According to Dr. R. Albert Mohler, America’s evangelicals are at a major crossroads—another one. It could be true, I suppose. When it comes to knowing when and where Christians are gathering at big cultural interchanges, Mohler’s pretty much an expert. As the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky—the educational Mecca for the almighty SBC—and one of most influential Christian bloggers on the Internet, Mohler has become an authoritative mouthpiece for some of the most conservative segments of American evangelicalism. On Tuesday, Mohler utilized his voice to inform his audience that “[Evangelicals] face an inevitable moment of decision, a decision that cannot be avoided… There will be no place to hide, and there will be no way to remain silent. To be silent will answer the question.”
So, what pray tell is this crucial unavoidable question that all evangelicals must answer? The same exact question that evangelicals have been answering over and over again with exclamation points and all caps for as long as any of us can remember: “The question of homosexuality.” More specifically, Mohler wants to know “whether evangelicals will remain true to the teachings of Scripture and the unbroken teaching of the Christian church for over two thousand years on the morality of same-sex acts and the institution of marriage.”
Mohler went on to say that how evangelicals answer this question will showcase not only what we know and understand about the Bible, it could have a long-lasting impact on the gospel itself.
Which, of course, he’s right. How we answer this question does have its consequence. We know this because we’ve suffered the effects of how evangelicals like Mohler have answered the question for years. Heck, Mohler can’t seem to stop answering the question.
As we know, the answers evangelicals give cause division, push people away from churches, promote the gospels of arrogance and callousness, and castrates the body of Christ, rendering us useless but for punch lines.
But none of that has stopped Mohler from launching another anti-gay crusade last week.
This time, the seminary president set his scholarly sights on Matthew Vines, a smart, passionate twenty-something evangelical author who’s on a mission to change how American evangelicalism understands homosexuality. Mohler’s been following Vines’s story since 2012. That was the year the author made headlines with a video of a lecture that he gave about being a gay Christian, a lengthy sermon-like talk that also included some convincing reasons as to why Vines believes same-sex relationships are compatible with orthodox Christianity. That video went viral, which not only helped the onetime Harvard student land a book deal with Random House, it also led to the launching of The Reformation Project, a non-profit grassroots movement that aims to create environments “in which Christian leaders will have the freedom to take the next steps toward affirming and including LGBT people in all aspects of church life.”
Which begs the question: Why is Mohler hyper-focusing on Vines now? Because last Tuesday, Vines released his book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, an exploration of scripture, theology, and history, which concludes that most Christians may be wrong about what the Bible says regarding homosexuality.
Denny Burk says that Vines’s book offers “nothing new,” that the author simply “popularized revisionist interpretations of scripture.” Vines would likely agree. He himself admits early on in the book’s introduction that the opinions aren’t new, that the majority of his arguments have been presented before by other more theologically acclaimed authors and scholars. But those books were long, heady, and difficult to read. Burk says the true lure of Vines’s title is the fact that he wraps his opinions inside a “very compelling personal narrative.”
Which is one of the bigger reasons Mohler & friends don’t want evangelicals to read God and the Gay Christian. Because Vines’s book, unlike most of the titles that have made similar arguments over the years, offers the non-traditional biblical theory using simple language, personality and thoughtful prose. In other words, it’s a good read. And easy to understand.
The other reason is because Vines is a devout evangelical, one who views the importance of the Bible much like most Southern Baptists do. Within the first couple pages, Vines writes, “Like most theologically conservative Christians, I hold what is often called a ‘high view’ of the Bible. That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life.”
In an email exchange with Vines, the author explained that “most books written on this subject in the past have come from a more progressive or moderate theological bent, so they haven't found an audience among conservative Christians. But given that my book takes a conservative theological approach, it is much more likely to gain a hearing from evangelicals.”
And that is what scares Mohler about this book, and ultimately, it’s what led him to congregate a few of his theology buddies together to craft an official response to it in the form of a free, anybody-can-download ebook called God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines.
According to Vines, somebody from Mohler’s camp requested an early copy of God and the Gay Christian, but Vines didn’t learn of the ebook until last Tuesday, the day that both books released. Yes, that’s how afraid of Matthew Vines they really are, so scared that they’re fully willing to purposefully sabotage not only the success of Vines’s book with a rush-to-press response but also the conversation he’s hoping to spark.
Mohler, speaking as though he thinks he’s doing damage control for God, said that a response had to be written. “The kind of argument that is presented by Matthew Vines, if not confronted, can lead many people to believe that his case is persuasive and that his treatment of the Bible is legitimate.” Which, according to Mohler, is a real possibility, especially for the kind of followers that he calls “wavering evangelicals” that he says are looking for a “convenient, persuasive off-ramp” away from traditional biblical values. And what would reading Vines’s book turn somebody into? According to Mohler, “a non-evangelical identity.”
Vines’s imprint, Convergent Books, downplayed the SBC’s backlash against God and the Gay Christian, calling it a “distraction,” and maintaining their belief that this book could “radically change the conversation about being gay in the church.”
Hopefully, it can.
For now, Vines is trying to look on the bright side, “I fully expected there to be fierce opposition to my book, so it doesn't bother me… If this week was any indication, this is just the beginning.” Though he’s working on an official response to the band of Southern Baptist brothers’s surprise ebook, Vines would also like to meet his critiques.
“I really do believe that truth will win out,” says Vines. “And I have plenty of fuel for a long journey ahead.”
God speed to Vines. Because America’s evangelical churches have ostracized the GLBTQ communities for far too long, using a dehumanizing doctrine as weaponry, making God into little more than a big invisible bully. But that’s what happens when people are intoxicated with certainty; they sacrifice their faith in favor of control, manipulation, and self-interest. While a growing number of gay-affirming evangelicals are using their influence to promote an inclusive faith for all — the lead singer of Jars of Clay joined the chorus just this week—those of us promoting a more progressive gospel—at least, for now—are very much in the evangelical minority.
Mohler might be right. Maybe the evangelical community is at a crossroads and, like he said, we’re facing an “inevitable moment of decision,” and how we answer the question could have longstanding effects on the gospel. But the question, rather than being about what history and tradition we hold onto, is about who we will embrace, who we will love, who we will welcome.