Sometimes, a headline says it all. A recent article appeared in the USA Today by Oliver Thomas with such a headline. It reads, “American churches must reject literalism and admit we got it wrong on gay people.”
The article begins with a provocative statement: “Churches will continue hemorrhaging members until we face the truth: Being a faithful Christian does not mean accepting everything the Bible teaches.”
What teachings of the Bible does Thomas have in mind that Christians must reject? He targets passages that expressly condemn homosexuality and the entire array of LGBTQ sexual ethics. Moreover, the source of the Church’s error, he argues clearly, is not a misinterpretation of the Scriptures. Rather, the Bible got it wrong—the biblical authors were bound by time, culture, and an antiquated worldview that wrongly encumbered and vilified homosexual behavior.
Thomas laments the current positions held by many evangelical Christians. He writes, “A sad thing is happening in America. The church is killing itself. A great revelation has occurred that is bringing joy and happiness to millions, but it is being met with resistance and retrenchment from many of my colleagues inside the church.” Oliver Thomas makes a bold claim by using the word “revelation”—his argument is a revelatory argument, which suggests that God has revealed new truth to the world, but not through the Bible. The genesis of this new revelation is sociological experience.
He explains the “what” behind the revelation, writing, “The revelation is that LGBTQ people are just like the rest of us—only LGBTQ… People don’t choose their sexual orientation any more than they choose their race or gender. This is what lay behind a recent comment by Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, that Vice President Mike Pence’s quarrel—if he has one—is not with the mayor. ‘Your quarrel, sir,’ said the openly gay Democratic presidential candidate, ‘is with my creator.’”
He also chronicles what he believes to be the tragic developments in the United Methodist Church, which has, by his estimation, moved towards the wrong side of history by affirming the traditional Christian teaching on sexuality and gender.
Oliver Thomas believes that the source of the church’s modern troubles stems from an erroneous approach to the Bible. “Here is the corner we have painted ourselves into. The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it. Yet, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures did not float down from heaven perfect and without error. They were written by men, and those men made mistakes.”
In just a few words, Thomas has denied the position of the believing Church since its inception -- that the Scriptures are holy and stand as the inspired, authoritative Word of the living God. This is an explicit denial of sola Scriptura. We can at least credit Thomas for his candor—he does not hedge nor equivocate. In his view, the Bible has simply erred.
Moreover, Thomas dismisses a fantastical view of inspiration that in no way accords with the Bible’s internal witness. He depicted Christian belief in the inspiration of the Scriptures as the sacred writings floating down from heaven.
Of course, Christians do not believe the Bible simply descended from the heavens. The Apostle Peter told us that “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 2:1). Furthermore, the Apostle Paul wrote that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).
This is the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture—the Bible did not spiral out of the heavens but came as God’s unfolding revelation through the ages. The Holy Spirit guided human authors to write his holy, infallible, inerrant, and inspired Word. Thomas rightly stated that the Scriptures were indeed written by men. He fails to recognize, however, that God protected the authors of Scripture from error.
The impetus of Thomas’ charge is moral. The Bible does not correspond to his moral and ethical worldview, which celebrates the entire array of the LGBTQ spectrum. The sexual revolution has no compatibility with the Bible—so the Scriptures must be tossed out as erroneous artifacts of a bygone age.
A new revelation has come. This revelation demands the normalization of the LGBTQ morality. The Church has been wrong for two-thousand years because the Bible was wrong.
Thomas tries to cite an oft-deployed argument from liberal Protestants against the evangelical position on biblical sexuality. Not long ago, the Church defended slavery and segregation because the Bible led them there. When Christians liberated themselves from the authority of the Bible, they realized the evils of slavery and segregation.
We can see what Oliver Thomas is doing, but the Christians who pressed heroically for the end of slavery and the slave trade did not argue that the Bible was in error.
Thomas also cites the Bible’s teaching regarding women. Thomas writes, “While the Apostle Paul…exhorted women to submit to their husbands and keep silent in church, reason and experience taught otherwise. Despite Catholic and evangelical resistance, more and more of today’s churches are elevating women to positions of leadership and authority.”
Thomas has now moved away from the word “revelation” and instead used “reason and experience” as his authorities for truth and meaning. He continues to argue, “Churches will continue hemorrhaging members and money at an alarming rate until we muster the courage to face the truth: We got it wrong on gays and lesbians. This shouldn’t alarm or surprise us. We have learned some things that the ancients—including Moses and Paul—simply did not know. Not even Jesus, who was fully human and therefore limited to what first century humans knew, could know about cancer, schizophrenia, atomic energy and a million other things the centuries have taught us.”
This amounts to a complete rejection and full broadside assault against the authority of the Bible. Truth is defined by the subjective emotivism rather than the enduring and objective truth from the transcendent God. Thomas condescendingly dismisses Moses and Paul as inspired authors and instead depicts them as any other ancients bound by a pre-modern, harmful worldview.
But Thomas does not merely throw Moses and Paul under the bus. He lumps Jesus—the divine logos, very God of very God—into the same category of an antiquated ancient figure with no authority to speak into the issues of modernity.
Yes, Jesus was truly man; but he was also truly God. His humanity does not mean he did not know all there is to know, except for what the Father had not yet told him regarding the date upon which he would return. In John chapter two, the Apostle tells us that Jesus knew everything. He did not need to be told what was in man because he had made man. There is nothing in the cosmos that escapes Jesus’ knowledge; and not because he learned it all but because he created it all.
Near his conclusion Oliver Thomas argues, “It’s difficult to watch good people (and the churches are full of them) buy into the sincere but misguided notion that being a faithful Christian means accepting everything the Bible teaches.”
This is a rejection of the Church’s very responsibility; indeed, this is a rejection of the responsibility of every thoughtful Christian and disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. The existence of the Scriptures means that our God speaks, he speaks truth, and he has revealed himself that we might know him. It is, therefore, our responsibility to study the Bible, to understand its spectacular unfolding of God’s plan, to revel in the unfolding story of God’s redemption, to apply the Scripture’s worldview to our lives, and to obey its imperatives.
Where you find a church, you find the right preaching of the Word of God. Where you do not find the Word of God honored, there is no church.
Indeed, Oliver Thomas wrongly asserts that once Christians liberate themselves from the authority of God’s word that they will then see their pews filled and the collection plate overflowing. The exact opposite is true. Where you find churches jettison the Word, you find empty pews. Liberal Protestant churches have steadily declined because they have “liberated” themselves from a biblical worldview.
They have sacrificed the Scriptures on the altar of cultural relevance—the results reveal dying churches and denominations. Once you abandon the Scriptures, you have no life, no hope, no good news to offer. Your moral, therapeutic deism is a hollow promise that offers no life.
This story underlines the importance of the conservative recovery of the Southern Baptist Convention over the last several decades. I knew Oliver Thomas more personally as “Buzz.” His is a very affable and friendly attorney who served as the general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Buzz Thomas had a remarkable career, especially on the issues of religious liberty. He put together the coalition that led to the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993.
The Southern Baptist Convention, however, defunded the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs precisely because it did not represent the convictions of Southern Baptists on many issues like the authority of God’s Word.
Had the conservative recovery—the reformation of the Southern Baptist Convention—not happened, Thomas’ argument would now be made from the inside rather than from the outside of the leadership of my own denomination.
This issue, therefore, is not personal but deeply theological and now public, given that Oliver Thomas published his views in the USA Today.
Interestingly, Oliver Thomas made a very similar argument in another opinion piece for USA Today in 2010. He is apparently frustrated that conservative Christians are declining his advice.
Thomas’ article ends with a question: “What does loving my neighbor—and my enemy—as myself look like?” It looks like not withholding the words of eternal life.