The events which have surrounded World Vision in the last few days have put a vile taste in my mouth, which bears some exploration here.
For those that don’t know what’s going on, see the summary here. Basically, this is just the latest spark in the long culture war being fought over human sexuality. I remember writing about the Chick-Fil-A cluster*** a couple of years ago, and generally the parts were played identically then as now.
But this time, the scene is lit up a little more starkly.
The scene is more dramatic this time because for the first time in recent memory, believers were left with a mutually exclusive choice:
- Either continue support for WV, and thereby practice what the New Testament unequivocally calls pure and faultless religion, or …
- Put a stake in the sand on homosexuality, which is a currently still-open debate within the confessing church.
So there’s the bad taste in my mouth.
The “theological right” is an encampment to which I’ve long looked for exegetical and doctrinal good sense. But today, along with many others, I am disturbed by the conclusions reached by some of Evangelicalism’s loudest and most respected voices. I can concede with sympathy that this culture war has been fought with sincere and well-intentioned gambits; but this wouldn’t be the first time that incremental arguments have forced a well-intentioned party into an untenable corner.
When I say “well-intentioned” I mean simply that Evangelicals have intended from the start to preserve what they (we) feel used to be a critical, Biblically-based public morality, which appears to be fading from the American conscience. I will not question that American morality is changing (has already changed) dramatically — who would? But I am pretty confident that I disagree on the rightness of the war in the first place. I am finding myself a conscientious objector, you might say.
But we know, of course, that the underlying friction is not the war itself. The great divide is instead about differing views on human sexuality. Within the church, this comes down to: whether Jesus explicitly desires heteronormativity in his Kingdom.
I have to admit, I have never known whether He does or not. And it appears from looking at the state of the Church today that many are similarly unsure. But, I can at least imagine a few ways that this conversation may eventually be settled, and then consider what might be a present best practice in each case.
It could turn out that scientific inquiry leads us to a definite set of genes which affect sexuality, thereby implying that one can be clinically born gay. This route seems somewhat unlikely as such, though, because iirc sexuality is already known to be highly complex and influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. But, it’s possible that we’ll establish a strong genotypic correlation, at least. (If we have already done this, somebody should correct me)
Evangelicals who are currently confident of their position should keenly examine prior historical instances of this exact thing. The church was long a protector of the old Geocentric Model of the cosmos, and held the Bible as a key support in this view. The dawn of modern astronomy wrecked that whole house of cards, and today nobody still maintains that the Earth is the center of the universe — whether Christian or otherwise. In retrospect we (Christians) have to wonder why it ever became so desperately important to protect a doctrine that was ever only faintly Biblical, and had basically no bearing on how we lived out our own lives. I am tempted to dump Young Earth Creationism into the same refuse bucket as old Geocentrism, by the way. The Bible, it turns out, is under-determinative about a lot of things. But I digress.
In any case … if this hypothetical genomic breakthrough were to happen, it would cause major shifts among Evangelicals, which I suppose would separate into two camps:
- Many will realize (as others have long ago) that it is possible to be born without a real capacity for “straightness”; if this is true, then our current doctrine which views homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” must be thoroughly broken. Those that have long espoused this “lifestyle” view will suddenly find themselves in an untenable position.
- Others will maintain (as they have for a long time) that genetic wiring is irrelevant, even if isolated by scientific inquiry. That is, man is born with many and various proclivities toward sin, and these proclivities should not be indulged simply because they are “natural” (and every sin is “natural” [sic] in the fall). In time and complimentarily, maybe the church will again carve out a better and more-respected niche for those who are called to celibacy (which hasn’t existed for centuries). Paul seemed to think this was a very high calling, yet we have lost sight of this in the present age.
If this general scenario does play out, we can be sure that many recent words ought to be eaten. For those in camp #1 above, there will be much repentance of dogmatic / judgmental perspectives, and much asking of forgiveness from the gay community.
Camp #2 is a little more nuanced. The position has a certain intellectual continuity to it, which many have already adopted, and for that reason is somewhat more appealing to those who favor a systematically Biblical worldview. However, Camp #2 leads us back around to a still-open question that has already long been burning: are humans not entitled to love? This will be considered below.
II. A Socio-Humanistic Resolution
It could turn out that this debate is eventually made moot by an inexorable shift in popular opinion. The major and obvious historical comparison point here is racism, which gave birth respectively to slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation laws.
I didn’t realize until recently that the debate over abolition was sincerely fought by opposing Christians who both believed they were submitting to the actual wishes of God, as laid out in the Bible. The book linked above lays out the striking similarities between that long ago conflagration and this one: a divided church, trying to somehow reconcile nascent ideals about human rights with long-held traditional exegesis that gave little regard for human rights.
To be more specific … in those days, Christian abolitionists had a tough job in the debate. Those on the traditional pro-slavery side had a well-trod logical progression through Bible verses that are generally either neutral or positive toward human slavery; abolitionists by contrast had to look at the broad sweep of the whole Biblical narrative, and extrapolate conclusions that ran counter to centuries of interpretation.
And yet, today atheists and Christians both look back and recognize that slavery is universally deplorable. What happened? A changing public perspective slowly overwhelmed the old strict exegesis. In time, we have come to believe that all humans, black and white and gray, man and woman, have a right to personal autonomy and the exercise of liberty.
Today we have such a similar situation that the comparison ought to be a little chilling. What I see is a growing public opinion that humans are not only entitled to free autonomy, but also to freely choosing lovers and companions, regardless of gender.
This public opinion has been entering the church for a long time — to the rejoicing of some, and the anxiety of others. What’s happening today is a similar debate as what played out in the 1850s: rigorous, traditional exegesis pit against extrapolated conclusions drawn from the broad sweep of scripture. Leviticus 18 vs Romans 3 (or something like that).
The similarities do not necessarily deterministically predict the conclusion, of course. Who knows?
But it is not difficult to imagine looking back, a century from now, and shaking our heads in remorse, as we reflect on the vain shots that were fired in this war, just as in the 1850s. I would hate for that to happen. Are we capable of constraining our hubris and remaining calm in the face of disagreement? So far, it seems not.
I know only a few individuals who identify as gay. I have found each of them to be bright, interesting, lovable people; I have found they are motivated by the same questions, needs, and hopes that I find within myself.
I have a suspicion, as many do, that traditional doctrine about homosexuality is based as much on logical exegesis as it is on baseless homophobia. I have not tested this suspicion rigorously, of course. But I have occasionally seen traces of such homophobia crop up within myself, to my intense regret.
I am sure that recent protests against revising traditional doctrines on sexuality are unnecessarily grave — e.g. The gospel is at stake. Is it possible for us to preserve a high view of Scripture, and the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus, even if we change our views on heteronormativity? Unequivocally, yes. If the same was possible for Geocentrism, and for blatant racism, then surely here it can be too.
I am sure that if Jesus walked the earth today, He would love gays as unequivocally as He would love any of us. Evangelicals may then ask “But what would he eventually say to them about their lives?” I have to confess, I don’t know the answer.
But, I am growing certain, after recent events, that Evangelicals are far too concerned with the latter, and have done a shitty job of prioritizing the former.