Book Review of
Shameless: A Sexual Reformation
(Convergent Books, 2019)
This is an exclusive online book review from the Christian Research Journal. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Best-selling author Nadia Bolz-Weber offers a sexual reformation to Christians that amounts to little more than religious sanctioning of the sexual revolution, which began more than fifty years ago in America as championed by spurious sex experts and the counterculture.1 As a Lutheran pastor (ordained in the ultraliberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), she casually speaks of her church’s drag queen2 and her own work for a psychic hotline (including reading Tarot cards).3 She champions premarital sex and chastises the church for disapproving of LGBTQ ways of life. She justifies abortion on demand, including her own. She does all this with a foul mouth, sprinkling expletives liberally throughout two hundred long pages of asinine argument, egregious exegesis, and a dunderheaded theology of gender.
However, in an interview, Nadia Bolz-Weber claims that “I really do believe that Jesus was God incarnate, the third member of the Trinity, that the miracles really happened. I believe that all of it’s true. Whether every single bit of it is a fact or not doesn’t interest me.”4 Oops! Jesus is classically understood as the second person of the Trinity, not the third member. But even if she holds an orthodox view of the Trinity, that does not mean the rest of her theology is correct. Moreover, as James told us, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder” (James 2:19).5
Bolz-Weber is the religious bad girl — she might proudly use the b-word for this — who somehow slithered into the pastorate. She has cultivated the ethos of the righteous rebel, the advocate for the marginalized in the church. She was the founding pastor of the Church of all Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. In a recent publicity stunt for this book, she presented a silver statue of a vagina to secular feminist and abortion supporter Gloria Steinem.
For these and other reasons, Bolz-Weber is hard for an evangelical thinker to ignore. It was painful for me to read Shameless because of my vocation as one called to explain, proclaim, and defend historic Christianity in a day when so many are attacking it (Jer. 20:9; 2 Tim. 2:24–26). We can expect those with no affiliation with Christianity to deny biblical truth and to vilify biblical Christians. When representatives of the church do this, however, it strikes a double blow — not only that truth is assailed but also that truth is assailed in the name of Christianity itself. In me, this sparks outrage and, in my better moments, compassion for one so thoroughly deceived and deceiving. Yet, we press on, as the apostle Paul taught us: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3–5).
Bolz-Weber is a classic false teacher, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a minister who teaches from the Bible but twists it horribly, thus hurting souls in need of truth and love (Matt. 7:15–23; 2 Pet. 3:16). Yet before challenging her ideas, I must agree with her on one crucial matter.
Those in the evangelical and fundamentalist churches have sometimes been cruel to those with nonheterosexual proclivities. I do not mean only the outrageous cases such as Westborough Baptist Church with their signs and taunts that “God hates fags.” Too many Christ followers have treated LGTBQ people as pariahs. No; they are made in God’s image and are thus deserving of respect and love (Gen. 1:26; 9:1–7). Christians have too often failed to have compassion for those who struggle with their sexual identity and their status in our culture. If so, shame on us.
However, the solution to this problem of insensitivity and cruelty is not to compound the sin by accepting and applauding sexual activity outside of the biblical framework. Doing this means to compromise biblical truth and to withhold the healing balm of repentance and submission to Jesus for forgiveness (Matt. 4:11; John 3:16–18; 10:10). Like Jesus, the prophesied Servant of Isaiah, we should receive from our sovereign Lord “a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary” (Isa. 50:4). Now on to Bolz-Weber’s claims.
For any important statement, we should ask, “What is your authority?” or “By what standard?” As Francis Schaeffer put it in He Is There and He Is Not Silent, “Unless our epistemology is right, everything is going to be wrong.”6
Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran. She should remember that the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther brought the whole Bible to bear on all his reforms and helped formulate the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Reformed theologian John Frame aptly explains that “Scripture, and only Scripture, has the final word on everything, all our doctrine, and all our life. Thus it has the final word even on our interpretation of Scripture, even in our theological method.”7 As a theological liberal, Bolz-Weber junks this idea straightaway, opting rather for a “canon within a canon.” She picks the four Gospels, since they are about Jesus, as the center of Christianity. The other sixty-two (!) books of the Protestant canon are shoved on to a lower shelf of authority — if they have any authority on the Christian at all.
While the Bible is a book made up of sixty-six books, there is no “canon within the canon.” Rather, there are Books within the Book. The teaching of each Book coheres and reinforces the teachings of every other Book in the Bible. Even if we start with only the Gospels as the standard, we can easily infer from what they teach to the authority of the rest of the Bible. Sadly, this is lost on the blustering Bolz-Weber. Let us see how it is done.
Jesus, unlike Bolz-Weber, endorsed the moral authority of the Hebrew Bible concerning marriage and divorce. “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:4–6; see Gen. 1–2).
While Jesus did not directly speak to matters of LGBTQ concern, His statement affirms the authoritative word of the Old Testament concerning sexual relationships and morality. Heterosexuality within marriage is the biblical norm, the absolute against which all else must be tested.
Furthermore, Jesus in the Gospels recognizes the inspired and trustworthy nature of the Hebrew Bible when He says that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35 NASB) and when He affirms that He did not come to annul God’s moral law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17–20). Regarding the rest of the New Testament, Jesus authorized His Apostles to carry forth His teachings. He promised that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). While I cannot make the full case here, all the books of the New Testament are directly or indirectly rooted in the apostle’s teaching, and these books commonly refer to the Old Testament as God’s truth.8Listen to the apostle Paul: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
Therefore, if there is no canon within the canon, but rather the historical canon, then Bolz-Weber’s claims must be assessed on the basis of the entirety of Holy Writ. We should recognize that the Bible is God-breathed and living and active in revealing God’s truth to God’s church and the world (2 Tim. 3:15–17; 2 Pet. 1:20–21; Heb. 4:12).
Bolz-Weber’s way of advocating a view is largely through emotional stories, not arguments. She tries to make us feel pity for someone who has been mistreated by conservative Christians and then assumes the only answer is to jettison traditional moral teachings on sexuality and other moral matters. As such, she draws us in only to drag us down to the level of sexual immorality. Consider her case for abortion.
Bolz-Weber recounts her love for a foster child brought into her home when she was a girl. She could barely part with this precious child. So she thinks that she has established her compassion for children. When she gets pregnant outside of wedlock, she chooses to kill her offspring. Why? She justifies her abortion by saying that because of her circumstances and desires, she could not keep the baby, and that she could not bear to give it up for adoption. Here is her position.
Her sad and bloody conclusion hardly follows from her premises. Having had unprotected sex outside of marriage means taking the risk of pregnancy. One is morally responsible for the possible consequences of that activity, which the Bible calls fornication (1 Cor. 6:18–20 KJV). But rather than being responsible by keeping the baby or placing it in an appreciative home, Bolz-Weber has an abortion, which no one logically can deny is the killing of an innocent, living, human being with the potential to grow up and enter the external world.9 As such, her argument fails, since we must extend the right to life as having more objective weight than one’s emotional state over outcomes.
Bolz-Weber further tries to justify abortion by claiming that “the rabbis” held that life begins with the first breath. This is because Adam, the first man, was created when God breathed life into the dust of the earth (Gen. 2). Consequently, killing an unborn being is not wrong, since its human life has not yet begun. I don’t know how many benighted rabbis held this view, but it is shockingly absurd. Only one human being came into existence in this way: the first human being. Since then, every human being has been conceived biologically, not supernaturally (except Jesus, who was conceived miraculously). Moreover, the unborn child uses and requires oxygen throughout its gestation before his or her lungs are engaged for the first time. The first breath does not categorically or magically transform the basic being and identity of the born child. If the Bible taught what Bolz-Weber says it does on this, the Bible would be irrational indeed.
Bolz-Weber asserts that evangelicals were hoodwinked into opposing abortion by those on the New Right who cynically wanted support for their overall ideological cause. This is both untrue and irrelevant to the moral question of abortion. More than anyone, Francis Schaeffer awakened evangelicals from their indifference to abortion. Whatever the political situation may be, the biblical and logical arguments are decisive for Christians.
One could go on. Bolz-Weber packs errors tighter than sardines in a sardine can flattened by a steamroller. She says that God created us because He was lonely — a children’s Sunday school mistake. God and God alone is self-existent and has eternal fellowship within Himself as the Trinity (see Acts 17:25). She somehow applies Jesus’ parable of the talents to having the courage to come out publicly as LBGTQ. Her idea of the holy has nothing intrinsically to do with God but only with what thrills people. She tries to enlist Luther to her lost and lamentable cause.
It might take an entire book to respond adequately to all of Bolz-Weber’s illogic, falsehoods, and errors of judgment. I will not write that book. In fact, I don’t recommend that anyone read that book unless one can find some redemptive purpose in it, such as counseling someone influenced by Bolz-Weber’s ideas. Bolz-Weber calls for a “reformation,” but she offers only a deformation of historic and orthodox Christianity. She sadly sides with the serpent, not the Savior (Gen. 3). —Douglas Groothuis
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of twelve books, including Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (IVP Academic, 2011) and Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness — A Philosopher’s Lament (InterVarsity Press, 2017).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith