CHANGING OUR MIND: A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church. By David P. Gushee. Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2014. Xxiii + 131 pages.
Until recently it was generally believed that one could not be both Christian and Gay. After all, didn’t the Bible declare homosexuality to be a sin, and besides that doesn’t nature itself suggest that humans are designed for heterosexual coupling? At least that had been the prevailing opinion. Things have changed dramatically in recent years. The status of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community continues to be a vexing question for the church. Many Christians continue to hold the line on the traditional views, while many others are challenging the traditional understanding. In part this due to the fact that many good solid Bible-believing Jesus professing Christians have begun to come out of the closet. As LGBT folks begin to come out of the closet we’ve discovered that they often are our siblings, our children, our neighbors, and even possibly our parents. To say that the apple cart has been upset is to put it mildly. The question is – now that the closet doors are opening, where will the church go? Who will lead the way?
Of course members of the LGBT community who are Christians are telling their story. Books by Justin Lee and Jeff Chu are only two possibilities. But some of the best advocates are evangelical Christians who seek to affirm the authority of Scripture while recognizing that the demands of the hour require that we take a different perspective on questions like this. Among those who have taken up the challenge is David Gushee, one of the leading evangelical social ethicists in America, and author of my book of the year from a year ago -- The Sacredness of Human Life. Gushee has a very strong evangelical pedigree, having taught at Southern Baptist Seminary and Union University before moving to McAfee School of Theology (Mercer University). He has even written a book on marriage that defended traditional view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman (Getting Marriage Right, Baker, 2004). In recent years, however, Gushee has had a change of mind and heart. This is due in large part to his encounters with LGBT Christians and the coming out of his own sister. The latter is an important factor, because many of us have come to the same change of heart due to the realization that one we love (in my case my younger brother) is gay. In Changing Our Mind, Gushee shares how this change occurred and offers his rationale for why the church as a whole should follow his lead.
Changing our Mind is not a heavy read. It is less than 130 pages in length, and “popularly written.” In other words, this is not a text directed at the academic world. His audience is the person in the pew – the Christian who is seeking answers to seemingly irresolvable questions. In some ways his attempt at answering these questions will challenge both traditionalists and revisionists. He calls for full inclusion, including embracing the idea of gay marriage, which will prove challenging to traditionalists. His belief that the prevailing sexual ethic of mutual consent/do no harm is not a viable Christian ethic will challenge some, as will his conclusion that limiting sex to loving relationships is not viable either. In essence, as a rather traditional evangelical he believes that the sexual relationship should be the domain of a life-long covenant, that which we call marriage. What separates him from other traditionalists is that he extends covenant marriage to gays and lesbians.
Because these essays were previously published as articles for the Baptist Global News, each chapter generally is only a few pages long. In the course of these chapters Gushee raises the issues, shares his story, examines the oft quoted texts, and deals with the issue of the orders of creation (nature). Due to the brevity of the book, he can’t go into the same kind of depth that a book like William Stacy Johnson’s A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics (2nd edition) might, but he offers a sufficiently clear reading that will help most grapple with the texts and understand the original context and why they may not fit our current situation. I should note here that he takes up both texts that have been used to demonstrate that same-gender relationships are sinful and texts used to “prove” that marriage is limited to opposite sex persons. As other scholars have demonstrated, the kinds of same gender sexual activities present in the ancient world were rarely ever mutual and loving. Most were acts of violence (Sodom and Gomorrah) or between persons who are unequal socially – often a master/slave or man/boy relationship. Such relationships would be equally condemned today as before. In addition, current scientific studies have demonstrated that about 4-5% of the world’s population is attracted sexually to a person of the same gender. If this is true and then should not the church and society make provision for that portion of the population that seek long-term loving covenant relationships with persons fit for them? For those who are struggling with gender identity and sexual orientation (bi-sexual), Gushee’s belief is that one must determine as early as possible, which identity/orientation that they will live with/as. This will allow the development of that long-term, life-long covenant partnership. What Gushee advocates is full inclusion of LGBT folks in the church. He supports extending covenant marriage to them, even as it should for heterosexual persons. Ultimately, this is a call for the church to recognize that the principle of exclusion is dangerous -- to body, soul, and spirit.
In this book, Gushee addresses two communities. To those who tend toward a traditionalist view, he seeks to show them why it is time to change their hearts and minds. He also has a word for those who seek to welcome LGBT people. He notes that in the work of converting traditionalists to a new view point it is important to keep in mind that most of these people are of good heart and mind who want to be true to their faith. Thus, referring to the texts used to condemn gays as “clobber texts” can prove counterproductive. Gushee can identify with those who are trying to make sense of these texts, because he once counted himself among them (as do I). In other words, he is calling for a lowering of the temperature in rhetoric. In addition, he speaks to a key issue – the concern that many have about the moral texture of the age. At a time when the idea of mutual consent and sexual experimentalism seem to be the rage, many Christians are horrified and have used opposition to inclusion as essentially a last stand against what they see is a collapsing of our civilization. Movement forward will require addressing those concerns. In other words, when we talk about “open and affirming,” many who might be open want to know what exactly they’re being asked to affirm. If it’s “anything goes” they likely aren’t on board. But if they hear that many in the LGBT community are equally concerned and simply ask that their relationships can have the same support systems afforded to “straight” couples that could be the turning point.
As the pastor of a congregation that has been on a journey toward being “open and affirming,” I find books like this to be extremely helpful. Gushee is gentle and yet strong in his advocacy. He understands the concerns of traditionalists, but he has also come to understand the concerns of those who have been excluded from church and society. He has come to understand that the closet is dangerous. He has come to understand that traditional views of LGBT persons have led to children being excluded from their families and left to fend for themselves. He understands that anti-gay rhetoric contributes to high suicide rates among LGBT persons. Finally, he understands that the message of Jesus is one of grace and welcome (though with a firmly in place sexual ethic).
I am excited about this book. I am introducing it to my congregation and we’re inviting David to come and speak to the church and the broader community next fall. I believe that he has provided us with an important tool that can help us move toward acknowledging what we already are seeking to live – being a community that is truly welcoming and safe. With this in mind, Gushee concludes his book with an apology to those whom he had worked to exclude:
I ask for your forgiveness. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get here. I look forward to to continuing the journey together in your company , if you will have me. Meanwhile, I will join you in working for reform in the Christian church and a safe place for you, your loved ones, and everyone else to follow Jesus (p. 126).
So, if you’re on the fence, take and read! You likely will find reasons to finish climbing over to the other side. If you’re still firmly entrenched in traditional views, won’t you at least take a look at his arguments? If you’re already an advocate, perhaps this book will help you both understand the concerns of traditionalists and help you lead them to a position of inclusion. Yes, this book has a number of important audiences, all of whom will be blessed (I believe) by taking a close read of the book. As Matthew Vines writes in his introduction to the book:
By addressing the core concerns of conservative Christians with respect and reasoned argument, Gushee points the way forward beyond the church’s present impasse. (p. xxiii).The result, as Vines, himself a gay Christian man, is a book “that stands to be of pivotal importance in reframing the church’s moral authority for a new generation.” With that assessment, I am in agreement.