WASHINGTON (RNS) It used to be that defining an “evangelical” was pretty straightforward: some version of a “born-again” experience, a deep appreciation for the Bible as the written Word of God and a conviction to spread salvation to the masses.
Opposing homosexuality wasn’t part of that holy trinity, but for most evangelicals, it was more or less a given that all sexuality outside of man-woman marriage is sinful. Not so much anymore.
Growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality is leading many Christians to reconsider their historic opposition. As intractable as the debate itself can be, American evangelicals nonetheless are experiencing lively conflicts over maintaining boundaries. What can you believe about gays and still call yourself an evangelical? And who gets to decide?
In October, the Vatican’s Synod on the Family and a major conference of establishment evangelicals in Nashville both featured softer rhetoric on gays and lesbians while reaffirming the view that homosexuality is morally disordered.
Last week in Washington, however, a gay evangelical activist laid out a biblical argument for an affirming view.
Matthew Vines was raised in a conservative Presbyterian congregation in Wichita, Kan. Realizing and accepting that he was gay, Vines neither abandoned religion nor sought out a more affirming church. Instead, he delved deeply into the Bible and Christian teaching. He came away with the conviction that biblical Christianity could affirm same-sex relationships.
Evangelicals are less likely than other religious groups to affirm gays and lesbians. Many evangelical elites have expended a great deal of energy keeping the issue of homosexuality front and center. Even as same-sex marriage seems destined for permanent enshrinement in law, a constant spate of sermons, books and conferences reminds evangelicals that they must hold firm on their opposition.
Yet rank-and-file believers increasingly know — and like — gay people who do not seem bound for eternal torment in hell. Vines is showing what can happen when a compassionate, winsome evangelical comes along with the aim of helping Christians realize that they do not have to choose between affirming the authority of Scripture and affirming their gay friends and loved ones.
In a series of public appearances and in his recent book, “God and the Gay Christian,” Vines articulates a biblical case for support of same-sex relationships. The handful of Bible verses that mention same-sex sexual activity is familiar terrain to both affirming and traditionalist Christians, but Vines is sensitive to the concerns of evangelicals who claim to prefer literal interpretations and view biblical scholarship with suspicion.
He concludes that the biblical authors had no conception of the modern understanding of sexual orientation. While the Bible condemns sexual excess, he says, it does not condemn loving, monogamous, lifelong same-sex relationships.
To underscore the threat Vines poses to conservative evangelical leaders, a group of Southern Baptist seminary professors hastily published a response to Vines’ book and made it available free of charge.
Vines’ organization, The Reformation Project, welcomed 350 registrants to its D.C. conference. Held at a liberal Disciples of Christ church a few blocks from the White House, the conference drew participants from across American Christianity.
I asked Vines if this was an “evangelical” conference. “Yes,” he said, “but that is not the totality of it.”
At least half of the conference participants hailed from gay-affirming churches and institutions. But Vines rattled off a list of prominent evangelical churches and colleges whose members and students were in attendance: Brian Houston’s Hillsong Church and Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, as well as Andy Stanley’s North Point Community Church in Atlanta and Gordon College outside Boston.
Though they have rebranded evangelicalism as a prophetic minority rather than a moral majority, evangelical leaders are beginning to lose their own people. As churches and colleges start to shift, Vines suspects that elites will simply try to withdraw the “evangelical” label from people who don’t agree.
“They don’t have that power,” he said. “And they will not succeed in the long term.”
David Gushee, a leading evangelical ethicist, announced his support for LGBT equality at Vines’ conference and is already facing attacks for his change of heart. Long suspect by other evangelicals for his work on torture and climate change, Gushee, too, is being dismissed as not authentically “evangelical.”
“Conservative evangelical elites can hold the line with their own leaders and pastors for maybe another 10 years,” Vines predicted. “There is no other issue for which young evangelicals are so hesitant to strongly and clearly affirm their elders’ teachings.”
Variations of this debate have played out at other evangelical institutions. Earlier this year, the relief group World Vision was forced to backtrack on a policy to recognize same-sex marriages for employees — the blowback was equally fierce from both traditional evangelical elites and from younger evangelicals who actually welcomed the change.
At flagship institutions like Wheaton College outside Chicago, students and alumni under the banner of the independent alumni-run group “OneWheaton” say they stand in solidarity with LGBT students, even as administrators hold the line on traditional sexuality standards.
For some evangelicals, Vines’ collaboration with mainline liberals and secular LGBT organizations makes it easy to dismiss him. Yet Vines reiterated his commitment to a big-tent strategy.
“The Reformation Project is not an exclusively evangelical organization,” he said. “Even though I align with evangelicalism theologically, I do not believe that progressive Christians are somehow not Christians. Some in the evangelical world do, but I find that presumptuous.”
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf.)
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