Tag Archives: same-sex marriage

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.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Carl Trueman on Our Cultural Crisis … and “Mr.” Potato Head??

Who am I?” A profound yet difficult question. How does one go about trying to answering it?…. and what does this all have to do with “Mr” and/or “Mrs” Potato Head?

A generation ago, the thought of “a woman being trapped in a man’s body” was commonly rejected as unthinkable silly talk. Such a thought was judged to be simply incoherent.

Today, the idea that anyone can simply define their own gender, as an expression of one’s self, is quite normal, in many social, political, business, and educational institutions. Three examples come to mind to illustrate this:.

  • Among ordinary Americans: A 2020 Gallup poll shows that 1 in 6 Americans, between the ages of 18 and 23, consider themselves to be somewhere in the “LGBTQ” category, as opposed to 1 in 50 Americans, ages 56 and older.
  • In politics: In the month that I am writing this post (March, 2021), the U.S. Senate is considering a bill, already passed in the House of Representatives, called “The Equality Act,” that would enable sweeping changes in current law, regarding how schools, employers, religious-affiliated institutions, and even parents of children handle such questions of self-identity.
  • In business: A book that features testimonies from trans-persons who later regretted pursuing gender reassignment surgeries, or other medical procedures, Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally, was delisted from the world’s largest book seller, Amazon.com, as Amazon says that the book violates their company policy, which prohibits them from selling books that “frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.

That first example alone blows my mind every time I think about it. So, how did this radical perception of the self change so rapidly within such a short period of time?

While still keeping the characters of “Mr” and “Mrs” Potato Head, in February, 2021, Hasbro announced that they will remove the “Mr” from the overall brand name, which is now simply, “Potato Head.” Now “kids [can] create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads,” presumably with interchangeable parts, where dads can become moms, and moms can become dads. How did we get here? Carl Trueman helps us out. (Link to the full Hasbro press release, including the video you have to see to believe)

The Roots of Our Current Crisis Regarding the Self

Before going any further, it is important to say that gender dysphoria; that is, having a sense that one’s personal experience of gender is not congruent with one’s biological sex, is a real phenomenon, involving real people, with real confusions and real consequences. We should never be quick to brush off the difficulties facing by people, particularly youth, who struggle deeply with troubling, and often painful experiences related to gender identity. (See my review and personal reflections on Preston Sprinkle’s marvelously helpful book, Embodied: Transgender Identities, The Church, & What the Bible Has to Say ) But aside from such personal and pastoral issues, as important as they are, there is the broader question of how such fluid understandings of gender have emerged in the larger cultural conversation, in the secular West. Where did this sudden emergence of gender identity questions come from?

If you consider yourself to be a thinking Christian, and the current wave of interest in all things “trans” concerns you, then I know of THE book that you need to read: Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution is a long awaited attempt to frame the historical and philosophical factors that have led to our current, cultural moment. Trueman currently serves as a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, but he has had a distinguished career as a Fellow at Princeton University, and in teaching church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born and raised in England, Trueman is what can best be described as a confessional Protestant, a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, holding fast to an unabashedly Reformed and Puritan mode of evangelical faith, and a cohost of the Mortification of Spin podcast, an intellectually and spiritually invigorating podcast I listen to from time to time. But as Trueman articulates so well in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, he is fully conversant with the best of modern and post-modern philosophy and historical studies. His work is lucid, insightful, and inviting, all at the same time. In fact, you really do not learn of Trueman’s confessional convictions as a Christian, until towards the end of the book, but he does so in a thoughtful and irenic fashion, without shying away from the challenges of today’s controversies.

How Did We Get Here, to This Cultural Moment?

Back to the original question: “Who am I?”  The question of one’s self-identity has undergone a cosmic shift over the past few centuries, argues Trueman. The touchstone on which Trueman places his analysis comes from the thought of the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, author of the highly acclaimed The Secular Age. But for Trueman’s purposes, he zeroes in on Taylor’s work as to how the concept of the self has changed during the modern and post-modern eras. In particular, Taylor argues that the shift in answering the question, “Who am I?,” has increasingly moved towards an inward, introspective direction. In the premodern world, the concept of self-identity was wrapped up in what some external, objectifying source said about you, such as a parent, a feudal lord, or a priest or other spiritual guide expressing a body of church teaching. The quest to understand one’s self-identity is grounded today in a therapeutic mindset, by “looking within.”

Reinforcing this point, Trueman highlights the thought of American sociologist, Philip Reiff, who says that today we have a “plastic” view of the self, whereby we can fashion our own-self conception to be whatever we like it to be. Together with that, Trueman adds Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair Macintyre as yet a third voice, who suggests that today’s language of self-expression is primarily “emotive,” namely that today’s ethical “values” are essentially the products of “expressive individualism.”

Trueman contends that this bend towards “expressive individualism” is inescapable now. The Christian church is caught in the thick of it all. Diagnosing how we arrived at this “expressive individualism” is the set of historical ideas that Trueman seeks to unpack in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

Owing largely to the influence of Sigmund Freud, all of these trends find their biggest impact in the areas of human sexuality and gender: Someone is “gay” because they “feel” that way, and that tells them a lot about “who they are.” Or, as has emerged in recent years, we have the idea that someone can define themselves as being a “man” or a “woman,” simply on the basis of how they “feel.” The language of identity has moved, in small increments, from the objective to the subjective.

Far be it for me to try effectively lay out the full framework of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I can best refer the reader to consult either the summary reviews written by Regent College theologian Paul Helm, at his website, or at MereOrthodoxy.com. Let it suffice to say that Trueman does a masterful job weaving in the thought of Marx, Freud, and Darwin to buttress his thesis, along with some erudite analysis and critique of the Romantics, like William Blake and Percy Shelley, as well as an engagement with other seminal thinkers like Rousseau and Nietzsche. In particular, I once had a particular fascination for William Blake’s view of Christian spirituality, but Carl Trueman has convinced me that such a warm appreciation has been sorely misplaced, due to Blake’s advocacy of “free love” in his early years. Among a host of other insights, Trueman gave me the most succinct analysis of ethicist Peter Singers’ rationale for accepting abortion that I have ever read, due to Singer’s attack on orthodox Christianity (readers interested in pro-life concerns should read The Rise and Triumph for that reason alone!)

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the consequences that have been born out in terms of the legalization of same-sex marriage and widespread public acceptance gender re-imagination, is all the fruit of cultural trends in the past few hundreds of years that Trueman brings to light. While readers may know very little about Rousseau and Nietzsche, in particular, the thought patterns they championed have seeped into all levels of society, from pop-culture to the halls of academia.

Book reviewer Mark Ward calls The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self an “excellent — though long and at times tedious — book.” I would not characterize it as “tedious“, but it does assume at least some familiarity with a number of the world’s greatest thinkers since the 18th century age of Enlightenment, which might be daunting for the uninitiated. But Ward is right to point out that far too often Christians will dismiss the uncomfortable ideas of the Sexual Revolution in a very glib fashion as being “from Satan,” as though that should settle the matter. This is naive.

All ideas, including evil ones, do not spring up from nowhere. They have a history. There is a path that such ideas follow. At first, these ideas appear to be ridiculous. But then slowly over time, they gain more and more traction, until whole societies will adopt them as perfectly acceptable. For Westerners in the 21st century, this is including not simply mainline liberal Protestant churches, but even evangelical churches, to varying degrees. Today, we see the growth of such ideas being slowly cultivated, which eventually bears the fruit that we see all around us. Reviewer Andrew T. Walker likewise has other helpful insights, as well as does this interview with Trueman by Fred Zaspel.

One particular application has to do with how poorly Protestant evangelicalism, in general, does at presenting a truly sacramental expression of distinguishing between male and female, in the life of the church. Far too often, evangelical churches will get sidelined with questions about whether or not women can serve as elders/pastors in a local church, thereby missing the deeper question as to how churches can effectively model what it means to be Fathers and Mothers, in an age where understandings of gender and human sexuality owe more to cultural stereotypes, as opposed to reflecting on the great theological truths of the Christian faith. We live in age when differences between male and female are often reduced to something merely having to do “with the plumbing,” and even that can be altered, with the appropriate medical procedure.

 

Calling All Christians To Think Theologically… and Imaginatively

Trueman admits that diagnosing the problem is one thing. The harder part comes in trying to come up with an adequate solution. The chaos resulting from this therapeutic revolution appears to have no end in sight. Furthermore, this reconceptualization of the self has political consequences. It is not enough to merely tolerate inward expressions of the self. They must all be recognized as morally valid. This explains why the ratcheting up of the culture wars, over the previous few decades, have now reached such a high, fever pitch. The advocacy for the “Equality Act” is no historical accident. It is the culmination of years of culture pressure, building up slowly over time.

Trueman does suggest that the answer for Christians, in how to respond to this movement, lies in the importance of community. As Christians grapple with these issues, they need to do so within the context of a worshipping community, in submission to the study of the Scriptures, as opposed to working out their angst on their Facebook and Instagram social media pages.

Comparatively, the so-called LGBTQ community, though it is hardly a monolithic entity, has enjoyed strong bonds of community, over the past few decades. Such bonds are in many ways as supportive, if not more supportive, than what you find in many Christian churches. But the communal cohesion of the LGBTQ movement has been its primary engine for success, and orthodox-minded Christians have much to learn from this strong sense of community bonding.

As far as the “Potato Head” brand goes, the idea of mixing and matching “Mr” and “Mrs” Potato Heads, with presumably interchangeable parts, to produce different varieties of families and gender transitions, is merely one of the many ways Philip Reiff’s concept of the “plastic” self is being integrated into the norms of post-modern society. Critics of those who are concerned about this transformation of the self will surely dismiss such criticism as being hyper-over-reactive. But it is the up-and-coming generation of young people who will be left trying to figure all of this stuff out.

What To Do About It?

Is the answer to try to boycott Hasbro? Probably not, at least not in the long run. Neither is trying to return to some “golden age” of Christendom the answer either, through trying to control and takeover the machinery of civil government. At least, that is my take, and from reading The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I gather this is Carl Trueman’s perspective as well. Applying such cultural pressure might accomplish something in the short run, but it will surely just enrage proponents of such cultural shifts, causing them to double-down against Christian “intolerance.”

Thankfully, Christians are not alone in their anxiety about all of this. There are also secular liberals, and other thinkers, who are deeply concerned about such fluid understandings of the self. Consider best-selling author Abigail Shrier, from her appearance before Congress arguing against the proposed Equality Act. Her testimony that the Equality Act would encourage great harm against women and girls, in our society. But Christians need to go further than this, with a more transformative outlook upon contemporary Western culture.

What it does take is for Christians to learn how to think about the Bible’s view of the self, and how that is contrast with today’s view of the self. Christians ranging from plumbers and construction workers to soccer moms to college professors need to be able articulate an evangelical theology of the self. This is not a job just to be left with pastors and Christians public intellectuals. It is something that must be cultivated in Christian small groups meeting in living rooms, Bible classes meeting in church buildings, and in one-on-one get togethers for coffee and lunch.

Every Christian believer needs to be a theologian able to articulate a theological anthropology that adequately describes a Scriptural view of the self. Christians can then help their non-believing neighbors understand the beauty of what God intended for humanity, without flaming the passions of the culture wars. Christians need to rediscover the value of natural law, and think creatively to stir the imagination with a genuine picture of what the Kingdom of God really looks like, that our secular neighbors might find attractive. We must recover the art of persuasion. Thinkers like G. K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis did this in their generations. We need new Christian voices to do the same in ours. Carl Trueman sets out the task before us.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is surely to be one of the most, if not “the” most, important and reasonably accessible intellectual history of the West to date, that bears consequences in the marketplace, the voting booth, and in the world of education, that shapes our children. Christians need to be conversant in these matters, so that we can be better persuaders of the truth of the Gospel, as opposed to automatically going to the “you must be Satan” line of attack, and thus stopping the conversation. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self will help the thoughtful Christian to engage these new and revolutionary ideas, that appear to be going mainstream, so that we might be able to have thoughtful and meaningful discussions, even where there are sharp points of disagreement. This is a must-read for Christian pastors and thought leaders, or any Christian committed to thinking deeply about the rise and triumph of the modern self.

A number of excellent interviews with Carl Trueman are available on YouTube, but I found this discussion between Southern Baptist Seminary president Al Mohler and Trueman to be particularly engaging.  You may not agree with every aspect of the discussion, but if you are on the sidelines about whether or not to read this book, I would urge you to listen to an interview like this, and I believe you will agree that the topic is perhaps one of the most timely and important ones Christians, as well as non-Christians, need to have together.


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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