Evaluating Tony Campolo’s New Stance on Gay Marriage

Back in high school, I first heard Tony Campolo speak at Abilene Christian University.  I was struck by his passion, his humor, and ultimately his love for Christ and the Gospel.  He said many things that needed to be said to a Christian audience, both conservative and moderate.  As I grew older, I became increasingly uncomfortable with his social justice emphasis, not because social justice in itself is bad, obviously, but because I have seen such an emphasis often begin to supersede the Gospel and biblical truth for many Christians.  It regularly starts to favor emotions and experiences over sound biblical truth.  Still, I always respected his passion because he tried to remain theologically conservative despite also leaning left on many other issues.

It is therefore disappointing (though not really surprising) that he has come out now in favor of gay marriage, changing his mind after decades of holding to the correct view.  I want to make this clear: I do not doubt his faith.  I don’t know him and I have no reason to think that he doesn’t really love Jesus.  However, his slide on this issue is simply a natural consequence of a continual emphasis of experience over Scripture, something that I pointed out was the foundation of basically every pro-gay marriage Christian’s rationale.  Campolo really wants to be loving, gracious and merciful, which are attributes every Christian should strive for.  Unfortunately, like others, he begins with definitions of those things that rest more on emotion than Scripture and then reasons from there, leading him to error.

In the following, I’ll interact with Campolo’s public statement.  I understand that he wasn’t trying to write a theological or exegetical paper, but it is nonetheless very informative of his reasoning.

As a young man I surrendered my life to Jesus and trusted in Him for my salvation, and I have been a staunch evangelical ever since. I rely on the doctrines of the Apostles Creed. I believe the Bible to have been written by men inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. I place my highest priority on the words of Jesus, emphasizing the 25th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus makes clear that on Judgment Day the defining question will be how each of us responded to those he calls “the least of these”.

Already, we can see where he (and other social Gospel types) often go wrong.  Again, I do not doubt his faith, but this narrow view of Matthew 25, at the expense of the rest of Scripture, already tilts his theology.  How is that the defining question?  Does Matthew 25 make clear that taking care of the poor is a (I repeat: a) vital and defining part of Christian living and obeying Jesus?  Of course.  Is it the single, most defining question that will be asked of people on Judgment Day?  It doesn’t seem so.  Where on earth does it say that in Scripture?  Jesus says many things about judgment, and it will not do to simply focus on Matthew 25 without looking at how it fits in the larger scope of the book of Matthew as well as the entire Bible.  After all, in the famous John 3:16, he strictly says that whosoever believes in him will have eternal life and says nothing about taking care of the poor.  Is it wrong to focus on John 3:16 and then ignore other important things that Jesus taught (not to mention Paul, Peter, etc.)?  Yep.  And that goes both ways.

From this foundation I have done my best to preach the Gospel, care for the poor and oppressed, and earnestly motivate others to do the same. Because of my open concern for social justice, in recent years I have been asked the same question over and over again: Are you ready to fully accept into the Church those gay Christian couples who have made a lifetime commitment to one another?

While I have always tried to communicate grace and understanding to people on both sides of the issue, my answer to that question has always been somewhat ambiguous. 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. The other reason was that, like so many other Christians, I was deeply uncertain about what was right.

Again, we see a foundational error here that puts him on some bad logical train tracks.  Of course it is good to be gentle, understanding, and gracious, but here he admits to ambiguity because he wanted to be a “bridge person.”  That sounds good, but it implies that being vague about what is clear in Scripture is somehow more loving, more “bridging,” and more gracious.  It implies that saying things that people want to hear and shielding their feelings from truth is more important than the truth itself.  Also, I want to point out that Campolo actually hasn’t been all that ambiguous about this at all in the past.  I’ve heard him preach and I’ve read several of his interviews: He’s always emphasized until now that Scripture does not approve of homosexual relationships but also that the Church needs to be more loving towards gays.  That’s 100% right and there’s nothing ambiguous about it, even if many gay people or gay rights supporters despise that answer.  He didn’t sound like someone who was deeply uncertain.

It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.

For me, the most important part of that process was answering a more fundamental question: What is the point of marriage in the first place?

It is true that the subject of marriage and sex themselves are more fundamental topics; it’s also bad methodology to use that to gloss over specific and clear passages in the Bible on an issue.  Those specific passages, after all, absolutely contribute to our understanding of the whole.

For some Christians, in a tradition that traces back to St. Augustine, the sole purpose of marriage is procreation, which obviously negates the legitimacy of same-sex unions. Others of us, however, recognize a more spiritual dimension of marriage, which is of supreme importance. We believe that God intends married partners to help actualize in each other the “fruits of the spirit,” which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, often citing the Apostle Paul’s comparison of marriage to Christ’s sanctifying relationship with the Church. This doesn’t mean that unmarried people cannot achieve the highest levels of spiritual actualization – our Savior himself was single, after all – but only that the institution of marriage should always be primarily about spiritual growth.

This is an unfortunate paragraph on many levels.  He fallaciously presents two choices as if they are exhaustive and mutually exclusive: That marriage is for procreation or that marriage is for spiritual actualization.  Why can’t it be both?  Also, why are these the only two choices?  What about the aspect of marriage that is supposed to glorify God in being an example of the Gospel?  Also, think about a crucial way married people, or any Christian, can help one another grow: By challenging one another to obey the commands of God that we have received through Scripture, however difficult they can be and however much it may grate against our personal desires.

In addition, putting the terms of the discussion like this presents a straw man.  Please tell me who among evangelical scholars and pastors thinks that marriage is exclusively about procreation.  I challenge anyone to list the ones who have argued that without cherry-picking the worst examples of biblically illiterate, uneducated, and spiteful Christians.  I guarantee you that Campolo would be unable to put forth a significant list.

In my own life, my wife Peggy has been easily the greatest encourager of my relationship with Jesus. She has been my prayer partner and, more than anyone else, she has discerned my shortcomings and helped me try to overcome them. Her loving example, constant support, and wise counsel have enabled me to accomplish Kingdom work that I would have not even attempted without her, and I trust she would say the same about my role in her life. Each of us has been God’s gift to the other and our marriage has been a mutually edifying relationship.

One reason I am changing my position on this issue is that, through Peggy, I have come to know so many gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way as our own. Our friendships with these couples have helped me understand how important it is for the exclusion and disapproval of their unions by the Christian community to end. We in the Church should actively support such families. Furthermore, we should be doing all we can to reach, comfort and include all those precious children of God who have been wrongly led to believe that they are mistakes or just not good enough for God, simply because they are not straight.

Now we see it: Experience trumps all.  I do not doubt that Campolo has a great relationship with his wife.  I also do not doubt that many gay couples really do care for one another.  The issue is this: Did the Creator intend for sexual relationships to operate like this?  Did he set parameters on sexual unions?  Ignoring that for people’s feelings is actually not that loving because it distorts the truth and invites the judgment of God.

I fully agree that the Church has often done a poor job reaching and loving gay people, and it is a sin that we are paying for as gay people regularly hate the Church.  The answer, however, is not glossing over the Bible’s teaching on this topic.

As a social scientist, I have concluded that sexual orientation is almost never a choice and I have seen how damaging it can be to try to “cure” someone from being gay. As a Christian, my responsibility is not to condemn or reject gay people, but rather to love and embrace them, and to endeavor to draw them into the fellowship of the Church. When we sing the old invitation hymn, “Just As I Am”, I want us to mean it, and I want my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to know it is true for them too.

If he concludes this as a social scientist, that’s fine, but it’s also not clear-cut, and dogmatic conclusions that sexual orientation is completely inherited actually has precious little scientific support.  However, even if it is the case that sexual orientation is both completely inherited and static (which are questionable assumptions), I point out in the linked article that one cannot jump from there to the legitimacy of homosexual behavior without some dubious philosophical assumptions.  Where is his argument for this leap?

Also, most responsible Christians will agree that our responsibility is not to condemn or reject gay people, but we cannot tell them that gay relationships are okay in the sight of God in good conscience.  Will some gay people still interpret that as “hate?”  No doubt.  That cannot be helped.  Many prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself received negative reactions for teaching the truth.

Rest assured that I have already heard – and in some cases made – every kind of biblical argument against gay marriage, including those of Dr. Ronald Sider, my esteemed friend and colleague at Eastern University. Obviously, people of good will can and do read the scriptures very differently when it comes to controversial issues, and I am painfully aware that there are ways I could be wrong about this one.

However, I am old enough to remember when we in the Church made strong biblical cases for keeping women out of teaching roles in the Church, and when divorced and remarried people often were excluded from fellowship altogether on the basis of scripture. Not long before that, some Christians even made biblical cases supporting slavery. Many of those people were sincere believers, but most of us now agree that they were wrong. I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out.

I have said many times that there are legitimately difficult issues regarding theology and interpretation, and I do believe that many Christians should be more charitable when other Bible-believing Christians differ.  However, there are reasonable limits to this; for example, if a Christian comes along and tries to argue that adultery is perfectly fine as long as one’s spouse is okay with it (believe me, I’ve heard it), then we can reasonably conclude that this person is either completely ignorant about Scripture or has an ulterior motive to twist what is so clear in it.  I will be frank here: The Bible’s teaching on gay relationships, among other ethical teachings such as drunkenness, adultery, idolatry, and (as I’m sure Campolo will agree) helping the poor are so clear that to reject them is to expose an extremely problematic approach to Scripture.  If we grant ambiguity here, our confidence in the general clarity of the Bible will break down.

If Campolo has heard all the arguments and does not accept them, I’d love to hear more of his specific biblical reasoning.  What he has presented here is woefully inadequate.  It is also woefully inadequate to bring up other issues such as slavery and women teaching.  First of all, “most” Christians do not agree that the doctrines on women’s teaching roles is wrong, so him claiming some majority here, while ignoring many complementarian scholars and Christians, is simply inaccurate.  Secondly, regarding slavery, many contemporary Christians at the time made some pretty good biblical arguments that showed how 19th century African slavery was wholly against Scripture, and many Christians now can readily articulate such a case.  This is a far cry from the abilities of gay marriage proponents to build a biblical case, as even Luke Timothy Johnson, a supporter of gay relationships, admits.  Johnson, a New Testament scholar, knows well enough that the Bible is clear on the matter but appeals to experience to overcome this teaching.  At least he’s straightforward about it.

I hope what I have written here will help my fellow Christians to lovingly welcome all of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters into the Church.

Unfortunately, it has not.  Such a statement does nothing more than to create confusion, division, and frankly, deception.  We are telling people who are sinning against their Creator that everything is okay.  There is absolutely nothing loving about that, no less unloving than if we were tell an adulterer that he is no need of repentance.  Campolo may genuinely want to be a “bridge” and to be loving, but this goes to show that bad reasoning and bad biblical interpretation will lead us to mistakes that are only superficially loving.  And superficial love is often much more dangerous than explicit hatred because of its ability to confuse and mislead.  I hate to be so harsh on Campolo because I genuinely do like him, but in a time where Christians more than ever need to be clear on biblical truth, it is disheartening to see such an irresponsible and poorly reasoned stance from a Christian leader.

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