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Can the evangelical church embrace gay couples?

A new wave of thinkers says yes — and is looking to Scripture for support.

In a 2007 poll conducted by the Barna Group, an evangelical research firm, the adjective that the most Americans ages 16 to 29 agreed described contemporary Christianity was “antihomosexual.” Secular Americans saw it that way, and so did faithful churchgoers, among whom 80 percent agreed that the term accurately described their religion— more so than 19 other descriptors including “judgmental” and “friendly.”

That today’s church is seen as so profoundly antigay is affront to the many Christians who have come to embrace gay members, gay clergy, and same-sex marriage within their congregations. But for significant numbers of evangelicals and theologically conservative Christians in America, this is simply not a point that can be argued: When the Bible mentions homosexuality, it is to condemn it. As theologian Robert Gagnon summed it up in his influential 2001 book, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice,” “there is clear, strong, and credible evidence that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin.”

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As a result, the evangelical community is one of the major reservoirs of antigay sentiment in the United States today—perhaps the most important political constituency for the fight against gay marriage, and one whose unanimity on this issue has created a solid, unbudgeable pole in American political life. As other parts of America have shifted, including the Catholic laity, the evangelical position on homosexuality has seemed strikingly immutable.

But in the past several years, a new current has arisen in conservative evangelical thought: A small but significant number of theologians, psychologists, and other conservative Christians are beginning to develop moral arguments that it’s possible to affirm same-sex relationships not in spite of orthodox theology, but within it. In books, academic journals, magazines, blog posts, speeches, conferences, and campus clubs, they are steadily building a case that there is a place in the traditional evangelical church for sexually active gay people in committed, monogamous relationships. They argue that the Bible, read properly, doesn’t condemn such relationships at all—and neither should committed Christians.

The mainstream of evangelical thinking remains firmly planted on the issue for now, and tends to see “pro-gay” anything as an outside force to be fought off. But it is now clear that arguments for gay relationships are emerging from within the evangelical tradition itself, causing ripples that will have major implications for churchgoers present and future. “The energy is shifting significantly,” said Jeremy Thomas, a sociologist at Idaho State University who has studied how evangelical elites’ arguments about homosexuality have evolved.

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A look inside these emerging arguments shows a version of “acceptance” that doesn’t necessarily look much like the secular liberal version. If gay people are to be embraced, it would still be within a tight definition of what constitutes the appropriate role of sex in a moral life. Nonetheless, it offers an important glimpse of what might permit movement for evangelicals—and a key part of the electorate—on what has recently been one of the most contentious issues in American life. If there is going to be change in the orthodox Protestant approach to gay people, this is what the beginning of that transformation will look like.

Orlin Wagner/AP

Matthew Vines before a speech on the Bible and homosexuality at a conference in Kansas.

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There’s no one theology uniting American conservative Christians—it is a movement with many independent churches and other institutions, and no central authority. But most people who define themselves as orthodox evangelicals would say that their faith rests on placing Scripture above all else, and belief in the Bible as the infallible word of God. So, in the evangelical world, arguments about anything important tend to begin with the Bible.

The Gospel writers don’t record Jesus saying anything about homosexuality, but elsewhere in the Bible, depending how you count, there are five to seven passages that address homosexuality directly, and all of them seem to come down against it. (Many theologians take a wider view, and see the Bible’s many passages on gender as also addressing homosexuality.) The Old Testament Book of Leviticus, for example, says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” It goes on to condemn them to death. In the New Testament Book of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul lists “sodomites” along with thieves, drunkards, and adulterers as those who “will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Most theologians agree that Romans 1 is the hardest passage to interpret, and also the most important: a relatively long, detailed criticism in the New Testament by a crucially important figure in the early church. In a passage on idolatry, Paul writes:

“Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

In conservative Christian arguments about homosexuality, those texts are often a trump card; gay-friendly Christians refer to them as “clobber passages.” But last year they were put under the microscope in a widely discussed book by James Brownson, an evangelical theologian, and he concluded that contemporary believers were reading them far too narrowly.

Brownson is a theologian and professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan, and his book—“Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships,” published in February by Eerdmans, a Christian publishing house—amounts to perhaps the most extensive, accessible, and direct evangelical reckoning with the Bible’s passages on homosexuality.

In particular, he devotes no fewer than four chapters to Romans 1, unpacking Paul’s definitions of lust, purity, shame, and natural law in detail, and emerges with the claim that contemporary believers shouldn’t understand “shameless acts with men” as meaning the same thing we’d now mean by gay sex. For liberal Christians, this kind of argument is common: Passages like Romans I are often dismissed as artifacts of the prejudices of their time. Not so for evangelicals, and accordingly Brownson walks a careful line in his writing: He makes the case that it’s possible to affirm these verses completely and also affirm same-sex relationships.

Courtesy of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

James Brownson.

He points out that in the ancient world, as other theologians have also observed, gay sex was viewed by Christians and Jews not as the expression of an innate orientation, but as a symptom of lustful excess—what Brownson calls “a kind of endless search for exotic forms of stimulation.” But today it has another meaning: Sex with either gender can be an expression of love within a long-term relationship. Christians, therefore, can support Paul’s condemnation of lustful or degrading sex outside marriage, while embracing a category of monogamous, committed same-sex relationship that did not exist in the Biblical world.

Brownson also makes a broader argument that the “moral logic” of the Bible points to acceptance of committed gay relationships because the Scriptures so clearly place priority on family bonds, love, and, yes, marriage. “It’s not enough to say, ‘What does the Bible say?’” he said in an interview. “You have to ask, ‘Why does the Bible say what it says, and what are the underlying values?’”

This call to acknowledge historical context may sound like common sense to an outsider, but it can be an extremely touchy argument to make within the evangelical world, where believers are loath to be seen letting contemporary culture sway their reading of Scripture. If the Bible is eternally relevant, eternally true, and able to be understood by any believer, then arguments against the “plain meaning” of the text must clear a high bar.

That is what makes Brownson’s book significant within the movement. Matthew Vines, a young evangelical who has emerged as a leading advocate for affirming gay relationships within the church, calls it “the first scholarly work that gets the issue right in terms of historical analysis and is also approaching it from the right cultural space.”

“He’s taking a high view of the Bible’s authority, and even with that high view of Scripture, he’s coming to affirm same-sex relationships,” says Vines. “That’s a really big deal.”

It has also attracted prominent critics, including Wesley Hill, a New Testament scholar and popular writer who argues that “out” gay Christians like himself should be fully supported as long as they remain celibate. He says that Paul’s references to same-sex sexual behavior in Romans correspond to not to the cultural categories of Paul’s own day, but to deeper truths about creation: categories in Genesis that traditionalists say prove correct Christian sexual relationships are defined by “complementarity.” (Brownson spends a large portion of his book attempting to dismantle this interpretation; he argues, for example, that Eve’s similarity to Adam is more relevant than her sexual difference.) Another review, posted on the website of the influential church network the Gospel Coalition, captured the emotional tenor of other conservative reactions by saying that Brownson’s book “should sadden all others who follow Jesus.”

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As the blowback suggests, Brownson’s book marks the furthest point yet in a set of books that have urged evangelical believers to liberalize on this issue. David Myers, a psychology professor at evangelical Hope College in Michigan, coauthored a 2005 book that made an evangelical case for gay marriage. He based his argument on factors including the Biblical mandate for justice, and the benefits of encouraging monogamy as a societal norm.

These have quickly become part of the arsenal for a handful of self-proclaimed conservative evangelicals who are trying to persuade believers that it’s time to create space for gay relationships within the church. Vines, who took a leave of absence as an undergraduate at Harvard University in 2010, became an online sensation when he posted a video to YouTube of an hourlong presentation on the Bible and homosexuality he made to his home church in Wichita in 2012. In the video, Vines tackled the “clobber passages” one by one, building to the argument that being gay is not a sin.

Vines, who is gay and calls himself theologically conservative, now heads an organization called the Reformation Project, whose goal is to change the church from within the umbrella of evangelical theology—primarily by training interested Christians to make theologically sound arguments to their peers and church leaders. His book “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” will be published by a Random House imprint in May.

Justin Lee is another prominent evangelical voice on the issue. He wrote a 2012 book, “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate,” that makes a forceful but generous case for full acceptance of gay people within the church. Though he spends time addressing the “clobber passages,” his main point is that the church’s current approach to gay people is destroying its reputation, and that something must change both for the sake of gay people and the gospel message. Lee also heads an organization called the Gay Christian Network, which includes people who fully support monogamous same-sex relationships and those who promote celibacy, but who all want to see the church show more grace and understanding to gay people. Lee expects between 500 and 600 people to attend the group’s annual conference this weekend.

For a man whose position is still viewed as radical by a sizable portion of the church, Lee is relentlessly conciliatory in his tone: His primary goal is to see straight Christians understand and “show grace to” the gay people in their midst. To him, there’s no need for the church to move in lockstep. “Christians,” he said, “have disagreed on theology as long as there’s been a church.”

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The question of how much to bend to or to guard against social change is a permanent point of tension for evangelicals, who have traditionally prized engagement with—but not acquiescence to—the broader culture. (The phrase “In, but not of, the world,” drawn from the New Testament Book of John, is commonly used to describe this tension.) As the tidal wave of gay rights and acceptance advances around them, “there is just going to be a growing dismay that the world has moved on,” said Jeremy Thomas, the sociologist. “You’re going to find a tremendous energy among rank and file evangelicals to say, ‘We’ve gotta make this work somehow.’ And they will.”

There are signs that this is happening, if almost imperceptibly. In 2012, Thomas coauthored a paper in the journal Sociology of Religion that analyzed 332 articles on homosexuality published between 1960 and 2009 in the leading evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. The authors found that evangelical authorities have shifted away from appealing exclusively to the Bible in making claims about homosexuality. Instead, they are appealing increasingly to sources from science, medicine, and the observed world.

Over that time, the consensus in the outside world has shifted sharply: Homosexuality was considered a disorder in psychiatry’s chief diagnostics manual until 1973; today, “treating” it would be considered gross malpractice by any legitimate psychiatrist. Accordingly, the belief in conservative Christian circles that sexuality is a “choice,” or reversible, is plummeting, a shift typified by the voluntary shuttering of the prominent “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International last summer. (Director Alan Chambers’s statement upon disbanding the nonprofit was titled “I am sorry.”) Wesley Hill’s work, which encourages gay Christians to live openly—if celibately—would have seemed radical a decade ago; now it is increasingly mainstream among believers.

Perhaps most tellingly for the future, evangelical colleges have seen an explosion of new campus groups for LGBT students, groups that were unimaginable even five years ago. (Full disclosure: I signed a letter of support for such a group at my own evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College.) In July, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., officially acknowledged an LGBT student group on campus—the first evangelical seminary to do so.

If the mainstream of evangelical thinking does shift on sexual orientation, that may not mean any loosening of other sexual mores. Without exception, these new voices want to see gay relationships accepted within conservative Christian boundaries, which means placing sex exclusively within marriage (or an equivalent, where civil marriage is not legal).

As David Myers put it, “The world would be a happier and healthier place for all people if love, sex, and marriage routinely went together. That’s a pretty conservative position. It’s only because I’ve inserted the words ‘for all people’ that it becomes slightly controversial.”

In the end, it may not be theology or psychology that changes the most evangelical minds. Human relationships have a way of doing what academic arguments cannot. James Brownson was what he calls a “moderate conservative” on the question of homosexuality until his own son, a well-adjusted 18-year-old, came out to him and his wife eight years ago. “When I had to deal with my own son, a lot of the answers that were part of the tradition I’m part of and that I had assumed in the past just didn’t work,” he said. “We have to be able to talk about real people here.”

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.
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