On Wednesday, Owen Strachan and Eric Teetsel offered a strong challenge to Q Ideas for hosting dialogues on questions relating to homosexuality and gay marriage with David Gushee and Matthew Vines, both of whom are affirming of gay marriage within the church. As Teetsel and Strachan put their objection:
By making their case for homosexuality on supposedly biblical grounds, Vines and Gushee sow confusion within the body of believers. The crux of the matter is this question: “Is there room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality?”
Now, in my previous essay on the subject, I wrote the following paragraphs about the role debate on gay marriages might play in evangelicalism:
Should Christianity Today host James Brownson on [the question of gay marriage]? Sure, why not? I think Brownson is wrong, and that conservative evangelicals should have the confidence to show that in our own fora. I mean, I even thought Russell Moore and the ERLC should have invited him to their big shindig on marriage for the same reason: I have such a strong degree of confidence in the truthfulness of the traditional view that I want it side-by-side with views that are wrong. More of that, please, and the sooner the better. Will progressive thinkers persuade some people? Obviously. But conservative evangelicals have nothing to fear or lose from hearing dissenting views, and the sooner our leaders begin modeling those confident encounters, the sooner the laity will realize that the proclamation of our orthodoxy means more than preaching to the choir or rallying the faithful.
Only: if Christianity Today does that and then motors on with a traditional view and treats it as so serious that they exclude from leadership positions those who dissent, would it be enough for progressives? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’d love to hear reasons from within the progressive outlook for why it would be. After all, viewing gay marriage as a “minor issue” is already a progressive Christian position. Downgrading marriage to a “disputed issue” on which “good Christians can disagree” itself claims that Scripture’s witness on this question is unclear, such that disagreement is a reasonable expectation. But it is precisely that claim which those who oppose gay marriage for theological reasons cannot adopt. We need not be Scriptural isolationists in making that claim: even if we couldn’t read the text on its own and come to the traditional view (we can), the vast and broad witness of the church confirms it. Only all of that evidence the “disputed issue” hope treats as neglible or irrelevant to the question—which is, again, a methodological move that conservatives cannot go for.
I didn’t expect another test to this method to happen quite so quickly, but here we are.
Teetsel and Strachan’s question about whether there is “room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality” should be read much more narrowly than they actually frame it. They’re worried about same-sex sexual activity, particularly, rather than (say) masturbation or any other potential act. I say that only because it matters to how we think about what Q is up to, and for putting in the proper context what I’m going to say now about all of this.
Three years ago Q Ideas hosted a panel discussion on handing contraception out to single people in the church, an idea that I timidly identified as a “hill to die on.” I was, to be blunt, outraged by the preposterous and obvious betrayal of Christian sexual ethics that the proposal represented. And, as with the question of gay marriage, I think the existence of a debate is a serious failure within the evangelical world. But what kind of failure, and what does it matter? And now that the debate is upon us, how should we respond?
Strachan and Teetsel go on to suggest that if the answer to the question of “whether there is room within Christianity for different understandings of human sexuality” is yes, then “the orthodox understanding of sex has already lost.” But even if the answer is “no,” and the position of Vines and Gushee lies outside the bounds of orthodoxy, that does not entail the Church shouldn’t ask the question. Indeed, the existence of Gushee and Vines might mean that the Church should ask that question and in a hurry, because by doing so, the Church might discover that the “orthodox understanding of sex” is in fact not there to be lost at all.
Yes, I’m proposing that the Church should sometimes pursue questions that she already knows the answer to—or at least, certain leaders already know the answers to. The early church had a proclamation, that Christ is Lord, and that proclamation was suffused with the knowledge that the Lordship of the Christ required the Divinity of the Man Jesus. The orthodox answer to the questions of the heretics was, in one sense, an articulation of what she had already believed—but the debate needed to be had and the heretics had their day. Clarity on such issues is not a given: it is won through struggle and debate. The more confident we are in our knowledge, the more willing we can be to hear challenges to it. Countering the evangelical world’s capitulation on this issue by suggesting that there are some things that shouldn’t be debated yields the terrain: there are some issues we know too well to not debate, because how else will the goodness and truth of the traditional view stand out except when next to the barrenness of falsehood?
I’ll grant that this isn’t exactly the kind of “debate” that I suspect Matthew Vines and David Gushee want within the church. Suggesting that we know the answer before we set out (in a sense—only in a sense) seems to invalidate the whole discussion, to turn “free inquiry” into a charade by assuming certain presuppositions. But that’s what living within a tradition means: it means that in receiving an inheritance, we honor those who died for it by testing it against the truth. And we dishonor them if we simply disregard their witness and claim that we’re on an epistemically neutral playing field, so that the whole business can be overturned by appealing to our “experience.” There’s an epistemic hurdle that advocates of the sexual revolution have to overcome, and the arguments for it simply aren’t there.
But neither is the debate we are having now directly equivalent to that of the early church. Our struggle is a unique one. Evangelicals are here precisely because we haven’t known the orthodox view at all the past fifty years, not because we have known it and are now seeking clarity on it. We are here because of a failure in ourselves, a failure to practice the very things that Strachan and Teetsel are defending. The “orthodox view of sexuality” from the past fifty years of evangelicalism hasn’t so much been tried found and wanting, as it’s been entirely left untried. Gay marriage is a lagging indicator: it’s the last of a whole host of a constellation of practices and ideas involving the nature of sexual pleasure, autonomy and control, remarriage, and any number of thoughts which evangelicals have, by and large, failed to see adequately.
In short: evangelicals are having the debate we deserve, because we didn’t have the debates we needed. Or if we did, we settled them the wrong way.
Now, there’s an ecclesiological question here that deserves some attention. Q Ideas is a parachurch ministry, one that is confessionally oriented, but is not itself a church. How those two interact is an important question, and whether parachurch organizations can have “debates” that churches cannot have is a question entirely unaddressed by Strachan and Teetsel.
But the reality is that whether any conservative likes it or not, the debate is already upon us—and suggesting that churches and parachurch organizations have an obligation to ignore it seems like its own kind of spiritaul malpractice (to borrow a phrase). Call it the “expulsive power of a better, more beautiful argument.” The way to get rid of bad ideas within the church is by promoting better ones, but the only way to do that charitably is by responding to those critics within the church who are saying the wrong things. And doing that to their face, by giving them an opportunity to respond, seems at least more courageous and charitable than a unilateral sermon. But if that’s not a “debate,” then I don’t know what is.
Indeed, I might even go so far as to suggest that Q has a role doing these kinds of dialogues for evangelicals only because conservative evangelical churches have abdicated theirs. Evangelicals have been imitating culture for 50 years on sexual ethics: why should we be surprised that the latest manifestation of the sexual revolution has come into our own midst? Perhaps this is largely due to the outsourcing of so many functions to the parachurch because of the vaunted “thin ecclesiologies.”
But, conservative evangelicals who are worried about the “ideological orientation” of the parachurches which sprang up out of our movement could ease the burden of responding to this crisis from them by hosting those debates themselves. If such ‘conversations’ were happening in contexts where it was clear our moral convictions were not up for grabs, and we had winsome, cheerful people actually winning the arguments, then Q Ideas wouldn’t have a market. That might make Gabe Lyons sad, but something tells me he’d find other worthy things to do.
It does, in other words, no good for conservatives to suggest that there can be “no debate” on this question. But it does a world of good for conservatives to own the debate, host it, and set the terms for it. Again, that may not seem “ideologically neutral” or like a fair fight. But no intellectual engagement ever is that fair, and the arguments for gay marriage aren’t very good. If we are afraid doing so will lose sheep….well, see above about having the debate we deserve because of broader failures within our movement.
Or, as someone very wise once wrote:
“In my experience, Bible-believing churches can sometimes be as unwilling to apply church discipline over matters of truth and morality as [Episcopalian] Bishop [Peter James Lee]. One politician I know boasts about his faith while voting for gay rights and against the partial-birth abortion ban. Not only is he not disciplined by his church in the name of truth, but he gets time and again to speak in the pulpit. Anything else, of course, might cause disunity.
As Pogo said, “We have just met the enemy, and he is us.” It’s all well and good for evangelicals to sit around and say “those crazy Episcopalians.” But they’re just reflecting what all of us do in lesser degrees. And Lee’s words ought to be a sobering wake-up call to us all.”
That wise person was one Chuck Colson, and he was responding to the appointment of Gene Robinson to Bishop of the Episcopalian Church USA back in 2004. Colson is sharp-worded in his criticisms of Lee, who suggested “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, choose heresy.” But his final turn was inward, toward evangelicalism and its failures to discipline its own, because he knew that the confident proclamation of the truth could only go forward if we were unremittingly clear on where our own failures were, too.
I’m almost universally opposed to claiming that we would know how someone would respond to today’s challenges. But we do know how people reacted to challenges in the past, and Colson’s legacy with respect to those he disagreed with is, well, complicated. In addition to the Manhattan Declaration, he also co-signed The Civility Covenant, a considerably less influential document that he teamed up with Jim Wallis on.
And in April 2010, while he was still alive, his organization published a very interesting essay on Brian McLaren’s presence at…Q Ideas for a forum entitled, “Conversations on Being a Heretic.” McLaren was only three months out from publishing A New Kind of Christianity, which proposed an old kind of liberalism—and significantly, for our purposes, also approved same-sex sexual relationships. While the essay might have lambasted Q for having McLaren, this is how the author ended it:
As the struggle over guiding values affecting the direction of the nation have brought the American nation to a historic crossroads, so too issues are arising that affect the evangelical church today. Regular readers of the Colson Center and Worldview Church’s resources will detect a common thread of cultural critique, even criticism, of the operating ideas that influence the health of both the nation and the evangelical church. Worldview matters and in order to impact the various cultures of America in the direction of Biblical values, prevailing ideas are identified, analyzed, and faulted as necessary. This prophetic role of bringing to light aberrant beliefs is necessary for promoting Biblically sound thinking among the people of God in a spirit of civil engagement.
Let us pray that the spirit of Christian civility – the unity of God’s Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3) – will prevail at the Q conference in Chicago, and that truth spoken in love will reinforce the evangelical convictions of the faith once for all handed down to the saints. [Emphases mine.]
In fact, just go read the whole thing. It puts the loss of civility in politics on a parallel course with orthodoxy, and defends vigorous debate while worrying about the “irreperable harm” that might be done to young believers by those who obfuscate the truth. All of which makes its conclusion the more striking.
Now, are those Colson’s words? No. But it is the person Colson entrusted to be managing editor of his center’s website. And it has the same kind of combination of internal critique without bending the truth that made Colson such a unique and important figure in the landscape of evangelicalism.
And, it is worth noting, the Civility Covenant was officially published in March of 2010, four months after the Manhattan Declaration was released. In fact, at the time, Colson was criticized for the Civility Covenant by at least one blogger because Colson ruled out Mormon Glenn Beck from it because he’s not an orthodox Christian but was willing to sign the document with….that heretic Brian McLaren. Who knows what Colson would do today. But the lines he had then for his activism are clearly not the lines Teetsel and Strachan are drawing now.
The conclusion of the above Colson Center essay is also very generous toward Q. The tacit suggestion is that by bringing together those who proclaim the truth and those who distort it into one place, it is the truth that has the best odds of winning and the evangelical conviction will prevail. That kind of confidence is on the wane. But it is that kind of steady certainty in the truth that we need, and which I hope Gabe Lyons and Q’s leadership can help reinstill in the evangelical world.