Tony Campolo and same-sex marriage

Tony Campolo is a legend. No doubt about that. An outstanding communicator with an outstanding heart. Why would I want to disagree with him, even within the limited circle of people who read my blog?

And why would I want to engage with the issue of same-sex marriage? Especially since I don’t believe that anyone who dares challenge LGBTI values will ever get a fair hearing?

The short answer is that Tony Campolo has embraced an LGBTI stance on gay marriage.  And whilst I have sympathy with some of his arguments, I believe that in some very fundamental areas his reasoning is wrong. In addition, given the context in which he presented the issue – an interview with Premier Radio – it is easy to be left with the impression that those who hold to traditional marriage are marked by a very narrow political and ethical outlook. I believe that is misleading.

Let me begin with the last point first.

The interview begins with how Campolo no longer describes himself as an evangelical. Evangelicals, in his view are climate change denying Trump supporters. It for those kind of reasons that he wants to disassociate himself from Evangelicalism. In fairness, he says that he still holds to evangelical beliefs such as a high view of scripture.

Why is this disclosure unhelpful in the context of what he has to say about gay marriage? Simply because one is left with the distinct impression that those who hold to traditional marriage are all extreme right wing bigots. No doubt there are many who think that anyone who does not accept gay marriage is just that!

That is such a caricature. Such a caricature that it demands correcting. A commitment to traditional marriage can be found across the political and ecclesiastical spectrum. For those opposed to a traditional definition of marriage, it is very comforting to believe that those who don’t share their views are off the scale right wing conservatives. It’s seldom mentioned that people like, for example, Shirley Williams and Angela Merkel did not support the redefinition of marriage.

It also ignores the fact that the major Christian communions – Orthodox and Catholic have stuck to the traditional definition of marriage. Officially the Anglican communion supports a traditional view of marriage, though the situation within Anglicanism is more complicated.

Evangelicals who argue for traditional marriage are not an Elijah-like rump, doggedly promoting an outdated concept. There are, to use a biblical image, seven thousand all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and they are found throughout the Christian church. Add to that the adherents of other religions who do not promote the practise of same-sex marriage and a very different picture emerges to the one that is painted in the Tony Campolo interview.

And of course there are those who have battled same-sex desire and chosen celibacy out of their commitment to Christ. In a sex obsessed age they really are true heroes.

I said I believed that Tony Campolo is wrong on some points. Let me give you three areas where I think his arguments are weak.

Firstly, he claims that homosexuality is genetic and that science has established that belief as a fact.

I do not know what research that assertion is based upon. I do know that, even if some researchers believe this to be true, it is a truth not universally acknowledged among the scientific community.

A major piece of research undertaken and recently published by two distinguished researchers at Johns Hopkins University, challenges the notion that homosexuality is genetic. You probably never heard of the research, because as soon as its findings were revealed, the university under pressure from the LGBTI community, distanced itself from the work.

And you might not be aware that prominent gay rights activist Peter Tatchell does not believe that homosexuality is genetic.

This also affects our whole understanding of identity. We are left with “identity based on desire” and who knows where that will take us?

Secondly, there is the argument that goes something like “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or same-sex marriage, therefore it must be ok.”

That is true. Jesus never mentioned the issue specifically. But there again, Jesus didn’t mention a lot of things. He never addressed the issue of domestic violence. Or paedophilia. Or drugs. And He doesn’t specifically address sex before marriage. Or abortion. Or assisted suicide.

Because Jesus didn’t address an issue doesn’t mean it is not important!

What he did do was define marriage. Very clearly:

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Mark 10.6-9.

Finally, the general approach to scripture on this issue and the reinterpretation of key verses in Romans 1 reveals the extent to which scripture has become the servant of ideology in the hands of some evangelicals or former evangelicals. The work of exceptional scholars such as Richard Hays or James Dunn – hardly the kind of fundamentalists referred to in the early part of the interview – highlight how unlikely if not impossible it is to extract the kind of meaning from Romans 1 that Tony Campolo seeks.

Here’s what Hays has to say: “In Paul’s time, the categorization of homosexual practices as para physin [contrary to nature] as a commonplace feature of polemical attacks against such behaviour, particularly in the world of Hellenistic Judaism. When this idea turns up in Romans 1…we must recognize that Paul is hardly making an original contribution to theological thought on the subject; he speaks out of a Hellenistic- Jewish cultural context in which homosexuality is regarded as an abomination…” Richard B.Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p.395

And James Dunn: “The description which follows is a characteristic expression of Jewish antipathy to the practice of homosexuality, so prevalent in the Greco-Roman world.” (James Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, p.74)

And of course N.T. Wright continues to hold a traditional interpretation of those scriptures that concern sexuality and marriage, commending the work of Richard Hays mentioned above.

I hope that in writing the above I have been fair to Tony Campolo and have not misrepresented him; I don’t dislike Tony Campolo because I disagree with him.

Although I neither wanted to criticise him or engage in this debate, there are crucial issues at stake. People are affected when a powerful voice promotes what has become a popular view. And it doesn’t help when it is done in such a way that, intentionally or unintentionally, it marginalises those who hold a different view.

One thing we didn’t learn from the Tony Campolo interview concerns the ethical issues that those evangelicals who have bought into LGBTI ideology seem to be unwilling to confront. Questions about reproduction within same-sex marriage and the ethics of surrogacy and sperm donors. Questions about the rights of children – whose rights are seldom if ever taken into account in the arena of sexual politics. Questions about whether sexual expression should be restricted to marriage.

I trust that this short piece at least indicates that relinquishing the traditional definition of marriage has implications and perhaps consequences that are not immediately evident: same-sex marriage is not a stand alone issue.

And hopefully, if Tony Campolo ever reads this article, he will find it in his heart to forgive me if I have been too harsh or unfair in my criticism.



9 thoughts on “Tony Campolo and same-sex marriage

    • Thanks May.It is a difficult point for so many. As a society we have built identity around sexual desire. I don’t think our sexual desire is what makes us who we are. We are so much more than our sex drive!! I think the impression is also given that people are “stuck” with their sexual desire. That’s not true. People’s sexual desires can change. Even Peter Tatchell makes that point in link that was in the article. Nevertheless,it is a difficult one for many to accept. Thanks for your encouragement and your honesty!

  1. Hi James,

    Really great to have one of our national leaders willing to engage in a debate like this – thank you for doing so!

    I’ve got one question – you use Jesus’ teaching about marriage in Mark here. A few lines later in that conversation he then teaches that anyone divorcing (other than in the case of an affair), and remarrying is committing adultery – I.e. Breaking the sanctity of marriage. Why is that we major on the issues around Gay marriage breaking this sanctity but we are much more lax on divorce and remarrying? Indeed we have ministers who have been divorced and remarried or have married divorcees who are therefore living in a state of adultery? Should we not apply the same rule for gay marriage to this or should we suggest that times have changed for both?

    Again thanks for writing on this think it is really great!


    • Hi Michael

      Thanks for the message and the encouragement!

      You raise a very good question. It has to be acknowledged that in the space of a generation or two the evangelical church in particular has revised its attitude to divorce in a way that could not have been anticipated even as late as the 1970s. The cultural change is huge!

      I think that there are at least a couple of factors in this:

      (i) The surrounding culture was anti-divorce. Divorce was seen as something shameful. It’s hard to believe now that within living memory an heir to the throne had to choose between becoming king and marrying a divorcee! In many ways the church’s attitude to divorce reflected the culture then and to an extent it reflects the attitude of the culture to marriage now. Looking back,I think our attitude to divorce and those who were divorced went beyond the teaching of scripture. Both the severity of the teaching on divorce and certainly the way divorced people were treated I don’t think reflected scripture. Today, as you have pointed out, the pendulum has swung perhaps too far in the opposite direction.

      (ii) I think the changes that came about were partly driven by a re-examination of scripture in the light of what was going on in the culture generally. And no doubt that was coloured by the experience of divorce in the families of many Christians.

      I can remember the debates about divorce and remarriage a generation ago, and I have to say that there was a lot of heart searching and scripture searching and discussion,certainly within Elim.

      The question you raise about Jesus’ teaching on this matter, especially the issue of remarriage is important and difficult. There is a broad spectrum of interpretation on this issue. Basically the interpretive choices can be broken down into two: minority view – Jesus didn’t allow for remarriage after divorce; and majority view – Jesus did allow for remarriage. Interestingly, William Heth, who co-authored a book with Gordon Wenham, Jesus & Divorce, (1984) which promoted the minority view has changed his position and now accepts remarriage as possible after divorce.I think you would find his paper on his change of heart very helpful:

      In 2002,David Instone-Brewer published a book entitled Biblical Divorce and Remarriage. He argues that Jesus’ teaching on divorce was answering a question on Deuteronomy 24.1 that was so controversial that two rabbinic schools, Shammai and Hillel, took completely different views on it. It concerned whether a man could divorce his wife for ‘any cause’ or for sexual immorality (porneia) alone. Jesus answer was the latter, which put Him in the same camp as the Shammai school. In his view, once a Jewish person was divorced they were free to remarry. Instone-Brewer’s argument can be found here:

      I hope the above helps. If not please shoot some questions back.

      I think your overall point is right: heterosexual marriage and its challenges should exercise our thinking as much as if not more than same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, when influential Christians speak about a particular subject we have to respond, even if our response threatens to become a distraction.

      Keep up the good work at Regents! Really enjoyed being with everyone earlier in the week. And keep asking searching questions!!

      Do say “Hi” if you see me at Malvern.



  2. First time I have read these ‘extras’ of yours, really impressed – now i can ignore the film!
    Liked your stand on Tony C and the replies of other readers.

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