Changing the Culture that Enabled Mark Driscoll: 6 Ways Forward

I’m not interested in rehashing the recent events and disclosures that led to the near-collapse of Mars Hill Church Seattle and the (temporary?) resignation of pastor Mark Driscoll.  The Seattle Times summed it up well with this article by Craig Welch and with this informative timeline. I’m also not interested in piling on as Driscoll faces the consequences of his actions.  I’ve spoken out against his bullying in the past, and though I stand by my critiques, I don’t feel the need to rehash them. I truly wish Driscoll well and hope this difficult time proves to be a refining fire that leads him down a healthier, grace-lit path. 

That said, to treat this as an isolated incident that no one saw coming and that will never happen again is misguided and dangerous. As Christians, we have to own up to the reality that we helped create a culture that enabled Driscoll’s behavior, (and sometimes rewarded it), and that this culture has to change. I don’t have all the answers on how to make such change happen, but I’ve got a few ideas: 

1.  We must educate Christians about abuse, bullying, and misuse of power in church settings. 

Paul David Tripp called Mars Hill Church, “the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with” and person after person has come forward to say the same. Once held back by fear (and in some cases, nondisclosure agreements), these former pastors and church members are sharing stories of decades of pervasive bullying, shaming, abuse of power, and mismanagement of funds. Questions were routinely treated as threats and stomped out. Challenges to authority were met with public shaming. Disagreements were dismissed as “gossip” and a “threat to Christian unity.” 

To those educated in the dynamics of spiritual abuse, Mars Hill Church has been setting off alarm bells for years, and yet for the many good, godly people involved in the church, the problems went unaddressed until recently.  So why didn’t more people recognize these unhealthy, abusive dynamics? Why didn’t they address them sooner?   

Well, I think it’s because far too many Christians just don’t know how to spot and respond to the signs of abuse—be it spiritual abuse, abuse of authority, or even the physical/emotional/sexual abuse of women and children.  And I believe the impetus is on denominational leaders and on the media (religious and mainstream) to better educate the Christian public on these matters and to better hold church leaders accountable when they abuse. 

For those new to the topic, a really good place to start is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, a book I wish I could mail to every churchgoer in the world. Evangelicals may want to check out the fantastic organization G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) and Catholics, S.N.A.P. (Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests). We did a series here on the blog on abuse in the Church called “Into the Light,” which also includes a long list of additional resources, and we will continue to address this important issue in the future.

2. We must value and preserve accountability. 

In 2007 Mars Hill changed its bylaws to limit power to a very small group, effectively giving Driscoll unfettered free reign over the church. When two pastors objected to this structure, they were fired and subjected to a church trial where members were encouraged to shun one of them. For many, this move marked “the beginning of the end” of Mars Hill Church as Driscoll faced little accountability in his decision-making. 

While churches associated with denominations often have structures in place to hold pastors accountable, non-denominational evangelical churches sometimes do not. Preserving some form of accountability is absolutely crucial to maintaining a healthy, non-abusive church, so I would urge all churchgoers to become familiar with how your church leadership is structured and to watch out for authoritarian leaders who seek to consolidate power to their office. If your pastor has little to no accountability, and if your questions about accountability are met with hostility, leave.   Groups that organize national pastor conferences should consider not inviting as speakers pastors who refuse accountability.  Christian media, too, must do a better job of reporting on the organization structure and finances of evangelical mega-churches. Christian reporters are not obligated to paint rosy pictures of churches; they’re obligated to paint accurate ones.  (See also: “Why Mark Driscoll Needs A Bishop” by Erik Parker.) 

3.   We must take misogyny and homophobia seriously.

Throughout his 18 years in ministry, Mark Driscoll was well-known for making crude, demeaning comments about women and for mocking men he deemed effeminate or “pussies.” In online rants, he raged against feminism and the “pussification of culture” and referred to women as “penis homes.” From the pulpit, he taught that women owed their husbands oral sex. When evangelist Ted Haggard was caught with male prostitutes, Driscoll blamed Haggard’s wife for letting herself go. 

Driscoll routinely trashed advocates of nonviolence as “pansies,” the emerging church as “homo-evangelicals” who worship a “Richard Simmons hippie queer Christ,” and churches with women in leadership as “chickified,” warning that “if Christian males do not man up soon, the Episcopalians may vote a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He often used the term “gay” pejoratively, and in 2011 issued a call on Facebook for his followers to share stories about and publicly ridicule what he deemed “effeminate anatomically male worship leaders.”  Recently unearthed online rants from Driscoll’s early days as a pastor give us a glimpse of the inner thoughts of a man who throughout his 18 years as a pastor routinely characterizes all the things he detested most in the world as feminine or gay. 

This is blatant, unapologetic misogyny and homophobia, and for more than a decade, the evangelical culture turned a blind eye, inviting Driscoll to headline conferences, publish books, and speak as an “expert” on marriage and gender roles.  Why? Because the evangelical culture doesn’t take misogyny and homophobia seriously.  

“Oh he’s a little rough around the edges,” people would often say to me. “But he’s doing so much good. He’s getting men to go to church! Don’t take it so personally. What are you, the PC police?”  

This is an enormous blind spot within the evangelical culture, one I also see reflected in its ongoing love affair with the Duck Dynasty cast, even after patriarch Phil Robertson has made, racist, homophobic, and (most recently) violently Islamaphobic remarks . Even after I invited several black and gay Christians to the blog to explain just how hurtful the “I Stand With Phil” movement was to them, many evangelical readers brushed it off as no big deal. 

But racism, misogyny and homophobia do not simply offend the “PC Police.” They offend the heart of God. They are sins that damage our relationships with our neighbors and our witness to the world. And if we are going to change the culture that enabled the bullying and abuses of Mark Driscoll, we have to start treating them as such.  As blogger Tyler Clark put it, “When you put out a call on Facebook for people verbally attack ‘effeminate anatomically male’ men, I find myself back in high school—shoved against a locker, with the bullies calling me a faggot.”

How can this possibly be the gospel? How can this possibly be good news if it makes someone feel like they’ve been shoved against a locker, bullied and demeaned?  How we treat our fellow human beings is not a peripheral issue, sidelined by supposedly “good theology.” It’s central. It’s everything. I don’t care whether you are Calvinist or Arminian, charismatic or Catholic, you can’t demean women or bully the marginalized and still have “good theology.”  Misogyny is bad theology. Bullying is bad theology.  And it's time we start identifying them as such. 

4.  We must measure “success” by fruit of the Spirit, not numbers. 

Whenever Driscoll’s bullying behavior was challenged, the response from many in the Christian culture was to say, “Yes, but he’s doing so much good! Look at how his church just keeps growing and growing! He’s even convinced MEN to go to church!”  No doubt this results-based culture influenced Driscoll’s decision to use church funds to pay for a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and to vow to “destroy” other area churches “brick by brick.” 

When Christians measure a church’s “success” by numbers rather than the fruit of the Spirit, we create a culture that looks nothing like the Kingdom Jesus preached. But Scripture does not teach us that the fruit of the Spirit is satellite campuses, book sales, and market share. Scripture teaches us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Jesus said that we identify false preachers, not by their position on obscure theological matters, but by the degree to which their lives exhibit this type fruit.  In other words, getting men to go to church is not the same as making disciples of Jesus, and we best not confuse the two. 

All across the world, there are thousands and thousands of pastors laboring faithfully to help grow and nurture the fruit of the Spirit within their congregations. Some of these congregations are growing and others are dwindling.  Perhaps we should do a better job of honoring such pastors—by thanking them, encouraging them, and  maybe listening to them for a change at our pastors conferences. When Christians measure church success by the standards of American culture—money, power, prestige, numbers—we set ourselves up for scandal, discouragement, and abuse of authority/funds/people. Jesus never promised us success by worldly standards. He only asked that we remain faithful. And far too many pastors are getting the message that faithfulness isn’t enough. 

Character matters.  Integrity matters. Kindness matters. How we do things in the Church matters. All of this is is part of our testimony and when it is compromised in the name of “success,” we loose the very saltiness that is supposed to set us apart. 

5.   We must protect people over reputations. 

Perhaps the most effective silencing technique in Christian culture is telling those who challenge abusive or bullying behavior among church leaders that their objections are “gossip” and “slander” contributing to  “disunity in the Church.” I’ve spoken with many, many victims of sexual abuse who say this was the very language church leaders used to urge them not to report their abuse in a church environment to the authorities. “You don’t want to damage Christ’s reputation in the world, do you?” they were asked.  And indeed, the public response to the Sovereign Grace Ministries child abuse scandal revealed that far too many Christian leaders seem more concerned with protecting the reputations of their denominations, ministries, and pastors than with protecting victims of abuse. 

In an interview on the bog, Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E., put it this way:

“The greatest failure of the church/Christian organizations when it comes to responding to abuse is institutional self-protection.   Too often Christian institutions have been willing to sacrifice the individual human soul in exchange for the protection of their own reputation.   What makes such responses even more heinous is that they are often justified in the name of ‘protecting the name of Christ.’   Such a justification is nothing but a pious attempt at self-protection.  It may come as a surprise to some but Jesus does not need us to protect His name!  In fact, it was Jesus who sacrificed Himself for the soul of the individual.  Tragically, in all of its attempts at self-protection, the Church too often completely misses this beautiful truth.  As a result, many abuse survivors in the Church are pushed away from the arms of Jesus and prevented from experiencing glorious Gospel love.”

Another common refrain is, “What will the world think if it sees Christians disagreeing with one another?”  But when it comes to identifying and stopping abusive and bullying behavior, when it comes to naming racism, misogyny, and homophobia sins, my question is: what will the world think if it doesn’t see us addressing these things? How much more does our reputation suffer when we shrug off or cover up this sort of behavior? 

If we are to change the culture that far too often prioritizes the reputation of the bully/abuser over the health and safety of the bullied/abused, we have to stop shaming victims who come forward with their stories as “gossips” and dismissing Christians who call for accountability as “divisive.” We also have to ensure that our churches are prepared to respond to bullying and abuse when it happens. (For more on that, please check out G.R.A.C.E. and the list of resources from our “Into the Light” series.)
 

6.   We must treat our pastors and church leaders as human beings—flawed, complex, and beloved by God. 

I’m often asked what ought to be done about “celebrity culture” within American Christianity, and having benefitted a bit from that very culture myself, I honestly don’t know if I’m the best person to respond. However, I have noticed that there is a tendency within the culture to see Christian leaders (and writers and activists) as either wholly good—and worth defending at every turn—or wholly evil—and worth opposing at every turn. I am guilty of this myself. Tribal alliances built around shared theological distinctives have exacerbated the problem, and I often find myself succumbing to a “team” mentality wherein those who share my theological or political viewpoints always get the benefit of the doubt while those who do not are demonized.

 I wrote more about this in an article for Relevant entitled, “When Jesus meets TMZ,” but my main point is that our pastors are human. Glorifying them, demonizing them, and placing unrealistic expectations on them is bad not only for the pastors but for the whole Church. As much as I oppose Driscoll’s bullying behavior, I sincerely hope that this brother in Christ—who is beloved by God and with whom I would break the bread of communion in a heartbeat—will find his way. 

But first, we have to work together to create a culture that nurtures and celebrates healthy pastors and healthy people, and that holds unhealthy ones accountable. 

***

Some concrete, actionable steps: 

- Educate yourself about abuse in a church environment (see resources under #1) and share your findings with fellow Christians and on social media. Email your favorite religion reporter or Christian publication to request that they increase coverage of church abuse—not just after it happens, but before. Ask your church leaders about possibly taking advantage of training and resources offered by G.R.A.C.E. 

- Learn about the accountability structure and financial policies of your church. If your questions are met with hostility or shaming, leave. 

-If you help plan national conferences for pastors, please consider inviting, celebrating, and learning from pastors whose work produces the fruit of the Spirit rather than basing speaking invitations on attendance, books sales, and fame. Avoid featuring pastors whose churches do not include built-in accountability. And if you attend such conferences, urge organizers to think outside of the box so that presentations better reflect the reality of most pastors’ lives and experiences.  (For more on this, check out J.R. Briggs’ excellent book, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure.)  

- Christians, don’t let racist, misogynistic, and homophobic comments “slide.” Stand up for the bullied, not the bullies. Advocate for the oppressed, not the oppressors. And don’t let anyone shame you as “divisive” when you do so. 

***

Other thoughts? Ideas? 

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From the Lectionary: A Generous Master

I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's reading comes from Matthew 20:1-16: 

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 
When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In Matthew’s account, Jesus tells this story right after the apostle Peter demands, “We have left everything to follow you! What’s in it for us?” and just before the mother of James and John requests special privileges for her sons, who have “borne the burdens of the day” by joining Jesus in his ministry. So we may rightly understand this parable as a gentle rebuke to the disciples regarding their ongoing tangle over who will reap the most prestige in the Messiah’s new Kingdom, one they still imagined comes complete with money, glory, and power. 

This isn’t that sort of Kingdom, Jesus says with this parable. You don’t earn your way to the top. There is no top. 

But there’s even more at work in this story when we pay attention to the details.

Notice that the landowner finds his workers in the marketplace. This means that whether they arrived early in the morning or late in the afternoon, all were looking for work. All were tapped on the shoulder and recruited to the vineyards by a micromanaging landowner who just keeps on coming back...and back…and back to hire the people no one else wanted. Anyone who wants work will get work, even if they show up late, even if they stumble into the marketplace tired, hungover, uncertain, or sick, even if no one else wants them. This isn’t about being qualified; it’s about being called. It’s about being invited to join in the work, if just for a few dusky hours. 

Notice too that the landowner pays a fair day’s wages. No one in this story is deprived or shortchanged. What scandalizes the workers who arrived early to the vineyard isn’t that they are cheated by the landowner but that their coworkers benefit from his generosity without earning it. Funny how something good can suddenly seem like less simply because it is shared. It’s such a universal and familiar reaction it’s hard not to see ourselves in it, particularly those of us who operate within a culture that idolizes success and self-sufficiency, where even gifts are expected to be deserved. 

This isn’t that sort of Kingdom, Jesus is saying. It’s not about the pay; it’s about the work. You don’t pull yourself up by your boostraps; you simply take my hand. 

And here we get to the punchline of the parable: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” asks the landowner. “Or are you envious because I am generous?

Are you envious because I am generous? Let that question soak down to the marrow. 

Really, this parable isn’t about the workers. It’s about landowner.  This is God’s Vineyard, God’s table, God’s Kingdom and God’s world. We don’t make the invitation list and we don’t dole out the gifts. And it’s a good thing too because no doubt we would try to make it all fair. No doubt we’d make sure everyone got what they deserved. But God isn’t fair. God is irrationally and irresponsibly generous. His mercies are infinite, offensive, new every morning.

We think the miracle is that our coworkers get to share in the reward, but the miracle is that any of us get to share in the work. The miracle is that God comes to the marketplace, pulls us out, hands us shovels and baskets and clippers, and puts us to work. If  we want in on this Kingdom, if we want in on this work, we best set aside our small notions of what it means to deserve, what it means to be fair, and what it means to earn. Because what makes God’s grace offensive isn’t who it leaves out, but who it lets in…starting with you and me. Fair's got nothing to do with it. 

We serve at the pleasure of a generous master; there is plenty of good work to do. So let’s do it. 

In her marvelous book Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about preaching from this passage to a group of Luthern pastors at an event honoring those gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy that had previously been denied ordination in the ELCA because of their sexuality. Not wanting her sermon to veer into progressive self-congratulations—“We’ve been last, but now we get to be first [fist pump]!”—Nadia focused too on the landowner: 

What makes this the kingdom of God is not the worthiness or piety or social justicey-ness or the hard work of the laborers…none of that matters. It’s the fact that the landowner couldn’t manage to keep out of the marketplace. He goes back and back and back, interrupting lives…coming to get his people. Grace tapping us on the shoulder…And so, I reminded those seven pastors specifically, including the man who introduced me to grace, that the kingdom of God was just like that exact moment in which sinners/saints are reconciled to God and to one another…In the end, their calling, and their value in the kingdom of God comes not from the approval of a denomination or of the other works, but in their having been come-and-gotten by God. It is the pure and unfathomable mercy of a God that defines them and that says, ‘pay attention, this is for you.” 

We have been come-and-gotten by God.  So let’s stop looking at one another to decide whether everything’s fair and in-control and safe. 

Because it’s not. Not even close. 

Instead, let’s get to work. 

 

***

P.S. Another great quote from Pastrix we've been discussing on the Facebook page is this one: "Grace isn't about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace--like saying 'Oh, it's OK, I'll be a good guy and forgive you.' It's God saying, 'I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.'" 

In response,  Kay wrote: "We visited a church recently where the pastor asked us to turn to each other and say, "I don't deserve God's love." Andy turned to me, saw my face, and said, "You're not going to say that, are you?" "Nope," I said. Not because it's not true, but because it's not The Truth. It's not the Gospel. Me being undeserving is just the set-up for the real Story, the Deeper Magic like CS Lewis said. There is this great redemption that has nothing to do with what I deserve and don't deserve. There's this Love that obliterates every sin. That's the Story. That's The Truth."

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“God and the Gay Christian” Discussion, Week 1

Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships

I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. And he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 

Today we look at the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2.

“Reclaiming Our Light” 

Right from the start, Matthew shares with the reader two important elements of his identity: 1) that he is gay, and 2) that he is a theologically conservative Christian who holds a “high view” of the Bible. 

“That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life,” Matthew writes of the second. “While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is ‘useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’ (2 Timothy 3:16-16).” 

Now for some, this may seem like a conflict. I remember being told by pastors and church leaders that “gay Christian” (or "bisexual Christian" or "transgender Christian") is an oxymoron and that no one who holds a high view of Scripture can support same-sex relationships.  But Matthew’s aim with God and the Gay Christian is to show that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” 

It’s an ambitious goal, and it’s one that Matthew tackles by bringing his story and insights alongside the research of dozens of scholars whose work on the topic he studied meticulously for four years, dropping out of Harvard so that he could devote himself to learning what it meant for him to be gay and Christian. 

“My prayer,” he writes, “is that [the book] opens up a conversation in the Christian community that is truly in the spirit of Jesus. The fiercest objections to LGBT equality—those based on religious belief—can begin to fall away. The tremendous pain endured by LGBT youth in many Christian homes can become a relic of the past. Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound. Together, we can reclaim our light.” 

A Tree and Its Fruit 

Matthew speaks highly of his Christian upbringing, his loving parents, and the conservative Presbyterian church “filled with kindhearted, caring Christians” in which he was raised. Like a lot of us, he asked Jesus into his heart when he was very little—just three years old. And like a lot of us he, “recommitted” a few times before middle school….just to be safe. 

Matthew loved God, loved his family, loved Scripture, and loved the Church. And yet, for years, he held on to a secret that he knew might very well jeopardize his relationship with them all: he knew he was gay. 

This reality generated a lot of anxiety in Matthew’s life. He had observed what happened to a friend of his who also attended his church, a young man who often shared his musical talents with the congregation on Sunday morning and was celebrated as bright, committed, and kind—a beloved member of the community…until he came out as gay. Matthew’s friend encountered stigma and shame regarding his “decision” and eventually gave up on church, Scripture, and his faith.  

matthew.jpg

But Matthew didn’t want to give up on his faith. 

Even Matthew’s father once told his son that he assumed that if God was against homosexuality, then God wouldn’t make anyone gay, so those who “struggle with same sex attraction” could develop heterosexual attractions over time with enough effort and prayer. 

But Matthew couldn’t change his sexual orientation. 

Finally, Matthew worked up the courage to come out to his family.  When I saw that Matthew had titled this section of his book “My Dad’s Worst Day,” tears gathered in my eyes. It breaks my heart that we have created a culture in which a son or daughter bravely telling the truth about his or her sexuality can bring such devastation to a family.

You have to read the story for yourself to catch the full impact, but I’m happy to report that, after many months of struggling, questions, and tears, Matthew’s parents came around to supporting their son, fully. The testimony of their love for him shines through the pages of this book in a way that makes me both hopeful and sad because not every gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender child is this fortunate. For many, simply telling the truth is the beginning of a nightmare. 

Along with his parents, Matthew began carefully studying the Bible’s few references to same-sex behavior (which will be examined, at length, throughout the rest of the book), and rethinking his position on the matter. 

Though he had always been taught by his church that homosexuality was a chosen and sinful “lifestyle,” this teaching did not match up with Matthew’s lived experience. 

“As I became more aware of same-sex relationships,” he wrote, “I could not understand why they were supposed to be sinful, or why the Bible apparently condemned them. With most sins, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the damage they caused. Adultery violates a commitment to your spouse. Lust objectifies others. Gossip degrades people. But committed same-sex relationships did not easily fit this pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they seemed to be characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self sacrifice. What other sin looked like that?” 

This led some in Matthew’s church (he had come out to a small group) to accuse him of “elevating his experience over Scripture.” But as Matthew points out, he wasn’t asking his friends to revise the Bible based on his experience, he was asking them to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible. 

Christians have often had to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible in light of new information, he argued, just as many did when they concluded slavery was immoral in spite of biblical instructions that seem to support it.  Furthermore, while Scripture tells us not to rely solely on our experiences, it cautions Christians against ignoring experience altogether. The early Church decided to include Gentiles without requiring them to undergo circumcised or obey kosher, a controversial conclusion based largely on Peter’s testimony and experience. In Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus says that believers will recognize false teachers by the fruit in their lives. If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree. This assessment is typically made based on experience. 

“Neither Peter in his work to include Gentiles in the church nor the abolitionists in their campaign against slavery argued that their experience should take precedence over Scripture,” writes Matthew. “But they both made the case that their experience should cause Christians to reconsider long-held interpretations of Scripture. Today, we are just as responsible for testing our beliefs in light of their outcomes—a duty in line with Jesus’s teachings about trees and their fruit.” 

…Which raises a few questions. 

If same-sex relationships are really sinful, then why do they so often produce good fruit—loving families, open homes, self-sacrifice, commitment, faithfulness, joy? And if conservative Christians are really right in their response to same-sex relationships, then why does that response often produce bad fruit—secrets, shame, depression, loneliness, broken families, and fear? 

Eventually, after careful study and in light of new information, even Matthew’s father changed his mind.  Matthew writes: “Instead of taking the references to same-sex behavior as a sweeping statement about all same-sex relationships, my dad started to ask: is this verse about the kind of relationship Matthew wants, or is it about abusive or lustful behavior? Is this passage about the love and intimacy Matthew longs for, or does it refer to self-centered, fleeting desires instead? After much prayer, study, and contemplation, Dad changed his mind. Only six months before, he had never seriously questioned his views. But once he saw the fruit of his beliefs more clearly, he decided to dive deeper into the Bible. In that process, he came to what he now regards as a more accurate understanding…” 

Telescopes, Tradition, and Sexual Orientation 

Before getting into a more detailed analysis of the various biblical passages involved, Matthew takes Chapter 2 to argue that new information about sexuality ought to compel Christians to rethink their interpretation of Scripture. He reminds readers that Galileo was accused of heresy by the Church when he presented evidence that contradicted centuries of tradition and accepted biblical interpretation regarding the earth’s place in the universe. It would take Christians many years to change their minds, but eventually they did. 

“Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forbearers or for the authority of Scripture,” he writes. “They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered. The traditional interpretation of Psalm 93:1, Joshua 10:12-14, and other passages made sense when it was first formulated. But the invention of the telescope offered a new lens to use in interpreting those verses, opening the door to a more accurate interpretation.” 

Similarly, in recent generations, our understanding of sexuality has radically changed. 

For example, for most of human history, homosexuality was not seen as a different sexual orientation but rather as a manifestation of normal sexual desire pursued to excess—a behavior anyone might engage in if they let their passions get out of hand. Matthew highlights multiple examples from history and literature to show that this was simply the assumption for many centuries. 

“I’m not saying gay people did not exist in ancient societies,” Matthew writes “I’m simply pointing out that ancient societies did not think in terms of exclusive sexual orientations. Their experience of same-sex behavior led them to think of it as something anyone might do….No ancient languages even had words that mean ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’” 

Of course now we are beginning to understand that, while human sexuality is complex and is perhaps best understood as existing along a continuum, many people report having fixed same-sex orientations that do not change. (Others experience sexual attraction to both men and women. Still others lack sexual attraction altogether.)  “Reparative therapy,” which seeks to change sexual orientation, has been shown to be ineffective and potentially dangerous, discouraged most notably by many of the very Christian leaders who once promoted it within the Church. 

In addition, in the ancient cultures from which the Bible emerged strict, patriarchal gender roles were the norm and where procreation was a matter of survival.  Because women were presumed to be inferior to men, nothing was more degrading for a man than to be seen as womanly. (Guess some things never change, huh?) So in Rome, it was considered acceptable for an adult male citizen to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines regardless of gender, but only if he took the active role in the encounter. A same-sex encounter that placed a man in a passive (considered “womanly”) role would be considered humiliating. (This explains why same-sex rape was—and is— sometimes used to humiliate an enemy after defeat.) 

All of these ancient understandings of sexuality affect how same-sex behavior discussed in Scripture, and all of them should call into question the notion that people—and the Church—have a held just one single “traditional” view of same-sex behavior. 

In light of new information and experience, maybe it’s time to reexamine some of our assumptions and interpretations. 

...Next week, we'll look at just a single chapter from God and the Gay Christian, which addresses celibacy. 

Questions for Discussion: 

1.    How have your experiences—or those of friends and family—shaped how you are approaching this conversation?  

2.    What do you think of Matthew’s response to the challenge that he is “elevating his experience over Scripture.” 

3.    Is it helpful or fair to compare evolving understandings of human sexuality to evolving understandings of, say, the solar system or slavery? 

I will be monitoring the comment section closely over the next 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. Thanks for your participation! 

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