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Evangelical Pastor Theologians Outline Christian Vision of Sexuality

To win hearts and minds, our task is “not simply to persuade minds but also imaginations” by showing not just the truth, but also the beauty of the Christian vision. And even as a self-described “low-church, free-church evangelical,” Wilson urged a rediscovery of relevant church tradition, and bemoaned American evangelicalism’s tendencies towards “a way of reading the Bible that’s superficial” and excessive skepticism about any post-biblical tradition.

It is hard to overstate the degree to which American culture has gone through a very dramatic change in sexual mores in an incredibly short period of time. Around the country, even very evangelical pastors of evangelical congregations have noticed these cultural attitudes seeping in among those they shepherd.

In such a context, it is not enough for the church to simply repeat the Bible’s clear prohibitions of certain sexual thoughts and practices, as indispensable as those are. People in our culture need to hear from the church an overarching “positive, compelling vision of God’s plan for sexuality,” as the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Treat recently put it. Otherwise, we may be engaging in an impossible task of seeking to defend specific details of Christian teaching while unknowingly accepting and arguing within the bounds of a fundamentally non-Christian framework.

Treat was speaking in a recent conference in suburban Chicago called “Beauty, Order, and Mystery: The Christian Vision of Sexuality,” organized by the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT). As CPT board member Dr. John Yates III explained, this center was founded to reclaim the practice of “ecclesial theology,” done by pastors within the communal context of the church, as much of the great theological writing of the past was done.

Yates noted that these rapid cultural changes are provoking church people to ask questions “about sexuality and sexual identity we wouldn’t have thought of a decade ago.” But he quickly added that being forced to ask such questions was actually “not a bad thing for the church,” as it “forces us to look at underlying questions,” such as “what it means to be human,” as we face “an age of anthropological heresy.”

Rev. Dr. Todd Wilson, a CPT co-founder, shared that when he began pastoring the suburban Chicago congregation hosting this conference, its neighbors referred to it as “the gay-hating church” in town, which “made it very hard for folk in the community to hear the gospel” from them. And then within the congregation, he saw younger members who were leading Bible studies and seemed like good candidates to be elders, except that they had an “affirming position” on homosexuality. He admitted that while he came into ministry thinking a priority was “needing to move people past the hard-edged fundamentalism,” Millennial churchgoers do not need too much pushing to feel compassionate—“they’re all about that already!”

This cultural “sea change” is of course not limited to homosexuality. The conference noted “alarmingly high rates” of premarital sex, adultery, pornography use, sexual abuse, and sexual dysfunction within marriage. “Millennials are awash in porn,” Wilson observed.

One speaker read from a sobering Vanity Fair article on “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.’” It describes how this relatively new smartphone-based “hook-up app,” and others like it, are nurturing a culture of remarkably efficient promiscuity among young urban professionals, in which “sex has become so easy.” That article quotes a college-student intern in New York City complaining about how she’s found that guys are “not really looking for girlfriends,” but “just looking for hit-it-and-quit-it on Tinder.”

Some of the shifts in views can be traced to the sorts of “relational crises” younger Americans are facing, such as individuals who get to know beloved friends and family members who are gay, and who associate traditionalist disapproval of homosexual practice with unloving homophobic jokes and slurs they have heard even church leaders make.

But the shift is ultimately more foundational. Wilson described the shift in the views of our surrounding culture as well as of many young people who passionately worship at evangelical churches to “a loss of functional biblical authority” and “the refashioning of moral intuitions.”

Underlying both has been “a profound loss of theological vision.”

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