Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: the question about sexuality

The chapter in which Brian McLaren tackles the ‘sex question’ reaches the conclusion that a new kind of Christianity must get beyond the impasse of the modern church’s preoccupation with homosexuality and ‘begin to construct not just a more humane sexual ethic in particular, but a more honest and robust Christian anthropology in general’ (190). That is an excellent end-point to arrive at, but we are going to have to ride a couple of galloping, untamed analogies in order to get there and we may have trouble hanging on.

The argument begins with a tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless serious, attack on what McLaren provocatively calls ‘fundasexuality’ – ‘a neologism that describes a reactive, combative brand of religious fundamentalism that preoccupies itself with sexuality’ (174). There is some irony in this opening rhetorical move. McLaren notes the sociological principle that ‘no group can exist without a devil’ and observes that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people constitute the ideal scapegoat for the fundasexualists. By the same token, however, we are bound to admit that fundasexualists serve a similar function in the development of an emerging psyche.

So there is the immediate problem again that this new kind of Christianity is defined in opposition to an extreme position that quite possibly has been caricatured in the interests of rhetorical clarity. The issue here is not so much whether ‘fundasexuality’ exists but whether we can entirely trust an argument that sets out from this point, largely neglecting the quiet middle ground occupied, arguably, by the decent, uncomplaining majority in the church. Of course, the decent majority may be uncomplaining because they don’t really know what to think – and for that reason at least, the task of constructing a new and humane sexual ethic is an urgent one. But I wonder whether that goal will be achieved in the long run by lampooning the conservatives – no matter how rhetorically and emotionally satisfying that may feel.

The perceived fixation of some part of modern Christianity on matters of sexuality can be explained in terms of the six preceding questions. On the one hand, it is an outworking of 1) the dualism and essentialism of the Greco-Roman narrative; 2) a constitutional reading of the Bible that cannot explain the simple fact that too many Christians today experience gay people not as ‘abominations’ but as ‘healthy, sincere, and morally equal’; and 3) an image of God as violent that allows certain groups of people to be rejected and condemned. On the other hand, a reassessment is demanded by 4) an understanding of Jesus as the final definition of God, whose ‘treatment of the marginalized and stigmatized requires us to question the conventional approach’; 5) an understanding of the gospel as the ‘dynamic story of God as liberator, creator, and reconciler’; and 6) the reconstruction of the church as a community that sees the increasing acceptance of gay people as ‘yet another step up in removing the old dividing walls between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, black and brown and white, male and female, and so on…’ (175-180).

This shift from exclusion towards inclusion is central to McLaren’s project. He considers at some length the story of the Ethiopian eunoch. The argument is basically that this man would have been permanently excluded from the worshipping community of Israel because he was a ‘sexually other’ (indeed, ‘nonheterosexual’) Gentile; but Philip does not hesitate to include him in a new humanity ‘marked by a new and radical reconciliation in the kingdom of God’ (183). This is an expression of the ‘peacable kingdom’ predicted in passages such as Isaiah 56:1-7. Jesus quoted from this text when he cleansed the temple, ‘which for him didn’t mean cleansing it of “sinners,” eunuchs, and Gentiles – or of homosexuals and undocumented aliens – but of money changers whose religious-industrial complex excluded many and embedded the faith in the economy of the empire and vice versa’ (185). 

Does this amount to a compelling biblical argument for accepting practising gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people into the worshipping community of the people of God? Can the biblical condemnation of homosexual practice be dismissed as the product of an outmoded paradigm – much as the biblical geocentric cosmos has been superseded by the scientific model of an expanding universe? The problem of the moral character of the Christian encounter with homosexual people is very real, and I think McLaren is right to highlight this. But the argument from analogy is a very difficult one. Is the view of homosexuality in Scripture as an abomination strictly analogous to the assumption that the earth is a the centre of the cosmos? Is homosexuality as biblically understood strictly like castration?

McLaren’s appeal for an ethos of inclusion is critical for a Christ-like community, but we still have to ask why the Bible is so vehement in its opposition to homosexual practice in some form or other. I think it might be argued that the New Testament denunciation of homosexuality is tied up with the historical clash with a morally bankrupt Greek-Roman paganism, culminating in the coming of the reign of God as the victory of Christ over the pagan world. In our own post-Christendom context the moral dynamic is bound to be reconfigured – in the direction, I think, of the renewal of creation. But it is not enough to equate this with indiscriminate inclusion. People are included in an imperfect community, sustained only by grace, that bears rigorous, sacrificial, prophetic witness to the reality of a God who makes all things new.

McLaren is right to say that homosexuality is not the only significant sexual issue that we have to deal with. He may be right to suggest that ‘gay folk’ within the church community may be able to help the rest of us deal with the problems of our own sexuality. But we still have to ask whether this imperfect community can tell – and in some sense live out – a story about the renewal of creation without affirming the eschatological restoration of man and woman as sexually (not hierarchically) complementary in the image of God.