Review of David P. Gushee, Changing our Minds

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Review of David P. Gushee, Changing our Minds

Wednesday, 4 October 2017  | Gordon Preece


(Canton MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2014


As the same-sex marriage marathon mail poll continues to be revved up by both sides, one thing is certain to me: isn’t compulsory voting a great thing! As Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens noted recently, for the sake of getting one word (‘yes’ or ‘no’) put in the post, the hyperbole heats up from both sides about the sky falling in if the vote goes the other way, in order to get people to vote voluntarily. This has also been so amongst Christians, nailing their colours to their respective masts. However, when we nail our banners on our respective churches, making this a shibboleth or identity marker of our conservative or progressive Christian credentials, we’ve already lost the game, making sexuality into an idolatrous identity issue, on both heterosexual and homosexual sides. I’d love to stick a banner up on our church quoting Paul, though it may seem simplistic to some and misunderstood by others: ‘For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you … was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes”. For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes”’ (2 Cor. 1:19-20). In the light of this, I am re-using this review of a significant book by David Gushee in order to tackle some biblical and pastoral aspects of the broader issue.

Evangelical ethics, ‘transformative encounters’ and theology

Gushee’s book is subtitled A Call from America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church. Some will dispute the Evangelical label, but for that debate read The End of Evangelicalism?, Equip 23 (Nov. 2014). One’s stance on homosexual practice, and on linked but separable issues like same-sex marriage (SSM) in church and state, is not itself determinative of whether one is Evangelical or not. But the differences can be symptomatic of a stretching and fragmenting of Evangelicalism in regard to biblical interpretation and pastoral practice, made more urgent by the passing of SSM legislation in the US and Canada, and its soon likely passing in Australia.

Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics (with co-author Glen Stassen, IVP, 2003) is the standard text for Evangelical ethics. His The Sacredness of Life (2013) is a staunch defence of that concept across a whole range of traditional Left and Right issues, from abortion to torture to ecology. Gushee also wrote, in 2008, The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Centre, where he positioned himself. He also hopes presumably to now re-position this Evangelical centre as pro-SSM in church and state. He sees this centre as growing, and is likely right since 2008. And younger, western millennial Evangelicals are increasingly pro-same-sex practice and marriage.

I heard Gushee speak on his book at The Society of Christian Ethics conference in Chicago in January. He was engaging, pastoral, humble, self-revealing and, as an Evangelical, sought to be biblical - to justify his changed reading of Scripture from his Kingdom Ethics (2003). But I heard nothing new to question the scholarly exegetical consensus, from both sides, that the Bible affirms heterosexual marriage and proscribes all sexual relationships outside it.

Gushee, like many, has changed his mind on SSM through ‘transformative encounters’ (p.5 & chs 17 & 19) with LGBTI Christians. The shift from 22% of the US reporting having an LGBTI close friend or family member to 65% in 2013 (p.31) explains much pro-SSM sentiment. Gushee’s ‘beloved baby sister’ came out as a lesbian in 2008, his church has many LGBTI members and he has LGBTI students. His book’s dedication is a heartfelt ‘In honor of LGBTQ Christians who still love a church that has not loved them’. The book ends with an apology. It’s difficult to disagree with that, especially with what I’ve seen recently of the US context and the way a young gay friend of mine has been torn by that vociferous debate.

It is a good argument for changing our personal and pastoral posture from hostility to hospitality towards LGBTI people, something I’ve sought to do with gay, lesbian and bisexual extended family members, close friends, and those facing homophobia. But does that justify changing or suppressing the ‘dangerous memories’ (J.B. Metz) of traditional biblical interpretation of homosexual practice? Maybe; maybe not. We’re to love people but not necessarily their practices, nor our own. That applies to all relationships, with spouses, friends, adolescents, children.

Sexual identity, sexual politics and the church

Much hinges on the key rhetorical move of the LGBTI movement to make the term ‘homosexual’, coined in the 19th century, refer to identity (Dennis Altman), not to homosexual acts. But fundamentalists have also made the same mistake, seeing their identity and justifying themselves in terms of their heterosexuality and family values (see J. Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity, IVP, 2011). This makes it much harder to disentangle the issues, generating more heat than light.

Gushee’s short (c. 130 page) book has c. 20 short chapters, originally published serially online. He likens them more to ‘anti-slavery pamphlets than a ponderous scholarly tome’ (p.7). This is true of its form and pastoral and social intent civil rights campaigners’ extension of Galatians 3:28 to include ‘neither straight nor gay’ in Christ. The ground of our identity – slave and free, male and female, straight and LGBTI - is in the grace of Christ. All other penultimate identities are relativised by our ultimate identity in Christ. But this begs the question of what penultimate social, sexual and marriage practices are appropriate expressions of that identity in Christ the Creator.

Gushee rightly highlights how the church has a major problem, given perhaps 5 million LGBTI people who identify as Christians in the US (p.14). But this issue primarily concerns 5% of the population and he asks: ‘what does it say about our priorities that we will fight to the death over this issue rather than say, divide over … clergy sex abuse or mass murder or caring for the poor?’ (p.23). But this applies to both sides. Has ‘inequality’ been commandeered culturally to mask its massive material dimension? Both forms of inequality must be taken seriously.

Gushee also honestly faces the likelihood of major individual and institutional academic and professional penalties for Christians who are publically against SSM. ‘Ironically, external pressure … has … made it much harder to have a serious internal Christian conversation’ (pp.12-13 and ch.3) about whether ‘our collective mind’ should change (p.18).

Gushee’s ch.4 starts and defines ‘the issue’ somewhat one-sidedly in terms of all of us knowing people who, no matter how hard they try, or what help they get from the now-discredited Exodus reparative therapy or healing model, can’t change their same-sex orientation which is enduring, like left-handedness (pp.26-27). This can be a form of torture, but, because a false alternative is imposed between unchangeable individual sexual identity and pure choice, it sidelines the broader Christian perspective of the now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom, of some change but continuing constraining desires, of communally supported celibacy but often ongoing orientation. Romans 7-8 make salutary reading.

Many see sexuality as more fluid and socially formed, as counsellor Barry McGrath argues in ch.7 of Preece & Bird ed. Sexegesis (2012). See also Harvard’s Lisa Diamond’s Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire (2008). There is little scientific basis in a gay gene or gay brain for asserting that sexual orientation is set or fixed. The wet cement of gender identity is often prematurely set for sexual politics reasons. It is also easier to argue for SSM if same-sex attraction is irrevocable. Nonetheless, for many, whether for genetic or environmental, nature or nurture reasons, their sexual orientation feels set in concrete.

Ch.6 shows great awareness of various views among LGBTI and straight Christians, and the growth of dialogue between practising and non-practising LGBTI person or Side A and B Christians. Many Christian leaders are less condemning today, but it’s often not trickling down, and Gushee rightly laments the need for a Lost-N-Found homeless shelter in his home city Atlanta for homeless LGBTI adolescents. How tragic that, in the US, ‘the least safe place to deal with sexual orientation and identity issues is the Christian family and the church’ (35). I suspect Australian churches are better, but still have plenty of room for improvement. But I may be favourably comparing my inner-city Melbourne with Gushee’s Atlanta.

Ch.7 outlines ‘Six Options for the Churches’ in line with Pope Francis’ ‘Who am I to judge?’ change of moral tone (but not doctrine). Assuming a covenanted or married same-sex couple present themselves for church membership (Gushee is a Baptist), and like most single LGBTI and straight US Christians are not celibate, here are the options helpfully arranged, with my comments:

  1. ‘Ask no questions.’ This avoidance approach may stem from unease over lack of moral accountability of members, and even leaders generally, prohibiting ‘selective moralism’ re homosexuality.
  2. ‘Who are we to Judge?’ (Mt. 7:1-5, 1 Cor. 5:12). This could extend to SSM in the world, as not we but ‘God will judge those outside’. Yet we are to discipline those inside, like the high status incestuous man in 1 Cor. 5.
  3. ‘Dialogue for discernment.’ This admits ambiguity and uncertainty about Christian covenanted same-sex relationships. Cf. Rom. 14:4 on matters indifferent, or adiaphora which Ken Wilson (A Letter to My Congregation, 2014) and W. Vanderwal-Gritter, (Generous Spaciousness, 2014, ch.11) extend from Jewish-Gentile difference over holy days and foods to disputes over homosexuality (contrary to Rom. 1:20ff).
  4. ‘Pastoral accommodation.’ This non-ideal, harm minimisation approach adapts to human hardness of heart (Mt. 19:1-12). It is applied in the case of divorce and, more recently, cohabitation.

These ‘temporary terminus points’ recognise we’re all broken, that none are straight. But if churches could be more straight or open with people about their options, everyone would benefit.

Options 1-4 seem a good solution for many churches. ‘But … these approaches leave unexamined issues to move up the chain, where they surface later, on church practice and leadership issues like whether gay Christians can serve as deacons or as ministers’ or blessing gay unions or marriages or photographing gay couples for church directories’. Yet these are preferable to:

  1. ‘The “exclusionist” option.’ This may include: a. celibate LGBTI people (more Pharisaic than Jesus’ style), or; b. non-celibate same-sex couples. Such churches often have ‘closeted gay members’. It also really requires an onerous enforcing of moral consistency across a range of issues. This leaves Option 6.
  2. ‘Normative Reconsideration.’ This revision of the biblical textual interpretation and tradition of heterosexual-only marriage is ‘the ultimate fork in the road’ (pp.38-42).

For those wanting to ‘get off the bus’, like me, at 1-4, Gushee offers helpful homework. If we’re not willing to do this, we’re in danger of pharisaically laying biblical burdens on people:

1, ‘Read narratives of LGBTQ people, as well as reputable work in contemporary psychology’ to inform public and private interactions with LGBTI people.

2. ‘Become aware that in any room with 20 or more people, the likelihood is that at least one is LGBTQ in orientation and/or identity. … People get their backs up when their loved ones are spoken of carelessly or contemptuously.’

3. ‘Never … accept derogatory speech or any form of bullying or mistreatment of LGBTQ people.’ Don’t use gay slurs or stereotypes any more than racist ones.

4. ‘Help parents respond in constructive ways when their children come out as gay … or express questions about their sexuality’, never rejecting or throwing them out.

5. ‘Get to know gay Christians (or ex-Christians) if you get the chance. Listen to their stories with a teachable spirit.’

6. ‘Become an advocate for the welcome of LGBT Christians in your congregation to the maximal point theologically possible in your setting.’ Seek clarity from church leaders. ‘End avoidism.’

7. ‘Even if you oppose civil gay marriage, consider public policy steps you can support’, e.g. ‘anti-bullying curriculum in schools, or laws that classify physical acts on gays as a hate crime’ (pp.45-47).

Engaging with Scripture

From Ch.9 on Gushee outlines his approach to Scripture. I don’t have much space to spend on this, but I also think there is less that is new or helpful here. Entitled ‘Biblical Inspiration, Human Interpretation’, this chapter lists a myriad of issues where Christians have disagreed on what the Bible says. We need to remember that ‘we see in a glass darkly’, do our biblical homework and, like in algebra, ‘show our work’ or how we got there. Further, while moral and theological inquiry need sound scriptural interpretation, we also need ‘broader processes of analysis and discernment, in loving Christian community, integrating head and heart … to understand not just what a text once meant, but what it means for the believing Church today’. So far, so good.

Ch.10 on ‘How Traditionalists Connect the Biblical Dots’ outlines this helpful and fair formula: ‘Gen 1-2 + Gen 19 + Lev 18:22/20:13 + Judg 19 + Mt 19:1-12 …+ Rom 1:26-27 + 1 Cor 6:9 / 1 Tim 1:10 [+ Eph 5:22-33 and all other biblical references to sex and marriage assuming or depicting male + female] = a clear biblical ban on same-sex relationships’.

Gushee then recommends to progressives not to dismiss ‘clobber verses’ as if whole authors (Paul) or testaments of Scripture (OT) are primitive or unenlightened. He also exhorts them not to dismiss people as fundamentalists, biblicists, literalists or by any other nasty name, or traditionalist sex ethics as anti-body, anti-sex, anti-women or anti-pleasure, which some have been, but most today are not.

He also rightly cautions not to use broad themes of liberation, justice, inclusion, prophecy, ‘it’s time to catch up with the culture’ etc., as if these in themselves invalidate appeal to traditionalist texts. These themes refuse to engage genuine concerns and appear lightweight or ‘fundamentally unserious about Scripture – or theology – or ethics - or … discipleship’. This is one key reason for traditionalist passion on the issue: they see it as symptomatic of broader church problems.

I will not go through Gushee’s treatment of individual texts, which recite relatively well-known revisionist readings. But I find strange his starting with Gen. 19 and Judges 19 - Sodom and Gibeah, which refer to homosexual rape, and hence inapplicable to loving, covenantal same-sex relationships - instead of starting with the Gen. 1-2 foundation. This, while I’m sure unintended, like his list of contentious biblical disagreements, seemed to use the Merchants of Doubt methodology as used against health effects of cigarettes or against ecological evidence for climate change to cast doubt on the scriptural, creational vision of male-female sexual ecology. This view of reality is behind its view of sexual morality.

Ch.12 on ‘Leviticus, Abomination and Jesus’ is a very good critique of Christians arbitrarily and selectively applying the term abomination to homosexuals today and not to many other issues it is applied to in Leviticus. The OT law is neither accepted in whole in the NT nor completely abolished. It is quite complex. But I’d add that Jesus (Mt 19) and Paul (Rom. 13) uphold the moral and sexual proscriptions of the OT law. The Law is interpreted through the Lore or story and its key character, Christ the Lord, who is Creator and Re-Creator, Alpha and Omega. Leftist Christians who cite Lev. 18 on loving our neighbour, and apply it to loving strangers and refugees with Leviticus, cannot simply dismiss its condemnations of same-sex practice in the same chapter.

Ch.14 belatedly brings in ‘the most important texts for the LGBT issue – Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, Romans 1 – and the most significant theological issue - God’s design for sexuality in creation…’. This, for traditionalists, ‘renders all same-sex relations as “out of order”, that is, contrary to God’s fixed plan for creation’ (pp.81-82). Or, in my terms, against our sexual ecology (see my and Michael Bird’s Sexegesis, 2012, ch.1).

In response, Gushee suggests that ‘increasingly today it is noted that core practices referred to in Genesis 1-2, including mutual care for children, helper-partner companionship (Gen. 2:18) and total self-giving, can and do occur among covenanted gay and lesbian couples’ (p.83).

But the text - and even today’s reality, for all our technological reproductive aids – assumes the basic equal complementarity of men and women. Further, the goods of SSM that Gushee describes, while deserving acknowledgment by traditionalists, fall short of the divinely approved ‘very good’ of humanity’s creation and destiny or end as male and female, and this, as the antidote to man’s aloneness, which is not good.

Moving to the NT, Gushee seems to deflect the force of Jesus’ upholding God’s original and ongoing sexual diversity of marriage in the created order in Mt 19. Yes, it was not primarily directed at the time to homosexuality (pp.84-85), but the principle still holds.

Similarly, in dealing with Romans 1, the key text in the debate, Gushee draws on a range of revisionist and relativising scholarship that seeks to restrict the range of Paul’s wide-ranging creation-grounded proscription of same-sex behaviour, male and female. Gushee cites such possibilities as heterosexuals exchanging their natural use of sex for unnatural homosexual sex; coercive pedophilia and violent homosexual exploitation in master-slave relations; or the excesses of the Roman court a la Caligula, all as being part of Paul’s critique of Roman imperialism. But none of these have strong ground in the text or explain Paul’s cosmic perspective on what is natural, normative sex.

Gushee draws on other ways in which we have re-evaluated or set aside Paul’s ‘implied or explicit directives (head-coverings, hair, women keeping silent in the church, instructions to slaves to obey their masters)’ (p.90). But numerous scholars have shown these to be accommodations to the not-yet in the Kingdom or new creation situation we are in, analogous to Jesus’ citing Moses’ accommodations or permission regarding divorce. These do not reflect God’s creation or new creation purpose.

The crunch for Gushee is really a pastoral one:

It is appropriate to wonder whether what Paul is so harshly condemning in Romans 1 has much, if anything to do with that devout, loving lesbian couple who have been together 20 years. Their lives do not at all look like the overall picture of depravity offered in Romans 1:18-32. You certainly wonder about this when you know that couple or when you are that couple. (p.90)

This is perhaps the crunch for many. Is what is biblical, really pastoral - really best for human flourishing? As a pastor who has sought to engage with LGBTI people compassionately I say yes it is, as does Richard Hays (see his Moral Vision of the New Testament, 1996, the best short treatment of the issue, which Gushee missed) who cites his dear departed gay friend Gary’s rejection of the idolatry of gay sexual identity (yes, this applies to heterosexuals, too). One wonders, too, whether Gushee has succumbed to a certain sentimentality, given the evidence of a 2013 survey of same-sex marriages that approximately 50% are officially open, by agreement (see S.W. Thrasher, ‘Master Bedroom, Extra Closet’, 2013). Now that SSM is being increasingly legalised, we need more honest discussion about whether the ‘exclusive’ part of the definition of marriage in our constitution is really being questioned too. This opens up a range of ethical questions that Andrew Goddard raises about same-sex relationships in his ‘Equal Marriage’.

Creation and Sexual Orientation

Sticking to the central issue of creation, ch.15 deals with Creation and Sexual Orientation by raising three proposals:

1. Treat OT creation accounts and their NT use ‘as theological accounts rather than as scientific descriptions of the world as we find it. … essentially the LGBTQ issue is a faith/science integration issue’ similar to those provoked by ‘Galileo, Copernicus, and Darwin’.

Genesis 1 -2 presents human sexual complementarity as the solution to the not-good situation of loneliness. In Gushee’s view, some throw out the biblical story as fable, while some throw out the stubborn scientific facts of irrevocable same-sex orientation. Integrating both Bible and science, and accepting this sexual diversity, is Gushee’s solution.

2. ‘Because arguments from God’s purported design in creation have proved remarkably problematic in Christian history, do not rely on them for sexual ethics…. Christians should look forward [to Christ, kingdom and new creation - note his Kingdom Ethics] rather than backward [to creation].’

Gushee cites Bonhoeffer’s shift from the Nazi-abused Lutheran language of ‘orders of creation’ regarding ‘blood, soil, race and nation’ to the more dynamic language of ‘mandates’. But Gushee doesn’t note, like his mentor Karl Barth, that Bonhoeffer did not see this language as justifying same-sex practice. This is contrary to biographer Charles Marsh’s frankly anachronistic view that Bonhoeffer’s strong same-sex friendships indicate that he was gay. Yet Bonhoeffer’s ‘view from below’, from the vantage point of the suffering Jews, would logically cover not only those forced to wear yellow stars in the Holocaust, but also homosexuals wearing pink stars, as moving monuments in Berlin now do.

Gushee notes other misuses of Genesis and creation to justify racism and environmental destruction (pp.94-96). But abuse does not deny appropriate and cautious use. And Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image (2005) has shown the liberating use of creation for the oppressed. Further, Christ is Alpha (Beginning or Creator) as well as Omega (End or new Creator). The Kingdom is ‘creation healed’ (Kung) and new creation does not cancel creation. It is not a new creation from nothing, but a renovation, restoring and enhancing its original glory. Hence our resurrection bodies are still likely to be sexually differentiated as Jesus’ was.

3. ‘Instead of relying just on Genesis 1-2, we should consider more seriously the implications for sexual ethics of living in a Genesis 3 world.’ Contrary to Joni Mitchell and CSN&Y’s Woodstock, we can’t ‘get ourselves back to the Garden’.

Genesis 3 and Romans 3 (and 7) show that we are all sexually broken. No one is completely straight. Gushee rightly challenges traditionalists who think heterosexuality is innocent, and revisionists who think all sexuality is innocent (pp.97-98). We need to take the plank out of our own eye before seeking the splint in another’s. But Gushee fails to stress with Luther that ‘God carves the crooked wood and makes it straight’ – cf. 1 Cor 6:12-13: ‘such were some of you’. Sexual sanctification or cleansing of sexual sin, like all sin, is available to all. For all Gushee’s emphasis on horizontal graciousness and transformative encounters with LGTBI people, there is insufficient stress here on vertical grace and transformation, or even on God’s common grace restraining the disorder of the world.

Covenantal model for same-sex marriage

Ch.16 begins by rightly quoting a philosophy professor saying that ‘The problem is that we know that homosexuality is wrong, but we don’t know why anymore’. Gushee then outlines his rejection of the ‘moral logic’ of the traditional reading of scripture that majors on creation-based sexual differentiation. He then offers an alternative covenantal model, including same-sex marriages (pp.100-101).

Gushee presents his covenantal-marital ethic as an alternative to the secular (mutual) consent, anything-goes-bar-harm model or the more enlightened ‘loving relationship ethic’. Starting with Genesis 3’s fallen people, Gushee laments the collapse of the covenantal-marital ethic from the 1960s on, with the ‘compromise with a loving relationship ethic [e.g. M. Farley, Just Love, 2006] failed badly, producing only serial monogamy at best’.

Further, children (unseen and unheard so far in the book) suffer most from this minimalist marriage and fragmentation of family in the moving-on ethic (my term):

The forgotten element in contemporary Christian thinking about marriage [and ironically Gushee’s book till now] is children. It is as if adults of the post-pill 1960s had amnesia about ‘the procreative power of sex’ and the ‘cunning genius of the older-covenantal-marital ethic … as much about the well-being of children as adults.

Sex now apparently had no consequences. But it did. Half of US children are ‘accidents’ and 40% born out of marriage. Divorce is ever-present (104-105).

Gushee laments LGBTI ‘moral looseness’ hurting seriously Christian LGBTIs. He asks whether they all might participate in exclusive marriage covenants, as many are already doing (p.106). The latter may be true, but he has no stats. Australian Marriage Equality leader Rodney Croome, in What’s Left?, argues against the libertarian left indifference to marriage, suggesting that LGBTI people have moved on from unlimited liberation to the desire for domestic belonging – even moving into the burbs, like Modern Family. This may be true as far as it goes, but must be seen alongside the minimal take-up of SSM in the US so far, the half of same-sex marriages that are officially open as mentioned earlier, the fact that masculine promiscuous sexuality requires the restraint of women and children to channel it constructively, and that some Scandinavian research (where SSM occurred earlier) indicates that ‘gay men with children’ marriages don’t last long, and lesbian marriages surprisingly don’t either. A gay cartoon pictures a man looking in the mirror saying to himself, ‘at last I’ve found the man of my dreams’, with the mirror showing the dream man’s shoe trailing out the door. Tragically for many (not all), to quote The Castle, it may be just ‘in your dreams’ or nightmares.

Gushee seems to have shifted from a kind of Anabaptist consistent life-ethic, based on Kingdom ethics and a Sanctity of Life ethic, to a (Reinhold) Niebuhrian sin-based Christian realism. However, unlike Niebuhr, he doesn’t major on the empirical evidence of idolatrous sexual sin among homosexual as well as heterosexual communities.

Gushee, like gifted Australian SSM advocate Pastor Carolyn Francis, severs a relational covenant marriage logic of morality from a complementary creation-based sexual ecology or vision of reality. This differs from greats like Barth and Bonhoeffer, W.J. Dumbrell (Covenant and Creation, 1984) and C.C. Roberts (Creation and Covenant: the significance of sexual difference in the moral theology of marriage, 2007). In effect, covenantal marriage is left in mid-air, unearthed to creation, and Christ is only Omega (End) not Alpha (Beginning and Creator). How will covenant restrain and channel the rising tide of sexual desire without the finite but liberating limits of creational difference and reproduction? Gushee touches on the contemporary neglect of children but seems unaware of the anomalous place of children disconnected from at least one biological parent in SSM through the dependence on surrogacy or donors. This is first and foremost a question of the creation-based ideal, not of empirical or ideological debates about the social consequences for children or the worth of same-sex families, despite comments by Sen. Penny Wong and some ‘No’ campaigners.

Acts 10: a precedent for same-sex marriage?

Ch.17: ‘Transformative Encounters and Paradigm Leaps’ sees major changes, such as the one he’s experienced regarding SSM, being foreshadowed in models of biblical interpretation occurring though personal encounters – for example, the revelation of the resurrected Jesus and the true meaning of the OT on the Emmaus Walk (Lk 24) or Peter’s vision cancelling the OT food laws excluding Gentiles in Acts 10 (pp.108-109). What Gushee doesn’t mention, surprisingly - though many others do – is that Acts 10 leads to Acts 15’s Council of Jerusalem accepting Gentiles on certain universal standards outlined in the covenant with Noah. But these standards include porneia, the encompassing term for all sex, including homosexual sex, outside heterosexual marriage. The encounters are significant, but in opening up the creation-based moral teaching to be lived out by all.

Gushee’s examples are extended into others in church history, for example Christians repenting of their contempt for Jews after the Holocaust. But there is here, a more moderate than most but still serious, Whig or Progressive view of history, as we evolve and becoming more enlightened or liberated. Political and theological liberals often argue that, as the ban on contraception was abandoned and then that on divorce loosened, so now the ban on SSM should automatically be lifted. But why can’t the subtitle of Gushee’s The Sacredness of Life - Why an Ancient Biblical Vision is Key to the World’s Future – apply to the ancient biblical vision of sexual difference or diversity within marriage? Gushee seems to be inconsistent with his best work here (p.111).

In ch.18, Gushee continues his progressive theme by opposing a new Christ–centred narrative of ‘marginalization, resistance and equality’ to the conservative culture wars ‘narrative of cultural, ecclesial and moral decline’. The first is a positive evolution, the second an evolution of evil or descent, though they wouldn’t use such Darwinian terms. Gushee repents and apologises in 2014 for having held to the latter evolution of evil view in his Getting Marriage Right (2004). He humbly says he was wrong.

But I think he wrongly frames the narrative in such binary terms. His attempt to salvage something from our sexual ruins though same-sex covenantal ruins indicates a request for some sort of middle way. Yet his middle isn’t radical enough for me and for many. It doesn’t go back to the roots, the true meaning of radical: in this case, creational, sexual ecological roots of deep difference being crucial to accepting all sorts of difference in society. Gushee is right not to affirm anything goes, but wrong to see only the earthly Jesus as the criterion, not the Alpha and Omega, the creative word made flesh (Jn 1), affirming our good but fallen physicality and sexual difference.

Gushee ends where he begins, with more of the backstory of ‘How I Got Here’. It is a vulnerable and self-revealing statement of how transformative experiences with LGBTI people from 2007, upon meeting and hearing their stories, has profoundly challenged and changed him and his view of Scripture. His own adolescent experience of being bullied, his doctoral study on the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust risking lives to rescue Jews, his Kingdom Ethics on Christ’s kingdom of inclusive love, and his Sacredness of Life on God’s immeasurable love for every human have led him to his change of mind towards same-sex marriage in both church and state. His chapters on homosexuality in Kingdom Ethics and Getting Marriage Right he now sees as aberrations.

Gushee is a Christian scholar of great integrity. He should not be written off as a Christian or even as an Evangelical. He has thoroughly Christian and Evangelical, gospel-centred motivations for his stance. But he has, if I can humbly and respectfully say, an insufficiently integrated reading of Scripture that misses the foundational nature of creational sexual difference to all the differences in human beings that Christ the Creator and Redeemer recognises and reconciles. May we seek to do the same as we turn in all our brokenness, from hostility to hospitality, despite this marathon and often malign plebiscite process.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and editor of two books on homosexuality: with Brian Edgar, ‘Whose Homosexuality? Which Authority?’ (Adelaide: Australasian Theological Forum Press, 2006); and with Michael Bird, Sexegesis (Sydney: Anglican Press Australia, 2012).

This article was first published as part of Gordon Preece, ‘Two Recent Books on Homosexuality: A Review Essay’, in All the Way with LBGTI? The Homosexuality Conversation, Equip 26 (Sept 2015): 8-13.

Postscript: We tweeted the link to this review in October 2017 and tagged David Gushee, to which he replied: 'Fair minded. Wish I had seen this in '15. Urge attention to my new 3rd edition which includes engagement with critics.
' The third edition of Changing Our Minds is available here.


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