Mars Hill Forum #27 at Yale Divinity School on Homosexuality – Earlier More Detailed Report

[Below is an excerpt from Volume 2 of “First the Gospel, Then Politics…” (© 1999-2004 John C. Rankin].

Forum at Yale Divinity School

In the fall of 1996, I was invited to speak to a group of evangelical students at Yale Divinity School. They were a distinct minority on campus, and wanted to engage the student body in a way that would bring credit to the Gospel. As we talked and prayed about it, it was decided that a good way was to try and engage the homosexual group on campus in a theological discussion about the issue.

Thus I had lunch with two leaders in the evangelical fellowship, and a man who headed up the “Gay, Lesbian, Straight and Bisexual Coalition” (GLSBC) to discuss the possibility. The GLSBC leader was skeptical, but he said he would propose the idea to his group, and later he reported to us that they were not interested. I believe the reason was simple – the GLSBC had for years controlled all campus discussion of the issue, and did not want a level playing field to be created where they had no censorious control. (Later on, the evangelical leaders learned that he had not conversed with his group, but had made a unilateral decision.)

So the evangelical leaders approached the dean of students – an avowed lesbian – and asked permission to hold a forum on February 9, 1996. They received it, and invited me to speak, followed by Ron and Joanne Highley, who headed up a ministry in New York City helping homosexuals to change by the power of Jesus Christ. The Highleys brought more than a dozen ex-homosexuals, several of whom were prepared to give their testimonies.

As the date drew near, the GLSBC began to fight the very existence of the forum, even though they had refused opportunity to have their own spokesperson be given equal time, even though at any time they could have asked for and received such consideration. I was called a Nazi, homophobe, racist, bigot and other epithets. Various of the evangelical students were treated as though they were being intolerant, simply because they wanted an open forum on a controversial issue. Pressure was applied to have them cancel it in the name of “unity” and “peace.” When the evangelicals did not buckle (and they were being sorely tested emotionally), the pressure then came to have them move the forum off campus. It was scheduled for the Common Room adjacent to the cafeteria in the middle of the day, when student traffic was the highest. And in the process there was a powerful demonic manifestation that scared one of the evangelical leaders deeply. But still, the evangelicals refused to be intimidated away from the simplicity of an honest and open forum.

The night before the forum, the GLSBC had an “emergency” meeting, with over sixty students from their membership in attendance, and the whole campus was stirred up. They claimed to be the largest group among the 400 or so divinity students (which includes “straight” sympathizers). At this “emergency” meeting they were seething at the “homophobia” and “intolerance” of such a forum. Many were intent on a boycott, but in the end they decided to attend, I believe, because they could not pull off a boycott since too many in their midst, from their various perspectives, wanted to hear what I and the Highleys were going to say. Some perhaps wanted to find me to be a “homophobe” and justify themselves all the more as a result, but others genuinely wanted to hear a different perspective.

When time came for the forum, the Common Room was packed – over 200 people in attendance. I believe that the opposition of the GLSBC, and its boycott threats, only intensified interest among other students and faculty. I invited a number of local evangelical pastors to attend, and some were able.

The timetable was tight, and I was limited to 25 minutes. In that time I made a simple appeal to creation, sin and redemption, and said that my agenda was to look at biblical hermeneutics. I stated my evangelical presuppositions, and also that Yale, as a historically Christian (Congregational) seminary, should be rooted in the same understanding of these three doctrines introduced in Genesis 1-3. Specifically, whether we have a high or low view of the inspiration of Scripture, the Bible nonetheless understands itself on these terms. And for those who wish to make a biblical argument on the nature of homosexuality – as a sin or as “a gift of God” – they need to start here. Thus I addressed the order of creation as determinative for human nature and human sexuality, the God ÷ life ÷ choice ÷ sex paradigm, the definition of idolatry as a reversal, the Wesleyan quadrilateral, the POSH Ls of the image of God, and the biblical balance of male and female and its gift of procreation. Then I identified the six ethical components of a biblical faith, and said that I wished to be held accountable to them in the forum and at all times – the power to give, the power to live in the light, the power of informed choice, the power to love hard questions, the power to love enemies and the power to forgive. Finally I defined “theocracy as a community of choice” relative to the nature of Old Testament law, and presented my proposed Resolution #4 on Human Sexuality and Civil Rights (to be spelled out shortly here). I added some personal perspectives on my motivation for addressing the issue, and opened it up for questions. All packed into 25 minutes, but doable in the context of a graduate divinity school.

The major point I underscored was that if homosexuality were to be regarded as “a gift of God,” or if God’s redemptive love in any capacity can ratify a homosexual qua homosexual, then the presence of homosexuality must be demonstrated in the order of creation. And if not, then homosexuals should have the intellectual integrity to admit it, and root their defense of homosexuality in some other source.

Then a spokeswoman for the GLSBC stood up and read a prepared statement on why they objected to the holding of the forum – that it would be divisive, and would hurt homosexuals on campus by treating them theologically as second-class students. Thus they would not as a group, or as individuals, participate in the discussion.

She sat down and there was a pall over the room. After a brief interlude, a question was asked of me, and then a man raised his hand from the back. He was not one of the evangelical group, but he was concerned about the GLSBC’s refusal to participate. So he asked a question, realizing that the GLSBC might not answer it because of their non-participation statement. He asked what they found objectionable about the presentation I had made, and about the nature of the event.

At that, the head of the GLSBC answered. He said that indeed he was surprised by how gracious the event was, and it was not what he feared it was going to be. He commended me on my “eloquence” and the many good things I had to say, and that after all, it was a good event. I have experienced this on many occasions with homosexuals, where there is a true moral and intellectual schizophrenia at play. Face to face and in public forum, they may respond well. But later, or in private, they will be vicious against me. I believe that on the one hand they cannot dispute the respect I show them as image-bearers of God, but on the other hand, when removed from a gracious context, they revert to their deepest fears. (One example and partial exception to this was when I addressed a Mars Hill Forum on the subject at the University of Rhode Island [URI] on April 5, 1994. One homosexual student in the audience who questioned me prefaced it with a thank you for how gracious I was, and then a little later, as a spiritual darkness palpably overtook him, he began to violently curse me. After the forum, some Christian students shared with him, and he seemed to revert back to a reasonable demeanor. I have seen such schizophrenia often among homosexuals, I believe, because of the prevalence of abuse and identity confusion in their backgrounds.)

After the GLSBC leader spoke, one homosexual student quizzed me. He wanted to know if my reason for objecting to homosexuality was simply because I did not find it in the order of creation, that is, because I believed it was not consistent with the image of God. I said yes, and he was visibly relieved. He had so expected a negative and condemning assumption on my part, not a positive starting point. He then asked me about the passages in Leviticus that prohibit homosexuality. In fact, this is perhaps what the head of the GLSBC feared – the reading of the prohibition of homosexuality in the word of God. The GLSBC was expecting me to begin with a diagnosis of sin, and to be accusatory. Indeed, this is the majority experience of homosexuals in the church. But I started with the order of creation, and gave a positive reason why I believe the POSH Ls of God’s image which we all seek, is rooted in God’s gift of male and female, and the power to give uniquely modeled there. I was thus able to address Leviticus on that foundation and in response to the question. And as I did, I was able to profile the prohibition of homosexuality as life and freedom affirming, and not as an intolerant imposition of bigots. The student received what I said very well. This is the proper order of creation, sin and redemption as I outlined from the start of the event.

Then I was challenged by a faculty member who tried hard to dislodge my argument. She asked me a question, and as I answered, I said that the deepest question is how we regard the nature of the Bible as beginning with the order of creation. She became more testy, interrupted me and said I was avoiding the answer. I then responded by giving reason for why the nature of the Bible, and how we approach it, is the foundation for my answer. I gave the answer again, more fully yet, and that interchange ended.

A man standing next to her was well known as an articulate advocate of “homosexuality as a gift of God,” having come, I was told later, from an evangelical background. He challenged my argument from the order of creation, in broad terms. So I asked him where in the order of creation he could find either the explicit or implicit presence of homosexuality. Interestingly, neither he nor the faculty member, nor anybody else there, ever challenged my diagnosis that the Bible’s self-understanding is rooted in the doctrines of creation, sin and redemption in Genesis 1-3. At an Ivy League Divinity School, they still had a Christian (Congregational and Puritan) history, and were not yet prepared to reject the Bible wholesale as a source for their understandings. The homosexuals there very much wanted to use the Bible syncretistically as a justification for their lifestyle and identity. So this observation about the order of creation struck to the core and hit a nerve.

As he could not locate homosexuality in the order of creation, he changed tack. He said, “If there are two interpretations of Genesis 1-2, and the first one does not see homosexuality as part of the order of creation, and the second one does, then we must accept the second interpretation.” So I asked him what interpretation he is aware of that finds homosexuality in the order of creation. He could provide no answer, just that “if” there were such an interpretation, we must accept it, or we should at least assume that there is such an interpretation and automatically accept its premise. I said, “Why?”

His argument was a classic example of eisegesis, and in theological context, almost as extreme as I have encountered. He was demanding an eisegetical conclusion without even trying to present an eisegetical argument that would masquerade as exegesis. An argument from silence and de facto biblical ignorance. That is how intellectually and morally weak his position was. But he was determined to make the Bible a maidservant to his homosexual advocacy. This was his jihad.

When I asked him why, he said that it was necessary to combat “homophobia,” and that I was a “homophobe.” I had already addressed this issue earlier in the event, and reiterated here at this juncture – pointing out that if I were a “homophobe,” I would not deliberately study at Harvard with fellow students who were homosexual, nor eat lunch at a homosexual run restaurant in Hartford’s homosexual district in order to ask a lead homosexual activist to share his worldview with me, nor be willing to risk an address at such a forum at Yale, and etc. A “homophobe” does not go out of his way to communicate with homosexuals, with particular emphasis to embrace their hardest questions.

As I answered him, he was getting testier and testier. He answered this by saying that I was a “homophobe” because I would not accept his interpretation that homosexuality is part of the order of creation (!). The tautology of an unargued and assumed eisegesis. Earlier, when I had met with the leader of the GLSBC, he also tried similarly to call me a homophobe. I replied, saying, “In other words, if I do not agree with you, then I am sinning against you?” As I put it in these words, he backed off – being concerned not to be a hypocrite. At least he backed off at that moment. He recognized at that point that I was committed to an honest level playing field – willing to be judged by the standards I judge others.

So I said to the homosexual ex-evangelical something like this: “What you mean is that I am a ‘homophobe’ because I disagree with you and I argue that homosexuality is not biblical – an argument you cannot disagree with. If I am a ‘homophobe’ merely because I disagree with you, does that make you a ‘Christophobe’ or a ‘heterophobe’ merely because you disagree with me? I have not argued this, but based on your premise that you can call anyone a ‘homophobe’ who disagrees with you, why could I not do the same? What you are saying is that I do not have the religious, intellectual and political freedom to dissent from your view without running the risk of being attacked with an epithet. And you still will not attempt to present a positive biblical argument for your position. Who is truly liable to intolerance in this debate? Amazing.”

No answer, and he changed tack again, and said that Jesus taught about love, and all he was arguing for was the right of homosexuals to “love” each other, and that I was unloving and therefore unchristlike by not accepting homosexual love as valid. I replied and said, “What is the love that Jesus taught us about? Did he not say he came to fulfill the law of Moses, which includes its prohibition of homosexuality, and did he not say that if we love him, we are to obey his commandments? This brings us back to the order of creation. Where is homosexuality found there? It is the showing of love on my part to argue for the truth.”

No answer, but he changed tack one final time. In the process of the discussion, earlier, I had made clear my invitation to be disproved – namely, if someone could persuade me I was wrong, then I was glad to be persuaded. So he asked me, “If God shows you that you are wrong, will you change?” I immediately and simply said, “Yes.”

At this, the time had run out on the Q & A period, so the moderator brought it to a close. I could have retorted to him in a parting parry, “And if God shows you that you are wrong, are you also be willing to change?” But I was at peace with understatement. I knew his question was based on his subjective understanding of God, not on a biblical understanding. My agenda was not to negate him, but to give a faithful and positive representation of God’s nature, to the nature of the order of creation, and let that testimony stand on its own terms. Interestingly, there were some evangelicals standing near him – as he asked me if I would be willing to change, and as I gave my positive answer without retort. They heard and saw several others (not known to be evangelicals) either murmur under their breaths or turn and say to him, “What about you? Are you willing to change?”

There was a half-hour break for a nice spread of food and refreshments, and my schedule was such that I had to leave shortly to drive to another engagement. One homosexual approached me and asked me to explain my proposal on “Homosexuality and Civil Rights,” and as I did, he thanked me for it, regarding it with favor. Then Ron and Joanne Highley came and presented their ministry, and a series of testimonies began by ex-homosexuals that lasted for another hour. Even after the half-hour break, most people stayed to hear them speak, especially many homosexual students.

Several days later I received a phone call from one of the evangelical student leaders. She was excited, along with her fellow leader who moderated the forum. Both she and he had been approached individually by 15-20 homosexual students, thanking them for sponsoring the forum, and wishing to go out to eat or to talk one-on-one in order to share their struggles, with the hope of or willingness to consider overcoming homosexuality.

But within days after that, other homosexuals began to persecute her and the other evangelicals all the more. This profiles for me the extreme difficulty of ministering in this context. Many homosexuals respond very well when given the respect of a level playing field to exchange ideas, and even to share stories. But if their identities are threatened, and they do not find courage to repent, then they can become vicious. This is as challenging a context to minister in that I know, and I am not always certain how well I do it.


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