This is an interlude in my ongoing series on Christians, the Bible and same sex marriage. One of the highest profile Christian scholars to come out in support of same sex marriage is Dr David Gushee, an ethicist and professor at Mercer University (see his personal website here). His book, “Changing our Mind” (2nd edition, 2015 – Amazon.co.uk) is a seminal work in Biblical analysis and social issues related to same sex marriage and the church.
Please do take the time to read the transcript or watch this video before continuing to the next section of this study.
On 8 November 2014, Dr Gushee was invited to address a conference organised by Matthew Vine and his Reformation Project. The hour long speech is simply superb. It is available on YouTube, and is available below. I have also created a transcript of the speech, based on Dr Gushee’s original notes which he added to his book’s second edition.
Transcript of David Gushee’s speech: Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities
Ending the Teaching of Contempt
I want to talk tonight about a small minority group that was for almost 2000 years the object of a tragically destructive, religiously motivated, contempt on the part of the Church of Jesus Christ.
The Church’s teaching about this group was grounded in a number of biblical texts drawn from across the canon of scripture, as they had been interpreted by Christian leaders, and reinforced by centuries of Christian tradition. This destructive pattern of interpreting these texts went back near the origins of Christianity and eventually was very broadly shared by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant strands of the Christian Church. One could even describe it as a rare point of unity for these warring groups — they could agree on little, but did agree on this. It was hard to find many dissenters to this tradition, as it was grounded in knowledge sources at the very center of Christianity: Scripture, tradition, and major church leaders, what they said generation after generation. Everyone just knew that the group that was the object of this negative teaching was well worthy of the church’s rejection and disdain. Everyone just knew that this disdain was “biblical”, and that it was attested to by the highest authorities of the Church. Indeed, expressing rejection and disdain for this group became a core part of Christian identity, even Christian piety.
The Church’s negative teaching about this group was comprehensive. The Church taught a disdain for this group as a whole and all individuals in this group. The Church taught that this group was morally inferior. The Church often taught that this group was evil and had a particular association with Satan. The Church taught that all members of this group would be eternally separated from God. The Church taught that the worship practices of this group were worthless. The Church warned its adherents about associating with this group. The Church ascribed particular vices to this group, including sexual degeneracy and violence, both allegedly aimed especially against children. Even the term used to name this group became a slur, while other even more derogatory slurs were developed.
The Church, at times, was willing to welcome individual members of this group into its fellowship, but this welcome was equivocal. Converts from this group were often relegated to second-class status, if they were welcome at all. Often their group background came up, especially in relation to questions of leadership or ordination. This reflected a lingering taint associated with this group – a taint that even conversion could not wash away (at least some of the time). Often this half-welcome was withdrawn, and members of this group were exiled not only from the Church, but from the communities in which they lived.
While the leaders of the Church almost never explicitly taught that its members should perpetrate violence against this group, this unfortunate group was indeed regularly victimized by violence. Because these outbreaks of violence were so frequent, a special term was coined to name them, a term which survives to this day. Meanwhile, in everyday life, bullying was common against the members of this group. Name-calling was constant. Social separation was routinely enforced. Preaching regularly communicated contempt for this group. No Christian wanted to be seen as too cozy with this group, for fear of sharing in its moral taint and losing the support of their own family and friends. When this group was targeted by the state, few Christians could be found who would stand in solidarity with them.
From the perspective of the members of this targeted group, Christianity was everywhere, and Christianity was dangerous. The Church’s Bible, Cross, tradition, clergy, and scholars carried not positive but negative associations – associations of harm. Members of this targeted group sometimes knew of the beautiful teachings of Jesus. They had heard great sayings like “love your neighbour as yourself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” But members of this targetted group, very much “the least of these” in Christendom, rarely experienced any Golden Rule, any love, or any mercy, from the Christians who heard and proclaimed these beautiful words.
Have you figured out who I am talking about yet?
Eventually the centuries-old tradition of disdain for this group, which lay deep in the marrow of Western civilization and survived the transition into secular modernity, metastasized into a massive eruption of state-sponsored violence. By the time it was over, one third of all the members of this group in the entire world had been murdered. I am one of the scholars who have sadly documented that most Christians stood by doing nothing to help the targeted group while they were targetted for death.
Perhaps you have by now figured out that the targeted group I am talking about is the Jewish people, victims of an unchristlike body of tradition generally called Christian anti-Judaism, which fed into and married up with a broader economic, cultural, and political anti-Semitism. I discuss this unchristlike body of Christian tradition in many of my writings, including in my first book, “Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust“.
(NOTE: I will say the word unchristlike 14 times in this address. When you hear it, think: in violation of the nature, ministry, and teaching of Jesus Christ. Or just think: harmful and unloving, the opposite of what Christ was and is like. I chose the term very carefully.)
Anyone looking at the ubiquity of Christian anti-Semitism in, say, 1935, could not have imagined that it would ever change, or would ever get better. Certainly Jews who had been documenting and protesting this tradition for millennia had little reason for hope in 1935. But, amazingly: Within about twenty years of this murderous assault of anti-Semitic state violence during World War II most branches of an appalled Christian world intentionally began changing their teaching about Judaism and the Jewish people.
It was a profound transformation, involving both subtle and overt repudiation of past teaching along with the development of new teaching. And it is very relevant to our gathering this evening.
During the Christian repudiation of two millennia of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism certain things happened:
First, Biblical passages that “everyone” had interpreted a certain way were now interpreted in new ways, or contextualized more seriously, or treated as secondary to more important texts and themes. I will name three pivotal New Testament texts who’s interpretation changed dramatically – had been damaging before but then were changed. But there were many other texts whose reading had contributed to Christian anti-Judaism.
Consider the line in Matthew 27:25 where the crowd crying for Jesus’ crucifixion says “his blood be on us and on our children.” That text used to be taken to mean that that every Jewish person in the world then or later bore responsibility for the death of Jesus. All Jews were viewed as “Christ-killers,” and this became a common derogatory term for Jews. Christian kids would call Jewish kids “Christ killers” on the playground. Because of concerted efforts of Christian leaders, eventually in dialogue with Jewish leaders, beginning around 1965, almost no Christian after that point taught or believed that Jews as a people bore responsibility for the death of Jesus. Probably none of you have ever heard Jews derided as Christ-killers. I hope not. And that’s a real good change.
John 8:44 reports Jesus saying this to “the Jews”: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” For centuries in Christendom, that text was taken to mean that Jews as a people were the children of Satan and that they shared their diabolical father’s characteristic behaviors, such as murder and lying. Pious Christian children in Europe used to check their Jewish playmates heads for the horns that they had been told were hiding under their hair. (True story.) Because of concerted efforts of Christian leaders, eventually in dialogue with Jewish leaders, beginning around 1965, almost no Christian taught or believed that Jews are the children of Satan after that point. This passage is now taught very carefully, and it is not taught as applying to “the Jews” as a people. And that’s a really good change.
Acts 7 tells the story of the Church’s first martyr, Stephen. Have you ever noticed that just before the rocks start flying at his head he says this to his Jewish questioners? “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.” For centuries in Christendom, that text was taken to mean that the entire history of the Jewish people has been a story of rebellion against God. There was nothing good in it – it was all rebellion. This was called the “trail of crimes.” Because of concerted efforts of Christian leaders, eventually in dialogue with Jewish leaders, beginning around 1965, almost no Christian taught or believed the trail of crimes teaching that almost everyone had believed a century earlier. Leaders now emphasized God’s election of the Jewish people, their covenant with God, the grandeur of the Jewish religious tradition, and its continued significance in the world today. And that’s a really good change.
And it wasn’t just biblical passages that had to be reconsidered.
Has anyone ever said to you, “but it’s tradition”? So, let’s talk about tradition.
Historians began digging into the writings of the Church Fathers and other great leaders of the Church. Eventually, the sadly appropriate label “teaching of contempt” came into use to describe the anti-Jewish writings of leaders as famous and diverse as Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, Eusebius, and Augustine himself, and many others – all have deeply problematic passages about Jews. Scholars saw that the problem came forward through the Middle Ages and into Protestantism despite the great changes wrought by the Reformation.
In fact, Martin Luther, for example, said some of the most hateful and atrocious things any Christian leader ever said about Jews. In 1543, he wrote a text called “On Jews and Their Lives”. In that tex, Luther said that their synagogues should be burned down, that their religious books should be destroyed, and even that “we are at fault in not slaying them.” But meanwhile leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism carried forward their own teachings of contempt as well. Christians pondering during the Holocaust whether to rescue Jews found little support in their faith for doing so. Many responded to Jewish person in need at their door by quoting anti-Jewish tropes to them, drawn from how the Bible had been interpreted by the Christian tradition and its leaders.
After the war many church bodies eventually abandoned or explicitly repented of this body of traditional post-biblical teaching. For example, the Lutheran churches of both Germany and the U.S. repudiated Luther’s terribly damaging writing of 1543 called “On the Jews and Their Lies” (which was over 200 pages long, by the way). Now, wherever that book is in print, it is accompanied by a warning and very careful contextualization. The Catholic Church also steered sharply away from its former teachings.
These wonderful changes, far too long in coming, have undoubtedly saved Jewish lives all over the world. Christian understandings of Judaism have been transformed. Anti-Semitism is by no means dead, far from it; indeed, in many places it is disturbingly on the rise, which all Christians must oppose. But here’s my point: the unchristlike body of Christian teaching tradition that once funded it has been rejected almost everywhere, and certainly in the western world. Today, at my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology of Mercer University, Jewish rabbis participate in teaching my students about Judaism and the Jewish tradition, and no one thinks twice about it. Simply impossible, 50 or 100 years ago.
And now, 50 years later, probably none of you have ever heard passages like Matthew 27, John 8, and Acts 7 taught in the way they were taught for almost 2,000 years. And probably the great majority of you did not know that there was a centuries-old teaching of contempt by the Church against Jews. You didn’t know it because most of you are blissfully young and never had to hear it. You never had to sit under a preacher spewing that stuff at you. You never had to hear it because this unchristlike body of Christian teaching tradition, rightly labeled a teaching of contempt, was repudiated 50 years ago. And I hope you never have to encounter it again, after tonight. But I also hope you will never forget what I have told.
Now I make a turn.
I have now been talking about the Church’s teaching of contempt against Jews for 2000 words. I have been discussing how the Church finally abandoned this unchristlike body of Christian teaching tradition after 2000 years.
Why in the world would I be talking about this, here tonight?
I am fully aware of the limits of all historical analogies. As a long-time participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue and scholarship, I am especially aware of the sensitivities of this particular historical analogy. In fact, those tempted to critique the comparison might be interested to know that I have checked it with highly placed friends in the American Jewish community to be sure that I did not misspeak, offend, or overreach.
So let me proceed to lay out what I believe to be the appropriate analogies that can be drawn.
I believe, with all my heart, that the Church has inflicted a damaging and ultimately unchristlike body of Christian tradition, amounting to what can be fairly described as a teaching of contempt, against sexual minorities – today called lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. This teaching of contempt has been grounded in what is actually a relatively small number of biblical texts, as they have been interpreted by Christian leaders, and reinforced by centuries of Christian tradition. It has been hard to find many dissenters to this tradition, as it has been grounded in knowledge sources seen to be at the very center of Christianity: scripture, tradition, and the loudest leaders of the church, generation after generation. Everyone just knew that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were worthy of the church’s rejection and disdain — not just in their sexual desires or practices, but in their persons. For some Christians, even today (and this is really sad), being anti-gay became woven into the heart of their understanding of Christian identity and their practice of Christian piety.
The church’s anti-LGBT or anti-sexual minority teaching was comprehensive. The Church taught a disdain for LGBT people as a whole and all individuals in the group. The Church taught that LGBT people are morally inferior. The Church sometimes taught that LGBT people are evil. Certainly it taught and sometimes still teaches that LGBT people are by definition excluded from heaven. (Ever had a certain passage quoted at you about that?) The Church warned its adherents about associating with LGBT people. The Church at various times ascribed particular vices to LGBT people, including sexual degeneracy, especially against children.
The Church at times was willing to welcome individual LGBT people into its fellowship, but this welcome was equivocal. LGBT people were often relegated to second-class status, surfacing especially in relation to questions of leadership in the church. And often this half-welcome was withdrawn. (One Jewish reader of this lecture commented to me that in this sense it was easier in most eras of Christianity for Jews to find full and unequivocal welcome in the Church than it has ever been for gay and lesbian people to find such welcome. He said: Conversion meant a Jew became a Christian, but conversion doesn’t meant a gay person becomes a straight person. Not that people haven’t tried.)
While the leaders of the Church almost never explicitly taught that its members should perpetrate violence on LGBT people, they were and sometimes still are victimized by outbreaks of violence. Schoolyard bullying was common. Name-calling was constant. Social separation was routinely enforced. Preaching regularly communicated disdain for LGBT people. Few Christians wanted to be seen as too cozy with LGBT people, for fear of sharing in their moral taint and losing the support of their own family and friends. The very words used to describe LGBT people functioned as slurs. When LGBT people were excluded or targeted by the state, few Christians could be found who would stand up for LGBT people – the victims of this targetting.
From the perspective of LGBT people, Christianity has been both ubiquitous and dangerous. The Church’s Bible, Cross, tradition, clergy, and scholars, have carried negative associations, associations of harm – they have brought harm. LGBT people, millions of them raised in the Church and deeply committed to Jesus, have known of the beautiful teachings of Christianity. They have heard the great sayings like “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” But LGBT people, very much the least of these in Christendom, rarely experienced toward themselves, if they were out as LGBT, no Golden Rule, no love, no mercy, from the Christians who heard and proclaimed these beautiful words, and who withdrew them quickly in the presence of LGBT people.
So now I have made my historical analogy. But immediately I again acknowledge that analogies have their limits.
I am not claiming that LGBT people have faced genocide. But it is true – as many of you know – that it remains physically dangerous to be an LGBT person in many places (not just around the world, but here too). I have students from other parts of the world who tell me of routine violence inflicted against sexual minorities in their home countries. We have heard of such violence already this evening.
There has been no genocide — though there has been persecution and murder, including on a large scale in Nazi Germany. Still, we speak of a group of people that even today, even in our country, sometimes hear diatribes, with quotes from scripture, suggesting that they should all be executed by the state. I once was the next guest on a Christian radio show where a preacher had just said that. Unbelievable. Unthinkable. The analogy holds.
The analogy breaks down in an interestingly different way.
A Jewish child discovering the contempt of the wider Christian world could at least go home and find support there with his family. But a gay child discovering the contempt of the wider Christian world has often faced a devastating lack of support at home as well. There was no refuge – not even at home.
And here is one more way the analogy breaks down, but this time more constructively, and I think gives us hope: The unchristlike teaching of contempt for Jews has been discredited. No mainstream Christian leader that I know of teaches it anymore. People have been saying to me, “The Bible doesn’t change”. No, the Bible doesn’t change, but what the Bible was understood to mean in relation to Jewish people changed a very great deal in a very short time.
In my view, the unchristlike teaching of contempt for LGBT people is in the process of being discredited, of breaking down, even as we speak. It is breaking down. Every year elements of it lose ground – you can actually watch it happen. I am now confident that Christianity is undergoing the same repudiation of an unchristlike body of tradition today, in regards to sexual minorities, as happened 50 years ago in regard to anti-Semitism. This is why people are so uncomfortable because it is so visible.
So this is the point of my comparison — I am comparing two different unchristlike bodies of Christian teaching tradition, one of which has been discredited and abandoned, the other of which needs to be and is in the process of being discredited and abandoned. We must celebrate the progress that is being made in repudiating the teaching of contempt against that part of the human family who are LGBT. But we must also finish the job as soon as we can, before another child gets kicked out of their house, another child feels like they have to kill themselves, another family gets fractured, another gifted Christian is booted out of the church. We have to finish the job.
I talk about about how change is happening, how the discrediting and abandoning of parts of the LGBT teaching of contempt in my book, “Changing our Mind”.
Progress. Today, leaders of many traditionalist communities try not to stigmatise and demonise LGBT people anymore. That’s progress. Some. Today, previous culture war fights that Christians once led have been largely abandoned. Remember the Disney boycott? Gays in the military? Anyone talking about that anymore? No. Some traditionalists are saying that the fights against LGBT rights is doing the church’s mission more harm than good, and they’re calling on the church to stand down on that. Change is definitely happening in relation to accepting well established clinical, research and scientific claims about sexual orientation and identity. This is undoubtedly related to straight people more often getting to know LGBT people. In 1993, 22% reported having a friend or close family member who was gay or lesbian. In 2013 that number had risen to 65%. That has been transformative.
More traditionalist Christians than ever accept that a small portion of human beings simply are of same sex orientation. Fewer make the ungrounded claim that sexual orientation is wilful perversity, chosen and changeable. Reparative or ex-gay treatment has collapsed in credibility. Even on the traditionalist Christian side more and more people agree that there is such a thing as gay people – imagine that. And in fact that some are Christians. I actually have a chapter in my book called “Gay Christians Exist”.
More and more realise that it’s really not OK to do any slur, or the derogatory language needs to stop. That it’s not OK. That relationships of LGBT people should not be criminalised, that there should not be employment or housing discrimination or job discrimination, that they should not be bullied, that they shouldn’t have to be afraid of violence, that they should not be blamed for Hurricane Katrina or the next bad thing that happens. That they should not be stigmatised, nor treated with contempt. That’s progress. That’s ground that needs to be held.
There has been progress. But still, all is not well. Teaching and behaviour that harms our own sexual minorities has not disappeared, not by a long shot. LGBT people are still not treated as equals, as kin, in the family of faith. They are often rejected by their families, churches, schools, and friends. Their spiritual gifts continue to be blocked. In just two weeks since my own announcement of standing in full solidarity with LGBT Christians, I have heard from literally scores of young people, parents, and others all over the world with their harrowing tales of rejection and harm. It’s been amazing. This must not continue.
Increasingly, my focus moves to the continued suffering of LGBT young people. I actually think that strategically and humanly, this is a part of the story that must be lifted up. Their plight is important.
Consider this: The Center for American Progress here in Washington did a key policy report on LGBT homeless youth.
“Homeless youth” are “unaccompanied young people between the ages of 12 and 24 for whom it is not possible to safely live with a relative or in another safe alternative living arrangement.” Among these homeless youth are those who have left home willingly and without their family’s knowledge—“runaway” youth — and those who have left home against their will, at the hands of their guardians — “throwaway” youth.
CAP cites commonly reported estimates that there are between 2.4 million and 3.7 million homeless youth between the ages of 12-24, in America right now (2014). LGBT youth are vastly overrepresented among the homeless youth population. “Several state and local studies from across the United States have found shockingly disproportionate rates of homelessness among LGBT youth compared to non-LGBT youth. Estimates of homeless youth … suggest that between 9 percent and 45 percent of these youth are LGBT.”
The study parameters differ a bit in terms of age, but here are the percentage of homeless youth in some specific locations who identify as LGBT, with all studies undertaken since 2000: NYC: 33%; Seattle: 39%; Los Angeles: 25%; Chicago: 22%.
It is not hard to figure out why LGBT kids constitute such a high percentage of homeless youth. The most common reasons that LGBT homeless youth cite for being out of their homes are family rejection and family conflict. And much of this family rejection is religiously motivated. It is based on this very same unchristlike body of Christian teaching I have been talking about. Parents not having a better way to respond from what they have been taught in their churches or in their tradition all too often reject and hurt their own children, destroying their lives or harming them and fracturing their families. In the name of faithfulness to Scripture they create despair and destroy their own families. Now that’s tragic.
Caitlin Ryan, who directs the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, spoke to me last week. She described a tragic vortex. More and more children and youth are coming out as LGBT at younger ages. The FAP has found that the average age of coming out is now a little over age 13. And increasingly in her research and family support work, she reports that children are identifying as gay at much younger ages – between ages seven and 12. That’s new.
Because they are younger, these kids have fewer coping skills and options for finding support outside the home, so their self-identity and sense of self-worth are even more vulnerable than they would be if they were older. Thus, when their families learn that their children are LGBT, if those families reject them it comes as an even more crushing and debilitating blow to the sense that they are good and valuable people than if these kids were older. This affects their ability to love and care for themselves, to avoid dangerous and high-risk behaviors, to have hope, and to plan for the future.
The data is clear that all too often when young people come out or are found to be LGBT, they are met with family rejection, which can include violent responses.
Doing evidence based research, FAP has identified and researched dozens of different family responses to their LGBT child and measured them to show the relationship between experiencing specific family-accepting and family-rejecting behaviors during adolescence with their health and well-being as LGBT young adults. Consider this: The higher the level of family rejection, the higher the likelihood of negative health, mental health, and behavioural problems on behalf of LGBT young people. The higher the level of family acceptance, the more that LGBT youth are protected against risk and the greater their sense of self-worth, overall health and well-being.
As I read through the list of most destructive behaviours, think about the good Christian people you know. Think about what it would be like to help every Christian family never do anything I am about to say:
Some of the family rejecting behaviours documented and studied by FAP include hitting/slapping/physical harming, verbal harassment and name-calling, exclusion from the family and family activities, blocking access to LGBT friends, events, and resources, blaming the child when he/she experiences abuse or discrimination (“it’s your fault, it’s your fault you’re being bullied), pressuring the child to be more masculine or feminine, threatening God’s punishment, making the child pray and attend religious services to change their LGBT identity and sexual orientation, sending them for reparative therapy, declaring that the child brings shame to the family, and not talking about their LGBT identity or making them keep it a secret from family members and others.
FAP found a direct correlation between “highly rejecting” families and the following:
– more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide at least once
– more than six times as likely to report high levels of depression
– more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs
– more than three times as likely to be high-risk for HIV and STDs.
FAP found that even being a little less rejecting (down to moderate levels) and a little more accepting (“you’re still part of our family”, “I love you”) reduces the likelihood of these harmful behaviours substantially. For example: LGBT youth from “moderately rejecting” families were only twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to LGBT peers from non-rejecting families.
You know what we’re looking at here: this is the direct consequence of a teaching of contempt that has been poured into the brains of Christian families. It has got to stop.
I received this text from the program director for the Family Acceptance Project. She said: “I hear stories every day that are heartrending, children sleeping in snow banks because there are no youth shelters. Last January I had five children kicked out of religious homes, with literally nowhere to go. One girl slept in the snow in front of her school. She was 16.” In the name of God…
Runaway or kicked-out LGBT youth who end up on the streets as homeless youth are more likely to be homeless for longer periods than their peers, according to the CAP report data. The problem appears to be especially severe for transgender youth.
Not much good comes of homelessness, and that is certainly true for homeless LGBT youth. The CAP report documents all kinds of problems that we should know and talk about:
– much more likely to end in child welfare or institutional care systems after being removed from home due to conflict over LGBT-related issues;
– leaving home because of family rejection is the greatest predictor of ending up in the juvenile justice system for LGBT youth;
– placements in foster care or other housing all too often end in further homelessness because of bias against LGBTs or abuse and mistreatment;
– once in the justice system, LGBT youth and young adults are at increased risk of being labeled sex offenders even when not convicted of sex-related crimes (that’s just bias!);
– disproportionate difficulty for LGBT youth in accessing safe shelter while homeless;
– disproportionately likely to engage in ‘survival sex’ to meet expenses, increasing their vulnerability to rape, disease, and violence;
– disproportionately high rates of victimization by robbery, assault, rape, and hate crimes while on the streets;
– disproportionately bad health outcomes including drug and alcohol abuse;
– disproportionately subject to suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
This has to stop. And the only way — or at least a major way – to make it stop is to turn the hearts of parents again to their own children. This unchristlike Christian teaching about LGBT people, thoughtlessly imbibed by good Christian parents, has to stop. We need a Reformation. We need to bring to an end the unchristlike teaching about LGBT people as once occurred in that body of unchristlike Christian teaching about Jews. We do in fact need a reformation.
I suggest that there are some lessons to be learned from how the Christian teaching of contempt against Jews ended, lessons relevant to ending this unchristlike teaching of contempt against our sexual minorities, about 1/20th of the human and Christian population. Hidden, closeted, wounded, exiled, beloved by God.
We must highlight the human costs — which involves attending to the real human beings affected. Engage people’s hearts, not just their minds, with the real human beings who suffer under this teaching.
This is really surprising to me about responses I have been getting. Any effort to say, “can we describe to you the harm that your teaching is doing”, is met by a certain slice at the Christian community with “you’re emotionalising the issue; you’re sentimentalising the issue.” We’re humanizing the issue: human beings, made in the image of God, sacred in God’s sight, loved by God, people for whom Christ came and lived and died! Emotionalising the issue? Charge me with that all day long.
No conversation about ‘the LGBT issue’ should any longer take place without hearing the voice of LGBT people themselves, in all their diversity, in all their various experiences, lifting up voices of hurt and triumph, joy and sorrow, victory and hurt. So we must highlight the human beings involved.
Secondly, we must call people on it when they slip back into the old derogations and slurs and stereotypes, especially religious leaders — which involves identifying what the current minimal decent standard now looks like, then guarding that line as we move for more progress. We must not let people slip backwards without being challenged. We must never allow people to slip that. You’re not allowed to be a reputable Christian leader and say stuff like that. It’s not OK. It puts moral pressure on people not to slip back into patterns that are already so destructive.
Third, we must engage the destructively-cited biblical texts in the ways done by the reformers of Christian anti-Judaism since the 1960s — which involves fresh research on the background and meaning of the Biblical texts, broader contextualization of the circumstances in which they were written, and constructive reinterpretation in the Spirit of Christ. Many important recent works are doing this.
But one major lesson I draw from the long struggle related to Christian anti-Judaism is that it is best not to get too fixated on the six or seven big passages most commonly cited in the anti-gay teaching tradition. Because when change happened on Christian anti-Judaism, it wasn’t just about going back to John 8, Matthew 27 and Acts 7, and saying “let’s look at them really closely and come up with a new interpretation,” altering the reading of those texts. Instead, it involved changing the conversation to the more central themes and texts related to following the way of Jesus – what it means to be the people of Christ.
Thus: We must change the conversation to what it means to live in the way Jesus taught us (without ducking the other texts).
I noticed this in studying Christian rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. If you got one per cent of the Christian population who were risking their lives to save Jews, what’s different about them? How did they read their Bible? It was never because they read John 8, Matthew 27 and Acts 7 differently. Not in 1942. This righteous minority of Christians who rescued Jews, right in the teeth of unchristlike anti-Jewish Christian traditions, cited motivating texts like the Golden Rule, the Double Love Command, the Good Samaritan, and the saying about being our brother’s keepers. They highlighted broader biblical themes like the sacred worth of every person, and our obligation as Christians to be compassionate, merciful, and just. Somehow John 8 or Acts 7 or Matthew 27 just fell away, or were read differently, in light of these towering biblical texts and moral convictions. I now believe that when we spend all our time arguing about texts like Leviticus 18 and 1 Corinthians 6 and Romans 1 we miss the opportunity to call Christians back to the texts and themes that are and should be more central in their everyday Christian lives.
It isn’t like Christian who wake up thinking, “how am I going to live my life today”, go right to Leviticus 18. They just don’t. They go to “Take up your cross and follow me,” to “Love your neighbour as yourself”, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and all other richly meaningful, central themes. If we allow people to move the debate to the margins, in a sense we’re giving up ground we shouldn’t give up. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? It looks more like that.
Then, when challenged, double down: we must cling to Jesus’ example and the way he conducted his ministry. We must spend a lot of time in the gospels. If we do we might notice his warnings about religious self-righteousness and contempt for others deemed to be sinners; his embrace of outcasts and marginalized people; his attacks on those religious leader types who block access to God’s grace; his elevating as examples those who simply and humbly pray for God’s mercy (like repentant tax collectors); his teachings about God’s prodigious grace; and perhaps above all his death on the cross for the sins of all of us, beginning with each of us as “chief of sinners.” We must focus tightly on Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, and ask what is the most faithful path for following Jesus – this Jesus.
We must listen for and be ready for the Spirit of God — which looks like our hard hearts melting, our calcified minds changing, our spirits repenting; it looks like our churches growing more inclusive, our courage deepening, and our love for unwanted strangers growing fierce. It looks like joyful cross-bearing for Jesus’ sake. It looks like solidarity with the oppressed. It looks like strangely abundant joy.
This work is hard, because:
- There is the issue itself, with all its complexity, but then there’s also the authority problem in the Church, and the difficulty of admitting we were wrong. We have to be sensitive to this. So it’s never just about a few Bible passages and how they should be interpreted. It’s about capital A Authority — authority of scripture, tradition, and contemporary church leaders, and about who gets to say who has got it right. That issue is really hard in evangelicalism.
- It’s also about the general unwillingness of Christians to admit that they might have gotten something wrong, either individually or collectively. It’s hard to face. Have you ever heard someone say, “if we’re wrong about this, what else might be we wrong about?” Their cognitive world begins to shake. So, that’s not about the LGBT question – that’s about how I know anything. It makes people nervous. That idea is very unsettling, and it’s hard to face, and those responsible for institutions especially struggle with admitting prior error. “We were wrong, our church was wrong, our policy was wrong.” That might involve repentance. And they have an institution to protect. But admitting prior error is called repentance, a concept we should be familiar with. And the Church has repented before. It’s really important to remind people that the church has gotten some key things wrong before, has repented, and has recovered to enter a more faithful path of discipleship. We did it on slavery, race, the treatment of women and anti-Semitism. We can do it now.
- Breaking open a settled paradigm seems to take transformative encounters with God and with people, empowered by the Holy Spirit. But not everyone has such encounters or is open to them. One reason we need to come out as LGBT or allies is so we can make such transformative encounters available to more of those who have not had them yet. Everyone who comes out makes it harder for evangelical America to believe that this is someone else’s problem. Meanwhile, it’s hard for Christians to change their minds if they never have a meaningful conversation with an LGBT person or a fiercely committed ally. So let’s get out there.
- People have woven the LGBT narrative into a broader cultural decline narrative, to which many Christians are viscerally committed. It goes something like this: our culture has turned away from God, sliding down a slippery slide, and we need to stop it right here. The way we will stop this is by blocking any inclusion for LGBT people. Here, once again, LGBT people turn into symbols – not people, symbols. So bringing an end to the marginalization and mistreatment of LGBT Christians requires helping people to see that LGBT people are not agents of cultural decline, but marginalized brothers and sisters in Christ who just want full inclusion in the community of faith, just like everyone else. This is not Rome burning.
The goal is pretty clear now. Ultimately, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians must be accepted and welcomed in the Church on the same basis as any other sinner saved by the love of God in Jesus Christ. Nothing harder than that. Their – your, our – participation in Christian community must be governed by the same principles that apply to any other believer. This is not a revolution, it is just bringing the church into contact with its own deepest commitments.
For many in this room such a claim is an obvious truth. But as you well know it is not a truth universally acknowledged. In the end, incremental progress toward partial, conditional half-acceptance is not enough. You (we) are right to ask and to require full, unequivocal, equal acceptance in Christ’s church on the same terms as every other sinner saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
This includes the fierce debate over sexual ethics as it applies to LGBT people.
If LGBT participation in Christian community were governed by the same principles that apply to all other believers, believers of every tribe, tongue, race, and nation, that would settle the sexual ethics debate, once and for all. What is the sexual ethics standard that applies to followers of Christ? Celibacy outside of lifetime covenantal marriage, monogamous fidelity within lifetime covenantal marriage. That norm, as I argue in my book, applies to all Christians. It is demanding, countercultural, and essential to the well-being of adults and children.
I now see that this same covenantal-marital norm should apply to that particular minority, 1/20th or so of the human and Christian population, whose difference from the majority relates to sexual orientation and gender identity. They too should be held to the same standard as every other Christian. Celibacy outside lifetime covenantal marriage, monogamous fidelity within lifetime covenantal marriage.
The opponents of this gathering think that what you are about is moral chaos and the weakening of Christian morality. I think what you are about is inclusion of the LGBT minority of the church into the same rigorous Christian morality that applies to any other Christian believer. Maybe this is our moment to bring all Christians out of a moral sloppiness into a standard of faithful, covenantal monogamy. That certainly is my agenda. And I truly apologize that it took me twenty years to figure out this very simple truth and get on board.
Let me close by saying I applaud you. Matthew Vines and friends, you impress and inspire me. You are a cross-generational movement in the Church demanding a better future for the whole Church. What we have now is not OK. You are a movement for the liberation of the oppressed, like many of the most important movements for human dignity in history. You are a movement of high energy and distinctively evangelical hopefulness based on the power of God to advance the reign of God. You are a movement whose time has come.
I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you – in the church or in the state. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be. And I will ask your forgiveness for how long it took me to get here.
I will view what got us here as one of those tragic situations in Church history in which well-intentioned Christians, just trying to follow Jesus – including myself, for a long time – misread sacred scripture and caused great harm to oppressed people, in what turned out to be a violation of the character, teaching, and example of Jesus Christ. It has happened before, we have repented before, and we have changed before. We can do it again. I believe it will happen, sooner than many think. This debate will be over and many will wonder what the fuss was about.
Together, one day, all of us will dine together at the banquet table of the Son of God. We will be asked whether we loved and served Jesus with everything that was in us. And then together we will have a really great party. This room is a foretaste of the future of the church. And the church is a foretaste of that kingdom banquet.
Do you remember this text (Rev. 21:3-4)? “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And on that day we shall all be one, at last.
God bless you, brothers and sisters.
Previous article in this series: Start here: A summary of the Bible’s verses against same sex marriage
Next article in this series: But Why? The moral logic of the same sex marriage question
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