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.
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.