Debatable: How Should Evangelicals Respond to the Inauguration Prayer Incident?

[Note: “Debatable” is a occasional feature in which we briefly summarize debates within the evangelical community.]

The Issue: Louie Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta and founder of the Passion Conferences, an organization that brings college students together in prayer and worship, was selected by President Obama to deliver the benediction at his inaugural this month. He withdrew because of controversy over a sermon he delivered in mid-1990s on homosexuality.

Various evangelical thinkers and leaders have commented, often coming to quite different conclusions on the question, “How should evangelicals respond?”

Position #1: Gabe Lyons, a best-selling author and founder of Q Ideas, says Giglio is a “target of intolerance” and “reverse discrimination at its finest“:

As gays come out of the closet, are Christians meant to swap and go hide back in closets of their own? This zero-sum game is the most un-American of games.

Freedom to speak your mind and live by your convictions—a person’s freedom of conscience—is the first, most fundamental, American right. James Madison believed strongly in the freedom of conscience, even claiming, “This right is in its nature an unalienable right” in his Memorial and Remonstrance written in 1785. Maintaining and defending “freedom of conscience” protects every citizen from being coerced, cajoled, intimidated or bullied into taking a point of view that goes against their deepest convictions.

It’s a sad day in America when that right is up for debate.

Position #2: Author and blogger Matthew Lee Anderson, in a guest post for CNN, argued that while Christians have a right to be concerned, we ought to shrug off inaugural pastor rejection:

In such moments, conservative Christians have been ready and quick to demonstrate their ample supply of passion for the truth.

The last imbroglio about homosexuality in our country was the Chick-Fil-A affair, which resulted in long lines of socially conservative people cheerfully waiting to eat their chicken sandwiches. This time, the response has already been more strictly rhetorical, but just as swift and as strongly worded. Russell Moore’s website crashed because of the massive amount of traffic, he wrote.

It is somewhat ironic that Giglio, the founder of Passion, stepped so quietly from the stage given the cacophony all around him. His statement was gracious without changing his stance. It did not denounce the White House or those seeking to dismiss him.

In fact, this sort of political dispassion is precisely what we could all use a lot more of, and conservative Christians have better reasons than most to lead the way.

Position #3: Scot McKnight says that while Giglio did the right thing by withdrawing, he “could have done the right-er thing by never accepting such an invitation”:

Any evangelical on the platform of any Inauguration, Democrat or Republican, is being used. No one’s prayer will be acceptable to specific faiths… and if you tailor your prayer to all you shift your theology.

This is what happens when you enter the political forum. When you enter politics you risk sullying the gospel. In DC everything is political. Who speaks, who stands where, who gets to be in the parameters of the photos, who speaks when and when one speaks where… To agree to the political space is to agree with the politics.

What happened to Louie is what happens when pastors and Christian leaders become complicit in politics. Politics determines everything. Not one’s theology, not one’s noble efforts to bring down trafficking, not one’s capacity to pray or lead the nation in a prayer for all. Politics determines everything. And the pastor who stands on that platform makes the gospel complicit in that platform’s politics.

Scoring the Debate: How should evangelicals respond to the Giglio incident? Should we be outraged? Should we shrug and recommit ourselves to good works? Or should we simply avoid letting politicians use us for their PR purposes?

Like many other evangelical reactions to the Giglio incident, each of these men provides persuasive, if incomplete, reasons for their positions. But it’s difficult to say what arguments will be most effective in a our strange era, a post-Christian society in which most people still identify as Christians. Perhaps we should simply be encouraged that we’re still having debates influenced by neo-Calvinism or neo-Anabaptism when too many Christians have embraced neo-secularism.

  • Michael Snow

    All three make important points. But for someone to say what Pastor Giglio should have done misses the points of #1.

    Remaining silent is as deplorable as raging against this incident. In the end, the irony stands: From the White House’s inaugural spokesman re: “…our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural.”

  • Christian Lawyer

    To Gabe Lyons, and to those who see here some sort of violation of freedom of speech, or religion, or conscience, the first amendment does not protect all speech under all circumstances at all times by all people. The Supreme Court has always recognized reasonable time/place/manner limits on speech.

    Giglio can still believe and preach whatever he wants and can participate in any open public square. But, please understand, the inauguration ISN’T the “public square.” It’s the personal prerogative of the president. No one has a “right” to speak at an inauguration except the president.

    Just 2 years ago, the Supreme Court upheld by an 8-1 vote the right of the despicable Westboro Baptist to make its hateful protests in public, even picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers. If Westboro still has the freedom to spew its hate in public and in their church, then your freedoms aren’t going anywhere.

    And sorry, but it’s not a violation of your first amendment rights if a majority of people disagree with you, or publicly mock your views, or refuse to shop at your store, or refuse to buy from the people who support you. If that makes you hide in the closet, that’s your problem. The government hasn’t put you in jail or closed your church or fired your pastor or deleted your blog or burned your books or blocked your internet connection.

    The antidote to speech you don’t like is more speech. Just take a deep breath, step back out of the closet, and recognize that you haven’t lost anything. The fact that we’re actually having this debate would seem to prove it.

    I vote for Matthew Lee Anderson’s approach even though I disagree with his underlying views. Same for Giglio’s response to the controversy.

  • Matthew Anderson

    If anyone is interested, I followed up with a few more thoughts on my piece at my own blog:

  • Rodri

    “Or should we simply avoid letting politicians use us for their PR purposes?”

    I think this comment shows that there is a poor understanding of the entire situation. This would have been MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL for both the White House and for Pastor Louie. What originally got Obama’s attention over a year ago was how Louie’s Passion movement has been changing the lives of thousands and thousands of young adults and inspiring them to affect change, particularly in regards to current slavery and trafficking. Had Louie delivered the benediction, additional light would have been shed on this issue.

    Just as we are called to abstain from sexual immorality, we are called to act justly and love the oppressed; the latter is what Louie’s goal in this whole thing has been: to be a voice for the 27 million people who are enslaved TODAY. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a firm stance on homosexuality, but you can’t take on every issue at once. Some bitter blogger made this about homosexuality, but that isn’t what this boils down to, and I wish all media wouldn’t completely disregard all he’s done to now focus entirely on homosexuality. As Louie said, “neither I, nor our team, feel it best serves the core message and goals we are seeking to accomplish to be in a fight on an issue not of our choosing.” That’s what we should focus on.

  • Joel Avery

    No position #4, etc, from evangelicals who are concerned about homophobia?

    • Collin Hansen

      All evangelicals are concerned about homophobia, if by which you mean hatred and/or fear of homosexuals. But such a view could not possibly be attributed to Louie Giglio without extending the slur to anyone who holds to the view that God designed sex as a good gift to be enjoyed by man and woman in marriage.

      • Joel Avery

        Perhaps a better way to pose my question would have been: what about evangelicals who are concerned about Giglio’s interpretation of the Bible?

        • Joe Carter

          The question for them is, “Why are they finding a unique interpretation that was only discovered in the past 30 years?”

          • Joel Avery

            Without wading into the problems with that question, does it harm the Gospel Coalition to admit to a broader spectrum of evangelical thought? Isn’t that the spirit of “Debatable”?

            • Joe Carter

              ***. . . does it harm the Gospel Coalition to admit to a broader spectrum of evangelical thought? ***

              Not on issues where there is a legitimate difference in evangelical thought. There is no serious evangelical scholarship that would dispute Giglio’s position that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior. There just isn’t.

              One can claim that the Bible is wrong or that we should dismiss what the Bible says, but that wouldn’t really be an evangelical position. But it is also not an evangelical position to say that homosexual acts of any type can be consonant with the Word of God.

          • Christian Lawyer

            Come on, Joe. That’s just silly. A new interpretation is not wrong just because it’s new. Reformed theology was once, by definition, “new.” Racial equality was once “new.” A round earth was once “new.” Complementarianism was once “new.” Some new interpretations are right and some are wrong. The “no serious evangelical scholarship” charge is correct only if you or TGC control the definition of “serious.”

            • Chris

              Actually, none of the above were new. They were always clearly taught in the Bible. People may have strayed from biblical teaching on those issues and then come back to the truth, but that does not make the return to truth new.

              Many folks would like to stray from what the Bible teaches about homosexuality, but that doesn’t mean anyone should consider that view acceptable.

            • Joe Carter

              I’m open to correction. Can you point me to a work by an evangelical scholar who believes in inerrancy that thinks homosexual behavior is compatible with Scripture?

            • Christian Lawyer

              Joe, I see you’re adding qualifiers such as “believes in inerrancy,” so I guess I’ll have to add that your claim is true only so long as you control the definition of “serious” AND “evangelical.” I don’t expect you will agree with any of the below, but you can’t deny that it exists.

              Evangelical scholarship accepting of homosexuality goes back decades. Here’s a chapter from a 1979 book by Robert K. Johnston, then a professor at Fuller, explaining the divergent evangelical views and the developing “full acceptance” position.

              Regarding on books that argued for the “full acceptance” approach, Johnston noted that:

              “Tim Stafrord, on the other hand, writing in establishment evangelicalism’s leading journal, Christianity Today, had this to say. Scanzoni and Mollenkott ‘write in a good Protestant tradition, reevaluating traditional interpretation while holding to the authority of the Scriptures. … Most of the people who hate this book will be, I suspect, people who have not read it. One can disagree strongly with its conclusions-I do-and yet wish for more books like its well-documented, compassionate, and courageous style.'”

              Here is something more recent.

              Then, of course, just this week, there’s this from Steve Chalke, whom CT calls “one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the United Kingdom”:

        • Michael Snow
  • Chris

    I agree with the person who said that the President should be able to choose the person to pray at his inauguration. And if someone tries to bully the President or the person he chose out of the invitation, the President should stand up for the person he chose.

    The person should continue to stand up for the Gospel and pray according to the Gospel that he represents.

    I can’t imagine Peter, John, Paul or any of the other early church leaders backing away from an opportunity to pray for a group of people because the Gospel made some people angry.

    • David Ruess

      Thank you Chris!!

      This whole time I have been scratching my head thinking, “so he got some opposition, big whoop, did you expect differently from people?” Haha, I don’t get this, he should have stayed in, gave the prayer, or inaugural address, whatever he gets to do and proclaimed Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the only way to God and salvation!
      I don’t understand why he chose to drop out. A little opposition is to be expected, as we are to be expected to not shrink back. Anyway, praise God for grace, we all need it daily :)

  • Joel Avery

    Joe, when you frame things that way, it’s time to suspend the claim to “Debatable”. Fortunately, simple denials of difference aren’t enough to eliminate difference. Evangelicals will continue to wrestle with God, and we’ll all be better for it. All the best to you.

  • Roger Patterson

    It is odd to me that Giglio is getting a pass on his position on homosexuality as sin. He has not made that clear, and an answer to the questions at hand cannot be given until we know what his position is. We should not be making a martyr out of a man who did not stand for anything, but withdrew himself to avoid calling attention to the biblical view of homosexuality as sin.

    If Giglio has made this clear since his statement, I am not aware of it.

  • paley

    Welcome to the new normal. The disinvitation was not surprising in our post-Christian country. I was more disappointed in Giglio’s response than in the disinvitation. He was vague and non-committal on the whole issue. As the previous reader commented, we don’t really know where he stands today. I can only assume that Giglio is afraid of the consequences of taking a clear stand. I accuse Pastor Giglio of a lack of courage by not taking a clear stand on this issue.

    • andrew

      more’s the pity that Giglio didn’t restate that homosexuality is a sin, along with many other things the bible calls sinful. And that Jesus is the only hope of expiating our sin debt to God. What’s the fear in stating sin as sin. We need to feel the force of our sin before we will see our need for a saviour.

      It could have been an opportunity to proclaim the law and gospel on a massive platform, even as he was stepping back from the inauguration.

  • David Volsky

    I think some people are being too quick to criticize Pastor Giglio for quietly withdrawing without knowing all the details. There may have been wisdom, discernment, prayer and counsel that went into this decision. We Christians need to be careful about throwing each other to the lions. Even if we disagree, we need to exercise a great deal of grace. I don’t read his actions as a recanting of his former statements regarding homosexuality. Also, as an evangelical, I think we often spend too much time focusing on our “rights” and taking up causes to this effect which hurt our ministry of the gospel in the long run. It can be a fine line we walk in defining responsibility and privilege, I admit, but first century Christians didn’t have many rights and the gospel spread like wildfire. (I am still trying to work this out for myself, so I don’t wish to misrepresent myself as having arrived, either. I feel humbly privileged to even be able to participate in such discussions.)

    I agree with Joe in the above statements that one would be hard-pressed to find serious evangelical scholarship supporting the practice of homosexuality from a biblical standpoint–this due to the fact that serious hermeneutics, logic and historical research are not employed in such a defense. It simply demonstrates intellectual dishonesty or ignorance (by which I do not mean stupidity, but lack of knowledge or understanding) in making such a case.

    Having said that, I want to add that people with same-sex attraction have the same fallen human condition as anyone else without, they just sin differently. We should be careful of taking an us versus them approach. Homosexuals need the gospel and the ministry of the church, too. The church needs to seriously consider a grace-filled approach to this while remaining true to the biblical standard for marriage and sexual expression.

    I am thankful for those struggling with same-sex attraction who have placed their burden at the foot of the cross and embraced Jesus. I suspect they are often misunderstood by both many of their Bible-believing Christian brothers and those in this culture embracing homosexuality. That is a heavy weight to bear and we should be quick to support them. We hold to biblical truth when we speak honestly regarding sin and extend Christ’s love to others without discrimination. By the way, there is a very good series of discussions on this topic on Dallas Theological Seminary’s website in thetablepodcast section, featuring Darrell Bock, Stanton Jones and Michael Brown. I hope I didn’t stray too far off topic and that my comments added something of value to the discussion.

    • D

      Thank you for this comment.

  • Chris

    “…first century Christians didn’t have many rights and the gospel spread like wildfire. ”

    That is the best comment so far!

  • Pingback: How Should Evangelicals Respond To The Inauguration Prayer Incident? | lukefourteenthirtythree()

  • Pingback: SiftingPoint | Risk and Guilt + New Video, Book Release and Album.()

  • Pingback: Singleness Is Not a Curse – The Gospel Coalition Blog()

  • Steve Cornell

    Helpful summary. The closing line would be interesting to discuss: “Perhaps we should simply be encouraged that we’re still having debates influenced by neo-Calvinism or neo-Anabaptism when too many Christians have embraced neo-secularism.” Could we also say, “Perhaps we should be encouraged that we’re still permitted to have debates in public.”

    Prayer is a great means to forming perspective. We accept the instruction from the apostle Paul to the young leader Timothy as equally applicable to us:

    “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (I Timothy 2:1-2).

    When we pray for political leaders, it might help to keep in mind the connection God made for His people who were living as exiles in the ancient pagan city of Babylon:

    “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘… seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’” (Jeremiah 29:1,7).

    Although living in a pagan city among those who had destroyed their city, God allowed no room for disaffection or disengagement toward Babylon. He even appealed to a motive of self-interest: ”if it prospers, you too will prosper.” So postures of indifference or complacency could come back on them in negative ways. Postures of separation and isolation would be disobedience to the call of God. And postures of resentment and vindictiveness would be efforts to usurp the place of God.

    One of the more helpful perspective forming prayers is “Our Father in heaven, may Your name be honored. May Your kingdom come soon. May Your will be done on earth just as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9, N.L.T.)

    When we pray this way, we’re not only admitting that the world is in rebellion against God, we’re committing to someone greater than ourselves. We’re centering the desire of our hearts and the mission of our lives on the Sovereign of the universe.

    As we pray for and honor earthly presidents, don’t lose sight of the wide lens perspective. And stay on mission through disciplined and passionate prayers focused on the highest possible concerns available to humanity.

    Honor for God’s name
    Submission to God’s kingship
    Obedience to God’s will.

  • Pingback: Political Hypocrisy–A final editorial draft | BONKED()

  • Pingback: Same-Sex Marriage Debate Not Over; Wendell Berry; Bill Hybels; Legalizing Pedophilia Getting Closer?; Christian Preaching; Multi-site Churches « ChosenRebel's Blog()