"If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.” Carl F.H. Henry

“Incommensurable Differences” and the Future of the Christian Church’s Sexual Witness

I rarely, if ever, agree with the conclusions that ethicist David Gushee reaches. I intend no personal harm in saying that. I don’t know him well; though I’ve had polite interactions with him when I reported on a conference he convened a few years back. I have, though, watched with great lament as I have seen him “evolve” on issues that two thousand years of Christian teaching have spoken harmoniously upon, namely, sexual ethics — the controversy du jour ravaging Western Christianity.

I do agree, however, with the conclusion of his post today at RNS. He writes:

I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door.

I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable.

I appreciate Gushee’s candor and agree with him: The dividing line between those who align with biblical and historical teaching around sexual ethics and those who do not, is incommensurable. This is not a debate about eldership versus congregational authority, or internecine squabbles on how the end times will occur. This is about what the true church confesses. This is about truth and error. This is about eternal destiny. Christians who hold to the historical biblical position believe that affirming individuals in homosexual sin has the consequences of eternal separation (1 Cor. 6:9-11). We believe affirming sexual sin in this capacity eviscerates the clarity and intelligibility of God’s special and general revelation that sees humans purposefully sexed and complementary — tenets upon which the social order and cultural mandate are founded. We believe the disavowal of sexual otherness obscures the greatest reality in the cosmos — the Christ-Church union. Progressives who have jettisoned the historical position believe that denominations like my own, the Southern Baptist Convention, are doing harm not only to LGBT persons, but to the Spirit’s movement in the world. Those are the terms of this contrast and we should not paper over the disagreements in order to serve some false perception of unity in the name of fellowship.

Moreover, Gushee’s words are a welcome reprieve from the voices of so-called “affirming” Christians that are attempting to make LGBT affirmation a welcome pillar of Christian orthodoxy. I’m left wondering what revisionists such as Matthew Vines, Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker, and others such as them make of Gushee’s claim — that there are irreconcilable differences; and that division is inevitable and unity impossible on this issue. If Gushee is correct, then the revisionists who wish to make this an area of prudential disagreement amongst brothers and sisters are either deluded or disingenuous. Seen from this angle, Gushee’s post is refreshingly honest because it takes seriously our differences and the distance between the two positions. For this, I am genuinely appreciative and respectful of his willingness to be clearer than his coreligionists. If there is to be a parting of ways, mutual understanding of how each side understands the other is at least intellectually honest.

Gushee will no doubt disagree with my framing of the situation, but whereas he thinks he’s leaving evangelicalism, I believe he is abandoning the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). He is abandoning the very words of Jesus who upholds the sexual binary in Matthew 19:4-6. Those are not words haphazardly written or thrown around intended to score cheap internet points. But Gushee’s own words bear witness to the claim that he views his affirmation of LGBT relationships as constitutive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He views this issue as a dividing line in biblical interpretation, moral discernment, with the result that we — those who stand within two thousand years of teaching — are “former brethren.” I agree and reach the same conclusion as him, though with the opposite position.

Gushee is gambling with high stakes; unreasonably high stakes in my opinion. He’s asking the church — and by extension, the global church — to repent of two thousand years of biblical teaching. He’s asking us to journey with him accepting that the church’s entire witness, including the words of Jesus himself, have been misunderstood or wrong for the entirety of church history. He’s asking us to trust him on his journey and those like him — highly educated and predominantly Western social progressives — to speak univocally for the entire church.

This is the stark reality that evangelicalism must come to grips with. There is no “third way” possible. Everyone is going to have to pick a side. Sitting on the fence might be convenient for some people’s career, but the trajectory of where the West is headed will not countenance moderation when the canons of social justice require nothing short of celebrating LGBT orthodoxy.

We in the West are in a moment of status confessionis. At such a time, the church must confess what is essential to its foundations or else risk letting in false teachers that would lead the flock astray (Matthew 7:15-20; Mark 13:22-23). So the true church will hold fast to biblical teaching no matter what the cost, and institutions parading themselves around as churches will capitulate to the reigning zeitgeist and reveal themselves for what they are — churches with no lampstands (Rev. 2:1-7).