I have followed the debates over homosexuality and the church for some time now. Frankly, it’s difficult not to given that the furor over homosexuality is turning churches against one another and rending denominations into pieces. While I strive to approach all matters with an air of detached objectivity, I must say that in the formal debates I’ve seen or listened to, the traditionalist debaters inevitably provide stronger arguments than the gay-affirming side. The former tend to have strong scriptural arguments while the latter tend to rely, rather unabashedly, on subjective experience. And this leaves them terribly vulnerable to the charges of idolatry, subjectivism, and slippery slopes.
When I mentioned this to a friend he commended the following debate between Robert Gagnon (who is, in my opinion, the most effective debater for the traditional prohibition view … even if he is as prickly as a cactus) and Daniel Kirk. Unlike Gagnon, Dr. Kirk doesn’t seem as prickly as a cactus. And if the question was which of the two to invite down to the pub then my answer would be different. But our concern here is not pub companions, it’s the arguments. More about that anon.
Now for the debate. Kirk begins by agreeing that the Biblical writers condemn homosexual activity. However, he then argues that just as the early church was led by the Spirit to accept Gentiles while dropping the requirements of circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath keeping, so the Spirit is now calling the church to accept (practicing) homosexuals into their community. (Presumably, just as ancient Israelites would have been appalled at the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles who eat bacon so early Christians would have been appalled at the inclusion of practicing homosexuals. But in each case we have the call of the Spirit to expand the boundaries to include a group once excluded.)
All this is well and good … except that Kirk falls into the same trap that besets every other defender of a gay-affirming view that I have heard. And Gagnon exploited that weakness by greasing that slippery slope, focusing in particular on the issues of incest and polyamory (or as we used to call them, “swingers”). In short, if the taboo of homosexuality can be lifted in the name of inclusion and love, what of the taboo against incestuous relationships and open marriages with multiple partners? I didn’t hear Kirk even begin to try addressing these issues, and yet in my view his inability to do so is fatal to his position.
Kirk did land some blows (if we’re going to use the boxing metaphor), but he failed to follow through. For example, he noted the relative ease with which the church accepts Christians who are divorced and remarried despite the fact that Jesus considers many of these relationships as tantamount to adultery. This is a very important point, one which motivated Lewis Smedes to change his views on homosexuality. Smedes, a very highly respected evangelical ethicist from Fuller, concluded that just as the church learned to embrace divorced and remarried couples despite the brokenness of their relationships, so the church should learn to embrace homosexuals for the same reason. (You can read Smedes’ original essay here.)
Gagnon responded to Kirk’s point with a dismissive “Two wrongs don’t make a right” rejoinder. From a rhetorical perspective, and for those who only care about winning debates, this is a wise move. You see, it seems to acknowledge the salience of Kirk’s point while rendering it ineffectual. But for those who are concerned with truth rather than rhetoric, Gagnon’s response is a failure. To see why, all one needs to do is ponder the logic of his response for a moment. Is he saying that the church ought not accept divorced and remarried people into its fellowship? If he does believe this, then he will lose a significant part of his audience. If he doesn’t, then he needs to explain why it is okay to diverge from clear biblical teaching on this point but not on others.
Sadly, Kirk never followed up on that point. And so, his crucial point on divorce and the church was marginalized off to the sidelines.
Beyond that, Gagnon was an eloquent and forceful defender of the traditional view. He was a master of the biblical and historical material (though I must admit that his his philosophical attempts to argue that man is the complement of woman are very strained).
In sum, Gagnon clearly won this debate in my humble opinion.