|An Idolatrous Silence - Evangelicals and the Egalitarianism of Sin by Curtis Chang|
(Curtis Chang, a Harvard University graduate, was born in Taiwan in 1968 and emigrated to the United States in 1972. A former director of the InterVarsity campus ministry in Boston, Massachusetts, he currently serves on the pastoral staff of the River Church community in Sunnyvale, California. This article is edited and abridged and originally appeared in Touchstone Magazine. It is republished with thanks to the editor. With Christians more and more being called to take a stand for Biblical sexual morality and, soon, it seems, without the support of an Archbishop of Canterbury, we need to note Curtis Chang's observations and experience. DRJH)
One morning two springs ago, I woke up to find myself the campus minister of a banned Christian fellowship. In a trial held over the preceding midnight, the Tufts University student judiciary met secretly to "derecognize" the Tufts Christian Fellowship for its refusal to allow a gay advocate into leadership. We were politically isolated on the Tufts campus and abandoned even by other Christian groups at Tufts. And so we sounded the alarm more broadly.
While principled civil libertarians and political conservatives rushed to our defence, I was disturbed by the relatively lethargic response from certain sectors of the Church. I was most bothered by the brand of Christianity that is my own: the sector that might be called "educated Evangelicalism."
I have since reflected on our experience (the ban was later lifted) and was forced to some painful conclusions about the sort of Evangelical witness I and many others had maintained. We "educated Evangelicals" have tended to distinguish ourselves from the Christian right and fundamentalists, pointing to our more progressive politics, more nuanced theology, and greater comfort in the intellectual world.
Being drawn into conflicts over homosexuality profoundly discomfits us, for we fear that our hard-earned distance will evaporate under the public glare. And so we educated Evangelicals have engaged in some very questionable moral and theological moves.
In discussions with my educated Evangelical colleagues, I have often heard that "all sins are equal before God's eyes. Homosexuality is no worse a sin than pride or lying."
Decades ago, I believe this was used especially by gay Christians to argue for their acceptance by other Christians. They sought affirmation of their practices in this "egalitarianism of sin." "I'm no worse off than you are," the reasoning went, "so stop judging me." Most of them, of course, have moved on to abandon even the pretence of acknowledging that homosexual practices are sinful and have now rejected the clear biblical prohibitions through various hermeneutical somersaults.
Many Christians (not just Evangelicals) swallowed the argument: "Jesus talked more about greed than about sexuality, and aren't we also guilty of being greedy?" The philosophical laziness of their reasoning should be apparent–although it is not to them or to much of their audience–since they fail to make the obvious distinction between acknowledged moral lapses and the wholesale abandonment of a moral standard.
But even among orthodox Christians who still maintain that homosexuality is wrong, the argument has begun to eat its way through our biblical and moral faculties. I used that reasoning to justify my silence on homosexuality. "Why should I draw special attention to my beliefs on this matter," I asked, "when it should be treated like any other sin?" I suspect that I was not alone in justifying my silence in this manner.
Even when events forced me to confess that orthodox Christians do indeed view homosexual practice as sin, I would routinely try to soften our statements with such disclaimers as, "Of course, homosexuality is no worse a sin than X, Y, and Z." Until we were banned, I continued to do so, all the while patting myself on the back for how this attitude once again shows that I am a thoughtful and sophisticated Evangelical, as opposed to all those homophobic and self-righteous "right-wing" types.
We Evangelicals, we wanted to suggest, are not so obsessed about homosexuality the way those other Christians are. As I read over Tufts Christian Fellowship's earlier statements on homosexuality - statements I helped draft - I see repeatedly the signs of this "egalitarianism of sin" reasoning and its underlying motivation.
No egalitarianism of sin
Exactly where in the Bible is it claimed that "all sins are equal in God's eyes"? While passages like Romans 3:23 make clear that all individuals are indeed sinners, it seems to me that Scripture is filled with distinctions between sins, reserving worse condemnation for some than others. Read over the Gospels. Note how often Jesus will say something like, "It will be worse for the one who does X," or reserve an especially strong condemnation for one party (like the Pharisees).
Indeed, Jesus, as a Jew, did not operate with an egalitarianism of sin. The entire Levitical code, for instance, is designed to match severity of punishment with severity of sin. Every enduring moral code of any religious tradition inevitably must treat some sins as worse than others. What society or group can function morally if it treats carelessness the same as murder, inconsiderateness the same as armed robbery?
While in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) Jesus warns us not just to judge ourselves by our actions but to examine our hearts as well, he never sought to equalize all sinful attitudes and actions. He intended sharply to raise the stakes, not lower them. And moral judgment demands that we recognize when the stakes are especially high. We must reserve stronger condemnations for acts that especially assault our moral foundations.
What sane person responds to all violations in the same way? What would we think about a mother who responds with equal intensity to her child's decision to run away from home and that child's decision to eat a forbidden sweet? Would I feel the same if my wife forgot her promise to pick up the milk as I would if she forgot her vows to remain sexually faithful only to me? Such an egalitarianism is not loving, tolerant, or accepting of my wife. For me to reduce infidelity to a violation "just like any other sin" actually signals that I do not value my marriage in an intensely personal way.
In other words, the fact that a person responds more strongly to some violations than others demonstrates the very nature of his love and commitment to the violator. In the same way, to say that God views all our sins as the same is to deny that God actually loves us personally.
We hip, progressive Evangelicals love to distinguish ourselves from "right-wing" Christians by going on about the idolatry involved in militarism, racism, and consumerism. Those idolatries no doubt exist powerfully also, but we are kidding ourselves if we do not see "sex-olatry" as at least the most potent one in our historical moment.
And we are lulling ourselves to sleep if we do not recognize homosexuality as the current cutting edge of this idolatry. And let's face it, none of us is going to be persecuted for standing up and opposing racism or even consumerism. Educated elites will praise us, and the media will pat us on our back or at worst ignore us. But confront homosexuality? Shouldn't this tell us something about what is the true ruling idolatry of our age?
Cowardice and courage
I have been heartened by truly brave men and women of faith (especially Christian and Jewish) who have for a while now spoken clearly against homosexuality. They long preceded me in this issue and still exceed me in courage. But the silence in so many sectors of the Church - even those who follow the orthodox Christian teaching on this issue - has been deafening and disheartening. I myself speak as one who, up until a month ago before my ministry was banned, was also too afraid to speak publicly on this issue.
Since then, I have indeed been chilled at how this same fear pervades the Church at all levels. Even close ministry partners have expressed to me unwillingness to draw attention to themselves. In a recent article in the New York Times, Peter Steinfels reported on how three leading conservative Christian theologians all refused to appear publicly to voice their opposition to homosexuality.
Yet I know that in the midst of the most powerful idols, God will not leave himself without his prophets. In the midst of my frustration at the silence, I take heart in Anya Ligai, a 19-year-old girl in the Tufts Christian Fellowship who emigrated from the former Soviet Union and now is once again persecuted for declaring her religious beliefs. She has spoken against homosexual practice and thus has displayed more prophetic courage than those three adult theologians.
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