The Associated Press carried a story the other day that made a very interesting -- and newsworthy -- claim about the ever-controversial Rev. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. Pay close attention to the top few paragraphs on this one:
The Rev. Robert Jeffress has changed the way he talks about homosexuality from the pulpit.
The pastor of the 11,000-member First Baptist Dallas hasn't stopped preaching that homosexual sex is sinful, but he no longer singles it out for special condemnation. Now, Jeffress says he usually talks about homosexuality within "a bigger context of God's plan for sex between one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship called marriage."
"It would be the height of hypocrisy to condemn homosexuality and not adultery or unbiblical divorce," he said, explaining that the Bible allows divorce only in cases of adultery or desertion. He also includes premarital sex on that list.
Now, the crucial thing the story never documents is precisely what is meant by that claim that Jeffress used to single out homosexual behavior for "special condemnation" in comparison with other forms of sexual activity outside of traditional marriage.
Does this mean that, for example, Jeffress used to preach MORE OFTEN about gay issues than straight issues? Does this mean that he actually said that he taught that acts of gay sex are, in the eyes of centuries of Christian doctrine, somehow more sinful than, let's say, sexual intercourse before marriage? Sure Jeffress did not make that claim (hello Westboro Baptist Church) that homosexual sins are not only worse than others, but that they cannot be forgiven, even after repentance.
It would have been good to have asked Jeffress what he actually taught, in the past, or even quoted an example or two from taped sermons available to the public.
Whatever. The goal of the story is to spotlight that fact that many younger evangelicals are changing how they view "gay and lesbian issues." I have no doubt whatsoever that this trend in polls is real and that it is important. However, I also see very little evidence that these polls are consistent in their wordings, when it comes to asking young evangelicals what they believe and, more importantly, what specific Christian teachings they now reject.
I know many young evangelicals who back same-sex marriage to the same degree that they support abortion. In other words, they want the legal option to exist for society, but, in terms of theology, they have not personally rejected centuries of church teachings on the subject.
This AP report sets out to offer a highly nuanced take on these issues, since the goal is to show that people are being more nuanced. But the wordings used in the story? They are all over the place.
The story also accepts, as pure fact, claims by progressive Christian leaders that doctrinally progressive churches are thriving and gaining new members, while conservative churches are losing members in waves. The evidence? The voices of researchers on the other side? Silence. Zero. Zip. Nada.
What emerges is evidence that some popular church leaders are changing how they PRESENT sexual issues in public. Also, some preachers are falling silent.
... Jeffress said he was concerned that some other evangelical pastors were shirking this responsibility.
"My sense is that people are just avoiding the subject, by and large," he said. "They are so bent on trying to add to the numbers of their churches that they don't want to disenfranchise new members or be characterized as unfriendly."
Atlanta pastor the Rev. Louie Giglio seems to have taken that approach. After withdrawing from giving the benediction at president Obama's inauguration ceremony because of controversy over a past sermon in which he said same-sex relationships were sinful, Giglio downplayed the significance of the remarks.
In his withdrawal letter, Giglio did not say he had changed his views on homosexuality, but instead noted how old the sermon was and stated, "Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past 15 years."
The key, for reporters, is to realize that there are stark differences between many of the leaders on the right, as well as differences between those on the left. What to do?
I recommend that journalists get a copy of "What Christians Think about Homosexuality: Six Representative Viewpoints," written by the Rev. Larry Holben, a gay Episcopal priest in California. Among evangelicals, he is best known as one of the screenwriters for the famous "Hiding Place" movie about Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom.
Holben is very careful in his book to offer light instead of heat. I interviewed him and wrote a pair of columns about this book in 2000. Here are some summaries of his three camps on the theological right:
* The “condemnation” camp notes that the Bible contains zero positive references to homosexuality. Its leaders deny that a unique homosexual orientation exists and insist that homosexuals, at some point, make conscious decisions to sin, which leads to addiction and then to self-fulfilling homosexual identities. Same-sex desires are as sinful as sex acts. Holben said this camp “honestly believes that sexual sins are the worst sins, anyway. ... Then, homosexual sins are the worst of the worst.”
* The “healing” camp says homosexual orientation is real, even if its origins remain mysterious. It’s crucial that many who take this position can testify that they have changed their “orientation” or at least their “sexual behavior.” At the same time, some concede that they continue to experience same-sex temptations and that “healing” is a life-long process. While viewing all sex outside of marriage as sin, they stress that same-sex desires, alone, are not sinful and that homosexual sin is no worse than other sin.
* Many groups, including the Vatican, now believe that same-sex orientation is an imperfection or impairment, but rarely the result of a conscious choice. Since healing does not always occur, many homosexuals face what Holben describes as “A Call to Costly Discipleship.” This camp urges homosexuals to live chaste lives and, thus, honor centuries of unbroken Christian tradition that all sex outside of marriage is sinful. This approach emphasizes that life in a sinful, fallen world is often painful and complex.
For Holben, there are three competing camps there as well:
* One group argues for “pastoral accommodation” that views homosexual acts “not so much as intrinsically evil as essential imperfect,” writes Holben. But in a fallen world, homosexuals may justify some sexual activity, just as other Christians now justify divorce and remarriage. This stance emphasizes monogamy.
* An “affirmation” camp goes beyond tolerating gay and lesbian relationships, saying they hold the same “potential for a self-transcending exchange of love as heterosexual unions.” These Christians believe that the morality of “homosexual acts are to be evaluated exactly as are heterosexual acts,” writes Holben. Monogamous, committed, homosexual relationships are truly sacred unions. But what does “monogamy” mean?
* Finally, there is “liberation.” As the Rev. Canon Elizabeth Kaeton of Newark once told the Episcopal Church’s homosexual caucus, the task for gays and lesbians, “our specific charism, is to help ourselves and the church reclaim the erotic as a central part of our lives.” A one-night stand may be a holy act, if the sex is honest, loving and not abusive. This camp argues that monogamy may, in fact, be a mask for jealousy and spiritually destructive forms of idolatry.
Now read the AP story again. Does it help readers to figure out who is who?
EDITOR'S NOTE: Obviously, the goal here is to discuss the mainstream press coverage of these issues, with an emphasis on this specific AP report.
PHOTO: Megachurch pastor and human-rights activist Pastor Louie Giglio.