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