A recent panel discussion of evangelical thinkers addressed how evangelicals should engage in the American public square with regard to the Christian vision of human sexuality.
Within a very short time, the U.S. political landscape was changed from the Federal Marriage Amendment evangelicals of all races widely supported a little over a decade ago to today’s reality of marriage being redefined nationwide as we watch our society continue to work out the details of the extent to which dissent is permitted.
This panel took place in suburban Chicago as part of the Center for Pastor Theologians October 2016 Conference, devoted to the theme of “Beauty, Order, and Mystery: The Christian Vision of Sexuality.”
Matt O’Reilly, a PhD candidate in New Testament studies at the University of Gloucestershire and a United Methodist pastor, remarked that “it’s very, very difficult and rare to have a substantive conversation with someone on the other side of the issue—and it never happens on the Internet!” Interpersonal relationships have been his only context for experiencing meaningful dialogue on such matters.
He did, however, share about a time in which he led his congregation in making a powerful witness to its local community about the Gospel as it relates to human sexuality.
As a new pastor to a small-town church, he had his family vacation dramatically interrupted because of a female member of his church getting arrested “for inappropriate sexual contact with minors.” On the advice of some of O’Reilly’s mentor pastors, he convened a group of church leaders to meet with the woman, who was very remorseful, and her husband to insist that “she get into a group of women who would love and care for her” and to assure the couple of the church’s commitment to fight for their marriage.
O’Reilly shared that “the strongest member of my church was in [jail] for 18 months after that.” And on her first Sunday after her initial arrest, she spontaneously came to the front of the sanctuary to tearfully apologize for the harm she had done, to which the whole congregation responded by coming forward to pray for her.
“I later found out that everyone in the town thought I was nuts,” O’Reilly recalled. But it ended up becoming “such an act of grace for that community that I didn’t sweep it under the rug as expected”
He highlighted this case as illustrating how any type of church discipline, including in the area of sexual morality, must be seen as “a means to the end of redemption.” He distinguished formative church discipline from corrective church discipline, explaining that the latter generally does not work well without the foundation of having first done the former. The pastor-scholar also predicted that this woman would probably not have fallen into this sin if she had been involved in the formative discipline of an accountable small group with other women.
O’Reilly’s example helpfully highlighted how the church’s public witness related to marriage and sexuality is not just about homosexuality.
Richard Mouw, Fuller Seminary’s President Emeritus, recalled a faculty discussion on homosexuality in which one professor had asked why they spend so much time on this issue when so many people were hooked on pornography. Mouw remembered remarking that “there’s not an organized movement of pornographers trying to put us out of business.” At this panel, he noted that there are “people who’d love to shut down Wheaton College,” which he reported depends on federal funds for 82 percent of its income.
When I asked about growing threats to Christian institutions of higher education, Mouw praised the work of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) for intentionally seeking to work with Mormon, Jewish, and Muslim schools, not simply defending “our own self-interest” but instead framing the argument in terms of “justice and the common good.” He noted the problem that people largely appreciate it when evangelicals argue for a tolerant pluralism in American society, but then don’t really “want us to be a part of that pluralism.”
Wheaton College Professor Vincent Bacote joined Mouw’s call for a tolerant pluralism. Bacote, who is African-American, also expressed concern about all the focus on sexuality sidelining other important social issues, namely, those related to race. For example, he observed that there has been much less talk recently about AIDS, which he traced to how wealthier white males in the LGBTQ community “can get access to anti-retrovirals, while many black and brown people still can’t,” which remains “a major public-health crisis.”
However, while there is a “big race problem in the LGBT community,” Bacote said that “evangelicals have been behind on race.” This continues causing serious credibility problems with younger generations of Americans, who can easily be persuaded by the flawed narrative that evangelicals disapproving of homosexuality are just doing the same thing they did against black people, he lamented.
Bacote took issue with recent rhetoric of some American Christians disparaging “Constantinianism” or calling for “Benedict options” or cultural “exit strategies” of withdrawing from previous levels of political engagement. He quipped that “if you are white and middle class,” you can afford to talk about giving up Christian influence on public life. But “when you are talking about survival, it’s different,” he said.
And of course the discussion of threats to Christian higher education have proven that even if evangelicals were to engage in a large-scale withdrawal from political engagement to focus solely on building up our own institutions and sub-culture, left-wing political activists are increasingly unwilling to simply leave us alone from aggressive legal attacks.
Mouw sounded a similar note in dismissing rhetoric about treating America as “a Christian nation” on the one hand, while on the other not letting accusations of “Constanianism” intimidate the church seeking to influence the wider society. (This panel was held before the election.) For example, while some have suggested that government marriage laws should no longer be the church’s concern, the fact is that “legislation on marriage for the last 100 years has protected women and children,” and Mouw asked, “Do we really want to give up on that?”
He also recalled recently telling an African-American friend that he was thinking of not voting in this presidential election. His friend responded, “We can’t afford that luxury,” because “we lost too many people” fighting to win the right to vote.
While American evangelicalism’s public witness clearly must take new forms in response to our rapidly changing context, we cannot afford to shrink back from the challenges of continuing to promote Christian influences in the public square, if we are to remain faithful to our mandate to love the church and love all of our neighbors.