Turning against evangelicalism: A pastor’s story

Ted Grimsrud—January 2, 2019

I, for one, am intrigued with the stories of those who have turned away from an evangelical Christian past and yet remained active followers of Jesus. I like to compare notes, and I find these accounts helpful as I continue to try to make sense of this strand of religiosity that continues to have a great impact on American society.

A recent book, Chris Kratzer’s provocatively titled Leatherbound Terrorism: Crucified by Conservative Evangelicalism, Resurrected by Jesus (Grace Publishing, 2018), has the virtue of some brutal honesty, sharp criticism, and (most importantly) the articulation of a counter vision for how to understand and practice Christian faith. I will be able offer only a qualified endorsement of the book, for reasons I will explain, but I welcome this volume to the growing library of works that present alternatives to what has become a devastating embodiment of Christianity in the United States on the part of the Religious Right.

An insider’s perspective

Kratzer’s account is searingly personal. He writes of a traumatic childhood in an abusive family that segued into an ambivalent religiosity where he sought to deepen his sense of God’s acceptance of him. Amidst his childhood trauma he encountered Jesus in a personal way as a healing power—but then struggled to sustain a connection with that power. Interestingly, after college Kratzer attended a Lutheran seminary and began his career as a Lutheran minister. Fairly quickly, though, he changed directions and entered the ministry in an evangelical setting. He vowed to be a success, and followed a template of high-powered megachurch religiosity.

Kratzer does not give us many details about the specific version of evangelicalism that he embraced, but he does clearly detail how it shaped his psyche. He portrays himself as a man of strong convictions who understood his calling as one of top-down leadership and controlling power. It’s not clear from his account how outwardly successful his ministry actually was. We aren’t told how far he advanced in the magachurch constellation. What is clear is that he never felt successful.

The heart of the evangelicalism that Kratzer practiced was a quest for certainty, a quest for the satisfaction of being worthy of salvation, a quest for a sense of superiority in relation to those who don’t measure up—that is, a quest for the quieting of a life-long anxiety about failure and unworthiness. Continue reading “Turning against evangelicalism: A pastor’s story”

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”

Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?

Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2015

 A recent book, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage (Baker, 2014) by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, makes the case that Christians should reject same-sex marriage. The main reason for this rejection is that God has an ironclad “design” that allows only for male/female marriage. This “design” is revealed in scripture and in the nature of human intimate relationships, most importantly in the possibility for procreation that only male/female partners have.

How persuasive is this book’s argument?

Some good points

One of the main strengths of the book is that it strives for and largely achieves an irenic tone. While it is hard to imagine the main argument of the book being persuasive to someone who doesn’t start out agreeing with it (which to me is not necessarily a flaw; I don’t think the authors are necessarily trying to convert same-sex supporters), those who don’t agree with the book’s argument might, nonetheless, well find the book readable and interesting. If someone who accepts same-sex marriage wants to understand the arguments against it, this book would be a good choice. And certainly those who don’t like same-sex marriage will find in this book strong bases for their opposition.

McDowell and Stonestreet (henceforth, M&S) recognize that evangelical Christianity faces a public relations problem with its opposition to same-sex marriage. So they want to counter the impression that “anti-homosexual” is an accurate description of present day evangelical Christians while nonetheless making the case for opposing same-sex marriage. This is a delicate balance to try to achieve, and they are not particularly successful in doing so. But in their effort, they do mute the typical negative rhetoric a great deal.

As well, they (fleetingly) make a number of concessions that earlier evangelicals on the restrictive side (most notably Robert Gagnon in his widely circulated book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice—tellingly not referenced in Same-Sex Marriage) were loathe to. For example, they write: “Many Christians insensitively repeat over and over that [homosexuality is a choice], but to many of the men and women we have talked with who struggle with same-sex attraction, it isn’t. They look at their lives and say, ‘I would have never have chosen this. I can’t choose not to feel this way. I’ve tried to feel straight, but nothing has changed.’ We believe them.” (p. 118). M&S don’t actually wrestle much with the implications of this concession, but it is progress that they have made it.

The basic argument the book makes against the acceptance of same-sex marriage seems pretty straightforward. The basic rationale for M&S opposing same-sex marriage is clear and hence can be wrestled with.

The core argument

This is what M&S present as the heart of their concern: Christians—and everyone else—should reject the notion that people of the same sex can enter into a marriage relationship. Churches should not bless such marriages, and the state should not recognize them as legal unions (there are a couple of hints that M&S would not oppose “civil unions” as long as they are not called marriages; it’s too bad they don’t address that issue more thoroughly). Continue reading “Does God have a “design” for marriage—that excludes gays?”

Jesus’s love and gay Christians: Jeff Chu’s journey

Ted Grimsrud—October 6, 2014

We Christians continue to struggle to embody Jesus’s way of peace in relation to sexual minorities. Surely a necessary part of this struggle is the need to humanize the people this affects. That is, especially, to humanize those we disagree with and those who we may agree with but still perceive as strangers.

Jeff Chu, a professional journalist and gay Christian, has written a fascinating book that helps with this task of humanization. The greatest contribution of the book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America (Harper, 2013), surely is how it helps us see actual people as they struggle and advocate. Chu manages to present people across the spectrum in sympathetic ways and helps these people tell their stories.

Chu writes well and obviously is a solid journalist. He does not come across as a deep thinker and does not seem to be especially interested in the intellectual elements of our wrestling. That lack proves to be a problem, as I will discuss below. But for a look into the hearts of those on the front lines of the current ferment among many types of American Christians this book is worthwhile—and I recommend it for that reason.

Poignant vignettes

Several times in the book Chu is especially successful in helping the reader see into the soul of the struggle. For me, one of most moving of the stories he tells is that of Kevin Olson, a gay Christian in Minnesota who feels the call to remain celibate even as he accepts the irreversibility of his affectional orientation. Now, while we obviously are at Chu’s mercy in how he tells Olson’s story, I do sense a profound respect on Chu’s part for Olson’s commitments. Nonetheless, the picture that Chu paints seems to me to be quite sad. Continue reading “Jesus’s love and gay Christians: Jeff Chu’s journey”

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?”