Russell Moore believes definitions are important, especially when it comes to terms like "Evangelical" and "gay Christian," the prominent Southern Baptist leader recently revealed in a discussion about what he thinks is at the root of divergent beliefs about human sexuality among Christians.
"Evangelical," according to this independent supplement to The AP Stylebook, "has generally come to mean Protestants who emphasize personal conversion; evangelism; the authority, primacy — and, usually — inerrancy of the Bible; and the belief that Jesus' death reconciled God and humans" — a nugget summary, compared to Wheaton College's extensive primer on "Evangelicalism."
The authority, primacy and inerrancy (or reliability) of the Bible is at the heart of debates among Christians who argue either for or against the "sinfulness" of homosexual acts, according to Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore follows the long-held orthodox view that has called for the expression of human sexuality in the confines of monogamous heterosexual union.
Those who argue against this traditional view of human sexuality are "revisionist voices" and perhaps "so-called Evangelicals," according to remarks Moore made last week at the annual Religion Newswriters Association Conference in Philadelphia. Moore, whose ERLC organization publicly advocates for the interests of the 15-million-member SBC denomination, made an appearance at the event to discuss the thesis of his new book, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel and field any related questions.
One of those questions was whether Moore believed gay Christians can be considered Evangelicals.
Moore, featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and numerous other publications, began his response by appealing to potential definitions of "gay Christian."
"There are some people who use that term to mean same-sex attracted but who are living out lives of celibacy believing the historic Christian sexual ethic," said Moore. "In that case, of course. I think that the Christian life is a life of cross-carrying, fighting against temptation. We have different points of temptation, that every Christian is in a place of struggling against temptation."
Moore also noted that he believed particular understandings of sin and repentance also bear relevancy to the question.
"Where we would probably disagree, is that when it comes to the Gospel, meaning both repentance from sin and mercy for sin, the question would be 'what is sin?' And, has the Church been wrong for 2,000 years and is the biblical text wrong when it comes to defining marriage as conjugal union of man and woman, and homosexual acts," he said. "In that, we hold the exact same position as every wind of the Church has for 2,000 years — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox. So in terms of understanding the Gospel it would mean both a call to repentance from what we would call sexual immorality, including homosexuality, but with that, an offer of mercy, transformation and grace."
Moore fielded another, related question, about whether if there was a way "an Evangelical can faithfully, as David Gushee (a Baptist minister and Christian ethics professor who is now pro-LGBT) happens to have on that particular issue, come to a place where he says 'our theology was wrong?'"
"I think that most of the voices that you see calling for a revision of the Christian sexual ethic have already long ago negotiated away other more basic pieces of orthodoxy, so the controversies that we typically have, with say a David Gushee or a Matthew Vines, are not, first and foremost, controversies over the interpretation of particular texts," said Moore. "They're controversies over an understanding and inspiration of Scripture."
"If one says the Apostle Paul, for instance, would have spoken differently about homosexuality if he had known what we know now about homosexuality, or in some cases, Jesus himself was wrong about sexual orientation, well that's not a debate over particular passages. That's a debate over a very foundational, fundamental issue of what does it mean to believe the Bible and to follow the authority of Scripture," Moore added.
The ERLC president went on to say that he thinks the distinction in debates over homosexuality, involving one's high or low view of the Bible, "is where the problem lies."
"And that's why there is a myth, especially among journalists," said Moore. "I will often have journalists who will say, 'What are you going to do about all of these conservative Evangelical churches that are changing their position on sexuality?' And what I typically do is to say, 'Name them for me.' They will typically name two or three congregations, all of which were long ago negotiating away other doctrines and issues … issues of biblical inspiration and so forth."
Moore pointed to how some Christians responded when relief organization World Vision announced that it would hire employees in same-sex marriages last spring as an example of Evangelical conviction.
Some Christians, including leaders of the Assemblies of God, the world's largest Pentecostal denomination, encouraged donors to shift support away from the child relief agency in protest of what they viewed as rejection of biblical standards. After thousands of sponsors rescinded their support, World Vision backtracked on its plan to hire married gay and lesbian staff.
"If you want to see where Evangelicalism is on the sexuality issues, look at what happened with World Vision," said Moore. "World Vision made a revision when it comes to marriage, and within a week, the Evangelical movement showed that it was still Evangelical. World Vision turned around, and I think handled it very well in terms of rebuilding trust there."
The ERLC president, who believes Christians should embrace the "freakishness of the Gospel," now more than ever, expressed certainty that Evangelicals would stand firm in their convictions.
A recent survey from SBC-affiliated LifeWay Research indicates that Evangelicals, "those who identify themselves as a born again, Evangelical, or fundamentalist Christian," are most likely to view homosexual behavior as sinful. A majority of Protestants (and 82 percent of white Evangelicals) hold the same view, according to a September Pew Research Center survey.
"I don't think you're going to see Evangelicals surrendering on issues of Christian sexual ethic precisely because we can't. The issues of sexuality in Scripture are not just a matter of a few isolated verses. They span from Genesis 1 all the way through Revelation 22, with an understanding of sexuality is pointing to the union of Christ and the Church," said Moore.