Conservative, evangelical Christians love litmus tests. They love litmus tests that determine who is in and who is out, who is theologically rigorous and right and who is theologically liberal and limp (note: there is no greater insult within traditional evangelical churches than the charge of liberalism. It is the “witch hunt” of our day!)
For a long time, the litmus test was simply about being “born again”. If you didn’t have a “born again” story (preferably with a date and time attached), you probably were not a “real Christian”.
Then the issue turned polictical: abortion. That was the true test of whether you were truly a Christian.
Then back to theology: “inerrancy of scripture” became the new litmus test.
And now? Gays.
How you feel about gays is the new litmus test, and God have mercy on you if you get it wrong!
For example, mega-church pastor Andy Stanley is now being accused of being a “liberal” (read: heretic, deceptor, false teacher) for a recent sermon he gave in which he used an illustration from his own pastoral ministry about homosexuality, but did not condemn homosexuality as sinful (he also did not say that it wasn’t sinful). You can read about the dust up here and here.
For the record, Andy Stanley is one of the most bonified evangelicals you will ever find — and I mean that in the good sense. He is a classic evangelical running a successful church that is leading people into authentic relationships with Jesus, impacting their community, teaching the Bible, serving those in need, etc. Though I am sure Andy is more conservative than I am, I have nothing but respect for him and his ministry.
To accuse Andy of being a “liberal” who has abandoned the authority of scripture is absurd. But this is where the new litmus test leads us. Unless you recite the “right answer”, the “company line” — and do so without hesitancy or doubt — you are out.
Among conservatives, there is no room for discussion, debate, wrestling, wondering, wandering or questioning. There is no room for doubt, no room for theological diversity, no room for exploration. And there is certainly no room for gays and those who dare to believe that God does not condemn them all.
And so, to keep the church faithful, we apply these litmus tests.
And in so doing, we instantly transform the Good News from a message about amazing grace and radical inclusivity, to a message about exclusion, judgement, condemnation and close-mindedness.
In other words, we quickly stop becoming ministers of grace and ambassadors of Jesus, and become the New Pharisees.
Out of fear, the old line traditionalists have sacrificed fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the altar of theological litmus tests.
And the saddest part to me is that as they deny grace to so many, they too fail to live in the joy that grace brings — for they live in fear and judgement, not in the joy of grace and truth.
Is there any good news here?
The good news is that the quiet desperation that traditionalists cling to is a sure sign that the battle has already been won by those whose vision of the Gospel and Jesus is one of love, inclusivity and amazing transformative grace.
Within 50 years, the “gay issue” will be no more of an issue in the church than women in leadership, inter-racial marriage, or a dozen other divisive issues. People will wonder what the debate was ever about and history will reveal that the faithful remnant, again, will have preserved the true Gospel against the New Pharisees.
Are there still churches that deny women full and equal status to men? Yes, but these churches are dying.
Are there still churhces that oppose inter-racial marriage? Yes, but they are few and far between and universally written off as fundamentalist whack job racists.
Will there be churches that persist to persecute and condemn gay people? Yes, but these churches will slowly die off and the ones that survive will too be relegated to the fringe of fundamentalst whack jobs.
The Good News?
Jesus always wins.
Which means that truth always wins.
And that love always wins.
And all of this means that silly theological litmnus tests… always lose.