Published March 30, 2023
With the election of Humza Yousaf as leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), it is likely that the recent flurry of writing on the significance of Kate Forbes and her faith will come to an end. Forbes, an SNP politician who was running against Yousaf, recently came under fire for her opposition to gay marriage. Of all the pieces written on this, likely the most interesting is that by an old friend of mine, Dr. Fraser MacDonald, for the London Review of Books. Of all who commented on the issue (including myself) MacDonald offers the most significant contextualization of the affair in terms of the history and culture of Scottish Highland Presbyterianism. We are on different sides of the issue, but his article adds an important dimension to the discussion.
He also gestures toward what has become a commonplace of current debates about the attitude of Christians and their churches to LGBTQ individuals: Christian churches’ past support for slavery and in some cases present tolerance for racism. He does not press the point because his main concerns in the article are with the difficulty of holding strong opinions on, say, same-sex marriage, that do not comport with the law of the land or the general sentiments of the age. Yet his article reminds us that the past sins of the church on the matter of slavery do have significance for current church struggles over sexuality and gender.
The standard argument to which MacDonald alludes is a legitimately challenging one: Just as the church was wrong to support slavery in the nineteenth century, often with claims to biblical warrant and a slew of biblical texts, the church is now wrong to oppose gay marriage and other LGBTQ causes. Again, traditional Christians maintain their position with a barrage of Bible verses. Given the past record of biblically justified injustice, the argument goes, the church must entertain the possibility—or even the significant likelihood—that she is wrong again (“on the wrong side of history” is the phrase that comes to mind). Of course, this is not strictly an argument so much as an appeal for self-examination and humility, but it has tended to operate rhetorically as a means of dismissing the church’s rejection of, say, homosexuality, as clearly outdated and reactionary. “We’ve seen this all before, and even you now acknowledge your side was wrong.”
Certainly this point about slavery is important and too easily dismissed as a minor aberration by those who do not want to ask the difficult question of how such a practice found so many advocates among those often regarded as the great and the godly. While some might say that in the narrowest sense this amounts to little more than evidence that the church is not perfect—a point acknowledged in theory by all followers of Christ—the fact that Christians promoted the reduction of fellow image-bearers to property, to be used and abused at the will of those claiming ownership over them, and argued it was justified by the Bible, should be deeply disturbing.
But perhaps there is another way of construing the church and these controversial social issues that connects them not to the favored narrative of our age—one of liberation from oppression or of increasingly enlightened ethics—but to the proclivity of the church in any age: accommodation to the values of the world around her. To be a pro-slavery Christian in colonial America and in the South prior to the Civil War was to interpret the Bible in a manner that gave religious sanction to what was arguably an important part of the spirit of the age. To be a pro-LGBTQ Christian today is to do the same.
Some Marxists of the old economic variety might agree. To be a pro-slavery Christian was to give an ideological expression to the necessary economic foundations of the dominant class system. To be a pro-LGBTQ Christian today is to do the same: to give a blessing to an age of bourgeois self-invention and autonomy that denies any moral significance to natural relations or to the body. Progressives may flatter themselves that they are more enlightened than their slaveholding ancestors, but perhaps they are merely repeating the same mistake: baptizing the class-based status quo of the day.
On this reading, progressive Christians are not overcoming past sins; they are merely replicating one of the oldest ecclesiastical sins of all—conformity to the world, just like their slaveholding ancestors. So it was in Corinth, with the Corinthian church’s obsession with wealth. So it is today with the bourgeois church’s obsession with inclusion and therapeutic categories of discourse.
And this is yet one more reminder of the pressing issue of our age, which the church must address: anthropology. It is eighty years since C. S. Lewis gave the lectures that were to become The Abolition of Man. In those lectures, he pinpointed the problems of the age as anthropological: Britain was losing its sense of what it meant to be human. If that applied in 1943, how much more so in a time when post-humanism and transhumanism are not merely serious items for intellectual discussion but seriously contemplated as key cultural trajectories for the future?
Christians need to reflect long and hard on what it means to be human. Our slaveholding ancestors failed abysmally in that regard, just as our full-throttle progressives are failing today. Only when we stop exchanging isolated Bible verses and set those verses within the broader framework of a truly Christian anthropology—one that takes embodiment, dependence, and obligation seriously—will we avoid the tragic errors and sins that mark the Christian past.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.