• A Response to Tim Keller

    June 4, 2015

    Tim_Keller_TGC11Tim Keller, a popular Christian pastor and author, has weighed in on the gay debate raging through Christendom. His stated position was not unexpected—he is opposed to gay relationships because he believes the Bible is clearly opposed. What was surprising was the manner in which he chose to state his opinion: a relatively brief blog post reviewing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian. This issue demands more than a quick blog post, particularly from someone with Keller’s reputation as a thoughtful, scholarly elder. And the choice of Matthew Vines’ book, simply because it is popular and widely read, seems odd as well. Why not, if you’re a scholar, review a scholarly work, such as James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality? Vines’ book serves as a primer on the issue; it’s not a thorough treatment of all the questions at issue on this topic. Keller has to know that. Regardless, Keller has written what he has written, which you can read by clicking here, so I will offer a few thoughts on what he has said.

    1. First, credit where credit is due. I deeply appreciate Keller’s acknowledgment that if simply meeting gay people changes your view of gay relationships from “against” to “for,” your earlier belief probably wasn’t based on much other than bigotry. Good for Keller calling that out.
    2. In quoting Wesley Hill, Keller describes the traditional view of homosexuality this way: because God’s original design did not include homosexuality, that must mean that homosexual relationships are sinful. I’m not sure the logic follows, even if you accept that the creation account in Genesis fully expresses God’s original creative and sexual intent for all people, for all times. Many things in our world are not as God originally intended. A person born without legs is not experiencing God’s original design. But, alas, the person is here, and immobile, and has to get around somehow. Do we consider it sinful for someone to use a wheel chair or prosthetic limbs to move just because God’s original intent was that people use their legs? Even if you think homosexuality is a diversion from God’s original design, gay people are here, their orientation isn’t changing, and they have to navigate romance and sex and relationships somehow. Why do we assume that anything other than the Adam and Eve model must be inherently sinful simply because it isn’t the norm or the original design?
    3. Others have pointed out Keller’s rather embarrassing error regarding Plato’s Symposium. Plato does not quote Aristophanes in the myth of the lost halves, so there’s no need to muse over whether Aristophanes believed the myth literally. He didn’t write it! But there are other problems with this portion of Keller’s blog post. Keller appeals to the “great preponderance of the best historical scholarship.” That’s a rhetorical tactic that’s meant to convince you there is overwhelming support for what you’re about to hear. It’s a virtual lock, in other words. Almost everyone who matters agrees! Both sides use this trick, and it’s both unfair and untrue. I spent two years reading everything I could find on faith and homosexuality, and there is plenty of disagreement by equally smart and qualified scholars concerning each of Keller’s points. And you should question anyone, Keller included, when they suggest that one particular author “rightly and definitively — proves” anything. If this issue were settled so easily, there would be no debate.
    4. In referencing Romans 1, Keller focuses on, not just one verse, or even one sentence of one verse, but one phrase of one sentence of one verse (!) to make his appeal that Paul knew of mutual gay relationships. And even then his logic doesn’t hold up. He assumes that “for one another” means a relationship of equals among men who were clearly homosexually oriented. But he doesn’t deal at all with the phrases where Paul clearly states that these people exchanged their “natural” desires, suggesting that they weren’t really gay at all.
    5. Keller encourages people to read only one book, one which conveniently reaches his own conclusion about whether Paul knew of mutual gay relationships. He doesn’t encourage people to read broadly and deeply and really wrestle with these things before reaching a conclusion. That’s a major red flag for me. If someone really wants me to search for and insist on truth, they’ll encourage broader reading than one book.
    6. Keller asserts the old argument that the levitical laws can be separated into ceremonial and moral laws. Many of the scholars I’ve read have said that that’s an anachronistic, modern distinction that early Israelites would not have made or recognized. Keller is either unaware of this or intentionally doesn’t mention it.
    7. Keller seems to assume that the Bible is opposed to gay relationships in any and all circumstances, and therefore the issue is settled. But even if we all agreed that there was a biblical prohibition for all circumstances and at all times, that would not settle the question. The Pharisees in Mark 2 accused Jesus’ disciples of violating the Sabbath, one of the big Ten Commandments. Jesus’ response is not, “Well, it wasn’t really working on the Sabbath because, you see, it was just some heads of grain that they picked, so it’s not really work.” Jesus seems to cede the point that, yeah, the disciples were working on the Sabbath. They could have made preparations for food ahead of time, as the ancient Israelites were commanded to do when manna fell from heaven so that they wouldn’t be working on the day of rest. But Jesus says, you’ve got the point of all of this backwards. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The law exists to serve humanity, not vice versa. Jesus suggests that if a law is found to hurt, rather than help, humanity, it is ok in some circumstances to set it aside. So even if we all agreed that there was a clear commandment prohibiting homosexuality, that would not address whether the commandment always applies in the real life individual circumstances of the human beings at the center of this debate.
    8. And that ultimately is Keller’s failing with his post. He does not deal with the actual realities that people face. What is a gay Christian to do who continually fails at forced celibacy (given that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that not everyone has the gift of celibacy)? Is it really preferable to have people “slipping up” and having random hook ups or getting off to porn in some desperate attempt at some hint of intimacy? Is that really preferable to people finding stable, loving, self-sacrificial relationships to which they can commit themselves? Is it really good that gay Christians continue to live in depression and self-hatred and unremitting loneliness as long as they don’t put their penis in the wrong hole? That reduces a same-sex couple’s love to nothing more than a sex act. I can’t for a moment imagine that the same Jesus who found “wiggle room” even among the Ten Commandments would rather a person live on the knife’s edge of suicide than experience a nourishing, life-enriching relationship, just because of sexual mechanics. What will Keller do when a married gay couple, led by God’s Spirit, shows up at his church? Will Keller tell them, “Sorry, you have to divorce your spouse before you can join us. Oh, you have kids? Well, I’m sorry, but the Bible is clear. You guys will have to split up and leave your kids in a broken home because there can be no gay relationships under any circumstances”? That’s the corner Keller has backed himself into. That’s what happens when you fail to run your doctrinal positions through real flesh and blood situations. And Keller, as a pastor to thousands of real flesh and blood people, ought to know better.

    Posted in: Gay Marriage, General, More Gay Stuff

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