The Evangelical Chronicles: Being a “Progressive Evangelical” is Easy — Just Throw the Gays Under the Bus
What outsiders to Evangelicalism don’t understand is just how progressive evangelicals can be on many issues. I was a mid-level Evangelical — meaning I pastored a thriving church of about 600 (average attendance) and sat on the national board of an evangelical denomination (Vineyard USA). Our local church was not affiliated in any way with the Religious Right and we drew a fair share of progressive Ann Arbor-ites (ubiquitous in this University town.) Over the years, I spoke out on gender equity in the church, racism, the importance of environmental stewardship, including addressing human-caused climate change—even advocated for the compatibility of evolution and faith.
Yes, it was a pull against the current and we lost up to 10% of our membership each time these topics were first introduced — but we could survive that kind of attrition through new growth. And, yes, I was considered a bit of an odd-ball among my pastoral peers, but they generally liked having me around, pushing the envelope. I even had some colleagues who were right there with me. So I was safely in the camp.
Maybe it went to my head and I thought I could help make some full-inclusion space on the broad Evangelical landscape for LGBTQ+ people — a postage-stamp-sized plot was all I hoped for. After all, pastors in my denomination were reading the same stuff that young “liberal mainline” clergy were also reading. Sorry for the in-house lingo, but I’m referring to authors regarded as “‘post-conservative” and “post-liberal” — Miroslav Volf and Eugene Peterson for example. (Though I admit, a lot of white dudes.)
But the gay line was there — bright and red and not going anywhere. So progressive Evangelical pastors played (and still do) the progressive “feed the beast” game. You can make your moves on issues that matter to you (women, environment, evolution, racial justice, pro-immigration, a more nuanced view of Scripture) … and push the envelope all you want … just as long as you give Evangelicalism its due by toeing the line on LGBTQ. Call it “maintaining the unity of the Spirit” if it’s bothering your conscience. And it’s perfectly fine to to have, even cherish, your second-thoughts … so long as you remain in a chronic (life-long would be best) “struggle” over the question. Just DO NOT ORDAIN a partnered gay person, and DO NOT PERFORM a wedding for a gay couple. And all shall be well (for you.)
Don’t get me wrong, in many sectors of Evangelicalism any one of the short-of-the-gay-issue-progressive issues could easily get a pastor in trouble. It’s still pretty hard to find a senior pastor who is female, even where it’s possible on paper. (The only thing harder than finding one is being one.) And in our mean-spirited religious reality, progressive Evangelicals can always console themselves by taking some (online) hits from more conservative brethren. Which also makes you a mini-hero to some fans. All that said, within the sub-section of the Evangelical world that tolerates progressive thinking, one can stay under Evangelicalism’s big tent and be just fine. Even celebrated.
So today Evangelicalism is crawling with young-ish (under 45) clergy who regard themselves as “progressive” in many of the ways I’ve cited. These pastors are even courted by their elders, who fear generational extinction. And while no one is exactly putting them in charge of the world yet (boomers like their power) they exist and can thrive. Tim Keller, widely regarded as inheritor of the C.S. Lewis mantle, is one of those elders. He represents the complexity of today’s Evangelical elite: Keller writes Op-Ed pieces published by the New York Times, runs a thriving church in Manhattan, even supports efforts to normalize evolution within the Evangelical fold — and he opposes the ordination of women, let alone gay men and women. Progressive Evangelical pastors can work-side-by-side with Tim Keller under the big tent. Until they cross the gay line.
You can tiptoe up to it, though, all the live-long day — and there is a spate of new books in the Evangelical orbit doing just that. “Compassionate” re-thinks of the “gay issue” that go up to, but assiduously avoid crossing, the “no gay weddings, no gay ordination line” [Several in this sub-genre are helpfully reviewed by Kathy V. Baldock]. It all makes sociological sense: as long as some stigma is placed on gay people, it doesn’t matter so much where the line is drawn — just that there is one.
And so these young progressive Evangelical clergy are conflicted as they anxiously wait for the boomers to retire. In the meantime, though, they are willing to throw LGBTQ+ people under the bus, because that is the price of admission to the Evangelical Club these days. When a pastor doesn’t stand up for you in a system that is scapegoating you, he or she is no help to you at all — and is simply enabling the mob. So I’m sticking with the brutal under-the-bus metaphor: the experience of loving your Evangelical church and your progressive Evangelical pastor, while the loving community you are (sort of) part of regards you as “intrinsically disordered,” is brutal.
I want progressive Evangelical pastors — especially those with a troubled conscience — to face, not the pain of their own “theological struggles,” but the pain of the gay people they are willing to throw under the bus. While enjoying the progressive label.
Methodist General Conference Response from a Queer Pastor
I just wrote this article for “Read the Spirit,” an online Christian Magazine. It should come out Monday but I asked if…