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The siren song of error

Is a leading New Testament scholar about to change course on LGBTQ?

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The siren song of error
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It is very rare that an announcement from a publisher would send shockwaves through a community, but Saturday one did. Over the weekend, the news broke that a world-famous New Testament scholar named Richard Hays had changed his mind about homosexuality and now urges in a forthcoming book “the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in Christian communities.” The new book is titled The Widening of God’s Mercy: Sexuality Within the Biblical Story and is coauthored with his son Christopher Hays, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

According to the publisher’s description, the book argues that those involved in homosexual immorality should not be excluded from the Church after all. Moreover, it says that God is “a dynamic and gracious God who is willing to change his mind.” The publisher says that the book closes with an epilogue penned by the elder Hays “reflecting on his own change of heart and mind” on the issue.

It is an astonishing announcement from the publisher because Richard Hays has long been known as a scholar and minister who has resisted the LGBTQ ideology. Hays was ordained in the United Methodist Church but is more well-known for his work as a New Testament scholar, having held professorships at Yale Divinity School and then at Duke Divinity School until his retirement in 2018.

Hays’s appeal to evangelicals has largely been in spite of his mainline credentials and teaching posts. Rather, evangelicals have grown to appreciate his landmark work on ethics, which took a strong stance against homosexuality. In his 1996 book The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, Hays writes,

The New Testament offers no loopholes or exception clauses that might allow for the acceptance of homosexual practice under some circumstances. Despite the efforts of some recent interpreters to explain away the evidence, the New Testament remains unambiguous and univocal in its condemnation of homosexual conduct (p. 394).

Hays not only identifies homosexual behavior as sinful, but he also argues that the involuntary desire for gay sex is also sinful:

The Bible’s sober anthropology rejects the apparently commonsense assumption that only freely chosen acts are morally culpable. Quite the reverse: the very nature of sin is that it is not freely chosen. … We are in bondage to sin but still accountable to God’s righteous judgment of our actions. In light of this theological anthropology, it cannot be maintained that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral because it is involuntary (p. 390).

Anyone who abandons the Bible’s teaching to follow the spirit of the age has put his soul in grave danger.

This book came out nearly 30 years ago and has served as a standard text on ethics for theological students across the world, in both evangelical and non-evangelical institutions. That is why so many evangelical readers were nonplussed about the news that after all these years, he is reneging on the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Some have said that they saw this coming and that the seeds of compromise were already sown all throughout Hays’s 1996 book on ethics. I suspect that they are right about that. Hays does not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and often gestures toward the theological left—that much is clear in his book on ethics. Nevertheless, it is shocking to see the news that after three decades, he’s changed his mind.

Of course, we will have to wait for the new book to be released before we can give it a proper appraisal. But in the meantime, evangelicals would do well to remember the stakes of this conversation. Perhaps the evangelical document known as the Nashville Statement sums up the matter most succinctly: “We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.” This means that it doesn’t matter whether someone is otherwise orthodox. If they embrace a position that affirms homosexuality, they have abandoned the faith once for all delivered to the saints. And yet the news above says that Hays not only calls for the inclusion of unrepentant homosexuals but also for the inclusion of the entire LGBTQ array of identities.

Anyone who abandons the Bible’s teaching to follow the spirit of the age has put his soul in grave danger. Contrary to the publisher’s description, God has not changed His mind on this matter. God does not lie nor does He change His mind about anything (1 Samuel 15:29), much less about sexual immorality. To even suggest that He does is blasphemous. And yet that is how the publisher has described both God and Hays. They have both changed their minds to affirm what they both previously regarded as sin.

This is an occasion for lament and grief. It’s also an occasion for followers of Christ to resolve not to follow the siren song of error. We must keep to the ancient paths when the spirit of the age tries to call us away—even when the spirit of the age is joined by the likes of Richard Hays.

Denny Burk

Denny Burk serves as a professor of Biblical Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He also serves as one of the teaching pastors at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of numerous books including What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Crossway, 2013), Transforming Homosexuality (P&R, 2015), and a commentary on the pastoral epistles for the ESV Expository Commentary (Crossway, 2017).


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