Like many, I was very saddened to read about Mark Achtemeier's talk at the current Covenant Network conference. Clearly, he is quite "off the mark." I am not surprised, since there have been many indications over the past few years that he was drifting away from a trust in the revelatory authority of the scriptures. Still, it is sad to see one who was apparently so well grounded theologically and scripturally capitulate to those who claim the supreme authority duet of subjective experience and relativistic post-modern truth. (I know this crowd usually says they utilize the guidance of tradition and scripture, but this is almost always lip service for the sake of the unwashed evangelicals, catholics, and orthodox.)
I am not wanting to examine Professor Achtemeier's motives or intentions, since obviously these are both properly and personally beyond my rightful concerns. I trust him enough to believe that he is sincere, and that this position he has taken with those who eschew Bible, Christ, and Tao (see Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis) is one of heartfelt and heartrending reflection. Rather, I am only commenting on two macro observations that should give anyone serious pause before following Professor Achtemeier into the bright land of amoral enlightenment (which by implication is also "a-divine," since if there are no ethical nuances to how and with whom we have sex, then there is no divine authority or source whose viewpoint matters).
The first is to look at who is rejoicing when a prominent figure embraces the "anything goes as long as we really love each other" approach to human sexual relationships. It should give us pause when those who have rebelled against nature and the God of nature find us amenable to their lifestyles. Many in these circles are now openly promoting multiple partner "unions," the acceptance of incest among consenting persons, and there is even a growing voice for the "sexual rights" of children. One may say there are no views such as these among the Covenant Network folk, but so far they have shown little resolve in resisting societal pressures to step in line with whatever is deemed "progressive," which currently includes advocates for these sexual practices.
I am not saying that those who are part of the Covenant Network and similar groups are evil, malicious people. I know several of the leaders, and have worked with many more in various ministry situations. This only means I am quite certain when I state that this is not a group of people who are overly concerned with this historic witness of the church or the faith once given to the saints. They reject the revelatory authority of the scriptures, and consider it to be provincial arrogance on the part of anyone who asserts that Jesus is the unique Son of God through whom alone we must be reconciled to God the Father through the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit. Society and science hold more authority for this circle of ecclesiastics than Bible or even church tradition, and for them Christianity is merely a religion to make more relevant according to their own personal understandings than the faithful community of a risen Lord whose eternal Word transforms us and the world.
Now obviously, evangelical, catholic, and orthodox Christians have no place to condemn and should not stay away from such people or avoid engaging their perspectives. Christ calls us to stand and walk in their midst as fellow sinners who have been reclaimed through the blood of Jesus Christ from our sin. We are compelled by the Lord of all servants to seek both the welfare and the redemption of all people, not just the ones we are compatible with personally in culture, religion, race, orientation, politics, or philosophy (although there may be an exception regarding Iowa State University supporters). But when those who disagree and denigrate God's revealed viewpoints find our viewpoints to their liking, that should be enough of a signal to us that we have moved away from God's truth and have accommodated ourselves in some way to serious and potentially damning error (and believe me, I am no stranger to this predicament).
The second observation is to note the incredible arrogance in the language of those who have opted out of the "traditional view" of marriage and have embraced gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, and endless other qualifications approach to marriage and sexual relationships. An earlier convert from the evangelical to the progressive, Professor Jack Rogers, was particularly vicious in his personal skewering of the philistine evangelicals who had held him captive for years with their hermeneutical spells. While Professor Achtemeier isn't showing such vitriol yet, he is still showing this same arrogance. This is also seen in some leaders of the so-called "emergent church," who view evangelicals as spiritual troglodytes holding unsuspecting Christians from true freedom by insisting that there is some actual content to faith.
In his talk to the Covenant Network, Professor Achtemeier indicates many times that his former position against gay partnerships and marriage was due to his lack of personal experience with good, committed Christian gays, and that his understanding of scripture was due to sheltering himself from the insights and opinions of others who disagreed with his "traditionalist" position (one can only wonder how he managed to remain this "sheltered" in both experience and education while attending Harvard and Duke). He even says that now that he has changed his view, there are many evangelicals who secretly agree with him but who are yet too fearful to express this openly. So, we evangelicals who hold to the "traditionalist" position on sexuality and marriage are sheltered, scholarly self-indulgent, trapped in our views by fear, and wrestle with an innate sense of being hypocritical regarding our actual experience with gays. Well, I guess that sets the table for open, respectful dialogue, doesn't it! Whatever I or another similar advocate says, our point and positions have already been dismissed as borne out of ignorance and fear.
Of course, Professor Achtemeier can declare his new viewpoint to be buttressed and capped by his high regard for the authority of scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But wait a minute, doesn't he say that this was a weakness he had in his old view because it was just a way to cover up his gnawing insecurities. Doesn't he indicate that evangelicals claim the high biblical ground as a way of avoiding the issues he has now so bravely faced? We evangelicals are in the conundrum where the professor can dismiss us for using the very same point he now uses to reinforce his own view. Seriously, I think his claim to hold his new position and a high view of biblical authority together simply makes him less honest and forthright than other advocates of alternative sexual lifestyles. Give me a good, honest liberal progressive who believes the scriptures are just plain wrong regarding the modern issues of sexual orientation, and then we can have a far more respectful and honest dialogue. Agreement is highly unlikely, but respect and regard for one another in both position and person are very likely.
Mark Achtemeier's straw man portrait of the fearful and sheltered evangelical is typical of progressive comments on this subject (one wonders how a person who was so recently an evangelical leader can now display such a shallow understanding of evangelicals and their beliefs). However, he indicates in his Covenant Network speech that this fits his own personal journey, which he then projects as the experience of the typical evangelical. This again is arrogant and errant. I am an evangelical Presbyterian minister (albeit a very low profile, relatively irrelevant one) who has read a pretty good share of the books both pro and con these issues. I've even studied much of the secular research into sexual orientation. Plus, throughout my life, even from high school days, I have had good and respectful personal friendships with gays and gay lifestyle supporters (and I also include other orientations such as transgendered and bisexual). I know and have known gays in committed relationships and gays in ongoing multiple relationships. (As Professor Achtemeier should know, there are a number of diverse and even opposing viewpoints among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons on what forms their relationships should take.)
My children have been around my wife's and my gay (and heterosexually errant) friends (though we have never thought it necessary to discuss with our children the sexual practices of any of our friends regardless of their persuasions). During my years (long, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away) at Princeton Seminary, I so frequently sat at the "gay table" in the commons that many people assumed that I was gay, too. Plus, at Princeton and Duke (and even my pedestrian undergrad school, Wichita State), I had excellent liberal and evangelical professors who pushed me hard to wrestle with the foundations of my beliefs. Yet, I am confident in my approach to the scriptures and the moral positions I believe the Spirit and the scriptures instruct me to take. I've just always believed that these same scriptures and Spirit also called me into personal and loving involvement with those who I may be at odds with in both faith and life. To paraphrase the words of an old evangelist I heard once, I want to be stationed at the last outpost before hell so I can reach those who most desperately need the Gospel.
What then to make of this speech and Mark Achtemeier's new perspective? Yes, it gives ammunition to the liberal camps in the ongoing ecclesiastical wars in the mainline denominations. Of course, this doesn't really matter since the victory of some liberal church people will have no bearing on the catholic witness of Christ's church in all its authentic forms. It certainly will not cause the biblical interpretations of the orthodox, catholic, and evangelical to crumble into ashes because Professor Achtemeier's apology for his new view is so overwhelmingly persuasive. And, of course, God is not going to "repent" of God's clear intention (according to Jesus) in creating humans, sex, and marriage (although God may "repent" of having created the PCUSA, which raises a whole host of other issues to ponder).
The clear and obvious answer is to pray for Mark Achtemeier. As a fellow disciple of Jesus, I am confident that he would appreciate this, even if he thinks the motivation for the prayers is misinformed. I know I appreciate the prayers of my liberal friends who think I am out to lunch on my positions. In a more serious vein, however, I believe if Professor Achtemeier is truly seeking to be faithful to his God (and I believe he is), and is not simply rationalizing to deal with personal pressures to conform to this world, then he will be willing to open himself to his trusted evangelical friends and colleagues who take issue with his new position. If he is sincere, let him test his view in the fires of personal discourse with his friends, such as Robert Gagnon and others. This, along with the sweet incense of the prayers of the saints, will help him hear and follow the voice of his Shepherd who is certainly calling out to him. Again, Mark Achtemeier can be "on the mark!"