Peter Wehner is the former deputy assistant to George W. Bush. He also served in the Reagan and other Bush administrations. Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a social conservative and an evangelical Christian.

On June 11, Wehner authored a guest post at Patheos entitled, “An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality.” The context for the piece was a recent exchange Wehner had with a Christian acquaintance on the matter of homosexuality. This unnamed interlocutor was advocating that Christians “speak out more boldly and forcefully” and “vehemently oppose homosexuality and same sex marriage.” Not knowing the details of the exchange, it’s possible I would disagree with Wehner’s Christian acquaintance just as Wehner did. I certainly agreed with Wehner’s contention that applying the laws of ancient Israel to the United States is tricky business and that determining “how the Scriptural injunctions against homosexual behavior should manifest themselves in modern American law and society are not self-evident.” That is to say, our political and legislative positions cannot be determined simply by noting that the Bible calls something a sin and therefore that sin should be illegal. Further considerations about the common good, natural law, human rights, the unfolding of redemptive history, and the nature and scope of the state must come into play. I do not think the state should recognize gay marriage (so called), but my justification for this position goes deeper than merely asserting that homosexual behavior is ethically wrong.

But I digress.

My reason for noting Wehner’s article is because he is a thoughtful Christian who—despite some good points—has, in my estimation, repeated many of the worst arguments Christians often use when equivocating on homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular. Let me mention four of these arguments.

Argument #1: Jesus Never Said Anything About Homosexuality

While acknowledging that frequency isn’t everything, Wehner nevertheless drives home that “Jesus was more concerned about how a society treats the poor than how it treats homosexuality” and that Scripture mentions concern for the poor and justice for the poor far more than it mentions homosexuality. Wehner notes that Jesus never mentions homosexuality in his recorded ministry. The implication is, “Look, we are making a big deal out of something Jesus hardly cared about.”

The problem with this line of thinking is threefold.

First, an evangelical understanding of inspiration does not allow us to prize instructions in the gospel more than instructions elsewhere in Scripture. If we read about homosexuality from the pen of Paul in Romans it has no less than authority or relevance than if we read it from the lips of Jesus in Matthew. All Scripture is breathed out by God, not just the red letters. God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripturated word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in Holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other.

Second, it’s hopelessly anachronistic to expect Jesus to directly address all our contemporary concerns. Jesus never said anything explicitly about child abuse, domestic abuse, bestiality, abortion or dozens of other sins. He never preached a sermon on homosexuality because no one in his circles by any stretch of the imagination would have approved of homosexuality under any circumstances.

Third, the fact is Jesus spoke about sexual sin often. He warned against lust and infidelity. He confronted the woman at the well. He told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more. Likewise, Jesus condemned the sin of porneia (Mark 7:21) which is defined by a leading New Testament lexicon as “unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication” (BDAG). James Edwards states that porneia “can be found in Greek literature with reference to a variety of illicit sexual practices, including adultery, fornication, prostitution, and homosexuality. In the OT it occurs for any sexual practice outside marriage between a man and a woman that is prohibited by the Torah” (The Gospel According to Mark, 213). It’s misleading to suggest that Jesus had no discernible opinion on homosexuality or that sexual sin was not an important concern for him.

Argument #2: We Are Hypocrites Because We Aren’t As Passionate About Divorce.

Wehner contends that we “employ something of a double standard” because we do not show the same fierce opposition to divorce, even though it has been far more devastating to society. I’ve written about this before: comparing evangelical attitudes to homosexuality with evangelical attitudes to divorce is comparing apples and oranges. Admittedly, many evangelicals are complicit in our culture’s lackadaisical attitude toward divorce. Where that’s the case, we ought to condemn the complicity outright. But the analogy with divorce is ultimately misleading. According to the traditional Protestant understanding, which is centuries old, divorce is permissible on certain biblical grounds. This alone makes divorce different from homosexuality. The latter is always wrong in the Bible; the former is sometimes acceptable.

Furthermore, many evangelical churches are just as staunch in their opposition to unbiblical divorce. I know we take it very seriously at our church. The reason we are not fired up on the blogs about it is because there are no denominational groups I’m aware of rallied around the central tenet that divorce is a blessing from God. The legality of anti-divorce legislation was not recently put before the Supreme Court. There are no Facebook campaigns in favor of unbiblical divorce. Homosexuality is the issue right now, so it’s natural that evangelicals, like everyone else, would be passionate about it.

And finally, Wehner’s quote from Malachi that the Lord “hates divorce” is better translated as “he who hates and divorces” or (as the ESV puts it) “the man who does not love his wife but divorces her” (Mal. 2:16).

Argument #3: This Is Why Evangelicals Have a Bad Reputation

Toward the end of the article, Wehner suggests that part of the problem in our churches is that we have a reputation for political agitation rather than grace. He tells of how Philip Yancey asked strangers what they thought of when they heard the words “evangelical Christian.” Yancey wrote that he mostly heard “political descriptions,” and not once did he hear a description of “redolent grace.” The implication seems to be: “Our public social conservatism is partly to blame for the negative views other have of us.”

Arguments like this readily strike a chord with evangelicals. But should they? Bradley Wright, a sociology professor, tackles this question in Christian are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…And Other Lies You’ve Been Told. He argues that (1) negative stereotypes persist for many reasons, often rooted in ignorance or the media, (2) relatively few non-Christians have negative feelings toward “Baptists” even though evangelicals are largely comprised of Baptists, indicating that labeling is the chief culprit, and (3) from 1990-2007 (the best study available at the time) attitudes toward Christians actually improved in the United States. Some people will like us (and most non-Christians probably get along just fine with the evangelicals they know personally). And some people won’t. The point is that we should be more concerned about our views of other than how others view us. Just think of Louie Giglio. He steadfastly avoided the culture wars and championed a socially acceptable agenda, but even a whiff of an old sermon against homosexuality was enough to do him in. Our job is to not revile in return when reviled. But Jesus never taught us, nor did he demonstrate, that something must be wrong when people revile us in the first place.

Argument #4: The Use of Imprecise Language

It’s a subtle thing, but little word choices can make a big difference. And in several places, I found Wehner’s choice of language to be just imprecise enough to be misleading. For example, Wehner contends that Jesus was very concerned about “how a society treats the poor.” This can mean “Jesus loved the poor and admonished the rich who cheated the poor,” which he certainly talked about, but the word “society” (which Jesus never uses!) starts to bring us into the realm of social justice and state-sponsored programs. It’s hard to know what Wehner means. It sounds good and true that Jesus was concerned with “how a society treats the poor” but depending on our definitions Jesus may have actually said very little about the subject.

Let me give another example. Wehner agrees that “one can make a serious case that society should privilege heterosexual marriage.” True enough I suppose, but why the word “privilege”? Evangelicals and other social conservatives argue that there is no such thing as gay marriage (it’s a contradiction in terms) and that the state has no interest sanctioning it as such. The word “privilege” suggests that there is heterosexual marriage and homosexual marriage and the debate is which one we like better. But to frame the conversation in those terms is to lose the debate before it starts.

Most disconcerting is Wehner’s description of the mission of Jesus. He says people flocked to Jesus “not because he preached moral rectitude but because He was willing to love them, to listen to them, and to welcome them.” Later he says, “Jesus’ main mission was to convince them of God’s love and invitation. And then he went on to speak about those willing to stand in the middle of the tensions that necessarily attach to faithful living in a broken world.” These are the sort of sentences that sound the right evangelical notes, but I worry are playing a different tune. There’s no problem saying Jesus loved people, listened to them, and welcomed them. Yes and Amen. But to be accurate, most of the people flocked to him because of the wonders he performed. Others came because he called. Others because he came to seek and save sinners. And others because he spoke with authority. Jesus demanded much of the world, and it’s terribly wrong to pit the preaching of “moral rectitude” against love and welcome. Jesus did both unashamedly. He made it harder for people to follow him. He told people to be born again. He demanded they hate their parents, cut off their arms, tear out their eyes. It’s not faithful to the gospels to paint a picture of Jesus the good listener who eschewed edges and the preaching of moral rectitude. What is the Sermon on the Mount if not, at least in part, a lesson in moral rectitude for the people of God?

Similarly, it’s just not true that Jesus’ main mission was to convince people of God’s love. He mission was to lead people to the conclusion that he was the Son of God and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 15:39; 10:45). He came out in public ministry to preach the gospel (Mark 1:14-15, 38-39). Jesus told people of God’s mercy for repentant sinners and the new life and new community that could be found in Christ, but he did not travel through Judea and Galilee trying to persuade people that God really, really loved them.

I have no particular bone to pick with Peter Wehner. He’s a brother who has done much to bring his Christianity to bear in some of the most influential and high-pressure situations imaginable. My concern, however, is that evangelicals think through our approach to homosexuality and gay marriage with clarity, precision, care, and courage. The same arguments often crop up, arguments that lead good men and women to equivocate where they should stand strong. Where we see these arguments, it behooves us to study them, weigh them, and separate the wheat from the chaff.

Before we start repeating them ourselves.

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Comments:


68 thoughts on “Common Fault Lines in Maintaining an Evangelical Approach to Homosexuality”

  1. Matt wrote, “I feel like you’re being disingenuous when you paint the church as some passive entity that is interested in the question of gay marriage rather than divorce simply because it’s in the news.”

    What exactly is the emotion or physical sensation you’re experiencing? What does someone else being disingenuous feel like?

    Is there a seeming hypocrisy in American Christianity between the way it deals with homosexuality and the way it deals with divorce? Yes. (Though the real issue there isn’t so much divorce as it is remarriage afterward). Is it because homosexuality is the “issue of the month”? No. Is it because the divorce issue hits a little too close to home and affects a lot of people in the Church? Probably.

    Frankly, I think (as opposed to “feel” – there are a few people left who actually still think) that the Church should be just as opposed to divorced people getting married to someone else (which Jesus said was adultery), just as opposed to adultery, just as opposed to heterosexuals having sex outside of marriage, just as opposed to gossip or to the “little white lie” as it is to homosexual sin. They all bring the same eternity in the Lake of Fire for those who don’t repent (just as you appear unrepentant regarding your homosexuality; though, we really do have to distinguish between the attraction that you presumably didn’t choose, but that is contrary to God’s created design for male and female, and everything that occurs beyond that point, all of which would be acting on the attraction, which you did choose and is sin) and the same forgiveness for those who do repent.

    I’m not going to get into the legislative issues other than to say that I think the government should get out of the marriage business entirely – no more benefits, privileges, recognitions, etc. for ANY marriage – and to say that rights exist naturally, they don’t come from the government.

  2. Richard says:

    Kevin,

    You are an avid reader and obviously have the capacity to take in vast amounts of information and then form coherent thoughts about that information. This makes you very adept at handling scripture and posing arguments to defend what you believe to be true. I would only ask you this: Please turn some of your energy and intellect towards reading some of the leading scientific literature on the current studies being done regarding homosexuality and human sexuality in general. I trust that if you give the vast amount of data an honest hearing, you may begin to change your tune somewhat.

    It would take an immense amount of humility at this point for you to admit that perhaps you have been on the wrong side of this issue. But I hope one day you will get there. Again, just start reading some of the literature out there. If you’d like even 1 recommendation of where to start, I’ll be happy to provide you with it. Too many Christian young people have wept endless tears on countless nights crying out for God to heal them of something they were told made them sinful in his sight. Too many have taken their own lives when God seemed silent and the change did not come. These are real lives that are being snuffed out because of the message promulgated here…

    It worries me when I see that our zeal for the supposed “truth” causes us to be so blind to the damage we are causing around us.

    Peace

  3. Flyaway says:

    Richard–I Corinthians 8:2 If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know ; 3 but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.

    Sometimes we just have to trust that God has revealed the truth in the Bible and that some day the scientists will arrive at the conclusion that God is right. We do need to love others enough to tell them the truth because we don’t want them to perish.

  4. Richard,

    It doesn’t matter what “science” says about sexuality, it only matters what God’s word says about it.

    Whether God chooses to change someone’s unnatural attraction (all non-heterosexual attractions are unnatural; and, no, “natural” doesn’t merely mean something that occurs within nature, if that were the case then we’d have to say that disease and insanity are “natural”) is up to Him (though it’s clear He doesn’t change one form of lust for another, He doesn’t take people from lusting after the same sex to lusting after the opposite sex). The real issue is what people DO (even in their thoughts) with their unnatural attractions or, as rendered in the KJV, “vile affections” (homosexual sin, for example, is acting on one’s homosexual attraction). Sexual expression is reserved exclusively for opposite-sex marriage and any sexual expression outside of opposite-sex marriage is sin.

  5. Richard says:

    I’m sorry to hear that both of you responders have adopted the closed-minded belief summed up well in the bumper-sticker: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” No it doesn’t. It never has been that simple, and it is a bit ridiculous to act as if it is that simple. Do you know nothing of the history surrounding Copernicus and Galileo? They were right, and the church got it badly wrong because of the way they read the Bible. Maybe God is revealing much of his glory through the studies of the scientists, and you are missing out on it because of your idolatry of the Bible… This is the blog of Kevin DeYoung – a Reformed pastor. Kevin surely knows better than most that an important part of being Reformed is being attentive to the ways God speaks in creation. If you are fans, you should know better than to so quickly dismiss the discoveries being made by those who devote their lives to learning more about these things.

  6. Richard, there’s a huge difference between the way the Roman Catholic Church reads the Bible and what the actual text of the scripture says (or, in the case of Copernicus and Galileo, doesn’t say). Frankly, I don’t care what Roman Catholicism has to say about anything.

    Science, by its very nature rejects God. Its underlying premises, philosophies, a priori assumptions, whatever you want to call them, are naturalism (there is nothing outside the natural realm and, therefore, there is no God), rationalism (there is nothing higher than human reason) and empiricism (things must be observable). There’s nothing wrong with using the scientific method to learn about things, but science isn’t just the scientific method and it’s what science assumes beforehand (naturalism, rationalism, empiricism, which deny God, divine revelation and the authority and truth of scripture) that I take issue with.

    In the choice between so-called “science” and God’s word, I’ll always take God’s word.

  7. Richard says:

    Ok, tell your comments above to the thousands of Christian scientists who work to solve the problems of our modern world today believing that in doing so they are serving Christ. There does not need to be such an antagonism between faith and science. The antagonism you see is between rigid religious dogmatism and science. There is a big difference. Much of this boils down to how we read the bible and how we believe God may be speaking to us through it. I think you and I are probably on different planets in this regard, therefore it is unlikely we will find common ground since our starting spot is so different… Unfortunate, I know.

  8. Flyaway says:

    Richard–Solomon, who was given wisdom by God said this:

    Proverbs 25:2 It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.

    Proverbs 21: 2 Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the LORD weighs the hearts.

    We are supposed to use our minds but we don’t know everything that God knows. He is more concerned with our hearts than with our being right.

  9. Garrett says:

    Kevin, this is at least the second time in roughly a year that you’ve engaged in a public debate and played very loosely with the other person’s words. You ought to at least dispute Mr. Wehner based on what he wrote and meant.

  10. Jarrod says:

    “Jesus Never Mentioned Homosexuality”

    When gays have birthdays, they don’t mention everything they don’t want but say positively what they do want.
    Likewise, Jesus didn’t negatively list every sexual perversion He knew mankind would invent but positively stated that marriage involves only a man and a woman!

    (Also Google or Yahoo “USA – from Puritans to Impure-itans.”)

    / Spotted the preceding on the net. Any reaction from you? /

  11. No, Richard, the “antagonism” I see is between the philosophical foundations of science (naturalism, rationalism and empiricism) and those of Christianity (divine revelation, the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture, the authority of God and the scriptures). I don’t have a problem with people (Christian and non-Christian) using the scientific method as a means of studying the world around us. It’s what science brings to the table, its a priori assumptions (that there is nothing outside the natural realm and, therefore, no God, which is the essence of naturalism, that there is nothing higher than human reason, which also excludes God as well as divine revelation and the authority of scripture, and that things must be observable/testable, which excludes the supernatural, especially miracles).

  12. I wonder why I’ve never heard anyone point out that, in Genesis, when creating the world and everything in it, God never declared homosexuality “good.”

  13. yag si sesuj says:

    Incredible to see people commenting on other human beings as ‘Gays’ as if they were some dreadful evil the world. Most homosexual are exactly the same as every other women man and child. There are children being born today who are homosexual – there are plenty of Christians who are homosexual and statistically you will have children/grandchildren of your own who are or will be gay. So you really need to get used to it – as homosexuality is the one thing on this website that is reality.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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