Let me cut to the chase: I’ve now become convinced that all (well, almost all) American evangelicals should no longer oppose homosexuality.
Instead, most evangelicals, if they are to be consistent, should have the same ethical expectations of homosexual relationships that they usually do of heterosexual relationships.
Two things have led me to this conviction: first, a number of years of scholarly and pastoral reflection on the Christian Scriptures; second, a number of very life-giving, even life-altering friendships with gay and lesbian followers of Jesus.
But here’s what hasn’t led me to this conviction: Scripture’s unified prohibition against homosexuality, with which I unreservedly agree.
Let me explain:
We American evangelicals pride ourselves on a “high view” of Scripture, often describing the Bible with words like “inspired” and “inerrant” and “infallible.” So it may be surprising that it’s precisely these Scriptures that clearly and unequivocally lead me to this view.
Which Scriptures are those?
Thankfully, they’re not texts found in obscure places in the Old Testament that we evangelicals rarely ever read (evangelicals are New Testament believers, after all). Helpfully, these texts require neither a facility with the original languages nor a basic comprehension of Scriptures’ historical contexts–two things that many evangelical pastors have virtually no knowledge of. In fact, we don’t even need to leave the four Gospels.
The relevant Scriptures fall under two related categories: (i) the cost of following Jesus; (ii) the cost of following Jesus together.
The Cost of Following Jesus
As for the first, everyone knows that Jesus says to the world, “Follow me.” To their credit, many evangelical leaders proclaim this. But overwhelmingly what we do not proclaim is the extent and degree to which Jesus demands to be followed:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
“Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant will be.”
“Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”
But what do these verses have to do with homosexuality? Everything.
Given our current position on homosexuality, we evangelical Christians regularly demand gay persons interested in Christianity to experience a personal cost to following Jesus that we do not demand of anyone else. Certainly not of ourselves.
The gay person who decides to follow Jesus and actually embraces the existing evangelical ethical norms concerning homosexuality will read Jesus’ words above and have a very good sense of what he’s talking about–namely, a voluntary denial of self and quite probably an involuntary dismissal from society that together can at times seem unbearable.
It feels like they are losing their lives. Because they are.
But–and here is the truly tragic part and why I now make the proposal I do–with rare exception, when they go to worship in their conservative evangelical church they will often feel utterly alone in losing their lives.
And the reason they will feel alone is because, on the whole, they are alone. Why?
Because they will experience the cost of following Jesus so acutely and, therefore, so unusually–indeed, uniquely.
Their loneliness has been a continued source of grief and anger to me. (Indeed, the epidemic loneliness of gays and lesbians, but especially gay men–whatever their religious beliefs–deeply concerns me.)
Unlike the overwhelming majority of heterosexual congregants around them, they can speak specifically, concretely, viscerally, vulnerably, realistically, practically and wisely–and, thus, ever so powerfully–about the countless valleys and occasional peaks of following Jesus. They truly know the Christian pilgrim’s progress.
All too often Christians who choose to battle their same-sex attraction worship God on Sunday mornings like enlisted Army veterans forever grappling with PTSD surrounded by West Point cadets who may have studied combat but never actually seen it.
Why is this?
Because for all their moral conviction regarding homosexuality, many evangelical leaders do not declare–and evangelical laypersons have little desire to experience–the cost of following Jesus.
As a result, neither leadership nor laity can often speak of their struggle with sin with the subtlety, sophistication and sincerity just described; they cannot articulate the deeper currents and deceptive crosswinds that constantly undermine how they navigate the Christian life (“How did I wind up here?”). To switch metaphors, they have not agonized over the seemingly inescapable gravitational pull of their own particular passions and pleasures.
And they almost certainly haven’t told anyone else about them. Why? Because to the extent that they do follow Jesus, they generally follow him alone.
The Cost of Following Jesus Together
The four Gospels speak not only of the cost of following Jesus, they speak of the cost of following Jesus together. That is, following Jesus involves entering into his community, into the family of God.
Again, to their credit, many evangelical leaders will summon followers to live as family. But, (and again) overwhelmingly, we evangelical leaders do not call our listeners to the invasive intensity and unparalleled intimacy of the family that Jesus envisions:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won your sibling back! But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus replied, “I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
What’s truly amazing about Jesus’ vision of community is its insistence on both an acceptance and an accountability that are truly extraordinary, epitomized in the texts above.
But, again, what does this have to do with homosexuality? Once again: Everything.
The gay person who seeks to follow Jesus and actually embraces the existing evangelical ethical norms concerning homosexuality knows that, if they are going to have even a chance of this working out, they will be in need of an exceptional acceptance and (more often than not) an exceptional accountability, not because they are exceptional but because such acceptance and accountability are. They desperately need to be met where they are (and will quite probably return to repeatedly). But they also desperately do not want to be left where they are.
In short, they need exactly the kind of community that Jesus outlines.
Why? Because this is the kind of community that every last one of us needs–if, that is, we were actually going to sincerely follow Jesus. Together.
But how often is this kind of community found in American evangelical churches today?
At the top of their non-denominational (read accountability-free) churches, even the most well-intending evangelical leaders rarely seek accountability either for themselves or for their congregants. A 2011 Barna study found that only 5% of church-goers say their church offers some form of accountability.
At the top of many denominational churches, either of two things often happens: either God’s life-giving law is twisted into a legalism that undermines an ethos of acceptance; or God’s life-giving grace is twisted into a leniency that undermines an ethos of accountability. The former prides itself on being a “moral” community, while the latter prides itself on being a “messy” community. (And “priding itself” is the right term: the latter is no more humble than the former.)
Faithful proclamation of both God’s liberating law and God’s order-restoring grace are essential to the faithful proclamation of the apostolic Gospel. To the extent that American evangelical churches fail either to proclaim the gospel or to promote discipline (in both its positive and negative forms), they cease to be churches–at least according to classic reformational Protestant standards, codified as early as the mid-16th century in, e.g., the Belgic Confession (1561), which laid out what came to be known as “the three marks” of any true church: “ the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached; … the pure administration of the sacraments [is maintained]; …  church discipline is exercised.”
The Cross of Christ and the Cost of Discipleship
But when the cross of Christ and the cost of following him are both proclaimed as intimately related and equally essential expressions of the inbreaking of God’s incredible reign of grace for a glorious but, alas, very guilty humanity, something truly beautiful happens: an intimate fellowship of vibrant acceptance (“I need you!”) and voluntary accountability (“I need this!”) is created (starting where it surely has to start–namely, at the top), where all gay persons can find an uncommon community and an enduring courage to do the seemingly unthinkable:
to seek to submit themselves to what the Scriptures and the Christian tradition have unanimously and rightly said concerning homosexuality–i.e., that, like all sin, it is a life-taking distortion of God’s wondrous created order, such that God in his fierce love justly and unreservedly opposes it–again, no less but no more than any other sin.
I–and a number of pastor friends I know–actually have the joy of knowing such persons. My pastoral and personal relationships with them are great gifts. And their participation in their local Christian communities has been absolutely invaluable.
They daily demonstrate to the rest of us what the death-unto-life-giving cost of following Jesus (together) actually looks like.
For us all.
And so for the sake of the Scriptures cited above and for the sake of these faithful followers of Christ, who look out upon an evangelicalism that so rarely provides them with either a camaraderie in deep spiritual struggle or a genuine community where both vibrant acceptance and voluntary accountability are found, I propose that it would be easier if we evangelicals just started supporting homosexuality.
Today’s evangelical heterosexual relationships look no different from the world’s, so maybe our homosexual relationships need not look any different as well.
Tragically, we’ve compromised in so many other areas. So why not this one?
. . . . . . . . . .
Are American evangelicals right to see homosexuality as a distortion of the life-giving ways of God’s created order (like all other sin)? I believe they are. But, on the whole, do American evangelicals have the right to announce it as such?
I struggle to see that they do. And, as an evangelical, that grieves me.
In this 500th year of the Reformation, let it be said: Evangelicals who refuse to accept both the cost of following Jesus (discipleship) and the cost of following him together (church discipline) cease to be followers of Christ altogether and, therefore, cease to have the right to speak in his name, not least on such an important, intricate, and intimate issue of our time like homosexuality.
Nowhere in his teaching in the Gospels does Jesus address homosexuality. Why? What are we to make of that? We’ll consider that in the next post.
. . . . . . . . . .
What does the cost of following Jesus look like in your life? Ask yourself:
1. In your own life what are the most counterintuitive commands of Jesus? Why are they given? What are the behavioral sins and underlying attitudinal sins that they condemn? What are beautiful and brilliant attitudes and behaviors that they commend?
2. How does the counterintuitive (and often countercultural) wisdom of the Gospel specifically and of Scripture generally both warn you of disobeying these particular commands and woo you toward an obedience that is better and more beautiful?
3. To what extent do you feel like God owes you an explanation of his commands before you are willing to obey them? Why?
4. How do you need to involve others in the body of Christ–whether leaders or laity, so you are not struggling alone and in vain? Out of love for your loved ones, have you put yourself in a church whose leaders love you enough to (if necessary) hold you accountable in a prayerful, humble, patient yet persistent way?
5. What seemingly childish restraints do you need to set in place in your own life that help you to walk in faithfulness in this particular area? What specific activities or behavior patterns aren’t you going to do that many other faithful Christians probably can do? What daily rhythms and routines would help in your struggle?
6. Do you know of any heroes, dead or alive, who have struggled in similar ways? What have their stories taught you?
7. If many Christians today don’t see your particular sin(s) as a big deal (e.g., perfectionism, greed, or fear), is that a good thing or not? What is to be done?
8. If someone you dearly love came to you and confessed to struggling with the very same sins you have, how could you help them?