Guest Blog by S. Donald Fortson III
Professor of Church History and Practical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary – Charlotte
Having studied the homosexual issue for many years, and recently co-authored a book on the topic, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (B&H, 2016), I am horrified every time I hear of another “evangelical” capitulating on the gay issue. In the book, Rollin Grams and I demonstrate conclusively, through citing hundreds of primary texts, that the unanimous witness of Scripture and the Christian tradition condemns all homoerotic behavior as sin. There is biblical and historical consensus on these matters, and to deny this essential Christian teaching is to jettison authentic faith in Christ. Contrary to popular opinion there are fixed boundaries to orthodoxy that have been established for centuries. Doctrine and practice are equally parts of Christian orthodoxy, which includes biblically-defined sexual ethics.
Historic Christian orthodoxy (faith and practice) has always been a defining mark of evangelicalism – orthodoxy as defined by Scripture and tethered to the faithful testimony of the saints passed down through the centuries. In our age of diversity and tolerance, some evangelicals no longer affirm the final authority of Scripture or value the secondary authority of Christian tradition. The contemporary motto is, “we must agree to disagree.” In this new scheme, biblical teaching on human sexuality and sexual ethics practiced by the church for two millennia count for little, what matters most is that one is tolerant of others.
Historically, the Church has always believed biblically-defined sexual ethics are essential to Christianity – in fact, this was a distinguishing mark of believers which set them apart from the pagan population in the early centuries. The patristic writers underscored the unique sexual standards for followers of Christ. Sexual relations were exclusively limited to marriage between a man and woman – no premarital sex, no adultery, no prostitutes, and no same-sex lovers allowed. And church discipline for violations was practiced – one sees evidence for this especially in the medieval penitential literature. Both Protestants and Catholics in the 16th C. condemned homosexual practice in the monasteries. The Council of Trent as well as the Protestant confessions and catechisms all condemned homosexual practice in discussions of the Ten Commandments under the prohibition of adultery.
Grams and I both have a background in mainline churches, and we have watched the shallow liberal Protestant discussions of homosexuality since the 70s. One innovative interpretation of the Bible after another (often contradicting each other) has attempted to rationalize away Scripture’s comprehensive condemnation of any form of homosexual behavior. All the exegetical slight of hand to dupe the church has been answered multiple times by bible scholars. It is shocking that some evangelicals are embracing the same old debunked arguments. In stark contrast, the historic church has consistently condemned all homosexual practice because the Bible is crystal clear. There is no dissenting Christian voice at all until the last few decades which underscores the specious nature of revisionist readings of the biblical text.
As a historian I have observed that Roman Catholic and Orthodox authors engaged with the texts of the Christian tradition on the gay issue, but mainline Protestants ignored what believers of earlier generations have said about homosexuality (for obvious reasons). This distancing from the history of the Church is ironic given the fact that Protestantism was a retrieval movement – seeking to restore the ancient faith to the 16th C. church. One of the primary aims of our book was to bring church history “out of the closet” for the Protestant discussion of homosexuality.
It is telling that evangelical books celebrating gay sexuality are devoid of engagement with the Christian tradition. To be credible Christian scholarship, it would have been necessary to dialogue with the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin (just to name a few) – which would have provided clarity on the question of whether or not a homoerotic affirming position is a legitimate Christian option. Do some evangelicals actually think they can reinvent Christianity, and pretend that the great teachers of the Christian past have nothing valuable to say about homosexuality? To ignore these testimonies as unworthy is modern arrogance, and to cut oneself off from the communion of the saints.
Typically, these evangelical writers speak of gay family members and friends who have changed their minds. They also conveniently ignore the score of testimonies from ex-homosexuals who relate the deception and destruction that flows from the gay script. These believers witness to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit who enables them to live celibate lives, and for some Christian conjugal marriage – the only kind of marriage Christianity has ever known.
Some evangelicals are using the worn-out mainline argument that “consensual, monogamous, faithful, loving, Christ-centered marriages between same-sex couples can be God-honoring.” Do some evangelicals actually think that as long as a gay person promises to faithfully only participate in homoerotic behavior with one person that somehow this now makes it sanctified? This would be the moral equivalent of saying: “As long as I go to the same prostitute each time for sex, it must be glorifying to God.” This is immoral madness and not Christian teaching in any sense whatsoever. This viewpoint disavows the catholic faith of the historic and global church. The Anglican bishops of the majority world have rightly called this a “false gospel” – it is heresy.
The mainline and now some evangelicals claim that the non-affirming position may become a minority view among Christians – a deceptive myth. Let’s look at Christianity in America for example. According to recent research from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, historically black churches and Protestant evangelicals comprise 90% of the Christian population in America, and the numerous denominations that represent this Christian population are all non-affirming. Add to this the fact that believers are leaving the mainline churches in droves over the abandonment of biblical authority and the capitulation on homosexuality. The overwhelming majority of the American and global church are not buying the affirming position – it is without biblical or historical substance.
Liberal Protestants for decades have tried to persuade evangelicals in their denominations to be tolerant on the homosexual issue – “we must love each other, accept these differences and try to get along,” they say. Evangelicals did not buy the mainline mantra that this was a “non-essential” difference of biblical interpretation and many congregations have consequently left the mainline church. More division is on the way. Tragically, this may well be necessary, for historic orthodox faith is abandoned when the affirming position is considered Christian.
It’s time for the Church to rebuke professing Christians who have embraced this false teaching. We should pray for them to repent and return to the catholic orthodox faith. This teaching and practice is not a matter over which Christ’s followers may differ – it will incur the wrath of God. Jude wrote to early Christians urging them to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” and warning them about those who “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” And what historic example did Jude use? He wrote, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of fire.” (Jude 3-7, ESV). Following the commands of Holy Scripture, the ancient catholic church and the Protestant Reformers did not tolerate homoerotic behavior among those who profess faith in Christ – neither should we.
Editor’s Note: Check out our interview with Drs. Fortson and Grams (Part 1 and Part 2) on their important book!