by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)
At the start of May, Union University was graced with the presence of notable evangelical theologians who commented on the issues of homosexuality, marriage, the church, and society. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore joined the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Robert Gagnon at Union’s conference, “Salt and Light in the Public Square: Charles Colson’s Legacy and Vision.”
Russell Moore prominently serves as the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s departing dean and will soon succeed retiring Richard Land as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Commenting on the marriage debate, Moore worried, “There are many people in America—including evangelicals—who fear they will be [notorious segregationist] George Wallace, Sr., listening to their children rebuking them for a history that’s moving beyond them.” He acknowledged three common approaches to address the issue.
“Moral Majoritarianism” remains the most common approach “at the populist level.” Moore summarized the position as “We are standing with the silent majority of Americans, thus we can move this and sway this politically.” One assumes, “Most people are like us” (made more winsome by the loud yet truly small 1960s counterculture). “That kind of language is not helpful [for the marriage debate],” Moore contended, “because what a Christian view of reality from the beginning is that the state ought not to define marriage at all. The state merely recognizes something that is already existing in nature.”
Many American Christians also assume a “moral libertarian approach,” in which the church hides “in the opposite corner…Somehow we can find a way to be Christians without engaging such questions at all.” Moore reported he has talked to many young pastors of growing churches who share this sympathy. “We already tried that with the divorce culture, and how did that work out for you?” he quipped, “The state’s attitude towards divorce hasn’t only caused social harm…but also has influenced people in our religious communities to see marriage in a different way.” Moore concluded, “Evangelicals have been slow-change sexual revolutionaries…Many now wonder if they can be conscientious objectors in the marriage redefinition debate.” The SBTS dean believed the Gospel is at stake in this argument. “You are not calling sinners to repentance,” Moore warned, “When we do not speak holistically of (as the Scripture puts it) sin and righteousness and judgment, the people around us know that we are afraid.”
Dr. Moore touted an “engaged communitarianism” as the best response. It “isn’t arbitrary” that marriage functions as an “icon” for Christ’s relationship with His Church. Of course, Moore clarified, “to see the marriage issue within the context of the Gospel” does not discount natural law. Christians do not have to make a choice between two options. “Without [marriage], there is a lack of human flourishing,” the Southern Baptist leader explained, “[There is a view] that we want to keep marriage as a privilege for heterosexual people, and we don’t want marriage expanded to other people who want this…What we are actually after is the complementarity.” Moore graciously advised, “Our neighbors are not our opponents. Our neighbors are often primarily afraid of the voice of God, just as we were before our regeneration and conversion…They are not uniquely held by the devil…We are telling our neighbor, ‘You are not defined by your desires.”
Renowned Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor Robert Gagnon shared a summary of his exhaustive expertise on the homosexuality issue. He boldly announced, “A lot of Christians like to play dead on this issue, and that is because there is a price to pay for speaking out clearly on this particular matter. Because, as you know, in this particular society, if you continue to hold to a male-female requirement in sexual ethics as foundational for all other sexual norms, you will be treated as the moral equivalent of a racist, pure and simple. That’s the intent.” Gagnon started by claiming that Jesus’ speech in the nineteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel is normative for all sexual behavior. “For Jesus, marriage is not just a cultural construct. It’s an institution ordained by God…God intended for sexual unions to be binary,” Gagnon proclaimed. The biblical ideal of complementarity between unlike parts of a whole and monogamy forbids not only homosexuality, but also incest and polygamy, including the “serial polygamy” in divorce culture. He noted that idolatry and sexual immorality (pornea) are St. Paul’s top two concerns in the epistles.
Some evangelicals opine that all sin is of equal offense (which, Gagnon noticed, finds no Scriptural warrant). Since all lust and thus commit “adultery of the heart,” Christians need to lay off attacks on homosexual behavior. Gagnon, however, pointed out that adultery of the heart means Jesus does not bend the Law for innate urges to do something (quite devastating to LGBT apologists trying to change ecclesiastical sexual standards). Other feckless critics complain that Jesus did not explicitly forbid homosexual acts. Gagnon finds this hermeneutic sadly wanting: “I have never heard a pastor preach that you should never have sex with your mother. It is not assumed that you get a free pass, but instead that this is so far beyond the pale, it does not have to be addressed.” “Faith isn’t simply the proclamation of the truth; it’s a life,” the seminarian revealed.
Professor Gagnon continued to explore the themes of marriage in the Genesis account. Highlighting Eve’s creation from Adam’s side (or rib), Gagnon illustrated through the Hebrew language that woman is “an indivisible part to the once-complete whole.” Marriage is “a reconstitution of the divided parts” of male and female. In this view, incest is bad because it is sexual union with someone who is too much the structurally same. The same dilemma remains for homosexuality: gay or lesbian couples are “too much alike in their embodied existence.” Gagnon also pointed out that many “cutting edge” ideas regarding homosexuality (such as orientation) existed even in the ancient world.
The Pittsburgh Seminary instructor encouraged his audience to attend to the example of St. John the Baptist. He said, “John the Baptist criticized an autocratic despot in Galilee for sexual misconduct…He criticized behavior that he recognized as abhorrent and against the welfare of the society as a whole. Jesus was baptized by this figure. Presumably he shares some agreement with the person from whom He received His baptism.”
If nothing else, these scholarly presentations prove that evangelical witness regarding marriage does not fit the stereotype offered in the entertainment and news industry. They are not hypocritical, foolish, or bigoted. Instead, Gagnon and Moore offer level-headed, powerful arguments that find steady footing on firm ground. May their tribe increase.