Tag Archives: same-sex attraction

Why Wishful Thinking Can Make Us Blind to the Truth

I have a few confessions to make (I am taking a short break from the “historical criticism” series of blog posts).

I did not know much about Vladimir Putin, but for years, what I knew about him was somewhat positive. Sure, he was a former KGB man, and he still harbored some socialist ideals. But he had renounced communism, which was a big improvement over the days of Soviet Russia. He appeared, at least for awhile, to be a supporter of the Christian faith in Russia. Former U.S. President George W. Bush said that he was able to get “a sense of [Putin’s] soul.” That seemed promising.

Under Putin’s presidency, things with Russia became light years ahead of the dark days of Bolshevikism and the U.S.S.R., and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation I feared as a kid growing up during the Cold War. Like many Enlightenment-guided Westerners, I was convinced that the days of World War II style naked aggression were over. He was not perfect, but at least, under Putin, the threat of nuclear war was remote.

Even Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president during the 1990s, and Putin’s predecessor, who sought to make Russia into a modern democracy, had confidence in Vladimir Putin, believing that Putin would carry on the reforms in the post-U.S.S.R. era.

I really wanted Vladimir Putin to be a “good guy.”

However, the events of the last month or so have shattered that. Though I wanted him to be a “good guy,” I discovered that he was not. I have since learned that he is a nationalist, or more accurately, an empire builder/wanna-be restorer, who cares nothing about the lives and aspirations of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainian people. In Mariupol alone, we have reports that 90% of the buildings in that city have been damaged or even demolished, leaving civilians without food, water, electricity and heat. The horror of effectively destroying such a beautiful country, like Ukraine, and causing over a million to become homeless, does not seem to register in the mind of Putin as being a moral atrocity. The fact that Putin’s cover for this “military operation” had been blown for weeks before Russian troops crossed the border into the Ukraine, and that Putin went ahead with the “military operation” anyway, is ghastly.

What makes it all the worse is that Mr. Putin’s version of a politicized Christianity plays into the whole tragedy. Apparently, Vladimir Putin has been enamored by the concept of a “Holy Rus,” a vision of one unified Russian people, with one great church holding everyone together, made up of Russians AND Ukranians. This ideology is traceable back to 988 C.E., when Prince Vladimir chose to be baptized into the Christian faith, thus introducing Christianity to the Slavic peoples. Prince Vladimir, along with his warriors and families, were baptized altogether in the Dnieper River, in Kyiv. When the Mongols swept through destroying Kyiv a few centuries later, Moscow became the new seat of north Eastern European Christianity. With the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks the mythological status of Moscow as the “Third Rome” took hold.

Now, in the wake of the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Mr. Putin wishes to restore that Moscow as the “Third Rome” once again, hoping to restore the glory of pre-U.S.S.R. ancient Czarist Russia. If you read Putin’s hour-long speech that he gave, upon the eve of the invasion, you can begin to appreciate the inner working of his logic. One might argue that Putin’s vision of a grand “Christian empire” may have been at one time well-intended, but as we see this story play out, the dark side of this has been revealed. Christianity has again been hijacked by the State, and millions are suffering in its wake. Thankfully, many Christians, including many Eastern Orthodox have condemned the violence, but Putin shows no signs of backing down.

The issues behind the Ukraine/Russia conflict are very complex, and very few people are aware of the spiritual/religious aspects that are deeply rooted in the history of the region. The Gospel Simplicity YouTube channel, started by Austin Suggs, as a theology student at Moody Bible Institute, features an interview with John Strickland, an Eastern Orthodox priest in America and historian on Russia, who dives deep into history behind the conflict, describing details that few even know about.

I was blinded by my own wishful thinking about Vladimir Putin. My wishful thinking kept me from seeing and understanding the truth.

Wishful thinking makes us feel better. Wishful thinking can help us to think we are good persons: moral, upright, and justified. But it comes at a cost.

Wishful thinking can easily blind any of us. Sometimes a reality check is what we need to cure us of wishful thoughts, that while surely well intended, do nothing but lead us along a path of deception.

This can be a really hard thing to accept, as I hate to be wrong about anything. But there have been times where evidence presented against my wishful thinking has forced me to change my perspective. It has not always been easy.

Sometimes, the costs of such misguided wishful thinking are not too terrible. In my younger years, I wished that I could be a successful guitar player, and even be a rock star. Reality set in, and I instead became a computer geek. I still play guitar, but I no longer fantasize about being the next Jimi Hendrix. I am quite okay with that now.

At other times, misguided wishful thinking can get you into serious trouble. For Westerners who believed that Vladimir Putin was merely bluffing about invading Ukraine, that type of wishful thinking has become deadly. Putin himself has quite a bit of wishful thinking himself, describing the Russian aggression as freeing Ukraine from the domination of “Nazis” and “fascists.”

Why does Putin make this claim? Because during World War II, certain Ukrainian nationalists aligned themselves with Hitler’s Germany, as liberators from Soviet oppression… that is, until they figured out what the Nazis were really up to. Many historians say that Putin is ignoring what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story,” pointing out that the Ukrainian independence movement began earlier during World War I, in 1917, before the Soviets took over the Ukraine in 1922.

Putin’s narrative is this: Ukraine was, and is, and will always be part of Russia. End of discussion. This is the world that Putin wants to live in. It makes him feel good about himself. It makes him feel moral, upright, and justified.

Wishful thinking can deceive even world leaders, like Vladimir Putin. When we so desperately want something to be true, when the reality suggests otherwise, calamity is not too far behind.

 

The Corrective to Wishful Thinking: Fairly Evaluating the Evidence

In spiritual matters, wishful thinking that is not grounded in truth, as established by the evidence, can have undesired consequences, too. Much of what I say here will sound controversial to some. For the rest of this blog post, I will summarize where my thinking has either deepened, or even changed, on certain theological topics that I have explored over the last few years. A number of you may not like where I eventually land on these topics. Regardless of where you ultimately stand on these difficult topics, and how you evaluate the evidence, I hope you might appreciate the posture that I trying to take, as woven around this particular theme of “wishful thinking.”

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

There are times, surely, where we want something to be true, and it turns out that it is! However, wishful thinking can also deceive. What makes the difference is a fair evaluation of the evidence. This requires a willingness to rethink our assumptions and then follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Consider attempts that some Russian propagandists have made to try and get Ukrainians to give up against the Russian invasion, and re-assure other Russians that Putin is in the right, in this conflict. On March 16, 2022, a deepfake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been shared around social media, calling on his soldiers to lay down their arms. If you look at the video it might look and sound convincing, particularly if you were harboring wishful thoughts, that this message was indeed true.

The real President Zelensky responded to the deepfake, and refuted its message, and in turned urged Russian soldiers to lay down their arms, and go home. Upon closer inspection, evidence from the deepfake video showed that it indeed was a fake.

Unfortunately, a lot of supposed “evidence” for a position are actually assertions, that lack sufficient merit. In this particular case regarding the deepfake Zelensky video, it was outright propaganda.

But how many people unknowingly and willfully are drawn into accepting these messages to be true, when their wishful thinking steers them in that direction?

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Universalism

For example, let us consider a very serious spiritual matter. On this, my thinking has not changed much over the years.

I really wish I could be a universalist. I wish everyone, even a Vladimir Putin, could be converted and come to know Jesus in the end, and hell could be emptied. Even before I became a Christian believer, I could not imagine why anyone would want to believe in an eternal hell.

But as I have taken an honest look at the Holy Scriptures, it just seems near impossible for me to read the Bible and conclude that universalism is true.  God’s judgment, as presented in the Bible, does not seem to work like that. As Revelation 22:15 teaches, those who “love and make lies” will be barred from entering the New Jerusalem. It is really difficult to get around all of that.

I know that a brilliant theologian, like David Bentley Hart, probably thinks that someone like me is morally reprobate, because I do not find the case for universalism that he champions to be supported by the teaching of Scripture. When I wrote a blog article in 2019, covering book reviews of D. B. Hart’s defense of universalism, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Unversalism, I received some of the most uncharitable and scathing comments, that misrepresented my position, in all of the years of my blogging on Veracity, even though I spent several hours listening to interviews Hart gave in defending his thesis, in order to try to give Hart’s viewpoint a fair hearing. In D. B. Hart’s mind, he is moral, upright, and justified. I, on the other hand, to such critics, must be a moral cretin.

So, let me state this clearly again: I wish I am wrong about the evidence against so-called “Christian Universalism.”  I wish all could be saved in the end. Perhaps I will be proven wrong at the end of all time, but I am not convinced that I will be.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (National, Ethnic Israel)

Are you ready for more?

I started off with the universalism issue because it helps to frame a compassionate, honest way of thinking through these type of issues that I will address below. I mean, you really have to be a moron if you gleefully want people to perish in hell. Nevertheless, the question of truth matters. There is a certain sense of anguish that anyone with a pulse should be feeling, as they wrestle with such difficult matters. The same sentiment applies on a lot of these other issues.

Before we get into some really touchy issues in our day, that get us even farther away from the Ukraine/Russia crisis, I will briefly address a relatively easier issue first: As a young believer in college, I was immersed in a type of dispensationalist teaching that really championed the modern nation/state of Israel. However, in the mid-1990s, I took a trip to the Holy Land, and frankly, I was deeply disillusioned with what I saw.

Israel looked a whole lot like “Sodom and Gomorrah” and a lot less like the Jewish, deeply spiritual population group that my college church envisioned Israel to be. Aside from visiting a lot of places where Jesus walked, etc., I just sensed that the country was a spiritually dark place. I was most deeply bothered by how poorly so many Palestinian Christians felt treated by the Israeli government. So, I abandoned my dispensationalist mindset and embraced covenant theology, which at that time seemed to be the best, theologically orthodox alternative to dispensationalism. It was not like I completely rejected any type of future for national, ethnic Israel. It was just that I was not convinced that the modern nation state of Israel had that much to do with it.

Then about 15 years later, a friend of mine challenged me on my beliefs. Frankly, I did not want to be challenged. I wanted my newer beliefs to be true, and I really did not want to be questioned.

But in 2014, I began about a four-year project, with about a two-year break in the middle, to study this topic of Israel (and Christian Zionism, in particular), and to set aside the wishful thinking that I had adopted, and be open to the truth, following the evidence, wherever it led me. Here is a link to the starting place of my research journey. I ended up in a more nuanced position, somewhere between the dispensationalist theology of my college years and the covenant theology of my post-Israel visit. It was a very humbling process, but looking back, I am glad I went through it.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Slavery)

Now, here is something that is really touchy.

For years, I believed that Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, and not Paul’s letters, were the best source for addressing the evils of slavery. After all, the “Golden Rule” taught by Jesus seemed like an obvious defeater for slavery. Jesus’ love for the poor and outcast seemed to me to outshine anything I read from Paul. Paul’s teaching in various places about slaves being obedient to their masters made me uncomfortable, so I tended to want to favor the “red letter” Christianity of where Jesus was quoted in the Gospels, in so-called “Red Letter Bibles.

The inconvenient truth is that there is nothing in the Gospels that indicates Jesus saw anything about slavery as being evil. Slavery was quite common in the first century Roman empire, but Jesus never spoke out against it.

Go ahead. Search through the Gospels yourself. See if you can find any explicit statement, or even an implicit one, where Jesus condemns slavery. Instead, you will find numerous places where Jesus simply assumes slavery to be a given reality in human society.

I hated to admit that to myself. But the silence in the Gospels about the evils of slavery is deafening.

Instead, one must look to the writings of Paul, Jesus’ designated spokesperson to the Gentiles, for any critique of slavery in the New Testament. While Paul does tell slaves to obey their masters, he also tells masters not to mistreat their slaves, which was quite out of step with the pater familias ethic of Roman households, where the predominate male of the house had complete, absolute control over everyone in the household, including slaves.

But the real clincher for Paul is found in his shortest letter in the New Testament, the letter to Philemon: When Paul returned the runaway slave, Onesimus, to his master, Philemon, he challenged Philemon to adopt the same attitude Paul had developed towards Onesimus, that of treating him as both a brother and a son.

Some treat Paul’s statement here as a kind of rhetorical flourish, but it really is much more than that. Paul’s Jewish heritage, grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, had informed him that it was morally wrong to enslave a fellow believer, much less a family member, thereby cutting at the very foundation as to why people should ever become slaves in the first place. Paul also knew the story of the Hebrew slaves being set free from underneath the rule of Pharaoh. It is no surprise then, that such a prominent early church father, like Gregory of Nyssa, became such an outspoken critic of slavery, a thousand years before the first African slave ever stepped foot on American soil.

True, Paul never comes out explicitly to tell Philemon to free Onesimus. Paul’s failure to do so might explain why it took so many centuries before slavery would be finally rejected as a moral evil, and why so many secularists today are dismissive of the Bible as not being more forceful in condemning slavery. But the fact that slavery gradually and eventually did become a moral evil to be rejected in civilized society can be traced back to Paul’s letter to Philemon (Thanks to Sarah Ruden, who helped me to understand this).

Sure, we still have slavery in the modern world, albeit in illegal ways. Thankfully, in our day, no morally responsible person, influenced by the Christian message, enslaves their own brother or son, and since we live in a world where the Gospel message can make anyone into a brother or sister in Christ, the enforcement of a slavery system becomes a mute issue. Alas, we find very little of this in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. But thankfully, we have Paul!

I wanted Jesus to be a slavery abolitionist, and leave Paul out of the discussion. One can infer truths like “love your neighbor, as yourself” as being abolitionist in intent, but history has shown that many slaveholders over the centuries have had no problem accepting Jesus’ teaching here, while still retaining ownership of another human being. But had those Christians really meditated on Paul’s short, little letter to Philemon?

Like many Christians have been tempted to want to believe, I had much preferred Jesus over Paul. However, the truth is that it all lands on Jesus’ spokesperson, Paul, and not Jesus himself, to voice that New Testament truth that undercuts the slavery system.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Non-Violence)

For a long time, I wanted to believe that the Bible strictly teaches an ethic of non-violence. I have sincere and wonderful Anabaptist friends who hold strongly to this belief. I still find myself looking away at some of the more violent passages of the Old Testament (I have a book on my reading list that I hope to review on this topic and report on, later this year).

Pacifists like Martin Luther King, Jr., and India’s Mahatma Gandhi have been heroes to me, and I still believe that there are cases where non-violence offers the best moral solution. I pray, pray, pray for peace. But in looking at the example of German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who wrestled with the ethic of non-violence, he eventually concluded that it was morally right and indeed necessary to throw “a spoke in the wheel” to try to stop Adolph Hitler’s murderous efforts to eliminate the Jews, as a follower of Jesus. Likewise, as far as I am concerned, the current efforts by the people of Ukraine to use military force to repel the Russian invasion, as best as I can understand the issues, adequately meets Saint Augustine’s criteria for a just war.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Loving Those Who Experience Same-Sex Attraction)

I have been bothered by the fact that some dear friends of mine have struggled with same-sex attraction. I wrestle with trying to understand why these friends have been subjected to this costly struggle, through no fault of their own. Some of these friends have since convinced themselves that foregoing the traditional Christian sexual ethic, and embracing same-sex marriage, is somehow “OK” with God. In many ways, I wish I could believe that. I want my friends to be happy, and if same-sex marriage brings them that happiness, I wish for them to experience that happiness.

The problem is that I find no room in the teaching of Scripture for sanctioning and blessing same-sex marriage, within the Christian church. Instead, I trust that God can provide other ways for my friends to experience intimacy and fulfilling friendship, without same-sex erotic relations, in a manner that brings God the glory. One can live without sex, but one can not live without friendship. Because I am tethered to the authority of Scripture, that is the position that I must take (Look here for an expansive treatment on this issue).

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Women Serving as Elders in a Local Church??)

Here is another divisive issue in some quarters, though not nearly as serious as the previous topic of same-sex marriage. This is not a hill I am going to die on, yet I have some important concerns about how the Scriptures are interpreted: For years, I wanted to believe that God desired women to serve in the same ways that men serve in the leadership of the church. I was actually a pretty opinionated egalitarian, believing that women can and should serve as elders/overseers, or presbyters, in a local church, which is in contrast with nearly all forms of complementarian theology.

Before anyone misrepresents my position (see this series of blog posts that examine this issue in great detail), I am still convinced that Scripture allows for and encourages women to serve in an incredibly wide variety of leadership functions, ranging from deacons, to church planters, to parachurch ministry workers, to ministry directors, to small group teachers and leaders, to members of a church board of directors, to theologians, to Bible scholars, and to prophets (Some of my more conservative complementarian friends these days think that my list is way, way too broad!). In fact, a lot of the research done, particularly over the past thirty years by egalitarian Bible scholars, has brought about a better sense of balance in our modern Bible translations. However, when I began to focus on the question of women serving specifically as elders/overseers in local churches, I have had to really rethink through the arguments and evidence presented in the New Testament.

I have many, many dear Christian friends of mine who are convinced in their own minds that Paul’s restrictions against women serving as elders/overseers in a local church, as found in 1 Timothy and Titus, are merely temporary commands, or otherwise they are commands limited to specific cultural circumstances and concerns found in first century Ephesus and Crete, respectively (where Timothy and Titus were). I held that view for a long time, too, so I am very sympathetic and respectful of such viewpoints. Those who disagree with me truly love Jesus, care deeply about winning others to the Gospel, and seek to honor and love the Scriptures.

In fact, I would argue that probably the best argument for an egalitarian reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 suggests that Paul is only forbidding the women of Ephesus from exercising spiritual authority and teaching because they might have been promoting Gnostic heresy.  I just no longer find that argument convincing. So, I must respectfully “agree to disagree” here with my egalitarian brothers and sisters in Christ, despite how much it pains me that we lack unity in this area.

But as I have studied the evidence more I have come to the conclusion that Paul’s view against having women serve as elders is not limited to the 1st century church in Ephesus or Crete, nor is this a temporary decree. Women have served in leadership in a wide variety of ways, particularly during the early church era. For example, the evidence for women serving as deacons, as early as the first decade of the second century, is overwhelming. However, the only time you find women specifically serving as elders/overseers during the early church era was in some extraordinary corner cases, and more commonly in heretical Christian movements, such as the Arians, the Montanists,  and the Gnostics, that were condemned across the board by the early leaders of the Christian church. Otherwise, the early church rejected the notion of having women serve as local church elders. Such evangelical luminaries as Tim Keller agree with me on these observations, as well as Francis Chan. (A quick note: this has nothing to do with women serving in the marketplace. Extreme complementarians try to force the Bible to inappropriately restrict women here… whoops, just made some complementarians mad!  Oh, well!!)

Furthermore, aside from certain evangelical egalitarian scholars, you will not find any scholars today, either conservative or liberal, who accept the arguments that the Paul of 1 Timothy and Titus would have endorsed women serving as elders/overseers in a local church. Instead, I have come to see that there is a powerful sacramentalist understanding of why Paul thought the way that he did, that does not fit the stereotype of chauvinism. Rather, a sacramentalist interpretation celebrates the mystery of the difference between male and female. Now, I can understand why other Christians are so troubled by the thought that Scripture forbids women to serve as local church elders. I wish I was wrong here, and perhaps new evidence will emerge that changes the story, but I find it necessary to follow the evidence that we already have.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

Wishful Thinking In the Midst of Struggle

Do I still struggle with issues surrounding the doctrine of hell, slavery, non-violence, how best to support my same-sex attracted friends, and charges of misogyny in the Bible? Sure I do. Only the most hardened conservative would fail to wrestle with these difficult issues. But hiding behind the thin veneer of wishful thinking has caused more harm than good.

When Christians are willing to fudge the data in order to make a case for something important to them, even if the intentions are good, it casts some serious doubt on the reliability of the Christian witness. It can come across as cheating. A bad apologetic can become fuel for the fire for the skeptic of Christianity.

 

Analyzing the Evidence for the Most Important Teaching in the Bible: The Resurrection

There are much more fundamental matters at stake. The bedrock of the Christian faith is the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Resurrection of Jesus is true, then Christianity is true, period! But if the Resurrection of Jesus did not happen, then even the Apostle Paul admits that our faith would be in vain.

But how do we know if Jesus really rose from the dead? Is that, too, also a product of wishful thinking? Is there sufficient evidence to support the truthfulness of the Resurrection of Jesus?

I have non-believing friends of mine who have challenged me with this question: “What would it take to prove to you, Clarke, that your belief in Christianity is a false belief? What would convince you that the Resurrection was untrue?”

My first instinct is to say that if you can produce the bones of Jesus, that would convince me that the Resurrection of Jesus was false. But in thinking about it some more, this is a bit of cheating. For how could you reliably find out if you actually had the bones of Jesus? How would you go about doing DNA testing, to figure out if you even had a match on Jesus’ bones? That is a pretty unrealistic way to try to falsify something.

A more realistic way of trying to falsify a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus would be to focus on the reliability of those early witnesses to the Risen Jesus. For if one can demonstrate that those witnesses were somehow unreliable and deceptive, it would cast some serious doubt on the Resurrection claim.

As a young college student, I often heard the claim from Christian apologists, that with the exception of the Apostle John, every single one of the original apostles died a martyr’s death. That claim helped me to be convinced that Jesus really rose from the dead. Plus, I really wanted this to be true. So, it was quite a blow to me to learn that this claim was overstated. A few of the early apostles were indeed martyred, like Peter, Paul, and James, but the others probably died natural deaths. In several cases, we simply do not know for sure.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

However, the rest of the story is vitally important. While not all of the apostles died as martyrs, is important to note that we have no evidence whatsoever that any of the early witnesses to the Resurrection ever denied their faith. None! Given the remarkableness of the Christian claim for the Resurrection, it is reasonable to conclude that they probably would have died for that belief, if the prospect of martyrdom became unavoidable. Just compare that with the story about the Book of Mormon, where several of the early witnesses to Joseph Smith’s story of the Golden Plates eventually did deny their earlier testimony regarding seeing the Golden Plates.

We still have good evidence that indeed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, and not merely a product of wishful thinking.

When evaluating evidence for any truth claim, we must always keep in mind that we all have experiences that cause us to weight certain type of evidence as being more crucial than other types of evidence. We all have biases that can cloud our thinking. We all make certain assumptions that tend to shape the method we use, in which we discover truth.

But one of the most important challenges for us is to be willing take a reality check on our wishful thinking, to see if the evidence really stacks up in favor of what we believe, and often more honestly, what we want to believe is true.

This blog post has been a really L-O-N-G introduction to what might possibly the most important debate of all time. This might seem like an exaggeration, but here are the details.

  • Bart Ehrman is probably one of the world’s most recognizable skeptics of the Bible, a former Christian, who does not believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead.
  • Michael Licona is an evangelical Christian, and a New Testament scholar, who has written one of most cogent defenses of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus.
  • Both Bart Ehrman and Michael Licona have debated one another several times, and they are both friends, even though they strongly disagree with one another about the historicity of the Resurrection.
  • On April 9, 2022, Ehrman and Licona will debate the topic once again, but this time, it will be “The Debate to End All Debates!” This debate is scheduled to last SEVEN HOURS. That’s right: 7 hours!!
  • To view the debate, you need to sign up for pay-per-view, which will give you lifetime access to the debate material.
  • Check out the following video by Michael Licona, describing how the debate will work.
  • Join me in praying for Michael Licona, for what will be an incredibly informative and thoughtful debate, that will test the stamina of both scholars!

 


Still Time to Care: Moving from Cure to Care for Those with Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction

When did Christians move from an ethic of care to an ethic of cure of unwanted, same-sex attraction persons? And what can Christians do to move back towards an ethic of care?

These are the central questions addressed in pastor Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure HomosexualityBefore the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, talk about “homosexuality” was largely a taboo subject. But in Johnson’s book, he chronicles numerous anecdotes of Christian leaders caring for persons who experience unwanted, same-sex attraction, in those years.

 

How Christians A Few Decades Ago Cared For Same-Sex Attracted Persons

One of C.S. Lewis’ childhood friends, Arthur Greeves, would have then probably classified himself as a “homosexual.” Lewis, perhaps the most well-known English speaking Christian apologist of all time, greatly treasured his friendship with Greeves, above all others. When Lewis became a believer in Jesus, Lewis first entrusted his story of conversion to Christianity with Greeves. Even though Lewis fully supported the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, and Greeves never experienced a change in his sexual orientation, Lewis never wavered in his friendship with Arthur Greeves.

When Francis Schaeffer first entertained guests at L’Abri in the 1950s, many seekers of truth who struggled with unwanted same-sex attraction were welcomed at the famous Swiss Christian study center. Schaeffer’s focus was on engaging seekers with their larger faith questions, as opposed to singling out issues regarding sexuality. When a high-profile member of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration was outed out of the closet as being a homosexual, Reverend Billy Graham urged Johnson to have compassion on the man as a human being, as opposed to categorically rejecting him out of condemnation.

These are all examples that author Greg Johnson has in his book of Christian leaders, who while upholding the biblical teaching that reserves marriage as being between one man and one woman for one lifetime, nevertheless modeled how other Christians can serve others by choosing to care for those who experience unwanted same-sex attraction.

This all seemed to change by the late 1970s, when such efforts to care for others were replaced by efforts to cure homosexuality, by offering the promise to make homosexuals into becoming heterosexual.  The so-called “Ex-Gay” movement was born.

 

How the “Ex-Gay” Movement Changed the Popular Narrative for Christians… and How It Eventually Failed

At the head of the “Ex-Gay” movement was Exodus International, an umbrella organization encompassing many smaller ministries that sent the message that “change is possible,” suggesting that certain techniques could be followed that could change someone’s sexual orientation. Exodus International was dissolved in 2013, when its then president, Alan Chambers, publicly stated that Exodus had oversold its claim that “change is possible.”

What led to the rise and then ultimate fall of Exodus International? As the story unfolds in Still Time to Care, groups like Exodus International were using reparative therapy (what others call conversion therapy) to try to change someone’s sexual orientation. Reparative therapy is based on a controversial application of Freudian psychology, based on the assumption that homosexuality is a correctable mental health ailment. In 2012 however, Chambers had declared, after years of Exodus trying to use reparative therapy, that “the majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation.” Popular media outlets, like with Netflix’ 2021 documentary Pray Away, features interviews with other former Exodus leaders coming to the same conclusion as Chambers (Unfamiliar with the documentary? Preston Sprinkle interviews Tony Scarcello about it on YouTube).

Author Greg Johnson uses the analogy of a “Potemkin Village” to describe what Exodus had tried and failed to achieve. In 1787, Grigory Potemkin was a provincial political authority in Crimea and a love interest in the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. When Catherine the Great toured Crimea via boat along the Dnieper River, Potemkin sought to impress the Empress by dressing up peasants as wealthy merchants and setting up temporary village facades alongside the riverbanks, giving the illusion that the area was experiencing prosperity, despite the actual desperate poverty of the region. Once Catherine’s entourage left one of these temporary villages, Potemkin had his hired peasants breakdown the village facades and move them down the river ahead of Catherine, and then reassemble the same village in another location, in an effort to continue to impress Catherine as she resumed her river tour.

Exodus International, collaborating with other ministries like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, had for years paraded individuals at fund-raising events and conferences as examples of those whose orientation had changed from gay to straight. In many if not most of these cases, those same individuals would later renounce their “conversions” as yet mere facades, repeated examples of a Potemkin Village. Tragically, Johnson also documents other former Exodus leaders who committed suicide, to further hide the shame of such facade conversions to heterosexuality.

The meteoric rise and fall of many Exodus leaders and the rebound effect throughout the larger culture has been nothing short of spectacular, particularly over the last decade. For example, when President Obama first took office in 2009, he was publicly committed to honoring traditional marriage as being between one man and one woman. But by the end of Obama’s second term, the broader cultural views about marriage had dramatically shifted, along with the President’s. Prohibitions against same-sex marriage, at the federal level, were declared unconstitutional. The language of “LGBTQ” was no longer a taboo in polite, civil conversation, becoming an accepted dimension of post-modern culture. All of this happened during those waning years of Exodus International’s dissolution.

Estimates vary, but Johnson notes that about 700,000 persons over a near 50 year period went through some sort of reparative therapy. Various studies over that period indicate that despite recorded claims of high-success rates, the actual success rate for changing one’s sexual orientation has been extremely low, perhaps as low as 2%. That means that some 98% of those 700,000 persons have walked away from reparative therapy with an extremely disillusioned, if not outright angry attitude towards the “Ex-Gay” movement.

 

Changing the Emphasis From “Becoming Heterosexual” to “Becoming Holy”

Pastor Greg Johnson laments the once well-intended yet ultimate failure of reparative therapy organizations. But he is hopeful that Christians can and are returning to an ethic of care, as opposed to an ethic of cure. The goal for ministry with those who experience unwanted sexual attraction should not be to try to “pray the gay away,” and convert someone from being a homosexual to becoming heterosexual. Rather, the emphasis should be on becoming holy.

What makes Still Time to Care so invaluable a resource is that pastor Greg Johnson himself is one of those persons who experiences unwanted same-sex attraction. However, instead of following the cultural trend affirming same-sex marriage, Johnson still believes in the traditional, Christian sexual ethic of marriage being between a man and a woman, for a lifetime. For those like Johnson, this might mean a life of celibacy, surrounded by supportive friends. For others, it might mean living in a mixed-orientation marriage, where one spouse is heterosexual and the other is not.

Johnson believes that even those like himself can flourish as Christians and human beings, while seeking to mortify the flesh against the spiritually devastating effects of sin, and by resisting temptation. However, the key to doing this is by being apart of Christian communities that offer emotional and spiritual support along that journey towards sanctification and holiness. In other words, one can live without sex but you can not live without friends.

While many churches wrestle with the wider cultural trends to affirm same-sex marriage, and entire denominations are splitting over the issue, Still Time to Care offers a vision for historically, orthodox Christians to return to an ethic of care, inviting people to share their stories and be a part of authentic Christian community.

Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care offers a history of how the “Ex-Gay” movement created a Potemkin Village for almost 50 years, a great facade to look at, but not much really behind it.

Sadly, too many Christians still get hung up over terminology. Granted, most sensitive thinkers tend to shy away from terminology like “homosexual,” as that term sounds too clinical and impersonal. However, when it comes to historically orthodox-minded believers in the midst of the struggle, should such persons be called “celibate gay Christians,” “single gay Christians,” or “Christians who experience same-sex attraction?”

There are some who argue that any of the above language is somehow still a concession to worldliness, and therefore inappropriate for Christians to use about themselves. Thankfully, there are newer Christian ministries, like Revoice, that are trying to help Christians move past such debates over terminology and towards providing supportive communities for believers at all stages along the journey. Greg Johnson’s message is hopeful: Yes, there is still time to care!

 

Moving From a “Sexual Prosperity Gospel” to a Gospel of Care

Lest someone think that books like Still Time to Care represent some type of “trojan horse,” a harmful ideology being injected subversively into the church, one should note that Greg Johnson includes a whole chapter carefully dismantling the revisionist arguments presented by those like Western Seminary’s James Brownson, in his Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, and Karen Keen’s Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. For example, Brownson borrows from William Webb’s “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” argument to make his case for same-sex marriage. Keen states in her book “The biblical authors don’t write about the morality of consensual same-sex relationships as we know them today…. To say that the biblical authors object to prostitution or pederasty is not to say that the authors object to monogamous, covenanted relationships.”  Sadly, a wide range of evangelicals, including former Christianity Today editor David Neff, author Tony Campolo, the late Rachel Held Evans, and MOPS speaker Jen Hatmaker have embraced such revisionist arguments, thus undermining an historically orthodox sexual ethic. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.  (See this short essay by Johnson summarizing his critique of this form of revisionism).

Christians, who desire to uphold the historic Scriptural teaching on marriage, may still find themselves at a loss in terms of how to care for persons, experiencing such sexual attractions, who either embrace revisionist views on Christian marriage, or who reject Christianity outright. The old Christian adage of “loving the sinner, and yet hating the sin,” can ring very hollow in the ears of those disillusioned by the unthoughtful efforts of Christians to try to change them. However, one can still have a positive relationship with someone else, even if there is no agreement on the definition of marriage. Learning to care about others does not necessarily entail having perfect agreement on these matters. Rather, caring does require learning how to listen to others, and empathizing with their story.

Is change still possible, for altering someone’s same-sex orientation? I would not want to preclude the idea that God performs miracles (I believe God does), but we must very careful here: My conclusion from reading Still Time to Care is that yes, it might be possible, but not likely. That might sound pessimistic, but it is better to be realistic than misleading people with a false hope, however well-intentioned it is. We can not try to “force God’s hand” to do something which does not appear to be within his sovereign plan and purpose. Furthermore, even if some do claim a radical transformation, in terms of sexual orientation change, it is wholly inappropriate to promise that everyone will have such an experience.

Just as the “prosperity gospel” offers a false hope that any and everyone who follows Jesus will have the best health, the best career, the best automobile, and the best marriage, and so on, so it is with a “sexual prosperity gospel” associated with the “Ex-Gay” movement, that promises that following some religious formula will automatically lead to a sexual orientation change. An inappropriate emphasis on seeking after such change can be a setup for future failure, in a person’s walk with Jesus.

Though some still cling to the optimistic aspirations of the “Ex-Gay” movement, focusing on sexual orientation change, like Andrew Comiskey’s Desert Stream Ministries, Andrew Rodriguez’ PyschoBible, and Stephen Black’s First Stone Ministries, and others affiliated with the Restored Hope Network, the personal failures left in the wake of Exodus International’s demise have left a negative taste in the mouth of thousands and thousands of people, a tragic situation which is difficult to ignore. Admittedly, even those in the Restored Hope Network are shying away from reparative therapy these days, while still pursuing other possible avenues for change. The sad tales that Still Time to Care documents continues to serve as warnings for us all.

On the other hand, efforts like pastor Greg Johnson to promote care, as opposed to cure, are welcomed by those disillusioned with the “Ex-Gay” movement. A renewed emphasis on listening, community, and encouraging friendships is deeply needed, particularly as hostility towards historically orthodox Christians views on marriage increase in our culture. We need a new generation of C.S. Lewis’, Francis Schaeffer’s, and Billy Graham’s who can demonstrate what it really means to care for others in the name of Jesus.

Look here for more information about Greg Johnson’s book, Still Time to Care. I listened to the audio version of the book, but  the print and Kindle versions of the book should be released in December, 2021.

For more posts on this topic, please consider the following blog entries at Veracity:

Looking for more help if you struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction, or if someone you love has that struggle?

  • The Revoice Conference. Sponsors an annual conference where fellow Christians, who experience same-sex attraction, but who want to uphold the historic Christian ethic can find support.
  • The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender. Directed by author and theologian Preston Sprinkle, the Center provides valuable resources for parents, individuals and churches, in the areas of sexuality and gender identity, with endorsements from trusted authors and leaders like Jackie Hill Perry, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, and Karen Swallow Prior.

Verbicide

I might step on some toes here.

I am just as guilty here as the next person, but in C.S. Lewis’ masterful work, Studies in Words, p.7-8, the great Oxford don nails it:

“Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very,’ tremendous for ‘great,’ sadism for ‘cruelty,’ and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides. Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative. Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality.’ Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative. But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative. . . . and to end up by being purely evaluative– useless synonyms for good or for bad.”

I see this type of verbicide happening all of the time among Christians, including myself. I will use a word like awesome, simply to say that I like something, which is hardly what awesome meant some thirty years ago, in normal speech. To create a sense of awe, or reverence, about something or someone, is what awesome has typically meant for years. Nowadays, awesome has become almost a throw-away word, used to describe how good that hamburger tasted, that you just ate for lunch.

But among fellow Christians, the problem seems like an epidemic. Some believers insist on the literal interpretation of Scripture, when it is clear that literal merely has an inflationary characteristic, that Lewis identifies back in 1960, when he wrote Studies in Words. It is found in the common colloquialism of “it is literally raining cats and dogs out there!” Surely, no one believes that your neighbor’s siamese cat and yellow labrador just landed on your front lawn. No, it simply means that it is raining really, really, really hard.

Verbicide. We have killed the word literally.

We have turned the word literally into something not literal at all. Or to recall the previous blog post, whereby we discovery that metaphors can become so stable, that they can actually become new words. Just think of the word concrete, which in construction lingo, refers to a mixture of cement and sand, and other materials. But it could also have a metaphorical meaning, abstracted away from its construction context, to mean something that is firm or stable itself….. You know, something concrete.

Then there is that old discussion about inerrancy. For some, inerrancy is an affirmation that Scripture is the Christian’s authority. Why would you submit to something as your authority, if you lack the confidence that it is without error? A humble posture of obedience to the teachings of Scripture is predicated on the assumption that you accept the Bible to be true. This is the reason why inerrancy, which affirms the truthfulness of Scripture, is so important.

However, often inerrancy gets spun around to say, “My interpretation of the Bible is inerrant, and your interpretation is not!” So, two Christians can both hold to the inerrancy of the Bible, but if one Christian does not agree with an interpretation of a particular passage, that another Christian holds to, in good conscience, sometimes they might pull out the charge that the other Christian is denying the inerrancy of the Bible.

Yet what they really are doing is arguing for the inerrancy of their own, particular interpretation of a Bible passage. When thought poorly, in this manner, biblical “inerrancy” has less to do with describing and affirming the authority of Scripture, and more to do with evaluating the acceptability or non-acceptability of someone’s interpretation of the Scriptures. Not all interpretations of the Bible are created equal, but when we do stuff like this with words, then the word inerrancy becomes almost useless.

Note, however, I am not saying that inerrancy is not a useful word. I still firmly believe that it is. You can have a correct interpretation of a particular Bible passage, but still refuse to submit to it, if you fail to trust the Bible as God’s True Word. Affirming the inerrancy of Scripture is the first step, but not the last step. We still need to learn how to interpret Scripture correctly. Hopefully, this makes sense and is clear.

So, what I am saying is that when a word like inerrancy gets transformed from Lewis’ descriptive sense; that is, describing the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture, as in the classic usage, to Lewis’ more evaluative sense; that is, “your interpretation of the Bible is bad; therefore, you must be denying the inerrancy of the Bible,” then we have pretty much committed verbicide, thus rendering inerrancy as being an ineffective word.

And that is not good. It is not helpful. But that is what we do.

People of the Word can do some crazy things with words.

If you poke around on social media, whether it be following Twitter, reading Facebook posts, or in the worst possible case, that absolute scourge of the online era, reading YouTube video comments…. I find it to be a terribly depressing display of how Christians can commit verbicide, without much reflective thought. Why some people, even followers of Christ, would resort to such incoherent and even vitriolic language you find online, that they would never-ever-ever use in face-to-face to conversation, is simply appalling. But as the era of using social media has now pretty much become the norm, I am now starting to hear to such abusive talk, by the murder of words, ranging from comments given at a Bible study, to everyday face-to-face conversation with another believer…. And much of this we pick up from the world around us, particularly from our social media habits.

If I were the Pope, and we still had one organized church body, I would instigate a ban on all Christians writing on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube video comments, or at least impose a 24-hour cooling off period, before a Christian types out a response to something they have seen or read online, with threats of immediate excommunication, in order to stop the madness.

If I was smart enough, I would just stop right here….. But please indulge me a few more paragraphs to gripe a bit more about the problem with verbicide….. Otherwise, you can stop now, and enjoy the rest of your day….

Here is a classic example as to why I never simply assume what someone means anymore when they use particular words, particularly when it comes to social media: What grieves me these days is watching what has happened to something like the word gay. In the 1890s, it meant describing someone who was “happy.” Any sexual flavor to the word was simply unknown.

In popular culture, this meaning was preserved even in the opening credits of the 1960s Flintstones cartoon, “we’ll have a gay old time!”

That practice shifted, however, somewhere in my lifetime.

Thirty years ago, and for some of us, still today, gay means to describe the experience of persons, who find themselves with some sort of disposition of being sexually attracted to another person of the same sex. To be gay does not necessarily mean being sexually active, though that is possible. It generally applies to describing someone’s sexual orientation, which may or may not be immutable, but that typically does not change for most people, who think of themselves as gay.

Sure, there are reports that one’s sexual orientation may change over time, but such reports are rarely common. Being gay is more of an internal struggle, as indicating that one’s experience of sexual attraction, is outside of the norm. To be gay, in this sense, is a product of the Fall, but it is not an indication of any particular moral failure, on the part of the person who has this disposition, if they do not act on this disposition, either in thought or deed. To be gay, therefore, only becomes sin when one is tempted to act upon such desire, and succumb to that temptation, either through imaginative lust, or by actually participating in a sexual relationship.

Sadly, over the past few decades, much of the church’s response towards those who say that they are gay has been to try to get them to become heterosexual. But the goal of sanctification is not heterosexuality. Rather, the goal is holiness.

As a result of this misstep in the church, over time, the language of being gay has evolved for some, to be a type of descriptor of someone’s ontological identity. This shift has become sharply pronounced and accelerated in the era of Facebook and Twitter. Instead of merely describing a person’s experience of sexual attraction, the use of the word gay goes deeper than describing personal experience of sexual attraction, as it has come to describe “who I am, as a person,” for someone who thinks of themselves as gay.

A shocking example of this is the same-sex couple in Colorado, who took Jack Phillips, a master cake decorator, to court, for claiming that Phillip’s refusal to endorse a same-sex wedding, using Phillip’s skills as a artist, contrary to Phillip’s evangelical theological beliefs, was actually an attack on who they were as persons. This same-sex couple, and others like them, make the surprising leap that a failure to approve of a particular behavior, by not using socially approved forms of speech, is somehow a violation of someone’s else’s personal identity.

I do not personally know of anyone who consciously thinks of themselves as being gay like this, but clearly I do hear about it. Surely, as contemporary culture continues to raise awareness of “LGBTQ” concerns, the word gay is more and more used, in the media, as indicating a type of social or political identity, implying the active expression of same-sex erotic activity.

My concern is that in response, many Christians then take this word, gay, also in a morally evaluative sense. To be gay, therefore, has no place in God’s divine purposes, even indirect, and therefore not good, in any way, shape, or form. If someone’s experience of same-sex attraction persists, then many Christians believe that there must be something awfully wrong with that person’s faith.

What a shift from the 1890s, the 1960s, or even the 1980s.

So, when a Christian describes themselves as a “single gay Christian,” or a “celibate gay Christian,” they must be careful to define what they mean. But for a growing number of Christians, because of the morally evaluative sense, so prevalently attached to that word, “gay,” any attempt to define what the word means, in any merely descriptive sense, arouses deep suspicion.

Acknowledging the experience of being gay, as a product of the Fall, is insufficient, for some Christians. To the one who holds such deep suspicions, the language of gay must be rejected at every point, for the believing Christian. “Gay” and “celibate” are inherently contradictory, despite any effort at explanation and precise definition.

In other words, we have killed the word “gay.”

As a result, some Christians over the years, have cast aside the wholly negative language of gay, and then, in the most neutral sense possible, as so many of us think, and now speak exclusively of being “same-sex attracted.” In other words, to be same-sex attracted is to have such a disposition, or orientation, towards finding a member of the same sex attractive. This sense of being same-sex attracted can be characterized as allowing for a presentation of a temptation, that could lead to sin, either in thought, as in lust, or in deed, engaging in sexual relations. The same-sex attracted Christian then wrestles with their condition, seeking to resist temptation, that they might not succumb to sin, if they wish to be faithful to the classic teaching of the Scriptures.  Interestingly, the very language Christians use here has become a topic of intense debate, within the evangelical church.

A excellent example of this type of preference of one term, “same-sex attracted” against another similar term, “gay,” to describe the experience of some Christians, who nevertheless hold to the traditional view of marriage, as being exclusively between a man and a woman, can be found in a 2019 resolution among Southern Baptists.

In other words, for Southern Baptists in 2019, it is permissible to “identify” as being “same-sex attracted,” while still affirming celibacy. But it is NOT permissible to “identify” as being “gay,” while still affirming celibacy. Why? Because presumably being “same-sex attracted” carries no morally evaluative stigma with it, whereas “gay” does.

According to C.S. Lewis, this is how we go about murdering words.

But just within the last couple of years, I am seeing that same language of “same-sex attracted” being cast under the same, morally evaluative scrutiny as gay once was. Now even some Christians are calling on others to reject the language of same-sex attracted, as inherently being a damnable sin, by the mere presentation of a Fallen desire.

I am an advocate for ministries, like Celebrate Recovery, where Christian people gather together, and confide with one another that they are “recovering or sober alcoholics,” and the like. Granted, there is a danger here. For it might be misconstrued, that to describe one’s self as a “recovering or sober alcoholicis an unfortunate means of “identifying” with your sin, instead of trusting fully with Christ, as the very center and grounding of one’s identity. All sin is sin, so we should not major on the particularities. Christ and Christ alone is and should be our sole identity. I totally get that.

However, there is also an equally important danger going too far in the other direction. The aversion to using the language of a “recovering or sober alcoholicmight lead one to think that one’s particular experience, wrestling against a particular tendency towards a particular sin, might cause us to downplay the particularities of a person’s struggle. In other words, I am concerned that there might come a day when is it no longer permissible to self-describe oneself as an “alcoholic,” in this manner, because it inherently implies a morally evaluative status.

But this would be wrong-headed. For the best way for an “alcoholic” to make their journey towards recovery, is by finding support among other “recovering alcoholics.” There can be some overlap with “recovering pornography addicts” or “recovering gambling addicts,” but the experiences are nevertheless still different. Someone with a gambling addiction is not always the best person to help someone with an alcohol problem. A recovering alcoholic can only offer limited assistance to someone who suffers from chronic overeating.

I suggest, we should not shy away from talking about the unique aspects of one’s experience with unique sanctification struggles, for fear of “over-identifying” with something apart from Christ. Sadly, I believe that the Southern Baptist 2019 resolution can lead some towards this type of unhealthy shyness.

What makes the 2019 resolution so bizarre is that Celebrate Recovery, with its goal of helping people with their “hurts, habits, and hang-ups,” had its genesis in a Southern Baptist church.

Theologically, it is like it is becoming more impossible to carefully distinguish temptation from sin, without collapsing the latter onto the former. It reminds of me of playing tag football as a kid, when my neighbor would move the goalposts, right in the middle of the play. I thought I was getting to the touchdown zone, only to discover that the touchdown zone had moved down the field, another few yards away.

What a frustrating thing it is, to have a conversation with someone, thinking you are talking about the same thing, only to realize that the goalposts have been moved on you, and you discover that you can not even agree on the basic terms of the conversation.

Perhaps it is because I do not watch television any more, on a regular basis, that I notice these things. Perhaps it is due to the way Facebook, and other means of social media exchange, take place in an online world. But it really bothers me to see so many, otherwise earnest Christians falling into these changing patterns of thinking and expression. And, if I am honest, it probably influences me in such subtle ways that I am not even aware of it.

Alas. We as Christians follow the ways of the world without thinking carefully and clearly, just as Lewis observed.

Or perhaps a better way to put it is this: language is changing, and these days, in the era of social media, it is changing more rapidly than ever before. But sadly, Christians can easily get stuck in certain language patterns, without realizing it, that can make effective communication exceedingly difficult.

We live in strange times.

Lord help us.


Is Evangelicalism On A Slippery Slope Regarding Gender?

14th in a series.

If you are just joining in, I urge to go back to the first blog post in this series, and work your way forward, to get to where we are now, as this discussion will now take a different, broader turn, built on what was discussed previously….

Here is a hot potato to try to handle: If evangelical churches move in an egalitarian direction, regarding having women as elders, are they on a slippery slope towards accepting same-sex marriage?

For many conservative evangelical churches, that have chosen over the past one hundred years, or more, to ordain women at all levels of pastoral ministry, the answer would be a firm, “NO.” Consider these examples, and the dates when women first started to be ordained: Nazarenes (in 1908), the Assemblies of God (in 1914), the Free Methodists (in 1864), and various Pentecostal churches (in 1906), along with their charismatic descendants.

Despite a few exceptions here and there, these historic denominations have maintained a firm commitment to a classic, historic view of Christian marriage, as being between a man and a woman. They have held to other fundamental doctrines of Christian faith, too. Many have come to Christ, through the effectiveness and faithfulness of these ministries, and have held stedfast to the Gospel. Many egalitarian evangelical churches are indeed growing. Slippery slopes, therefore, are not automatic.

On the other hand, the story among mainline Protestant churches is quite different. The Episcopal Church USA began ordaining women as priests in the 1970s. Back then, it was unthinkable for many Episcopalians to consider the possibility of having same-sex marriage ceremonies held in their churches.

Fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century, when the Episcopal Church USA ordained an openly practicing gay man as bishop of an influential northern diocese. In 2018, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution, stating that same-sex couples will now be able to marry in their home parish, even if their local bishop has moral objections to same-sex marriage. The resolution stopped just short of fully integrating same-sex marriage liturgy into the Book of Common Prayer, but that has not stopped some Episcopal priests from secretly performing same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The story has been repeated a number of times over the years. Mainline churches that several generations ago began to ordain women, and promised to “hold the line” against same-sex marriage, are now finding themselves under increased pressure to allow for and even endorse same-sex marriages in their churches. The United Churches of Christ began ordaining women in 1957. In 2005, the United Churches of Christ affirmed “marriage equality” in their foundational documents. The same type of stories have been repeated, or are currently repeating, among more mainline Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and some United Methodists.

As a result, these once dominant, mainline bodies of churches have continued on towards a trajectory of decline. Mainline churches once boasted of 30% affiliation among Americans in the early 1970s. That number has dropped to around 10% affiliation among Americans in 2017. If the current trend continues, mainline churches may not be around anymore in about 20 years. Or at least, they will become a shadow of what they once were. Is the current trend reversible?

Furthermore, as the mainline has declined, the line between evangelical churches and the older mainline has grown fuzzier and fuzzier. The culture today is vastly different from the culture a hundred years ago. That being the case, what can prevent an evangelical church today, in the current cultural climate, from following the declining pattern already established by the older mainline?

Many egalitarian evangelicals unswervingly hold to the conviction that the practice of having women as elders and pastors is fundamentally unrelated to the question of same-sex marriage. I do not question this conviction. As stated above, plenty of evangelical churches who have been ordaining women to elder or pastoral ministry have remained firm in their commitment to classic Christian sexual ethics. In other words, an “inevitable” slippery slope is a logical fallacy.

However, what I am not sure about is why these issues are fundamentally unrelated. This question of why same-sex marriage is wrong, and why women as elders, for many, might be wrong as well, does not get thought about often enough. I know many fine egalitarian Christians who truly believe these issues are fundamentally unrelated. But it is not always clear as to why that is the case.

Give this some consideration: The main issue with having women as elders is not about competence nor ability. It is about gender. Likewise, the main issue about same-sex marriage is not about love, family, or commitment. It is about gender.

What then is our theology of gender all about? Do the gender distinctions between male and female really matter, and where is this to be applied? Only with respect to sexual behavior, or is there more to it?

The narrative of creation sets the stage for how we think about gender, what it means, how significant it is, and where the differences between male and female really matter:

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27 ESV).

This is a complex issue, that requires thoughtful reflection, and no single blog post can easily resolve the discussion. To put it briefly, Genesis teaches us that men and women are created by God to be equal. But men and women are NOT interchangeable.1 The problem is, that in discerning what the practical implications are, requires a lot of thought and prayer, in our efforts to figure this stuff out.

Egalitarians must be willing to take a hard look at this: By promoting the idea that woman should be serving as elders/pastors, are they merely copying “what the world does,” or are they truly resisting “the world?” Is egalitarian theology really rooted in the Gospel? If not, then perhaps the gains of tinkering with church eldership will be offset by the dilution of a robust theology of gender.

Complementarians must be willing to take a hard look, too: By only permitting men to be elders/pastors, are they honoring women, or are they somehow denigrating women? Is complementarian theology really rooted in the Gospel? If not, then the hard line taken against women in those leadership roles will distort a truly robust theology of gender.

What Is The Positive Posture To Take on Such Matters?

A further problem to consider is this: When trying to “hold the line” on an issue, whether it be same-sex marriage, or for some, women as elders, are we neglecting to consider what might be a more positive way of approaching these issues? Are Christians to be known for what they are against, or for what they are for?

If a church is going to forbid same-sex marriage, it is imperative that a church consider how that community will serve and support those who wrestle with same-sex attraction. If someone in this latter category agrees with the position of the church, regarding marriage as being only between a man and a woman, or perhaps they are unsure, but who remain open to the teaching of the church, how will that person find love, support, friendship, healing, and encouragement, in their own journey of faith, in that community? With respect to ministry to the so-called “LGBTQ” community, what are Christians known to be for?

Likewise, if a church is going to forbid women from serving as elders or pastors, it is imperative that a church consider how that community will serve and support women, who have extraordinary gifts and skills for ministry. Will they be treated as mere “second class citizens,” in comparison to men? Or will women be fully supported and encouraged to use their gifts and skills? What are Christians known to be for?

Too often, churches will make statements concerning an issue, in an effort to “hold the line” against cultural trends invading the church, and completely neglect the pastoral implications that inevitably arise, due to making such statements. When such churches neglect such things, often their statements fall upon deaf ears. In other words, how we say something matters just as much, if not more, than what we say.

Are men and women flourishing together in your church?

Whew! There is lot more I could say about it, but I will leave it at that. For the remaining blog posts in this series, I will circle around the airfield a few more times, so to speak, and then try to “land the plane.”

 

Notes:

1. Sometimes, Galatians 3:28 gets thrown into the discussion: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (ESV).” Some see this as breaking down the distinction between male and female, but one must be careful here, not to minimize Genesis 1:27 in the process. The more traditional interpretation of Galatians 3:28, adopted by most modern day complementarians, suggests that male and female are equal in Christ, with respect to salvation; specifically the work of justification. It does NOT mean that male and female can serve in equivalent roles, in the church. More recent egalitarian interpretations extend the application of Galatians 3:28 beyond the work of justification, to include how male and female are to relate together, in the order of the local church.   


“Such Were Some of You”: The Language of Christian Identity

Can a Christian ever call themselves a “sober alcoholic?” Or a “non-practicing adulterer?” A “celibate gay” person?

The controversy over the Revoice conference has died down some, but the main topic continues to provoke earnest discussion among evangelicals: Is it ever appropriate to use the terminology of “single” (or “celibate”), “gay,” and “Christian” within the same sentence, to describe some believers? Does such language inherently betray a compromise of a Christian’s identity, as being founded only upon our relationship with Christ? Or even worse, does it wrongly identify a Christian with their sin?

A driver’s license tells us a lot about a person’s identity, but there is a deeper question for Christians: How should a believer “identify” themselves?

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