When American theologian Rev Dr David Gushee called for full inclusion of LGBTI people in his 2014 book Changing Our Mind, the response from the mainstream evangelical community was brutally swift.
Within days of the book’s publication, universities and seminaries – including one in Australia – withdrew speaking invitations.
This is despite David being one of the world’s leading Christian ethicists.
He is currently director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, Georgia, USA.
For the first 27 years of his ministry, he preached that LGBTI relationships “fall outside the will of God”.
“I had previously taught what might be called a compassionate traditional view,” David said.
“I ruled out the possibility of LGBTI relationships while refusing to support contemptuous attitudes towards LGBTI people.”
In Changing Our Mind, David detailed how his position on same-sex relationships shifted through his encounters with LGBTI people.
The coming out as lesbian by his youngest sister in 2008 further solidified in his mind the imperative to make churches a safe space for LGBTI Christians.
“Knowing LGBTI Christian people, especially after moving to Atlanta in 2007, led me to a place of doubting the rightness of the traditional view,” David said.
“I then entered into a period of study and reflection which I worked through in my book. In the end, my mind had changed decisively.”
Following the release of Changing Our Mind, David was bombarded with a deluge of angry letters, emails and social media messages.
His critics labelled him a heretic, accusing him of betraying traditional biblical teachings and surrendering to secular culture.
“The reaction has been very negative from much of mainstream evangelical Christians,” David said.
“But I have found huge receptivity from LGBTI people raised in evangelical churches and from many of their family members and friends.
“I’m confident that there is a very sympathetic, silent minority of evangelicals who do not feel that they can publically change their positions.”
David believes it is not the Bible itself, but fundamentalist interpretations of six or seven passages that have led to the church’s traditional stance against same-gender relationships.
He said the church had historically framed LGBTI debates as a sexual ethics issue when it should be understood from a human rights perspective.
“I have responded by engaging those six or seven passages in new ways and by suggesting that other passages centering on love, justice, mercy and dignity for all people are the more relevant passages,” he said.
According to Public Religion Research, 70 per cent of American millennials believe the church’s stance on LGBTI issues is alienating young people.
“American evangelicals are now known for their conservative politics and rejection of LGBTI people and their relations,” David said.
“This is turning off vast numbers of Americans, especially those under the age of 35. Evangelicals used to be known much more for their message of the love of Jesus. “It would be good if they could be known for that again.”
It is not just David’s stance on LGBTI relationships that has put him at odds with the mainstream evangelical Christian community.
His positions on climate change, torture, human rights, Muslim immigration and his vocal opposition against Donald Trump have also irked many of his evangelical colleagues.
In the months leading up to the 2016 US election, David drafted a statement from Christian leaders confessing resistance to Trump as a “Christian obligation”.
“It is amazing to see how strong white evangelical support for President Trump continues to be despite everything that has unfolded in the last two years,” David said.
“I think that the main reason for this support is that his enemies are evangelical enemies: the liberal media, liberal academics, and liberal politicians.
“Of course, this is a terrible reason for Christians to support a politician, but it is at least part of what is going on.”
David has a word of warning for American evangelicals who continue to offer unqualified support to the US President.
“History will not look kindly on the moral surrender of evangelicals to Donald Trump,” he said.
Dr David Gushee will deliver the JD Northey lecture on ‘Christian ethics in the public sphere’ at the Centre for Theology and Ministry on 11 October. Register at https://pilgrim.edu.au/events/jd-northey-lecture-christian-ethics-in-the-public-sphere/
He will also be the keynote speaker at the Equal Voices conference, held at Darebin Arts Centre on 13-14 October. Register at https://equalvoices.org.au/conference/