A former Union University faculty member has made the news from the Washington Post to the Baptist Standard after writing a book advocating the acceptance of same-sex relationships in the church.
David Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, taught Christian ethics at Union from 1996 – 2007. He served as Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy from 2003-2007. He published “Changing Our Mind” Oct. 17 of last year.
The conversation has continued at Union with George Guthrie, Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible, writing a response in which he said Gushee changed his mind “largely on the basis of his own existential experience.” The review was published Jan. 9 by The Gospel Coalition. Guthrie and Gushee were colleagues at Union and served together in leadership at Northbrook Church.
In “Changing Our Mind,” Gushee walked through the biblical passages that have historically been used to condemn same-sex relationships.
He wrote that “traditionalist readings of certain texts in the Bible” became implausible to him, and that the church ought to embrace monogamous, lifelong, covenanted same-sex relationships.
“…If what we are talking about is carving out space for serious committed Christians who happen to be gay or lesbian, to participate in society as equals, in church as kin, and in the blessings and demands of covenant on the same terms as everyone else, I now think that has nothing to do with cultural, ecclesial and moral decline, and everything to do with treating people the way Christ did,” Gushee wrote.
Gushee wrote that throughout history there have been many arguments involving varying biblical interpretation, ranging from debates about Calvinism and Arminianism to slavery and abolition.
“The unity of the Christian community and of Christian friends and institutions can’t be held hostage to agreeing about everything,” Gushee said in an interview. “If you have to agree about everything, then as soon as you have a disagreement then that’s the end of your community.”
Gushee also addressed Romans 1:26-27, which he called the most widely cited passage in the debate about same-sex relationships.
The passage must be looked at in the context of Roman sexual practices, he wrote, including the pederasty, prostitution and master-slave sex that was common at the time. The practice of violent rape of young men by men of a higher status was also widespread, Gushee wrote, and the Roman Christians to whom Paul wrote would have been familiar with these practices and may even have been victimized by them.
“The ‘subject’ may seem to be the same, but many have argued that the context is so different that Paul’s words are of little relevance to the question of covenanted same-sex relations among devoted Christians,” Gushee wrote.
The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah are also in a different context, Gushee wrote.
“The men of Sodom want gang rape,” Gushee wrote. “They are more interested in men than in Lot’s daughters because in a patriarchal society men held greater worth, and thus their violation was viewed as a greater offense than violating a woman. …. Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are narratives with huge implications for the ethics of war, prison, gender, violence and rape. But they have nothing to do with the morality of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships.”
Gushee described how throughout history Christians at their best have stood in solidarity with the marginalized, writing that the church must now stand with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals who have been harmed by traditional teachings.
“The fact that traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure them is surely very relevant information for the LGBT debate,” Gushee wrote.
Gushee described how throughout Scripture individuals undergo “paradigm shifts (or leaps)” where personal encounters mesh with biblical paradigms to lead to new biblical paradigms. The Jews never expected the Messiah to die on the cross or to accept Gentiles, but early Christians’ experiences with Christ and Gentile Christians transformed their expectations, Gushee wrote. Thus experiences with LGBT individuals ought to play a role in the debate, he said.
“Scripture is very consistent with how it addresses the issue of homosexuality,” Guthrie said in an interview. “Very consistent, and it’s very consistent with a huge amount of positive statements and declarations about the nature of sexuality as between a husband and a wife. It’s not that Scripture is silent or ambiguous.”
Guthrie said he reviewed “Changing Our Mind” for three main reasons: Because Gushee was a close friend of his, because he knew Gushee would have influence over current and former Union students and because “David’s arguments related to the biblical text, while sounding good on the surface, actually are alarmingly poor arguments.”
Guthrie wrote that Gushee’s book does not closely examine the texts involved, and that his writing on creation narratives ignores the content that directly addresses human sexuality.
“The heterosexual relationship depicted is embodied and uniquely expressed in a special form of kinship called ‘marriage,’” Guthrie wrote. “It’s also sexually satisfying and sacred, not to be transgressed by other kin, strangers, or animals.”
Guthrie wrote that the terms of “one fleshness” are also intended to be sexual in Matthew 19:4, a passage where Jesus describes his views of marriage by harkening back to the creation of “male and female.”
Guthrie addressed Gushee’s interpretations of Romans 1 by writing that, “For Paul, any expression of homosexual sex skews the ‘image of God’ depicted in Genesis 1 (as related to ‘male’ and ‘female’).”
Romans 1 incorporates “all of these various expressions of homosexuality,” saying none of them are acceptable, Guthrie wrote.
Gushee’s honing in on particular expressions is “micro-contextualizing Paul in a way foreign to the apostle’s argument,” Guthrie wrote.
Guthrie wrote that Gushee’s argument is shaped by evoking personal stories, yet ignoring the voices of Christians who self-identify as gay but who have chosen celibacy or who have left same-sex relationships and are now in heterosexual marriages.
“Admittedly, David’s on the side of a cultural wave of opinion,” Guthrie wrote. “Yet unlike Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King (to whom he alludes), who stood like rocks against the brutal, crushing waves of dominant cultural forces, David is riding a cultural wave. … Indeed, when the church has aligned herself with cultural power and opinion, it hasn’t bode well for her spiritual vitality or her mission.”
Guthrie wrote that the paradigm leaps of Gushee’s book are dissimilar from the paradigm leaps in Scripture, times when “God intervenes directly and miraculously to reveal divine truth.”
“Existential experience … Is not specific revelation from God,” Guthrie wrote.
“Some of David’s proposals are well-taken, and his exhortations to love and compassion are appreciated and heard,” Guthrie wrote. “Many of the proposals, however, remain painfully undeveloped and unconvincing, both in terms of scriptural engagement and ethical reasoning, offering a poor basis for “changing our mind” on a Judeo-Christian sexual ethic that has spanned millennia.”
Guthrie began his review by noting that he agrees with Gushee that “the church today needs to think more proactively about how to believe and embody the compassionate, compelling story of the gospel as we relate to LGBT friends and neighbors.”
He said he knows of churches that are striving to live out the gospel with members of the LGBT community without embracing same-sex relationships.
“It’s not fair to mischaracterize them by reducing the story to one simple answer,” Guthrie said.
Gushee said that since his book was published, he has received invitations to speak at numerous churches, conferences and schools.
The theological arguments, Gushee said, are covered in his book, and he now wishes to focus on moving LGBT individuals to “the center of the conversation.”
“I feel that a lot of what happens on the traditionalist side continues to try to ignore those experiences or shove them into boxes that theological paradigms on the traditional side require people to fit into,” Gushee said. “I will stand beside and in solidary with that 5 percent of the population that traditional Christians cannot fit into their paradigm.”
Gushee was close friends with Guthrie while at Union, and the two have continued to correspond, Guthrie said.
Gushee said conflict on biblical interpretation on issues like same-sex relationships is both “inevitable and painful.”
Both agreed that conversations about the Church and LGBT individuals are conversations that must happen.
“My prayer is that these conversations can be redemptive on our campus and not divisive,” Guthrie said.