As America lurches toward a fully same-sex-affirming public square, it is increasingly urged along by that most curious of cheerleaders: the “affirming pastor.” Those acquainted with even a passing knowledge of biblical ethics might find this phrase strange, even paradoxical. The Old Testament famously calls same-sex conduct an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22) and the apostle Paul does nothing to soften the portrait in Romans 1:2627. What alchemy produces the “affirming pastor,” then, if not Scripture?
The affirming pastor traveled through fire and wind to get where he’s landed. Long did he wrestle with Stubborn Paul, with Unbending Church History, with Steely-Eyed Jesus. Heroically did he (or she) weep over the Unmoved Apostles, pleading with Peter to soften his toneto lower his pitch, and use an inside voiceagainst false teachers and their compromised sexual practices, their correspondingly corrupted sexual ethics. Again and again the affirming pastor threw himself against the wall of Christian witness, imploring it to fall, to fall, and to fall, but it would not.
Take it from Ryan Meeks of EastLake Church in Seatttle, who led his church in an affirming direction: “We talk about it in D-Day terms. . . . So many other pastors are afraid, trying to figure the upside. Perhaps our contribution is to die to let others take the beach.” It’s tough, but try to follow the trail of thought here. It’s subtle, it’s hard to spot, but Meeks implies that he is not unlike the fallen men who bled out on the beaches to save Western civilization. We should be grateful that the connection is so boldly made.We crave heroes today. By all means, affirming pastor, lead the thirsty horse to water.
Why stop at mere comparison, though? Speak to us not only of great things that have been done; tell us of great things yet to come. Stan Mitchell of GracePointe Church in Franklin, Tennessee answers the call. When he announced that his church would affirm gay Christianity, he shared this little chestnut: “One day I will write a memoir, and a large portion of that memoir will be about this life-giving experience. The book is not to be written yet, because the final chapters are yet unwritten.”
This is just the start, though. “Could you be a church in Selma and not march, just handle your own community?,” Mitchell queries rhetorically. “I don’t think I can do that. We are on the front edge of a movement that means so much.” Those lonely few pastors who embrace what Scripture abominates are in Mitchell’s mind just like the civil-rights activists who suffered, bled, and died to advance racial equality. Never mind that few of those righteous activists called for personal attention. Never mind that their own activism called the church to own Scripture, not abuse it. Never mind that they are in many cases unknown. Today, we have many heroes, but so little heroism.
True heroes often have trouble talking about themselves. Unlike our modern pastoral liberators, they accomplished remarkable feats in profound humility. You can spot this instinct in past generations in spades. I recall asking my grandfather about his work in World War II. He toiled on radar systems in an M. I. T. laboratory that saved many lives, but you would have thought he had stacked Spam in Sardis. He was not alone. Many of us know that it’s nearly impossible to get veterans to talk about their wartime experiences.
Part of the reason for this reticence is the cost of heroism in a fallen world. True heroes stand against cultural ideology, not with it. In the face of rising cultural pressure, they must often sacrifice their reputation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, name-checked by David Gushee in his own affirming declaration, opposed the culture-shapers of his day. But that is a distinction lost on the affirming leader. The swirl of adulation that he stirs up around himself leaves him unable to hear such minor notes of dissonance. You cannot blame him, can you? He has ascended to the heights. He has, after much travail, gained the highest peak. He has found his name etched in the history books. Now, he wants us to affirm him, too.
This is the endgame of the affirming movement. It is a project that removes the scandal of the faith. Once you’ve whitewashed your houses’s doorposts of their bloody stain, you find that your neighbors stop looking at you funny, and your house looks just like every other abode in Egypt.
Owen Strachan is a professor of theology and history at Southern Seminary and Boyce College and the author of the forthcoming The Colson Way (Thomas Nelson).