Last October, a Christian university invited me to publicly explain, in ten minutes, why I disagree with their policy on LGBT students and same-sex relationships.
Following that ten-minute block, I got to participate in a moderated discussion with Wesley Hill, a friend who disagrees with me.
What resulted was really incredible, so I’m posting the full video for you and a transcript of my ten-minute pitch. If you’re in a hurry, the pitch itself starts around the 41:20 mark.
But first, here’s the background:
The school in question was Biola University, a Christian college in California. Biola had put out a position paper arguing that not only marriage and sex but even nonsexual romance was disallowed for same-sex couples. (Mostly, though, the paper focused on a biblical argument for condemning same-sex sex.)
I disagree pretty strongly with the paper, but I have to respect this: Knowing this was a controversial topic for their students, Biola decided to have an event where they would clearly state their position but also allow students to witness what gracious public disagreement looks like. I was invited to speak alongside Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting, offering two different viewpoints. Wes—like my friend Ron—is a celibate gay Christian who believes sex is reserved for a male-female union only. I, on the other hand, am a single-but-looking(!) gay Christian who fully supports same-sex marriage and relationships.
Wes and I were each asked to come prepared with a pre-written 10-minute response to the position paper. This way, they could present the paper, we could each present our responses, and then we could have a public dialogue with a moderator.
And wow, was it a great conversation. The entire video (including the intro, the paper, our personal stories, our pre-written responses to the paper, and the dialogue/Q&A) is 2 hours. But if you’d like to see how I boiled down my argument for LGBT support into about ten minutes, you can jump to the 41:20 mark in the video above or just read the full text of it below.
Transcript of my presentation:
A preacher once told me the devil’s oldest trick was to second-guess the words of God: “Did God really say that, Eve?”
He’s not quite right, though. The snake’s question to Eve is actually, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” And the answer is no. God didn’t say that. There was only one forbidden tree.
The devil’s oldest trick wasn’t just suggesting we second-guess God. The devil’s oldest trick was slyly adding burdens God hadn’t given us, to make God seem so unreasonable that we’d give up even trying to obey Him.
Christian morality requires us to carefully navigate between two traps: We must avoid being soft on sin, capitulating to our flesh and culture. But in our zeal to avoid that trap, we must also be careful not to fall into legalism, where we add burdens God never intended.
Throughout church history, from circumcision to homosexuality, Christians have argued about whether specific burdens are from God or not.
Scripture is our guide, of course, so both sides appeal to Scripture and then we just see whose argument is most consistent and convincing, right? Well, yes and no.
Church historian Mark Noll reminds us that during the Civil War, for instance, the biblical arguments made for keeping slavery were much more convincing than the arguments for abolition. After all, slavery enjoys a consistent witness in Old and New Testaments and plenty of specific passages allowing it and requiring slaves to obey their masters. Christian abolitionists appealed to broader biblical themes of love and freedom, but according to Noll, the idea that an anti-slavery spirit of the law could trump a pro-slavery letter of the law “was not only a minority position; it was also widely perceived as a theologically dangerous position.” So much so that Moses Stuart, perhaps the most respected biblical scholar of his day, said abolitionists “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing.”
Our history shows us that when hurting people’s lives are involved, a compelling Scriptural argument in the abstract is not enough. As Tony Campolo says, “You may have an inerrant book, but you don’t have an inerrant interpreter of the book.” What matters is not just that we interpret the Scriptures, but how we interpret the Scriptures. We must interpret them within the context of real people’s lives, not in the abstract or in a vacuum.
In Luke 14, when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees are incensed—you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath! Jesus responds, “If your son fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you pull him out?”
See, the Pharisees’ theology begins with the abstract: Is Sabbath work forbidden in Scripture? Yes. Is healing work? Yes. Then we have our conclusion—healing on the Sabbath is forbidden—and now we apply it to this man in front of us.
Jesus’ approach begins with the person: Here is a hurting person in front of me. What does he need? How can I help? Ah, but it’s the Sabbath. Let me now take this man’s unique situation to the Scriptures—and when we do that, we can see that the purpose of the Sabbath law is to honor God, not to cause this man to suffer.
LGBT Christians are asking for that kind of nuance—not to always agree, but to be seen as people and not as an issue. We need our stories to be heard and wrestled with, without the false dichotomy that talking about real lives is somehow inconsistent with a focus on Scripture. To the contrary, the Scriptures can’t be accurately interpreted without it.
When I realized I was gay, I was hurting, alone, and desperate for answers. If my attractions never changed, would I have to be alone for the rest of my life? I had studied all the Scripture passages on homosexuality, but none of them described a situation like mine, and that left me confused. I had always had negative stereotypes about gay people, but now I was one of them. I was scared and ashamed.
I tentatively told a few friends what I was experiencing, because I couldn’t take keeping this all inside. I wanted to be known and loved, for someone to hear my story and tell me that I was going to be okay. Instead, my friends’ response was to quote Bible passages at me—the same passages in this paper with virtually the same analysis: God created marriage between man and woman, the Bible forbids homosexuality consistently, gay sex is a sin.
They never seemed to notice that the passages they were quoting had nothing to do with my actual situation. They’d talk about the Sodom story as an example of the sinfulness of homosexuality, despite the fact that the Sodom story is about men threatening angels with gang rape. I was a conservative, Southern Baptist virgin. Gang-raping angels was certainly not on my agenda, and frankly, it hurt that they thought passages like that were a good match for my situation.
Like the Pharisees, my friends were interpreting in the abstract, not in the context of my unique situation. They were responding to the concept of “homosexuality,” not to me. Their response didn’t move me toward righteousness. It only made me feel dehumanized—as if, the moment I used the word “gay,” I ceased to be a person and became, instead, a potential sex act that needed to be stopped.
I was invited here this evening to offer a dissenting opinion on this paper. For that, I want to thank Biola. It takes guts to invite someone like me to come and say, “Here’s why I think you’re wrong.” But, since I’m here, here it is: Although I disagree with the conclusions of this paper, it’s not the conclusions that trouble me most. It’s the approach—and the fact that I think it’s asking all the wrong questions.
This evening is called “How Do We Love?” But the paper is all about why gay people shouldn’t have sex. Which would be fine if the evening were called “How Do We Tell Gay People Not to Have Sex?” But if we’re going to call the evening “How Do We Love?” there are questions we need to ask. For straight Christians, the question is, “How do I show love to my LGBT friends? What are they going through? What challenges do they experience as Christians—even if they agree with everything in this paper (and even if they don’t)? How can I be there to support them? How can we be there as a campus? How do we love?”
For gay Christians, “How do we love?” has another meaning as well. “Is there a healthy outlet for my desire to love and be loved? If marriage is off the table, can I have a non-sexual intimate relationship? If even that is off the table”—and this paper says it is—“what happens to me as my friends get married and I become the third wheel, and my church is uncomfortable with having me in meaningful roles, and I still have all this love in my heart—what do I do with it? How do I love?”
These are real questions—way more important than the question about sex, which all single Biola students are supposed to abstain from anyway. “You’re single. Don’t have sex.” Okay. Simple. Now, how do I love?
And that’s just the gay folks. There are many other LGBT people who have even more complicated questions, almost none of which are about sex.
When we begin to ask these real, practical questions about real people’s lives, we get a very different picture of where the need is on a campus like Biola. And when we take those real people’s lives to Scripture instead of interpreting in a vacuum, we get a very different picture of these texts.
We see, for instance, that none of these passages about “homosexuality” are dealing with anything close to what Biola’s LGBT students are going through. They’re passages about gang rape, temple prostitution, and the consequence of out-of-control lusts. That’s not what Biola’s LGBT students are wrestling with, and when we apply these texts to them, it suggests a very low opinion of them as Christians.
Understanding LGBT people’s real stories offers us a different perspective on the Genesis account as well. Far from dictating unwilling celibacy, the story goes out of its way to tell us that God said it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, and that God cared enough to create a companion for Adam who was like him—not just God, and not an animal—and, tellingly, not just a friend—but a romantic partner.
An abstract interpretation of this text says “straight” is better than “gay.” God created Eve, after all, not Steve. But one might just as well tell a deaf person that hearing is better than signing because that’s how God created us. If you happen to be the person for whom that is not an option, the question isn’t “deaf or hearing,” “gay or straight,” but, “How will I do the best I can with the raw materials I’ve been given?” For a gay person, the question is really “Relationship… or alone?”
If I had an hour, I’d walk you step by step through all the passages that led me to change my mind and support relationships—and even marriage—for same-sex couples. I’ve spoken and written about it many places, including in my book.
But maybe you think I’m wrong in my interpretation of Scripture, and that Wes is right—gay people are called to celibacy. If so, my goal is not to change your mind on that, because ultimately, sex is not the important question here. The question is “How do we love?” How can the LGBT people in this audience live their lives in a way that is honest and fulfilling and gives them a vocation?
Because all too often, we’ve followed in the footsteps of the Pharisees, who Jesus says “tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” We’ve told people what not to do without helping them figure out what to do, what Eve Tushnet calls “a vocation of no”:
“No, you can’t have sex. Ever.
“Not only that: you can’t have romance. Ever.
“You can’t have a relationship. Ever.
“Don’t even hold somebody’s hand in church, or we’ll be sure to tell you what a sinner you are—and quote passages about gang rape as evidence you shouldn’t hold someone’s hand.”
And when gay people say, “How do I love?” we have no answer for them. We just say, “Don’t have sex.”
And when they say, “This is a heavy burden. Who will help me lift it?” we have no good answers for them. Because we’re so focused on taking a position that we’ve forgotten the people. That is wrong. It’s not loving. And it’s not Christian.
I believe, in Christ, we can do better.