Are evangelicals changing their views on gay marriage?

Jim Hinch has a rather ambitious analysis of evangelical piety at Politico titled, “Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage: And the Bible isn’t getting in their way.” The title reveals the fundamental flaw in this article. The flaw also appears in the fact that Hinch treats members of the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ as bellwethers of evangelical opinion. Hinch appears to be a little fuzzy as to what an evangelical is. These are very strange evangelicals indeed—those who give little heed to the authority of scripture and who are members of liberal mainline churches.

To be sure, Hinch mentions some bona fide evangelicals like Rick Warren. But even then, these evangelicals have not in fact changed their views on gay marriage. Many of the profiled “evangelicals” who have accepted gay marriage—like Matthew Vines—have left their churches for more liberal congregations. I daresay that very few would recognize such outliers as representative of evangelical opinion. And that of course begs the question: What is an evangelical?

We can all agree that defining an evangelical is controversial, but many observers still look to David Bebbington’s quadrilateral as a helpful outline of the defining characteristics of evangelicals.

According to Bebbington, evangelicals have four leading characteristics: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activismBiblicism refers to the fact that evangelicals look to the Bible alone as the ultimate authority and measure of all truth. From the 1820’s onward, a growing body of evangelicals also insisted on inerrancy, verbal inspiration, and the need for literal interpretation of the Bible (Bebbington, 13-14). Crucicentrism focuses on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the necessity of his substitutionary atonement for sinners (Bebbington, 15). Conversionism is the conviction that sinners need to be born again through the spirit and to repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Activism refers to the fact that evangelicals are doers. They believe that their faith should be worked out in good works.

Whatever its shortcomings, Bebbington’s quadrilateral has been widely received as summing up some of evangelicalism’s most important emphases. That is why it is so surprising to see what Hinch labels as “evangelical.” Rick Warren makes sense. United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church USA? Not so much. It is very difficult to talk meaningfully about evangelicals while giving short shrift to confessional elements that have been pervasive in the movement.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been slippage on the marriage issue among parishioners of evangelical churches. But this isn’t an indication that evangelicalism is changing. It’s an indication that some churches are becoming less evangelical.

But being out of line with an historically responsible definition of evangelicalism is not nearly so troublesome as being out of line with what the Bible defines as true. The gospel is the message of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners (1 Cor. 15:3-5). It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16-17). And it requires conscious faith in Christ in order for it to become effective in a person’s life (John 3:18; 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:14-15).

This same gospel not only saves sinners from the penalty of sin, it also progressively delivers them from the power of sin and transforms them into the image of Christ (1 Cor. 3:18; 1 Thes. 2:13). It requires sinners to confess their sins—including the sin of homosexuality—even as it promises to make them into new creatures in Christ (1 John 1:9; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:17). These are longstanding evangelical emphases, and that won’t change among those who are committed to the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

If you want to know what evangelicals think about marriage, look to the congregations that still treat the Bible as the ultimate authority and the gospel as the essential message. That’s where the evangelicals are.

10 Responses to Are evangelicals changing their views on gay marriage?

  1. Tim Etherington July 8, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    I heard NPR once in a movie review say that the group were “an evangelical Mormon cult.” I couldn’t for the life of me get those three words to come together in any way that makes sense. NPR said that anyone who takes the Bible literally is an evangelical. They appear to disagree with Hinch.

  2. Justin Phillips July 8, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

    Considering this was a Politico piece, I imagine his definition is political in nature. As far as politicos and Politico are concerned, PCUSA is evangelical. (i.e. a PCUSA member’s vote in a national election is considered an evangelical vote when you see stats such as “Mitt Romney won x%age of evangelicals.”

  3. dr. james willingham July 8, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    Our problem is that we have so neglected the intellectual element of the Bible that we have missed the reality of the depths of the word of God written. This is due, in part, to what the old Puritan called the perspicuity of scripture or what we might term biblical clarity. Just because the Book is so clear, we think we can easily understand it. The truth is, however, that the depths of God word are like the depths of the ocean, that is, like the navy captain who joked with his US sailors who were going swimming in the deepest swimming hole on earth (the Mariannas Trench, 7 miles plus straight down), “Your welcome to try and reach the bottom, but I doubt that you will make it.” The Bible inspired by Omniscience displays a wisdom commensurate with such a source, a wisdom that requires the combined efforts of scholars of all fields of learning to understand the ideas set forth therein.

  4. bobbistowellbrown July 8, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    I am very concerned and have been praying for my denomination–Evangelical Covenant. It seems up to 1/2 the congregation at my old church say we have to vote for same sex marriage because it is fair. They also vote for abortion because we can’t legislate morality. So now the next step will be to decide if they will condone SSM if the state says they have to. I hope it never comes to that.

  5. Tim Keene July 9, 2014 at 4:03 am #

    On the biblicism as an evangelical marker:
    I don’t think that the majority of evangelicals in the world would recognise inerrancy as a marker, not perhaps because they do not believe it but because they do not share that language. And the problem with inerrancy is that it tends to bring with it a worldview conditioned by 19C modernism. If we are to embrace inerrancy, we need continually to review it in the light of the Bible.
    Slightly relevant to this, on Michael Bird’s blog Euangelion, on 28th April, there is a provocative video on this topic. I would be fascinated to know what people make of it.

  6. buddyglass July 9, 2014 at 11:13 am #

    The problem is how to define “evangelical”. If you include “opposition to same-sex marriage” as a definitional aspect of “evangelical” then, by definition, there can be no change of opinion among evangelicals with respect to same-sex marriage. Anyone who changes his or her mind simply removes himself from the set of evangelicals.

    The proper way to measure this would be to have polled people (or observed them) a few years ago and to have used some objective criteria to identify the “evangelicals” among them. Then go back periodically and poll (or observe) the ones originally identified as evangelicals to see how their opinions and behaviors change over time.

    Longitudinal studies like that are hard (and expensive) to carry out, though, so we’re left with less definitive methods.

    I suspect the reality is that evangelicals are becoming more friendly with the idea of same-sex marriage (in the legal sense if not the moral) but that Hinch overstates the scope of the change.

  7. buddyglass July 9, 2014 at 11:38 am #

    Here are some numbers from Pew. This one compares opinions from 2003 and to 2012-13 for a number of sub-categories:

    http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-detailed_tables/Gay%20marriage%20detailed%20tables%20UPDATE.pdf

    That one’s interesting because it isolates white non-Hispanic Protestant evangelicals who are weekly church attenders. The weekly attenders are more opposed to same-sex marriage than the non-weekly-attenders, but even the weekly attenders’ opposition has weakened (slightly) over the last 10 years. In 2003 the opposed it 89/7; in 2013 it was 84/12.

    Here’s another Pew article:

    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/19/march-for-marriage-rally-reflects-steadfast-opposition-to-gay-marriage-among-evangelical-christians/

    That one’s interesting because it asks two different questions: first, whether the respondant supports or opposes legal same-sex marriage, and second whether the respondant feels that a same-sex marriage would “go against my religious beliefs”. On the first question white evangelicals oppose legal same-sex marriage 70/23, but on the second they consider it to “go against their religious beliefs” by a margin of 84/14. So there are at least some folks in this group that support the legal right of same-sex couples to marry but nevertheless view such marriages as “violating their religious beliefs”.

    Here is a list of the various religious bodies Pew classifies as “evangelical” vs. “mainline”. I think this is the same list they use to group respondants in their polls about same-sex marriage, but I’m not positive on that:

    http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/affiliations-all-traditions.pdf

    The PCUSA, ELCA, UCC, etc. are all considered “mainline”. The PCA, LCMS, etc. are considered “evangelical”.

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