If you had asked me ten years ago whether evangelicals would ever give up ground on the issue of homosexuality, I would have said “no way!” Sure, the evangelical movement has always had its “progressive wing.” And yes, even the term “evangelical” has always been notoriously difficult to define. But whatever “evangelical” means, everyone always seemed to understand that it doesn’t include those who would affirm homosexuality as consistent with God’s will. Everyone always understood that to affirm homosexuality is to affirm your way right out of evangelicalism. That was a clear line that anyone who wished to remain an evangelical was loathe to cross.
And there have been levers within the amorphous evangelical movement that informally identified leaders and authors who had crossed that line. Unfortunately, these checks on false teaching have not always been located in actual church authorities but in publishing houses and magazine editors. So the gauges have been imperfect to say the least, but nevertheless that is what they were.
WE’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE
So for example, there was a time when Brian McLaren was a well-known evangelical pastor. Time magazine identified McLaren in 2005 among the 25 most influential evangelicals in America, alongside the likes of Billy Graham, J. I. Packer, and Rick Warren. Evangelical publishing houses launched his books, and periodicals like Christianity Today often featured his writing. But all that changed in 2010 when McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity appeared. In that book, McLaren planted his flag in the ground to affirm homosexuality and to chide evangelicals for not getting with the program.
At some point after that, you stopped seeing McLaren’s work in the same old outlets. No more books from Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. No more prime editorial space in Christianity Today. He had crossed the proverbial Rubicon. He affirmed his way right out of evangelicalism, and there was no going back. Others followed similar paths out of evangelicalism—e.g., Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans—and with all of them the die was certainly cast when they affirmed homosexuality.
Anyone who took comfort in the knowledge that “evangelicalism” was able to identify and eliminate such false teaching needs to rethink that comfort. One of the imperfections of publishing houses and publications is that they sometimes ignore early signals of trouble. In every one of the above instances, the trajectory of their teaching was well-known long before their actual affirmation of homosexuality. Because that trajectory went unaddressed, they succeeded in broadening the Overton Window of evangelical faith, even though they themselves ended up leaving evangelicalism altogether. And it is this broadening of plausibility that presents the real long-term challenge to the Christian faith. Why? Because false teachers often aim at the edges before aiming at the center.
For example, four years before Brian McLaren affirmed homosexuality, he wrote an item for Christianity Today‘s leadership blog that would go on to become the number one blog post at Christianity Today for the year 2006: “Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question: Finding a Pastoral Response.” In this piece, McLaren urges evangelical leaders to find a “Pastoral Response” to their parishioners on the issue of homosexuality. He argues that the Bible is not clear on the moral status of homosexuality and that Christians risk offending those outside the church with the idea that homosexuality is a sin. McLaren calls, therefore, upon evangelicals to observe a five-year moratorium on making statements against homosexuality.
McLaren’s trajectory into false teaching and out of evangelicalism was really clear in 2006, and yet he went on to publish more books and articles with evangelical outlets. After all, he was just humbly calling for more dialogue on the issue of homosexuality and looking for a “pastoral response” that enjoins Christians no longer to speak about the Bible’s unambiguous condemnation of homosexual sin. He was aiming at the edges in 2006 (“let’s just have a dialogue”) before aiming at the center in 2010. And he was successful. By the time he was finished, evangelicals were having a conversation about homosexuality and whether or not it was immoral. He opened the Overton Window a little wider even though he himself ended up outside of it.
WE’RE SEEING IT AGAIN
This widening of what evangelicals will tolerate as plausibly Christian is how false teaching often advances through the movement. It’s why what was unthinkable to me ten years ago (that evangelicals might give up ground on homosexuality) is now very much “thinkable.” And I believe that same sort of broadening of the Window is still happening now, but now it’s not just homosexuality that is at issue.
For example, Christianity Today published an article just last week offering a pastoral response to polyamory (the practice of having more than one sexual partner with the consent of all partners). The article does not take aim at the center, as the authors Preston Sprinkle and Branson Parler are clear that polyamory is a sin. But it is an article that takes aim at the edges and widens the Overton Window so that certain aspects of polyamory are now to be considered within the pale. To see what I mean, I need to quote the piece directly:
Another important pastoral step is to distinguish elements of polyamory that are in violation of God’s will from elements that are simply culturally unfamiliar to us. When we want to lovingly call people to repentance, we should be precise about what needs repentance and what relationships or elements can and should be sanctified in Christ. For example, the notion of kinship in polyamory is a secular echo of the way Scripture calls the church to function as a new family. In cultures that idolize individualism (but actually isolate individuals), polyamory’s focus on relationship, care, and affection can have a powerful pull. And in churches that idolize marriage and the nuclear family, polyamory’s focus on hospitality and community can be an attractive alternative. We can acknowledge that many of the elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—are good things.
The problems here are serious. This is essentially Revoice-style hamartiology applied to polyamory. Some Revoice leaders have taught that same-sex attraction isn’t necessarily sinful but acting on it is. Furthermore, certain aspects of homosexuality are “sanctifiable.” Because homosexuality isn’t all sinful but has both good and bad elements, our job as Christians is to renounce the bad and cling to the good. Likewise, Sprinkle and Parler argue that polyamory isn’t all sinful. Because polyamory has both good and bad elements, our job as Christians is to know which parts of polyamory are good and which parts are bad.
This is really bad pastoral advice for a number of reasons. First, it is a fallacy to argue that because polyamorous people desire “deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community” that those things can be reasonably labelled polyamorous. It would be like arguing, “Because Baptists like potlucks, potlucks are Baptist.” It’s absurd. And everyone knows that if the Presbyterians have their own potluck, they are not becoming more Baptist for doing so. Likewise, are we really now defining “deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community” as a component of polyamory? Doesn’t that imply that anyone who desires those things is now somewhere on the polyamorous spectrum?
This is moral confusion not moral clarity. But it’s precisely this sleight of hand that gets the “good parts” of polyamory within the Overton Window, which means that polyamory itself would now be within the window of plausibility. Polyamory used to be completely out, but now at least part of it is in. How long before we get the rest of it in too?
That is why we need to recognize right up front that the defining feature of polyamory is not “deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community.” The defining feature is the desire to have romantic/sexual relationships with multiple people that you are not married to. If you remove that part—the part that is sinful—we aren’t talking about polyamory anymore. But it’s precisely that desire for sexually immoral relationships that Christians must ruthlessly put to death in the name of Jesus. That’s why telling Christians, “Hey, there something good in polyamory, don’t go too hard on it,” is pastorally disastrous.
Second, Sprinkle and Parler contend that pastors need to avoid speaking against polyamory from the pulpit:
Instead of preaching about polyamory directly from the pulpit, consider constructing a positive vision for monogamy. Instead of addressing homosexuality, educate your people on the meaning of marriage and sexual expression. Instead of doing a sermon series on transgender identities, talk about what it means to be created in God’s image as male and female. People are much more eager to follow a positive vision for marriage and sex than to adhere to a list of “don’ts.”
This is really astonishing. The authors instruct readers that there are good parts and bad parts to polyamory, and now they tell pastors not to speak against the bad parts from the pulpit! Really? It sounds to me like Sprinkle and Parlor want a moratorium on making moral pronouncements about polyamory. We have heard this before, and we already know that it doesn’t lead to a good place.
A better pastoral approach is to recognize that both the “do’s” and the “don’ts” of scripture are life-giving, soul-strengthening gifts from God. We don’t have to be ashamed of the fact that God has spoken in some pretty clear “don’ts” that faithful Christians do well to mimic:
Exodus 20:14 “You shall not commit adultery.”
Proverbs 6:32 “The one who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense; He who would destroy himself does it.”
Matthew 5:28 “Everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
1 Corinthians 6:13, 18 “The body is not for sexual immorality, but for the Lord… Flee immorality!”
Ephesians 5:5-6 “5 For this you know with certainty, that no sexually immoral or impure person… has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
If God’s word isn’t ashamed of “don’ts,” then why should God’s people be? And yet Sprinkle and Parler write as if we should shy away from such things because lost people prefer a positive vision instead of a list of “don’ts.” And yet, it’s precisely the “don’ts” of God’s word that God often uses to convict sinners of their sin. Why would any faithful pastor withhold such life-giving words from the people he ministers to? Any pastor who allows the tastes of the lost to reshape the message in this way is being an unfaithful shepherd.
A FINAL WORD
I am confident that at this point in 2020, the vast majority of evangelicals recognize that polyamory is sinful and should be opposed. But will that be the case in 2030 after a decade of a widening Overton Window on polyamory? Do we see the ways in which articles like this subtly encourage readers to accept at least part of polyamory as a good thing? Do Christians see that even if polyamory is largely rejected (for now), polyamorous affirmation is also being allowed in? My plea to fellow evangelicals is that we not only have to recognize when the center is threatened but also when people begin aiming at the edges. We must recognize and guard against attempts to broaden the Overton Window of what evangelicals think is acceptable. If we don’t, in ten years we will reap another harvest of people who have affirmed their way right out of evangelical faith.
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