This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number3 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, once held the classical Christian view that homosexual relationships are sinful. But after his younger sister came out as a lesbian in 2008, he changed his mind.1 The sequence is important. Gushee did not change his mind because of careful biblical exegesis and reflection. His sister came out and then he changed his mind. Gushee later wrote a book about the process, Changing Our Mind (David Crum Media, 2014). As George Guthrie writes in his review of Gushee’s book,
The book constitutes [Gushee’s] own story of encounter, compassion, cognitive dissonance, and existential change of perspective. As he met LGBT couples, sat with children who’d been traumatized at home or church, processed his relationship with his sister who came out as a lesbian, heard from a student who’d been pained by David’s past teaching, he seems to have been backed into an existential corner….The way he’d been reading Scripture seemed increasingly implausible….At the end of the day, then, Changing Our Mind isn’t so much about David’s reasoned abandonment of 2,500 years of Judeo-Christian teaching on sexuality as it is a telling of his story, a story of seeking to pull together the disparate stories in his world.2
“We Know What the Text Says”
In an even more telling transformation, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, an able defender of the historicity of the Gospels,3 whose daughter has identified as gay, wrote in Commonweal,
I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says?….I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience…which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. (emphasis added)4
It is difficult to find a professing Christian leader who has relinquished the classical Christian position on sexuality on purely exegetical grounds. The most popular voices in the less academic evangelical realm who claim to have changed their minds — Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, and Jen Hatmaker — are either gay or are very close to someone who is.5 The readiness with which these high profile Christians abandon their former convictions in light of personal experiences suggests that they had, perhaps unknowingly, already adopted a worldview that undermines the classical Christian understanding of human nature and the relationship between God’s law and the human heart.
Establishing a Righteousness of Their Own
God made human beings in His own image and declared everything He had created “very good” (Gen. 1:31).6 Then Adam took the forbidden fruit from his wife and ate, and sin rooted itself in the human soul. Consequently, the apostle Paul writes, “No one is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). Jesus, approached by a young man seeking to gain eternal life by his good deeds, declared that “no one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). The gospel itself — the good news that God became man, lived, died, and rose again to save sinners — is predicated on the truth that human beings are incapable of self-redemption.7
Yet we strive to establish our own essential goodness. The Pharisees sought to do this by following the “tradition of the elders,”8 a system of practices rendering the law of God, which God gave as the chief means to reveal humanity’s sinfulness and need for His mercy,9 doable.10 Referring to this attempt, Paul writes, “seeking to establish their own [righteousness], they did not submit to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). Their unwillingness to acknowledge their sinfulness blinded them to the good news that Jesus came to save sinners.
The Luminous Self?
The same self-delusion today takes center stage in what might be described as the Gospel of Self. Look within, its apostles urge. Peel back the layers of socially imposed norms to find your authentic self — the true, inherently good, you —and live in accordance with what you find.
The paradigm has become so culturally predominant that in June 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled an employer must affirm an employee’s gender self-identification without regard to his or her biological sex.11 The employee’s inner sense of the core self must be permitted to determine the workplace environment.
One of the clearest expressions of the Gospel of Self can be found in Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile’s best-selling book, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery. They write, “Buried in the deepest precincts of being, I sense there is a truer, more luminous expression of myself and that as long as I remain estranged from it I will never feel fully alive or whole.”12 The human person is not merely good, but a being of luminous light. One may have to dig past culturally imposed norms to find oneself, but once found, the true you is a thing of unspeakable beauty.
While the idea of the luminous self directly contradicts the biblical doctrine of original sin, it gains a foothold in Christian circles when its advocates associate it with the imago Dei.13 The shiny self is the self that has been made in God’s image. The imago Dei is not, as Irenaeus described it, a shattered mosaic, but rather a buried treasure waiting to be unearthed. And once found, any refusal to affirm and celebrate the discovery constitutes a wholesale rejection of the person and God’s image in her.
As author Glennon Doyle wrote in response to a reader struggling to reconcile her Christian faith with Doyle’s lesbian partnership, “If you want to change me, you don’t love me. If you feel warm toward me but also believe I’m going to burn in hell, you don’t love me….So, yes…you have a choice to make. You have to choose between loving me and keeping your beliefs.”14 Love, within this paradigm, is reduced to unqualified affirmation. The supreme virtue is self-discovery; and true love, to be love, must conform itself to whatever identity the beloved reveals.
Whence Comes Knowledge of Sin?
The contrast between this ethic and the Christian understanding of human nature and God’s law could not be greater. Because we are fallen creatures, we must not look within to find the truth about ourselves. The human heart is darkened. God revealed His law so that, in its light, we might see ourselves clearly. And “through the law,” Paul writes, “comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The law of God serves as a measure against which the human being is shown to be wanting. We are not good, and we cannot do the good that God requires. This knowledge is meant to drive us to Jesus Christ, who by His life, death, and resurrection has both taken away our guilt and given us a right standing before God. Placing our trust in Him, we find forgiveness and salvation. He makes us new by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who begins the inner work of renovation, conforming our hearts and minds to His.
Throughout this process, God’s law continues to convict the conscience and drive the Christian beyond the self to Christ and His cross. Paul writes, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:22–23). Paul delights in God’s law but finds that the law condemns him. Thus, he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24–25)!
Is God Doing a New Thing?
The Christian looks to divine revelation to assess the self rather than to the self as a mode of divine revelation. For this reason, Christian love often seems hateful to those who have embraced the Gospel of Self. During the sexuality conflict in the Episcopal Church, a common question, thought to be a piercing one by progressives, was: what if one of your children turns out to be gay? I was confused the first time someone asked me that. The revelation that a child of mine might have sinful sexual predispositions would be just about as shocking to me as the discovery that my children sometimes tell lies. But when my child lies, I do not change my mind about lying. Likewise, one of my children may one day “come out,” but that would not change my mind about human sexuality.
But the question is a piercing one to those who have already embraced the Gospel of Self. When someone you love comes out, everything must be rethought in light of this new revelation. Perhaps God is doing a new thing?15 This seems to me to be the driving impetus underlying the radical departures of Christian parents, including scholars and leaders, from the classical Christian view of human sexuality.16
Conforming the Soul to Reality
My father rarely raised his voice or lost his temper when I was a boy. But when I disobeyed, consequences inevitably followed. He is a compassionate man. Before and after administering discipline, he would tell me how much he loved me. “This hurts me more than it hurts you” is a well-worn cliche. But I believe my father truly meant it.
Why did he discipline? It was difficult as a child to understand the connection between the pain of discipline and the love that motivated it. As I grew up, the connection became clearer. For my father, love consisted not in reformulating good and evil to correspond to my luminous self, but in imposing discipline so that I might be conformed to revealed, immutable virtues.
For the Christian, the purpose of life is to be conformed to Christ, who is the Truth. Within the new paradigm, all things must be made to conform to the truth within. C. S. Lewis anticipated this mindset in The Abolition of Man:
There is something which unites magic and applied science [technology] while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.17
I think Lewis would be sorrowful but unsurprised to learn that so many professing Christian parents, in the name of love, contort the Bible or blithely disregard it in order to affirm their children’s desires. He saw many years ago that in the present age all things must submit to the “wishes of men.”
Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.
- Jonathan Merritt, “Leading Evangelical Ethicist David Gushee Is Now Pro-LGBT. Here’s Why It Matters,” Religion News Service, October 24, 2014, https://religionnews.com/2014/10/24/david-gushee-lgbthomosexuality-matters/.
- George H. Guthrie, “Changing Our Mind,” The Gospel Coalition, January 9, 2015, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/changing-mind/.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne,1997)
- Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church,” Commonweal, June 11, 2007, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexualitychurch-0.
- Matthew Vines and Justin Lee are both quite publicly gay and have been out for some time. Jen Hatmaker’s daughter came out publicly in June 2020, but her family had known “for some time.” “Jen Hatmaker Reveals Her Daughter Is Gay,” Christian Today, June 30, 2020, https://www.christiantoday.com/article/jen.hatmaker.reveals.her.daughter.is.gay/135119.htm.
- All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).
- See Mark 7:1–13.
- Romans 3:20; see discussion below.
- Following this system, Paul once considered himself “blameless” (see Phil. 3:6).
- Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. ___ (2020). See Melissa Legault, “Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Prohibits Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity-Based Discrimination in Employment (US),” National Law Review, June 15, 2020, https://www.natlawreview.com/article/landmark-us-supreme-court-ruling-prohibits-sexualorientation-and-gender-identity.
- Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press Books, 2017), 23.
- The image of God.
- Glennon Doyle, Untamed (New York: Dial Press, 2020), 249–50.
- When Gene Robinson’s election as Bishop of New Hampshire was confirmed by the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies in August 2003, setting him on the path to becoming the first partnered and gay Episcopalian bishop, he said, “God is doing a new thing.” The phrase subsequently became a slogan for progressive Episcopalians. Monica Davey, “Episcopal Leaders Give First Approval for a Gay Bishop,” The New York Times, August 4, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/04/us/episcopal-leaders-give-first-approval-for-a-gay-bishop.html.
- For a solid biblical defense of the classical view, see Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: Harper One, 2015), 77.