A friend and pastor colleague, knowing that I’ve read a lot of the work of N.T. Wright, asked what he thought about the marriage and sexuality debates. Although Wright hasn’t written or said much about the topic specifically , it is no secret that he holds a traditional view of marriage and Christian sexual morality. Once when asked about the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples, he warned that anytime major terms like that are redefined by government or pressure groups we need to really “watch out.” He compared it to how communists and Nazis in the first half of the 20th century redefined major terms and imposed those new definitions through coercive force. He said because marriage has for many thousands of years, up until very recent times, only been seriously considered to be between people of the opposite sex, for the government to redefine it to include people of the same sex is like the government insisting that black is white (see interview clip here) (Also hear his more recent discussion of the sexuality and gender identity debates here).
When powerful cultural forces redefine terms like marriage and also gender as radically as they have today, you can be assured they will also seek to impose those definitions on society, including the church, through force if necessary. When the power of persuasion fails, force will be applied if and when it is possible. At first there are calls for tolerance of the new views, but when those wielding the radical redefinitions and neologisms gain, or think they have gained, the upper hand, there will be little to no tolerance for traditional views. This is exactly what we have seen the past few years.
For many years now secular forces have sought to use the force of the legal system to punish people who express traditional views or who refuse to join in the celebration of the new “expanded” definition of marriage and gender. Kevin Cochran, the former Atlanta fire chief, was fired for traditional Christian views that he had expressed in a self-published book. After a long court battle he did win a wrongful termination due to religious discrimination settlement in court. The state of Georgia fired physician, Dr. Eric Walsh, because of the content of sermons that he preached in his Seventh Day Adventist church. Walsh also eventually received a settlement in an unlawful termination suit. Others like Jack Phillips and Baronelle Stutzman have been sued and charged with discrimination for refusing to lend their artistic services to celebrate same-sex weddings. Phillips was sued for refusing to make a wedding cake; Stutzman declined to do floral arrangements. For both it was a matter of conscience. They did not want to contribute to the celebration ceremony of something they believe to be immoral. Both have won at least partial victories in the Supreme Court, but continue to face ongoing harassment. Phillips is now being sued for refusing to make a cake celebrating someone’s gender transition.
As David French put it, what each of the above cases (and there are many more) has in common is that government officials sought to use ” their power to send a clear message: Traditional Christianity is incompatible with the progressive state.” The setbacks that secular progressives have had in court, however, have not really deterred them. The House of Representatives recently passed the ironically named “Equality Act” that would in effect make traditional Christians second class citizens in America who would have to live under constant threat of punishment for publicly expressing traditional Christian beliefs regarding marriage and gender identity. The political left is determined to be able to use the force of law to punish the expression of traditional views. The Equality Act would make it open season again on Christians like Cochran and the others mentioned above.
If you don’t think the promotion of gender confusion through drag queen story time for elementary school students is a good idea, the left thinks you need to be punished and reeducated. If you don’t think it’s a good idea to allow biological males to shower in the same locker room with biological females and vice versa, the left thinks you need to be punished and reeducated. The left has decided that gender is merely a social construct upon which biological sex has no bearing. If you don’t think it’s fair to allow biological males who identify as females to participate in women’s sports, they want to punish and reeducate you. Some on the left argue that it is harmful, insidious even, to “assign” gender to an infant at birth.
The left also wants to use the coercive power of government to force people to use other’s preferred gender pronouns that include he, she, they (applied to individuals), ze, and zer among many others (they say there can be dozens and dozens of different gender expressions, which may also be “fluid,” i.e. change from time to time) . They want the power to punish people who express any disapproval of same sex marriage and any consensual expression of LGBTQIA+ identity. The plus stands for the endless possibilities on the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation, and even denotes “everything on the gender and sexuality spectrum that letters and words can’t yet describe” according to a New York Times article. By falsely comparing LGBTQIA+ identity with race they have gained a strong foothold in government and have now clearly have the cultural headwinds at their back. And any claim on the right for religious freedom in the First Amendment will be quickly dismissed as a cloak for bigotry and discrimination. For those who hold out hope that a compromise can be reached, don’t hold your breath, progressives are not at all interested.
The debates in the church are not separate from the secular battles. The mayor of Atlanta that fired Kevin Cochran was a United Methodist. Progressives in the church are really just fighting another front on a battlefield of the same war. And it is a war, political and ultimately spiritual. Progressive Christians have made it very clear that they see traditional Christian views as harmful, and not just to people’s feelings. They say they believe conservative views are literally deadly. At times the same people have argued that views on sexual morality and marriage are really indifferent matters on which we can all just agree to disagree, live and let live. But their relentless mantra that conservative views are doing “great harm” to the LGBTQIA+ community belies their claim that those views should be treated as an indifferent matter. Progressives seem to appeal to tolerance only to weaken conservatives’ defense of their own views until they can gain more control. Conservatives do tend to fall for it to appear “reasonable” as it is so framed by those on the radical left. We must be cleareyed! If progressives see conservative views as being as harmful as they have claimed, they will seek to suppress the expression of those views through force if necessary.
At the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St Louis a progressive pastor declared that the traditional plan was like Ebola and that it would make the UMC very sick. He was a major proponent of the liberal “One Church” Plan that would have redefined marriage and allowed for the ordination of practicing homosexuals upon the approval of the clergy session of Annual Conferences. When Rev. Berlin compared the traditional plan, which reaffirms and reinforces our longstanding position on sexual ethics, marriage, and ordination standards as it relates to the those issues, to Ebola, I realized that the One Church Plan was intended to be a quarantine plan for conservative views. In light of all the rhetoric about traditional views doing so much harm to LGBTQIA+ people what else could it be?
You don’t quarantine people that have a harmful disease in order to allow the disease to continue to flourish. The One Church Plan, if adopted, would have given progressives the power and the time necessary to eliminate the conservative views that they see as being so harmful. I know many of them argued that differing cultural contexts require adaptable doctrine, but I don’t think they really believe that conservative Christian views are less harmful in Africa than they are in America. Again they employed the “contextual” argument in order to gain more control of the denomination in order to continue to work to eliminate the “disease” that they believe is doing such great harm to the LGBTQIA+ community. I’m not really offended by the rhetoric, I appreciate how revealing it really is. With the passage of the Traditional Plan it has become obvious that progressives see traditionalists as enemies of the institutional church. And they gladly work with secular progressives to see that traditional Christians are declared enemies of the secular state.
Another pastor friend of mine recently wondered whether progressives in the church realize the implications of what they are saying when they claim to be keeping the baptismal vow “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” by applying that to their fight for the full acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQIA+ identity and expression. She wondered if they realize they are firmly placing traditionalists on the side of evil. I think they do. They have long compared conservatives to those who defended slavery and to racists, haven’t they?
We need to be sober about this. Progressives see traditionalists as enemies to be converted to their viewpoint or to be defeated. Even though on the one hand they try to persuade us to believe we are just arguing about minor differences, on the other hand they declare they are resisting evil, injustice, and oppression that is causing great harm. These two things don’t go together. Progressives in the church are fighting for what they see as a more just society, and they are working with secular progressives to achieve that end. It is no secret that leftwing politics is of utmost importance to progressives in the church. And it is certainly no coincidence that undermining the traditional Christian sexual ethic and traditional marriage has been part of the left’s agenda since Marx and Engels. They well knew the connection between the family, the economy, and the state. Marxists and Neo-Marxists have always tried to blur gender lines and undermine the influence of the Church and the stability of the nuclear family in society, even if their views on gender and sexuality have mutated since the days of Marx and Lenin.
Make no mistake about it though, progressives—secular and religious—want to be able to use the force of government to suppress traditional Christian views by punishing traditional Christian people that refuse to comply. Any claim to religious freedom protections will be blithely dismissed as an excuse for hate and bigoted discrimination. Those who are working toward this end see traditional Christians as being on the side of evil, injustice, and oppression. Scripture warns us about those who call evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). The book of Revelation in particular warns about those who seek to oppress faithful Christians through the power of the state for refusing to compromise with an idolatrous and sexually licentious society. It also severely warns Christians about the danger of compromising in either of those categories, whether out of pleasure or pressure.
Traditional Christians are enemies to progressives. Progressives are enemies to traditional Christians. On this we must be clear. But we also need to be clear that Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies. It is also clear that by love Jesus did not mean unconditional affirmation or even tolerance. He chastised a church for tolerating false teaching that led the church of Thyatira into sexual immorality and idolatry (Rev 2:18-29). By love Jesus certainly meant speaking the truth about the kingdom of God and the repentance that is required to enter into it. By love he also meant being willing to speak the truth in the face of threats even if it means losing one’s life. The love of Christ was expressed in his willingness to speak the truth about both the danger of sin and temptation and the forgiveness and transforming grace of the Father. He calls us to the same.
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. ~ John 15:18-20 ESV