Jesus & Elton John
What’s going on with the Anglican Church of Canada? Oh, this:
What else is going on in the Anglican Church of Canada? Catastrophic decline: according to the church’s own figures, it will cease to exist by 2040.
As regular readers of my blog know, Christianity in the West is in trouble all over, but the liberal churches are declining the fastest. It is not generally the case that being theologically and morally conservative causes a church to grow, but it is true that standing counterculturally within Christian tradition at least stanches the bleeding. That’s why it is so important for Evangelicals to watch out for the wolves in sheep’s clothing among them, trying to smuggle in the poison pill of theological progressivism. My friend Denny Burk, who teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, posed a question to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, the rock star Evangelical historian who teaches at Calvin University. Du Mez is the author of the bestseller Jesus And John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith And Fractured A Nation.She and Burk, who is a white conservative Evangelical, had been arguing.
Pretty straightforward question, right? Shouldn’t take long to answer. Well, Du Mez wrote a longish response that never actually answers the question. Here’s an excerpt:
Do I personally affirm “the church’s teaching that homosexuality is sinful?” Which church? My own church (local & denomination) is actively reexamining this issue in light of tradition, interpretation, history, & science. I’m participating, but as a historian, not a theologian.
I grew up holding the “traditional” view, that same-sex sexual relationships were sinful. As far back as I can remember, though, I never believed that a theological view on this matter should dictate government policy in a way that abridges fundamental civil rights.
This wasn’t because I was currying favor with progressives. I didn’t know many back then. My own strand of Reformed thinking comes w/ a deep respect for pluralism & rejection of Christian nationalism. (Esp among my Dutch profs who’d endured Nazi occupation.)
Since that time, I’ve encountered compelling theological & historical arguments that challenge or complicate traditional approaches to this issue. I’ve read several but have several more to read, and am doing so in conversation w/ “traditional” perspectives.
I’m doing this all in community, w/ scholars, pastors, theologians, & LGBTQ+ Chrs, as part of my local church, as part of an officially sanctioned denominational process, and in an official capacity as a representative of my university.
So, does Kristin Kobes Du Mez affirm the traditional Biblical standard, or not? Read the whole thing — she dodges the question entirely. I don’t for one second believe that KKDM doesn’t know where she stands on the moral and theological issue of homosexuality. I think this meme (starring KKDM) from the excellent Twitter account Woke Preacher Clips nails it:
Here’s the beginning of Denny Burk’s response to KKDM’s non-answer:
Thank you for the fulsome explanation. I do think that this confirms the profound nature of our disagreements.
For its entire 2,000-year history, the church has regarded homosexuality as sinful. This is not an “agree to disagree” issue among Christians. It is a watershed.
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) November 27, 2021
First, in keeping with an intersectional framework, these books view white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, and nationalism as mutually reinforcing and interlocking systems of oppression that can’t easily be disentangled, leading to phrases like “white evangelical patriarchy” or “white Christian nationalism.” For example, Barr explicitly cites Tisby’s comments on racism to elucidate sexism: “Jemar Tisby writes ‘racism never goes away. It just adapts.’ The same is true of patriarchy. Like racism, patriarchy is a shapeshifter — conforming to each new era, looking as if it had always belonged” (Barr, MBW, p. 186). Whitehead and Perry write that Christian nationalism “glorifies the patriarchal, heterosexual family as not only God’s biblical standard, but the cornerstone of all thriving civilizations.”Jones asks: “What if . . . conceptions of marriage and family, of biblical inerrancy, or even the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus developed as they did because they were useful tools for reinforcing white dominance?” And in an incredibly revealing passage, Du Mez writes:
Within this expanding [evangelical] network, differences . . . could be smoothed over in the interest of promoting ‘watershed issues’ like complementarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement . . . . Evangelicals who offered competing visions of sexuality, gender, or the existence of hell found themselves excluded from conferences and associations, and their writings banned from popular evangelical bookstores and distribution channels.
In all these passages (and many more I could cite), we find that the authors view their concerns as one part of a larger and seamless liberatory project. They are not merely aiming to challenge racism or specific interpretations of gender roles, but our understanding of marriage, sexuality, hell, inerrancy, and the gospel itself.
Second, these authors’ “deconstructive” approach to theology is necessarily a universal acid. Even if they weren’t explicitly committed to challenging evangelical doctrine broadly, their methodological approach makes such an outcome inevitable. This erosion is, perhaps, one of my greatest fears. I worry that pastors will embrace these books thinking that their application can be confined to, say, race alone. But once a white pastor endorses the view that he — as a white male — is blinded by his own white supremacy, unable to properly understand relevant biblical principles due to his social location, and in need of the “lived experience” of oppressed minorities to guide him, how long before someone in his congregation applies the same reasoning to his beliefs about gender? Or sexuality? At some point, he will have to reverse course and (correctly) insist that although he, like all of us, has blind spots and biases that will distort his understanding of Scripture, nonetheless it is to Scripture — properly interpreted — that we must appeal as our final authority on these issues.
To be clear, the broader argument that Evangelicals like Burk and Shenvi are having with Du Mez and her allies is not something that I have a stake in. I read on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature the first two chapters of Jesus and John Wayne, and while it is clear that Du Mez is arguing from a progressive position, the book seems like it could make some valid and important critical points about how much contemporary Evangelical orthodoxy is determined by culture, not Scripture. Judging by those chapters alone, Du Mez is not entirely wrong.
Yet unlike racism and nationalism (to cite two examples from Du Mez’s book), two issues on which the old-timey Evangelicals were either outright wrong (the former) or at least in highly contestable territory (the latter), the Christian teaching on homosexuality cannot be massaged to fit contemporary mores. The Bible and the Tradition could not be clearer. Perhaps Du Mez was being so cagey in her response to Burk because what she accuses conservative white Evangelicals of (namely, of corrupting the Gospel by imposing cultural judgments particular to their race and cultural class) is 100 percent true about her regarding homosexuality. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, virtually no Christians argued that homosexuality was either morally neutral or morally good, because there is nothing in Scripture or Tradition to support that claim. If almost no Christians prior to contemporary times, and exclusively in North America and Europe, believed that homosexuality was fine, then that’s a pretty good sign that the progressive position with which Du Mez may or may not share (she won’t answer Burk’s question, recall) is entirely a function of culture.
Maybe Denny Burk will write a book about white Evangelicals like KKDM, and call it Jesus And Elton John the Baptist. He better hurry up, lest more Evangelical churches open themselves up to high-profile progressive Evangelical teachers, and end up going the way of the Anglican Church of Canada, and every other church that sells their Gospel birthright for a pot of woke message.
UPDATE:Denny Burk posts a longer response here. Excerpt:
Evangelicals who deconstruct the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality often adopt a new definition of marriage. I have noticed a pretty consistent progression among those who eventually embrace gay marriage. It goes like this:
(1) Oppose gay-marriage: Every evangelical starts here, or at the very least they appear to start here.
(2) Oppose taking a stand on the question: Persons in this stage are becoming aware of how offensive the traditional view is to those outside the church. Their initial remedy is to avoid that conflict by saying that this is an issue that Christians can agree to disagree about. Let’s not divide over it. Or maybe let’s not talk about the Bible’s teaching on this subject. In Brian McLaren‘s case, he urged evangelicals to observe a 5-year moratorium on talking about gay marriage. For Jen Hatmaker, she advocated going “into the basement,” where we don’t talk about these things but just love people. Choosing to avoid the question is never a final answer for anyone in this stage.
(3) Affirm gay marriage: At some point during the “Christians can agree to disagree” stage, those who used to oppose gay marriage find grounds to affirm it. Some do it by questioning the Bible’s truthfulness. Others do through revisionist interpretations of the Biblical text. Some do it by dismissing the traditional view as a homophobic power grab. In any case, proponents end up affirming what the Bible forbids.
(4) Vilify traditional marriage proponents: Persons in this stage not only affirm gay marriage. They also view traditional marriage supporters as supporting invidious discrimination against gay people. They will adopt the rhetoric of Christianity’s fiercest critics to describe believers who hold to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. David Gushee adopted this posture simultaneously with his embrace of gay marriage. In 2014, he wrote this to the gay people “oppressed” by the Church’s teaching:
I do 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… Traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it… It took me two decades of service as a married, straight evangelical Christian minister and ethicist to finally get here. I am truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.
It usually takes some time to move from number 2 to number 3. McLaren and the Hatmakers both took four years to make that transition. But the transition from 3 to 4 can sometimes happen very rapidly. My observation, however, is that anyone who makes it to 3 eventually makes it to 4 also.
I think this trajectory is important to be aware of for a couple of reasons. One, we need to examine our own hearts to see if there might be inclinations along this trajectory. Two, we need to be discerning and careful about teachers/leaders/ministries that are clearly moving through these stages. And there are many.
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
Regarding your column Jesus and Elton John, I teach at Calvin University where KKDM teaches. Calvin has official ties to the Christian Reformed Church. As I understand it, the official stance of the CRC at present is that same-sex behavior is sinful but same-sex orientation is not. The denomination is currently reviewing all of this. Because Calvin has official ties to the denomination, faculty are required to teach, speak, write, and work in accordance with the official stance of the denomination, and to not teach, speak, write, and work in opposition to it. That is the reason for the tenor of KKDM’s comments. She is speaking within the context of her position as a professor at Calvin University.
Having said that, many (most?) current faculty are unofficially and off the record in support of LGBTQ+ matters, and are wanting/pushing for change in the denomination and at the University. And many faculty, when they retire, become publicly supportive of LGBTQ+ matters and publicly push for change in the denomination and at the University.