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Cultural Pressure and Gospel Faithfulness

Greg Strand – February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Tim Tebow recently cancelled a speaking engagement scheduled at First Baptist Church, Dallas, TX. A statement issued by First Baptist stated that Tebow spoke with Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor, “saying that for personal and professional reasons he needed to avoid controversy at this time but would like to come to First Baptist Dallas to speak at a future date.”

On Twitter Tebow addressed the reason for his cancelled appearance which was based on “new information that has been brought to my attention,” and stated that “I will continue to use the platform God has blessed me with to bring Faith, Hope and Love to all those needing a brighter day.”

It is not clear what the “new information” was. It could have been the outspoken pastor’s statements about Roman Catholicism, and because Tebow’s parents have an active ministry in the Philippines among Roman Catholics he felt it best to withdraw the invitation. It could be the statements made by the pastor about same-sex marriage. It is not known. Even if the pastor has been outspoken in a strong, sometimes caustic way that some would not emulate or appreciate, he has spoken strongly on the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ and that homosexuality is a sin, two truths strongly affirmed by Evangelicals.

Al Mohler, “Tebow’s Big Fumble,”  noted these issues in Tebow’s withdrawal, and he also mentioned Louie Giglio’s disinvitation of praying at President Obama’s Inauguration. Mohler states, “Both did so in an effort to escape a controversy that threatened to hinder their efforts to represent Christ in a winsome way. Both decisions are understandable in light of the pressures, but neither Giglio nor Tebow can escape the question that the larger world is not pressing upon them: What exactly do you believe about homosexuality?”

At our recent EFCA Theology Conference on “Sex Matters: The Theology of Human Sexuality,” one of the things I stated in my introductory lecture was the following:

We live in a day that when morality is addressed, the sin of homosexuality and same-sex marriage must be addressed or one’s silence will be heard as support of it. But then when one does communicate it over and over, which is necessary as it is the moral issue of the day, then one will be criticized for having only one note that is played incessantly on our moral instrument.

Mohler rightly and wisely applied this to all those who profess that Jesus Christ is Lord and affirm that the Bible is the ultimate authority.

The massive moral shift taking shape around us is fast eliminating any neutral ground on this issue. Those celebrating the moral normalization of homosexuality will demand an answer from us all. Giglio and Tebow withdrew from controversial appearances, but they will not evade the demand to answer the fundamental question, and any Christian who will not join the moral revolution will be marginalized as a moral outlier in the larger society.

Evangelical Christians are now called upon to think strategically about what it means to speak truthfully and lovingly to a society that increasingly sees us as the moral outlaws. Clearly, we must watch our speech carefully, measuring every word for truth and tone and avoiding incendiary sound bites. We must also guard our hearts toward the persistent temptation towards self-righteousness. But, at the same time, even the most humble statement of biblical truth can now be turned into a sound bite described as hate speech and a refusal to affirm the normalization of homosexuality is turned into repulsive intolerance. We now face no shortage of arguments for capitulation, but abandoning the truth of God’s Word is not an option. We deny the gospel if we deny the sinfulness of sin. That sin. Every sin. Our sin.

Our Theology Conference had this goal in mind mentioned by Mohler as evidenced in one of my closing introductory statements:

Our prayer for attendees is that the Lord will use this Conference to inform, educate and equip you to address these issues in a biblically faithful, theologically informed, and pastorally sensitive manner, all the while standing firmly on the Word of God.

Amen and amen!

Our next year’s EFCA Theology Conference, January 22-24, 2014, will address the theme “Christian Faithfulness in a Changing Culture”. It will be hosted by Christ Community Church in Leawood, KS.

We live in a postmodern, post-Christian day, which we have known for some time. For most this statement has been made intellectually. With the moral and cultural sea-changes, and the speed with which they are happening, parallel with a moral tsunami, many are for the first time beginning to feel and experience palpably some of the implications of what we have for many years only known abstractly or experienced vicariously.

These shifts require a different way of thinking, engaging, and speaking, without compromising the Word of God or Christian faithfulness.

We hope to include various topics addressed from a biblical, theological, historical and pastoral perspective:

  • Church History: we are today more like the early church than we have been since the days Constantine made Christianity legal in 313.
  • Church: what it means for the church to be missional, in the sense that its primary nature is missional, by virtue of its very being (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
  • Bible: there are significant questions pertaining to the inerrancy of the Bible, and to hermeneutics, both critical issues for us who affirm the ultimate authority of the Word of God.
  • Kingdom: this is a significant debate with numerous questions about what the kingdom means and how it is ushered in and its relation to the church, and how Christians ought to engage in culture and what Christians can expect of culture, among many other related matters.
  • Culture: though Christian fumes remain, and though we were never a Christian nation, we were a nation that was strongly influenced by Christian principles, but that has and continues to change drastically and rapidly, and the “intolerance of tolerance” is one of the key marks of this culture. During these changes, the twin temptations are to move in an accommodationist (liberal) or a separatist direction.
  • Contextual Theology: this is driving a lot of theologizing that is being done today, which often results in the culture being the lens through which the biblical text is interpreted rather than the other way around, which leads to biblical revisionism and liberal theology.
  • Religious Freedom:  this is narrowing more and more, and the focus is on freedom of worship and freedom from religion, not freedom of religion, and this has profound implications on Christians living in the world but not being of the world.
  • Persecution: Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, and though it includes death in some Islamic countries, it also refers to other kinds and forms of persecution. But rather than engage in a victim mentality, which Evangelicals are prone to do, we must know that this is the precise manner and context in which the gospel transforms, seasons with salt, illumines with light, etc.

In sum, we need to figure out how to live the Christian life with faithfulness in a post-Christian day.

I have considered doing a pre-conference on Trinitarian Theology. This is an important issue for Evangelicals to know and understand, as there are many changes taking place in Trinitarian theology, and not all are good!

It was important and helpful to have Wesley Hill with us at our Theology Conference to share his personal testimony. You can hear his testimony here: Washed and Waiting: A Personal Testimony, Theological and Ecclesial Reflections (Audio)

My sense was that people generally wrestled with three questions/implications to Hill’s testimony of living under the Lordship of Christ, living in submission to the authority of the Scriptures, living a life of holiness while having same-sex inclinations:

  1. transformation and how much is to be expected/required in this life;
  2. desire (or inclination or temptation) equals lust, and since lust is sinful and something from which we must be delivered, so is desire;
  3. resignation to this reality in this life, rather than remaining hopeful and vigilant to be changed, to be transformed.

Subsequent to our Theology Conference, Hill responded to a couple of the recurring questions he was asked, which included some of what I noted above, (also posted at Spiritual Friendship).

One question addressed the notion of identifying oneself as a “‘gay’ Christian.” Hill notes the question: “Why would you call yourself a ‘gay Christian’?,” to which he responds.

“Gay” in current parlance doesn’t necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” certainly denotes the behavior of stealing, “gay Christian” may simply refer to the erotic inclinations of the Christian who claims that identity and leave open the question of whether he or she is sexually active with members of his or her own sex.

This is why, by the way, I rarely use the phrase “gay Christian” without adding another adjective: “celibate.” To call myself a “celibate gay Christian” specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.

I have previously stated that I don’t necessarily like that a professing Christian refers to oneself as a “gay Christian.” But I am not one who struggles with same-sex inclinations, and I do know that Hill, specifically, has his reasons, as stated above. I would also note that based on Hill’s foundational biblical commitments to the Lord, His Word and personal holiness, I am not as inclined to quibble about his reference.

I appreciate what Hill explains above. My quibble is based on the fact that the context in which this is communicated matters, as there is no context-neutral zone in which this is communicated or heard. In reaching out to those who struggle with same-sex inclinations, to refer to oneself in this way most likely helps. It serves as a form of pre-evangelism with the prayer that it will open a door to communicate the message of true hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is confusing, however, and it would send the wrong message to those who conclude the term “gay” refers to sexual behavior. If the term is going to be used, it would have to be defined and nuanced almost every time it was used to ensure it was not misunderstood.

In fact, it is generally true that communicating with sensitivity within a cultural context will result in gaining a hearing among some and offending others. It is clear that when referring to oneself as a “‘gay’ Christian” or even a “celibate ‘gay’ Christian,” it will likely communicate affirmation to those who struggle with such a reality and the general tendency is that it bothers or offends some Christians (Evangelicals). Of those Christians who are offended, one must be careful not to offend the “weak Christian,” and one must be sensitive to fellow Christian brothers and sisters as they hear, seek to understand and process this, but one must not be controlled by the legalist. Context in communication matters.

The second question noted by Hill is the following: “By using the label ‘gay’ for yourself, aren’t you simply accepting that same-sex attraction is an unalterable part of your personality and thereby giving up on the possibility of healing and change?” As part of this answer, Hill refers to studies that reveal that change can and does occur, but not in every instance. Here, then, is the second part to his answer.

“Have you given up hope?” On the contrary, calling oneself a “celibate gay Christian” may be a way of expressing, not giving up, hope—but expressing it in a way that doesn’t link that hope to orientation change. Claiming the label “celibate gay Christian” means, for me, recognizing my homosexual orientation as a kind of “thorn in the flesh.” When the apostle Paul used that phrase in his correspondence with the Corinthian church, he made clear that his “thorn” was indeed an unwelcome source of pain (2 Corinthians 12:7). But he also made clear that it had become the very occasion for his experience of the power of the risen Christ and, therefore, a paradoxical site of grace (2 Corinthians 12:8). Paul, I think, would have had no qualms about labeling himself a “thorn-pricked Christian”—not because he recognized his thorn as a good thing, in and of itself, but because it had become for him the means by which he encountered the power of Christ. Likewise, living with an unchanged homosexual orientation may be for many of us the means by which we discover new depths of grace, as well as new vocations of service to others.

This has prompted a good deal of discussion, which was one of the reasons it was important for Hill to join us at our Theology Conference. Too many Evangelicals, including some in the EFCA, conclude that one is either classified as an ardent, lobbying gay activist who embraces the belief, life and lifestyle of homosexuality, or one is gloriously transformed and that transformation is noted by marriage and children. Though both of those realities exist, and we thank and praise God that transformation can and does occur (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11), it overlooks the spectrum that exists. There are those, like Hill, that don’t fit either category, but who are gloriously transformed and who live under the Lordship of Christ, the authority of His Word, and are committed to holiness of life, those who are redeemed-but-not-yet-glorified and who long to be liberated from life in this fallen, sinful and broken world (Rom. 8:23-25). But this reality is not limited to any one sub-group of Christians, those with struggles like Hill’s, but for all Christians.

Not all agreed with Hill’s assessment of how to explain or understand his life’s experience biblically, but it was important to hear from him and how he attempts to live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the context of the local church. My sense is that if we do not have a place for people like Hill in our local churches, I am quite sure there is no room for people like us (me!) either.

 

Wesley Hill will be one of our keynote, plenary speakers at our upcoming EFCA Theology Conference. Hill graduated from Wheaton College, served as a pastoral apprentice at Bethlehem Baptist, Minneapolis, MN, recently completed a Ph.D. in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and presently serves as an assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry (an evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition) in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. 

A couple of years ago he wrote a testimonial: Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010). According to his testimony, as long as he remembers he has experienced a powerful and abiding attraction to members of the same-sex. He cannot point to an experience that triggered this experience. He became a believer in Christ and had never turned back from that commitment. He also agrees with the Bible that homosexuality is a sin. Here is how he explains his commitment (p. 61):

In the end, what keeps me on the path I’ve chosen is not so much individual proof texts from Scripture or the sheer weight of the church’s traditional teaching against homosexual practice. Instead, it is, I think, those texts and traditions and teachings as I see them from within the true story of what God has done in Jesus Christ – and the whole perspective on life and the world that flows from that story, as expressed definitively in Scripture. Like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle finally locked into its rightful place, the Bible and the church’s no to homosexual behavior make sense to me – it has the ring of truth . . . when I look at it as one piece within the larger Christian narrative. I abstain from homosexual behavior because of the power of that scriptural story.

Hill recently reviewed Justin Lee’s Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate in Christianity Today 56/9 (October 2012), 75. Lee also identifies as a “gay Christian,” but for him Christ’s ethic to love gives him the freedom to be in a loving relationship with someone of the same sex. On this basis, Lee places this discussion in the category of “disputable matters,” and therefore those who affirm monogamous gay relationships and those who affirm that gay Christians ought to remain celibate must learn to treat one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord who disagree over matters of indifference or conscience. In the concluding section of the review, “A Place for Transformation,” Hill disagrees.

Full disclosure:  I am a celibate gay Christian. Like Lee, I grew up Southern Baptist. Like him, I discovered during puberty that I was exclusively attracted to others of my own sex. But unlike Lee, I don’t find any wiggle room in Scripture: Marriage is intended for one man and one woman (Gen. 2; Matt. 19; Eph. 5), and anyone living outside that marital state is called to celibacy (I Cor. 7).

Lee’s book leaves people like me – his fellow gay Christians who, nonetheless, disagree sharply with him on sexual ethics – in a difficult position. On the one hand, we share his hope that the church may be a place of welcome and grace for LGBTQ people. However, we don’t view our celibacy as simply one option among an array of valid choices which believers are free to sort out as they please. Rather, we see celibacy as obedience to the clear, if bracing, mandate of Scripture. And we’ve found the church to be a place of transformation, a place to be, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.”

It’s tempting, with Lee, to think that Jesus’ ethic of love abrogates some of the more obscure or challenging biblical norms. Yet the sweep of the canon of Scripture suggests that we follow Jesus rightly when we see the apostles’ teaching and commands as flowing from Jesus’ love for us, not impeding it. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus told his disciples (John 14:15, ESV). Conforming our lives to Scripture’s difficult ethical teaching is precisely the way we demonstrate that we’ve made our home in Jesus’ love. And that’s a path that Lee’s book, for all its commendable honesty and salutary insight, chooses not to explore.

Notice that Hill refers to himself as a “gay Christian.” In Hill’s “Review of The End of Sexual Identity,” TGC Reviews (April 25, 2011),  he explains why he uses this expression of himself.

For myself, using the term “gay” has enabled me to attain a greater depth of honesty—with myself and with others. It has given me a way to achieve greater accuracy in naming the persistent, exclusive nature of my desires where a term like “same-sex attraction” seems too weak. Furthermore, claiming the “gay” label has allowed me to begin to discern a vocation. To borrow Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 12:7, when I acknowledged that my “thorn in the flesh” didn’t seem like something that would be easily removed, that recognition enabled me to encounter God’s power in the midst of pain. My unique thorn, I realized, may be the precise point at which I am called to receive and reflect his grace and embody the “perfection” of his strength.

I do not totally understand and I am not completely comfortable with the reference to being a “gay Christian,” in that I don’t self-identify as a “heterosexual Christian.” But Hill has his reasons and he roots them in the gospel and his understanding of weakness, thorns, and God’s grace. Based on his foundational biblical commitments to the Lord, His Word and personal holiness, I am not as inclined to quibble about his reference. I am excited to learn from him, along with the other excellent speakers, at the Theology Conference.

A Changing Culture

Greg Strand – January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

I am sure most have heard that Louie Giglio, founder of the Passion conferences and pastor of Passion City Church, Atlanta, was initially invited to give the benediction prayer at President Obama’s inauguration. When it was discovered that he preached a sermon on the sin of homosexuality, a very vocal minority from the LGBTQ community made such an issue of it that Giglio graciously bowed out.

Though most know we are living in a post-Christian day, this statement is made abstractly and propositionally. This reality is now being experienced. Here are a few responses to this dis-invitation or gracious decline, depending on whose and which perspective you read. Though this is “old” news now, what is stated in these posts remains relevant for what this decision means for Christians seeking to live faithfully in this post-Christian culture.

Gabe Lyons, “Bullied on the President’s Stage

Al Mohler, “The Giglio Imbroglio — The Public Inauguration of a New Moral McCarthyism

Joe Carter, “Pastor Disinvited from Giving Inaugural Prayer Because of Sermon on Homosexuality

Russell Moore, “Louie Giglio and the New State Church

This is one of many reasons we are addressing the theme of “Sex Matters: The Theology of Human Sexuality” at our Theology Conference. In light of the theme’s timeliness, importance, excellent speakers, and interdisciplinary approach, it is a must-attend Conference. If you are unable to attend, you will miss an incredible learning and equipping opportunity that has not yet been matched in a similar conference or venue.

Join us!