Torn, Chapters 14-15 & Conclusion: The Way Forward

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today we wrap up our discussion around Justin Lee’s fantastic book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate.

This has been a perfect starting point for our yearlong series on Sexuality and the Church, which for the first quarter will focus specifically on homosexuality.

Next week we will begin a shorter, 2-3 week discussion around Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.  Like Justin, Wesley is gay, but whereas Justin concluded that a relationship with another man could be blessed by God, Wesley has chosen celibacy. I picked these two books because I think Justin and Wesley represent the very best in civil, gracious, and loving disagreement on this issue…which for them is not a mere issue, but a deeply personal journey with deeply personal implications.

Now on to Torn, Chapters 14-15….

Chapter 14: Lightening Rod

As Justin came to terms with his sexuality and what it meant for his future, he began advocating on behalf of gay Christians through his Web site. In Chapter 14, he describes how his honesty gave other gay Christians the freedom to tell their stories. One night he received an email that simply said, “I was going to kill myself tonight. I told God He had one more chance to give me a reason not to. Somehow I found your web site….You will never meet me, but tonight you saved my life.”

Not long after, he and a friend launched the Gay Christian Network.

Justin also tells the story of how, after sharing his story on a closed-circuit TV station at his college, a viewer tracked down his mother, called her in the middle of the night, and demanded “Did you know your son is a homosexual?” 

 “As the anonymous caller proceeded to disparage me, telling her how disgusted he was that I would call myself gay while claiming to be a Christian, she stuck up for me, telling him that he didn’t know what he was talking about, and that she was proud of me for being honest,” writes Justin. “Whatever disagreements she and I had, in this moment, she was my mother. And that was all that mattered.” (216)

The Gay Christian Network continued to grow and flourish, and became incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2004.

Writes Justin, “Before I even built the GCN website, I knew I had to make a critical decision about how this new group would handle differing opinions. I had once believed that gay relationships were sinful and that I would have to be celibate in order to serve God. I no longer believed that, but I had gay friends who still did. How was GCN going to respond to people like them?” (p. 221)

Justin took a page from another group, Bridges Across the Divide, which identified two very general categories for engaging this aspect of the conversation:

Side A: There are people from many backgrounds who for religious or other reasons believe that homosexual relationships have the same value as heterosexual relationships.
Side B: And there are those of many faiths who disagree, believing that only a male/female relationship in marriage is the Creator’s intent for our sexuality.

“In essence,” says Justin, “Side A holds that gay sex (like straight sex) is morally acceptable in the right circumstances. Side B holds that gay sex is inherently morally wrong.” (p. 222)

“Each of these groups might have many subgroups,” Justin acknowledges, and are just “broad terms…but they gave the group a way to talk about the issues.”

So Justin made the somewhat unconventional decision to include both Side A and Side B Christians in the Gay Christian Network. “I wanted all my gay Christian friends—celibate or not—to feel welcome, safe, and respected in this new space. I wanted to model for the church and the world that it is possible to live in loving, Christian community in the midst of significant theological disagreements. We developed some basic rules: Both ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’ people would be welcome at GCN, and within this space, both sides would agree not to try to convert or talk down to one another. GCN was to be a neutral zone, a place for people to put the culture war aside and know they are among friends.” (p.223)

Of course, this decision resulted in “regular hate mail from people on both sides,” but as the group continued to grow, it became “a safe haven for many thousands of LGBT Christians and a leader in the movement to educate Christians about LGBT issues.”

I can attest to that truth, and am profoundly grateful for Justin and his colleagues’ work at the Gay Christian Network. I pray for them regularly, and heartily recommend their resources for all who are interested in learning more.  

Chapter 15: The Way Forward

“Nearly every day, I hear a story about someone whose life has been torn apart by this culture war,” writes Justin, “and far too often, the Christians in their lives either left them to fend for themselves or took an active role in making their lives worse.”

In this chapter, Justin identifies seven things the Church must focus on if we want to create a better world for the next generation and move beyond the culture war mentality that is literally costing some gay Christians their lives:

1.  Christians must show more grace, especially in the midst of disagreement.

Justin tackles a lot in this section, but I want to direct our attention to his thoughts on the “love the sinner hate the sin” line that we hear so often from Christians regarding homosexuality. Justin explains how condescending and dehumanizing that expression sounds to the gay folks to whom it is often directed, “as if I’m now ‘the sinner’ rather than the person’s friend or neighbor, and ‘loving’ me has become the new project they’ve taken on out of obligation to God rather than a genuine interest in my well-being….When someone says they’re ‘loving the sinner,’ it sounds as  though the person being referred to is a ‘sinner’ in some sense that the speaker is not." Justin quotes Tony Campolo who said this:

“I always am uptight when somebody says…’I love the sinner, but I hate his sin.’ I’m sure you’ve heard that line over and over again. And my responses I, ‘That’s interesting. Because that’s just the opposite of what Jesus says. Jesus never says, ‘Love the sinner, but hat his sin.’ Jesus says, ‘Love the sinner, and hate your own sin. And after you get rid of the sin in your own life, then you can begin talking about the sin in your brother or sister’s life.’”

I think that’s a pretty great response. Justin also notes that “Jesus saved his lecturing and anger exclusively for the self-righteous and those who put barriers in the way of other trying to come to God”—the Pharisees and the moneychangers.

2.  We must educate Christians.

Justin is obviously passionate about confronting some of the misinformation floating around the Christian community regarding homosexuality—like, for example, that it is caused by bad parenting. He encourages Christians and churches to educate themselves and their congregations so that some of these harmful myths can be addressed. (Be sure to check out the Gay Christian Network for more ideas on how to do this well.)

3. We must move away from an ex-gay approach.

“Too many churches have relied in part on ex-gay ministries to be the ‘solution’ to the gay ‘problem,’” writes Justin. “In these churches, if a person comes out or admits to struggling with their sexual identity, they’re usually pointed to an ex-gay or ‘sexual brokenness’ ministry for healing. As we’ve already seen, this simply doesn’t work. I could share hundreds and hundreds of stories of people who poured their hearts into ex-gay programs, prayer, and other types of therapy, only to discover that neither they nor the others in their programs ever became straight.” (p. 234)

The “ex-gay” approach was the topic of our second discussion around Torn, and as I said there, I think this may be the most difficult reality for the Church, and evangelicals in particular, to accept—that we have to move beyond the default setting of trying to change people’s sexual orientation upon learning they are gay. I’m not saying it’s not possible for sexuality to shift (studies suggest that women’s sexuality may be a bit more fluid, for example, and as we’ve discussed in the past, sexuality exists on something of a continuum). But to assume and teach that an orientation change is normal, and to be expected with enough prayer and counseling, is misleading and dangerous. Like Justin, I have observed the devastating effects of this approach on families and individuals far too often not to speak out about it. We don't need to wait for more broken families or suicides or self-harm to prove that this approach doesn't work enough to advocate it as the default response. It's just not worth it. 

4.  Celibacy must be a viable option.

“In previous chapters,” Justin writes, “I explained how my own biblical study led me to the conclusion that God does not requires gay people to be celibate. I still believe that, and a growing number of other Christians are coming to the same conclusion. However…I think it’s important for all Christians—including those who disagree with me—to have the support and understanding of their brothers and sisters. Celibacy is an extremely difficult path. It can be lonely and disheartening. Gay Christians who believe this is God’s call for them need tremendous support from their church families.” (p. 238)

Justin points out that the church can be a tough environment for singles as it is, and so we have to work harder at creating an environment that is supportive of both heterosexual and homosexual singles. We’ll get more into this topic as we discuss Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, beginning next week.

5. We must shatter the myth that the Bible is anti-gay.

“As long as people believe the Bible is anti-gay, they will continue to believe the church is anti-gay as well,” writes Justin, “and the war between gays and Christians will continue. So far, neither side has done a very good job of challenging the notion that the Bible is antigay, leaving many people to believe they must choose either to follow the Bible or to love their gay friends.”  (p. 241)

Justin says that, too often, outspoken Christians on the traditional side give the impression that the Bible supports hostility toward LGBT people, while pro-gay advocates reinforce this assumption by arguing that the only way to treat LGBT people with respect is to throw out the Bible altogether.

“We may disagree on whether the Bible can be reconciled with same-sex marriage,” he says, “ but we should be able to agree that the Bible is not homophobic and does not justify the unkind attitudes some Christians have become known for.” (p. 243)

6. Openly gay Christians must find their place throughout the church.

“In a culture that sees gays and Christians as enemies, gay Christians are in a unique position to bring peace and change minds, writes Justin “….I think God wants to use gay Christians—along with bi Christians, and trans Christians, and others in similar situations—to help the church become what she’s supposed to be. That means that we who are gay and Christian must accept the calling and take our place in the church, working in the various ways we’re led to make the world and the church a better place. It also means that straight Christians must work to ensure that gay Christians are welcomed and supported at all levels of the church, and that their unique experiences and insights are honored.” (p. 245)

Justin acknowledges that this will likely create tension between Side A and Side B Christians, but points to Romans 14 as a guide. In that passage, the apostle Paul addresses the hotly-contested issue of eating food that had been sacrificed to idols and encourages Christians to refrain from judgment while also being careful not to make one another stumble.

The whole passage is worth reading again if you haven’t been by it in a while. Paul concludes: “Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister…So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

“When everyone was in agreement,” Justin notes, “Paul encouraged the church to take action. But when there was serious disagreement within the Body of Christ, Paul encouraged people to follow their consciences and allow other believers to do likewise. I believe the situation we’re facing today is the latter type.” (248)

I’m really interested in fleshing this idea out a bit more. And I confess I am a bit skeptical. I like the idea of not passing judgment while also not placing stumbling blocks in the way of fellow Christians who may take a more conservative stance. But at the same time, I worry that keeping one’s position between oneself and God, particularly in a situation like this, might perpetuate injustice. I don’t know. What do you all think?

7.  We must learn how to effectively dialog.

“For parents, this means listening to your kids,” Justin writes. “….For gay people, this means being patient with your Christian friends and family members….For pastors and churches, this means encouraging loving, open-minded dialogue not only within  your congregation, but with other congregations as well…For all of us, productive dialog means reaching out to people whose views and experiences are different from our own and having the patience to really listen to them with a goal of better understanding them and their worldviews.” (p. 248-251).

I hope that last point was accomplished in some small way in our dialog around Justin’s book. Your comments—from LGBT readers and straight readers, from Side A Christians to Side B Christians, to celibate gay friends to partnered gay friends— have been enlightening, humbling, challenging, insightful, and civil. I’ve learned a lot from discussions, especially from listening, and I hope you have too.

Some questions for discussion:

2.     What do you think of Justin’s seven points for moving forward? Are there one or two that especially resonate? One or two with which you struggle?

3.     Do you think Christians can take a Romans 14 approach to homosexuality by withholding judgment from gay Christians who are Side A while simultaneously encouraging Side B Christians by not placing stumbling blocks in their path?

And finally, if you haven’t already:

1.     Check out the Gay Christian Network.

2.     Read Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate by Justin Lee.

3.     Consider ordering a copy of the fantastic documentary, Through My Eyes, to learn more about what it’s like to be a gay Christian. (See the trailer below.)

4.     Thank Justin for bravely sharing his story. I suspect this guy gets more hate mail than I do, and that’s really saying something. You can leave a thank-you in the comment section or by leaving a review on Amazon if you’ve read Torn.

Again, thanks for the great discussion! We’ll pick it up again next week with Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting.

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