By Greg Carey
Recently we’ve seen one evangelical leader after another extend a full welcome to LGBTQ folk in the church’s life or speak out in favor of marriage equality. Two years ago the iconic pastor Rob Bell came out in favor of marriage equality. Last year Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson published his “letter” to his congregation, outlining a way in which churches could live with their disagreement on the question while accepting sexual minorities into their midst without reservation. Bestselling author and blogging superstar Rachel Held Evans devoted a series of reflections on Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian, inviting a predictable wave of condemnation. After years of deliberation Baptist ethicist David Gushee created a stir by explaining the process of Changing Our Mind. Megachurches in Seattle and Nashville have opened every dimension of church life, including leadership positions, to all people regardless of sexual orientation. For years Peggy Campolo and Tony Campolo have been debating one another on the issue wherever people would listen. Just last week Tony announced his change of heart.
It’s not just intellectuals and authors. Although polls show that most evangelicals consider same-sex sex to be sinful and oppose same-sex marriage, there’s no question that attitudes are shifting. As with the general population, increasing numbers of evangelicals favor same-sex marriage — a trend that runs strongest among the youngest Americans.
In other words, churches — particularly evangelical churches — face enormous pressure to adapt. The opinion gap between young evangelicals and their leaders continues to spread. Moreover, anti-gay teachings repel those young adults who do not attend church. The Barna Group has found that among 16- to 29-year olds, a whopping 91% of non-Christians believe the church is “anti-homosexual,” 87% regard the church as judgmental, and 85% see it as hypocritical.
How do we explain the shifting attitudes among evangelicals? Why are many evangelicals, including prominent leaders in the movement, coming to affirm sexual minorities as full partners in the gospel? In a recent essay evangelical ethicist John Stackhouse proposes a diagnosis. Evangelicals have always turned to the Bible for guidance. But inclusive evangelicals aren’t changing their minds because they’re learning more about the Bible, Stackhouse claims. According to him, advocates of “the full LGBTQ+ agenda” appeal to the inclusive example of Jesus and to “the broad themes of the Bible,” but conservative biblical scholars have refuted these biblical arguments. Fresh scriptural interpretation does not account for the shift in attitudes, Stackhouse asserts.
Instead, Stackhouse identifies changes among evangelicals with a combination of two other characteristic factors in evangelical identity: the prominence of personal experience and the authority granted to popular leaders.
Invariably, it seems, evangelical pastors and professors who have seen the light of LGBTQ+ acceptance have a personal experience of a loved one coming out. Because this experience and intuition now contradict their previous ethical understanding, they change their minds and proclaim that the Bible must mean something different than it meant yesterday.
Evangelicals’ tendency to “defer to their favorite pastors” largely explains the shift in attitude. When key pastors and teachers adapt their beliefs to make room for the people they love, parts of the movement follow.
But Stackhouse misses the point. Not yet willing to affirm LGBTQ people himself, Stackhouse seems not to understand — truly understand — how people come to disagree with him. Instead, he presents partial truths and hobbyhorses.
Stackhouse is correct in some ways. Emotion and experience do matter for evangelicals, as they should for all of us. Attend an old fashioned revival — or a slick, technologically charged one, for that matter — and you’ll observe how Bible and emotion fuse in evangelical piety. It’s likely true that few people move from an anti-gay stance to one that’s open and affirming simply by reading their Bibles more carefully. Over the years I’ve spoken on the question to thousands of people in churches, in conferences, and even in bars. Only once have I heard that someone changed her mind because of what I’ve said. Human beings rarely learn through pure reason. Our experiences, our relationships, and our perceptions tend to form our opinions, not the other way around. Psychologists tell us that’s how we learn and adapt: abstract reasoning comes into play fairly late in the process.
Evangelicals are changing how they understand the Bible, and not in response to a purported “gay agenda” but to deficits in evangelical theology.
But Stackhouse downplays another major development. Evangelicals really are changing their basic frameworks for reading and understanding the Bible. Leading evangelical scholars like Scot McKnight and Peter Enns, along with preachers like Brian McLaren, are encouraging evangelicals to stop using the Bible like a textbook full of answers to all our questions. Instead, they propose experiencing the Bible as a great story, or library of stories, that forms our imaginations more than it prescribes our behaviors. Both McKnight and Enns call readers to honor the enormous historical and cultural gaps that separate the worlds of the biblical authors from our own.
McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible attained bestseller status. Enns was forced to resign from Westminster Seminary in part for suggesting that the creation stories in Genesis do not reflect scientific history but employ mythological language to convey greater truths. Through a blog series Enns shared how he came to believe “scripture doesn’t line up very well with the conservative paradigm of scripture,” then invited more than a dozen evangelical and former evangelical scholars to share their own testimonies. (I gratefully acknowledge that Enns began this series by engaging a post of my own.)
In other words, evangelicals are indeed changing how they understand the Bible. This is happening in response not to a purported “gay agenda” but to deficits in evangelical theology. Decades ago religious conservatives could protect their progeny from contemporary biblical scholarship by isolating them in home schooling, private Christian academies, and fundamentalist colleges. The internet age has crumbled the walls those institutions erected, and many evangelicals now seek to engage the Bible in intellectually compelling and spiritually inspiring ways. This process has cleared the way for evangelicals to address the LGBTQ question afresh.
Stackhouse asks why some evangelicals have fallen from the truth as he sees it, but I don’t believe he acknowledges the most basic factors at stake. Contrary to his narrative, the evangelical world is experiencing a reformation of its own in which the momentum toward LGBTQ inclusion represents just one dimension of a much larger shift. In that light we might turn the question on Stackhouse. Given these developments concerning evangelical engagement with the Bible, why does he find condemnation more faithful than inclusion?