As I suspect has been the case with many BNG readers, I have been following Dr. David Gushee’s recent series of articles making what he sees as the case that homosexual relationships should be given a moral status that is equivalent to their heterosexual counterparts. Now, admittedly, prior to seeing the announcement that he was going to be a regular columnist for the then Associated Baptist Press, I had never heard of him. Neither his name nor his work ever came up in any of my seminary courses. I didn’t know his positions on, well, anything, let alone homosexuality. All I knew was that he was going to be exploring this hot topic and I was curious as to his opinion on it. That opinion was, it quickly became clear from the trajectory and tone of the early parts of the series, for it.
Now, it will come as no surprise to folks who have read many of my previous blogs that I don’t agree with him. While his arguments have been passionate and well-written, I have found them thoroughly unconvincing. Perhaps most notably, and with a respectful nod to his academic credentials, I have found his Scriptural exegesis to be particularly weak and generally presenting only a single side of the issue. Perhaps the clearest example of this for me was the first published draft of his treatment of Romans 1 (part 11 in the series). In the first version his primary source of reference to support his argument was Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian. He made no mention in the article of the fact that Vines is a gay activist and that the book’s stated purpose is to the make the case for the theological and moral permissibility of homosexual relationships. In other words, his primary source was neither scholarly nor remotely objective on the issue and he showed no signs of having engaged at all with more conservative and/or objective scholars. Much to his credit, a subsequent version was quickly published that took all of that into consideration and I was the first to offer a comment of praise and thanks for his obvious engagement with his commenters.
Ultimately, though, I could not in good conscience recommend his series or his forthcoming book to someone curious about the issue. Not at least without making sure they had something to read that presented the other side of the issue. The matter isn’t simply that I disagree with him, but that his treatment throughout has been almost entirely one-sided.
What has stood out as a greater curiosity to me, though, is how someone like Dr. Gushee could go through such a total transformation on the issue. How is it that anyone, let alone someone with a deep understanding of all the theological and ethical issues at play goes from considering something to be sinful to seeing the same thing as not sinful? Then the other day I noticed an article by Jonathan Merritt over at RNS who frequently gives both a face and a voice to the young, liberal wing of the evangelical church. The article trumpeted the series and its forthcoming book form. It also gave more of Dr. Gushee’s background to help explain how the transition happened. What the article described as a seminal moment for the ethicist was when his own sister came out as a lesbian in 2008.
Then, it hit me. At the risk of being overly simplistic of what has no doubt been a complex journey, Dr. Gushee’s change of heart and mind is primarily the result of his life and his understanding of Scripture diverging. His understanding of Scripture was that homosexual relationships were not morally permissible. His life put a face on this person whose desired relationship was not morally permissible: his little sister. It’s one thing to argue in the abstract that something is sinful. It’s an entirely different matter to do so when someone close to you loses out on something important because of it.
This divergence of life and understanding of Scripture has no doubt led many others to the same place as Dr. Gushee. From his story it appears this is what happened in the life of the latest darling of the gay rights movement, Danny Cortez. Republican Ohio Senator, Rob Portman publically signed off on the party’s platform statement in favor of traditional marriage until his own son came out to him as gay. Then he publically did not. The same thing happened to a friend of mine.
How do we handle it when life experience and our understanding of Scripture diverge? I think there are two main options each with corollaries. First, we hold onto our understanding of Scripture. If we are going to run with the reformation banner sola scriptura, then Scripture should trump life experience. When there is a conflict, Scripture should win every time. Now, this can be done very poorly and without thought of those whose lives are going to be impacted by our exegesis. Far too many (that would be, more than one) take this route and have left a wake of hurting and broken people who believe the one place that has the potential to bring them hope and life cannot give it. This is unfailingly a tragedy. A better approach here is to hold tightly to our understanding of Scripture while at the same time working very hard to take into consideration how it will affect those lives it will touch and finding ways to demonstrate the hope and acceptance of Christ to them in spite of the no being offered on the relevant issue. This is no doubt a challenging option, but one that has been undertaken and with success by many thoughtful believers.
The second option is to allow our experience of life to change our understanding of Scripture. Now, for some issues this isn’t such a big deal. For others it can be remarkably consequential. It has happened before. There are two ways it can happen. First, the relevant Scriptures are simply rejected as mistaken or irrelevant or not inspired or what have you. There are large swaths of Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, for which this approach has been taken. Again, the practical impact of this isn’t always terribly consequential, but the trajectory here is troubling. At the point you begin declaring some Scripture to be more inspired than others you immediately run into the problem of having to construct a rubric for which Scriptures are important and which are not. You end up with a religion based on something else other than the Bible. The Bible may be an important corollary to it, but it is no longer the full foundation. The second approach here is to reinterpret whatever are the relevant Scriptures so that they mean something other than what they had been previously understood to mean. This approach is the more biblically faithful of the two, but it is still not without its problems, namely, what happens when culture (which shapes experience) changes again. Will we again have to reinterpret the Scriptures to fit our experience? It seems that here you wind up with a faith tradition which is controlled by culture. Yet while our faith should undoubtedly be contextualized to our culture, culture should not be in the driver’s seat.
All of that being said, this second reaction is totally understandable. Again, theology in the abstract is easy (relatively speaking). But theology in the face of life is hard. Yet, as Jesus followers we are not called to the easy. We are called to the hard. We are called to shape culture, not be shaped by it. We are called to transform our world and not simply follow it wherever it leads. We are called to be radically welcoming of the stranger and at the same time radically committed to righteousness even when it’s hard. And, given that Scripture gives us the only real clear and trustworthy bounds of righteousness, it must be given the dominant place in the conversation between it and our experience of life. This isn’t easy, but it will lead to life more surely than any other path. And we are called to live. So what are we to do when life and Scripture diverge? We join Frost in taking the road less traveled trusting that even when it doesn’t make immediately apparent sense, the wisdom of Scripture will eventually become clear.