Controversial author and former pastor Rob Bell did a radio interview/discussion about a year ago with Pastor Andrew Wilson over the topic of homosexuality. Bell affirms that homosexual relationships can be blessed by God while Wilson holds to the traditional view. Bell, when pressed on his position and his orthodoxy, gets heated and even curses in his frustration:
I’d recommend watching the whole thing because it is a good example of how people like Bell think. In any case, what he calls “bull****” is the fact that many Christians have come to view the issue of homosexual relationships as a defining sign of orthodoxy. Bell complains that the radio host never asked Andrew Wilson about his orthodoxy or if he had turned “liberal,” but Bell’s own orthodoxy is constantly questioned. Can’t we just agree to disagree? Can’t we just look at those disputed passages in Scripture and say, “You view it this way, and I view it that way” without getting overly combative, like we do for so many other issues? After all, Christians differ on many things: Calvinism vs. Arminianism (and everything in between), paedobaptism vs. believer’s baptism, divorce and remarriage, eschatology, the perpetual virginity of Mary, cessationism vs. continuationism, etc. Normally, even if we feel strongly about such issues, we don’t view them as defining issues for Christians. For example, I may disagree strongly with conservative Presbyterians like Tim Keller in their Calvinism and their practice of paedobaptism, but that does not mean that I consider them outside the umbrella of orthodoxy and examples of dangerous teachers. Why then do so many conservative Christians draw the line at homosexual relationships?
To be sure, Christians differ on many issues, and many texts in the Bible are difficult to understand. However, this does not mean the entirety of Scripture is cryptic, for many passages are also pretty straightforward, and it takes a great deal of effort to try to make them say something different than they do. Particularly when it comes to a variety of ethical issues, Christians from disparate traditions have agreed upon certain principles due to the clarity of the Bible. No conservative Christian who has a high view of Scripture, for example, can read the Bible and then conclude that adultery is permissible. If we were to run into a Christian who believes this, then that would be an obvious sign that this person, no matter how much he says otherwise, really does not have a high view of the Bible at all. Likewise, the scriptural case against homosexual relationships is so clear (as I show here and here) that it is obvious that a person who doubts it is motivated by something else besides obeying the Bible. This is why this issue has become a sort of litmus test for one’s attitude of the Bible. Scripture is so clear in this area that rejecting such commands is a telltale sign that someone is elevating his own experience over the authority of Scripture.
Reading Self-Affirmation Into the Text
While we cannot completely divorce ourselves from biases, it is important for Christians to allow Scripture to speak into our lives rather than making it agree with what we already want. In contrast to this, the central methodology of homosexual relationship advocates is clear: Start with the identity of “gay” and then make Scripture speak positively (or at least neutrally) to that by any means necessary.
Matthew Vines is the Christian homosexual that has gotten the most attention recently, and if you read his writings or listen to interviews, it becomes transparently obvious that he starts with the self-identification of “gay” before anything else. This is illegitimate for Christians because our first identification should first be as a Christ-follower, and everything about us should be made subject to that. As I point out in the linked posts above, his biblical arguments are not new at all but have been repackaged for a modern audience, and they still have the same flaws as they did 20-30 years ago. Vines seems like a nice guy, but he is so desperate to affirm himself that he is twisting Scripture to fit his desires. In effect, Vines elevates his personal experience and desires over all else, clearly subordinating the authority of Scripture.
A clearer and more honest example of elevating experience over Scripture is none other than the famous New Testament Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson is generally well-respected by both conservatives and liberals, and he has done significant work in his field. Because of his knowledge of the New Testament, he knows full well that the Bible does not condone homosexual relationships, monogamous or otherwise. However, he came around to accepting homosexual relationships as legitimate because his daughter came out as a lesbian. Johnson says he has “little patience” for people like Vines who try to make the Bible say something other than it clearly does, for “the exegetical situation is straightforward.” He then admits candidly:
I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order. (emphasis mine)
I respect Johnson’s candor, as opposed to the intellectually dishonest attempts to reinterpret passages such as Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6, but I think most Bible-believing Christians can see how such an attitude would be disastrous for Christianity. Johnson tries unsuccessfully to put safeguards on this elevation of experience over Scripture, but there is no end to all sorts of moral rationalizations once this method is accepted. Adultery? Well, the spouse was okay with it and they still love each other. Pornography? Well, couples love watching it together and they clearly still walk with God. Drunkenness? I know many good Christians who like to get drunk every once in a while and it’s no big deal because they don’t drink and drive. So on and so forth. Our trust in the ethical authority of the Bible would break down, and instead, the Bible would be viewed as nothing more than a vague guideline that is informed by our own desires and experiences.
Perhaps the most ironic thing stated by Rob Bell in the above radio interview is that he says that he’s a big proponent of fidelity, yet he argues that the Church needs to come to grips with the fact that the culture no longer views homosexual relationships as abnormal or sinful. One wonders why he even advocates fidelity in relationships because clearly the culture does not view that with a high priority either. It would be both amusing and sad to see Bell try to defend his stance on fidelity against someone who advocated Christian swinging. If he turns to the Bible, why can’t we listen to clear biblical teachings on homosexuality? If he turns to culture, why does he bother to believe in fidelity? It is striking how little Bell can consistently stand for with his post-modern method.
Deny Yourself and Follow Christ
Such methods of elevating personal experience is completely contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. In Luke 9:23, Jesus states: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Throughout the New Testament, the ethical guidelines involve denying our sinful desires or even our non-sinful desires in order to follow Christ wholly. In Galatians 2:20, Paul states that he has been crucified with Christ and no longer lives, but instead Christ lives in him. Nothing in the Bible advocates a method of taking our personal experience and making them a higher authority than the Word of God, but this exactly what all homosexual relationship advocates do within Christianity. It is therefore no surprise that every conservative pastor, scholar, or layperson who has switched on this issue did so because of their own struggle with homosexuality or because of a family member’s or friend’s struggle.
Personal experiences should inform us in some way, and in this case, they can tell us that the Church has generally done a bad job of handling this issue in a clear and loving manner in the past. However, we cannot go to the opposite extreme and allow experiences to trump clear teaching in Scripture without terrible consequences. I try to avoid making assumptions on someone’s salvation based on differences, but for any self-proclaimed Christian such as Bell, Johnson, or Vines who rejects the Bible’s clear teaching on this matter, I would tell them bluntly that they are adopting a method that is focused on the self, unfaithful to Scripture, and ultimately dishonoring to the Savior they claim to serve. If Bell is wondering why this issue is such a big deal, that’s why: We are defending the very authority of the Bible. And those who truly wish to live lives that are honoring to God will not allow the desires and experiences of mankind to take precedence over the Word.