In two previous blog posts I examined the Christian engagement with the post-Christian culture. Those posts implied that the dominant paradigm of Evangelicals preserving our culture by “Taking back America” is wrong-headed. It is wrong-headed because it denies the moral strangeness that exists between Christianity and Secularism. In the next post I opined that the Christian efforts to preserve traditional marriage will fail. I was pretty pessimistic.
My prediction is that gay marriage is an inevitability. Eventually there will be a federal law. I predict that same-sex couples will not settle for tolerance and being left alone with their right to marry. Instead many will demand non-discrimination from religious organizations. They will insist that churches rent out their fellowship halls to same-sex weddings if they are going to do weddings for any hetero-sexual couples and will sue if they are denied. . . To be clear I don’t think there is any amount of voting or lobbying or grass roots efforts that will change this.
Christians need to shift from the dominant paradigm to something else. In this last post I want to propose what that “something else” might be. As always these ideas are mine alone and do not necessarily represent Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc.
Rodney Clapp the author and former editor of Christianity Today says that in the dominant paradigm of engagement with culture the Church sees itself as the “Sponsoring Chaplain” of society. When I first heard this phrase, my mind conjured up some memorable pastoral visits. Its a tableau that gets played out all over the South especially. The pastor visits a church members who isn’t coming to church anymore. Ostensibly the visit is just to check to see if there is anything the congregation can do. But in reality, many times the pastor knows why they haven’t been coming to church. They are straying from the life of a devout believer in favor of something else be it, adultery, addiction, or just plain apathy.
The pastor sits down and makes clear that John is not living a life pleasing to God. “John, someone people tells me they saw you hanging out at the strip club on Madison. Does your wife know?” Come to find out John is estranged from his wife and is now living with his girlfriend–the 19 year-old stripper. John is respectful but has no intention of repenting. He’s happy and doesn’t see the big deal. He is even sure he is right because God wants him to be happy! Now the pastor makes it clear that the congregation loves John but what he is doing is wrong in the eyes of God. He appeals to John’s sense of Christian propriety and offers to pray with him. After this, the conversation goes one three of ways, repentance on the part of John, defiance, or far more likely, John suddenly remembers he has to do something across town.
This has been the attitude Bible-believing Christians have had towards the gay rights movement and many other fronts on the culture war. When we see gay people we feel compelled to let them know where they are wrong. When Target openly supports gay marriage, we want to let Target know that we disagree with its support of gay marriage through their sales of Gay Pride t-shirts. We often do this with that most public of weapons–the economic boycott. If we simply withhold our dollars, Target or network television or Marvel Comics will see the error of their ways or it will lose our business and somehow this will render justice or righteousness.
Sometimes we try to reason with the country. We talk about natural law and biology and the science of sexuality in order to engage without bringing up the Bible in order to make this about reason and not just sin. All the while, we are actively seeking to ban these practices with the force of law in order to preserve decency. Finally, when met with the defiance or apathy we ought to expect from those who don’t share our worldview but are being forced to consider it, we claim that our wayward country is at war with us and we must protect ourselves. We campaign and vote and protest to protect our vision of our country for no other reason than we have to live in it.
It should be obvious by now that I think this model is wrong-headed. It is not working. It is distracting for both the Church and its would-be seekers. It is also not the only way to engage our culture. I don’t know what to call what I am proposing but for the time being I’m calling it the “No Retreat but Much Surrender” proposal. The “No Retreat” is genuine. I do not want to suggest that we should retreat from the public debate about Gay rights, huddled in mega-church concert halls or our Bible colleges while the world burns. We did that from the 1930s to the 1970s with secularism and it has not served us well. The “Much Surrender” part is the ongoing reassessment and correction of the sponsoring chaplain model.
First, we should stop being preoccupied with the causes and cures of being gay in favor of making clear the reasons Christianity thinks homosexual practice is sexual sin on a par with adultery and fornication. Suppose the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Lady Gaga is right, gays really are born this way. This does not change one iota of the church’s doctrine on homosexual practice. Sodomy is still wrong along with lying, stealing, gossip and a whole list of sins Christians and non-Christians do. Yes, I know Leviticus says that lying with a man is an abomination. I’m open to exegetical correction, but “abomination” is not synonymous with “worst sin imaginable that should engender fear and revulsion” It is a descriptive term about physical malfunction not a comparative term about degrees of badness. Creating human animal hybrids and rape are both wrong but only the former is an “abomination.”
Furthermore, we should stop trying to convince gay people that they can easily become heterosexuals. It may be that some can but it may be that many cannot. Let us surrender to the desire God has to bring the gospel to people struggling with same sex attraction. Let us focus on making clear the the incompatibility of homosexual practice (dating, cruising, marriage, adoption) with Christianity. Let us offer simply that gay practices, not “being gay”, is incompatible with Christian practice in the same way eating cheeseburgers is incompatible with Orthodox Judaism (cannot eat met and dairy at the same meal), but desiring a cheeseburger is not. And then let us offer hope.
Wesley Hill, professor of theology and a gay Christian who is celibate, asks will the church be the church for gays who want to be Christians? It does little good to tell honest seekers that “Gay” and ” Christian” are two mutually exclusive terms like “Pauly Shore” and “Oscar Winner”. Their are Christians that have same-sex desires and they want to know how they can love God without sinning. Telling them their desires are wrong doesn’t help (for more on this see Don Veinot’s excellent post called “Brain Damage”). Tell them how they can please God. As Eve Tushnet at the American Conservative says: “Right now gay teens hear a robust “Yes!” from the mainstream media and gay culture. From the Church, they hear only a “No.” And you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.”
Gay Christians need to know that living a celibate life can be a vocation anointed by God. Our “yes” should be the same “yes “we give to struggling alcoholics or addicts. You are welcome here. We won’t buy you a drink or applaud when you do but we desire to worship and walk with you. And on that note, Evangelicals should also encourage and support those Christians who identify as gay and celibate. As for me, I am committed to making friends with some gay Christians (and Non-Christians for that matter). If you agree you might check out Wesley Hill’s blog and while you are at it, read his book Washed and Waiting Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. (I plan to do a book review of this book in later posts.)
Second, and this will really hurt, we should not retreat from the public square but surrender our pastoral impulse to save our society in favor of being a peculiar people dedicated to imparting the gospel not protecting our way of life. This is incredibly hard for me as a father. I want my son and daughter to be safe and flourish in society. However, that measure of safety that I might secure, though doubtful, by force of law is not my calling as a disciple. I have to surrender my fears about the future of the surrounding culture to the gospel and its priorities which are always counterculture and may get my son killed. Instead of trying to preserve society, I want to show my children that Christian community serves as God-blessed haven from society and its pluralism where they gain strength to live and love in the public square.
This means that I may have to surrender my preoccupation for political theater. It means I may have to reorient myself to the fact that my primary identity is not Christian American but resident alien enjoying the freedom for which the Republic stands. But if that freedom dissolves slowly at the hands of fallen creatures seeking power and virtuous culture goes down in flames, my true citizenship is not affected.
This does not mean that we must withdraw from political discussion as some like John Howard Yoder have proposed. Contrary to popular opinion. I do think Christians should fight for some legislation but the purpose of the legislation should not be to preserve culture but rather to preserve the freedom of the Christian community to say its peace, practice its worship, and refrain from participating in things contrary to the Gospel. To that end I suggest we give up the preoccupation passing new laws in favor of defending some old ones like Free exercise of religion and Freedom of Speech. If Target wants to sell gay pride t-shirts this is incidental. I don’t think that in itself is a reason to publicly boycott as if to force Target to acknowledge our values without acknowledging their moral source. However, laws should be passed that protect churches from discrimination lawsuits on the basis of sexual preference. We should fight for laws that do not compel private businesses to accept contracts that would require them to compromise their Christian principles such the Healthcare law. Finally we should fight against laws that make merely speaking out against homosexual practices a hate crime. I believe we can more credibly occupy this moral high ground when we surrender our impulse to use force against moral strangers.
Lastly, we should not retreat from speaking the truth but we should surrender our pride. This means repenting to God for our wrong-headed pursuit of power in the name of winning the culture war. We should acknowledge that we have been fighting the wrong enemy with the wrong weapons. We war not against flesh a blood secularists but against evil forces in heavenly realms. Our weapons are not force but the truth of the Gospel reasoned daily with hearts of love and compassion.
We also need to apologize to the gay community and say something like the following: “We have been hypocrites for being preoccupied with your sexual practices as though your very existence is an affront to God so awful that we must bring the force of law against it (as if fornication, adultery and frivolous divorce are not just as sinful but no one is willing to use the force of law against them.) We are guilty of treating you like parishioners who need to be corrected rather than individuals who do not share our worldview or our theology–individuals for whom we wish to win the right to give reasons for the hope that is within us out of no ulterior motive but love.”
As always, dear reader, I look forward to your thoughts and your criticisms.