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Tony Campolo and the State of Evangelical/LGBTQ Relations

Prominent evangelical Tony Campolo released a statement this week calling for “the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church.” In so doing he’s following several other prominent evangelicals (too numerous to mention) who have advocated for the same kind of inclusion. I believe his statement, in some ways, reflects the current state of the evangelicals who are migrating to the ‘affirming’ camp.  His letter, I suggest, reveals some of the root core logic at work in this migration. Surprisingly, I find there are things in this letter we can all agree on as Christians no matter what side we’re on in this issue, but for different reasons. These things include:

1.) Actual experience with gay and lesbian couples challenges us to rethink the Christian historical view of LGBTQ relationships. In his statement, Campolo tells us about knowing gay couples and encountering first hand the damage done by the current Christian practice of excluding gays/lesbians from fellowship. Along with Matthew Vines and Ken Wilson, Campolo suggests that in actually getting to know LGBTQ couples, seeing the generosity and selflessness of their love for one another, and the fruit of their relationships, he was convinced that God is doing something good in these relationships. He states that, as a result, he had to reevaluate his stance. (Tim Keller also refers to this dynamic at work in Christians reassessment of LGBTQ relationships). Campolo, Vines and Wilson all suggest that this kind of direct experience with gay couples forces us to reevaluate the Scriptures and tradition of the church in this regard.

In my opinion, this all makes sense. It is immensely damaging to be rejected and excluded based on pre-judgments of people who don’t know you, especially when it regards sexual issues. The church needs to change its posture. In addition, it makes sense that there would be genuine love and fruit in alternative sexual relationships. The way I have put this elsewhere, at the very least, many alternative sexualities (and I’m talking the full gamut of LGBTQ) are rejecting the gender binaries/ stereotypes that are prevalent in our culture that objectify ‘perfect’ bodies, misogynize women, turn relationships into contractual arrangements and create distance between genders. The commodification of sex, women’s and men’s bodies, that is so much part of our culture, has re-shaped heterosexual marriage as well. The result has been tragic in increased divorce rates and dissonant marriages. Should anyone be surprised that the rejection of this kind of heterosexuality and gender binaries has produced some positive fruitful relationships?

Now I know this is quite a generalization of heterosexual (or cisgender) relationships and LGBTQ relationships in our culture (one of my themes is you just can’t generalize in relation t sexuality in our culture). I am also sure commodification of sex and gender can be found across the gamut of sexualities in our society. Nonetheless, I want to argue that this positive dynamic holds in many places among alternative sexualities and it should not surprise us. It should surprise no one that the love, intimacy and companionship found in some of these relationships exceeds heterosexual traditional relationships. Given what has happened to sexuality/gender binaries in our culture, I think Christians, regardless of what side we’re on in this debate, should be able to expect, learn from and applaud such fruit when we see it. And I don’t think this discovery entails one discernment concerning LGBTQ sexuality over another. 

2.) The challenge to understand marriage in terms beyond procreation.  Campolo contends that there is a dimension to sexual expression in marriage that goes beyond procreation. He calls it the spiritual side to marriage where the Spirit works in partners to help actualize in each other the “fruits of the spirit.” Campolo has witnessed this sanctifying work in same sex marriages. He therefore contends churches should support such marriages. Vines and others attempt to extend these same principles of marriage that go beyond procreation. They are advocating for extending what counts in Christian marriage (for the protestant tradition)  – covenant, mutuality, love and intimacy – to be extended to same sex couples.

It is longstanding in the protestant tradition (that has devalued Roman Catholic sexual ethics) that mutuality and intimacy have been put forth as preeminent goals of marital sex. Indeed, because of the way the N. American evangelical church has elevated marriage in our churches in terms of identity, because of the ways we have excluded single people from our culture, and the way we have elevated sex as the supreme possibility for intimacy, denying what the Bible has to say about celibacy, intimacy, friendship and community outside of marriage, we should not be surprised at this logic of protestant sexual ethics being extended to same sex sexual relations (I have found Dan Brennan’s work here every helpful). What other alternatives have we offered?

This move to extend protestant marital ethics into same sex relations points to the stunning fact that evangelicalism (perhaps more than any other church) has completely ignored the reality of true companionship and intimacy found in non sexualized friendships of same gender and cross gender. We have then left our friends who have closer intimate friendships with those of same gender with no imagination for how this happens without sex. We shouldn’t be surprised then, no matter what side we’re on in this debate, when true intimacy and companionship are found in same sex relationships. We should not be surprised that such intimacy is found in same sex sexual relationships, when there is no imagination offered for any other forms of intimacy apart from sex.

Summary

I contend therefore that there are things in Tony Campolo’s letter we can all agree on as Christians no matter what side we’re on in this issue. Indeed, what I suggest is that each one of these two challenges points squarely at the evangelical church and the work we need to do to reflect on our own sexual culture and what we must respond to in order to be more faithful to God’s sexual redemption in Jesus Christ in regard to 1.) heterosexual marriage (let us learn from Roman Catholic sexual ethics, 2.) making space for friendship and intimacy outside of marriage between men, between women, between single people and single and married people. And 3.) making space for the unwinding of the antagonisms, anger, rejection of cultural misogyny and commodification of bodies, etc etc.

What do you think?

I hope to write a second post next week talking about what Tony Campolo, Matthew Vines, Ken Wilson and most evangelicals completely miss in this issue. 

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