite of misleading English translations over the generations). The word is not in the Bible, in part, because the word and what the word conveys (“homosexuality” as an identity, as a way of being, where one’s fundamental affectional attraction is toward people of one’s own sex) are modern notions. In fact, this word is not used in English until 1892. Ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek simply did not have words that mean the same as “homosexual.”

The few places in the Bible that allude to problematic sexual behavior between people of the same sex focus on the behavior, not on the sexual identity of the people involved. Even though many on the restrictive side in relation to gay marriage try to reflect the Bible’s focus on behavior by use of the term “homosexual practice” instead of “homosexuality” or “homosexual identity,” the use of “practice” in the singular still imposes a modern notion of sexuality on the Bible.

“Homosexual practice” implies that there is only one issue at stake, there is only one “practice” common to all “homosexual” people. What matters, then, is that the people involved are “homosexual,” not what the specific “practice” might be. As a consequence, in this view, we do not actually need to pay much attention to the specific issues that are being spoken to in each of the biblical texts that are cited to support the claim that “homosexual practice” is sinful. The point is not to try to understand the particular context of each text in order to understand what kind of practice is being addressed. All we need to know is that the text refers to “homosexual practice”—that’s enough to support the proscription of all possible same-sex intimate relationships.

If we are going to be accurate in reading the Bible, though, we need to try to play close attention to its own way of presenting themes and be careful about imposing modern concepts on the biblical materials. Specifically, in relation to gay marriage and the question whether we have clear evidence from the Bible that proves that the same-sexness itself of same-sex marriage is wrong, we should not start with the modern category of “homosexuality” as if it applies to each and every text with the sense that the Bible only speaks of “homosexual practice” rather than speaks of different types of behavior. Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part three)”

A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part two)

Ted Grimsrud—May 19, 2013

In the first of these posts on gay marriage, I suggested that our starting point—whether (1) we assume acceptance unless persuaded to withhold it by the evidence or (2) assume withholding acceptance unless we are persuaded by the evidence to give it—is crucial in considering the issue of how Christians might respond to gay marriage. I suggested that the benefit of the doubt should be in favor of churches embracing such relationships and the people in them. One main reason for an accepting starting point, that I discussed in the first post, is the importance of hospitality in the biblical story.

The second main reason for an accepting starting point, that I will discuss in this post, has to do with the goodness of marriage. My third post will focus on the biblical bases usually used by those who would withhold acceptance, testing whether that evidence is strong enough to persuade us to withhold acceptance after all.

Most of the theological literature in relation to homosexuality until quite recently did not focus particularly closely on marriage. Major books from a “restrictive” perspective that urged Christians not to “normalize” homosexuality could comfortably repeat stereotypes about sexual promiscuity and short-term relationships being the norm especially among gay men (and probably among lesbians as well).

It was easy to equate “homosexuality” with obvious “sexual immorality” since gays and lesbians were, it seemed, not involved in committed, long-term relationships—and probably did not really desire to. So in the literature, we encountered widespread use of terms such as “the gay lifestyle” and “homosexual practice” (note the singular) as if there was only one “lifestyle” or “practice” and it involved a lot of casual sex with multiple partners.

Of course, all along in the debate over the past 40 or so years, many gay people and allies argued against these stereotypes. In just the past few years, though, as the movement toward legalizing and affirming gay marriage has gained remarkable traction, increasing numbers of people are learning of the existence of countless same-sex marriages that have existed for decades and reflect similar patterns as opposite-sex marriages—for better and for worse.

So, is it possible to construct a theology of marriage that does not discriminate against same-sex couples and that accounts for the actual experience of healthy marriages of many such couples?  Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part two)”

A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part one)

Ted Grimsrud—April 28, 2013

It appears that at this moment in the United States, our society may be nearing an acceptance of gay marriage. At least this is what the pundits are saying. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s impending decisions on the two cases related to gay marriage that they are considering, many people are saying that change is happening, accelerating, and will continue to do so. This seems to be an accurate perception; at least I hope it is.

However, at the same time, everyone also seems to agree that Christians are being left behind in this time of change. That is, it is perceived, Christians remain resolutely anti-gay marriage. At least evangelical Christians and Catholics—who seem any more to be the only Christians in mind when the term “Christian” is used in public conversations.

Still, there surely is a lot of ferment in Christian circles as well. It could be that a kind of anti-gay circling the wagons effort by many visible leaders and institutions is masking a potential sea change within even evangelical Christianity. Surveys do seem to indicate quite a bit more acceptance of gay marriage among younger evangelicals.

I take it that one response to these interesting events for a Christian theologian who supports gay marriage and also takes many cues from the Bible is to continue to work at articulating a biblically-oriented theology of welcome. One hope with such work is that as the discussion spreads to more of the evangelical world, such a theology might be found useful. I also believe that such a theology might give pause to those on the pro-gay side who tend to believe that such a disposition requires a distancing of oneself from Christianity.

I was recently given the opportunity to present a lecture that allowed me to pull together some of my thoughts on this topic. First Mennonite Church in Canton, Ohio, invited me to present on a Sunday afternoon as part of a series of sessions they have been having. I followed another theology professor for a local Christian college who a few weeks earlier spoke for the restrictive side.

Over the next few weeks, I will post a reconstruction of the lecture in three parts that correspond to the three sections of the talk. Part one focuses on introductory reflections and the theme of hospitality. Part two focuses on marriage. And part three focuses on interpreting the biblical passages that typically are used to lead to negative conclusions regarding gay marriage. It was a good experience for me and I think for the congregation. Though I am sure my talk seemed to go on and on for the listeners, I was only able to sketch the barest outline of a perspective. I’ll post that sketch here and hope to continue as time permits to expand it and maybe end up with a book. Continue reading “A Biblical Theology of Welcome: Toward an Embrace of Gay Marriage (part one)”

Anabaptist Evangelicalism?

Ted Grimsrud—July 8, 2012

What do you do if you are a young theologian or historian who is located in an evangelical tradition long removed from its Anabaptist heritage and you discover that heritage and find it attractive? If you are Jared Burkholder, a professor at Grace College, and David Cramer, doctoral student at Baylor University and former instructor at Bethel College (Indiana), you tap the shoulders of other like-minded young scholars and sympathetic senior scholars and produce a lively and thought-provoking collection of essays that, in sum, makes the case that evangelicals would benefit greatly from more appropriation of Anabaptist emphases—and that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism.

This is the book: Jared Burkholder and David C. Cramer, eds. The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012.

I am quite a bit more sympathetic with the first of these two cases (that evangelicals would benefit from more Anabaptism) than with the second (that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism). Without question, though, this is an excellent group of essays. Each one is readable and interesting.

What is “evangelicalism”?

The first section of the book, “Intersecting Stories: Historical Reflection on the Nexus of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism,” draws on three of the senior scholars, including two Mennonites (Steve Nolt and John Roth) who warmly welcome the interest of evangelicals in Anabaptism and emphasize the compatibility between the two streams of Christianity. Roth, especially, seeks to counter the much more hostile response to evangelicalism characteristic from Anabaptist scholars in a much earlier collection (C. Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism [Herald Press, 1979]) that is cited as the main previous book to take up these issues in depth.

The discussion by Nolt and Roth points to one of the most complicated issues that lurks throughout this book and, actually, in all such conversations. What precisely to we mean by “evangelicalism”? The editors state that they intentionally did not ask their writers to follow a given, stable definition but gave each the freedom to use the term as they saw fit. Continue reading “Anabaptist Evangelicalism?”

Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?

Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2012

I recently read a fascinating and well executed collection of essays, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, edited by Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer (Pickwick Publications, 2012). I interact more explicitly with the book in this review, but here I want to reflect a bit on some thoughts that reading it triggered for me.

One of the basic issues The Activist Impulse takes up is the relationship between “Anabaptism” and “evangelicalism”—especially how closely those in each movement should be linked. As many of the writers in the book acknowledge, each of these terms is difficult to define. Both refer to movements and mindsets, not to clearly delineated organizations.

What one means by “Anabaptism” is probably easier to settle on, at least in a general sense, than what one means by “evangelicalism.” Most of us would agree in linking the term with a particular (though surprisingly diverse and amorphous) movement that arose amidst the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and ultimately found institutional shape in the Mennonite churches, their siblings (such as the Amish and Hutterites), and various cousins (especially the movement that evolved in diverse forms to produce the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Grace Brethren, and German Baptist Brethren).

However, since the term was rehabilitated following Harold Bender’s widely circulated and praised summary statement, “The Anabaptist Vision,” increasingly many non-Mennonites and Brethren have used the terms in a positive sense that speaks more to certain theological and ethical sensibilities—most notably pacifism, a strong emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, simple living, and intentional community. Continue reading “Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?”