Over the weekend, I had an important exchange with Kristin Kobes Du Mez on social media. I won’t rehash the entire back and forth here. Some of it is linked below for your reference if you are interested in following the threads. If you boil it all down, she asked me a question, and I asked her one. She asked me whether I thought her book Jesus and John Wayne contains false teaching (to which I answered “yes”), and I asked her if she believes that homosexuality is sinful (to which she answered that she doesn’t know yet). In this post, I simply want to comment on her answer to my question about homosexuality, and then explain why I answered her question the way that I did.
Does Du Mez Believe That Homosexuality Is Sinful?
I highly recommend that you read Du Mez’s short response to my question before pressing on any further with my discussion below. Her basic point is that she no longer views the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality as straightforward. Her own denomination is reexamining the issue, and so is she. Here she is in her own words, and it is to this excerpt in particular that I wish to respond.
Do I personally affirm “the church’s teaching that homosexuality is sinful?” Which church? My own church (local & denomination) is actively reexamining this issue in light of tradition, interpretation, history, & science. I’m participating, but as a historian, not a theologian.
I grew up holding the “traditional” view, that same-sex sexual relationships were sinful. As far back as I can remember, though, I never believed that a theological view on this matter should dictate government policy in a way that abridges fundamental civil rights.
This wasn’t because I was currying favor with progressives. I didn’t know many back then. My own strand of Reformed thinking comes w/ a deep respect for pluralism & rejection of Christian nationalism. (Esp among my Dutch profs who’d endured Nazi occupation.)
Since that time, I’ve encountered compelling theological & historical arguments that challenge or complicate traditional approaches to this issue. I’ve read several but have several more to read, and am doing so in conversation w/ “traditional” perspectives.
I’m doing this all in community, w/ scholars, pastors, theologians, & LGBTQ+ Chrs, as part of my local church, as part of an officially sanctioned denominational process, and in an official capacity as a representative of my university…
So back to theology. Burk points to I Cor 15:1-5 as the heart of the gospel. Agreed! So much so that I refuse to use views on gender, sexuality, atonement theory, baptism, spiritual gifts and the like as a way to preemptively exclude believers from fellowship in the Body of Christ.
We can spend our lives asking what right belief & obedient discipleship looks like in all these areas, & we should. But I’m going to do so in conversation & communion with my LGBTQ sisters & brothers in Christ. Because of the gospel.
DuMez says that she used to hold to the “traditional” view that homosexuality is sinful. But now she recognizes “compelling theological & historical arguments” that have destabilized her former certainty about the sinfulness of homosexuality. So by her own account, she is in a kind of convictional purgatory. She’s not where she was, but neither has she arrived at where she is going. Christ’s church has always and everywhere believed throughout its entire 2,000-year history that homosexuality is sinful. But the jury is out whether she will accept that teaching. In the meantime, however, she intends to study the issue while in “communion” with her “LGBTQ sisters & brothers in Christ.”
As I read her account, I do not believe that her words represent any kind of middle or undecided position. She is already willing to have communion with and to recognize LGBTQ persons as her brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words, she is already saying that it is right to welcome to the Lord’s table those who embrace and affirm a homosexual identity. She may be under the impression that this is a “middle” or “undecided” position, but it certainly is not. Once you’ve affirmed unrepentant homosexuals as your brothers and sisters in Christ, you have already endorsed an affirming position no matter what your ethical calculation might otherwise be.
It appears that she is treating homosexuality as if it were an issue that otherwise faithful Christians might agree to disagree about—something on the order of differences over baptism or the rapture. That view is a grave error, for the Bible’s warnings about such things are very stark:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
Ephesians 5:5-6, “For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
Paul warns that unrepentant sin excludes one from the kingdom of God, and homosexuality is explicitly enumerated as such sin. Paul anticipates that some will falsely claim that sexual sin is compatible with Christianity, and he says in no uncertain terms not to let anyone deceive you with empty words. For the wrath of God will fall on impenitent sexual sinners. This is not an agree to disagree issue among otherwise faithful Christians. This is a heaven or hell issue. Do not be deceived.
This is the reason why Article 10 of The Nashville Statement was necessary (see below). We knew that the path to the “affirming” position would include a stop at “faithful Christians can agree to disagree about this,” as if it were a second order issue. Here’s how we articulated this biblical truth in Nashville:
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.
Evangelicals who deconstruct the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality often adopt a new definition of marriage. I have noticed a pretty consistent progression among those who eventually embrace gay marriage. It goes like this:
(1) Oppose gay-marriage: Every evangelical starts here, or at the very least they appear to start here.
(2) Oppose taking a stand on the question: Persons in this stage are becoming aware of how offensive the traditional view is to those outside the church. Their initial remedy is to avoid that conflict by saying that this is an issue that Christians can agree to disagree about. Let’s not divide over it. Or maybe let’s not talk about the Bible’s teaching on this subject. In Brian McLaren‘s case, he urged evangelicals to observe a 5-year moratorium on talking about gay marriage. For Jen Hatmaker, she advocated going “into the basement,” where we don’t talk about these things but just love people. Choosing to avoid the question is never a final answer for anyone in this stage.
(3) Affirm gay marriage: At some point during the “Christians can agree to disagree” stage, those who used to oppose gay marriage find grounds to affirm it. Some do it by questioning the Bible’s truthfulness. Others do through revisionist interpretations of the Biblical text. Some do it by dismissing the traditional view as a homophobic power grab. In any case, proponents end up affirming what the Bible forbids.
(4) Vilify traditional marriage proponents: Persons in this stage not only affirm gay marriage. They also view traditional marriage supporters as supporting invidious discrimination against gay people. They will adopt the rhetoric of Christianity’s fiercest critics to describe believers who hold to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. David Gushee adopted this posture simultaneously with his embrace of gay marriage. In 2014, he wrote this to the gay people “oppressed” by the Church’s teaching:
I do join your crusade tonight. I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be… Traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it… It took me two decades of service as a married, straight evangelical Christian minister and ethicist to finally get here. I am truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.
It usually takes some time to move from number 2 to number 3. McLaren and the Hatmakers both took four years to make that transition. But the transition from 3 to 4 can sometimes happen very rapidly. My observation, however, is that anyone who makes it to 3 eventually makes it to 4 also.
I think this trajectory is important to be aware of for a couple of reasons. One, we need to examine our own hearts to see if there might be inclinations along this trajectory. Two, we need to be discerning and careful about teachers/leaders/ministries that are clearly moving through these stages. And there are many.
Does Jesus and John Wayne Contain False Teaching?
I finished Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne almost a year ago. I already knew about the book earlier last year, but it became clear to me that I needed to move it up on my list after Beth Moore gave it such a full-throated endorsement. The book was already doing well, but it appears that Moore’s imprimatur vaulted it into the publishing stratosphere (at least that is how The Washington Post reported it). The book’s argument would be a force to be reckoned with, and so I finally made my way through it in late December/early January.
A full review of Jesus and John Wayne is beyond the scope of this post, but Du Mez’s basic contention is that when white evangelicals turned out en masse to elect Donald Trump in 2016, they voted for him not in spite of his misogyny, racism, and toxic masculinity but because of it. White evangelicalism was already committed to those vices. Many white evangelical leaders, she argues, have demonstrated all of those vices and more and had even invented a theology of patriarchy to underwrite it. Thus, white evangelicalism is not so much defined by its biblical conviction but by its captivity to patriarchy, racism, and sexism. She writes,
Contemporary white evangelicalism in America, then, is not the inevitable outworking of “biblical literalism,” nor is it the only possible interpretation of the historic Christian faith… It is, rather, a historical and cultural movement, forged over time by individuals and organizations with varied motivations—the desire to discern God’s will, to bring order to uncertain times, and, for many, to extend their own power (p. 14, emphasis mine).
That last part is crucial for readers to understand. Evangelical theology is not really about what the Bible teaches but about a way for white male evangelicals to maintain their own power and hegemony. In other words, evangelical theology is not mainly about the Bible, but about white men manipulating divine revelation to buttress their own power and interests.
Du Mez then provides a very well-documented parade of evangelical horribles to establish her point. From Bill Gothard to Mark Driscoll and beyond, there is no shortage of material for her to document, explore, and draw conclusions from. And let’s be clear. She documents many gut-wrenching examples of sin and abuse within the ranks, none of which should we fail to see and reckon with.
Nevertheless, I found at least two problems with her argument. First, her presentation is reductionistic. She selects the worst possible scandals from evangelicalism and treats them as if they were definitional of the whole. Bill Gothard’s hypocrisy and gross immorality, for example, are features and not bugs within evangelicalism. But is this really true? I don’t think it is. Her book is well documented, but she is nevertheless very purposeful in what events and figures she wishes to foreground and which ones she leaves out. The result is a reductionistic presentation that paints evangelicals with a broad brush of condemnation. I’m not a historian, but even I can tell that any evangelical history that sees Ollie North as more consequential to evangelicalism than Carl Henry is perhaps not painting an accurate picture of the whole.
Second, Du Mez establishes the loathsomeness of the “patriarchy” with sordid examples, but she also throws other beliefs and figures under that label that are not scandalous at all. For example, she argues that complementarianism (as expressed in the Danvers Statement) is a part of the problem. Why? She explains,
In asserting female submission as the will of God, it foregrounded a biblical defense of patriarchy and gender difference that would come to serve as the bedrock of a militaristic Christian masculinity (p. 167).
Do you see what she’s done here? She’s argued that complementarianism is not really an authentic biblical conviction but an attempt by white Christian men to assert and maintain their own power. And just like that, the Bible’s teaching on manhood and womanhood is deconstructed as an errant human doctrine designed to prop up the power of white men.
It is this mode of thinking that is the foundation of those who are deconstructing biblical faith as we speak. It is like a universal acid eating through and destroying anything it touches because it does not accept any truth claims as having independent warrant and cogency. On the contrary, hiding underneath every truth claim is someone’s will to power. And the goal is to discern and destroy such power grabs masquerading as biblical truth. And of course complementarian theology needs to be unraveled for that very reason.
Here is another example of the universal acid at work deconstructing precious biblical doctrine. In Jesus and John Wayne, Du Mez writes,
Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than a community chiefly defined by its theology. Evangelical views on any given issue are facets of this larger cultural identity, and no number of Bible verses will dislodge the greater truths at the heart of it (pp. 297-98).
I don’t know how else to read this except as a relativization of all normative theological claims. I am a critical realist, so I am all for self-interrogation. But this goes beyond that in my view. It encourages Christians to think of their church’s teaching as errant cultural artifacts. Whatever the Bible says, our interpretation of it cannot break free from those errant cultural constraints.
To put this in concrete terms, here’s how Du Mez’s deconstruction would work with my own church’s confessional statement, which includes these lines:
A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.
Our confession also says that these truths are rooted in the order of God’s good creation and thus are revealed in nature and in scripture. But Du Mez’s book teaches readers that these truths are merely a “cultural identity” and that “no number of Bible verses” will overcome that. The doctrinal claim is merely a power grab to be deconstructed along the lines explained above.
Complementarianism is a second order doctrine, and those who oppose it often like to point that out. I have no dispute on that point. My dispute is with this particular technique of deconstruction. It is a universal acid. It destroys not only second order doctrines like complementarianism but also first order doctrines. In fact, if you apply the acid to the former, you are likely to apply it to the latter as well.
If the Bible’s countercultural teaching about male headship can be deconstructed with this technique, then what is to keep anyone from applying the same technique to the Bible’s countercultural teaching about homosexuality? After all, isn’t evangelical opposition to homosexuality and gay rights just one more power grab masquerading as a biblical conviction? Isn’t evangelical opposition more about white male heterosexual hegemony than it is about anything that the Bible says? And so the universal acid burns through another biblical doctrine, but this time the stakes are much higher since the Bible’s warnings against sexual immorality are so severe (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:5-6). But nevermind those warnings, for those are merely a part of the heterosexual hegemony as well.
So when Du Mez asked whether I believed her book contained false teaching, my answer was a clear yes. Her program is subversive of sound biblical doctrine. It is the job of pastors, church leaders, and indeed of every faithful Christian to recognize this and expose it for what it is.
2 Timothy 3:13-17, “Evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
Evangelicals who have been drifting away from biblical fidelity on these issues have often been running under the cover of confusion—confusion about what is essential and what is not essential to the Christian faith. From the very beginning of the Christian faith, sexual morality has always been central. Those who wish to follow Jesus must pursue sexually pure lives. A person may follow Jesus, or he may pursue sexual immorality. But he cannot do both. He must choose. One path leads to eternal life, and the other does not. These are not new teachings. They are the ancient faith.
And yet, there are many “evangelicals” who are trying to convince other evangelicals that homosexual immorality is a special case. They are trying to convince people that same-sex immorality and following Jesus can indeed coexist. If we are to be faithful to Christ and his word, we must expose this deadly contradiction (Eph. 5:11).
We are not arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We are not spinning our wheels about adiaphora or some issue of moral indifference. We are declaring what it means to be a male or female image-bearer. We are defining the nature of the marriage covenant and of sexual holiness and virtue. To get these questions wrong is to walk away from Jesus not to him. There is no more central concern than that.
Anyone who persistently rejects God’s revelation about sexual holiness is rejecting Christianity altogether, even if they claim otherwise. Or as the apostle Paul puts it, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality… Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess. 4:3-8). The stakes are higher than folks like DuMez want you to believe.
We must labor for moral clarity on these points not so that we can say to sinners, “Keep out!” We are standing with our arms wide open saying, “Please, come in. Come to the waters of life available to any and every sinner who turns from sin to trust in Christ.” But we cannot make plain the path to life to those who think they don’t need it. And the deconstructionists of our time are leading precious people away from Jesus and not to Jesus as they apply their acid to biblical truth about gender and sexuality. If we would be faithful to Christ, we would stand fast against such teaching, for it is indeed false.