"Challenging Same-Sex Marriage" was the title of Dr. Robert. A. J. Gagnon’s address last evening at Elmhurst College (IL). I was priviledged to be present among the 250 or so students and area attendees for a most amazing evening.
For those who do not know, Dr. Gagnon is associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PCUSA), where he has taught since 1994. He is a frontline Pauline scholar and the author of the finest book available on this subject: The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon, 2001). Dr. Gagnon’s work has influenced me more than any single author in this field. It is simply magisterial. He covers every possible shade of interpretation and destroys the case frequently made by certain Christian authors for homosexual practice. He also maintains the finest Web site available on the subject: http://www.robgagnon.net.
Frankly, Gagnon is hated by many in the mainline churches. This is because his work has done more to galvinize the biblical renewal movements on this issue than any single author. For example, his work is being used presently by renewal leaders to try to stop the Lutheran Church (ELCA) from embracing the homosexual agenda formally. His name is used with disdain by many I have encountered.
Last evening was the first time I actually heard Gagnon in person. I have to say, after further reflection, that he blew me away with his presentation. I have never heard such a clear-headed, calm, and biblical treatment of a controversial ethical subject in my lifetime. What amazed me even more was how Gagnon began his remarks, and then ended them nearly two hours later. He spent the first twenty-five minutes showing how to come at this heated debate. He reasonably explained why he felt the subject of the evening was vital to every single one of us present. (He eventually made it clear that the soul of every person present was in the balance and all would be judged in the last day on the basis of their repentance and the practice of the ethics of Jesus in real faith! He acknowledged that real Christians often fall, even sexually, but they also repent when they do fall.) He asked his audience, "How many of you believe that Jesus approved economic exploitation and greed?" No hands were raised. He then went on to show how Jesus strongly disapproved of such destructive behavior. But then Gagnon showed how Jesus regularly hung out with tax-collectors and similarly corrupt people. In other words, Jesus disapproved of their sin profoundly but embraced their humanity warmly and thus warned them of their need to repent and enter the kingdom.
Gagnon then told a personal story about his own family. His younger sister was a prodigal who broke her parents hearts. When she ran away from home he said to himself, having seen how she had wrecked the family, "Good riddance. I hope you never come home again!" When she returned, after disapperaing for two months, she was treated with acceptance and love by her parents. But Robert still despised her, all the more given her homecoming and acceptance. He then related this reaction to his sister to the parable of the prodigal son and the story of the elder brother. He openly and disarmingly showed how his attiude and response was not that of a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. The point he made was that we must love people enough to speak the truth while at the same time we embrace them as people. If we love our neighbor we cannot allow him to perish without warning him of the danger of hell. He surprised me at this point for there was no flinching or hesitation in his appeal or his references to hell. (Sitting in front of him were at least fifty people wearing green tee-shirts that said, "S.A.G.E. Pride." This acronymn stood for [Elmhurst College] Straight and Gays for Equality!)
From this stirring and highly effective presentration of the gospel Gagnon then meticuloulsy advanced the argument that a core value in sexual ethics in Scripture is something that is an absolute. It is also pervasively held throughout all of Scripture, strongly affirmed in the way it is stated, and consistently counter-cultural. When this definition is applied to homosexual practice the Bible clearly and unmistakably speaks against it. Throughout the evening he made numerous points that I frankly did not expect in such a setting. For example, he asked, "Is sex a social construct?" He showed why no one could possibly believe that it was in real life practice. He further argued that the human body, created as male and female, is the result of "sacral architecture." By this he showed how we compliment one another and properly affirm our createdness/humanness only when we bond as male-female in a monogamous relationship. All other sexual relationships tear down this sacral architecture.
The evening ended with an extensive question and answer time. One questioner asked Gagnon, "Why do you devote so much energy to this issue? Couldn’t you do far more good if you devoted your talent to something else?" His answer was disarmingly powerful. He told how he had written a short paper on this issue because no one could be found to argue the bibical case in a setting where Gagnon found himself as a Christian scholar. From this humble beginning of simple faith he was asked to write more, and then a little more, and finally he wrote his 500-page tome. He then became a recognized scholar and spokesperson on these issues across the whole church spectrum. Then he told how he began this journey while he was still an untenured faculty member at a mainline liberal seminary (PCUSA). The personal risk was huge and the dangers were deeply felt. He jeopardized his economic future, his family, and his personal and professional reputation. Why? He said that he faced a point in his life where he had to please God and not man! He could run away and plead a number of reasons for backing off, with considerable justification no less, or he could be faithful and deal with his conscience by the grace of God. He stood firm by reminding himself that he would ultimately stand before Christ on the last day and give an answer for what he said and did with regard to this matter. He chose to be faithful and trust God.
I honestly get chills writing about this the next morning after hearing it. I was moved to my depths. I heard one of the finest evangelistic presentations I have ever heard and it all grew out of a lecture on Christian sexual ethics. I believe I will be a better evangelist/apologist for having heard Robert Gagnon. I intend to expose my students at Wheaton to a great deal of what I saw and heard last night too.
I waited around and finally me Dr. Gagnon afterwards. Listening to critics go after him mercilessly after the presentation was also interesting. He was respectful, gracious and longsuffering. Then a handful of Christians began to tell him how much they deeply appreciated his words and actions. He humbly accepted the encouragement and showed profound patience and winsome grace through it all. He even signed my copy of his book!
If ever you can hear Robert Gagnon in person do not miss the opportunity. I pray that he will become a friend of Reformation & Revival in the days ahead. I know he is profoundly committed to the very same truths and goals that I believe in with all my heart. I hope I can have an ounce of his courage in the face of opposition and a great deal more of his grace to display the love of Jesus when I am not particularly liked by others. Afterall, I too will give an account and the day is not that far away.