taking the words of Jesus seriously


EDITOR’S NOTE: Recently, Dr. Tony Campolo issued a statement “For the Record” articulating his full support of sexual minorities, affirmation of same-sex unions, and his hopes for full inclusion of LGBT folks in the church. Tony is a deeply-loved and well-respected evangelical leader across the globe, and closer to home, he is a visionary and elder of the Red Letter Christian movement. But we are a diverse community, and for the sake of Tony and others in this movement who disagree with Tony, we want to be clear that Tony was speaking from his personal conviction, with much reliance on prayer, doing his best to listen to the Spirit of God. Others of us in this movement see things differently. But we are committed to disagree well. Perhaps one of our best witnesses to the rest of society is how we disagree with each other, having the humility to admit that we might be wrong. So you will see a series of other voices in the RLC movement in the coming weeks, responding to Tony or simply reflecting from their own hearts in regards to what love, and Jesus, are calling us to when it comes to our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered friends.

Tony Campolo announced last month that he supports same-sex relationships. The response was fast and furious. “Chaff being separated from the wheat . . . #TonyCampolo”, tweeted Larry Farlow (more of this sort of thing can be found here). David Robertson, Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, wrote an open letter to Tony accusing him of lying and manipulation. New Testament professor Robert Gagnon charged (June 8) that Campolo had previously withheld his views on gay relationships in order to sell evangelicals more books.

While name calling and attacking an opponent’s motivations are never a stellar means of argument, they are particularly counterproductive in this case because they betray the gospel the attackers cherish. Jesus said (John 13:34-35; 17:20-21) that the world would know that the Messiah has come because his followers live in love and unity—which is only a miracle if his followers disagree about some stuff. The attacks are not wrong because Tony is right (although he may be) but because of the spirit in which they are being conducted, and their failure to be truly evangelical.

The word “evangelical” comes from the New Testament word “evangelion” meaning “good news.” While evangelicalism has a complex history, it has been a movement seeking to get beyond denominationalism and contentious points of doctrine to a central message that Christians can unite around and proclaim. Many Christians of all stripes—Pentecostals, Anabaptists, Anglicans, black Baptists—identify as “evangelical.” The core message is that personal conversion is possible through belief in Christ’s atoning work and that salvation is by grace alone.

Notice the tension in the above sentence. A person needs to both do something (believe) and know that salvation is entirely God’s work (grace). Rightly understood, this means that even our belief is a gift of God. But poorly understood, it can seem as if there is one important work that Christians must do: we must believe the right things to be saved. This is one reason why Protestants are so apt to divide. We end up thinking that in almost everything we believe salvation is at stake. It is estimated that there are currently 33, 000 Protestant denominations. In my own tradition, Anabaptism, it has meant dividing over things like whether Christians can take oaths, church discipline, and whether women can wear bonnets and men suspenders.

A generous evangelicalism sees such matters as peripheral (“disputable matters” in the language of Romans 14:1). We can love each other not only across racial, gender, and economic lines, but across lines of ideology as well. As John Alexander writes, “The centrality of peace and reconciliation to evangelism may seem strange, but if you think about it, what is the heart of the world’s predicament? Isn’t it our inability to get along with each other? Isn’t unreconciliation at the heart of racism, divorce, war, and fights with neighbors, friends, and fellow workers? So the world needs us to be reconciled. It needs to see us living together—in peace” (Being Church, 202),

The world needs is a people who disagree vehemently on an important issue like gay marriage, and who figure out how to love each other anyway. We can do this because our most fundamental confession is that “Jesus is Lord, ” and our allegiance to him binds us as family to each other. If we can act like a loving family to each other—even while disagreeing— the world might perceive us as having “good news:” a gospel that heals some of the world’s deepest wounds.

At this point, some evangelicals might be willing to throw their pine cones in the fire and join arms with Tony in singing “Just as I Am.” But others might object that evangelicalism values the authority of scripture, and the need for personal holiness. Isn’t it important to oppose Campolo for these reasons?

I’m not saying that it is wrong to disagree with Tony. In fact, I think a robust debate on this topic is important. What is wrong are the personal attacks and the implication that his position on same-sex marriage places Campolo outside of evangelical Christianity. Let me address the points about scriptural authority and personal holiness directly.

Thirty years ago, when I first started reading on the topic of homosexuality, I rolled my eyes at the arguments of the affirming side. It seemed like those advocating it just wanted an excuse for gay sex—and were using big Enlightenment ideas like rights and equality to make their case—while falsifying the Biblical witness. But the Biblical case for same-sex relationships has matured. Exhibit A is James Brownson’s masterful book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. (Exhibit B might be A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson.)

Surprisingly, Brownson critiques the affirming side. He writes that revisionist Christians have done a disservice to Scripture by portraying the Biblical context as so foreign to our modern one that Biblical sexual ethics do not apply to us. He also warns against using big ideas like justice and love as sufficient to validate a Biblical sexual ethic. But then, through an attentive, careful reading of Romans 1 (the passage which most clearly seems to condemn same-sex relationships), he reveals how Paul’s language of lust and desire, purity and impurity, honor and shame, and nature all point to first-century practices of exploitative same-sex relationships. He also shows how the arc of Scripture, in its concern that “it is not good for a man to be alone, ” might allow for gay relationships.

Such a reading does not eviscerate the witness of Scripture. In such a view, texts like Romans 1 are an authoritative and important witness against culturally equivalent modern practices such as sex-slavery, prostitution, and prison rape. But texts like Romans 1 don’t speak to a phenomenon that was unknown in the ancient world: same-sex marriage.

Given this interpretation, the argument for same-sex marriage as a way of promoting holiness, is an argument that has integrity. In this view, same-sex marriage is not a barrier to personal holiness, but rather a help to those who, in the words of 1 Corinthians 7:9, might otherwise burn with passion and fail at self-control. It is the inclusion of a previously excluded group into the historic, Christian, tough and beautiful ethic of covenantal marriage. Marriage for gay Christians might be seen as a demanding curriculum in selflessness, love, faithfulness–in a word, holiness. Campolo’s position on same-sex marriage does not disqualify him as an evangelical Christian.

On a more personal note, while Campolo may be wrong about same-sex marriage, I believe he has embodied the best of evangelicalism in a way that should not be easily dismissed or disrespected. My sister took a class from him and recalls how he lectured late into the night (beyond the end time), passionate that students learn to love the poor and oppressed. By all accounts Campolo has kept a breakneck pace of speaking engagements around the world, inspiring many toward a compassionate, Jesus-centered Christianity that many—especially young people—relate to as “good news.”

In my own life, I remember furtively reading Campolo’s chapter on homosexuality in 20 Hot Potatoes Christians are Too Afraid to Touch in the campus bookstore of my Christian college. In it, he advocated that gays live celibate lives, and move into intentional Christian communities as a way to cope with the loneliness of such a life. As a gay student, I heeded his advice, and have now lived in a Christian community for decades. I have lived a celibate life for the last fourteen years and there is much good in it; but I also know the feeling of “burning” and the sharp ache that accompanies it. Because I empathize with the pain of young gay Christians, I’ve become sympathetic to the logic of the affirming side.

Still, I respect the traditional side. It has the plainest sense of Scripture on its side, and thousands of years of Judeo-Christian tradition. But Christians have been wrong on other important issues, so it is fair to raise the question of whether Christianity has been wrong about gay relationships. As we debate that question, we also have an opportunity here to show the world the deepest meaning of the term “evangelical.” What the world needs is the example of a people who can disagree over important matters and yet live in reconciliation and unity because of Jesus. Let’s argue hard, but with a fierce and evangelical love.


About The Author


Tim Otto is a gay pastor and author of "Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships." He may be followed at @Tim_Otto.

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