Evangelicals and Ethics: Renewing Evangelical Morality

By: Amos Yong
Sunday, September 1st, 2013

person on arrow (3-way)Throughout my reflections so far, I have sought to think through the issues from a renewalist perspective informed by pentecostal and charismatic experience and spirituality. As I take up our topic today, however, such an approach does not seem to provide as many springboards into the discussion as it has heretofore. What difference does a renewalist set of commitments make for thinking about evangelical ethics and morality?

The big question before many evangelical communities, of course, has to do with that of homosexuality. A few evangelicals are now saying that this no longer is the watershed issue that divides evangelicals from non-evangelical perspectives. Others continue to hold the traditional view that biblical injunctions against homosexuality are not context-relative and that they should be subordinated to other scriptural motifs. A growing number of those who might identify themselves as being in the “evangelical middle” are attempting to find ways to talk about the issue uncompromisingly while simultaneously reaching out to and including homosexuals meaningfully within the community of faith.

My approach ties in directly with central elements of contemporary evangelical missional praxis. More precisely, as I indicated in a prior blog on evangelical witness in a pluralistic world, I believe that there are multiple modalities of witness – i.e., proclamation, dialogue, works of mercy, and social justice, for instance – with and through which evangelicals ought to point and bear witness to the living Christ. Similarly, I think, the options for evangelical responses on this issue of morality in general and homosexuality in particular invite thinking on multiple missional fronts.

First, of course, I remain unconvinced by biblical interpretations that attempt to “explain away” the putatively “hard texts” on homosexuality. At this level, I remain a kind of evangelical exclusivist and cannot in good conscience, condone homosexual relationships. Some of my fellow evangelicals, however, go beyond such reticence to polemicize against homosexuals and their communities – a place to which I cannot go. My concern is how to be honest about our convictions on the one hand but yet be nurturing as faith communities on the other hand.

What do I mean by the latter aspiration? My point, as I made in earlier weeks, is that our actions speak louder than words. The point is not to endorse behaviors that are considered unscriptural but to demonstrate the love of God in palpable ways following the footsteps of Jesus. What kinds of missional practices, then, reflect the way of Christ in this regard?

I can think, for instance, of a multi-tiered approach to missional interaction with homosexual persons. One might be parallel to how a previous generation of missionaries responded to the issue of polygamy in especially the sub-Saharan African context. While, again, there were many types of responses, one of these suggested that rather than breaking up existing families, we had to be prepared for the long haul and simply invite converts to Christ not to perpetuate such relational ties into the next generation. It may be that our response to homosexual couples, in specific instances involving children or other tenuous relational realities, might embrace a similar approach, albeit one that insists on monogamous fidelity, at least for the present time, even while working with those involved in a pastorally sensitive way to explore the meaning of holy living and faithful discipleship for such persons seeking to growth in the grace and knowledge of God in Christ.

Preferably, another line of response might be to counsel consideration of a celibate vocation. Human beings have all kinds of inclinations, many of which we are well advised to control, rather than satisfy. Surely not all are called to celibacy, but perhaps these can be adopted for a season while we work through the issues in prayer and in the midst of supportive congregational environments. Some evangelicals who admit of having homosexual attraction are providing leadership in thinking through and talking about such as viable options for Christian discipleship, and exemplary models – for all Christians, not just for those with certain sexual orientations – are only now beginning to emerge.

My point is that blanket rules and prohibitions without loving ecclesial practices in response do not proclaim the gospel effectively. Spirit-filled mission and ministry, even to homosexual persons, will be sensitive to the many factors that may complicate matters, and be willing to express the hospitality of God variously albeit without condoning homosexual activity. There ought to be many different ways in which the people of God and the fellowship of the Spirit can minister the good news of Jesus Christ to those who desire to be disciples even while struggling with homosexual desires. Increasingly, it also appears that human sexual desires exhibit the malleability and plasticity across the human lifespan well documented in other aspects of human cognition. This raises powerful questions about how to minister in light of that which is not yet, but yet may be, or is, but yet will soon pass away.

Of course, on moral issues, we ought not to be fixated on one of these (like homosexuality) to the neglect of others related to the breadth of the lifespan. Beginning and end of life issues are no more or less important than war, immigration, poverty, medical accessibility, and disability. Yes, evangelical voices crying out on behalf of the unborn, of the elderly, of the disabled, etc., are important, especially in those cases when such persons lack the capacity for self-advocacy. However, again, it is not just asserting what the Bible says but finding ways to live out the gracious love of God in Christ for the world that is important. Spirit-filled witnessing means both speaking the truth in love and living the love of God in truth.

My own theological work has been most focused on the lives of people, including children and infants, with disabilities. Impairments touch people across the life-span. Sometimes, people with disabilities can be and have been effective self-advocates. All too often, however, they are the most vulnerable, whether because of poverty, lower social status, or impairing conditions which inhibit self-agency and self-expression.

There are so many very different types of issues to discuss when thinking about evangelicals and disability. By and large, the important pieces are in place: a theological anthropology that recognizes all persons as created in the image of God so that there is no discrimination due to impairing conditions; an ecclesiological vision that see all people across the spectrum of abilities as members of the body of Christ; and an understanding of ministry that is motivated to demonstrate the love of God to people with disabilities and their families and to meet their needs. Unfortunately, however, these ideals are not sufficiently realized in our churches, congregations, and communities of faith. Due to inaccessible buildings, structures, and ministries, too many pastors still think that there just are not that many people with disaiblities in their communities when their churches are signaling to the latter that they are unwelcome. Ministry-wise, sometimes acts of charity degenerate into a demeaning paternalism, albeit unconsciously on the part of otherwise good-meaning Christians. Theologically, in my renewal tradition in particular, the emphasis on divine healing often leaves people with disabilities feeling that they do not belong; how can the church continue to minister the healing message of the gospel while recognizing that salvific healing may or may not always include, in the present life, physical cures, and while communicating the message of divine acceptance so that people with disabilities do not internalize the unintended mssage that they are second-class citizens in the church?

The witness to the gospel is at stake. May evangelicals filled with the Spirit of Jesus (and all evangelicals ought to be so filled!) continue to live out the good news in ways that reflect not just a dogmatic morality but a missional ethic that renews hope, inspires love, and anticipates the coming reign of God. Amen.

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Amos Yong
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