Last week, City Church, a large evangelical church in San Francisco released this letter from its pastor and elders reflecting a shift in their position on same-sex sexual relationships. While they are not the first, nor will they be the last church to do so, their shift is particularly noteworthy because of the church’s original roots in the Presbyterian Church in America, a very conservative evangelical denomination, where it was planted in the model of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in New York City. All of this hits a bit close to home for me as an elder in a city church in the PCA.
What I found especially noteworthy were two points made in the letter justifying the shift—one biblical and one pastoral. The elders at City Church write,
For so long this has been a “case closed” kind of issue for evangelicals. But in recent years, multiple respected evangelical scholars and theologians have begun to wrestle with this and a healthy debate is underway. Asking questions about what the Scriptures say on this issue must always be coupled with asking why the Scriptures say what they do and what kind of same-sex activity is being addressed. Scholars and leaders who have previously been united in their interpretations are coming to different conclusions. This does not mean that your view must change, but it does counsel humility with how we each hold our views. Given the status and variety of these opinions, what has become clear to us is that there is no longer clear consensus on this issue within the evangelical community.
With respect to the traditional biblical ethic, they argue that while in the past there was an evangelical consensus on these matters, the advent of evangelicals like Ken Wilson advocating for a “third way” position means that this particular issue is now in the evangelical adiaphora, those things on which we can disagree but remain united since they do not strike at the vitals of the gospel. (Ron Belgau addressed this last year, arguing that the New Testament treats sexual ethics quite differently than the dietary questions which it does treat as adiaphora.)
All this strikes me as a particularly evangelical problem: the less we are rooted in the history of the church and its teachings, the more likely we are to see the shifts of a few scholars as cause to dismiss the previous consensus. This is true especially when there are both cultural and pastoral pressures to get with the times. I’m sympathetic with Professor Anthony Bradley’s comments on Twitter regarding the state of evangelicalism:
Church history ought to teach us to approach such revisions cautiously—2,000 years of church teaching should probably not be tossed away after a short period of intensive study. However, shifts in the evangelical consensus should lead us to humility in how we hold our views, not because we must be wrong, but because such shifts call for winsome and well-thought out responses.
Second, City Church’s letter appeals to the goal of “human flourishing” as pastoral grounds for their ethical change. This strikes close to home because this is much of the same language my own church uses to describe its pastoral goals in downtown St. Louis. The City Church elders go on to comment on celibacy:
Our pastoral practice of demanding life-long “celibacy”, by which we meant that for the rest of your life you would not engage your sexual orientation in any way, was causing obvious harm and has not led to human flourishing… In fact, over the years, the stories of harm caused by this pastoral practice began to accumulate. Our pastoral conversations and social science research indicate skyrocketing rates of depression, suicide, and addiction among those who identify as LGBT. The generally unintended consequence has been to leave many people feeling deeply damaged, distorted, unlovable, unacceptable, and perverted… This is simply not working and people are being hurt. We must listen and respond.
City Church should be commended for their desire to offer helpful and practical pastoral care for their LGBT people. As has been said here before, far too many evangelical churches view the totality of their obligation to same-sex attracted people in their congregations as reminding them that same-sex behavior is sin. So much of this paragraph rings true for LGBT people trying to live out celibate lives in the context of evangelical churches. Such vocations are so frequently unrecognized by fellow laypeople or unsupported by the structures of the church.
However, much of the project of the community here at SF has been an attempt to rectify the “problem” of celibacy not by abandoning the vocation, but by helping churches support it. We do so because what makes a vocation valid—and what defines human flourishing—are not social science statistics or even anecdotal evidence, but rather the Scriptures themselves. I want to be clear here that neither statistical data nor anecdotal evidence of the hardships of LGBT people ought to be dismissed. In many cases they are an indictment on the church for its failure to care for such people. However, while there is certainly a pragmatic element to evaluating human flourishing, the language of flourishing assumes a telos, and that goal is ultimately defined by God, not ourselves.
The celibate life of Jesus and those celibate saints who have come after him push us to reject the notion that the call to celibacy is a call “with no hope that you too might one day enjoy the fullness of intellectual, spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical companionship.” The fullness of these things are found in Christ, and the human approximations of them are found not only in marriage but in other human relationships, including friendship. Many of the writers here at SF have articulated quite honestly both the hope and the travail of celibacy. It is certainly not easy—but neither is it without hope of flourishing.
While the evangelical consensus wavers and the pastoral viability of celibacy is questioned, there is much cause for the evangelical church to take stock: On what basis do we believe what we believe about sexuality? What have we done to make celibacy a viable vocation in our churches? How will we respond to a culture that is increasingly hostile to the traditional ethic? How evangelicals respond to these questions will go far in determining the future of the traditional ethic in such churches across the country.
Kyle Keating received his M.Div. at Covenant Theological Seminary and teaches theology and history at a small Christian school in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives with his wonderful wife Christy. He can be followed on Twitter: @KyleAKeating.