Note: I’d originally planned this as a Twitter thread, but because of its length, I thought I’d try my hand at Twitter’s newsletter function. Total fail. So I’ll just put it up here, for now. (Paragraphs are constrained by character limits because of my original intent to do this as a thread, but I think that works fine here.)
So, I’d hoped to keep this weekend free from Twitter battles, which is why I was only posting on noncontroversial topics like the self-evident superiority of cranberry fluff. But in the face of repeatedly being labeled a wolf or wolf-adjacent, false teacher, and destroyer of the gospel, I pushed back.
Denny Burk then affirmed that my work contains “false teaching” and that it “weakens the ordinary Christian’s resolve to trust scripture.”
I disagreed, and suggested that an unwillingness to interrogate how much of what passes for “biblical” is in fact deeply shaped by cultural, historical, and political lenses.
Then, to the surprise of exactly no one, Burk pivoted the conversation to inquire as to whether I believed “homosexuality is sinful.”
Now, I have repeatedly sought to demonstrate how, even as historical research is always informed by a researcher’s positionality, there are also professional norms and standards that mean that, regardless of a scholar’s views on any given subject, their work can be assessed on its own merits.
I read and cite scholars who hold fundamentally different views on every issue imaginable. Often, I have no clue where they’re coming from ideologically, politically, or religiously. When I do, I intentionally seek out work by those who do hold different views than I do, precisely because I know my own assumptions will be challenged and my own work sharpened through rigorous intellectual engagement.
This, I would argue, is precisely what Christian scholars ought to be doing, not hiding out in our own echo chambers and refusing to read or take to heart the work of anyone who does not affirm every jot or tittle of one’s “Christian worldview.”
At the same time, I value honesty and transparency, and I hate passing up a good teachable moment, so in that spirit, let me address Burk’s question.
Do I personally affirm “the church’s teaching that homosexuality is sinful?” Which church? My own church (local & denomination) is actively reexamining this issue in light of tradition, interpretation, history, & science. I’m participating, but as a historian, not a theologian.
I grew up holding the “traditional” view, that same-sex sexual relationships were sinful. As far back as I can remember, though, I never believed that a theological view on this matter should dictate government policy in a way that abridges fundamental civil rights.
This wasn’t because I was currying favor with progressives. I didn’t know many back then. My own strand of Reformed thinking comes w/ a deep respect for pluralism & rejection of Christian nationalism. (Esp among my Dutch profs who’d endured Nazi occupation.)
Since that time, I’ve encountered compelling theological & historical arguments that challenge or complicate traditional approaches to this issue. I’ve read several but have several more to read, and am doing so in conversation w/ “traditional” perspectives.
I’m doing this all in community, w/ scholars, pastors, theologians, & LGBTQ+ Chrs, as part of my local church, as part of an officially sanctioned denominational process, and in an official capacity as a representative of my university.
I imagine at some point I’ll write on the topic. I haven’t yet, because I prefer to write on subjects where I have considerable expertise. I’ve spent 2 decades researching Chr patriarchy & Chr feminism. I wrote a book on the history of pre-1970s evangelical feminism.
The book may be illuminating, b/c I think Burk’s question here represents a persistent & fundamental misunderstanding of connections b/t faith & history. (Maybe it’s just an attempt to discredit me so he doesn’t have to engage my research, but giving the benefit of the doubt here.)
As a relatively unformed grad student, my original intent was to explore/”prove” the compatibility of Chr & feminism. I soon realized this was the wrong approach to history. The thesis of the project shouldn’t be: “See, Christians can/should be feminists, too!”
Instead, it became: “American Christianity has evolved over time. So has feminism. This is why at times it has been easier to be a Christian feminist, at times harder.” Read it sometime. It’s a book that cuts both ways.
As you read, I challenge you to try to figure out where I agree w/ my subjects & where I disagree, especially in the 2½ chapters on historical theology. Truth is, I find some arguments more compelling than others & I have theological reasons, but I also realize that I might be wrong.
My purpose in that book isn’t to tell readers what to think or to make authoritative theological pronouncements. It’s to offer a deeply researched history that is useful to academics & Christians alike. Maybe especially to theologians.
It’s also a book that demonstrates how orthodox, Bible-believing Chrs, even evangelicals who come to identify as fundamentalists, can hold opposing views on issues like patriarchy, headship, & what it means to follow Christ as women & men. And, it shows how history, culture, & experience shape theology *on all sides.*
So, how do I treat “homosexuality” in J&JW? The fact that there’s a strong historical/theological tradition of Chrs denouncing same-sex relationships (there are also intriguing counterexamples) does not in & of itself explain Anita Bryant, anti-ERA, or seeing the “homosexual menace” as a threat to America.
It’s possible to hold “traditional” views on sexuality but hold them very differently. It’s possible to believe in male headship but refuse to link masculine “protection” to American militarism. It’s possible hold evangelical theological views but denounce Chr nationalism.
My book tells the story about how Christian patriarchy, white Chr nationalism, & Am militarism became so closely intertwined that now, for many Am Christians, to critique one aspect is perceived as an attack on Christianity itself.
That people like Burk see my book as undermining the gospel may mean that they, too, have conflated some of these things. Maybe we’re just working from different views of Scriptural authority. My Reformed tradition has long resisted a narrower (selectively applied) view of inerrancy.
So back to theology. Burk points to I Cor 15:1-5 as the heart of the gospel. Agreed! So much so that I refuse to use views on gender, sexuality, atonement theory, baptism, spiritual gifts and the like as a way to preemptively exclude believers from fellowship in the Body of Christ.
We can spend our lives asking what right belief & obedient discipleship looks like in all these areas, & we should. But I’m going to do so in conversation & communion with my LGBTQ sisters & brothers in Christ. Because of the gospel.