When we Evangelicals have argued with each other – over gender, divine foreknowledge, hell or whatever – we used to argue primarily over
the Scriptures. We might also have had recourse to the sciences, history, tradition, ecclesiastical authorities, personal
intuition or even common sense, but the deciding factor was
always the Bible – at least in the way we have debated the
issue, whatever else was really going on in terms of personal
preferences and power politics.
Not now. The debates over homosexuality make that
clear. And the implications of how we are debating loom
far more important than even the crucial issues about sex,
sexuality, gender, marriage and family.
Evangelicals are increasingly endorsing same-sex relationships – here in Canada, in America, in Britain and beyond. But the endorsements do not come with extensively
worked-out scriptural rationales. Quite the contrary. They
come merely appealing to the chief value of our post-1960s
culture: personal liberty.
To be sure, most Christians don’t argue explicitly on the
basis of freedom, but on the basis of justice and compassion. But the justice seen to be denied to homosexuals is
the supposed right to marry – to be free to enjoy a same-sex
union without condemnation and, indeed, with the full
affirmation of church, society and state. And what compassionate person wants to withhold all that from them?
This kind of thinking reflects the core moral concern
held by the Baby Boomer generation – and now taken for
granted by their progeny – namely, the maximum individual freedom to be happy.
I haven’t heard anyone arguing same-sex marriages
can increase anyone’s holiness, to select a different value
to appeal to. Such an argument is theoretically possible,
but no one is making it.
And who is arguing same-sex marriages will further the
proclamation of the gospel? Yes, some suggest welcoming
same-sex couples will make Christianity more acceptable,
perhaps even opening a wider way for such couples to
follow Christ and grow into Christian maturity. But such
a claim cannot yet be proven by experience and certainly
not by the Scriptures.
Ah, the Scriptures. I continue to be convinced that no
the new Evangelical
Way of (not) Arguing
Ignoring the Scriptures in favour of the
maximum individual freedom to be happy.
substantial case can, in fact, be made for same-sex marriage on the basis of the Scriptures. But I am becoming
convinced that question doesn’t even matter to many
Postmodernism properly taught us to be skeptical
about final claims to absolute truth proclaimed by authorities who in fact sought to keep the rest of us under
control. But this attitude has been fuzzified into a license
to believe whatever you like, without feeling any obligation
to conform your views to what is actually the case.
So if someone – say, the Church – claims the Bible
restricts sex and marriage to a man and a woman, well,
that’s just one way of looking at it among others – who
can say for sure? – and so I’ll resolve the matter on the
basis of what I do take to be obvious and fundamental,
namely the right of every person to be happy as he or she
sees fit so long as no one else is hurt in the process. And
I certainly don’t want to look like those Bible-thumping
fanatics from Westboro Baptist Church.
This vulgar liberalism is all there is now, even in the minds
of otherwise sophisticated Christians, when a moral push
really comes to shove. We’ve seen people on opposing sides
of various issues appeal to the Bible, and who knows, really,
what the Bible says? So we turn instead to what we think we
know. Personal freedom to pursue happiness is paramount,
and justice must be served in a compassionate way.
This cultural tide has met little resistance in churches
who spend their time moaning repetitive mumbles to Jesus
and hearing entertaining “sermons” relying entirely on the
sway of personalities. Neither songwriter nor preacher has
felt obliged to articulate what the Bible actually says, much
less to argue that this scriptural message ought to have binding authority on the congregation. So the ground of moral
reasoning must lie elsewhere – in what “everybody knows.”
I might sound angry about this, but I’m actually just
afraid. Once we give up on serious Bible study and resort instead to “the basic thrust” of the Bible, or “the main message
of the gospel,” or some other convenient generalization, we
have no place to stand against that tide, and nothing to offer
our society that our society is not already saying to itself.
Yes, that’s right. We’ve become liberals, and that story
does not have a happy ending. For anyone. Ft
JOhn stACKhOusE is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee professor
of theology and culture at regent College. His most recent
book is Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real
World (oxford, 2008). Find more of these columns
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