“Simplify as far as possible,” Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “but no farther.” In the vexed and vexing issues surrounding sex and gender politics in the church and in society at large, we should heed his advice.
Not everyone does—even Christian scholars skilled in reaching large audiences. N. T. Wright, soon to retire from St Andrews University in Scotland for a prestigious perch at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, is a paragon of both New Testament scholarship and orthodox apologetics. But even he sometimes cuts corners too sharply.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic’s Emma Green, Wright doesn’t satisify her as he considers those advocating the full acceptance of same-sex couples into the Church.
“For 2,000 years, Christian, Jews, and Muslims—Muslims for less than 2,000 years, but you know what I mean—have just said, That’s not what we think a human life is all about. Suddenly, we have a cultural imperative [to embrace LGBT identity] coming in the last 30 years or so.”
Meanwhile, David Gushee, recently president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Christian Ethics and a distinguished professor at Mercer University in the USA, writes for Religion News Service a column equally breezy in its dismissal of Christian colleges and seminaries that hold the traditional Christian line regarding same-sex relations. These schools, Gushee insists, need to get with it. The culture is leaving them behind, including the culture of many of their own students:
“Eventually we come to realize there is more right in change than in implacable attachment to the status quo. Universities are kidding themselves if they think they can lead Christian kids by trying to pull them back.”
What the interested reader might expect from these two accomplished scholars is what is conspicuously lacking: an actual theological argument. Wright basically appeals to tradition while Gushee appeals to current trends. They thus nicely correspond to caricatures of the conservative and the liberal respectively.
But Tom Wright knows better than most that his even-more-conservative counterparts in the Church of England argue against the ordination of women exactly as he does about sexual diversity here: Why indeed, they ask, has the Church suddenly changed its mind about something it maintained for centuries?
Likewise, David Gushee knows better than most that merely because the broader culture holds something to be perfectly fine—such as premarital sex—doesn’t mean the Christian ethicist should drop Biblical prohibitions against fornication and just get with it.
Beyond serious argument, the interested reader might also expect such learned people to recognize that we cannot lump together all the issues compressed into LGBTQ+. As many are now making clear on various sides of the conversation, “LGB” is not “T,” “T” is in fact many different things, and “Q” is a whole other matter. Politically, for some, it has made sense to bind these various people and issues together, but it’s wrong both conceptually and ethically to treat them as One Thing.
Finally, as not only scholars but churchmen, we might hope that Wright and Gushee would exemplify respect for those who feel and think differently than they do. We would also hope to see sympathy for the many who have been bruised by institutions governed by totalitarian cultures and leaders—right or left—that brook no dissent, let alone deep difference.
It has been my privilege to serve on panels with Tom and David and to count them as friendly acquaintances, fellow scholars, and Christian brothers. When I see them coming up short, I remind myself to shape up theologically, analytically, and compassionately. The issues, and the people pressing them, aren’t going away, nor should they, and oversimplifications really aren’t helping.