Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition wrote a hypothetical conversation between an anti-homosexuality Christian pastor and a pro-gay talk show host called “How I Wish the Homosexuality Debate Would Go”. Since this article was recommended on Facebook no less than 18,000 times, I take it that many Christians found it reasonable, likely even taking it to be an ideal representation of their own views. So, I want to take seriously this Christian speaking for many other Christians in his own fictional representative’s words. In this post, I offer the remarks I would make were I also on this show, responding to the hypothetical pastor’s each comment.
Host: You are a Christian pastor, and you say you believe the Bible, which means you are supposed to love all people.
Pastor: That’s right.
Host: But it appears to me that you and your church take a rather unloving position when it comes to gay people. Are homosexuals welcome to come to your church?
Pastor: Of course. We believe that the gospel is a message relevant for every person on the planet, and we want everyone to hear the gospel and find salvation in Jesus Christ. So at our church, our arms are outstretched to people from every background, every race, every ethnicity and culture. We’re a place for all kinds of sinners and people with all kinds of problems.
If the precondition of coming to your church is that they have to deny the moral validity of their deepest love longings or their committed romantic partnerships and consider their very sexual orientations themselves “problems”, then no they are not unconditionally welcome, nor accepted. And while all Christians are asked to make moral sacrifices, they are being asked to make sacrifices of their basic psychosexual identities and most important relationships. Unless you will treat their same sex marriages with the respect you would accord straight marriages, you are not welcoming them equally.
Host: So how do you reconcile the command to love all people with a position on homosexuality that some would say is radically intolerant?
Pastor: (smiling) If you think my position on homosexuality is radical, just wait until you hear what else I believe! I believe that a teenage guy and girl who have sex in the backseat of a pick-up are sinning. The unmarried heterosexual couple living down the street from me is sinning. In fact, any sexual activity that takes place outside of the marriage covenant between a husband and wife is sinful. What’s more, Jesus takes this sexual ethic a step further and goes to the heart of the matter. That means that any time I even lust after someone else, I am sinning. Jesus’ radical view of sexuality shows all of us up as sexual sinners, and that’s why He came to die. Jesus died to save lustful, homo-and heterosexual sinners and transform our hearts and minds and behavior. Because He died for me, I owe Him my all. And as a follower of Jesus, I’m bound to what He says about sex and morality.
Where in here do you actually demonstrate any love for gays, exactly? All you are doing here is claiming to spread your judgmental misery around equally. So, you’re smugly telling us that not only will gays have their every sexual desire treated as sinful, but even plenty of straight people’s sex will be demonized and plenty of straight people’s lusts themselves–even when not acted upon–will be condemned. Sexual straitjackets for everybody! As if that makes things better.
This sort of widespread pathologizing, repressing, and demoralizing people over what is often happy sex is not proof of anything loving or constructive. Teenagers are sexually mature long before it is wise for them to be married or having children in a modern industrialized society. It is working against their very healthy and normal biology and psychology to condemn them (or others) for having premarital sex. We should be actively educating them about their bodies, love, mutuality, consent, communication, and contraception so that they can be physically and emotionally happy and healthy in their relationships–be they sexual or not.
But more importantly, it is crucial to note that you are indeed still being specifically harder on gays than on straights since you are only telling straight people to constrain their sexuality to the marriage bed. While that may be unjustifiably onerous for most single straight people and for most polyamorous people, it is still far less overwhelmingly demanding than what you are offering gays; i.e., the choice between celibacy on the one hand or sex in a marriage to people of the sex or gender that they are not romantically and sexually oriented towards. You are effectively asking them to either never fulfill their sexuality at all or to fulfill it in precisely the ways they are not inclined to. To blithely compare that to injunctions to have sex only monogamously and to call that “loving” is incredibly thoughtless, shallow, callous, and, most of all, evasive. And, for what it’s worth, your tone here could not be more condescendingly glib and self-satisfied.
Host: But Jesus didn’t condemn homosexuality outright, did He?
Pastor: He didn’t have to. He went to the heart issue and intensified the commands against immoral behavior in the Old Testament. So Jesus doesn’t just condemn adultery, for example, as does one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus condemns even the lust that leads to adultery, all with the purpose of offering us transformed hearts that begin beating in step with His radical demands.
Here you beg the key question as to whether homosexuality is even immoral. On what grounds? There are numerous things condemned in the Old Testament which it is laughable to call immoral, like eating shellfish or getting tattoos. The Old Testament is unclear on which proscriptions are due to its perception of immorality and which are due to cleanliness concerns or environmental contingencies or hostilities to foreign religions or ritual purposes, etc.
Christians routinely disregard Old Testament commands as not being what Jesus was insisting was fully in effect anymore. You do that using your own good sense to determine what seems reasonable or what seems preposterous to treat as outright immoral anymore in the contemporary world. It is evasive to just assume homosexuality must fall into the category of clearly immoral things condemned by the Old Testament and not among the large category of its easily ignored fixations.
And it is damagingly extreme of Jesus to condemn lust so categorically. It is one of the proofs he is not even a good (let alone a perfectly divine) moral guide. It is destructive to demonize basic human drives rather than to encourage people to think of them in balanced ways that harness them for the good and avoid their potential for harm. I will take Aristotle’s views on being virtuously reasonable about our inclinations over Jesus’s dangerous extremism any day.
Host: You say he condemned adultery, but he chose not to condemn the woman caught in adultery.
Pastor: That’s right, but He did tell her to “go and sin no more.”
It is offensive to compare all gay sex and love categorically (including deeply committed kinds) to the betrayal of adultery. It is offensive to set Jesus up as a moral authority and then decide for him that he would actually tell gay people to “go and feel love no more with those you feel romantic love towards (and are in committed relationships with), and also go and have sex no more with members of the sex to whom you are most strongly attracted”. If that’s what Jesus meant, he was cruel, impractical, and hazardous.
Host: But who are you to condemn someone who doesn’t line up with your personal beliefs about sexuality?
Pastor: Who am I? No one. It’s not all that important what I think about these things. This conversation about homosexuality isn’t really about my personal beliefs. They’re about Jesus and what He says. I have no right to condemn or judge the world. That right belongs to Jesus. My hope is to follow Him faithfully. That means that whatever He says in regard to sexual practices is what I believe to be true, loving, and ultimately best for human flourishing – even when it seems out of step with the whims of contemporary culture.
Here you are weaseling away from owning up to your own deliberate interpretive decisions and the weight of responsibility you have in making them. It is irresponsible for you to act like your own moral judgments are not being imposed on the text when, in fact, such judgments are hardly just there on the surface, and to act like you are not rationally and morally responsible for choosing to trust the Bible or Jesus in the first place, but instead treating all of this as a matter of sheer passivity on your part. We can (and constantly do) think for ourselves about what is ultimately best for human flourishing. And we are responsible to think in evidence-based ways about this because the consequences for real people’s lives are so huge. Forced celibacy or forced sex and/or forced love with people of the sexes/genders we are not fundamentally attracted to are hardly candidates for maximal human flourishing.
Finally, it is offensive that you dismiss the quest for gay people to have their loves and their sexual orientations treated with dignity and equality as “the whims of contemporary culture”. This is not about whims, this is about people’s abilities to flourish as happily and healthily as possible with respect to crucial parts of their lives, love and sex. Your obtuseness to the reality of gay people’s demonstrable love and sex needs is not moral resolve in the face of dithering social fickleness, but a form of head-in-the-sand, self-serving stubbornness towards people who are different from you and whom you refuse to listen to with due moral seriousness when they describe their minds or their needs to you.
Host: But you are judging. You are telling all the gay people watching this broadcast that they are sinners.
Pastor: I’m not singling out gay people. I’m pointing to Jesus as the answer to all sexual sinfulness.
Host: But you are referring to gay people. Why are you so focused on homosexuality?
Pastor: (smiling) With all due respect, you are the one who brought up this subject.
This is also disingenuous. It is reactionary Christians like you who are actively and aggressively trying to drill into gay people’s heads that their sexual orientation, their desires, their romantic loves, and their entire sex lives are fundamentally and irredeemably immoral as they are. And these ideas torture countless religious gay people, especially vulnerable young people raised in predominantly Christian families or communities that make them terrified of their burgeoning thoughts and feelings.
And it is reactionary Christians like you who routinely make opposing gay love and sex a fundamental litmus test of contemporary orthodoxy and of loyalty to the Bible. And gay people will surely be singled out in that, when the rubber meets the road, they will simply not be able to have their marriages or their children as uncontroversially acknowledged as valid in your churches the way that other supposed sexual “sinners” (like those who lived together out of wedlock before marrying or single people sleeping together, or divorced parishioners) may.
To act like Christians are not actively picking this fight and not fighting it mercilessly and cruelly is outright dishonest.
Host: Are you saying that you can’t be gay and Christian?
Pastor: No. I’m saying that you can’t be a genuine Christian without repentance. Everyone – including me – is guilty of sin, but Christianity hinges on repentance. We agree with God about our sin, and we turn from it and turn toward Jesus. When it comes to Christianity, this debate is not about homosexuality versus other sins. It’s about whether or not repentance is integral to the Christian life.
Gays cannot legitimately turn away from (i.e., “repent) of their entire sexual orientation and it is destructive to make this, of all things, the precondition of their being a member of a faith that many of them are deeply psychologically attached to. This is not just a set of actions, it is a key constitutive factor in who they are, quite independent of their control, at least in the overwhelming majority of cases. And, again, without any clear explanation of what makes their actions supposedly wrong, it is arbitrary to demand they repent of them even were they stemming from freely chosen desires. Even bisexual people who could partner with straight people if they found the right ones, should feel free to be in gay relationships and have gay sex if it, as a matter of fact, is beneficial to them. Your dogmatic insistence that it could never be anything but sinful and harmful for them is refuted by their experiences in countless cases and so you offer them no rational basis to deny themselves their manifest pleasures.
Host: But do you see why a homosexual watching this might think you are attacking them personally? You’re saying that something is wrong with them.
Pastor: I think Jesus’ teaching on sexuality shows us that there is something wrong with all of us – something that can only be fixed by what Jesus did for us on the cross and in His resurrection. That said, I understand why people might think I am attacking them personally. Most people with same-sex desires believe they were born with these tendencies. That’s why they often see their attraction as going to the very core of who they are, and so they identify themselves with the “gay” label. So whenever someone questions their behavior or desires, they take it as an attack on the very core of their being. That’s usually not the intent of the person who disagrees with homosexual behavior. But that’s the way it is perceived. I understand that.
Host: If it’s true that a person is born with one sexual orientation or another, then how can it possibly be loving to condemn one person’s orientation?
Pastor: Well, we really don’t know for certain about sexual attraction being innate and set from birth. All we have is the testimony of people who say that they’ve experienced same-sex desires since childhood. Christianity teaches that all people are born with a bent toward sin. It’s possible that some people will have a propensity toward alcohol abuse or angry outbursts, while others may have a propensity toward other sins. Regardless, Christians believe people are more than their sexual urges. We believe that human dignity is diminished whenever we define ourselves by sexual urges and behaviors. Consider this: married men are sometimes attracted to multiple women who are not their wives. Does this mean they should self-identify as polygamists? Not at all. And surely you wouldn’t consider it hateful for Christians to encourage married men not to act on their desires in an effort to remain faithful to their spouses. It is the Christian way, after all.
Host: No, but it still seems like you are telling people not to be true to who they are.
Pastor: It only seems that way because you believe sexual desire reflects the core of one’s identity.
First of all this is not just about sexual desire. This recurring reductive attitude of yours is insulting to gay people. This is not just about some particular, optional sexual kink that otherwise sexually “normal” people have. It is about people’s fundamental romantic love orientation–an inevitable component of which is their sexuality. And basic sexual orientation itself goes beyond a mere sexual desire to a fundamental sexual attraction disposition in the world. And these things are core to people’s identities.
The most thoroughly institutionalized and celebrated relationships we have in contemporary Western culture are the spousal relationship and familial relationships. For countless people the choice of a marriage partner is considered one of the very most important ones in their entire lives. And we long ago abandoned the model of marriage as primarily an economic exchange. It is fundamentally important to contemporary Westerners that it be an institution centered on loving commitment.
People’s love lives are one of the central features of their entire life narratives. Were you to ask anyone to tell you about all the most important stories of their life but to omit all their references to their romantic or sexual life, most people would be bewildered at the contradictory request. Core psychological and social development happens through love and sex, and core needs and satisfactions are expressed and achieved through them. They’re central to most people’s stories of who they are. So, no, it should not be up to debate whether we should respect gays’ fundamental psychosexual love orientations as matters of fundamental identity.
Pastor: It would help if you and others who agree with you would understand that in your putting pressure on me to accept homosexual behavior as normal and virtuous, you are going to the very core of my identity as a follower of Jesus.
No, it is simply bizarre to claim that the core of following Jesus has something to do with believing homosexuality to be immoral. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. The idea that the core of following him is bound up with an opinion he never directly expressed and which can only be questionably inferred to be endorsed by him and which was never a part of central Christian creeds for centuries, is all a reactionary revisionist’s unconvincing stretch.
Pastor: The label most important to me is “Christian.” My identity – in Christ – is central to who I am. So I could say the same thing and call you intolerant, bigoted, and hateful for trying to change a conviction that goes to the core of who I am as a Christian.
There is nothing hateful about trying to change other people’s core beliefs and values. That’s not the problem. It’s the substance of your views, their implications, their implicit motivations, and their real and expectable effects that are what are at issue.
Pastor: I don’t say that because I don’t believe that’s your intention. But neither should you think it’s my intention to attack a homosexual person or cause them harm merely because I disagree.
You do harm gays by calling them sinners and demanding of them that they either renounce their entire fundamental psychosexual love orientation for either a life of celibacy or a life married to someone they are not even capable of fulfilling romantic, sexual attraction with.
Most people demanding you revise your theology are not even demanding you abandon your Christian faith. They are insisting you revise the parts that are demonstrably and destructively morally backwards. It is your very suspicious choice to think that these handful of destructive Bible verses cannot be reinterpreted when there are countless others that you are happy to blithely consider as completely irrelevant. You gladly interpret away, usually without even thinking about it, the parts about killing gays or disobedient children,. Also the numerous biblical celebrations of genocide–hopefully you are convinced God does not issue any of those anymore? No more child sacrifice, I take it? No more prohibitions against shellfish or tattoos or shaving or sex with women having their periods? No more forcing women to marry their rapists, right? And you’re not going on TV insisting that divorced people repent and remarry on penalty of excommunication for violating Jesus’s explicit and unequivocal prohibitions against divorce (presumably even in the case of violent spousal abuse), right?
You selectively reinterpret the Bible constantly. Sometimes you do it in self-serving ways. Other times you just make it up to date with what we now realize about morality and human flourishing which the barbarous Old Testament was embarrassingly clueless about. Your choice to dig in your heels against a vulnerable minority like gays and to redefine your entire faith such that opposing their love and their sex is suddenly so core to your very faith that you cannot even abide their equal moral or legal rights is all remarkably suspicious. What, if not bigotry, motivates your intransigence against responding to the cries of gay people about how your sermons and your actions make them miserable? What else blockades your compassion except your rationally ungrounded disgusts, traditionalism, and immunity from the demands of celibacy or sex against one’s own inclinations that you’re trying to shove down gay people’s throats?
Host: But the problem is, your position fosters hate and encourages bullying.
Pastor: I recognize that some people have mistreated homosexuals in the past. It’s a shame that anyone anywhere would mock, taunt, or bully another human being made in God’s image.
So it is a shame that whoever wrote the book of Leviticus called for gays to be killed, then, right? And yet, you renounce your right to reassess any of your moral categories that differ from his?
Pastor: That said, I think we need to make one thing clear in regard to civil discourse: To differ is not to hate. I hope we can still have a real conversation in this country about different points of view without casting one another in the worst possible light.
When you cast a group of people’s basic sexual orientation, propensities for romantic love and harmlessly happy sexual behaviors as fundamentally evil you are casting them in the worst possible light. And documentably, it is reactionary Christians who disown their gay family members (leading to the epidemic of homeless gay teens), actively campaign to deny gays equal rights in employment, housing, marriage, inheritances, and other services, teach their children to make fun of gays as freaks, actively agitate against protections for gay kids against bullying, clothe irrational bigoted disgusts towards gays in moral superiority, push their gay kids into destructive “reparative” therapies, spread demonizing lies about gay culture and psychology, try to scapegoat gays for child rape, cynically seed and exploit homophobia for ruthless political gain, fearmonger that homosexuality will lead to the destruction of our entire society (supposedly a la Sodom and Gamorah), advocate for anti-sodomy laws, etc., etc. This is not just “some people” who do these hateful things. They are unequivocally Christians or people preying on gays because they are vulnerable due to Christians marginalizing them in the first place.
Yes, you can oppose homosexuality from other emotions than hate. You can be sincere in your beliefs. But your beliefs can also be irresponsibly just as devastating to gay people’s lives as though they were hatefully held even when they are felt as benignly as possible. And there is quite a lot of demonstratable antipathy towards gays coursing through the reactionary Christian community. And even where there is not psychological antipathy there is a strong desire to perpetuate perceptions of homosexuality as sinful. There is a desire to read the Bible that way. There is a mixture of indifference and denialism with respect to the psychological and social damage that this is causing countless gay people. And in countries like Russia and Uganda we are seeing gays dangerously oppressed where reactionary Christians actually have the power to enshrine and enforce laws consistent with American reactionary Christians’ despicable beliefs (in the Uganda case at least, these laws are written with the explicit input of American reactionary Christians).
Pastor: The idea that disagreeing with homosexual behavior necessarily results in harm to gay people is designed to shut down conversation and immediately rule one point of view (in this case, the Christian one) out of bounds.
No, it is a response to overwhelmingly common reports from gay people about how serious and deep their sexual and romantic attractions are and how damaging messaging that they are pathological, immoral, or sinful are to them. It is a response to empirical observation–not a conspiracy against your reactionary brand of Christianity. This is not an a priori prejudice designed to silence you. It is a conclusion that you are wrong and in fact hurting people. Your arbitrary fiat claims about good and evil and what makes people flourish which makes no reference to any evidence beyond dubious (and dubiously interpreted) Bible verses is not sufficient rational evidence to overcome the experiences of countless gay people in assessments of truth about what is good or bad for them.
You present this as though you’re a fan of open, unprejudiced debate that listens to all voices, and yet, evincing not the slightest humility or openness, you act as though you speak for God authoritatively and uncompromisingly and as though your view is the only Christian one (eliding the existence of very real dissent from other Christians, including unapologetically gay ones). And the substance of your views has nothing to do with objective evidence on common standards that all rational people could accept and be persuaded by. Rather your entire arguments are just Bible thumps.
Why is a secular audience or a non-reactionary Christian audience to take your complete reliance on Bible verses seriously? Why should we hold off on giving gays equal moral respect and equal treatment any longer because of your prima facie preposterous claim that fulfilling one’s (often lifelong) sexual and romantic orientation is more harmful to gay people than either being celibate or trying to sexually love those they’re not fundamentally attracted to? Why should we dismiss the testimony of the overwhelming majority of gays about the harm done to them when they tried desperately to conform to your insistence they make themselves heterosexual or sexless because you have Bible verses that assert without evidence that they’re wrong?
You believe the Bible by faith. That means your trust in it is a belief willfully adhered to despite an admitted lack of sufficient rational evidence for it. Such non-evidential moral claims are worthless against the testimony of living, breathing, loving, suffering real life gay people who have tried things your way and been damaged.
Pastor: As a Christian, I am to love my neighbor and seek his good, even when I don’t see eye to eye with my neighbor. Furthermore, the picture of Christ on the cross dying for His enemies necessarily affects the way I think about this and other issues.
And now gays are no longer “just like any other sinners” after all but enemies. I’m sure they can really feel the love now.