Tony Campolo, Biblical Interpretation, and How I’m Feeling This Morning. . .

Sleep didn’t come easy last night. Writing these words is equally difficult.

While sitting on the couch taking in a Phillies game last evening (lost. . . again), I checked my Facebook feed and spotted a story linking to Tony Campolo’s public statement released yesterday, “Tony Campolo: For the Record.” I read Tony’s words – several times – with a heavy heart.

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised, but I was saddened. Then, as I continued to read, I saw social media lighting up with folks responding and taking sides. Some were less than gracious and charitable. Others, reflected a pendulum swung to the other side. I want to be biblically balanced and fair to a brother I have known for a long time.

Tony’s statement has left me with a pit in my stomach. You see, early on in my walk with Christ, Tony Campolo was a loud voice who God used to summon me to a deeper understanding of God’s call on my life. . . first and foremost to integrate my faith into every nook and cranny of my life and to live my life to the glory of God. Then secondly, to teach kids to do the same. I still remember Tony’s rousing call at a couple of Jubilee Conferences in Pittsburgh well over thirty years ago. He encouraged me and a room full of young college students to seek first and to embrace the glorious and wonderful Kingdom of God. Those were watershed moments in my life. They changed me. As I got older, I appreciated Tony’s ability to serve as a kind of evangelical conscience. . . poking and prodding guys like me out of spiritual slumber and into a life of devotion to Jesus. As the years have passed, I have continued to appreciate Tony’s heart. I have always, however, listened to Tony with a bit of caution, knowing that everything he says needs to be evaluated in the light of Scripture. Consequently, as I’ve gotten older, there have been times when I’ve had to disagree with Tony on some of his positions. Never, though, in the way I feel I have to disagree this morning. I’m saddened and disappointed.

I don’t believe it to be coincidental that I spent a good portion of yesterday reading, writing, and posting some things that I think are necessary and helpful as we navigate the issues of the day. For the Christian, the issue isn’t just matters of sexuality. It goes deeper. At it’s root, we have to think seriously about our hermeneutic. . . those foundational principles of interpretation that we embrace that serve as our starting point for understanding and responding to any theological issue that comes our way. I had blogged on this last week in my post that was simply titled “Jenner. . . ”  Yesterday, I blogged again, this time with “A Message to Parents,” written to encourage parents to take the Christian education and nurture of their children seriously. If you check out my Facebook page and my posts from yesterday, you’ll see that I included some relevant quotes, an article from my friend Nicholas Black on “Voices that Confuse: Reclaiming Biblical Truth from Interpretive Distortions,”  and the announcement about a new book from Mark Yarhouse on Gender Dysphoria that I look forward to reading. In other words, Tony’s statement is just a small part of this larger conversation that’s front and center in our culture and our churches. But even though it’s a small part, it’s big.

So, last night I posted a reminder to myself that I hope others might find helpful. It was the best thing I could do at the moment. I wrote this: “To all my young friends: immerse yourself in the Word. . . Incarnate and written. Always evaluate the words, teaching, and opinions of those who are older (even loved and respected) under the light of the Word, not vice versa.” It doesn’t matter who the teacher or preacher is. . . evaluate under the light of God’s Word.

This morning, still churning inside, I posted this: “While laying in bed last night pondering the events of the day, I once again considered the battle inside. I truly wish the Kingdom of God was all-inclusive. All sheep. No goats. All born again. None dead in their trespasses and sin. But God is not our genie. Our wish is not His command. We don’t get to define. Even better, we get to follow. Our calling is to submit our wills, desires, hopes, minds, hearts opinions, and very lives to Him.”

I hope and pray that my words this morning and the spirit of this post are gracious and charitable. I also hope and pray that it humbly reflects truth. I think there is much at stake here. Yes, this is about sexuality. But that’s only a small part of it. The real issue is much, much deeper.

This morning, I looked across my desk at my book shelves. I looked at the shelves that are loaded with Bibles, commentaries, and theological texts. I realized that everything I learned in all those years of reading, listening, education, discussion. . . all those things that have shaped me, what I believe, my commitments, and how I do ministry. . . all those things are being called into question. Seriously. . . I wonder if I have wasted all my time, my money, even my life on errors and lies. I don’t believe I have, but the culture and even respected brothers and sisters in the faith would, I think, have me believe it’s all for naught. I’m not wavering here. Just processing and giving more than just passing thought to the critique of others. Taking the time to do that will only serve to further cement my commitments.

After a conversation with a friend last night and thinking about what shapes us most these days. . . I don’t ask this snidely. . . but seriously. . . Are we living in a time where theological education and Christian education that was once shaped by and looked like this. . .

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. . . should be jettisoned and look like and be shaped by this? . . .

blog photo 1

God, keep us from being shaped by the spirit of the times. Holy Spirit, shape us.

14 thoughts on “Tony Campolo, Biblical Interpretation, and How I’m Feeling This Morning. . .

  1. Thank you, Walt, for so eloquently and humbly voicing for so many of us the struggle to, not only respond in love to all … as Jesus did, but to respond from a biblical perspective… as Jesus did – no matter how counter-culture it is. I join you in agonizing over the desire to carefully voice to friends, to my Book Club of “liberal” and non-Christian women and to my extended family the call of Jesus to a life in line with biblical teachings. It can be lonely and alienating. I can only trust that God, through His Holy Spirit, will take my awkward words and use them for His purposes.
    Praying for both you and Lisa as you face the backlash from your bold stance.

  2. Thank you so much for your well written blog post. You say graciously what is a strong, biblical, and unwavering stance on an issue that is very polarizing and so hard to discuss because of all the emotional baggage it carries with it.

  3. Walt, over my years of ministry I have always held you in high respect as I consumed your writing and resources. The few times we have interacted in person only confirmed what I already knew and added to my level of respect. Keep sharing truth my friend, I value your voice of reason and biblical grounding. Thanks for sharing your heart with humbleness and respect.

  4. Thanks, Walt, as always, for a thoughtful piece. That you honor Tony and his role in your life is a good thing, and your graciousness, as always, is clear. Thanks for that, as it is different then many others, it seems. I have one quibble, though: many who have shifted their views of how best to handle the few texts about same sex attraction do so, mostly, because of the Bible, because of other texts they read, because of their hermeneutic. I don’t know about Campolo, of course, whether he’s just wanting to “keep up with the Kardashians” but it struck me as a cheap shot, suggesting that those who disagree with the historic view are merely wanting to be hip, popular, or informed mostly by the times. It is my experience that those evangelicals who have shifted on this would not see themselves in your ending parable, here, Walt. They think they are being Biblically astute, faithful to the trajectory and ethic of the Bible itself, Christ-like, and appropriate in their understanding of the role (or lack of role) of those few contested texts. Whether one agrees with their efforts or think they make compelling exegetical moves, to imply they just want to be liked by shallow pop culture is unfair; some who have shifted have done years of serious Bible study, word and grammatical study, contextual research, cross referencing, etc etc. I so respect you, and trust you, that I felt like I should weigh in, saying that this ending, while a fine warning, generally, isn’t an adequate response to the new exegetes or to Tony himself.

    1. Byron – thanks for weighing in. I’ve read your words several times over and pondered them. First, let me say that I know that my photos have caused some confusion. . . and I clarified in a Facebook comment the day I posted it. Here’s what I said to someone who questioned me: “I should clarify and say that this is not where I think Tony has gone specifically (to the Kardashians) . . . it’s more a general sense of the overall shift happening in our culture. . . from books/scholarship (in general – thus the picture), to a hermenuetic shaped and mediated by popular culture (thus the picture). This is nothing new, but certainly increased in intensity.”

      I would argue based on my last twenty years of moving around in the youth ministry world, that this is increasingly what’s happening among a growing number of folks. Several of us have been lamenting this shift and prayerfully pushing back on it as we can. Would you agree that for the average person in the pew today, their hermeneutic has been unconciously shaped in this way? I know you lament the same type of thing when it comes to reading among Christians. That’s why I love your store and your Booknotes! I agree that all of us evangelicals would say we are being “biblically astute, faithful to the trajectory and ethic of the Bible itself, Christ-like, and appropriate in their understanding of the role (or lack of role) of those few contested texts.” But history shows that’s always the case and that we do get things wrong at times. . . and that good “iron sharpens iron” dialouge is a gift given to us by God. Regarding the “new exegetes,” I’ve been reading many of them (we may have even talked about some together) and I’m concerned that for many in the church, a popular blog equals exegetical and hermeneutical accuracy. Regarding some of the texts I’ve read, I believe there are some exegetical and hermeneutical gymnastics being done, that are motivated in large part by looking for something new in the Scriptures in order to justify one’s own lifestyle. Of course, we can all be guilty of that for sure.

      So, to clarify, my visual ending was a general overall statement of what I see happening in terms of our shift regarding our sources of authority.

      How are you navigating this issue personally and in your church? What have you found to be most helpful in shaping your response? (I’m asking these questions in many places).

    2. Byron . . . one more response to your response. . . I was not at all trying to imply that there is a desire to be liked by popular culture, although I do think that could be the case at times. Always a temptation for all of us. Rather, I would say that they have been shaped and influenced by pop culture, or the Zeitgeist as the Germans call it. Certainly biblical history, church history, and history in general serve as reminders that this is an ever-present danger for the church.

  5. I am saddened as a believer to see many of my friends who I worship with agree with Tony Campolo’s most recent statement. You are right in saying this isn’t just a sexual issue. To me this issue goes way deeper. We must ask ourselves as Christians….do we believe that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God on all issues? If we believe that than it is very clear on the issue of homosexuality and same sex marriage. If we say same sex marriage and homosexuality is not a sin than we do not believe in the authoritative word of God.

    1. Dear Valerie,

      Thank you for adding to the discussion here at Walt’s blog. This isn’t the time or place to do a serious Bible study, and, of course, everyone should agree with Walt’s main point: we dare not allow our culture or the ethos of the times to dictate or even subtly influence our discernment of Godly ethics and proper Christian viewpoints. You are right that this is a matter of Biblical obedience. But here’s the thing that I think is important to say: there are Christians who DO believe the Bible is the Word of God and do take the texts seriously, but their careful study of the Bible makes them think it just isn’t that clear. There are only a very few texts in the Bible that address same sex attraction, and as I am sure you know, several are not particularly relevant to ordinary gay couples. That is, those texts are about sexual rape, or man-boy stuff, or is embedded in a passage in Leviticus alongside a verse that mixing different kinds of cloths or men not trimming their beards (it is still God’s Word but few people want to suggest we must apply that paragraph today!) One verse in Paul is clearly about homosexual child abuse and another verse Paul seemed to coin, so nobody knows exactly what it precisely refers to. About the only verse in the whole Bible, some say, that is pretty clear (besides Genesis one by implication) is Romans 1, and, if one reads as in the original, into Chapter 2 it is clearly about not judging. I am not saying I agree with all of the new interpretations of these few texts, or that the new scholarship is sound, but we simply dare not say that all of those have changed their mind on this topic are just disregarding the Bible. It is the complexity of the Bible itself on this very issue that, in their view, leads them to want to be obedient to the Bible and end up where they do. Again, this is not to say all new thinkers are solid in their Biblical interpretation, but it must be said that many good people with high regard for the authority of Scripture, who stand on the Word of God, have come to believe that what some people think the Bible says isn’t exactly what it really says on this topic. Just like some used to use the Bible to endorse, say, slavery, some have come to better ways to interpret the true meaning of these verse and the trajectory they portray. I felt Walt didn’t quite say this as he might have, and wanted to reply to you, too, since this accusation isn’t fair to the serious Bible scholarship at stake in these varied interpretations. Moving forward we have to debate the meaning of the verses and theological moves in question, not accuse others of not caring for the Bible. I know some of these authors with this new perspective say it is because of the Bible (as God’s authoritative Word) they end up where they do. We can disagree with them, but take them at their word, that they are trying their best to honor the texts as they’ve studied them, verse by verse by verse.

      1. Byron. . . I would push back on you a bit here. For example, I’ve read both Justin Lee and Matthew Vines . . . among others. I believe that their own personal experience and struggles are what has motivated them, which I understand. However, I think that those same struggles and motivations have set the table for them to come to conclusions that serve them in terms of their desires. I think this plays very well in today’s world, as opposed to say Wesley Hill, who approached the Scriptures as a same-sex attracted person but who has stood with a more orthodox commitment to the Scriptures and winds up placing his personal desires and leanings under the Lordship of Christ, seeing this as “his thing” (as Rosario Butterfield says, “We all have our thing”) or cross to bear in this life.

        1. Thanks, Walt. I think you are on to something here, that some of those who have shifted their views do so (at least in part) because of personal experience. I could name a few others that do this, that do Biblical study, but the argument they make is still mostly one of experience, as pastors or as gay people. But not everyone does that. Or, maybe their personal experience gives them a sense that something is fishy in the typical interpretations and that drives them to do new word studies and seek out plausible fresh interpretations; that is, their experience informs their Bible study, but it hasn’t cheaply replaced Biblical authority. Again, this isn’t the place to compare every exegetical move of every author or scholar in this field, I just think that for good discussion we can’t dismiss all the others we disagree with, suggesting simply that they don’t believe the Bible. I know that you, Walt, understand the complexities of Biblical interpretation, hermeneutics and and such, but not everybody does. Some folks just think the Bible is absolutely clear, and that the verses are plentiful and obvious, when, it seems evident to me that they are not. For those of us committed to grounding our views on the authoritative Word of God, we just have to be honest, I believe, that the clarity on this issue, based on the couple of verses that are germane, is less then self-evident. Many do not count the Leviticus text, two of the Pauline texts are not about typical same sex attraction, so maybe we’ve got Romans 1, although some creative background studies have been done to ask what Paul is really getting at there — in part, reliance on grace and not judging. (Or so they argue.) Anyway, not unlike other contested Bible teaching — like say war/peace or the role of women in leadership — that are enough perplexities to have a good debate about, without insisting that others are all sold out to the culture or don’t care about the Bible. I’m trying to keep good conversations going without those with the newer views saying traditional evangelicals are just bigots, and those with conventional views saying that the new perspective doesn’t take into account the Bible. Both sides, in my view, should honor the best intentions of the others to “get it right” and be faithful as they can. You usually do that well, Walt, and you know I’m grateful for your generous faithfulness.

          I wonder if we can learn from our Mennonite friends, here: they take the numerous, obvious texts about love of enemy and end up pacifists, based on oodles of passages and direct commands, but most Mennonites and Brethren realize not everybody follows their read of the texts they see as so obvious, and they realize there are other texts that might erode their own stance, so they “agree to disagree.” They hold a strict Biblical interpretation, and think other Christians, even evangelicals, are “liberal” on this (despite what we say about the authority of the Bible) but most aren’t going to break fellowship with other evangelicals who don’t take the Bible as literally as they do on the matter of nonviolence. They feel they have the higher, more faithful ground, of course, but they put up with those who don’t agree with their strict interpretation. I appreciate that they hold to their conservative view of the meaning of the Scriptures as they see it but also that they don’t routinely bad mouth those who are in another camp on this matter. Does that serve as any kind of reminder or approach? In other words, maybe this is a “disputable matter” (as Paul calls it in Romans 14.)

          And, of course, there’s your big calling: how do we equip youth workers and leaders to teach kids to read and interpret the Bible properly, learning to live out faithful, sensible, relevant, application? I’m glad you and CPYU are helping young people develop a Biblical worldview and Godly imagination and faithful categories through which to think about all this, but to do that well, I think we must also admit to the complexities in the texts (on many issues) and the diversity of opinion on so much within the Body of Christ!

      2. Byron,

        Although I appreciate your diplomatic attitude in your response, I have to seriously disagree with two places where I see you arguing with fatal errors. You will probably not agree with me, but I must reply anyway.

        1) You seem to think that if God does not, in His Word, say things many times, then the truth is somehow diminished – as you repeatedly mention “few texts”. My question for you is this: how many times does God need to write something for it to be true? I would say, only once. To somehow add validity to an argument based upon God stating something only a few times, is very weak in my opinion.

        2) You also seem to indicate that you know people’s hearts and claim that they are taking the Bible seriously, when I would argue that you don’t know that at all. Someone could very well be taking the Bible seriously and correctly in one moment and then be completely biased with very sinful and selfish motives the next. We all must be careful here. And we all are accountable for our words. Maybe I am misunderstanding, but it seems you are arguing for the validity of a view that the Bible (and God) does not condemn homosexuality. I hope I am mistaken in my understanding of your beliefs.

        1. Hi, Valerie,

          Thanks for your reply. I’d hate for CPYU friends to misunderstand, so I thought I’d offer a quick response to your concerns.

          No, I actually don’t think that the number of times God speaks about a certain thing is itself decisive. You are right, I think. I was not arguing that, nor even suggesting it, really, but only noting that there are those who have done serious new studies of those texts, a project which isn’t that complicated because there aren’t that many. I find that in almost any forum of this sort, there are those who think the Bible is overwhelming clear about this, that there are just so many verses where one can turn to show it, but yet they don’t even know what those verses are, let alone their Hebrew or, mostly Greek meanings. I was not sharing my own view or opinion about any of that, by the way, but only was saying that there are people who believe the Bible to be God’s authoritative Word and still have worked through those texts and come to different conclusions than the conventional one.

          By the way, though, I suppose I do sometimes wonder about majors and minors, about things that are fully evident, over and over, in the Bible, and things that are merely hinted at or noted on rare occasion, in perplexing contexts. Jesus forbids “swearing” or taking of oaths (Matthew 5: 34 – 37), but I only know a few people that follow that one singular text. (And, of course, there are other passages that say we should take oaths.) There are other such verses which are not major themes, but they nonetheless are God’s Word and have to be properly understood. Paul says, once, that women are saved by having babies. The traditional view of that is that we may not know what he meant, but we know for sure what he did not mean. He did not mean exactly what he says because Paul, of all people, over and over, insists we are saved only by faith through grace. Some say it is a good habit to interpret the rare, perplexing verses in light of the clearer more evident ones. So when a small handful of verses on a topic come up, and some of the words are a bit unclear, they should be interpreted in light of other larger, non-debatable themes. Deducing which “clear” verses inform or trump the perplexing ones is itself an art, but we need a faithful hermeneutic to do that. I trust you don’t believe women are saved by having babies, as Paul says, but will agree that whatever he means, it has to be understood in a way consistent with his many, many other clear verses that consistently teach that salvation is not by works, but by faith alone, through grace alone. Right? It isn’t the number of verses, exactly, but the clarity of them, but if there is only a small few on a topic, it is harder to deduce their clarity, sometimes. I think it is a commonly acceptable guideline for studying the Bible. I didn’t mean to give the impression that it is a simple matter of the more verses the more weight they carry, or the fewer verses the less weight. Thanks for inviting me to clarify.

          Secondly, I have no idea why you would think that I am saying that I seem to know people’s hearts. That was part of my point: we do not know the hearts of others, so we should be, at least, agnostic about their motives or attitudes, or if we want to follow Jesus’ direct command to “do unto others” we should give people the benefit of the doubt and assume, until shown otherwise, that they are people of good faith, doing their best to be true to what they think is best. Because we don’t know their hearts, we shouldn’t judge one way or the other about their spiritual attitude, and consider their arguments, verse by verse, bit by bit, and see if it makes sense and is consistent with other teachings of the Bible itself. I am not “arguing for the validity of a view of the Bible that does not condemn homosexuality” as I am not entering that discussion at all. I was commenting on how we perceive and talk about those in the Body of Christ who do hold that view, those who are shifting away from traditional interpretations of these texts. (Walt suggested that they perhaps are just are too influenced by pop culture and you suggested they just don’t believe the Bible.) I am only saying that other people have come to believe the Bible demands inclusion of GLTB brothers and sisters and that those who have come to this conclusion should not necessarily be dismissed as not caring about the Bible or honoring it as God’s Word. There are people who have equally profound convictions about the inspiration and authority of the Bible who conclude things differently about many topics, including homosexuality, and it doesn’t help the conversations to judge their motives or dismiss their arguments by simply saying that they must not take the Bible seriously. Some believe the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality, but condemns our condemnation, and they argue why in their many books and scholarly articles. I am not saying that I find those arguments fully compelling, but like other disputable matters — from how we understand eternal security or the role of women or how we do baptism or the way we should or shouldn’t follow Jesus’ commands to love enemies or Paul’s repeated distrust of wealth, say — we must hear those brothers and sisters who interpret the texts differently then we do, grappling with the case they make.

  6. I appreciate this very rich, gracious, and well informed dialogue on the issue most recently sparked by Tony Campolo’s change of what: heart? mind? belief? I too have been blessed by hearing him speak and particularly his passion for Christ and following after him hard. I’ve also appreciated that he was not in the more common Christian mold that often embraces all things politically conservative. That said, I believe he has arrived at a wrong conclusion that will lead many astray in a more fundamental way than is being discussed. I teach high school juniors and seniors, my wife and I mentor young couples and singles in their 20s and 30s, and I’ve taught and written on character and culture for the last 20+ years. In my 72 years, I have not seen an issue that has divided the church so starkly and, good research shows, divides the generations even more so. Young people are far more apt to embrace Matthew Vines than Wesley Hill primarily because of the impact of moralistic therapeutic deism’s teaching that to be a Christian is to “be nice” and not judge others and that love trumps all other perspectives. That is the hermeneutic of the hour. I appreciate my friend Byron’s caution not to dismiss all Christians who disagree with us as lacking serious Biblical intent, but our Protestant problem, in general, is individualism and thus the tie breaker is often experience–ours or those we know and love. That seems to be what tipped the balance for Tony and for President Obama who cited his daughters’ views as the tipping point for him on same sex marriage. My only contribution to this discussion, and it’s one I’ve had for many years now, is that we have less to gain wisdom from in the “few texts” on same sex attraction unless we begin at the beginning for a deeper understanding. Genesis is the foundation for the Christian worldview of what is good: a man joined by a woman joined by God in a covenant (cleave) and charged with fruitfulness and ever widening dominion over all creation. Thus, Jesus when asked about adultery goes there, not to the Ten Commandments. Paul, when writing in Ephesians on marriage goes to precisely the same place to explain the importance of marriage. Man and woman, joined in covenant, renewing that covenant as Tim Keller says when joined in a one flesh embrace physically and spiritually, best represent Christ and the church and Christ’s relationship with the Father. There is a trinitarian picture in marriage and its sexual union that, at the end of the day, remains “a great mystery” as Paul says. While the fall has altered every single aspect of creation, including (particularly?) our sexuality, Christ came to redeem and restore that which he declared good from the foundation. That is the basis for what I teach my high school students and emerging adults on why sex is for marriage and men and women, and that our culture with its equal opportunity sexuality has not too high a view of sex but far too trivial. This understanding of scripture grows in importance as they engage a culture where to deny sex, whether it be casual friendship or same sex, or bisexual expression, living together, or the emerging transgender removal of gender designation altogether. They are all leaves of the same tree that ultimately bears bitter fruit. This, to me, is the heart of the reason we not only must speak and act truth about this most divisive new teaching but demonstrate love in its deepest sense. Marriage and sexual relationships lie not as a peripheral issue in a couple of obscure places where we can agree to disagree, but they make up a fundamental gospel issue that, from the beginning, lies at the heart of our understanding of the great creation and redemption and restoration work of Christ.

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