Still Christian? David Gushee’s unsustainable illusion

My undergraduate and initial graduate studies were completed at Mercer University. Fortunately, I was there many years before the arrival of one David P. Gushee, now the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life. Mercer has produced some rather notable alumni, including the late former Attorney General Griffin Bell (who, in his capacity as Distinguished University Professor, gave one of the most undistinguished commencement addresses at my first graduation in 1987), Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, and a considerable number of governors and senators from the state of Georgia.

GusheeFor all its prestige, Mercer’s faculty has usually lacked scholars of any high national profile. Gushee has broken that mold, gaining notoriety largely because of his highly publicized “evolution” on the issue of same sex “marriage” and homosexuality in general. He has long identified himself as an “evangelical” and initially held to traditional biblical teachings on sexual morality. In the last few years, however, his views have taken a decidedly revisionist turn, although he insisted he remained in the “evangelical” camp.

Now, in his latest column for Religion News Service, Gushee has announced he is giving up. He can no longer identify with “evangelicals” because of their uncompromising stand on biblical injunctions against same sex relationships. Hawking an upcoming book about his “journey” out of evangelicalism, Gushee says it is pointless to continue debating the issue with his recalcitrant former brethren.

At the “macro” level, I have also written a memoir: “Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism.” This book, out in August with Westminster John Knox Press, is both a spiritual autobiography and professional memoir. It tells about a confused young man wandering into a Southern Baptist church in the summer of 1978 and emerging four days later as a born-again Christian — and what happened to him in the 40 years after that.

What happened? A love affair with Jesus that for the great majority of 40 years was spent in Southern Baptist and evangelical contexts, until my own sense of moral and intellectual integrity forced me to take stands leading to my exit from those worlds.

Everybody’s story is different. Of course millions of American Christians remain quite happily situated in Southern Baptist and/or evangelical Christianity. I wish them only the best, and am done fighting with them.

But millions of others have made their exits, or had their exits made for them, and now wander in a kind of exile. I think that my story might connect with that of many others who find themselves post-all-of-that, perhaps helping chart a way forward.

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. They are articulated daily in endless social media loops.

Gushee is quite correct in saying it is fruitless for “evangelicals” and whatever he now calls himself to continue debating an issue for which there is no middle ground. Either you accept the objective biblical ethic that God created human beings in his image, male and female, and that monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is the only appropriate context for sexual relations or you reject it in favor of a subjective humanistic ethic rooted in emotionalism and a misguided understanding of “justice.” He is right, one might say, for the wrong reasons.

By titling his book Still Christian, Gushee clearly intends to assert that, despite having abandoned his own theological heritage, he wants to cling to an identity that, in his mind, remains in some sense Christian. Fellow Mercer almunus Erick Erickson points out that this is ultimately unsustainable. Gushee is not simply leaving “evangelicalism.” He is abandoning Christianity altogether and buying a ticket on a down bound train.

Gushee is actually leaving Christianity itself, despite trying to claim otherwise with a book titled Still Christian. In fact, I think Gushee will eventually be as honest about leaving the faith as he is about leaving evangelicalism. First, he accepted that homosexuality was a sin. Then he evolved on that position and tried to find common ground. Now he has decided there is no common ground and he is no longer an evangelical. The next step will be to formally acknowledge he is not a Christian. It may take time, but I have no doubt it will happen.

The reason it will happen is because to accept marriage is between more than one man and one woman and to embrace homosexuality, is to reject the teachings of Jesus himself and of his apostles. Gushee and those who hold his position are on the opposite side of 2000 years of Christendom. At some point I strongly believe they will give up the farce and decide instead of trying to convince people that 2000 years of orthodoxy is wrong and their novel interpretations of scripture are right, they’ll just declare themselves Episcopalian and call it a day.

After all, though Gushee is leaving evangelicalism, he is also leaving Anglicanism, Catholicism, Orthdoxy, and every other branch of Christianity. The few churches still claiming to be Christian while embracing homosexuality are all dying out. More than one study has concluded the last Episcopalian has already been born. Gushee’s breed of self-proclaimed Christian is becoming an endangered species headed toward extinction all while claiming to be at one with the zeitgeist.

Andrew Walker concurs.

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).

Rod Dreher commends Gushee for his honesty and clarity, but also emphasizes the impossibility of compromise on an issue to which the Scriptures speak so clearly.

If you really do believe, against clear Scriptural teaching and the unified witness of almost 2,000 years of the Christian church, that homosexuality and gay unions are blessed by God, then it is unjust to deny gays and lesbians full participation in church life (including marriage) without repentance — because what is there to repent of? If you’re especially broad-minded, you might sign on to an “agree to disagree” policy within the church, as a measure to protect unity until a clear majority within the church agrees with you. But you would do so with the expectation that eventually the entire church would unambiguously affirm the progressive policy. This makes sense, given your belief that this is a matter of human dignity and fundamental justice.

But if you affirm Scripture and tradition on the issue, then you must agree, finally, that this is an issue on which there cannot be compromise. Oh, you may have tried it for the sake of maintaining church unity (this is what the Anglicans have been writhing over for a long time), but that is no longer tenable. Your opponents within the church will no longer stand for it — and, if they are theologically and morally correct, they should not stand for it. There is no more middle ground: you have to decide. In truth, there never was any middle ground, and those who thought there was were deceiving themselves. If your side is correct, then it is time to quit playing games for the sake of a peace and unity that does not and cannot exist. As Andrew T. Walker says, the stakes are too high.

But if the other side is correct, then on what grounds should they tolerate unreasonable bigots like you (well, like us)?

The center is not holding because there is no longer a center on this issue, and in truth, never was.

Be grateful, at least, for the clarity David Gushee brings to the conflict. Which side are you on? You must decide. You do not and must not hate those who reach the opposite conclusion. But you must not pretend that we can share a church, unless one side is prepared to keep its views on the matter quiet, and stand down from contesting the issue within the church.

David Gushee has, indeed, done the whole church a favor by giving up on evangelicalism and bowing out of the debate over same sex relationships. Erickson, Walker, and Dreher are quite correct, however, in pointing out that Gushee has abandoned more than merely one particular expression of the Christian faith. His now apparently intractable views on same sex relationships place him outside not only the bounds of evangelicalism, but outside the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy altogether. Having chosen to go down such a path, he will not be able, when all is said and done, to sustain the illusion that he is Still Christian.

The tongue tells the tale

One of the reasons many, particularly in the Protestant tradition, have become ambivalent about the Epistle of James is a misunderstanding of the type of literature it is. Whereas Paul, being himself a Pharisee trained under the respected teacher Gamaliel, wrote from the perspective of Christ being the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. James wrote from a different, but equally important, perspective.

The great tradition of Hebrew wisdom was embodied by Solomon, the wisest of Israel’s kings and perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. Proverbs is his most memorable work, as well as most of the book of Ecclesiastes and the dialogue with his beloved, the Song of Solomon. Several non-canonical books of the Apocrypha are also attributed to him.

 

James was steeped in this tradition. Consequently, his epistle is a collection of wise sayings and godly counsel. Perhaps the most practical of all his wisdom is his advice concerning the tongue. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire,” he writes, echoing Solomon. “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:5-6). James sees the tongue as the epicenter of human evil, untamable by any human being. It exposes the double-mindedness of man, his utter inability to live consistently in obedience to God. For while we may, at one moment, use the tongue to “bless our Lord and Father,” we may, at the next moment, use it to “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9).

This kind of forked-tongue double-mindedness, says James, “ought not be so” (James 3:10). Human beings are created to obey God at all times, not only to honor him with our lips, but also to glorify him with our lives. The tongue tells the tale, whether we  are truly honoring God or vainly invoking his name. We cannot control the tongue unless we are submitted unreservedly in absolute obedience to God. For only then can our tongue praise his name and our lives reflect his glory.

The kingdom is staring you right in the face

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed,” Jesus says, “nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17.20b-21).

This, our Lord says in response to a question from the Pharisees about “when the kingdom of God would come” (v. 20a). It is a question which betrays the Pharisees’ utter faithlessness. Face to face with the One who embodies the kingdom of God, they nevertheless ask, “When will the kingdom come?”

Implied in Jesus’ answer is the Pharisees’ insistence on some kind of observable “sign.” But in answering as he does, Jesus effectively tells them, “If you cannot see the kingdom right before your eyes, no sign will convince you. You will run after every charlatan and pretender who comes along saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ All the while the kingdom you seek is staring you right in the face.”

Jesus is the kingdom of God, the very embodiment of God’s new order. The Pharisees’ failure to see what is literally within their grasp is only further proof of this. In the kingdom of God, privilege counts for nothing. Those, like the Pharisees, who think they have it all figured out will be the ones who miss out. As Jesus embodies the kingdom of God, the new order of the world to come, the Pharisees embody the absolute worst of the old order, the world that is passing away. They are the representatives of “this generation,” the corrupt religious establishment which would reject Jesus and send him to the cross.

Jesus compares his inquisitors to the people of Noah’s day who were “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage” (v. 27), blissfully unaware of their impending doom. So, too, are the Pharisees like like the people of Lot’s day, “eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all” (vv. 28-29).

By invoking these images of past judgment, Jesus is warning the guardians of the status quo that his day is coming and they will be held accountable for their actions. They will reject him. They will kill him. They will pretend business as usual. But the Son of Man will have the last word.

But there is also a word of caution to Jesus’ disciples. They must remain alert, lest they suffer the same fate as the Pharisees. If they become too concerned with saving their own lives, they will be swept away, also, in the coming judgment. “Remember Lot’s wife,” Jesus says (v. 32). She looked back upon Sodom and became a pillar of salt. So it will be with any who try to preserve any part of the old order. It is passing away in judgment. The way of faith is the way of flight. Flee from this passing world and look forward — LOOK UP! — to the glorious new world of the kingdom of God which, even now, “is in the midst of you.”

Demas Syndrome: A love affair with this present world

To be “in love with this present world,” like Paul’s former companion Demas, is to be deceived by its illusions. Demas deserted Paul in his hour of greatest need, much like the disciples deserted Jesus during his hour of trial. In fact, Paul writes, “At my first defense, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.” All of his fair weather friends, it seems, turned out like Demas. They loved “this present world” too much to sacrifice their livelihood for the hope of the world to come. But, in true Christ-like fashion, Paul says, “May it not be charged against them!”

Paul was ready to endure whatever suffering “this present world” could inflict upon him. His wayward companions seemed lacking in perseverance. Being “in love with this present world” clouds one’s perception of things. From a “this present world” perspective, the natural is the reality, not the spiritual. Thus, one can, as Jesus says, “see a cloud rising in the west” and “say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens,” and “see the south wind blowing” and “say, ‘There will be scorching heat, and it happens.” In other words, one can discern all the natural phenomena of “this present world” but be completely blind to the true spiritual climate of “the present time.”

Jesus’ words were a stark warning to a generation blissfully unaware of its impending doom. They could judge by natural appearances, but they could not discern their own sorry spiritual predicament, punctuated by their inability to recognize who Jesus was and what his coming meant. They were all too eager to receive a Messiah who would inflict violence upon their enemies and free them from foreign rule. They were not prepared, however, for a Messiah who would bring division within their own households. But Jesus emphatically declares, “I came to bring fire on the earth,” and the first to get burned will be the household of Israel itself. His coming means not peace, but division, “three divided against two and two against three, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

This is what might be called a perfect division; the kind of division which can only come from the One who wields the double-edged sword of the Word of God. It is not what those “in love with this present world” expected from the Messiah. They expected him to take on Israel’s enemies. They did not expect him to take on the enemy within. But that is exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to cleanse the temple and drive out those who had turned it into a den of robbers. The ones he came to judge first were those who should have known better. But they were “in love with this present world” and did not realize their love affair was little more than a form of spiritual adultery.

Is it time for old guard evangelical “leaders” to take a cue from Prince Philip?

Among the religious leaders flanking President Trump as he signed an executive order ostensibly to enhance protection of “religious liberty” were evangelical activists who, during last year’s presidential campaign, attached near messianic expectations to the man they fervently supported despite his well documented moral shortcomings. Ryan T. Anderson, notably and thankfully, was not one of them. While the old guard of the evangelical establishment is offering effusive praise for today’s action by the president, Anderson, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is not impressed.

andersonToday’s executive order is woefully inadequate. Trump campaigned promising Americans that he would protect their religious liberty rights and correct the violations that took place during the previous administration.

Trump’s election was about correcting problems of the last administration, including religious liberty violations and the hostility to people of faith in the United States. This order does not do that. It is a mere shadow of the original draft leaked in February.

Advanced publicity of the order was quite misleading, and the final product turned out to be only a shadow of what was reportedly being contemplated during the early days of the new administration.

The earlier version ensured that the government would not discriminate against beliefs that are under assault, and protected religious organizations’ right to maintain their mission and identity in their staffing decisions and programming, while not losing the ability to partner with the government.

The previous draft of the executive order also provided specific protections to undo some of the worst of liberal overreach.

It would have finally and fully protected Americans from having to violate their consciences under the Obamacare abortifacient and contraception mandate. It would have protected the ability of all Americans to buy health care that doesn’t cover or subsidize abortion.

And it would have protected all Americans who believe that marriage is the union of husband and wife from federal government penalties or coercion.

These protections would take nothing away from anyone. They simply would ensure that the public square remains open to all religious voices, even when those voices diverge from the government’s view on contested questions. They would protect diversity, pluralism, and tolerance.

None of this should be objectionable—which makes you wonder why liberals objected, except to continue the denunciation of “deplorables” that offended Americans of good will last year.

Despite this disappointment, Anderson remains hopeful that President Trump and Congress will eventually deliver on a full-throated defense of one of our nation’s foundational freedoms.

There is still time for Trump to make good on his promises. He can still issue an executive order based on that February draft, and then Congress can act to make those provisions permanent.

Congress could start by passing the Russell Amendment, the Conscience Protection Act, and the First Amendment Defense Act. Trump promised to sign into law both the Conscience Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act.

Trump promised while on the campaign trail that he would robustly defend religious freedom from pressing threats. Today, he didn’t make good on that promise. But he still can, and should.

Good suggestions, but real progress toward restoring genuine religious liberty will not be made unless new leaders are allowed to emerge within American evangelicalism. The president can hardly be blamed when he is receiving poor counsel from a group of people disconnected from their constituency. The old guard evangelical leaders, remnants of the once influential “religious right,” have become far too compromised by the trappings of political power and are woefully out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to represent. They will settle for whatever bone the president throws them. Meanwhile, the people in the pews will continue their struggle to practice their faith in the workplace and the public square with no apparent acknowledgement that their constitutionally protected freedoms will be upheld.

If today’s executive order is the best those who fancy themselves “leaders” of the evangelical community can get from this president, maybe it is time these old warhorses took their cue from Prince Philip and retired from public life.