Dr. David Gushee: “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities”

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 Christianity. 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, 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, 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 it. 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 that even conversion could not wash away. 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 on this group, the 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. 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 is solidarity with them.

From the perspective of the members of this targeted group, Christianity was everywhere, and it 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 Christianity. They had 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 members of this 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, 1/3 of all 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.

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.

(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.

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 tonight.

During the Christian repudiation of two millennia of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism:

–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. 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 that on the playground. Because of concerted efforts of Christian leaders, eventually in dialogue with Jewish leaders, beginning around 1965, almost no Christian 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. 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 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. This passage is now taught very carefully, and it is not taught as applying to “the Jews” as a people. And that’s a real 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. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” 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. 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 real good change.

And it wasn’t just biblical passages that had to be reconsidered.

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 diverse as Tertullian, Chrysostom, Hippolytus, Justin Martyr, Eusebius, and Augustine, and many others. Scholars saw that the problem came forward through the Middle Ages and into Protestantism despite the great changes wrought by the Reformation.

Martin Luther, for example, said some of the most hateful things any Christian leader ever said about Jews, including 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 distress by invoking anti-Jewish tropes 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 US repudiated Luther’s terribly damaging writing of 1543 called “On the Jews and Their Lies.” 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. Certainly 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 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.

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 2000 years. And probably the great majority of you didn’t 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 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.

* * *

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 “go there” in this place tonight?

I am fully aware of the limits of all historical analogies. As a long-time participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue, I am especially aware of the sensitivities of this particular historical analogy. 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 so as not to 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 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 at the very center of Christianity: scripture, tradition, and the leaders of the church, generation after generation. Everyone just knew that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were well 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, being anti-gay became woven into the heart of Christian identity and even piety.

The church’s anti-gay 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. 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. 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.

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. 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, any Golden Rule, any love, and mercy, from the Christians who heard and proclaimed these beautiful words.

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 that it remains physically dangerous to be an LGBT person in many places. 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.

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.

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. But a gay child discovering the contempt of the wider Christian world has often faced a devastating lack of support at home as well. I will say more about that in a moment.

And here is one more way the analogy breaks down, but this time more constructively:

The unchristlike teaching of contempt for Jews has been discredited. No mainstream Christian leader that I know of teaches it anymore, at least not here in this country. The Bible didn’t change. What the Bible was understood to mean changed a great deal.

The unchristlike teaching of contempt for LGBT people is, in my view, in the process of being discredited, of breaking down, even as we speak. Every year elements of it lose ground. I am now confident that Christianity is undergoing the same repudiation of an unchristlike body of tradition today, in regards to LGBT people, as happened 50 years ago in regards to antisemitism.

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 being made in repudiating the teaching of contempt against that 1/20th of the human family who are LGBT. And we must finish the job as soon as we can.

I talk about this process of being discredited, and therefore of real constructive changes in Christian treatment of LGBT people, in my new book, Changing Our Mind:

–Breaking sharply with the past, leaders of many traditionalist Christian communities or institutions now do their best to avoid verbally stigmatizing or demonizing gays and lesbians.

–Previous public policy and culture fights that traditionalist Christians once led have almost been forgotten or abandoned. The Disney boycott. The Teletubbies. The fight over gays in the military.

Some are suggesting that the fights over gay marriage are doing the church’s mission more harm than good, and that it is time to fall back from that struggle.

–Change is happening in relation to the well-established clinical and scientific claims about sexual orientation, undoubtedly related to straight people more often getting to know lesbian and gay people. In 1993, 22% of Americans reported having a close friend or family member who was gay or lesbian. In 2013, that number had risen to 65%. It is making a big difference.

–More and more traditionalist Christians now accept that a small portion of human beings simply are of same-sex orientation. Fewer make the ungrounded claim that sexual orientation is willful perversity, chosen and changeable. Reparative or ex-gay “treatment” has collapsed in credibility.

It is increasingly agreed, even on the traditionalist Christian side:

–Gay people exist. It is wrong to call them names or use slurs about them. Their relationships should not be criminalized. They should not be discriminated against in employment, housing, and public accommodation. They should not be bullied. They should never have to be afraid of violence as they go about their daily lives. They should not be blamed for America’s security problems or social ills. They should not be stigmatized or treated with contempt. There should be no space in church life or culture for their dehumanization and mistreatment.

All of that is change worth encouraging when we see it advancing.

But still, all is not well. Teaching and behavior 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 gifts continue to be blocked. In just two weeks since my own announcement of standing in solidarity with LGBT Christians, I have heard from literally scores of young people, parents, and others with their harrowing tales of rejection and harm. Brothers and sisters, this must not continue.

* * *

Increasingly, my focus moves to the continued suffering of LGBT young people. 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.

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%
Illinois: 15%
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 conflict. And much family rejection is religiously motivated. It is based on this very same unchristlike body of Christian teaching I have been talking about. It destroys lives and fractures families. In the name of faithfulness to scripture, which is so very, very tragic.

Caitlin Ryan, who directs the Family Acceptance Project at SFSU, spoke to me last week. She described a tragic vortex. More and more children and youth are coming out as LGBT at younger ages. 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 twelve.

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. 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 are 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.

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 young adults.

The higher the level of family rejection, the higher the likelihood of negative health, mental health, and behavioral problems.  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.

Some of the family rejecting behaviors documented and studied by FAP include hitting/slapping/physical harming, verbal harassment and name-calling, exclusion from family activities, blocking access to LGBT friends, events, and resources, blaming the child when he/she experiences abuse or discrimination, 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, 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 and a little more accepting reduces the likelihood of these harmful behaviors 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.

REJECTED AND ON THE STREETS

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.”

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:

*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;
*disproportionate difficulty for LGBT youth in accessing safe shelter while homeless;
*disproportionately likely to engage in ‘survival sex’ to meet expenses, increasing vulnerability to rape, disease, violence;
*disproportionately high rates of victimization by robbery, assault, rape, and hate crimes while on streets;
*disproportionately bad health outcomes including drug and alcohol abuse;
*disproportionate suicidal ideation and attempts.

This has to stop. And the only way—or at least a major way–to make it stop is to bring an end to theunchristlike Christian 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, 1/20th of the human and Christian population.

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. No conversation about ‘the LGBT issue’ should any longer take place without hearing the voice of LGBT people themselves.

We must call people on it when they slip back into the old derogations and slurs, 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 engage the destructively-cited biblical texts in the ways done by reformers of Christian anti-Judaism since the 1960s—which involves fresh research on the background and meaning of the 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 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 altering the reading of those texts, but changing the conversation to the more central themes and texts related to following the way of Jesus. Thus:

We must change the conversation to what it means to live in the way Jesus taught us.

I noticed this in studying Christian rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. 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.

Then, when challenged,

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; 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.

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. So it’s never just about a few Bible passages and how they should be interpreted. It’s about capital A Authority—of scripture, tradition, and contemporary church leaders, and who gets to say who has got it right. It’s also about the general unwillingness of Christians to admit that they might have gotten something wrong, either individually or collectively. That idea is very unsettling, and it’s hard to face, and those responsible for institutions especially struggle with admitting prior error. 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, and antisemitism. We can do it now.

Breaking open a settled paradigm seems to take transformative encounters with God and 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. Everyone who comes out makes it harder for evangelical America to believe that this is someone else’s issue. Meanwhile, it’s hard for Christians to change their minds if they never have an encounter with an LGBT person or a fiercely committed ally.

People have woven the LGBT narrative into the broader cultural decline narrative, to which many Christians are viscerally committed. Here, once again, LGBT people turn into symbols. So bringing an end to the marginalization and mistreatment of LGBT Christians requires helping people to see that they are not agents of cultural decline, but marginalized brothers and sisters in Christ who just want full inclusion in the community of faith.

The Goal:

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 grace. Their – your – participation in Christian community must be governed by the same principles that apply to any other believer.

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 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 believer. That is certainly 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 movement of youth in the Church demanding a better future for the whole Church. 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 God’s kingdom. You are a movement whose time has come.

I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. 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.

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. Remember this text?

“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 we shall all be one, at last. God bless you, brothers and sisters.

Get TRP Email Updates