In early March, evangelical Pastor Stan Mitchell announced to his congregation, GracePoint Church in Nashville, that he fully affirmed gay members.
Growing numbers of evangelical pastors in the United States are coming out in favor of full acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and their desires and relationships, albeit within the confines of traditional, monogamous, chaste, and lifelong marriages (which are strict confines indeed).
These pastors have been joined by a number of evangelical ethicists, most notably Mercer University’s David Gushee, in a true paradigm shift toward the ethical legitimacy of this sexual minority.
An observer might ask at least two questions about this trend. What is the basis on which these changes are being advocated? And who is advocating them?
The answers to these questions show that evangelicals are not acting according to the “biblicism” that historian David Bebbington’s famous fourfold model says is constitutive of evangelicalism, nor according to the declarations of the supreme authority of the Bible found in any standard-brand evangelical statement of faith.
The change in outlook by evangelicals on sexual diversity is not based on a change in scriptural interpretation. No significant breakthroughs in historical or other hermeneutical dimensions of Bible study are being adduced as throwing the Scriptural landscape into significantly different relief.
Appeal instead is being made to a “canon within the canon,” the “broad themes of the Bible,” and particularly the ostensive “teaching of Jesus” against the teaching of—well, of what or whom?
Those with other Christian interpretative outlooks might feel comfortable pitting one part of the Bible against another, and some might champion what they trust historical-critical scholarship concludes are the teachings of Jesus versus the teachings of, say, Paul or John or Moses.
Evangelicals, however, don’t operate like the Jesus Seminar, and characteristically see the whole Bible as fully inspired by God. Luther’s obvious preference for the teachings of Paul over those of James is usually seen as an embarrassing anomaly in orthodox Protestant hermeneutics.
The whole Bible is the Word of God written, and it won’t do to pit Jesus against (not to put too fine a point on it) God.
Furthermore, even beginner students of the Bible might wonder why the Gospel portrayals of Jesus are being championed as “most normative” when they are not themselves authored by Jesus and do not represent the earliest layers of testimony to Jesus’ teaching in the Bible—an honor that goes to Paul’s earlier epistles.
Finally, evangelicals usually look askance at those who suggest, as Gushee and others do, that the “control texts” of loving one’s neighbor trump the “relatively few” texts that forbid so-called “sexual deviance.” The classical evangelical (and mainstream Christian) approach has been instead to pay attention to all of Scripture to determine as clearly as possible what it means to love one’s neighbor.
Invariably, it seems, evangelical pastors and professors who have seen the light of LGBTQ+ acceptance have a personal experience of a loved one coming out. Because this experience and intuition now contradict their previous ethical understanding, they change their minds and proclaim that the Bible must mean something different than it meant yesterday.
There is nothing in evangelicalism to prevent those who feel led by altered circumstances and by solidarity with the oppressed from seeking out new understandings of Scripture. But understandings of Scripture are required to ground evangelical faith and practice, and new exegetical insights are remarkably absent among evangelicals who champion the full LGBTQ+ agenda.
At best, these evangelicals recycle arguments that were in vogue among more liberal Christian communities in the 1980s, arguments that have been refuted by respected New Testament scholars such as Richard Hays, Larry Hurtado, and especially Robert Gagnon.
Hence, when critics of these evangelical innovators accuse them of theological liberalism, and of invoking favorite Biblical principles to undermine Biblical passages that don’t fit their new paradigm, there is evidently something to that charge.
In terms of who is making these changes, a historically-minded observer might recall the model of evangelical pastoral leadership outlined in Nathan Hatch’s definitive study of the rise of evangelicalism, Mormonism, and other nineteenth-century movements in The Democratization of American Christianity. Hatch noted that evangelicals, among others, are deeply populist in regards to leadership.
Indifferent, and sometimes even hostile, to authority based on tradition, institutional validation, or the election of elites, evangelicals expect their leaders to appeal directly to the populace and to earn the right to lead the democratic way. Such leaders can be strikingly autocratic—but they maintain their positions of authority as long as they maintain a popular mandate.
With respect to the current trend of notable pastors breaking ranks with the evangelical tradition regarding sexual minorities, report after report quotes each pastor testifying that all on his own he has changed his mind. And then, seemingly as a matter of course, his church forthwith adopts a different policy.
Some of these pastors testify that they worked through the issue with their pastoral staff, elder board, or other leadership groups. But the data show that in almost every case a pastor—usually as a result of personal experience—changed his mind, and the church as an institution simply fell into line behind him. To be sure, some congregants protest and leave the church, but, overall, congregations adopt the same position as the pastor.
Instead, then, of the stereotype of evangelicals each fiercely defending his or her right to interpret the Bible for him- or herself—a customary caricature—Hatch’s evangelicals typically defer to their favorite pastors.
Thus evangelical pastors do not have to instigate a congregation-wide Bible study to change the church’s policy. They simply have to change their minds, and the congregation follows.
So, are evangelicals in fact deserting the Bible? Or were they all that “biblicistic” in the first place? As usual, controversy brings to light more than the issues at center stage. Sometimes what is most interesting is to be found in the wings.
Hall, Heidi. “As one evangelical church ‘comes out’ for LGBT rights, others cast a wary eye.” Religion News Service, March 3, 2015. http://www.religionnews.com/2015/03/03/one-evangelical-church-comes-lgbt-rights-others-cast-wary-eye/.
Kumar, Anugrah. “San Francisco’s Largest Evangelical Megachurch to Allow Non-Celibate Homosexuals to Be Members.” Christian Post, March 15, 2015, Church & Ministry. http://www.christianpost.com/news/san-franciscos-largest-evangelical-megachurch-to-allow-non-celibate-homosexuals-to-be-members-135684/.
Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
Eckstrom, Kevin. “Evangelicals pull support for Portland church over LGBT stance,” Washington Post, 17 February 2015, National/Religion. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/evangelicals-pull-support-for-portland-church-over-lgbt-stance/2015/02/17/8714ec9a-b6db-11e4-bc30-a4e75503948a_story.html.
Gushee, David P. “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities,” The Reformation Project Washington, D.C. Training Conference, November 8, 2014. http://www.reformationproject.org/gushee-endingcontempt.
Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale, 1989.
Smith, Christian. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Ada, MI: Brazos Publishing, 2012.
Image: Tori Sisson, left, and Shanté Wolfe, right, kiss after their marriage vows; Credit: Brynn Anderson / AP all rights reserved.
Author, John G. Stackhouse, Jr., holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School where he studied under Martin Marty. He is the Sangwoo Young Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century: An Introduction to Its Character (University of Toronto Press, 1993), and Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology (Oxford, 2014). @jgsphd
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Charles Sutton: If they accept same-sex relationships and sexual activity as morally acceptable to God, you need to refer to them as "former evangelicals." They no longer accept the reliability and authority of the Scriptures if they change their position on this matter.