What Fuller Says About Evangelicals: Nolo Contendere

Edward John CarnellThe AP ran a story this past Sunday revealing that Fuller Seminary (Pasadena, California) has decided not to contest the formation of a homosexual student group on campus known as OneTable. Fuller’s policy says that marriage is between one man and one woman and that students must be sexually chaste.

The story opens with an account of a homosexual student, Nick Palacios, aged 29, who says, now, in light of the group’s acceptance,

“It quickly became apparent to me that I was going to be OK and that I wasn’t going to have to forsake my faith for my sexuality,” Palacios said of his struggle for acceptance.

Notice the order of his priorities. If something had to go, it would be his faith. Now, to be fair, it’s a quote in an AP story and it wouldn’t be the first time that a quote was, shall we say, garbled, by a reporter. Nevertheless, assuming the quote is accurate, it’s telling.

Having gained a measure of acceptance on campus, the group says it now plans to hold a series of rallies. They want to address what they say is a climate of “fear and shame.” Richard Flory, at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, at USC, says the approval of the group is symbolic more than a move toward true tolerance. He echoes those critics who say it’s hypocritical of the school to approve the group but to say that homosexuals cannot have sex.

In a response to the story issued on Tuesday, Fuller’s president, Mark Laberton, reaffirmed the school’s policy on sexuality and chastity and reminded readers that OneTable is a student-led group but added

OneTable provides a safe place to discuss issues related to sexuality and gender—issues that are vitally important, personal, and fraught with debate that is frequently divisive and contentious, not least in an evangelical context. OneTable at Fuller is not an advocacy group to alter seminary policy nor to direct any efforts in that direction. No student-led group “defines” Fuller’s position, nor does it represent or encompass the many resources that Fuller has to offer. In terms of the topics of sexuality, marriage, and family, Fuller has been and will continue to teach about these issues in many ways both in the classroom and in campuswide workshops.

Whether OneTable will be an advocacy group remains to be seen when fall the semester begins. Historically, in the quest for “gay rights” permission has led to advocacy and insistence. Clearly the message of the group is that one may be Christian and homosexual at the same time, even if advocates of that view struggle to articulate how that can be.

There is a growing archive of posts on the HB on homosexuality, so I won’t rehearse the issues and arguments again here. The prima facie evidence from Scripture, however, is strongly against the claim that one may be a “gay Christian.” That so far a small group (about 36 students out of 4,500) of students believe they’ve found a way to reconcile homosexuality with a Christian profession may say more about their hermeneutics and view of Scripture than it does about what Scripture says or what the Christian traditions have said about sexuality ethics and orientation.

Richard Flory is right and wrong. He’s right that this is a symbolic act. He’s wrong about the way in which it is symbolic. Fuller’s decision not to contest the formation of a homosexual student group is symbolic of the evangelical desire to be accepted by the broader culture. Indeed, this episode has helped me gain a little clarity about how to define that notoriously difficult adjective “evangelical.” In the 16th century, “evangelical” referred to confessional Protestants, to Lutherans and Reformed Christians who were recovering the biblical gospel from the medieval corruption of the Christian message and who confessed that recovery in ecclesiastical documents. In the 18th and 19th centuries, “evangelical” came to refer increasingly to those who had a certain quality of religious experience. In the second half of the 20th century, “evangelical” began to denote those post-fundamentalists who were intent upon re-engaging the culture intelligently from a bible-believing perspective. Today, however, it is becoming increasingly clear than an evangelical one who loves Jesus, continues to believe parts of Scripture to be historical, and who wants to be accepted by the broader culture. An evangelical is willing to affirm those portions of Scripture not yet regarded as morally beyond the pale of acceptable belief.

Over the last 40 years, our post-Christian, biblically and historically (and apparently biologically) illiterate culture has come to regard homosexuality as normal and any prohibition of homosexual behavior as antiquated and immoral. One saw the evangelicals immediately wrestling with the potential cultural disapproval of traditional Christian sexual ethics and morality . Take a look at the literature of the time. In the mid-80s I read the popular and academic evangelical literature on homosexuality. The walls were crumbling even then. It was clear that evangelicals were frightened that they might face the disapproval of the broader culture. The same spirit was evident in certain ecclesiastical pronouncements. E.g., the Christian Reformed Church position on homosexuality uses the expression, “homosexual Christians,” affirming that a homosexual orientation is compatible with a Christian profession while rejecting what it describes as “homosexualism,” i.e., the practice of homosexuality as compatible with a Christian profession. Essentially Fuller Seminary has officially caught up to the CRC 1973 position. Again, consider the incongruity of “Adulterer Christian.” Is it possible to say that a Christian may have an “adulterous orientation” but to say that a Christian may not practice “Adulterism”? The questions reveals the nonsense evangelicals, including the CRC, have been talking about sexuality for decades.1

When the evangelicals set their priorities, a “personal experience of Christ” is first. The doctrines of Scripture, of God, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology are all negotiable or negligible, but a personal encounter with Christ is not. As a consequence of this priority, it is no longer clear which “Christ” the evangelicals are experiencing, the Christ of Scripture and history or the “Christ of faith” (existential encounter). If OneTable is an indicator of where evangelicals are, it seems clear that the struggle to reconcile Christianity with homosexual attraction has resulted in abandoning the Christ of Scripture and history. Subjectivism über alles.

This didn’t even begin in the 1970s, when Fuller jettisoned the historic Christian doctrine of Scripture (in order to please the PCUSA, into which Fuller had long hoped to send graduates), but in the late 50s. Rudolph Nelson’s The Making and Unmaking of An Evangelical Mind notes Edward John Carnell’s 1959 essay in The Christian Century in which he performed a ritual assassination of J. Gresham Machen.2 To that point, from its founding in 1947, Fuller had intended to be Westminster West but without the confessions and without the presbyterian ecclesiology. 12 years later, however, Carnell bizarrely attacked Machen, seemingly out of the blue; except it wasn’t random. It was strategic. It was the beginning of evangelicalism’s repudiation (or attempted remodeling) of anything like historic Protestantism where ever that confession placed it in conflict with the mainline’s “broadening church,” popular acceptance, and influence.

The real question is this: What hath Pasadena to do with Stonewall? Christianity is one thing and the culture another. We do not serve the culture by mimicking it. We do not serve it well by intellectual and moral gymnastics to justify whatever it approves. Christendom is dead. Historic Christianity is once again marginalized and those who affirm it must follow Jesus outside the city.

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For there we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come (Heb 13:11–14; ESV).

In the 1950s and 60s they ditched Machen. In the 70s, it was inerracy. In the 80s it was women in ecclesiastical office. The current evangelical collapse on homosexuality was predictable. They evangelicals seem determined to hang on to their place in the secular city, even if it means an ever shrinking list of Christian essentials.

1. The CRC report on homosexuality is evidence that many “conservatives” misdiagnosed what was actually ailing the CRC. They saw the greatest problem as “liberalism” when, in fact, what the CRC had become was broadly evangelical. By misdiagnosing the problem they prescribed the wrong medicine: conservatism. The major problem was evangelicalism and the answer was confessionalism but this is stuff for another post.

2. See also his 1960 essay, “Orthodoxy: Cultic vs. Classical” in the same magazine. The same material, however, is in his book The Case for Orthodox Theology(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1959), 114–17. Read the relevant sections here.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Your comparison between the labels “gay Christian” and “adulterer Christian” does not, I think, demonstrate an adequate understanding of what (some) gay Christians mean by the label. Are you familiar with the work of Wesley Hill (on his blog and also his book Washed and Waiting)? That would help bring a bit of clarity there. There are certainly good reasons to encourage same-sex attracted Christians not to self-identify as “gay Christians” but I am not sure that you have fully interacted with this.

    Second, I am a bit unclear on where you are getting your definition of “evangelical” (as distinct from “confessional”) and would like more clarity on that. Christians who believe Scripture must, on the whole, answer to culture are typically identified as liberals, not evangelicals.

    Finally, from this post it is difficult to discern whether or not you believe (1) that a homosexual sexual orientation is a “choice” or (2) that it can or ought to change for someone who is both same-sex attracted and who self-identifies as an evangelical (or, if you like, confessional) Christian. If you believe both of these things it is difficult for me to accept some of your critiques of institutions that you believe are wrongly handling the relationship between Christianity and culture. I would suggest that sexual orientation is not a choice and that it is irresponsible and unbiblical to maintain that a same-sex attracted Christian’s sanctification necessarily entails changing his or her sexual orientation. (I think this is supported by what I take to be the best current research in psychology, biblical studies, and theology; note that you and I probably agree on what Scripture teaches concerning the nature of marriage between one man and one woman being the context in which human sexuality is designed to be expressed.) This puts Christian institutions in a difficult and sensitive situation re: the relationship between Christianity and this particular subset of culture. I find your criticisms misguided to the extent that they depend on ideas about sexual orientation and sanctification that I think are incorrect. It is not entirely clear what your position is on that, so I might be reading you incorrectly.

  2. Fuller’s president, Mark Laberton, said: “OneTable at Fuller is not an advocacy group to alter seminary policy nor to direct any efforts in that direction.” I wonder if he actually believes that??

  3. One Place and Fuller need to get something straight: there is no safe place for “christianizing” homosexuality and other sinful dispositions.

    “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Cor. 6:9-11, KJV)

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