MacCulloch on the Reformation and Homosexuality

At the very end of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial (what other word is there for such a book?) The Reformation: A History, he offers some brief assessments of where the various Christian churches are today. This is one comment he makes about the movement that arose out of the subject of his book:

Protestantism is faced with [a] momentous challenge to its assumptions of authority: the increasing acceptance in western societies of homosexual practice and identity as one valid and unremarkable choice among the many open to human beings. This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity, let alone having any conception of a homosexual identity. The only alternatives are either to try to cleave to patterns of life and assumptions set out in the Bible, or to say that in this, as in much else, the Bible is simply wrong. (681)

MacCulloch is himself homosexual and has lived out his convictions. Born to an Anglican priest and a long-time active participant in the Church of England, this is what he wrote:

I was ordained Deacon. But, being a gay man, it was just impossible to proceed further, within the conditions of the Anglican set-up, because I was determined that I would make no bones about who I was; I was brought up to be truthful, and truth has always mattered to me. The Church couldn’t cope and so we parted company. It was a miserable experience.

MacCulloch is—and clearly writes as—a “candid friend” of Christianity:

I have a strong appreciation of the importance of it all…. [But] I’ve struggled with statements of belief. I think it’s hugely important. It’s still very important to me. I play the organ and sing in a church choir and I can’t imagine life without Christianity. But I cannot sign up to doctrinal statements.

MacCulloch’s history of the Reformation was evenhanded and very knowledgeable. I recommend it.


A Run-Down of Christian Resources on Homosexuality and Same-Sex Attraction

A friend is doing some study on same-sex attraction and asked me if I had any resource recommendations. Here’s my reply.

Here are a few things to look at:

  • Phil Brown’s recent paper on homosexual desire. I haven’t yet read it, but I’ve been thinking that this is the issue of the moment: is homosexual desire itself sinful? Evangelicals are accustomed to saying that to be tempted is not a sin. But when it comes to homosexuality and pedophilia I think we sense that that formulation needs to be nuanced. And, frankly, heterosexual lust probably should have made us be careful to nuance this a long time ago.
  • My own BFS paper on “The Story of Ἀρσενοκοίτης according to BDAG,” which has some preachable stuff especially at the end. The basic gist is that even a more or less liberal scholar like Danker, because he’s rooted deeply in the lexical data, sees clearly that the New Testament condemns homosexual behavior. He makes the specific lexical argument that the meaning of a new coinage such as ἀρσενοκοίτης has to draw its meaning from the word against which it is set in contradistinction, namely μαλακός.
  • Anyone who’s really going to dig into this topic is going to have to wrestle with Wesley Hill’s “spiritual friendship,” something I confess I have only begun to do.
  • Personally, I’m not sure I’d spend any time on Matthew Vines; he’s just a popularizer. The major scholarly “affirming” book is Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.
  • The major non-affirming book is still Rob Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice. His site is worth looking at; and you should follow him on Facebook and read his posts there. He’s active and timely. (I transcribed some key quotes form a Gagnon debate with former Fuller prof J. Daniel Kirk.)
  • Another significant, scholarly non-affirming book is Unchanging Witness. People in our circle of Christianity may need to recover a positive biblical understanding of tradition if we’re going to sound plausible to detractors—like we’re not inventing a doctrine to justify our revulsion or to preserve our political coalition (I am self-consciously not doing these things). This is a side benefit of this debate.
  • The standard popular-level evangelical books really are good:

I got into this topic because I realized in the early 2000s that our crowd was not ready for the sophistication of the arguments coming out of the “gay and Christian” crowd (there was no “gay Christian” crowd then, per se—that’s become something of a technical term for non-affirming people who nonetheless want to retain a positive understanding of gay identity, something I confess I don’t yet fully understand but am skeptical of). All those years ago I read SoulForce leader Mel White’s pamphlet and saw that he was no dummy. Then several friends and acquaintances over the years “came out.” Three such friends are celibate and still evangelical. But one of my former roommates left his wife and his faith (?) and is now actively campaigning for moral acceptance of his gay lifestyle.  So the issue for me is not merely theoretical, theological, and intellectual. And it’s certainly not just political. I also saw that I needed to think more deeply about sanctification, including the sanctification of my own heterosexual desires, if I was going to answer the questions and the challenges posed by these individuals made in God’s image. This is a major benefit for the church of having to think through sexuality issues: we will see our own path to sanctification more clearly, particularly with regard to “Every Man’s Battle,” which we are discovering is a battle for women, too.

Sloganeering: A Choose Your Own Adventure Post!

This is a Choose Your Own Adventure Post. You make it what you want! See below!

Not long ago my little budding reader, six years old, noticed in a liberal relative’s home a sign full of slogans. This is the one:

He read it out loud flawlessly. I was rather impressed (as was our beloved liberal relative); he had only just started performing this trick.

But then, can you really call what a six-year-old does with this text “reading”? Decoding, maybe. But reading? With the likely exception of the text in white at top and bottom, I feel confident that he understood every word and none of them at the same time.

And where would I even begin explaining these slogans to him? Each one has a backstory that it is attempting to summarize—and weaponize; that’s what political slogans do. They’re most effective when they put opponents on the defensive. They are rhetorical moves on the level of “Did you beat your wife today?” Who’s going to deny, strictly speaking, that African-American lives are important, that women are human, that to be human should be permitted by governments worldwide, that Bill Nye and Mr. Wizard really did those cool experiments on TV when we were kids, and that tautologies are tautologies? A successful slogan makes its targets appear foolish, deniers of the obvious like, well, climate deniers (which I, for one, am not: there is a climate, darn you!).

The function of slogans is the same on the right. (And in the center. And among greens or Tories or Labour or those pro-Uhuru-Kenyatta and those pro-Raila-Odinga. I don’t actually know any Kenyan political slogans, but I know humans.) Who’s going to say that police lives are expendable or that we should erase 9/11 from the history books?

Slogans do not summarize arguments; they replace them. They serve when the argument has broken down, for when there is no room left for two (or more) sides to discuss their claims. Slogans are screams. Within a group they are binding totems—in both senses. They bind the group together, and they wield authority: disagree and you’re out.

Lest I appear to be opposed entirely to slogans, let me observe that sometimes a slogan is all you have time for—like on a bumper. And if they’re not nasty or irresponsible or profane or scatological they can serve a valuable role: they constitute a vote noticed by enough people that, in the aggregate, they shape the zeitgeist. Without doing a scientific study, exactly, I can still get a sense through bumper stickers of where the people around me lie on the political spectrum (around here I’d say it’s an even mix of ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ and COEXIST). That has a value.

And they’re such a fixture in our culture that a viewpoint without a slogan is an immature viewpoint—and an “offenseless” one. Sometimes one’s opponents really are wrong, really are doing something bad, and a little sloganeering is what’s needed to bring a group together that hasn’t existed before: only after 1973 did we need “it’s not a choice, it’s a baby.”

Now, as promised, you get to choose how this post ends. Do you want it to be about King James Onlyism or about acceptance of homosexuality in evangelicalism (by the way, I do not equate the two in importance)?


To make this Choose Your Own Adventure post work I had to bury the lede way down here… I’ve been building to this paragraph: Sometimes I feel the desire to grab a slogan and scream it at my opponents. I even hope that my forthcoming book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible might help create one, and bring a new “movement” or strategy to maturity. We’d have a slogan something like “GIVE US THE BIBLE IN OUR ENGLISH” (longer version for bigger bumper stickers: “GIVE US THE BIBLE IN OUR ENGLISH BASED ON WHATEVER MANUSCRIPTS YOU PREFER”). But I wrote a book because I’m not ready to sloganize yet. I won’t give up on the possibility that there are godly, reasonable, persuadable people who disagree with me over the present usefulness of the King James Bible. There are such people: I know some. The book is not, therefore, formally aimed at King James Onlyism. My intended audience is the apparently large number of Christians (based on a Pew study done with Mark Noll) who read the KJV regularly but are not KJV-Only.

There are some Christians, sadly, before whom I feel I must not cast my pearls (though they’re more than welcome to read the book). Discussion is pointless; with them I can only retreat to my slogan. These are people who, at least with regard to the KJV, can’t debate; they can only turn and rend, turn and rend. I pray for God’s mercy on them, and I pray for his mercy on me never to reach that state myself. I don’t want anyone concluding about me, “There’s no point in talking to him,” if I really am sinning or otherwise in error. Only on the truth do I wish to be immovable.

But for other Christians, people who might listen—I won’t retreat to my slogans until I’ve exhausted all other appeals. Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible is the last appeal I can think of to my reasonable KJV-Only brothers and sisters, but it is an earnest one, given in the belief that it would be poor service to them to shout a slogan when I can instead “patiently instruct those who oppose themselves.” That’s what they’re doing, after all: “opposing themselves.” They’re hurting only their own by keeping many of God’s words out of their own hands. And I love them enough not to want them to be hurt. I’m keeping my placards and bumper stickers put away until they’ve had a chance to read Authorized. I’m praying for a specific number of them to be persuaded to read God’s words—and to permit others such as their children and bus kids to read God’s words—in their own language and not someone else’s.


To make this Choose Your Own Adventure post work I had to bury the lede way down here… I’ve been building to this paragraph: I fear that the debate over homosexuality has reached the sloganeering stage out on the leftern edges of evangelicalism—and that the sloganeering is going to keep moving rightward. Just read this sad and alarming and hectoring letter written by a BIOLA student to its president—and placed in the Huffington Post; or read the statements being made by a tenured professor suing her evangelical college (and yet presumably still agreeing ex anima with its inerrantist doctrinal statement?). The slogans are flying thick and fast.

Perhaps I’ll reveal undue bias here, but I’d say they’re flying thicker and faster from the left. They’re the ones who’ve spent the most time developing such slogans over the last few decades, “Love is Love” being preeminent among them. Conservative Christians, it seems to me, have just kept saying something that isn’t ever going to be very catchy: “Homosexual acts and desires are sinful.” (Okay, we have our “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” line—that counts as a slogan. It’s a bit hokey-sounding, but it is profoundly theologically and biblically true.)

Here’s what I’m going to suggest: the more slogans you hear, the more you know the debate is over. I’m willing to believe that there are Christians out there who are genuinely—and by that I mean “not culpably”—confused about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. I think that number is going to shrink, not grow—not because fewer people are going to be confused but because their very confusion is going to be sinful. When God is clear, we have no right to waffle, hedge, and fudge. And he is clear. If Genesis 1 and Jesus’ use of it in Matthew 19 aren’t clear enough, Paul specifically condemns both female and male homosexual relations:

God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Rom 1:26–27)

This is not to deny that adultery and porn and other heterosexual sins are serious and spiritual-life-threatening; they are. It is not to deny that evangelical permissiveness on divorce helped the Western sexual revolution along. It is simply to affirm what every Christian everywhere has always affirmed, following the teaching of both testaments. Professing Christians who deny the unanimous Christian position and have had opportunity to know better are not to be credited with “honest” opinions. I have honestly wrong opinions, I’m certain. We all do. But some wrong opinions are not just mistaken but wicked.

In the very passage in which Jesus says, “Judge not,” he goes on to encourage his disciples not to cast our pearls before swine. “Judge not” can’t mean, then, that we make no judgments—but rather that we make only those judgments that we’re wiling to have applied to ourselves. I’m willing to bear this one; I’m willing to be judged by the measure of God’s words: if a professing Christian is shouting pro-LGBT slogans at you, hold onto your pearls. Expel that student. Fire that professor. Don’t let SoulForce on campus. The debate for them—barring an act of God, an act for which I pray—is over. All we can do is slogan it out.

A Bracing Conversion Story

A lesbian at Yale starts exploring Christianity (a must read):

At the time, I knew two girls who were seriously dating each other. One was training to be a Lutheran minister. I wanted to know how they could reconcile their lives with Jesus and his teachings. They assured me that any appearance of conflict rested on historic misinterpretations of Scripture. They thrust a packet into my hands, and I ran back to my room to discover what the Bible really says about sexuality.

The packet had a neat internal consistency. It pleased me greatly. But as I looked up the verses it claimed to be expounding, I grew frustrated. These revisionist interpretations just didn’t line up with the plain meaning of the Bible’s words. Feeling duped, I threw the packet on the floor in disgust. Clearly, I had been foolish to hope that this old-fashioned religion had any room for me.

She becomes a Christian and gets plugged into a Bible study group on campus. She has to decide what to do with her sexual desires.

Thus I had to learn my first lesson of the Christian life: how to obey before I understood. My whole life had taught me to master a concept before I could assent to it. How could I possibly agree to something so costly without grasping the reason?

She does it because she can see that Christ loves her, wants her best, and is more than worthy of her trust.

Read the whole article.

She also offers something of a helpful FAQ at her blog.

Everybody’s a Fundamentalist No. 13

Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody’s a separatist. Everybody has a vision of the good that differs from the visions of others and ends up excluding others from their club.

Everybody limits academic freedom in the next breath after invoking it. Everybody has a conception of the academic enterprise that leaves certain viewpoints out of bounds, no matter how strenuously its representatives insist that those viewpoints count as “academic.”

At least biblical, orthodox Christians can publicly, explicitly, and self-consciously advertise the standards on which they found themselves, by which they separate, and through which they establish the boundaries of academic freedom. The pro-diversity forces have to persuade themselves that their list of acceptable viewpoints counts as “diversity,” that the width of their pluralism is as far as anyone need go to earn the label.

I’ll paraphrase Stanley Fish (my adjustments in bold; original quotation here):

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the biblical vision for sexuality and a so-called pluralistic school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (homosexuality is immoral or it isn’t). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed. (156)

Is homosexuality moral or immoral? Issues of diversity and academic freedom (and consequent disinvitations of campus speakers) are impossible to sort out until we know how we can even answer that question—until we know what moral foundation we’re standing on, and who if anyone is going to keep us accountable for failing to standing on it.

The unified testimony of the Bible and of the church throughout history is that homosexual acts and desires are immoral—because all sexual acts and desires outside the bounds of heterosexual monogamy are sin (see Jesus in Matt 19). When Princeton students deny this, they actually take aim at the the gospel, or perhaps its flip-side, by virtue of delisting the human sins which make us need it. The Bible makes homosexuality (and sexual immorality, and idolatry, and adultery, and theft, and greed, and drunkenness, and reviling, and swindling) a sin that keeps people out of the kingdom of God. And I want you to know that just now as I read 1 Corinthians 6 I experienced a wave of genuine fear—fear of the Lord. I have been guilty of several of the sins on the list. I don’t aim this passage merely at others. I dare not justify my own (heterosexual) lustful thoughts, my own greed, etc., or anyone else’s, lest I alter the biblical terms by which I can be said to be a member of that divine kingdom. Thank God for the blood of Christ and the sanctifying power of the Spirit. I am not as I once was. God has granted me repentance.

The best brief book I know on the topic of homosexuality is still Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? And the best endorsement of that book I’ve seen comes from an Amazon reviewer who gave the book two stars:

I did not find this book as useful as I anticipated. It seemed to me to revert back to, “The Bible says it, so that settles it.”