This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 2 (2012). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
“If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself?”
(1 Corinthians 14:8)
Let me take some drastic liberties with the parable of the Good Samaritan. A homosexual man sat by the side of the road wondering what, if anything, he should do about his tendencies and behavior. A priest approached him, and when the man explained his situation, the reverend said, “It’s a sin. Repent.”
“OK,” said the homosexual, “but why is it a sin? What do I do when I’m tempted by it? And if I do repent, will I ever be attracted to women and have a normal life?”
“Haven’t a clue,” the priest replied. “They never talked about this in seminary, and I’ve never dealt with someone like you. But you need to repent, so let me know when you’re ready.”
And off he went.
An evangelist walking by later was more direct. “God hates what you do,” he thundered, “and it’s a dangerous sin that’s ruining this country!”
“Ruining it more than adultery, pornography, or unmarried people shacking up?” the homosexual retorted. “Aren’t heterosexual sins serious, too?”
“Yes, but at least they’re normal,” the preacher huffed before stomping away.
Within minutes, another pastor noticed the man, heard his story, and said, “I’m so sick of the way preachers condemn you! So I never talk about right or wrong. I’d rather talk about how much God loves you.”
“Yes,” the man said, “but is this a sin or isn’t it? If God loves me, does that mean He approves of anything I do? And what do you make of the Bible verses that seem to condemn homosexuality?”
“Dunno,” the cleric shrugged. “Everyone has to decide that on his own. I just want a good relationship with you, so visit our church sometime. You’ll be loved no matter what.”
Three approaches—one uninformed, the second unloving, but the third, while lovingly respectful, was unclear. One minister had told him what to do without offering any guidance as to how. The second was long on standards but absent grace. And in reaction to the first two, the third oozed compassion, while offering few specific standards or direction.
The first and second approaches, sadly, have appeared among theological and social conservatives over the years. But the third is growing in popularity within those same circles, perhaps out of weariness with the prior two.
Accordingly, noted evangelical leaders, authors, and pastors are adopting and promoting a revision of our response to homosexual people by shifting away from clarity and toward vagueness. Like the minister cited above, they call on us to love in a new and improved way through approaches featuring ambiguity, affirmation, or accommodation, each of which bears examining. And while a number of well-known Christian figures endorse this shift—among them pastor Rob Bell,1 musicians Reba Rambo and her husband Donny McGuire,2 artist Cynthia Clawson,3 author Phillip Yancey,4 and entertainer Dolly Parton,5 to name a few—for clarity we’ll focus on three of the most prominent articulators of the ambiguous, the affirmative, and the accommodative approaches in hopes of better understanding this trend and developing a biblically based response.
An ambiguous approach is one that refuses to clarify whether or not homosexuality falls short of God’s design. It deflects from the foundational issue of the rightness or wrongness of it, opting instead to focus on communication, love, and bridge building. In fact, this approach looks askance at black and white answers, claiming that relations between the gay community and the conservative church are so strained that repairing those relations is the first order of business if gays are ever to be reached for Christ. This, in turn, requires that we abstain from condemning homosexuality on biblical grounds, and instead find common relational ground to enhance mutual trust and respect.
It’s not an utterly new tack. Best-selling author Phillip Yancey, for example, in his award-winning 1997 book, What’s So Amazing about Grace? made a specific and unapologetic point of refusing to state his position on homosexuality, though an entire chapter of Grace? was devoted to examining his longstanding friendship with a gay activist.6 Other Christian figures such as the late Tammy Faye Bakker and singer Debby Boone7 have followed suit, but author and speaker Andrew Marin, founder of the Marin Foundation who wrote the popular Love Is an Orientation8 seems currently to be this approach’s most vocal and recognized champion.
Marin’s self-described journey took him from being a “Bible banging homophobe”9 to a believer who loves homosexuals, counts numbers of them as friends, and wants to see the conversation between the church and the gay population elevated. His traditional conservative upbringing left him without much understanding of the issue; indeed, he describes growing up with a notable disdain for homosexuals.10 But during his freshman year of college three separate friends, within a three-month period, disclosed to him that they were gay or lesbian. At that point in his young life, he determined he would find better ways to relate to them, and set out to understand the emotional and spiritual journeys of gays and lesbians.11
To that end he moved into a part of Chicago known as “Boystown” because of its large gay population. Feeling a specific calling to learn firsthand from homosexuals themselves what their lives were like, he immersed himself in their subculture, regularly visiting gay bars and other hangouts, establishing numerous friendships, and thus providing opportunity for evangelism and dialogue.12 Out of those opportunities he developed a new approach based on listening, empathy, and respect, all operating under the umbrella of what he calls “bridge building.” This approach is critical of traditional point/counterpoint debates over what the Bible says about homosexuality. Elevating the conversation, he argues, means moving on to broader issues and finding common ground.
It’s impossible to read Marin’s work without appreciating his commitment to relational ministry, his concern for the people he wants to reach, and his willingness to stretch beyond his comfort zone when building productive relations with gays and lesbians. The tone of graciousness in his writing matches the one I found him to exhibit personally, and while co-speaking with him at a Christian event, I was impressed with the points he raised and the freshness of some of his ideas, which have captured the imagination and support of gay activists and conservative Christians alike, including radio host Frank Pastore, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Moody Radio, and Inter Varsity Press, to name a few.
Concerns are raised, though, not just over what Marin says but over what he avoids saying, and his rationale for that avoidance. Although he is specific and traditional when explaining doctrinal issues such as salvation and sanctification, he becomes ambiguous when asked if he believes homosexual behavior is sinful, claiming such statements only increase division.13 When a gay blogger, for example, asked for a simple answer to the “right or wrong” question, Marin replied:
I’ve come to the conclusion that both sides ask those same yes or no questions at the beginning so they can then label you and place you on their side, or the opponent’s side. Therefore, is homosexuality a sin? I have three clear answers:
1. Romans 3:23—we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God
2. James 2:10—in God’s eyes, if you have committed one sin you have committed them all
3. Matthew 7:1-2—the measure you use to judge others will also be used to judge you14
A simple question—Is this a sin?—is responded to with vague reminders that we all sin. When advising Christian university students, Marin endorses similar ambiguity. According to a positive review of one of his lectures at Belmont University in Nashville:
Instead of answering with a yes or no answer, Marin says, Jesus “elevated the conversation.” He did not answer yes or no. Marin now points to the “Kingdom Job Description,” as he calls it, where:
• The Holy Spirit will convict
• God will judge
• My job is to love.15
So while Marin’s book, blog writings, and public addresses rightly call for Christians to love their homosexual neighbor, the prescribed form of love refuses to address the rightness or wrongness of same-sex eroticism under any circumstances, even when the person practicing it asks for a plain answer. Though Jesus was full of both grace and truth (John 1:14), Marin seems to endorse a redistribution of the two, advising we be filled with one and reticent with the other.
Contrasting Marin’s reluctance to make clear statements on the ethics of homosexuality, Chuck Smith, Jr., (son of well-known pastor and Bible teacher Chuck Smith, leader of the Calvary Chapel movement and host of the popular Word for Today radio program) has adopted a solidly gay-affirmative posture, claiming he hopes to “pry open the minds of evangelicals”16 after learning “what homosexuality is all about” from a young gay man in his congregation. Having been raised equating homosexuality with pedophilia17 and other negative traits, his stereotypes about homosexuals crumbled as his friendship with the gay congregant and his male partner grew, to the point where Smith acknowledged he eventually “knew Jesus lived in their hearts.”18 Subsequently he adjusted his beliefs to match what he was experiencing, claiming he now approaches homosexuality from a pastoral rather than a theological perspective.19
While Smith’s position on the matter is not vague, his reasons for adopting it seem to be. His earlier traditional reading of Scripture was morphing by the time he wrote his book Frequently Avoided Questions (Baker Books, 2005), in which he wondered whether there could be one “right” answer on so difficult a topic.20 Later he admitted needing to “revisit” his theological stance on homosexuality,21 the revisiting eventually bringing him to the conviction that homosexuality is not an unnatural condition and homosexual behavior is not necessarily a sin.22 On those points Smith is clear.
What remains unclear is how he adjusted certain Bible verses to match his newfound perspective on homosexuals, and how the good character of a person practicing a behavior thereby legitimizes the behavior itself. On these points he may remain comfortably inconclusive, having openly stated that “even when I speak, some of what I say is opinion and confusion and error. I’m more in a place of learning than I am in a place of certainty.”23 Yet despite his openly pro-gay views, he is still featured (as of this writing) as a guest on his father’s Pastor’s Perspective radio show, at times even co-hosting with Chuck Smith, Sr., who clearly does not endorse homosexuality, despite giving his son a platform on the Calvary Chapel network.24
Sociologist Tony Campolo remains a dominant figure in modern evangelicalism, despite a number of controversies attached to his style and statements over the years.25 A prolific author, popular speaker, university professor, and former spiritual mentor to President Bill Clinton, Campolo has admirably championed the push for more respectful treatment of homosexuals, while just as admirably maintaining an unapologetically traditional biblical viewpoint on the matter. Clearly stating he believes homosexual practices are incompatible with Scripture and church tradition,26 he is nonetheless a welcomed guest at pro-gay events, during which he decries errors committed by Christians and calls the church to repent of its attitude toward gays.27
There is nothing ambiguous about Campolo’s beliefs on the matter, nor are they affirming of homosexual acts. Rather, he seems to call on the church to accommodate practicing homosexuals (as opposed to those who wrestle with the desire but do not act on it), thus relegating homosexuality to a secondary issue that needn’t disrupt church life and fellow ship.28 The vagueness in his approach, then, lies not in his position but in how that position should be practiced. For example:
When the Pacific Southwest region of the American Baptist Convention (ABC) voted on May 11, 2006, to withdraw from the parent denomination over the issue of homosexuality, Tony Campolo criticized them. The 300 churches in California, Hawaii, Nevada, and Arizona withdraw because of the denomination’s acceptance of churches with lax policies on homosexuality.… Campolo criticized the withdrawal decision, saying that it “runs counter to the prayer of Christ that we might all be one people.”29
Campolo’s form of accommodation would suggest that homosexual behavior, while not compatible with Scripture, is not a serious violation of it, either—at least not serious enough to warrant official church positioning and discipline. Thus the matter becomes secondary, like Calvinist vs. Arminian debates, or charismatic vs. non-charismatic views—significant, but not worth breaking fellowship over.
While Marin, Smith, and Campolo advocate positions that must be challenged, we should first note, then applaud, the attitudes influencing the positions. Would that all Christians were as concerned as these three about our response to homosexuals as people first; then homosexuals second, third, or even fiftieth down the list of defining characteristics. Their writings and speeches challenge us to reconsider, if not our stance, then the manner in which we take and express it. For this we should be grateful. Their approaches, though, bear examining in light of Scripture.
Marin’s ambiguity, for example, falls shorter of Christ’s example than he seems to realize. Despite his assertions that Jesus seldom answered yes/no questions,30 He did in fact answer plainly when asked about taxes (Matt. 22:17), divorce (Matt. 19:3), how often to forgive (Matt. 18:22), what the greatest commandment was (Luke 10:27), how to be born again (John 3:4), whether ceremonial washing was necessary (Matt. 15:12), the role of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:10), and who one’s neighbor was (Matt. 10:36), to name just a few controversial topics He addressed with clarity. While in some cases He refused to give a direct answer, these typically were occasions when His enemies were looking for grounds on which to incriminate Him. His usual teaching style was hardly vague; He showed no reticence to answer plainly despite the controversies a clear answer might incite. In this area He showed less concern about building bridges and more about truth, recognizing, no doubt, that bridges built on anything less were faulty indeed.
The assertion that our job is to love and God’s is to convict is also misleading. Love is indeed our command, but not our only one. We’re also commanded to rebuke the brother who sins against us and, if needed, take him before the church (Luke 17:3, Matt. 18: 15, 17). We’re to correct wrong behaviors within the church (1 Cor. 6:5) and express God’s attitude toward them (Eph. 5:11), imposing discipline within our own walls and deferring judgment to God only when dealing with those on the outside (1 Cor. 5:12). All of these call for proper judgment; all involve clear answers and approaches. True, God does not need man to point out sin, any more than He needs man to preach the gospel, provide for the poor, or give weekly sermons. He could do all of these without us, but His choice was to make us part of His work, a work we can hardly shun simply because it’s been done poorly by some in the past.
Likewise, Smith’s affirmative approach, guided by his recognition that homosexual people can be Christian and have fine qualities, overlooks the reality that the rightness or wrongness of a behavior is never determined, in Scripture, by the character of the person practicing it, but by the thing itself. His description of the stereotype of homosexuals he once believed but later rejected—that they were promiscuous pedophiles who chose their orientation and cannot possibly know God—suggests an either/or paradigm that’s neither useful nor realistic. The fact one doesn’t molest children hardly justifies one’s adult-to-adult sexual behavior, and while a person may exhibit admirable qualities in thirty areas of life, the one area outside God’s will remains outside God’s will despite the other thirty. When Jesus condemned adultery and lust, He made no general statements about the kind of people guilty of these sins precisely because their general character was not at issue; the specific actions were.
And while Campolo’s call for unity is sound, his concept of it seems to elevate unity above obedience. Here theologian Robert Gagnon, commenting on pro-gay trends within the church, offers important points: “When Paul encountered the case of the incestuous man at Corinth he did not say, ‘Let’s stop the fighting over what Scripture says about incest and try to find eternal principles that will help us bridge our differences.’ That may have been the position of the Corinthian ‘strong’ who prided themselves (were ‘puffed up’ or ‘inflated’) in their ability to tolerate such behavior in their midst (1 Cor. 5:2); but it was not Paul’s position.”31
Nor, we might add, is it a position supported by any other biblical authors, and there’s the crux of the issue: The vague approach growing in vogue elevates the emotional above the rational; the feeling above the true. The emotional can hardly be denied, as we would prefer to get along. But when relating exacts the cost of hedging inconvenient truth, then the price of the bridge being built has skyrocketed beyond reasonable rates. Here Charles Spurgeon eloquently reminds us: “My firm old fashioned belief is that some doctrines are true, and that statements which are diametrically opposite to them are not true—that when No is the fact, Yes is out of court, and that when Yes can be justified No must be abandoned. We have to deal with God, whose servants we are, and He will not be honored by our delivering falsehoods.”32
Joe Dallas is the program director of Genesis Counseling in Tustin, California, a Christian counseling service to men dealing with sexual addiction, homosexuality, and other sexual/relational problems. He is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors and is the author of five books on human sexuality, including Desires in Conflict (Harvest House, 1991) and A Strong Delusion (Harvest House, 1996).
- “Rob Bell hits Lexington” http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/02/rob-bell-hits-lexington-and-packed-out.html?m=1.
- http:// www.soulforce.org/forums/showthread.php?t=275.
- “Debby Boone defies Expectations,” available at http://www.sfbaytimes.com/index.php?sec=article&article_id=4236.
- Andrew Marin, Love Is an Orientation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 16.
- Ibid., 17–20.
- Chuck Smith, Jr., Frequently Avoided Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 212.
- “Q and A with Chuck Smith Jr.,” Dallas Morning News, December 10, 2005. http://www.religionnewsblog.com/14301/qa-with-chuck-smith-jr.
- Robert A. J. Gagnon, “Truncated Love: A Response to Andrew Marin’s Love Is an Orientation.” http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/homosexMarinLoveIsOrientation.pdf.
- Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 220.