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Tony Campolo’s change of heart

I wrote this piece for Christianity Magazine blog last week. I have added some other perspectives below.


TONY1It was with some sadness that I read of Tony Campolo’s change of heart on the question of same-sex relationships. But was with even greater sadness that I read his reasoning. I was sad because Tony has been a provocative and inspiring leader in challenging evangelicals to take the words of Jesus and the words of Scripture seriously as shaping their understanding and their living. But the statement he has issued appears to take us in quite another direction.

He starts with a popular but mistaken reading of Matthew 25.40 and Jesus’ words ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Most decent commentaries will point out that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are not the poor in general, but ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matt 12.50). Jesus’ teaching here is not about how people respond to the poor, but how they respond to poor old Christians! There is no doubt that social justice is an indispensable part of the gospel—if you doubt that, just read the Magnificat in Luke 1—but it is part of the gospel, and not the gospel. Jesus’ defeat of sin leads to the undoing of injustice, but it leads to lots of other things as well.


Tony’s thin reflection continues into marriage. In contrasting the ‘spiritual dimension’ of marriage with the goal of procreation, he prioritises a disembodied spirituality which the Bible wouldn’t countenance. We were made bodily, male and female, and our destiny is bodily resurrection in a new creation. It is wonderful to read of the way Tony’s wife Peggy ‘has been easily the greatest encourager of my relationship with Jesus.’ But that could be said of any number of relationships; it is not what constitutes marriage! If Tony knows ‘gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way as our own’ I wonder how closely he has looked. Whatever you think of its approach, it was not for nothing that Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus was a best-seller. Men and women are different, and that unity-in-difference has been central to marriage since Genesis 2. The Marriage service in the Church of England does a great job of highlighting this. As the ‘man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind… in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.’ In other words, the unity-in-difference of their bodies in sex symbolises and strengthens the unity-in-difference of their whole lives.

My greatest sadness is what Tony has done to the notion of grace. Yes, let’s all sing ‘Just as I am’, and mean it. But please can we include verse 4?

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind
Sight, riches, healing of the mind
Yea, all I need in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come.

None of us comes simply to seek acceptance or affirmation. That might be the beginning, but it can never be the end. We all come to receive that costly transformation, for which Jesus died, to make us all that we can be in him. This is not about being made ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, but about being made holy—and for the vision of what that looks like, we need to turn to Scripture and allow our understanding to be shaped by it.

Heaven forbid that we settle for mere acceptance of who we are.


Three other responses are worth reflecting on. David Robertson, writing for Christian Today, is just sceptical:

I’m sorry but I don’t believe you. I don’t believe that you ever believed that marriage was just about procreation. I don’t believe that you’ve only known gay couples for the last couple of years. I don’t believe that these arguments which you have known about for years caused you to change your mind in the past couple of months. The truth is that for years you have accepted homosexual relationships and SSM and when you said you didn’t you were I’m afraid being ‘economical with the truth’.

I don’t know your motivation and would be reluctant to attribute money and fame as your goals. I prefer to take you at your word when you write “One reason for that ambiguity was that I felt I could do more good for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters by serving as a bridge person, encouraging the rest of the Church to reach out in love and truly get to know them.” This is a stunning open admission of manipulation. Despite the coded language it is clear that what you are saying is that it has been your intention and practice to try and lure evangelicals into accepting the liberal position on SSM, and it would be more effective for you to do so while pretending to uphold the traditional position.


Dr. Trueman writingCarl Trueman, of Westminster Theological Seminary, focuses of the lack of any clear rationale within the statement:

What is surprising in the statement is the complete absence of any thoughtful argumentation in his articulation of his position. Though he professes to have heard every kind of biblical argument against same-sex marriage, he does not burden the reader with any of these, or why he has found them so lacking. Instead, he prefers to use straw men, false dichotomies, and the rhetoric of social science to present his case.

But he goes on to make a quite different observation: Campolo’s statement will be nowhere near enough for the LGBT+ community:

The saddest part of Campolo’s change of mind, however, is that it will not be enough, as early responses from the gay community already indicate. Even a moment’s reflection on the Bruce Jenner affair or a casual conversation with a teenager would reveal to him that the gay issue is, as far as the secular world is considered, done and dusted. All Campolo has done as an evangelical is modify his sexual ethics to conform to the comfortable, safe, middle-class tastes of modern America. He will shock no-one but evangelicals—and, I might add, only evangelicals unfamiliar with his other work.


A good example of this is the response of blogger Eliel Cruz:

Campolo announcement is a step in the right direction. He makes a stirring case for including gays and lesbians into the pews — though seems to lack fluency in the LGBT conversation… Campolo’s announcement isn’t incredibly surprising. Many have speculated his loving tone towards LGBT people has meant a shift in theology. Yet, Campolo kept quiet about his beliefs — and in many ways still does. But look at what he doesn’t say.

Perhaps it was an extremely large oversight but Campolo never once said that same-sex intimacy is not a sin neither does he say that he unequivocally affirms same-sex relationships….

But perhaps the most puzzling question is where’s the apology? Campolo recognizes that he caused damage by preaching traditional stances of scripture but he doesn’t offer any apology for it. Unlike other evangelical leaders who have take similar shifts, Campolo didn’t even hint at an apology.

But in order to be a formidable ally, Campolo needs to do more than release a statement. He needs to partner with LGBT Christian organizations and uplift the LGBT Christian voices who have been in the trenches of this debate long before him. Hopefully, his future publications on the LGBT community will be inclusive and forthright about his stances on sames-sex relationships and transgender identities.

Until then, his statement leaves much to be desired.

So Campolo’s change of heart (or at least change of statement) might lose him some friends in one camp. But it looks like it will only be greeted by two cheers in the other. As Trueman expresses it, ‘A day late, a dollar short.’


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7 Responses to Tony Campolo’s change of heart

  1. Vernon Ross June 15, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    I think we all too easily confuse human rights and being in line with contemporary culture as equalling God’s will. When we look at the Bible, Is there ever a prophet or apostle who was popular with the establishment? The answer I think is no. So I am concerned that the church in the west has completely lost sight of what it means to be a covenant people inhabiting a land that is not our home, waiting in expectancy for the return of Christ. Instead we seem to be focusing on ‘How can we remain relevant to contemporary culture’ as if that is our first calling, which it is not. The Same sex debate is being argued on society has evolved and that is not the best place to have the discussion. A better one would be In the light of our call to be a covenant people, a means of Gods blessing to this world, how do we live in faithfulness to God? I think we are in danger of repeating past mistakes, and exile is not a good place to be.

    • Ian Paul June 15, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

      I think I would agree with you Vernon. Iguess the following question though is how can we demonstrate that we are not simply being arbitrary or cruel…?

      • Vernon Ross June 15, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

        Ian, A good point, I think in part we show ourselves as not being arbitrary or cruel, by not being single issue people, by being consistent, by practicing what we preach, by treating people with respect for we are all made in the image of God. And by stating why we believe what we do and what we are in favour of, as opposed to what we are against..

  2. Jonathan Tallon June 15, 2015 at 2:08 pm #

    It seems unfair to criticise Tony Campolo for a ‘thin’ reflection when he’s releasing a short statement of under 1,000 words (this is true of both your critique, and Carl’s). As you have noted previously, to explain or debate any point in this area in detail leads to an explosion of words. Should Tony write a large book before he can comment publicly? It would be as easy (and as unfair) to critique your response – is Men are from Mars… really a good, objective guide to understanding gender? What do you mean by ‘difference’? You and Carl are, though, addressing his arguments/reasons.

    However, David Robertson seems happy calling Tony Campolo a liar (and insinuates that he’s done it for low motives). This is straightforward character attack. I don’t think it needs publicising.

  3. James Byron June 15, 2015 at 10:17 pm #

    At least, this time around, Campolo didn’t accuse those who disagreed with not giving a shit. 😉

    I don’t find it helpful to speculate about dishonesty (although personally, as Campolo drew heat from progressives for years, I don’t believe he was disingenuous). I find his experiences of same-sex couples to be perfectly convincing, certainly more so than psychological stereotypes from John Gray.

    Evangelicals can surely find a way to disagree about homosexuality respectfully and constructively. Even if homosexuality isn’t a “thing indifferent,” neither is, say, divorce, on which evangelicals disagree all the time. As Jesus called divorce not caused by sexual immorality adultery, and Paul lists adultery as a “salvation issue” in 1 Cor. 6, this is directly comparable.

    Come to that, Paul also mentioned drunkards and the greedy, but those acts have also received far, far less focus than homosexuality. I don’t expect evangelicals to start marching in pride parades, but it’s time that homosexuality was kept in proportion.

  4. Rex June 17, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

    Thanks for this write-up Ian! I was really saddened when I came across Tony Campolo’s statements & your article helped articulate some of the thoughts I was wrestling with. But one of the things that really breaks my heart is to see a generation of our churches that pass along a notion of salvation without the need of repentance. I think the greatest idolatry of the worldly church is to think that it can somehow accept unrepentant people into it’s doors & get them into God’s kingdom some other way. I believe it dishonors the blood Jesus shed to make us acceptable in the eyes of a perfect God, when we think our earthly form of acceptance will earn any of us, who are stooped in sin, the right to a union with Him. When we forget that our appeal to speak the whole truth, is to represent a God of love who paid a great price for salvation, we idolize our own ability to love people, love that will one day be exposed to be insufficient to save anyone.

    19 “I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first. 20 Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman[d] Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. 21 And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. 22 Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.

    God have mercy on all of us. I pray for you and the platform God has entrusted to you Ian.

  5. Rev Peter Kane June 18, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

    As with you, Ian, I too feel rather disappointed with Tony Campolo, particularly in light of the great contribution he has made in the US to encouraging evangelicals to take social justice more seriously. However, at the same time, I’m not entirely surprised at his change of heart. In the US, opinions on moral issues tend to be much more divided between the Left and Right of the political spectrum than they are in the UK. The Religious Right have tended to be the main upholders of pro-life and pro-family values, whereas the Democrats tend to be the ones upholding a liberal stance on these kinds of matters. Campolo has made a point of identifying himself with the Left in US politics, and so it is almost inevitable that he would eventually succumb to the Left’s position on same-sex marriage (as I think Jim Wallis has done too), allowing this to determine his views on the matter, rather than allowing the word of God to challenge political wisdom. I also feel that he has all too easily accepted the idea (cf Steve Chalke) that you have to accept same-sex marriage on the grounds of equality and civil rights. So I think this is as much about the nature of US politics as it is about Scriptural interpretation.
    In contrast to the American situation, evangelicals in the UK already have a longstanding tradition of social justice, so it is easier to be able to hold to a conservative stance whilst at the same time not neglecting social morality.
    I still maintain that Billy Graham (and now son Franklin) are great role models for us in the way that they hold fast to orthodox teaching on issues of personal morality whilst at the same time promoting the Gospel imperative of social justice.

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