Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service is reporting that prominent evangelical ethicist David Gushee is set to enter the gay rights fray by publicly announcing a change of mind on the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church. The announcement coincides with the release of his new book Changing Our Minds: A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church. Gushee’s work is the latest example of a new literary genre—a sort of “conversion narrative”—that marries an account of intellectual epiphany with a political manifesto designed to cause the church to rethink centuries of settled doctrine.
Despite his self-appointed status as “America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar” it’s unclear whether Gushee’s change of heart will impact the evangelical world much at all. Jonathan Merritt’s rather sensational lede suggests that the evangelical world will be rocked: “At a moment when American churches and politicians are warring over gay rights and same-sex marriage, each side needs every soldier it can muster. Conservatives are about to learn that one of America’s leading evangelical ethicists is defecting to the opposition.” Yet, it’s far from clear whether the evangelical world will even pay heed despite HuffPo’s salivation at the prospect.
In reality, this shift is the latest in a series of intellectual shifts that has moved Gushee increasingly out-of-step with the evangelical mainstream. Recently, in 2012, Gushee participated in a conference called “Sexuality and Covenant” cosponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Mercer University. The validity of same sex relationships and marriage was a prominent theme despite Gushee himself not–at that time–explicitly stating a view on the matter. The paper he presented argued for the priority of covenant while not explicitly limiting to a man and a woman only. It’s impossible to tell why he did this, but it seems likely that his participation in the conference came during his period of discernment.
In addition, at the height of the war in Iraq Gushee was a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which Gushee characterized as torture. He founded an evangelical organization dedicated to protesting the use of torture by American forces and security services. Reasonable minds can disagree on whether the practice Gushee described constitute torture, yet its fair to say that—for good or ill—the issue of torture didn’t attract much evangelical attention at the time. In addition, his views on the environment and especially on man-made climate change differ from the evangelical consensus, which is skeptical of human causation.
Consequently, it remains to be seen just what the effect will be on the evangelical movement. Since Gushee has increasingly moved into the progressive side of the broadening evangelical camp its likely that this move will affect only those already firmly in the progressive camp and always looking for another celebrity scholar to endorse their view.
Gushee is, however, an influential voice in the academy having established himself as a leading ethicist. Kingdom Ethics, a textbook he coauthored with the late Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary, was named a 2004 Christianity Today book of the Year. His change of views will undoubtedly be noted across the secular academy where eyes will likely roll that it took so long for his intellectual capitulation and where the fall out can only be positive.
At the same time, evangelicals are—for better or for worse—not a people inclined to make much of the prognostications of academics. Had he been a prominent preacher the story might have been different. In reality Gushee is well known among progressive evangelicals and obscure among the movement’s mainstream. He is associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a denomination widely acknowledged to be more progressive than it is evangelical. He teaches at a university known for its periodic conflicts with the conservative Georgia Baptist Convention (affiliated with Southern Baptist Convention), which voted in 2005 to sever ties with the university.
An advance copy of Gushee’s remarks for an upcoming GLBT event states: “I will join your crusade tonight…. I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be.” He intends to make himself available to the GLBT movement, especially to parents seeking to understand their homosexual children.
It is interesting to regard the event that precipitated Gushee’s change of mind. According to the RNS report, in 2008 Gushee’s sister came out as a lesbian. A Christian and a single mother, his sister experienced periodic severe depression and had been hospitalized. Gushee’s conclusion, “traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it.”
It’s important to not too quickly skip over this sentence.
If traditional Christian teaching produces despair it is likely that such teaching has somehow been pressed or malformed to obscure the gospel. Whether one identifies as homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual, the hope of the gospel is the same. In the words of Tim Keller, “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” The profound experience of grace in the gospel provides the onus to a life of faithful discipleship. The homosexual need not stop experiencing same sex attraction in order to “earn” salvation just as straight people need not stop experiencing opposite-sex attraction. What he must do is remain chaste, an ancient word with little currency in today’s culture.
There can be little doubt that traditional Christians often communicate to gays that they must somehow stop experiencing same sex attraction in order to make themselves acceptable to God. This is not the gospel. There is nothing than we can do to make ourselves acceptable to God. What the Bible asks of us is, however, to recognize that sexual relationships with people of the same sex violates God’s intention for human sexuality. The Christian tradition directs us in one of two equally valid directions: celibacy or heterosexual marriage.
Reasonable people ought to respect Gushee’s right to change his mind and to do so publicly. However, it’s important to note that Gushee’s capitulation is not the only possible response to the precipitous change in cultural attitudes toward sexuality.
A more faithful response is for orthodox Christians to gently and humbly insist that ‘baptizing’ our sexual appetites (gay or straight)—that is affirming them without condition—does not redeem them nor does it lead to human flourishing. In the end our sexual appetites must be ordered and rightly expressed in the God-given covenant relationship of marriage between a man and a woman. The other option, just as valid, is the commitment to live a celibate life. What is more, traditional Christians have a powerful opportunity to simply continue to affirm what the church has always affirmed and yet to do so with generous grace toward those who struggle with same sex attraction. By acknowledging this as a real and legitimate experience for some Christians, the church need not endorse homosexual practice as normative. However, it does provide opportunity both for the pastoral care and for modeling a faithful alternative to culture. In responding to Gushee’s announcement Pittsburgh seminary professor Robert Gagnon echoed this alternative stating: “All of us have one or more areas of life (some of an even more serious nature than same-sex attractions) where we are called on by God to let the “dying of Jesus” become manifest in our body so that the “life of Jesus” might likewise become manifest (as Paul mentions in 2 Cor 4:7-11). Nobody gets a pass from a cruciform life, out of which resurrection follows.” Amen.
 Available online at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/10/24/david-gushee-lgbt-homosexuality-matters/ (accessed October 25, 2014).Google+