Fuller Seminary decided not to offer tenure to a New Testament professor, J. R. Daniel Kirk, whose view of marriage does not comport with Jesus’s view.
Although a decision such as this is never made happily or easily, I am grateful for the courage of senior faculty at Fuller Seminary in asserting the importance of a stance on sexual ethics that Jesus clearly regarded as foundational: a male-female requirement for sexual relations (Mark 10:2-12; Matt 19:3-9). Had Fuller set a precedent of embracing faculty whose position toward sexual ethics was so at odds with Jesus’s own, it would soon have ceased to be an evangelical institution.
For an account of what happened, we have to rely on Kirk’s June 29 blogpost, “Fuller and Me.” Fuller Seminary issued a statement saying, “Fuller is not legally permitted to participate in public conversation regarding any individual’s employment by the Seminary.” According to Kirk:
[For] a couple of my senior Bible colleagues . . . one had to like the idea that we define Christianity by what we believe. . . . So when I say, “The Synoptic Gospels show Jesus as an idealized human figure,” I have not said enough. If I cannot say, ‘And it also shows the divine Jesus, as we learn in the creeds,’ I have articulated a theology that ‘is on a trajectory’ away from our shared statement of faith. . . .
You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I left that panel on how to respond to SCOTUS and walked across campus to a meeting with a couple of senior colleagues who indicated that my writing on homosexuality was going to be a profound hindrance to their ability to support me should I apply for tenure. . . .
Fuller has this phrase, ‘Fuller fit,’ that we use to evaluate potential colleagues. It’s an amorphous way of saying that we know ‘us’ when we see it. My senior colleagues have decided that I do not qualify under this rubric. I will therefore be leaving at the end of the 2015-16 academic year.
Apparently, then, in a meeting with two senior faculty, Kirk was informed that they (and perhaps other senior colleagues) would not be able to support him for tenure should he so apply, given his stance on homosexual practice and, perhaps secondarily, on low Christology in the Synoptic Gospels.
Last year I had called attention to Kirk's surprising slant toward acceptance of homosexual unions both in a chapter on homosexuality in his 2011 book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? and in a 2013 Baker Academic blog post.
Already in 2011 Kirk stated that a good “case can be made” for accepting homosexual unions as a work of the Holy Spirit and that Scripture “might not” be “the last word.” He believed that such a case could be made by appealing both to the “no ‘male and female’” comment in Gal 3:28 and to the precedent of including uncircumcised Spirit-empowered Gentiles in Acts 15 (for a rebuttal see the Appendix to my article). He argued that the church should spend more time hearing “gay”-affirming “stories” and that it was a violation of the Golden Rule for Christians not to support state-sanctioned same-sex marriages or civil unions and a litany of “sexual orientation” laws.
Given this swing on Kirk’s part, it remains puzzling to me that when President Mark Labberton was an associate professor of preaching at Fuller he gave a strong endorsement to Kirk's book, including the chapter on homosexuality: “What makes this book exceptional is that Kirk. . . . addresses a complex and commonly felt set of controversies about Jesus, Paul, women, sexuality and homosexuality and does so in particularly careful, unflinching ways. . . . demonstrating an interpretive manner that both honors Scripture and wrestles with it.”
Kirk appears to be puzzled too, from the other side: “Now-president Mark Labberton mentioned the chapter on homosexuality in his endorsement on the back. He invited me to do a webinar on pastoral responses to homosexuality in society. And when one of his first acts as president was to host a panel in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rulings on Prop 8 and DOMA, he invited me to serve as a panelist. Fuller had shown itself to be a place where we could . . . confess that our traditional readings of the Bible might be wrong. . . . You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I left that panel on how to respond to SCOTUS. . . .”
Kirk recently published further indications of support of committed homosexual unions. On June 9 in a blog post entitled, “Gay Christians: Should Relationships Matter?” he made a bad analogy between Jesus changing his mind toward the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus changing his mind about “gay” relationships. I think a better reading of the story in Mark 7:24-30 is that it concerns a change only of timing as regards Gentile outreach (sooner rather than later), not a change in substance.
The OT has many positive portrayals of Gentiles (Ruth and Naaman are two among others) and some eschatological images of Gentile outreach; Gentiles were only typically sinful, not intrinsically so. The kind of “change” involved here is very different from the kind of change that would be required to affirm a form of sexual behavior that violates the very foundation of sexual ethics in Jesus’s understanding and the witness of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.
Two weeks later, on June 26, Kirk published a blog post entitled “Gay Marriage: The Law of the Land” in which he stated, “I, for one, am glad about what happened today. I’m glad because I think it’s the right thing for our country. And I’m glad for my friends whose weddings I’ll be attending over the next year—friends whose lives will be made richer and more secure by the institution of marriage they are legally able to join themselves in.” Imagine taking a similar celebratory position had SCOTUS ruled in favor of broadening marriage to include adult-consensual multiple-partner or close-kin unions.
Jesus extrapolated a limitation of two persons to a sexual union from the Creator's intentional design of two primary sexes for sexual union. Polyamory is a violation of a principle derived secondarily from a male-female foundation. Homosexual practice is a direct violation of the foundation itself. Moreover, the principle of complementary otherness of body is first set in creation with male-female differentiation, not a differentiation of kinship.
A certain James F. McGrath, a NT professor at Butler University, responded to Kirk's situation on June 29 by posting on a Facebook site called “Annual Meeting Hotel Lobby: An Unofficial SBL/AAR Member Group” that Fuller should be denied accreditation: “Shouldn't we petition organizations we belong to, like the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature, to take a stand and in turn petition accrediting bodies that schools which penalize scholars for doing genuine research ought not to have secular accreditation?” (similarly on his blog).
In view of the fact that many leftwing “liberal” institutions associated with SBL/AAR “penalize [conservative] scholars for doing genuine research” that leads to a negative assessment of homosexual practice, it is hard not to view this defense of “genuine research” as more than a tad hypocritical.
American Evangelical, Orthodox, and Catholic colleges and seminaries will face greater challenges in the not-too-distant future if they do not bend the proverbial knee to the unconstitutional, new state definition of marriage. They will be threatened with lawsuits and loss of accreditation. Their students will be denied access to federal student loans. This will happen for “discriminating” not only against faculty supporters of “gay marriage” but also against homosexually active job applicants. Eventually sanctions may be imposed even for permitting faculty to teach or write against homosexual practice. Yet no matter what comes, we must heed Jesus’s exhortation to “estimate the cost” of being his faithful disciple and of “carrying one’s own cross” (Luke 14:27-28).
Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics.