On June 8, Eastern University professor and well-known Christian speaker Tony Campolo released a statement in which he urged the church “to be more welcoming.” That is a very nice-sounding euphemism for what he really did, which is “call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.” Campolo is no stranger to more liberal positions within the church, but this endorsement contradicts what Campolo himself has written in the past and is based on, well, nothing really other than Campolo’s stance that holding to the biblical position on homosexuality is not effective and does not demonstrate the love of Christ. He said that his position change came about after “countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil.” I am in no position to doubt or question the sincerity of that statement. I am, however, willing to question what Campolo was studying and/or praying–and with whom he was conversing–that his “countless hours” brought him to this conclusion.
In 1988 Campolo wrote a book entitled 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch. I am not sure how well it sold, but I happened to have a copy of it on my bookshelf, so I took a look. I suspected that even in 1988 the issue of homosexuality would have been one of the hot potatoes, and I was right; the ninth chapter of the book is called “Does Christianity have any good news for homosexuals?” In that chapter Campolo calls for believers to get over their homophobia and reach out to the gay community in love. I cannot disagree that Christians are to show love to homosexuals. Campolo also wrote, “I am not asking that Christian people gloss over biblical teachings or ignore their convictions that homosexual acts are sin.” Even in 1988 Campolo was insisting that some homosexuals are born with their homosexual inclinations and that it is not a choice they are making. (Interestingly enough he stated that this was much more likely true for homosexual males than females, that the research into homosexual female behavior was “much more confusing” and that female homosexual activity was much more likely to be the result of “sociological/psychological causes”). Still though, despite making a number of claims that would tend to take a relaxed stance on homosexuality, Campolo ultimately came down on the side of Scripture and its clear teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin. For example, Campolo wrote:
[P]ersonally I hold to a belief that homosexual behavior is wrong, regardless of what motivates it. I hold to this position not only because I disagree with my homosexual friends about this particular scripture [Romans 1:26-27], but also because for centuries the consensus of church leaders and theologians has been that homosexual behavior is against the will of God. I believe that our contemporary reading of Scripture should be informed by the traditions of Christendom. The traditional interpretations of Scripture should not be considered infallible (else there would have been no Protestant Reformation) but they should be taken seriously.
Campolo then went on to explore the position that Paul was writing, in I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy 1 about pederasty, not about a mutually and consensually chosen relationship. Yet, he still followed that up with this statement: “Please remember that I do think that homosexual behavior is contrary to the will of God.” In his nest Tevye-esque attempt to explore what might be “on the other hand,” though, he next posits that the New Testament does not give nearly as much attention to homosexual behavior as it does to other sins like neglecting the poor, that Jesus never taught on homosexuality, and that “the fact that homosexuality has become such an overriding concern for many contemporary preachers may be more a reflection of the homophobia of the church than it is the result of the emphasis of Scripture.”
Shifting back to “the other hand”, Campolo speculates on the possibility of homosexuals living in celibate covenants, suggesting that such relationships would be possible. He wrote that he refrained from calling them marriages, though, because, by his way of thinking, marriage “implies a sexually consummated relationship” while a covenant “connotes a lifelong commitment of mutual obligation which does not necessitate sexual intercourse.” Just a paragraph later, then, Campolo writes, “On the one hand, our obedience to the teachings of the Bible and the traditions of the church necessitate that we withhold approval of homosexual intercourse. Even if the New Testament case against homosexual intercourse is not as pronounced as some people think it is, there are still passages in the Old Testament that speak directly to the issue which I find impossible to dismiss (see Lev. 18:22, 20:13).” Finally, Campolo wraps up the chapter with a proposal for some sort of homosexual Christian communities in which homosexuals could live together, be honest about their orientation and make special efforts to encourage one another to live lives that glorified Christ, all while simultaneously “holding in check” through “loving and prayerful support” the “temptation to consummate sexual urges”.
If, after reading that, you’re thinking Campolo may have some kind of philosophical/theological version of bipolar disorder, you’re not far off. Quite simply, in his 1988 writings, Campolo wanted badly to affirm homosexuals. He believed that homosexuals needed to be shown the love of Christ and be treated with love by Christians, and that is correct. However, it is clear that he was trying to find every possible way to affirm homosexuals and provide explanations for homosexuality as well as opportunities for living a life that celebrated homosexuality while remaining chaste. (His homosexual communities is an incredibly bizarre notion, in my opinion; try, for example, putting a bunch of males and females together in a community and ask them to affirm the fact that they are sexually attracted to each other and then also encourage each other not to have sex. Let me know how that works out….) Still, despite his clear desire to affirm homosexuality, Campolo in 1988 was not willing to ignore the clear biblical teaching that homosexual behavior is sin. Now, though, 27 years later, he has changed his mind and yielded to what I suspect he wanted to do back then–said that, despite the biblical teaching, we should celebrate, embrace and welcome sexually active homosexuals who have married.
So how does Campolo justify this new position without simply saying, “The Bible is wrong?”
First of all, he re-defines marriage. He acknowledged in his June 8 statement that many Christians agree with Augustine that the sole purpose of marriage is procreation, which would “negate the legitimacy of same-sex unions.” Others, though, including Campolo himself, believe there is “a more spiritual dimension of marriage.” This dimension is of greater importance than procreation, indeed is of “supreme importance” and includes the belief “that God intends married partners to help actualize in each other the ‘fruits of the spirit,’ which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, often citing the Apostle Paul’s comparison of marriage to Christ’s sanctifying relationship with the Church.” Marriage, Campolo said, should always be “primarily about spiritual growth.”
Should marriage promote spiritual growth? Of course. Husbands and wives should encourage each other, support each other, pray for each other, even lovingly rebuke each other at times. However, that cannot be the primary purpose of marriage because that could be the primary purpose of any number of relationships. Indeed, it is the primary purpose of the church and the relationships between believers within the body of Christ. Procreation and the raising of children is what sets marriage apart from any other relationship. Remember, in 1988 Campolo said that marriage “implies a sexually consummated relationship.” God designed the male and female to fit together in the physical act of sex and to enjoy sex within the marriage relationship. Redefining marriage as Campolo suggests not only diminishes the importance of procreation and parenting but it necessarily eliminates the biblical teaching that sex is to be limited to marriage. Campolo may suggest that is not what he said, but it is the logical outcome of what he said. If the chief thing that sets marriage apart from any other relationship is no longer the biblically-approved sexual relationship then how do we confine sex at all? Does sex not then become just a physical activity that can be enjoyed between any two individuals who so desire to engage in consensual sexual activity?
Second, Campolo, like so many others who have flipped their position on homosexual activity, was swayed by seeing “so many gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way” as the relationship Campolo has with his wife. In other words, because there are homosexual couples who seem to love, support, encourage and aid each other, it must be okay for them to marry.
To his credit, Campolo acknowledges that he might be wrong: ” Obviously, people of good will can and do read the scriptures very differently when it comes to controversial issues, and I am painfully aware that there are ways I could be wrong about this one.” He concludes his statement, though, by suggesting that this issue of homosexuality is much like previous positions held by sincere believers who claimed biblical support for keeping women out of teaching roles in the church, prohibited divorced and remarried individuals from being part of a church fellowship and even the practice of slavery. This, of course, hints at some of the ways in which Campolo disagrees with some believers, since there are still plenty of Christians who do not believe the Bible permits women to be in positions of leadership within the church, including the office of pastor or elder. I am one of those individuals. There are still plenty of believers who believe that divorced and remarried individuals are welcome to be part of a church but cannot hold leadership positions if the divorce took place after becoming a Christian and for any reason other than those that are biblically permissible. I am one of those individuals. Most importantly, however, Campolo seems to ignore the fact that while there were some individuals who used Scripture to support the practice of slavery, there is nowhere where the Bible explicitly states that slavery is okay. Indeed, it was belief in the biblical teaching that all humans have dignity and worth, that all humans are created in the image of God, that lead so many of those who opposed slavery to fight for its abolition. The Bible does, though, explicitly state that homosexual behavior is an abomination and a sin. It does not matter how many nice, loving homosexual couples Campolo knows, and it does not matter how he or anyone else wants to redefine marriage–there is simply no way to change that fact. Indeed, I will end by quoting the 1988 Tony Campolo in opposition to the 2015 version: “There are still passages in the Old Testament that speak directly to the issue which I find impossible to dismiss.” Me too.