Progressive religious leader, Tony Campolo, released a statement saying he was “finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples in the church.”
His announcement was not much of a surprise. In the 1960s and ’70s, Campolo was one of the evangelical world’s most popular speakers, but in his 1983 book, A Reasonable Faith, he wrote, “Jesus is actually present in each person,” whether Christian or not. That theologically suspect statement and others like it caused Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru) and Youth for Christ to disinvite him to a large event they were co-hosting. It ultimately led to the Christian Legal Society putting Campolo on trial. CLS cleared Campolo of heresy charges but said his views were “methodologically naïve and verbally incautious.”
Despite these and other cracks in Campolo’s evangelical bona fides, he remained consistent on the marriage issue through the years. In 1996, at a chapel service at North Park College (now University) in Chicago, he said, “I … believe the Bible does not allow for same gender sexual marriage. I do not believe that same gender sexual intercourse is permissible if you read the Bible as I do.”
But by 2008, his views had clearly evolved. In Red Letter Christians, he wrote, “I propose that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and, instead, only give legal status to civil unions. The government should do this for both gay couples and straight couples and leave marriage in the hands of the Church and other religious entities.” Since then, Campolo’s organization, also named Red Letter Christians, has argued in favor of same-sex marriage several times.
But the statement, issued June 8, is the first time Campolo, 80, has affirmed it himself, citing his wife Peggy as a key factor in his change of position. Peggy Campolo has long been an advocate of same-sex marriage, and the 1996 North Park presentation was actually a debate, with the couple taking opposite sides on the issue.
Campolo’s revelation motivated several high-profile responses, including one from David Neff, the former editor of Christianity Today (CT), a former board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and a signer of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which affirmed traditional marriage. But Neff quickly congratulated Campolo on his Facebook page for his change of heart, suggesting then, and later clarified in an email to CT, that he had gone through a similar change. Neff’s comments forced current CT editor Mark Galli to re-affirm the magazine’s position on same-sex marriage.
“[W]e were surprised when … David Neff … praised Campolo’s move,” Galli wrote in an editorial posted Tuesday on the magazine’s website. “We’re saddened that David has come to this conclusion. Saddened because we firmly believe that the Bible teaches that God intends the most intimate of covenant relationships to be enjoyed exclusively by a man and a woman. We’ve stated this view explicitly in many editorials, and it is implicit but clear in many of our feature stories.”
Others then praised Campolo and Neff.
“Tony Campolo yesterday, David Neff today. Who will find the courage to do so next?” asked Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian. “These are exciting times!”
Indeed, Vines himself has been actively attempting to create the impression that evangelicals are changing their minds on the question of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. This week, Vines is hosting The Reformation Project, a conference in Atlanta that includes as a speaker an openly gay worship leader from Willow Chicago, a satellite campus of the well-known Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., pastored by Bill Hybels.
The worship leader, Darren Calhoun, would not speak directly with me, but Willow Creek sent me a statement from him.
“I’m a follower of Jesus,” Calhoun wrote. “My church community is Willow Chicago, the downtown campus of Willow Creek Community Church. There, I’ve served as a volunteer for eight years in various parts of our arts ministries including leading worship. … I’m also gay. As a Christian, I’ve been on a long journey to reconcile the reality of my orientation with the various views that the church world has on the topic of people who are attracted to the same sex. … At Willow, I was able to begin a journey of celibacy and prayerfully discerning what that means for my life.”
Willow Creek spokeswoman Heather Larson said having an openly gay man in leadership at the church does not signal a change in direction for Willow Creek.
“Darren is held to the same standard that we have for everyone in our church,” she said. “He is able to serve in a worship role because he has committed to all of the characteristics outlined in our Leadership Covenant, which includes living a life of sexual purity. For Darren, this is a commitment to celibacy.”
The effect of stories such as these is to create the impression that the Christian church, and the evangelical church in particular, is undergoing a dramatic shift on homosexuality. In an interview, Vines cited to me surveys from the Southern Baptist–affiliated Lifeway Research to make this case. He pointed out a 2012 finding that 82 percent of Americans who consider themselves to be “born-again, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christians” believed “homosexual behavior was a sin.” That number fell to 66 percent in a similar 2015 survey.
Yet Ed Stetzer, who leads Lifeway Research, said it’s important to make distinctions in comparing the two surveys.
“There has definitely been a shift in culture, and that shift is also evident in evangelicals,” he said. “Yet our research—and that of many others—show that [while] self-identified evangelicals are shifting some, active evangelicals—those who go to church—generally are not.”
A recent Pew Research Center study found only 27 percent of white evangelicals favor same-sex marriage. That number drops dramatically when church attendance is considered. Support for same-sex marriage among black Protestants is slightly higher (33 percent), but that support actually has dropped in recent years.
So despite political shifts on the question of gay marriage, and a few high-profile defections, such as Tony Campolo, it’s not clear that Christians who actually attend church and understand church doctrines are actually moving much on this issue. The Christianity Today story rebutting its former editor suggested this very idea in its headline: “Breaking news: 2 billion Christians believe in traditional marriage … and so do we.”
— by Warren Cole Smith | WNS