Carl Trueman’s Zero-Sum Game

Sammy Rhodes - This is Awkward

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, RUF campus pastor Sammy Rhodes wrote an apology to the LGBTQ community for various ways that he and other Christians have failed to love them. The various discussion after the shooting exposed to Rhodes some critical ways that Christians, and himself foremost, have failed to love the LGBTQ community. Rhodes had come to the realization that our view of sin must be broader than questions of sexual ethics, as I’ve written about before. I’ve found that many Christians are complacent in these sins in large part due to lack of awareness, and I’ve been complacent in many of them myself for similar reasons. So I was encouraged to see that Rhodes was recognizing them and offering a heartfelt apology to a group of people that was in particular pain. I was especially happy to see this coming from my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and from someone in a ministry I’ve been supporting for several years.

The next day, Carl Trueman posted a very critical response. Trueman’s piece was titled “Zero-Sum Game.” As I was reading the piece, his thesis seemed fairly apparent to me. There were two competing perspectives, that of traditional Reformed Christianity and that of the LGBTQ community. Trueman would often pit these against each other as a zero-sum game. For example, when Rhodes apologized for being more concerned about certain social issues than about LGBTQ people, Trueman interpreted this apology as “trivializing the issues of personal and religious liberty which these other cases embody.” I was, however, perplexed to see Trueman then offer the instruction, “do not engage in zero sum games that unnecessarily trivialize other ethical issues and generate false dichotomies.” The deep irony here is that it was not Rhodes who was engaging in a zero-sum game, but rather Trueman. Rhodes apologized for caring more about the issues than the people; he did not apologize for caring about the issues at all.

It seemed to me that Trueman had almost completely failed to understand Rhodes’s post. I was surprised by this, since he has offered helpful engagement on similar questions in the past. In the present case, however, Trueman apparently expected a pastor to respond to 49 people killed in cold blood primarily by “clarifying his terms” and “offering arguments rather than aesthetics.” I’ve found a tendency in myself, and in the Reformed world at large, to over-intellectualize things. It’s more comfortable than letting ourselves feel pain and remorse over the evil that exists both in the world and in ourselves. But it’s a temptation that we must resist.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Trueman’s response itself fails as an intellectual response. Trueman consistently attacks straw man versions of Rhodes’s arguments. For example, he claims, “An implicit and simplistic connection between the massacre and Christian belief is assumed.” However, Rhodes makes no such connection. Rather, he talks about how he was convicted about the silence of Christians, as exposed in the responses (or lack thereof) to the Orlando massacre. So where does Trueman’s idea come from? It seems to be an uncritical acceptance of the false dichotomy presented by many progressive commentators between traditional doctrine and compassion towards LGBTQ people. It is ironic that it is again Trueman, not Rhodes, who has adopted a false dichotomy.

It’s true that Rhodes didn’t offer a great deal of precision in describing what exactly Christians have done wrong. I don’t think Rhodes himself has a great deal of experience discussing all this publicly. However, this is what you’d expect from someone who has just recognized these failures as a result of conversations in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre. This does not mean that he should be attacked and misrepresented. And it’s missing the forest for the trees not to take this as an opportunity to reflect on the various ways we’ve been judgmental, Pharisaical, or uncaring toward the LGBTQ community. Rhodes’s post is just a start to that conversation, not the final word.

From what I can see, it also seems that Trueman views Rhodes’s apology as succumbing to pressure from the LGBTQ community. This is apparent in the fact that Trueman’s longest paragraph is focused on how Rhodes’s argument doesn’t go far enough to actually achieve this goal. By using this approach, Trueman fundamentally misunderstands Rhodes’s point. Rhodes is addressing sins against the LGBTQ community because they’re sins, and contrition for sin is righteous. This isn’t some sort of capitulation to a progressive culture. This is the Gospel applied to our own lives. And the pressure Rhodes is facing includes pressure from conservatives to dismiss LGBTQ pain as an excuse for a “lobby” to justify an “identity” or sinful behavior. Kudos to Rhodes for standing up to that pressure.

Ultimately, the sorts of false dichotomies Trueman advocates are harmful to the witness of the Christian church. The fact of the matter is that LGBTQ people do face a great deal of pain and injustice. And when people see the result of current Christian approaches as the fruit of traditional teaching, they often abandon sound doctrine. So let’s absolutely examine our own hearts and apologize boldly for our own sins. Let’s model contrition and show that the Gospel still has power in our own lives.

6 thoughts on “Carl Trueman’s Zero-Sum Game

  1. Whatever the merits of the apology (and I think an apology of some sort is probably fitting), I am troubled by the tone of Rhodes’s comments. For instance:

    “Please forgive us for not being like Jesus, who when he was with the woman at the well cared far more about sharing a drink with her than he did about her sexual choices.”

    Is that true? Jesus convicted her of sin in that conversation, and not in an extremely gentle way either. Jesus communicated a desire for a relationship that would MAKE HER SEXUAL CHOICES CHANGE. (Her sexual choices are the cups of water that never satisfy). Jesus clearly was telling her to change her life, and she did change her life.

    The idea that Jesus had a “live and let live” attitude is a COMPLETE misunderstanding of the Gospel.

    • Daniel,

      You left out the next sentence, “We’re all that woman at the well.” That helps place it in some context. Even so, his broader point seems to be that, to the extent that one believes same-sex sexual acts to be sinful, that belief cannot eclipse our need to recognize that all of us are made in God’s image and we all fall short of countless ways. We’re often fairly light on those whose sins are common to the subculture in which we live and move. I think that’s why LGBTQ people are easy targets for Christians: We can mock their sin without fearing that we may be offending anyone else at church. By contrast, we don’t say much about adultery, as we run the risk of offending those who may struggle with that sin.

      • I agree with the broader point that you make, Evan. We all do fall short in countless ways. And I also agree that we come down more judgmentally on those who are outsiders. None of this justifies the claim that Jesus downplayed the woman at the well’s sexual choices, though. I’m hoping that was just a momentary mistake Rhodes made, not an indication of a more fundamental theological error.

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