The Great Evangelical Divorce

Photo: Elisabetta Foco

Photo: Elisabetta Foco

***This article was first posted 4/3/14 on Brian Gee’s blog Deconstructed Molskine. It is republished here with the author’s permission.


A palpable shift within Evangelicalism has been happening over the last two weeks. Conservative and Progressive Evangelicals have been raising their war cries against one another. While each side is sure of where they stand, I’m convinced that neither side understands how they got to this impasse or what the future consequences of their actions will be. Every divorce has its unintended victims and unforeseen consequences. Following is my attempt to ground this split in its historical context and offer some thoughts on the lasting effects that it will have.

From Separation to Divorce

If conservative and progressive evangelicals have been in the slow process of separation for the last several years, the World Vision debacle represents a swift finalizing of the divorce. With my own background as a child of divorce, I recognize the signs.

As World Vision spun its public relations wheels with the skill of a teenager learning to drive stick-shift, the de facto leadership of both ideological camps decided that they had had it with the other. Sleeping in separate beds while playing house under the same roof isn’t going to cut it anymore.

So over the course of seventy-two hours, all attempts to maintain an appearance of missional unity and mutual humility have been jettisoned. Mommy and daddy are no longer simply having a loud talk. They’ve declared war on each other, and they are forcing their children to take sides. In this ugly dispute, there is no longer room for a neutral party or a middle ground.

As so many progressives tweeted and wrote, conservatives are no longer simply wrong or intolerant; they are child-killers. And as too many conservatives wrote, progressives are no longer theologically imprecise or uninformed; they have sold their souls to the world and can’t possibly be faithful, gospel-loving Christians. Both assumptions reek of army-building polemic over reasoned discourse. But the worst assumption of all was the one that went unnoticed: that somehow there used to be a middle ground from which both sides have now retreated.

If we are honest – and let’s hope that’s the one good thing that has come from this mess – there never has been a middle ground, no matter how much we wanted to pretend otherwise. Divorce was inevitable from the start. Any pretense otherwise was an attempt to play safely with a stick of dynamite. Everyone knew that it would blow-up eventually.

Now that moment is upon us. The grenade has gone off inside the house, and the shrapnel is cutting left and right. There is no way to put the house back together. But as the cinders continue to burn, it is important for both sides to understand why there is no room for reconciliation, and what the future will look like.

The Great Divide

As with most controversies of this scale, the core problem is not a form of xenophobia, ignorance, or hate. Those are all political excuses in our age of reason that can fire up donor bases like nothing else. Yes, they are real problems. But for your average person of faith, they are only potential byproducts of the core problem, not the problem itself.

At the center of this screaming match is a profound difference in hermeneutics – the question of how scripture should be interpreted. Like most divorces, that reason probably sounds mundane. How can an interpretive difference lead to such impassioned opposition? And occasional skirmishes aside, haven’t we been getting along for the most part in spite of the differences?

To conservatives, the question of same-sex unions has never been about love, tolerance, or acceptance; whether by Jesus, Paul, or themselves. It’s about the authoritative truth of scripture, and (for some of that group) its outworking through the historical church. While the words most commonly associated with homosexuality are few across the Bible, they appear in passages that indicate God’s displeasure towards any same-sex sexual activity.

To the conservative, acting sexually on homosexual desire is imperilling to the soul in the same way that a husband cheating on his wife puts his soul at risk for his disobedience. The husband can be forgiven and restored for his action, but only if he stops sleeping around and seeks repentance. So too the homosexual can be forgiven and accepted into the church, but only if he ceases to engage in homosexual sex and instead commits himself to celibacy or a heterosexual union (though the latter is not commonly advised).

This attitude towards homosexual sex comes from a rejection of more progressive (or revisionist, to use the conservative term) readings of the Bible’s few discussions of homosexuality. In the progressive reading, interpreters believe that the homosexuality of the bible does not equate to the loving, committed, same-sex unions that are rapidly gaining state-approval across America. Therefore, Paul (among others) was not referring to the type of homosexuality we know today, an expression of sex that is within the same bounds of marital fidelity that Christ himself reiterated from the Pentateuch.

No amount of personal, intellectual, or emotional appeal will move conservatives on this issue. To move is to put the soul of the gay person in eternal peril. It would be like smiling and waving as someone edges toward a cliff, making no effort to warn them before they go over. The state of the soul is essential, so unlike questions of baptism or eschatology or female pastors or other so-called “non-essentials”, the conservative sees this issue as essential, one of soul-saving obedience vs. soul-destroying disobedience to God. The most loving, compassionate response is to hold the line on heterosexual marriage and invite the homosexual into loving bonds of friendship to satisfy his or her need for love and community while keeping his or her soul safe for eternity.

Of course, progressives (and likely anyone unfamiliar with conservative theology) cry foul when they encounter that argument. How could a loving God place such an isolating, joy-destroying burden on those he loves? After all, gay people do not have a say in whom they are attracted to. The biblical test for whether something is good is whether the fruit that comes from it is good. Does it produce love, peace, patience, kindness, etc.? Same-sex marriages seem to accomplish that. But with high rates of suicide, even-higher rates of depression and self-harm, and a future of isolation, how can anyone claim that the fruits of the conservative position are good? Or to take it one step further, how can they claim that such a theology is from God?

The response is that the conservative position is not from God. It is a law-loving, graceless holdover from previous cultures that didn’t understand the homosexuality that we know today. Paul et al. weren’t referring to the loving homosexuality we know today; they were referring to cultic rituals, paedophilia, and abusive relationships that were intended to express power and domination. To enforce restrictions that were intended to reign in such excesses on loving, committed couples is cruel and offensive, straining the gnat towards gay people while swallowing the camel of straight privilege. To be in such a camp is to align oneself with the pharisees, those who elevated rules over grace.

While Jesus had compassion for the hated, for the oppressed, and for those sincerely seeking him, he did not have compassion on these gate-keepers of the faith. Their rules were stones being thrown over the necks of innocent victims, burdens that would kill anyone who had to carry them. God despises those who place such burdens on his children in his name, and they must be dealt with accordingly.

Shifting Winds

When you look at these arguments side-by-side, it’s amazing that conservatives and progressives have co-existed under the name Evangelical for this long. What is clear now is that this middle-ground unity existed more from omission than from thoughtful interaction.

When LGBT activists were focused on bringing civil union legislation across the country, conservative and progressive voices skirmished over whether this was a slippery slope towards something more. But marriage as an institution wasn’t what was up for grabs, so disagreement was largely cerebral. After all, the Bible never says anything about civil unions. What was true before remained true: if you’re not married, it would be a sin to sleep around. Yes, there were vocal Christian minorities who sought to challenge this viewpoint, but the majority of Americans still considered same-sex marriage to be a contradiction and a sin. Minority voices could not rise high enough to force a discussion on the question of marriage.

Without anything biblical at stake, both sides of the Evangelical camp could still work together. Issues like trafficking, hunger, poverty, and evangelism were core rallying points that joined the two sides together despite their differences. These represented a middle ground for action, even if there was disagreement on the question of sexuality.

But when the marriage winds shifted in Massachusetts, Iowa, and elsewhere, the debate inside churches shifted as well. With a word as theologically loaded as marriage, denominations, pastors, laypeople, and politicians began to quickly examine what constituted a “biblical” or “real” marriage. Biblical truth was now at stake.

Conservatives were sure from the start. Marriage is as it ever was: a God-ordained covenant between a man and a woman. Any other interpretation is revisionistic and contrary to the truth of scripture, both as it was intended by its authors and in its interpretation throughout the last two millenia. Progressives navigated a longer course, slowly discovering and examining other ways of interpreting scripture. Month-by-month and year-by-year, pastors, leaders, and denominations that were considered by conservatives to be “left-leaning” announced their switch to an affirming stance towards same-sex marriages. And one-by-one, conservative leaders denounced these switches as capitulations to the winds of culture, sure signs of God’s slowly removing his hand of common grace from creation.

With Twitter on the rise, hyperbolic accusations and denouncements started to fly across the table at an unprecedented pace. Coupled with heated election-year debates and the increasing frequency of states approving same-sex marriage, political arguments started to blend with theological arguments for both conservatives and progressives. Mommy and daddy began to fight in front of the children.

Then, in June of 2012, chicken-money pushed both sides over the edge. Political and religious conservatives rallied together to show their support for Chick-Fil-A. The ambiguity of what each person was supporting on Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day left progressive Christians with a bitter taste in their mouth. Gay Christians were being written off by many of the same conservative churches that they grew up in, with seemingly no care for the lives and stories of their peers. This was too much, and from this point on, progressives began to deal with conservatives in harsher tones, looking for any opportunity to expose contradictory words and behavior. While both sides still used “Evangelical” to describe themselves, it was clear that the niceties had been set aside, and the two parties were moving out. Cooperation had already dropped to cohabitation. By the end of the Chick-Fil-A controversy, this would change to separation.

As nearly two years passed, flair-ups between the two sides became more frequent. Every few weeks, someone from one side would fire a shot that would echo for a handful of news cycles. It was the evangelical version of the Hatfields and McCoys.

Until March, 2014 when World Vision unintentionally created the perfect storm that would erase whatever last lines were holding the two groups together. Rich Stearns, president of World Vision US, claimed that the initial reversal of the company’s hiring policy represented World Vision’s neutrality when he said, “We have decided we are not going to get into [the same-sex marriage] debate.” That’s laughable, now. Whether the organization intended to or not, they had dug up the nuclear option.

The politico-theological debate on same-sex marriage now had as its mascot the faces of thousands of impoverished children all over the world. Conservatives, feeling betrayed by one of their flagship charities, raised the heat of their rhetoric until the boiling water started spilling onto the kitchen floor where progressive Christians were standing. Withdrawal of child sponsorships. World Vision turning into “Worldly Vision” overnight. The “Collapse of Christianity at World Vision”, as Denny Burk titled his article. These were all-or-nothing accusations.

Progressives responded in kind. Withdrawal of support was likened to the murder of children. The true fruit of the conservative movement was being exposed for what it is, they said. Bigotry, hatred, and ignorance are the only explanation for such behavior. Many tweeted that they would no longer call themselves evangelical out of disgust for the behavior of conservatives. These, too, were all-or-nothing accusations.

When World Vision backtracked shortly thereafter, the sides switched, but the rhetoric remained the same. Conservatives encouraged each other to be gracious winners, but to also behold the true depths of the worldliness and compromise that progressives had sunk to. Progressives encouraged their donor bases not to withdrawal support from their newly-sponsored children while seething over the ungodliness of the law-loving, people-hating conservatives.

Whatever mutuality of purpose had existed before was completely obliterated by this scandal. Conservative and progressive evangelical Christianity had snapped in two. And whatever perception of middle ground had existed before was exposed for what it really was: an ignoring of differences that are genuinely and permanently insurmountable.

A Bleak Future

While conservatives appear to have won the battle for the soul of World Vision, the writing is on the wall for their ultimate alienation. Cultural and ecclesiastical acceptance of homosexuality only continue to gain momentum.

But alienation won’t come in the apocalyptic, persecutory way many conservatives tout to fire up their congregations at the polls. It will come as a slow dismissal into the same status as those who opposed the Civil Rights movement, perhaps even something akin to the hate groups of those days long past. They will continue to be permitted to live freely, to assemble as they wish, and so on, but not without the sharp scrutiny of a world that cannot possibly understand the theological commitments that have led to such an understanding.

On the other side of the aisle, Progressive Christians will celebrate each victory for equality as it comes along. Their voice will grow to become the sounding box of American Christianity. But with this position, they will have a choice in how to deal with their old bedmate.

If the bitterness and vitriol is allowed to continue in the name support for the oppressed, progressives will become another voice that leads to the marginalization of their conservative brethren. In fact, progressive attacks on conservatives will hold the most power in the broader culture because they speak the language and know the pain points of their former spouse better than anyone else.

But progressives can also choose to stand up for the person they once loved as he takes beating after cultural beating. Instead of casting stones in the name of the oppressed, progressives can use their ever-increasing cultural power to help others understand conservatives.

Yet this choice would require an enormous amount of growth from progressives. They would need to familiarize themselves once again with the depth of theological and faith commitments that conservatives have towards God. They would need to muster the courage that it takes to move from being a perpetual victim of the theology of the conservative church to a supporter of fellow Christians, even if the support came at the expense of their own cultural capital.

Most importantly, they would need to see themselves as cultural caretakers of someone who doesn’t want the help. Progressives would be teaching the broader culture about the true love, faith, and dedication of the conservative movement, even as the conservative movement denounces the progressives total assimilation to the gods of this world.

What To Do With the Children

As with almost every divorce, it’s the children that get overlooked. In this break-up, it seems the most immediate pawns are the lives and stories of the thousands of gay Christians (and those that love them) that walk through the doors of conservative and progressive congregations each Sunday.

When conservative author and speaker Kevin DeYoung says that he would be cheering the loudest if we never never had to talk about homosexuality again, he doesn’t realize that gay Christians, whether they affirm same-sex relationships or not, will only hear that he wishes we did not exist at all.

When progressive bloggers like David Henson blame conservatives for their homophobia, he unintentionally adds to the burden that conservative gay Christians carry as they try to be faithful to their faith commitment to God. In so doing, he dismisses their position as internalized homophobia, an equally unhelpful accusation that has led many to the despair he so desperately wants to fight.

Though their voices are varied, most gay Christians, myself included, have hoped and worked to find a middle ground – some argument or rationale that would calm both parents down enough to get them talking. For those of us who are stuck in the middle, there has never been a winning argument. There has never been a side that we have rooted for, because rooting for one side over another is rooting against those who have gone through the same experiences we have in their churches, schools, and families.

But more than ever, a middle ground looks like that elusive oasis that has finally and forever faded out into the distant desert. The differences of our parents are too great to overcome, and they are begging us to choose between the two of them. They both claim that the other has the soul of the devil within.

But as with most children of divorce, we are stuck in the middle, hating both sides for putting us in this position.


Me_editedBrian is a brand manager in Christian publishing with an MA in Biblical Exegesis from Wheaton College. As a self-labeled gay Christian in a mixed-orientation marriage,Brian enjoys writing from his own experiences at the intersection of faith and sexuality. Originally from southern California, he lives in Chicago’s western suburbs with his wife and three kids. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briansgee. 

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