David Gushee is thinking a lot about history. About social change, about civil rights movements, about religion, about power, about the Bible, about oppression, and about love. He has been thinking a lot about when the pro-LGBT movement within evangelicalism, one in which he has become a leading figure, will sweep across the church, transforming pulpits once known as bastions of anti-gay diatribe into bastions of Christ-like embrace of LGBT believers. He is certain change is coming—he’s just not certain how quickly.
But he does seem confident saying that decades from now, the anti-gay, “angry” stalwarts of today will look like “the dead-enders on race” did after the civil rights movement.
“My mind goes back to 1963, to the white churches in the south,” he says, referring pastoral reaction to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. “Who’s going to be brave? Who’s going to step up? There’s never a majority. There’s always people waiting for other people to go first.”
Gushee, a prominent evangelical ethicist, has been laying the groundwork for his coming out, as it were, over the past several months through a series of columns at Baptist News Global. He has turned that series into a book slated for publication next week, Changing Our Mind. When Religion News Service’s Jonathan Merritt offered a preview of the book last week—“Leading evangelical ethicist David Gushee is now pro-LGBT. Here’s why it matters”—the result was nothing short of a social media earthquake.
Both Gushee and Merritt would be the first to say that Merritt wasn’t exactly breaking news. After all, for anyone who has followed Gushee’s work, the revelation that he supports “covenanted same-sex relationships for Christians” was no surprise. He’s been coming to this position over time—too slowly, he admits now, telling me, “I’m not proud of how long it took me, in fact I apologize for that in the book.”
The book, he says, isn’t about marriage or sex, but “about acceptance of the most beaten-up minority in the Christian world. It’s about ending harm. It’s about adolescents making the terrifying discovery that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender” and being met with the “distressingly familiar response,” including “anger, abuse, rejection, exile, even the continued survival of ex-gay therapy.” The book is about, he says, “how do we come alongside of and offer Christian love to this particularly marginalized group of the Christian community.”
Reaction, Gushee says, has ranged from “predictable invectives from people who are fixated on the sexual question” to “extraordinary outpourings of gratitude.”
Indeed Gushee has been the target of harsh, dismissive criticisms from fellow evangelicals. Robert Gagnon, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writing in the Christian Post, called Merritt’s article “a tendentious puff piece” and contested Merritt’s description of Gushee’s “intellectual heft” with the accusation that “Dr. Gushee has ignored nearly all the major arguments against his embarrassingly bad exegesis.” Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, charged Gushee with “adopting the rhetoric of Christianity’s fiercest critics who routinely accuse us of being bigoted and hateful simply for believing what the Bible says about sexuality. I cannot understand why Gushee would stake-out such an uncharitable and intolerant stance against Christians who hold the very same views that he once held.”
Gushee says he doesn’t keep up with either the positive or negative buzz about the book. Instead, directs his energy towards what he considers signs of progress. He pointed to statements by leading Southern Baptists at the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s recent conference, The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage. (“Are you and your church prepared for the moral revolution surrounding homosexuality and same-sex marriage happening across America?” the ERLC asked in promotional materials for the conference. “While human sexuality and social institutions are being redefined before our very eyes, the Bible presents marriage as an unchanging picture of the gospel through the union of one man and one woman. The gospel announces that the story of Jesus is greater than the sum total of our sexual desires.”)
There were moments, though, of what Gushee calls “incremental progress” from the conference. SBTS president Albert Mohler said, “I repent of denying that sexual orientation was legitimate.” Russell Moore, the ERLC’s president, called “ex-gay” therapy “severely counterproductive.”
Other signs of “incremental progress” include churches that embrace LGBT believers—but only if they are celibate. Gushee is quick to add, “there are not that many people called to celibacy in this world and it’s a pretty miserable life if you’re not called to it.”
Gushee told me the attention the book is already receiving has led the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to reach out to him as a resource. Next weekend, in Washington, D.C., he will keynote the Reformation Project conference, at which he predicts, “history will be made.”
Whereas previous Reformation Project gatherings involved 20 or 30 participants, this year’s event will be “much more ambitious,” Gushee said. Founded last year by Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, the Reformation Project as a “grassroots movement” that is “growing exponentially,” Gushee says. He wanted to attend “to stand in solidarity with Matthew” and to “be one of the few gray beards” there.
Gushee uses the word “solidarity” frequently, emphasizing that he wants to say to LGBT Christians “I’m with you and the church needs to change.”
“Rejection at the hands of the church,” Gushee says, “is not rejection at the hands of Jesus.”