Jen Hatmaker, InterVarsity, and Why The Evangelical Church Will Change on Same-Sex Marriage

Last week, bestselling evangelical author Jen Hatmaker said in an interview with Religion News Service that she affirms same-sex relationships, setting off a firestorm of controversy online. Her statements stand in stark contrast to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent decision to fire all LGBT-affirming staff members, and they’ve contributed to the ongoing debate about the future of the evangelical church on LGBT inclusion.

In an article in Christianity Today this week, Ed Stetzer downplayed the significance of Hatmaker’s shift, writing that the actions of evangelical organizations like InterVarsity are actually a “bigger story than the celebrity of the moment.” To support his case, Stetzer notes that various evangelical organizations have doubled down on their opposition to same-sex relationships in recent years, including Fuller Seminary, the Vineyard, and World Vision. Because those organizations hold “progressive views on gender, race, and social justice,” Stetzer says, it’s clear that opposition to same-sex marriage is “a core evangelical belief” that will not change, not just a priority of more conservative evangelicals.

In fact, Stetzer goes so far as to say that we are now “witnessing the slow demise of the ‘welcoming and affirming’ advocacy in Evangelicalism, as organization after organization makes clear what they believe.” He goes on to reference my work specifically, seeking to write an early obituary of sorts for my efforts to change evangelicals’ minds about same-sex relationships. While I appreciate his generally civil tone and the compassion he expresses for LGBT people in his piece, Stetzer’s argument here amounts to little more than wishful thinking.

While it’s true that numerous evangelical organizations have clarified or intensified their opposition to same-sex relationships in recent years, that means relatively little in terms of the long-term future of the evangelical church. As an illustration, consider what happened after Massachusetts legalized marriage equality in 2004. Eleven states, including Oregon, voted to amend their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. It would’ve been easy to argue then that this spelled the “slow demise” of the marriage equality movement, as it was supposedly clear that a majority of Americans would never support the “redefinition of marriage.” Indeed, when even the progressive population of California voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2008, that case was made more loudly than ever. But it was also fairly quickly proven to be wrong.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the simple fact that same-sex marriage was on the ballot was a sign that significant social change was taking place. Due to the nature of support for same-sex marriage, which grows as more and more people come out to their families and friends, it is a shift that moves in only one direction over the long term. It may stop and start at times, and one step forward often leads to two steps backward, but the overall trajectory is toward greater acceptance.

Likewise, it should come as little surprise that many evangelical organizations have doubled down on their opposition to same-sex marriage—often implementing their own versions of “constitutional amendments” by purging all staff who privately disagree, as InterVarsity is doing, or by elevating the topic to near-creedal status, as Richard Stearns did in order to justify World Vision’s reversal of its momentary acceptance of gay Christians in 2014.

But rather than being a sign that evangelicalism will never change, those moves are a sign that evangelicalism is already changing—which is why many are going to unusual lengths to try to stop it. After all, World Vision initially decided to hire gay Christians in same-sex marriages, and InterVarsity would have no need to purge LGBT-affirming staff if some of their staff weren’t becoming affirming.

Stetzer fails to recognize this core dynamic of internal evangelical change, arguing that “many of these affirmations of traditional marriage come because of outside forces, forcing Evangelicals to make clear what was assumed.” But in fact, in every case he cites, the affirmations came due to internal forces and dissent. The Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities made opposition to same-sex marriage a membership requirement after two CCCU schools decided to hire people in same-sex marriages. Fuller Seminary intensified its non-affirming stance in response to Fuller professors like Daniel Kirk who were becoming LGBT-affirming. Even Christianity Today itself felt the need to clarify its position after its former longtime editor David Neff said he affirmed same-sex relationships in 2015. In none of those cases did “outside forces” prompt the institutions to respond, as Stetzer claims. Internal changes were the driving force.

Now, it is true that the majority of American evangelicals—66%, according to LifeWay in 2015—still believe that same-sex relationships are sinful. So it’s not surprising that the number of affirming evangelicals isn’t yet great enough to bring about sweeping institutional change, even in most of the more progressive evangelical organizations. But the number of affirming evangelicals rises every year, and eventually, we will have sufficient support to start changing institutional policies. That’s why declarations like those of Jen Hatmaker and Nicholas Wolterstorff will be far more consequential for determining the future of evangelicalism than the current institutional backlash of organizations like InterVarsity.

Hatmaker is a particularly powerful example. It is simply unimaginable that ten or even five years ago, a bestselling evangelical author at the peak of her popularity would unapologetically affirm same-sex marriage in the church. Yes, she has received strong criticism from more conservative quarters, but based on the thousands of reactions from her fans and readers on her Facebook page, her base of moderate evangelical women is proving much more accepting of her viewpoint. Prominent evangelical figures like Shauna Niequist, Nichole Nordeman, and Sarah Bessey have publicly offered Hatmaker their support. The dam is slowly starting to break among moderate evangelicals, and while organizations like InterVarsity and Fuller Seminary can postpone that change, they will not be able to stop it. Younger evangelicals in particular are much more accepting of same-sex relationships, and as they rise to leadership positions, evangelicalism will become more accepting as well.

But, some might argue, the fact that demographic trends have altered society so dramatically on this topic doesn’t mean that they will change the evangelical church as well. After all, the church is shaped by beliefs and norms that the rest of our society is not, including belief in Scripture as divinely inspired and authoritative. Since most evangelicals believe that Scripture forbids all same-sex relationships, one might argue that widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage is unlikely among evangelicals as long as belief in Scripture remains a defining norm of the evangelical community.

It is certainly true that the church should not simply mimic the beliefs and attitudes of our secular culture. We must submit ourselves to the will of God as revealed in Scripture, and that should cause the church to think, look, and act differently than the rest of the world. But our commitment to Scripture should only prevent widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage if non-affirming interpretations of Scripture are the best, most faithful readings of the biblical text. As I argue in my book, they are not. The Bible never addresses sexual orientation or same-sex marriage, and its references to same-sex behavior are to lustful, fleeting acts, not loving, committed relationships. Moreover, the fundamental principle of marriage according to the Bible is making a self-giving, covenantal commitment to one’s spouse in order to reflect God’s love for us in Christ. Same-sex couples are fully capable of living that principle out in their marriage relationships.

At the end of the day, it won’t be sufficient to simply say that opposing same-sex marriage is a “core evangelical belief,” as Stetzer claims repeatedly in his piece without offering much explanation. (The explanation he does give is fairly feeble, appealing to Matthew 19 to claim that Jesus “defines” marriage as only heterosexual, which takes Jesus’s teaching on divorce far out of context. He later appeals to tradition as well, saying that “marriage is foundational, because this is what the Church has believed and taught for 2,000 years”—a curious argument for any Protestant to make to settle a theological dispute outright.)

The authority of Scripture is indeed a core evangelical belief, but affirming evangelicals like Jen Hatmaker, Daniel Kirk, David Gushee, David Neff, and many others haven’t changed that belief. They have simply changed their interpretation of a small number of passages in Scripture. That is why the work of The Reformation Project is so important, and why books like mine and Jim Brownson’s stand to have an increasing impact in the years ahead.

The fact that a compelling interpretation of Scripture that affirms same-sex relationships even exists—and just as importantly, that it has increasing visibility within the broader evangelical community—is already changing the parameters of what many evangelicals believe they can faithfully consider. It is a critical seed that has now been planted, and as more LGBT people come out in evangelical families and churches, it will slowly sprout. People like my dad, who had never before considered an alternative theological perspective, will consider it carefully, and many of them will change their minds.

That likelihood is ironically reflected in a recently-published internal InterVarsity document, in which InterVarsity encourages their staff to read God and the Gay Christian but “not get bogged down in endless analysis” of my arguments, lest they end up changing their current “view of God’s revelation.” In other words, take a look at the book, but don’t think about it too much!

In all of the leadership development cohorts I have run through The Reformation Project, I have never once discouraged people from reading non-affirming arguments carefully, or from getting “bogged down in endless analysis” of them. That’s because I have confidence that the best LGBT-affirming arguments are much stronger than the best non-affirming arguments, and I’m not afraid that people will change their minds. InterVarsity is right to lack that same confidence, however, because their arguments are persuading fewer people—and fewer evangelicals—every day. And critically, they’re persuading fewer evangelicals not because the belief that same-sex relationships are sinful is on the “wrong side of history,” but because it is untrue, unjust, poorly supported by Scripture, and deeply harmful to LGBT people.

None of this, I should be clear, means that the process of the evangelical church becoming affirming of same-sex relationships will be quick or easy. Although non-affirming leaders in the church cannot stop the majority of evangelicals from eventually changing their minds, they can certainly make it a painful, drawn-out, and often divisive process. Decisions like InterVarsity’s are lamentable because of the very real harm they inflict on people and the distorted message they send about Jesus to the world. The choice of many evangelical leaders and organizations to double down on their opposition to LGBT inclusion comes at a high price: tremendous pain and suffering of LGBT people in their churches and communities. For that reason, affirming evangelicals are right to be upset at these decisions.

But we are upset because of the harm the decisions cause today, not because they will change the long-term trajectory of the evangelical church. One hundred years from now, I think it is quite likely that every Protestant denomination and every evangelical church will be LGBT-affirming.* The question, to my mind, is not whether that will happen, but simply how long it will take and how much damage will be done to LGBT people and to the name of Jesus in the meantime. The reason The Reformation Project exists is to accelerate that process and to minimize the damage, and the number of evangelicals who stand with us keeps growing, bit by bit, every day.

*Edit: As Ross Douthat helped me to consider on Twitter after posting this, the future of the Roman Catholic Church is more difficult to predict due to its unique institutional constraints. While I think every branch of Christianity will look remarkably different on LGBT inclusion in a hundred years, and while I do believe that the Catholic Church will eventually bless same-sex unions, that particular timeline is more difficult to predict.