Listening to the Spirit of the Age: Homosexuality, Racism, and the Eclipse of the Gospel

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As the Episcopal Church splinters over the question of homosexual bishops, Episcopalian liberals are telling us that they are the heirs of the civil rights era of twentieth century American history. And they are partly right. The gay liberation movement in the mainline churches stands firmly in the tradition of the segregationist churches of the Jim Crow-era South.

The latest skirmish over gay rights in the Episcopal Church has erupted over the nomination of homosexual Gene Robinson as a bishop. The fractures were evident in an August 5 debate on NBC’s Today Show between the “progressive” Bishop of Massachusetts and the “traditionalist” Bishop of South Carolina. Defending Robinson’s appointment, the Massachusetts Bishop argued for the autonomy of the liberals to do as they pleased. The Bishop of South Carolina noted that the homosexual agenda was driving out of the church those communions who still hold to the Scripture as final authority, namely the Episcopal churches in Africa and Asia. Isn’t it odd, the anti-gay ordination clergyman noted, that the Bishop of Massachusetts appeals to “states rights” while the Bishop of South Carolina is the internationalist?

As Southern Baptists, we’ve seen all of this before.

During the heated debates over integration in the 1950s and 1960s, many of our churches were ignorant of just how captive they were to a culture of racial oppression. Untold numbers of pastors preached the truth of the universal offer of the gospel, even while they refused to witness to black families right down the street. Scores of biblically literate laypeople organized to send missions money to plant churches in Africa, even as they shrunk back from inviting African-Americans to join their congregation. Sunday school teachers led children in singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” without ever questioning what that theology had to do with their cultural notions that Jesus loved white people best of all. Who knows how many churches proclaimed the love of Christ while saying nothing about the sin of refusing to confront a racist culture with the gospel of Christ? When a few courageous voices challenged the inconsistency of all this, they were shouted down by well-organized interest groups such as the White Citizens Councils.

Now, the venue has changed, but the issues have not. The Episcopal hierarchy faces a culture that is just as entrenched in the ideology of the sexual revolution as the Jim Crow South was entrenched in the ideology of white supremacy. While the Scripture speaks clearly to the issues involved, the church is manipulated by the well-organized pressure groups of the status quo. Upper-crust Episcopalian liberals-like retired Bishop John Shelby Spong-dismiss the biblical arguments of African churchmen because, after all, they were still “swinging from the trees” just a generation ago. They just aren’t as cultured and enlightened as we are, sniffs Spong.

The gospel announces that Jesus of Nazareth has been enthroned as the rightful heir of the cosmos. The Spirit of Christ declares that racism, bigotry, and partiality are grievous sins against God (James 3:9-10). The same Spirit of Christ declares that homosexuals can be forgiven and transformed by the Gospel of Christ (1 Cor 6:9-11). The spirit of the age consoled bigots by assuring them that black people would be better off “with their own kind.” And the spirit of the age now consoles white liberals that homosexuals really can’t change and don’t need the message of the gospel of repentance and faith. Whether to unrepentant racists or to unrepentant homosexuals, the message is always the same-“You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4).

Thus, some Baptist pastors once mistakenly thought they could preach the gospel-and still stand in the church-house door blocking out people for whom Christ died from joining the fellowship. And now some Episcopal bishops mistakenly think they can administer the sacraments-and stand in the church-house door blocking out people for whom Christ died from experiencing the sanctifying work of the Spirit. White supremacist pastors had the full endorsement of the Amos and Andy culture. Sexual libertarian bishops have the full endorsement of the Will and Grace culture. But, in the face of both, the Spirit still says to the churches: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

That means the churches of Jesus Christ must stand against the white sheets of the Ku Klux Klan and against the rainbow flags of the Gay Liberation Front, because both represent the cultural captivity of the church. And they both stand in the way of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.