Evangelical leaders must recognize that politely naming sin is not enough. We also need to conserve the moral revulsion that previous generations left to us regarding sexual perversions, and then fortify that moral instinct with depth of understanding of God’s design in nature for sexuality. We need to recover our gag reflex, but I fear we don’t have the stomach for it.
In a 2013 essay, Thabiti Anyabwile wrote regarding same-sex marriage, “Turns out that being civil about indecency actually hurts the traditional cause.” His point was that polite discourse about abominable behavior plays a role in normalizing such behavior. It is not difficult to see why that would be the case. Polite discourse minimizes and, over time, neutralizes the instinct of moral revulsion. While moral revulsion alone is not enough to sustain ethical practice over time, it is an important community-shaping element. Healthy communities express moral revulsion at that which is truly abominable, and the healthy effect of such revulsion is a natural deterrent toward said behavior within the community. People who are socialized into being appalled at what is appalling to God have the blessing of a moral compass shaped according to truth. Anyabwile’s “gag reflex” argument highlights an important component of the effects of our discourse about sin. It is entirely possible to speak of sin in a way that is technically correct, while still lacking entirely in true moral fiber, leading to the further erosion of social norms and the withering away of a protective moral revulsion.
Christianity Today has become the latest example of this phenomenon. In an article on polyamory, authors Preston Sprinkle and Branson Parler treat their readers to the following display of sensitive cultural engagement:
Another important pastoral step is to distinguish elements of polyamory that are in violation of God’s will from elements that are simply culturally unfamiliar to us. When we want to lovingly call people to repentance, we should be precise about what needs repentance and what relationships or elements can and should be sanctified in Christ. For example, the notion of kinship in polyamory is a secular echo of the way Scripture calls the church to function as a new family. In cultures that idolize individualism (but actually isolate individuals), polyamory’s focus on relationship, care, and affection can have a powerful pull. And in churches that idolize marriage and the nuclear family, polyamory’s focus on hospitality and community can be an attractive alternative. We can acknowledge that many of the elements that draw people to polyamory—deep relationships, care for others, hospitality, and community—are good things.