November 4, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, November 4, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Unavoidable question #1: Can a same-sex relationship be holy? Understanding the Jen Hatmaker controversy
Two very significant and highly clarifying developments in the evangelical conversation about LGBT issues, the Scripture, and the Christian moral understanding of homosexuality: The first came from Jen Hatmaker who is a popular blogger and writer, along with her husband Brandon, and in an interview with Jonathan Merritt publisher religion news service she was asked about her support for gay marriage. She said,
“From a civil rights and civil liberties side and from just a human being side, any two adults have the right to choose who they want to love. And they should be afforded the same legal protections as any of us. I would never wish anything less for my gay friends.”Show Full Transcript
She went on to say,
“From a spiritual perspective, since gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, our communities have plenty of gay couples who, just like the rest of us, need marriage support and parenting help and Christian community. They are either going to find those resources in the church or they are not.”
This is not exactly as a surprise. Jonathan Merritt ran a news story concerning Jen Hatmaker back on April 25th of this year, it was headlined,
“Christian author Jen Hatmaker takes stand for LGBT inclusion.”
But the interview that was published just in recent days goes considerably further in terms of explicit support for the LGBT range of issues and same-sex marriage in particular, but going beyond what she had said before, in responding to a question from Jonathan Merritt,
“You mention faithfulness and God. Do you think an LGBT relationship can be holy?”
“I do. And my views here are tender. This is a very nuanced conversation, and it’s hard to nail down in one sitting. I’ve seen too much pain and rejection at the intersection of the gay community and the church. Every believer that witnesses that much overwhelming sorrow should be tender enough to do some hard work here.”
Well, no question about the need for hard work here. The question is, has Jen Hatmaker done that hard work? Hatmaker has been a very popular speaker, especially in evangelical women’s conferences; her blog is read by many, and her books by many more. But what’s new here in terms of this second article by Jonathan Merritt, this one at Religion News Service, is the fact that Jen Hatmaker very clearly grounds her argument in a theological or a spiritual argument. Back in April of this year it was clear that she favored the legalization of same-sex marriage and the approval of those unions, but she went considerably further in this more recent interview with Merritt in which, as we said again, she said,
“Any two adults have the right to choose who they want to love.”
And then she said,
“They should be afforded the same legal protections as any of us.”
That’s not really so surprising. What’s really interesting and has often been missed I think in terms of the conversation about this interview is where Jonathan Merritt asked her, in particular, do you think an LGBT relationship can be holy? It seems to me that’s a genuinely crucial question. It’s exactly the kind of question that has to be asked and answered. Jen Hatmaker responded very clearly,
Remember the question,
“Do you think an LGBT relationship can be holy?”
Answering that question “I do” entails a turning upside down of the entire Christian moral understanding of human sexuality and gender and marriage as revealed in Scripture. We need to understand, however, that’s exactly the right question. Let’s turn it around the other way. If we answer the question the way Jen Hatmaker did, that it can be, that a same-sex relationship, same-sex marriage, can be holy, then we do need to change the historic Christian understanding about sexuality. We need to effectively correct a misteaching that has been continued by the Christian church from its beginning, inherited from the Old Testament and perpetuated even into the present. We would have to look at what we know as the historic Christian teaching on gender, on marriage, and on sexuality as not only flawed, but injurious to human flourishing and human happiness. We would have to understand that if a same-sex relationship can be holy, then virtually everything we know or think we knew about human sexuality and marriage in the Christian tradition is going to have to be either rejected or very expansively revised.
There has been a great deal of discussion in the aftermath of especially the second article concerning Jen Hatmaker, and many of those responses to her article I think have been very helpful. But it seems to me that most have missed the cogency of the question, if not the absolute importance of understanding her answer. The question as I’ve said is indispensable, it’s eventually unavoidable. The question is this, can a same-sex marriage be considered holy? That requires answering the question, what does holy mean?
The Old Testament sets the stage for our understanding of holiness by defining it as one of God’s most essential attributes. One of the ways the Bible teaches us to understand God and to speak of him is that he is holy. As is revealed in Isaiah chapter 6, he’s actually holy, holy, holy. What is known as the Trisagion, that thrice repetition of the fact the God is holy, affirms the fact that he is infinitely and perfectly holy. He is set apart, and a part of what that means is his moral righteousness, his absolute righteousness.
A consistent biblical theology helps us to understand that we cannot reduce holiness to morality, but it also makes very clear that to speak of the holiness of God is to speak first of all of his moral perfection. Thus when you look at a comprehensive biblical theology, when we talk about the holiness of God and then extend it to what is expected as the holiness of Christ’s people, it is clear that God’s holy people are those who are to behave and to act in a way that demonstrates obedience to the righteous and holy demands of God. Thus it is always right to ask, is this action holy? Is this relationship holy? But we cannot answer that independently of what Scripture reveals about, first of all, the holiness of God, and then the holiness that God expects of his people. We need to understand what’s at stake here. If it is possible for a same-sex relationship, that is a sexual relationship such as same-sex marriage, to be considered holy, that will mean that it comports with and is consistent with and points to the holiness of God.
It is precisely the rightness, the righteousness, the holiness of the conjugal union of marriage which is why the historic marriage formula in the Book of Common Prayer has gone back to echo Scripture in saying what God has put together, let no man tear asunder. To make the statement that a same-sex marriage can be holy is to make the statement that God has put this together. That requires our understanding somehow that in Scripture we can come up with an authorizing argument to make clear that God has ordered this, that God has intended this, and that God explicitly allows this and commands this as consistent with his own holiness.
Once this question is asked—and it must be asked—then the determination of the answer reveals everything about what we understand about the holiness of God and the holiness that God expects of his people. And we cannot dare to diminish in any sense the importance of the answer to that question. Because the answer to the question, “Can a same-sex marriage be holy?” is an answer that requires us to define what we mean by God’s intention, and by how we would know that intention.
One of the barriers to answering that question positively, that is as Jen Hatmaker did saying that a same-sex relationship can be holy, is that it requires us to read the Bible and come to understand that there are now an incredible number of texts with which we simply cannot deal. There is, to say the very least, an enormous number of texts that cannot be reconciled with the declaration that a same-sex relationship can be holy. Beyond this, this points us not only to the explicit condemnations of same-sex relationships and same-sex behaviors we find in Scripture, but it also fails the test of biblical theology. That is, when we look to the Scripture, do we find a consistent testimony to what marriage is to be? Is marriage always and in every place a conjugal union between a man and a woman? And is that rooted in God’s intention in creation; therefore, are we to understand that every deviation from that is to be understood as sin? If the answer to that is yes, then the answer to the question, “Can a same-sex marriage or a same-sex relationship be holy?” has to be no, not yes.
In this case, the question asked and the answer offered indicate what’s at stake in terms of the Christian understanding of gender and sexuality and marriage, and especially the contentious issues summarized by LGBT. Because what we are now facing is the requirement that the church make a moral judgment, that the church make an inevitable moral decision. Does it or does it not consider a same-sex relationship to be equally holy with the conjugal union of a man and a woman in marriage? Does the church or does the church not understand that a same-sex marriage, a same-sex relationship, can be holy? If the answer that is yes, then it is inevitable that the only question would be how quickly we can revise the entire Christian tradition, how quickly we can reinterpret, indeed try to sublimate, some explicit text in Scripture, and how we can devise an entire new way of reading Scripture in terms of God’s intention in creation in the gift of marriage.
From a Christian biblical perspective, I think it’s clear that the question is exactly the right question to ask. And yet it also very sadly is evident that the answer can’t be yes, it can only be no. We also need to recognize that once we answer that question, we have entered ourselves upon a trajectory of decision-making and moral consequence that is inevitable. By that I mean this: it doesn’t make sense to say that we think a same-sex relationship can be holy, but in some way it is less holy than an opposite sex relationship and conjugal marriage between a man and a woman. It doesn’t really make moral sense to say that a same-sex relationship can be holy unless you’re actually willing to say it’s just as holy as a man and a woman united in holy matrimony.
That’s exactly, by the way, what’s implied, if not explicit, in Jen Hatmaker’s response. But the opposite is also true. If we do understand that it is not possible to claim that a same-sex relationship can be holy, then in that sense we come to understand that in every case, regardless of the particular circumstances, the essence of the situation is that a same-sex relationship cannot please God because it is contrary to his Word.
Finally, in looking to this development in controversy in the evangelical world, we need to recognize that there is no middle ground of response. Once the right question is asked, “Can a same-sex relationship be holy?” the only answer is going to be yes or no. There really isn’t a possibility of answering that question sort of.
Unavoidable question #2: Are same-sex relationships a "creational variance"? Understanding the Wolterstorff controversy
The second controversy came at almost the same time in the evangelical moment. In this case, on October 18, Gayla Postma, reporting for The Banner of the Christian Reformed Church, reports,
“Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff spoke about same-sex marriage for the first time publicly last week, laying out how he came to his conclusion that biblical justice requires that people of homosexual orientation be granted ‘the great good of civil and ecclesial marriage.’”
Postma reports that,
“Approximately 300 people came to Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., on October 13 to hear Wolterstorff speak at an event sponsored by All One Body, an organization that advocates full inclusion in the church of people who are LGBT, including those living in monogamous, committed relationships.”
She went on to say,
“Wolterstorff is well-known in CRC [that is Christian Reformed Church] circles, having taught philosophy at Calvin College for 30 years before moving on to teach philosophy at Yale Divinity School.”
Now let’s be clear, Nicholas Wolterstorff is one of the most well-known philosophical theologians in the evangelical world. He is now Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at the Yale Divinity School. But as this news article makes clear, that came only after 30 years of teaching at Calvin College. Calvin College is the bastion of the Christian Reformed Church, and the Christian Reformed Church is one of those denominations that finds its historic roots in classical Protestantism, in the Reformed stream of Protestantism, in this case in explicitly the Dutch Reformed tradition.
Given the stature of Nicholas Wolterstorff in the evangelical world in general and in the Christian Reformed Church in particular, there is no question that this was headline news. Here was, as The Banner said, the first time that Nicholas Wolterstorff has spoken publicly of the question of same-sex marriage. But he didn’t just speak about same-sex marriage. He understands that the question of same-sex marriage requires a larger moral, theological, and biblical context; and he addressed those issues as well. The Banner reported, and I quote,
“Wolterstorff started his speech with a caveat that he is not an authority on the topic of same-sex marriage and that his presentation would be more about how he, over many years, came to his current conclusion.”
And I’ll summarize that by saying the first thing he mentioned was that he had been listening to people who are gay, including some very close friends, and he had been looking also at the literature that was evolving on the issue of homosexuality. But then he said this,
“When those with homosexual orientation act on their desires in a loving, committed relationship, [they] are not, as far as I can see, violating the love command.”
He went on to say,
“If homosexual orientation is not morally blameable or a disorder, and if members of the church are to accept people as they are, then why is it wrong for people with [homosexual] orientation [to act] on their desires in a loving and covenantal relationship?”
In the controversy centering on Jen Hatmaker, I made the point that what is missed I think by many is the key issue of whether or not a same-sex relationship can be holy. In the case of Nicholas Wolterstorff, I think what needs to be noted in particular is his argument that same-sex relatedness and same-sex sexual behaviors are not rooted in the Fall, but rather represent what he calls a “creational variance.” That is a massively important argument.
In his address, Professor Wolterstorff mentioned a report that was given to the Classis of Grand Rapids East, that’s a part of the Christian Reformed Church in that region. In this report that was released in January 2016, the report says this:
“The most extreme view is that all gender variance, including same-sex orientation, is unnatural, immoral, and represents deliberate rebellion against God, thus making it both a disorder resulting from the Fall and a personal moral failing requiring repentance and healing.”
The report then says there is a centrist position or more moderate view that draws a distinction between homosexual orientation and sexual practice. There is a third view, says the report,
“A modification of the previous position, holds that while homosexuality was not part of God’s original design, covenantal life-long same-sex unions may be accommodated as a ‘concession to brokenness’ similar to the ‘redemptive accommodation’ made for remarriage after divorce.”
But then getting to its own proposed position, the report says this,
“An increasing number of Reformed Christians question the notion that gender variance constitutes a disorder resulting from the Fall; rather, they posit that gender variance may be part of the creation order.”
That is a statement of absolutely unspeakable consequence. Here you have the argument, and this is what Nicholas Wolterstorff picked up in his address on same-sex marriage, arguing that homosexuality or anything summarized by LGBT or its expanding categories should be understood not as something that resulted from the Fall, but rather something that was a variation intended by God in creation itself. As we saw on the question, “Can a same-sex relationship be holy?” this again is an unavoidable question. Is the entire spectrum of behaviors and relationships and orientations now summarized by LGBT, was that a part of God’s intention in creation in the first place? Or on the contrary, is it evidence of sinfulness in the Fall?
Stated simply, the way you answer that question will eventually establish an entire direction of theological and moral argument, inevitably so. Because once you answer that question, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that if the LGBT relationships, orientations, and behaviors were a part of God’s intention from the beginning, then we’re going to have to bless them. What else would we do? If indeed this is a part of creational variance, God’s intention in creation, then this is actually what we understand would point to God’s glory and to his creational intention for human flourishing.
Once again, we’re looking right at the heart of the issue in a way that many have not yet confronted, much less answered the question. The question is this, it’s exactly what Nicholas Wolterstorff sets forth in this address: if we understand homosexuality, the entire LGBT spectrum of issues and orientations as a part of God’s intention in creation, then the church has for over 2,000 years been sinning against people who were simply living out what God intended them to be from the very beginning. And we have to understand that that is exactly the argument as it is now presenting itself to the Christian church.
But the church also must have the courage and conviction to understand that if we do understand, as I believe Scripture makes abundantly clear, that this range of issues and sexual orientations and behaviors is not a part of God’s intention in creation, then it is exactly, as is made clear in terms of considering the question, that if it is an evidence of the Fall, then it is also evidence of human depravity and sinfulness and is exactly as this report from Grand Rapids made clear: it is to be dealt with with a call to repentance and faithfulness.
As is usually the case, there is a back story to this controversy. That’s made clear in an official doctrinal statement by the Christian Reformed Church made back in the year 1973 and affirmed again in 2002.
“Homosexuality is a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokenness of our sinful world. Persons,” says the statement, “of same-sex attraction should not be denied community acceptance solely because of their sexual orientation and should be wholeheartedly received by the church and given loving support and encouragement. Christian homosexuals like all Christians,” says the statement, “are called the discipleship, holy obedience and the use of their gifts in the cause of the kingdom.”
The thing to note here is that the statement is abundantly clear that homosexuality “is a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokenness of our sinful world.”
That statement could not be more clear. It is also the statement that, quite explicitly, Nicholas Wolterstorff is rejecting as he is making his own argument. It’s also important to note that in his address Nicholas Wolterstorff, a Professor of Philosophical Theology, addressed several crucial biblical texts, but he did so in a way that subverts biblical authority; the other interesting thing to note is that it also subverts any biblical theology that starts with the actual text of Scripture in God’s intention in creation and deals honestly with Genesis 1:28,
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,”
And also what comes at the end of Genesis 2, that is,
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh.”
It is almost assuredly the case that in evangelical conversations, the names of Jen Hatmaker and Nicholas Wolterstorff have not often been mixed. One is a popular blogger and conference speaker and the other is Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. But interestingly enough, both of them answered questions that we now have to understand are absolutely crucial and questions that every single church, every single Christian, every single Christian institution, is going to have to answer.
I believe that, judged by Scripture, both of these individuals answer these questions wrongly, indeed disastrously wrongly. I believe that if the church is to be faithful to Scripture, it has to answer both of these questions actually the opposite of the way Jen Hatmaker and Nicholas Wolterstorff answer them. But note this very carefully. Hatmaker and Wolterstorff answered the questions. And understand, so shall we, every single one of us. And how we answer these questions will determine just about everything of what we believe the church should believe and teach on the authority of Scripture about marriage and sexuality and gender.
As we go into the weekend right before the American presidential election, there will be many people who think there couldn’t be anything more important to talk about than that election. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of that election in terms of the American moment. Before the moment of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s hard to imagine anything more important than answering the two questions we have considered today.