Controversial Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, who advocated for LGBT affirmation, dies at 90

Episcopal Church Bishop John Shelby Spong, a notable progressive theologian and author who garnered controversy for his denial of certain Bible teachings, gives a lecture at the University of Oregon in 2008.
Episcopal Church Bishop John Shelby Spong, a notable progressive theologian and author who garnered controversy for his denial of certain Bible teachings, gives a lecture at the University of Oregon in 2008. | Screengrab: YouTube/University of Oregon

Theologically liberal Episcopal Church Bishop John Shelby Spong, an outspoken advocate of progressive views on LGBT issues and biblical interpretation, has passed away at age 90.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Richmond, Virginia, where Spong served as a pastor, announced that he died in his sleep on Sunday morning.

“It is with great sadness that we announce the death of the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. He died peacefully in his sleep at his home on Sunday morning,” the church stated in an email. 

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The Westar Institute, which hosted a critical biblical scholarship gathering known as the Jesus Seminar, honored Spong, a longtime supporter of the organization.

“His work and witness have inspired and freed many Westar members and a generation of thoughtful people. May his memory be a blessing,” tweeted the Institute.

According to the Westar Institute, Spong was born in 1931 and initially identified as a fundamentalist Christian while growing up in North Carolina. He later rejected such views as being detrimental to faith.

He was ordained into the priesthood in 1955 and consecrated as a bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, in 1976. Spong held the position of bishop until 2000.

Spong authored several books, including Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (1988), Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus (1992) and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (1998).

As the Christian Courier's Wayne Jackson reports, Spong became known for his support of progressive sexual ethics in the 1980s. Specifically, he advocated for the Church to accept sex outside of marriage and the blessing of same-sex relationships.

In 1989, Spong made headlines when he ordained an openly gay priest despite opposition from traditionalist Episcopal Church bishops. 

Spong also openly embraced the theory of evolution and denied many of the key teachings of the Bible, including the virgin birth and the historical existence of Judas Iscariot.

“[Judas] was a totally fictional character, a totally literary character created by [the] early Christian Church in the ninth decade for [the] sole purpose of shifting blame for Jesus’ death away from Romans who were certainly responsible for it, and placing that blame on the backs of the Jewish people,” Spong reportedly claimed in a 2016 lecture.

Many, including Jackson, have critiqued Spong's work over the years, arguing against the bishop’s claims about the Bible and morality.

“Though Spong claims to have studied the Bible with great ‘intensity,’ his writings reveal an abysmal lack of knowledge of the sacred text. His ignorance is exceeded only by his arrogant disrespect for the time-tested volume,” wrote Jackson.

“Not everything that parades under the name ‘Christian’ is deserving of that appellation. And there is no better example of that maxim than that of John Shelby Spong, the rogue ‘priest’ who has made a career of bashing the Son of God and disgracing that sacred name before an uninformed public.”

In recent years, the Episcopal Church has taken a progressive stance on issues of sexuality, particularly regarding LGBT issues. In 2012, the bishops of the Episcopal Church amended the definition of marriage to accommodate same-sex marriages.

Six years later, the Episcopal Church began requiring all dioceses to perform same-sex marriages, even if the diocese bishop remained opposed. Bishops who have refused to allow same-sex marriages have faced disciplinary action. 

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