Common Fault Lines in Maintaining an Evangelical Approach to Homosexuality
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.