Like many people of my generation, I’m sick of the Culture War. I’m sick of the conflict, sick of the grandstanding, sick of the vilification, sick of the self-righteous moral superiority exhibited by both sides. Even worse, during my generation’s lifetime, the conflict has transformed from a conflict between evangelicals and other groups to a growing schism within evangelicalism itself. Now that the battle lines are being drawn through evangelical churches, Culture War weariness often means disengaging altogether.
But I refuse to give up on the Culture War. The issues that face us — our treatment of gay and transgender people, the secularization of American society, abortion and reproductive rights — are significant and apathy will neither resolve them nor make them go away. Evangelicals have to address these issues, which means we can’t treat the Culture War itself as the problem. The problem is how we’re fighting it.
The recent skirmish over World Vision is a good case study. For those of you who missed it, World Vision, an ecumenical Christian charity organization with an evangelical bent, announced that they were going to allow Christian employees to be in same-sex relationships. They cited the variety of denominations represented among their staff, many of whom affirm same-sex relationships, as their primary motivation for this policy change. Two days later they reversed their decision, this time citing fidelity to Scripture. The evangelical right was infuriated and then elated; the evangelical left was elated then infuriated.
Predictably, this became an occasion for both camps within evangelicalism to draw lines, raise flags, and attack the other side, usually using the image of poor, suffering, Third World children as an ideological club. Meanwhile, the really interesting — and important — questions went unasked.
1. Can we work together?
World Vision is an organization committed to values all evangelicals share: devotion to God through evangelism and service. In their original announcement, they appealed to these core evangelical values by alluding to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). This posed an implicit question: how are evangelicals with different convictions about same-sex relationships going work together in service of shared values?
The answer from the right came quickly: in this instance, we can’t. But clear justifications for this position were less evident. Knee-jerk reactions came from the left as well: acceptance of same-sex relationships was not a valid reason to withdraw support from an organization like World Vision, but a clear explanation of why this was an invalid reason was harder to find. What we needed, but didn’t get, was two sides more interested in articulating and arguing a case than capitalizing on an opportunity to reinforce group identity.
Assuming neither side managed to persuade the other, there was still another question: if we disagree, where do we go from here? If we can’t work together to preach the gospel and care for widows and orphans, is there anything we can do together? Are we going to allow the issue of same-sex relationships to stop us from studying the Bible together, from breaking bread together, from worshiping together? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they’re not rhetorical. If the answer is “Yes” to any of these, we need to know, and we need to know why. If this issue is going to divide evangelicalism, we need to understand why, and not simply let our subculture dissolve and implode like an isolated, passive-aggressive marriage.
2. Can we still have unity?
If our division goes deep enough, our unity as evangelicals will become nothing more than a pretense — or in more blunt terms, a lie. If we are approaching, or have already arrived at, an unbridgeable chasm between our two camps, we need to be honest about it. Naturally, both liberals and conservative will claim the authentic evangelical identity as their own, both because it remains part of their identity and because it attracts those caught between. But if the split is coming, it is in everyone’s best interests to admit it. Like other evangelicals, I value Christian unity. But working together means being honest and explicit about our differences. Fighting about who the “real” evangelicals are isn’t accomplishing anything — at least not the things we profess to be interested in accomplishing.
I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we can avert an irresolvable schism. But if we’re going to, we need to determine what we’re really fighting about.
3. What’s really at stake?
Often, in a heated debate, the reason we can’t move forward isn’t because of our arguments. It’s because we’re not arguing about the same thing, or because we’re arguing about the wrong thing. In the wake of the World Vision announcement and the subsequent reversal, the real issue got confused.
The first false issue was the the gospel. Both sides framed same-sex relationships as a referendum on the gospel itself. Evangelicals of both conservative and liberal persuasions argued that this issue determined whether one truly understands the basic message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, the Christ, our Lord. For conservatives, denying the handful of passages which condemn homosexual behavior amounts to abandoning the gospel; for liberals, refusing to allow gay and lesbian Christians the relationships they were created to enjoy constitutes the same.
The second false issue was society. Both sides claimed that the other side was following mainstream American culture — whether they saw that mainstream culture as fundamentally progressive and liberal or backwards and conservative. Evangelicals, it seems, have always been obsessed with our relationship with the surrounding culture and it makes sense, given our history as a shaky middle ground between the isolation of fundamentalism and the assimilation of mainline liberalism. But what this means in practice is that every conflict can be — and usually is — framed as a “selling out” to the pressures of contemporary society or propagating the values of the entrenched status quo.
Of course, the question of same-sex relationships among Christians does impact our understanding of the gospel and our relationship with society of large. But this specific situation allows us to examine a more specific question: is same-sex relationships an issue about which reasonable Christians can disagree? Can we disagree on our interpretation of the relevant passages without breaking fellowship? World Vision initially proposed that it was a question up for debate. Both sides responded by arguing there was no debate, that the other side’s interpretation of the Bible wasn’t just wrong, it was so wrong that it could invalidate the authenticity of the other side’s evangelical faith.
Maybe one side was right. But the question was never raised. The real issue was swept under the rug and replaced by ideological arguments about group identity buzzwords like “gospel” and “society.”
I don’t imagine these questions are all that insightful; my intention is not to “stump” anyone to score rhetorical points or to subtly suggest some kind of implicit answer. I think they’re easy questions to answer — but for whatever reason, they were never even asked, or their answers were assumed and the argumentation was never presented. The Culture War within evangelicalism is always going to be difficult, but it needs to be fought, and it needs to be fought in the right way. We can start by asking the right questions.