The “affirming” word to Christians like me: “You have a message of death and I pray for your soul”

April 27, 2015

This week’s episode of Unbelievable, a podcast I praised a while back, hosted a debate on The Issue last week between Dr. Robert Gagnon, the foremost mainstream (and mainline Protestant) Bible scholar defending the church’s traditional doctrine on homosexual practice, and Jayne Ozanne, an evangelical Anglican revisionist on the subject, who came out as gay earlier this year.

I have often cited on this blog Gagnon’s seminal book from Abingdon Press, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, which defends the historic Christian position.

I linked to this debate on Facebook, inviting gay-affirming clergy colleagues and those in the infamous “Methodist Middle” (who, let’s face it, are often one and the same) to listen. I said: “Pay attention to the care with which each one uses scripture to make his or her case. Which side is more faithful to our Wesleyan understanding of the role of scripture in guiding our faith and practice?”

A friend commented that the affirming side was poorly served by Ozanne, who seemed unprepared to match wits with Gagnon on what the Bible actually says about homosexual practice. Why not have a gay-affirming Bible scholar go at it with Gagnon? Wouldn’t that be a fairer fight?

Two responses: First, Dr. Gagnon himself, who is a Facebook friend, pointed out that while he’s “happy to debate any biblical scholar, theologian, ethicist, etc. at any time at any place,” he can’t get anyone to do it any longer. “For the first 5-7 years after my first book came out, I could get debates. Then I went through them all and word spread. This includes Brownson, Gushee, and Vines, none of whom will meet me for a rigorous discussion of what Scripture says and how it is to be appropriated faithfully in our contemporary context.”

Second, the debate was useful because it lays bare the shallowness of the arguments upon which so many of our colleagues are willing to overturn the church’s unanimous, two-millennia verdict that homosexual practice is a sin. Ozanne, who mostly argues from personal experience, repeated many of the things I’ve heard from our colleagues. What Ozanne believes, they also believe.

If, like Ozanne, my “affirming” colleagues are unwilling to engage scripture on the subject in the same serious way in which Gagnon does, then what they are saying, in so many words, is this: “I don’t care what the Bible says: here’s what it means.”

In doing so, they have moved far beyond any Wesleyan, much less Protestant, understanding of the authority of scripture.

Around the 49:00-minute mark, Ozanne, unable to meet his arguments head-on, resorts to attacking Gagnon’s character and Christian faith.

Sadly, this feels familiar to me: In my limited experience defending the same doctrine that, at one time or another, all of my fellow clergy said they agreed with, even some of them have resorted to ad hominem attacks against me. That’s fine—sticks and stones and all that. But let’s call a spade a spade.

That’s what Gagnon does in the following exchange, and good for him. Please notice that Ozanne insinuates that something is spiritually wrong with Gagnon for having these convictions—convictions that I share. So his problem is also my problem—and Pope Francis’s problem, for that matter.

What is wrong with all of our souls?

In the following transcript, which begins at 49:04, after Gagnon has just finished citing gay-affirming Bible scholars who agree with him that the Bible’s witness against homosexual practice is unambiguous, Ozanne begins her personal attack.

OZANNE: Robert, I admire your certainty on everything, and I have to be honest, I frankly don’t care how many hundreds of pages people have written. I’m very much reminded of the ‘wisdom of the wise I will frustrate.’ For me it’s about the nature of God and his love for us.

I’m afraid your certainty that this is so wrong leaves no room whatsoever for giving life to people who, um, I thinking of a teenager who’s just committed suicide. I mean, you have a message of death, and you’re so certain about it, I pray for you and your soul. Because I think—I hope—that your listeners, Justin, will listen with their hearts about what they feel is truly happening here… And the ultimate thing is, what is going on in our spirits beforehand to try and help us interpret [what scripture says about homosexual practice].

And I would suggest the ultimate place to start is looking at what Christ has done for us, which is to ensure that in his death on the cross, there is nothing else that is needed to bring everyone into the kingdom

GAGNON: I think you’ve distorted and given a truncated version of the gospel, and I think that’s part of the problem with your whole picture. But I also want to address the fact that earlier you had somewhat of an ad hominem attack on me with regard to my certainty, which I think is inappropriate.

O.K., first of all, it may be that a particular case in scripture does have overwhelming evidence. So it’s then a kind of manipulative argument to say that your ‘certainty’ is a problem. Maybe it’s your lack of an ability to respond to the arguments in question, and then you lash out with an ad hominem attack at somebody—that it’s their ‘certainty’ that’s the problem. Maybe your problem is your inability to actually defend the position.

And then you have an overarching presentation of the gospel that seems to completely leave out the fact that Christ doesn’t just call us to get what we want. He calls us to take up our cross, to lose our lives, and to deny ourselves. That doesn’t, to me, sound like getting what I want, when I want, with whom I want.

[Crosstalk]

Let me finish my train of thought because you’ve interrupted me again… My train of thought is that you have a notion about what fullness of life is. And that fullness of life is not reflected in the gospel. Paul, on a regular basis, had a life that was much more troubling than yours, mine, or anyone else around here. Every day he would get up in the morning, he could be beaten by rods by secular authorities. He could be whipped forty lashes minus one in the synagogues. He could be stoned, and we’re not talking about drugs here. He was poorly sheltered, poorly clad, poorly fed. In constant anxiety for his churches.

By your token or definition of what a meaningful existence is, he should have been absolutely miserable, and blamed God every day of his life for the kinds of experiences he had—even beaten up en route to share the gospel without actually sharing it—what’s the point of that? Shipwrecked, et cetera.

His point is that he’s rejoicing, because as he’s carrying around in his body the dying of Jesus, the life of Jesus is being manifested in him. As he’s brought to the point of whether he’s even going to live the next day, as he talks about in 2 Corinthians 1, he is brought to the point of relying on the God who has raised Jesus from the dead.

25 Responses to “The “affirming” word to Christians like me: “You have a message of death and I pray for your soul””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Excellent points by Gagnon. The response is in the same vein as, “Well, you must be homophobic.” No scriptural support; so, “You just must not care about people.”

    I like the discussion of Paul–God never promised us an “easy” life of “getting what we want.” Instead, we are supposed to daily CONSTRAIN ourselves to wanting something NEW and, ultimately, better for us–wanting what GOD wants. And how do we know what God wants? What scripture says. Not whatever I happen to want to be true.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Indeed! How do we know what God wants apart from his infallible Word? Oh wait… Whatever our culture tells us.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, your comment reminds me of the first letter to the editor I ever had published by the Fort Worth Star Telegram over 25 years ago. The tag ending which was doubtless the reason for its publication was–“she has graduated from what God says to–her own opinion.”

      • brentwhite Says:

        Sounds about right!

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I wasn’t expecting to sit through the whole hour and 21 minutes, but I was transfixed. Gagnon is brilliant and able to pull his arguments together better than I have ever heard on this subject.

    Ozanne could only continue to come back the the emotional arguments. Some version of “God made me that way, and God loves me, and I really feel good about myself now, so it must be what God intended, and if you don’t like it then you are a closed minded, unloving person who just doesn’t understand the love of Jesus, because he loves everybody just the way they are.” Whew!!

    Sadly, more and more of today’s “church leadership” (and I use the term with sarcasm in my voice) is all too anxious to embrace this inclusiveness argument.

    Thanks for putting me on to this resource.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Great summary of the homosexual “inclusiveness” position, Grant. You say it even better than most of them do!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Gagnon is a treasure! He’s watched his own denomination, the PCUSA, of which he’s an ordained clergy, cave in on this issue. Ozanne, self-described evangelical, was unwilling to engage the Bible. Nothing in the Bible could change her mind, anyway. That’s depressing.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Actually, there was someone Gagnon mentioned in the introduction, with whom he had debated, that I thought was being totally honest. He is an advocate of the inclusiveness doctrine, said it wasn’t supportable scripturally, and said that Jesus would not have condoned it, but also said that he disagreed with Jesus. Now that’s being honest!!

    • brentwhite Says:

      In my Facebook thread, Gagnon told me he once debated the dean of Yale Divinity, who conceded that Gagnon was right on scripture, “But for me it’s not about the Bible anyway.” That says it all, doesn’t it? They’re beyond the Bible now. They’ve outgrown it. Who cares about those dusty ancient words?

  4. Josh Says:

    Yeah, that mirrors my experience with online conversations. But in personal, one-on-one conversations I have had a little bit more luck. I usually put the conversation on the topic of a theology of the body, the “flesh” (Paul’s ontological understanding of the person), and about the hidden assumption about sexual identity (culture tells us sexual lust is our ultimate identifier; the Bible tells us that our identity is rooted in Who created us). I am usually met with the same ol’ arguments but when I start talking about these other things, I get blank stares (they were not expecting what I was I going to say; they have encountered new paradigms of thought and don’t know how to handle it) and then sometimes the statement, “Well, that’s interesting . . . hmmmmm.”
    The truth is that the conversation was over a long time ago. It’s just a bunch of people who know better and some who don’t know any better trying to work the same ol’ worn out arguments. The apostle Paul warns about associating with those go about spreading false doctrine to the weak-willed. I don’t respond to fellow clergy like some of those in the UM who just kind of have this “you believe this; I believe that; let’s all get together” attitude. Some of these people are enemies in the gospel and it’s time to quit playing the PC game. I will be gentle with those I converse with UNLESS I discover that they have no intention of ever changing their mind. And I find out someone is going around spreading lies about the gospel, then me and that person are enemies. I will pray for them . . . but, like Paul said, if you preach another gospel then the one that was once delivered to the saints, then may you be accursed. And that’s what the whole “a person’s identity is rooted in their sexual lusts/liberal Jesus” thing is: it’s a false gospel.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    Preaching another Gospel. That nails it.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    Just ordered Gagnon’s book (the short one). I want to be able to answer the way he does. Calmly, accurately and fully. I’m tired of the emotional and ad hominem “attack back”, in your face strategy. This gives me a reasoned way to answer. When the other side goes low, I’ll just call that what it is and move on.

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views – October 1, 2009

    Gagnon says that this is to be considered an update and condensation of the 2001 book.

  8. bobbob Says:

    i have not listened to discussion yet. read a lot of the comments on the unbelieveable site. people don’t like their personal choices called sin. Adam and Eve did not like it, Satan didn’t, and i don’t. sexuality is the one enterprise we free-beings engage in that brings us closer to the practice of our creator: we create life from as close to nothing as we can get. “forged in the fires of human passion” to quote R Mullins. we can paint, sculpt, compose, write verse and prose, all beautiful, but none is a baby. and to exercise the enterprise like we do, outside biblical marriage, whether straight or LGBTQ throws this gift back and says “poo.” intimacy is what we are made for, like the trinity has intimacy, but we have imperfect natures to overcome, and so the intimacy is not perfect but that does not stop us from trying to find it. even we, married a long time, have our struggles both within and without the relationship. perfect intimacy is our goal: only through Jesus to the Father guided by Spirit will we ever achieve it. the bible says what He meant. sin is sin: it is wanting intimacy with any thing or any one but God.

    i be guilty.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Well said, bobbob. So you’re suggesting, I think, that since the gift of sex (and the life it often produces) comes closer to God-like power than anything else we know (both in creating life and in emulating the intimacy of the Trinity) then its potential for abuse at the hands of sinners like us becomes that much greater.

      • bobbob Says:

        exactly. and yes to grant: all sin is personal choice. the choice of telling God that He and His provision is not to our standards. He’d better get with it or else. problem is, the ‘or else’ is on us not Him.

  9. Grant Essex Says:

    No, people do not like their personal choices called sin, but isn’t ALL SIN a matter of personal choice?

    Sex seems to be an especially powerful driver of sin. Adultery, abortion, pre-marital sex, sex for hire, and homosexual activity have all risen dramatically over the last 50 years, and the velocity of all is on the increase. It’s hard to imagine how this trend is going to be reversed. Sad state of affairs.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Don’t forget pornography (which, come to think of it, includes most of these kinds of sexual sins rolled into one)!

  10. Grant Essex Says:

    Yes, pornography. But, I see porno as “bait” and as an expression of other kinds of sexual sin. There is man-woman porn, gay porn, pedophile porn, beastiality porn; you imagine it – they porn it. Another money for lust industry……

    Ugh! The gutter is foul indeed. Why do so many find it enjoyable?

    • brentwhite Says:

      One particular danger with porn is that, at least in the old days, you had to go to a seedy part of town, on the wrong side of the tracks, to find this stuff. Now it comes free into every home.

  11. Grant Essex Says:

    That was one of the points of my “trend” comment above.

    Heck, when I was 11 or so, we peeked at the Sears Catalog to see women in their undies, and thought we were pretty naughty.


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