Why Tony Campolo’s announcement on LGBT inclusion is a big deal.

The card carrying Evangelical from Philadelphia prayerfully changed his mind

Today, the great Evangelical preacher, teacher and activist changed his mind on the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the church.

It’s a big deal. It’s all in his historic statement.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Tony Campolo is a legit card-carrying evangelical

As a young man I surrendered my life to Jesus and trusted in Him for my salvation, and I have been a staunch evangelical ever since. I rely on the doctrines of the Apostles Creed. I believe the Bible to have been written by men inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. I place my highest priority on the words of Jesus, emphasizing the 25th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus makes clear that on Judgment Day the defining question will be how each of us responded to those he calls “the least of these”.
From this foundation I have done my best to preach the Gospel, care for the poor and oppressed, and earnestly motivate others to do the same.

Sure, people have been slogging off Tony for decades as a liberal wolf in sheep’s clothing, much as they’ve done the same with Jim Wallis of Sojourners. Tony and Jim have both been champions of social justice — including, perhaps most significantly, how we treat, care for, love and be neighbors with the poor, whether local or global. During President Clinton’s admission of marital infidelity, Tony was a a trusted pastor and spiritual advisor in a time of real personal and national crisis. Many on the far right criticized him even more, for serving in this role, but the fact remains: Tony is a real, legit card-carrying evangelical.

He’s bona fide:

An evangelical is somebody who, first of all, has a very high view of Scripture, believes it’s an infallible message from God. — Tony Campolo

Tony has been applying the Scriptures, in this way, going on sixty years of ministry, education and leadership. This is not the musings of a radical social gospeler — these are the convictions of a man heeding the “red letters” of Jesus most supremely.

Many Bibles have the sayings of Jesus, in the Gospels, highlighted in “red letters,” elevating them to be most cherished — with a nod to the sacrifical blood atonement most Evangelicals believe occurred in the crucifixtion of Jesus. Tony also founded a blog site, alongside Shane Claiborne and others, entitled “Red Letter Christians,” offering a more holistic approach to understanding Christ’s work in the world, beyond mere sacrifice but striving for social justice. Tony’s statement on the full inclusion of gay and lesbians in the church is part and parcel of his life work for holistic, Christ-centered mission.

2. Peggy Campolo: his partner in life and debate

In my own life, my wife Peggy has been easily the greatest encourager of my relationship with Jesus. She has been my prayer partner and, more than anyone else, she has discerned my shortcomings and helped me try to overcome them. Her loving example, constant support, and wise counsel have enabled me to accomplish Kingdom work that I would have not even attempted without her, and I trust she would say the same about my role in her life. Each of us has been God’s gift to the other and our marriage has been a mutually edifying relationship.
One reason I am changing my position on this issue is that, through Peggy, I have come to know so many gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way as our own. Our friendships with these couples have helped me understand how important it is for the exclusion and disapproval of their unions by the Christian community to end. We in the Church should actively support such families. Furthermore, we should be doing all we can to reach, comfort and include all those precious children of God who have been wrongly led to believe that they are mistakes or just not good enough for God, simply because they are not straight.

Peggy and Tony have been sharing their very private debate, publicly, in church halls, colleges and seminary campuses for years. You can read the transcipt of one of their famous debates, which took place at my seminary alma mater, North Park, in Chicago. (Note: North Park University, is an institution of the Evangelical Covenant Church, my faith family for two decades until their decision to sever ties with our church over LGBT inclusion matters).

Tony Campolo is 80 years old. And a Baptist.

Too often, too many people think that gentlemen who are in their 80s and Baptist stopped growing on gender and marriage roles back in the 1950s. The Campolo’s model of a marriage that works — together, for their own growth and health but also for the common good of others — is a shining light.

As Tony worded it so beautifully in his post, a too commonly held understanding of marriage dates back to the days of Augustine (ahem, circa 4th/5th century) in that marriage existed solely for procreation.

“Others of us, however, recognize a more spiritual dimension of marriage, which is of supreme importance. We believe that God intends married partners to help actualize in each other the “fruits of the spirit,” which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, often citing the Apostle Paul’s comparison of marriage to Christ’s sanctifying relationship with the Church. This doesn’t mean that unmarried people cannot achieve the highest levels of spiritual actualization — our Savior himself was single, after all — but only that the institution of marriage should always be primarily about spiritual growth.” [emphasis mine]

This isn’t just the future for the possibilty of Christian gay marriage, it’s the much needed call for marriage period.

3. Tony demonstrates that while God’s word and promise is forever, theology must always reflect our contexts

I am old enough to remember when we in the Church made strong biblical cases for keeping women out of teaching roles in the Church, and when divorced and remarried people often were excluded from fellowship altogether on the basis of scripture. Not long before that, some Christians even made biblical cases supporting slavery. Many of those people were sincere believers, but most of us now agree that they were wrong. I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out.

Many of our culturally held assumptions, bleed their way into our spiritually perceived doctrines. Too often, church responds to culture, instead of church leading the charge on developing culture.

Tony’s wisdom here, is huge.

How do we handle the tough and challenging needs of our own day, so far removed from the dusty, Galilean road conversations of Jesus with his disciples and friends?

It goes back in how we read and live out the Bible mandates so many of us take so seriously. The Bible is not a blue print, however. It’s a theological library spanning generations, with many authors, all wrestling (often with one another) on the truth and promises of God. Steve Chalke has written on this. Rob Bell has written on this. Rachel Held Evans has written on this.

Campolo’s reflection on how we’ve handled slavery, divorce and gender roles underscores the massive importance on how we must take the Bible seriously on such matters. Which means reading the Scriptures wholly. And reading them in community, heeding the movement of the Holy Spirit. We’re too often confused or seduced into thinking that cultural norms are God’s norms.

This is what transpired in the run up to the Civil War. Bible believing Christians split over whether or not slavery was ordained by God (read: not just simply allowed, but endorsed by God!). Mark Noll, masterfully argued therein lies the “crisis.”

While both Christians in the North and South “read the same Bible,” in the end, the church failed to steer the nation away from war and towards an abiding peace that surpasseth understanding. A real “cultural conflict [emerged] that led to such a crisis for the nation also constitut[ing] a crisis for theology.”

Many will balk at the comparison of the LGBTQ debates with the slavery debates. The experience of centuries of chattel slavery is perhaps the nation’s most enduring scar that still haunts us today. We must, however, heed the reality of a real suffering that persists, especially perpetuated in many church congregations and ministry movements, that LGBTQ people are somehow created less in the image of God, are inherently sinful, and need to undergo so-called reparative therapies, or live a life in total celibacy.

Just yesterday, this blog post made the rounds on social media, naming the tragic reality: 30 and 40% of LGBT youth (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) have attempted suicide.

The church — and the whole church, regardless of one’s theological convictions on LGBTQ inclusion — must work together to end this.

Tony Campolo changing his mind, prayerfully, for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church is a really big deal. I hope it inspires courage in hundreds of key evagnelical church leaders throughout the country — who remain on the fence. I hope they are inspired to jump off the fence and join the growing chorus for inclusion.

I hope Tony’s words on full LGBTQ inclusion inspire thousands of Christians here and around the world, to fling wide open the doors to their churches. And not just to simply make room for queer folks in their pews or stackable chairs (I’m a church-planter, I know stackable chairs more than pews!). For when the doors of our churches are legitimately opened for LGBTQ sisters and brothers, it’s not simply they who will be changed, it will be us. We need the full body of Christ to truly be the body of Christ, extending compassionate arms to the beat and broken, speaking a prophetic word in a culture often-times run amok.

We have a long way to go. Tony Campolo, the humble towering giant of American evangelicalism, gets the final word:

“Because I am not yet living up to what Jesus expects me to be in those red letters in the Bible, I always define myself as somebody who is saved by God’s grace and is on his way to becoming a Christian. (…) Being saved is trusting in what Christ did for us, but being Christian is dependent on the way we respond to what he did for us.”