(RNS) With the Supreme Court expected to find a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in a few weeks, a sorting is taking place among evangelical Christian leaders. The debate over whether one can affirm LGBT people and still be an evangelical is as heated as the debate over homosexuality itself.
Evangelicals receive plenty of scorn for their traditional views. Not only do they reject noncelibate gay people, they also condemn LGBT-affirming evangelicals.
Tony Campolo, a prominent left-leaning evangelical activist, announced on Monday (June 8) that he affirms covenanted same-sex couples. Campolo’s statement surprised no one. Conservatives have seen Campolo trending this way for years. Liberals complained that, at this late date, Campolo’s shift is more ho-hum than brave.
A less-noted, though more consequential, announcement came later Monday. David Neff, who retired in 2012 as editor of evangelicalism’s flagship magazine, Christianity Today, agreed with Campolo’s affirmation of gay Christians.
Neff’s announcement required a rapid response from the evangelical establishment in a way Campolo’s did not. Had Christianity Today’s position changed? Is Neff still an evangelical in good standing?
Christianity Today editor Mark Galli reassured readers Tuesday that the magazine still considers same-sex sexual expression sinful and believes marriage is by nature between a man and a woman.
“We at CT are sorry when fellow evangelicals modify their views to accord with the current secular thinking on this matter,” he wrote.
Galli said that Neff had enlisted “in a cause we believe is ultimately destructive to society.” He could have explicitly rebuked his predecessor, but instead said he does not feel compelled to distance himself from Neff.
The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Galli’s kinder, gentler condemnation made no sense.
“(How) can that distance be avoided? The reality is that it cannot,” Mohler wrote. “This is a moment of decision, and every evangelical believer, congregation, denomination, and institution will have to answer. There will be no place to hide.”
Other evangelical leaders will condemn Neff using even stronger language. Still, Neff is less of a threat. He is retired and is not actively working to advance LGBT acceptance in churches.
Matthew Vines, who has met privately with dozens of evangelical leaders over the past year, was the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times this week. A pastor who disagrees with Vines’ revisionist interpretation nevertheless referred to Vines as a “brother in Christ.”
Many other conservative evangelical leaders regard Vines not as a brother, but as a false teacher and apostate seducing the faithful away from biblical Christianity and toward eternal torment in hell.
Conservative evangelicals’ position on same-sex marriage is no more strident than the Catholic Church’s. The United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest mainline denomination, still holds that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Why are evangelicals singled out for their harsh views? Part of the reason is that many more Catholics dissent from church teaching than evangelicals. United Methodists mostly agree to disagree.
For conservative evangelicals, there is no middle ground — no “third way.” Either churches will affirm covenanted same-sex relationships or they will not. Thus, they have to reject LGBT affirmers. Conceding that Christians can disagree about LGBT issues is tantamount to affirming those behaviors and identities. The way they see it, condemnation is their only choice.
The problem for evangelical gatekeepers is that they have to double down on rejection whenever a leader’s condemnation is not severe enough. When the editor of Christianity Today does not distance himself from “fellow evangelical” David Neff or The New York Times reports on a “brother in Christ” named Vines, the gatekeepers must spring into action.
It is surely unfashionable to assert absolute certainty and to break fellowship with dissenters, especially in the service of sexual traditionalism. Yet evangelicals see how compromise has worked for mainline Protestants, whose denominations are declining. They see how widespread lay rejection of church teaching has worked for Catholics, who have lost untold millions of adherents.
For conservative leaders, however, maintaining evangelical identity boundaries around sexual ethics is not just the lesser of evils. It is a clear, if painful, good.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS 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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