The week before Christmas I purchased Two Views On Homosexuality, The Bible And The Church (Zondervan, 2016), a book that brings together four authors who discuss the place of homosexuality in the church. The editor, Preston Sprinkle, notes that
This book is the first of its kind to be published by an evangelical Christian publisher. I don’t think a book like this would have been possible ten or even five years ago. Until recently, there was only one view of homosexuality within evangelicalism: the so-called non-affirming view. Conservatives may protest or simply disagree, but the fact is that there are a growing number of Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, card-carrying evangelicals who are either exploring the affirming view or who have embraced it and aren’t looking back… No longer is this a Christian versus non-Christian debate. The debate about homosexuality, the Bible, and the church is currently an inner-Christian discussion, even if some may think there is only one true Christian view. Christians can no longer hide behind what the Bible says; we now must do the hard work of figuring out what the Bible means.
It’s not simply that a “progressive” view has emerged within the Evangelical world. There have also been significant changes among “conservatives”. Until very recently the dominant approach within both society and church was that homosexual intercourse was abhorrent and that homosexual attraction was something chosen/cultivated by a person of morally degraded character. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people were regarded with suspicion, called to repent of their sin and to seek help to end their homoerotic feelings.
Few conservative leaders speak this way anymore. The deviancy model has been replaced with a brokenness approach, in which homosexual attraction is not the result of disordered character but a disordered creation. It is recognised that, for most people, sexual orientation is something that is discovered rather than chosen, and that it is fixed. Orientation is no longer a cause of blame, but a condition with which people live. Nonetheless for those who are LGB it remains a disordered condition that falls short of God’s intention for human sexuality. They should therefore seek to live a celibate life. The church, for its part, should stop shaming those with LGB orientation and welcome them as members of the people of God.
For a small but increasing number within Evangelicalism the brokenness model has proven inadequate. They challenge the assertion that Genesis roots sexuality in the complementarity of male and female, and point to the contrast between homosexual practice in the eras of the Bible and homosexual partnerships today to argue that to faithfully live the values of the biblical story means affirming committed LGB partnerships in the same way that we affirm those of heterosexual couples.
It seems the debate has progressed more quickly in US and European evangelical circles than it has in Australia, but I think there are signs the Australian churches are rapidly approaching some kind of tipping point on the issue. Change is often described using the diagram below. On any given issue that gains traction in society there are innovators and early adopters who start articulating an alternative approach. They are initially dismissed, but the point is reached in which the new approach starts to gain traction and people start to come on board until a new consensus is formed. Finally there are a group of people who never embrace the new consensus, but remain committed to the older approach. [**Added 4/1/17 There is of course nothing inevitable about this process. On any given issue it may be that the arguments of innovators and early adopters are not taken up, that the early majority turns out to be an early minority, or that a “late majority” never develops.**]
I suspect we are seeing the signs of a shift from the innovator and early adopter phase to the early majority phase. First, a small but growing number of prominent evangelicals are voicing support for the full inclusion of same-sex couples in the church. These include Tony Campolo, social activist Steve Chalke, ethicist David Gushee, philosopher Nicholas Woltersdorff, the former long-time editor-in-chief of Christianity Today David Neff, bible scholar James Brownson, and prominent evangelical commentator Jen Hatmaker. These voices are significant for they belong to leaders who have been widely respected within the mainstream of Evangelicalism.
Second, as LGB couples are now welcomed and accepted in our society, more and more Christians have family and friends who openly identify as LGB. Straight Christians interact with LGB couples who are generous, loving, kind and faithful and find it difficult to believe that this represents disorder. They face a clash between their experience of life and what they are taught is biblical truth. This is particularly the case for the younger generations. I have met many young adults who live with a sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the church’s attitude towards their LGB friends that is leading many of them to walk away from the church.
Within the church the shift from innovator/early adopter to early majority is usually accompanied by fierce debate. I like fierce debate, because it indicates that we care about the issue, but unfortunately we often allow care for the issue to negate our care for one another. Our debates become bruising, angry and graceless. Those who oppose the new approaches begin by declaring that the Bible is clear, that this is a matter of simple biblical authority, and that should we capitulate the very future of Christianity is jeopardized. On the other hand, those advocating change have a tendency to denounce those who oppose them as Pharisees whose legalism renders them unable to love. We fight as if it is a fight to the death but a decade later the church is still here, the sky hasn’t fallen in, the warring sides have made peace with one another, and we learn to respectfully disagree.
I hope and pray that this time we might do it differently than we have in the past. First, we should all be able to agree that the “deviance” model that has historically governed Christian and societal responses to LGB oriented people was dishonouring to God and damaging to LGB people. In the name of Christ we treated LGB oriented people with disdain, rejected them, and left them dripping in a shame that fuelled self-hatred and high rates of suicide, drove them out of the church or forced them into fearful hiding, and created an environment in which violence against LGB people was justified. This is something for which we need to unreservedly apologise and repent.
Second, we need to create forums in which we can consider the issue. We need to take time to hear the arguments put by scholars on all sides of the debate, to listen with empathy to the experiences of LGB oriented Christians, and to consider what God is calling us to.
Third, as we explore this issue we should love one another. Loving one another means treating those who disagree with us in the way we would like to be treated by them. How do I want be treated by others? Instead of casting aspersions upon my commitment to God, to Scripture and to love, I want them to listen to me, to understand what I am saying and why, to listen not only to my arguments but to my feelings and concerns. I want them to consider that they may be wrong, to carefully weigh my arguments in light of Scripture. If this is how I want others to treat me I must be willing to do the same with them.
Fourth, we need to remember that there are people in our churches, our families, and our networks who are LGB oriented. Some of them will be out, others will not. How we speak and what we say can either wound them or bring hope and grace. Let us make sure it is the latter.
I don’t know whether we’ll reach tipping point this year or not, but it is surely coming. Maybe, just maybe, we can negotiate the difficult discussions ahead with honour and grace.