Mark Achtemeier, an evangelical theology professor from Iowa, is in many ways an unlikely candidate for radical change. He’s a white, middle-aged Presbyterian father and husband who grew up in the church, the son of theologically-inclined people. He’s most often seen wearing — of all things — a button-down shirt, coat and tie.

But Achtemeier, to his own surprise, has made a trek through uncertain land over the last eight years, a journey from life-long certainty that homosexuality is “a kind of destructive addiction” to what he is today: a man who sees the Holy Spirit leading the church to “a new and better place,” and who thinks that gays and lesbians should be able to marry and be ordained.

In the kick-off plenary of the 2009 Covenant Network of Presbyterians gathering — which has brought about 300 people to Cleveland Nov. 5-7 to consider the theme of change in the church — Achtemeier gave his testimony, telling the story of his journey in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), from a man who grew up sure that homosexual practice was wrong to one who now sees God working in the committed relationships of his gay and lesbian friends and in the faithfulness of their lives.
Yet some things have not changed.

“If there is one thing I want to emphasize above all else in this testimony, it is that this journey has not involved any kind of retreat or qualification of my strong commitment to the authority of Scripture, the Lordship of Christ, and the belief that God calls people to lives of personal holiness,” Achtemeier told the Covenant Network. “I come to you today as an out, self-affirming, practicing conservative evangelical.”

But Achtemeier, who was a member of the PC(USA)’s Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church — told of a journey both personal and theological, and to him deeply surprising.

“I cannot get around the fact that it was a God thing,” he said during a question-and-answer period.

It began in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, “when everybody in the country was talking to everybody in the country,” Achtemeier said. For him, those days led to new conversations with people, and, as it turned out, some of those people were gay Christians who over time began sharing stories of their lives and their faith.

“I started out very sure and very settled and very content with seeing exclusion (of gays and lesbians from marriage and ordained office) as God’s will for the church,” Achtemeier said. “Like many, I had succumbed to the temptations of an ecclesiastical tunnel vision: I read authors I agreed with. I talked with people I agreed with. I hung out with people I agreed with. I was exceedingly comfortable holding the position I did, I was supported in it, I was popular. And I had absolutely no reason to question any of it.

“But God had other plans. Out of the blue, opportunity opened up for serious conversation and friendship with some quite remarkable gay Christians. This was new for me. When you are a firebrand exclusivist, hurling thunderbolts and belching fire against the opposition, gay people with any sense tend to avoid your company, or at least they avoid telling you they are gay.”

So his knowledge of gays and lesbians up until then “was pretty much defined by the authors I agreed with, and flamboyant stereotypes presented in the media.”

His new friends, however, began sharing their faith with him and discussing with him the church’s teachings – “a remarkable gift of grace,” Achtemeier said, considering that “a lot of what they heard from me was unwittingly insulting or offensive.”

And through those conversations, “I started to realize the extent to which the church’s traditional teaching functioned like a sign over the sanctuary,” telling gays and lesbians they would not find anything for themselves there. “And that is not the gospel,” Achtemeier said.

He also found his own expectations and assumptions about homosexuality challenged by the lives of the friends he was getting to know.

First, Achtemeier had always assumed — had always been taught — that homosexuality “was a kind of destructive addiction,” sort of like alcoholism. “And having never questioned my selective and somewhat superficial interpretations of the Bible’s teaching on the subject, I assumed that a gay lifestyle must certainly involve a fairly casual attitude toward Scripture and an inclination toward personal self-indulgence.”

Because he thought this way, Achtemeier said, the arguments of progressives calling for justice and equal rights for gays and lesbians had never made sense to him – basically, they have “absolutely zero traction among traditionalists,” he said.

“The reason is that no one in their right mind would argue that the cause of justice and equality was served by affirming the right of addicts to pursue their self-destructive behaviors. Human beings do not possess a God-given right to harm themselves.”

In his conversations, however, “what I found instead were devoted Christian believers, filled with grace and a loving concern for the downtrodden that frequently put me to shame. I was surprised to discover that they were deeply engaged in spiritual disciplines, acutely aware of their own sins and failings, and eager to bring these faults to God for healing. These were devout, spiritually self-aware people who were not the least bit hesitant to confess their failings to God.”

But these friends also said that it made no sense to them to view a life-long commitment to a partner as a matter of sin or failing. They spoke of their committed relationships in terms of love and sacrifice and joy — in exactly the kind of terms that Achtemeier would use to describe his own long heterosexual marriage.

Achtemeier was cautious because “as a good, neo-orthodox evangelical, I have on many occasions delivered myself of the standard speech about the terrible dangers that result if we allow personal experience to trump the Bible’s witness. Such a move threatens to set our own personal authority above that of Scripture; it undermines the ability of Scripture to challenge and correct us. I continue to believe that. I hold firmly to the reformation principle that Scripture alone is the highest authority for the church. … So when you start using experience to veto the message of Scripture, I and my evangelical colleagues will simply have to get off the bus.”

But Achtemeier also began to reconsider what the Bible does say about homosexuality and about God’s relationship with people.

He used as an example a sermon that St. Augustine preached in the fifth century, that those who abide in Christ “ought to walk in the same way he walked.” Augustine asked whether that meant that people should try to walk on water, because Jesus walked on water. Augustine’s suggestion is Biblical, but we know — based on our experience – that that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t work, Achtemeier said. So we look for another interpretation that takes the passage seriously but better matches our experience — one interpretation being that Christians should follow the path of righteousness and charity that Jesus followed.

“There is a vast difference between vetoing what the Bible says on the basis of experience, and looking for understandings of the Bible that make powerful sense of our experience.” Achtemeier said.

As a result, “when we find ourselves in a situation where our understanding of the Bible collides regularly with the lived experience of Christian believers, we don’t take that as a license to ignore Scripture. But it certainly ought to make us ask whether we’ve correctly understood the Bible’s teaching.”

Achtemeier also was coming to understand, through his conversations with gay friends and through study of the subject, that when gays and lesbians embraced the abstinence that evangelicals called them to adopt, or even tried to turn towards heterosexual marriage, that path often turned out to be destructive rather than life-giving.

“Once I started paying attention, I began running into more and more instances where devout gay Christians, following the church’s traditional counsel, failed to find the life-giving liberation one would expect if the alcoholism analogy were true. Instead, their heroic efforts at faithfulness led to results that were spiritually and psychologically crippling.”

Some did marry in heterosexual relationships that ended badly, causing great pain to themselves, their spouses and children.

One very devout person “had struggled since high school with same-gender attraction, had for years prayed fervently for healing and strength and help in dealing with this compulsion. After years of courageous prayer and struggle, doing exactly what I and the church would have counseled, the result was a broken person, overwhelmed by despair and anger, ready to renounce the faith and give up on God, seriously contemplating suicide.”

Achtemeier said he did hear accounts — in part in testimony before General Assembly committees — of people who turned from homosexuality to healing heterosexual relationships.

But “nearly all of them involved moving away from situations involving either promiscuity or abuse,” he said. “Not a one of these testimonies told a story of being involved in a loving and healthy same-gender partnership, which the person then decided to leave as an expression of Christian commitment.”

Achtemeier began to consider, based on the account in the second chapter of Genesis of God creating people intending for them to be in intimate relationship with one another, whether same-gender relationships might be a variation of that.

As he put it: “What if same-gender orientation, than being a disease of some sort, is simply (an) alternative form which this gift takes from time to time? I’ve had so many gay friends tell me, `I would not choose all the trouble and controversy that goes with being gay, but I was never asked. Heterosexual marriage just isn’t a possibility that is open to me.’ So isn’t what we’re dealing with here an alternative form of God’s gift of life created for communion with another, with a life-partner?”

And he considered the criticisms of Reformation theologians such as John Calvin of the practice of mandatory celibacy.

“Marriage is given to us, not just in a form that responds to our need, but also in a way that is positively sanctifying and life-giving and permeated by grace,” Achtemeier said. “If, as Calvin insists, it is foolish and rash for individuals to turn their backs on this divine gift and calling, how much more so when an entire church acts to withhold this gift from a whole class of human beings?”

Achtemeier said he knows that many evangelicals “hold their positions compassionately, with the best and most godly intentions.”

But he also contends that “if the Bible’s teaching does not help us make powerful sense of life and experience, if Biblical faithfulness is not life-giving, that is a sure sign we have not understood our Scripture properly.”

As word of his work on the theological task force and his growing open-mindedness on what the Bible teaches on homosexuality began to get around, he also began hearing from other evangelicals having doubts about the church’s teachings as well.

“I am not the only one who has been led by the Spirit to a new and better place,” Achtemeier said. “I believe an expansive catholicity that fully embraces gay and lesbian believers is coming sooner rather than later to the Presbyterian Church. ...

“Week in and week out I am encountering a growing company of conservative, evangelical Christians who quietly confess to me that they no longer believe exclusion is faithful. The reality of Jesus’ love for God’s gay and lesbian children is self-evident enough, it is palpable enough, that the ranks of ordinary faithful are embracing it more and more with each passing day.”