Evangelicalism’s boundary war

AFL out of bounds

If Christian news obeyed the rules of AFL, then we saw a star player kick the ball out of bounds on the full this week. That gets a free kick to the other side. The star player is Richard B. Hays, a highly regarded theologian, and the kick is an announcement of a forthcoming book written with his son Christopher  The Widening of God’s Mercy: Sexuality Within the Biblical Storyout in September from Yale University Press. The publicity blurb sent out with previews book centres on Richard B. Hays changing his mind on LGBTQIA issues.

“The authors — a father and son — point out ongoing conversations within the Bible in which traditional rules, customs and theologies are rethought. … The book begins with the authors’ personal experiences of controversies over sexuality and closes with Richard Hays’ epilogue reflecting on his own change of heart and mind.”

It’s a measure of the elder Hay’s reputation that a book not published for five months has aroused such strong comments. It is in part because many evangelicals have looked to Hay’s conservative treatment of homosexuality in his The Moral Vision of The New Testament as a bulwark against progressive theology.

And it’s a free kick in the sense that Christians who agree with Richard B. Hays’ earlier views have rushed the ball towards their goal.

Speaking for many evangelicals, Aussie Blogger Stephen McAlpine expresses his frustration at the news. “Now I know that his book, co-authored with his son, Christopher B Hays (oh behave Christopher!), has not come out yet, but there are many affirming post-evangelicals and progressives who are practically giddy with excitement over the impending release of the book. And that’s just in the US. Wait until the Australian contingent (minority groups in NSW Baptists etc) get hold of this.”

Celibate Gay Christian David Bennett – a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Theology and Ethics at Oxford University and an Australian exile, posted “The way the book cover is written is typical of publishers looking to make a lot of money out of the grief of queer Christians and to give others a false hope that the scriptural tradition says something it simply does not say. The New Testament already unequivocally affirms i) the justification of LGBTQI+/SSA people by faith along with the Gentiles ii) the theodicy problems with embodiments outside of the male and female differentiation like eunuchs, and a very strong ethic of holiness which calls Gentiles to refrain from any form of porneia (those activities outside of marriage as understood in its Judaic form in the Law).”

Bennett also cautioned, “It is beyond exhausting seeing the conversation continually thrown into culture-war flurries which co-opt scholarship and pastoral realities through a string of elder male heterosexual scholars who decide to change their mind to apologetically puff up Side A discourses.”

Side A refers to those with progressive LGBTQIA theologies.

This takes this piece back to the AFL analogy. One player has kicked the ball – and it has crossed the boundary for evangelicals. This controversy and others like it, locally in the Anglican, Baptist and Uniting churches, indicate boundaries are being drawn tighter, with same-sex issues emerging as a boundary issue for evangelicals.

The NSW/ACT Baptists have made the conservative view the subject of a “position statement” with progressive churches asked to leave if they can’t agree with it. Anglicans in Australia have seen a conservative majority emerge, with an entrenched progressive minority, the reverse of the Uniting church.

The conservative view of LGBTQIA is becoming more and more to be seen as an evangelical default position – the boundary line of our AFL analogy. There will be some owning the name “evangelical” who disagree – it is the nature of church disputes that both sides try to hang on to the identifying words used by the other side. A good example is the “Biblical Obedience” movement in the United Methodist church – it lobbies for the progressive side of the debate.

It’s notable that the two Hays occupy key academic roles. The younger Hays, the lead author of The Widening of God’s Mercy, is Christopher B. Hays, the lead author of The Widening of God’s Mercy, is the D. Wilson Moore Professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller, Baptist News Global reports had sacked a previous holder of that job for his similar views on human sexuality.

The elder Hays is George Washington Ivey Professor Emeritus of New Testament Duke Divinity School, which in his time featured other top scholars like Stanley Hauerwas, and EP Sanders drawing wide range of Christians to their scholarship, but may be a victim of American polarisation in recent years.

The question raised is whether Fuller, a base for the church growth movement, remains evangelical or does Christopher Hays represent a broadening of evangelicalism.

Or does the emergence of a conservative view of LGBTQIA issues as an evangelical distinctive mean that Fuller is moving out of evangelicalism?

A bigger announcement this week concerned the Catholic Church with a doctrinal statement Dignitas Infinita, including opposition to same sex marriage and gender theory as breaches of human dignity.

The firm aligning of the Catholic Church on the conservative side of these issues, despite some comments by Pope Francis, would seem to be bigger news than one or two evangelical theologians rethinking their position, and kicking the ball over the boundary. But the evangelical commentary has simply focussed on the Hays.

Image credit /: Wikimedia