Last week, Christianity Today‘s spinoff Leadership Journal published a joke of a piece called “Help, I’m Gay.” Unfortunately not satirical, it’s an imagined conversation between Pastor Stanton L. Jones and a fictional gay man (“Todd“) whose comments are “a composite drawn from many of Stan’s interactions” with LGBT people who are unhappy in the church.
The premise of the piece is pretty similar to lots of other “conversations” we see between conflicted LGBT Christians and their smiling-but-belittling church leaders. Lots of loving the sinner and hating the sin; lots of suggesting that being true to God should be prioritized over being true to oneself. And, as always, plenty of unanswered questions and/or vague responses:
Todd: I’m not inclined to think the Scriptures are just wrong. But why does God condemn homosexual conduct? Does he hate me? That’s what Romans 1 seems to imply.
Jones: I am not sure I have a great answer for that. The Scriptures relate the commands but do not give extensive justifications of those commands.
Oh, good. That’s helpful! Patheos’ Tony Jones (I assume there’s no relation, but I’ll refer to him as Tony for clarity’s sake) discussed the faux interview last week, taking serious issue with the pastor’s ultimate suggestion that gay people should shamefully confess their identities to a church official and ask to take on a desired leadership position, anyway. Tony writes:
I think we can all agree that this is some bad advice. If you’re gay, don’t tell your evangelical pastor, “I’m a man who feels sexual attraction to other men, but I’m staying chaste. Can I please serve as a leader in this church?”
No, don’t do that.
Instead, find another church.
There’s more bad advice at play here than simply the pastor’s suggestion to throw your livelihood away in the spirit of leading a bigoted church. In fact, pretty much every one of Pastor Jones’ responses reeks of anti-gay prejudice and homophobia — which is especially problematic when this article posits itself as the ultimate answer for struggling LGBT Christians.
To begin, Jones characterizes homosexuality as a form of “sexual brokenness” and evokes the usual Biblical verses that some people interpret to mean being gay is sinful. But then he takes this standard argument a step further, suggesting that Scriptures should take precedence over a person’s lived experiences or their own personal relationship with God.
Prominent New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson (writing in Commonweal, 2007) said: “I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.” He is straightforward that the Bible condemns all homosexual behavior. His proposed response has intellectual integrity, even if, in my opinion, it is spiritually disastrous. As a progressive, he concludes, “I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture.”
He rejects the Bible’s commands on the basis of the authority of experience, namely, what he regards as the exemplary spirituality of gay and lesbian Christians he knows.
But one of the foundations of classic Christian belief is that our God is a God who reveals himself and his will for us in the Scriptures, and that the Scriptures can be trusted absolutely. I would urge you not to just reject the Scriptures.
Of course, the Biblical stance on same-sex relationships is ambiguous. And for every Bible-thumper who declares that Jesus decried men laying with men, another person will bring up the intimate relationships between David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi, sometimes thought to be Biblical representations of same-sex couples. (P.S.: Plenty more rebuttals to the commonly-used Biblical arguments against homosexuality can be found here.) But to suggest that there’s no possible way to reconcile being gay with the hard-and-fast instructions in the Bible because the book is more important than a person’s own beliefs is truly troubling.
So, from its very beginning, this so-called advice column is painfully flawed.
When Fictional Todd asks why God hates homosexual conduct — “Does he hate me?” — Pastor Jones doesn’t have an answer for him. He speaks at length about the significance of the trinity between man, woman and God, namely the only familial arrangement that deems a person worthy of holy love. (Married and chaste? Sorry. Single and sexual? No blessings for you.)
But then he has the audacity to suggest that a gay Christian should just pretend not to be gay in order to get more in touch with their faith. And this discussion of “radical obedience” is where we see more clearly than ever just how toxic this “advice” is:
A fundamental question that you will face time and time again is “What is the core of my identity?” The message that comes from the world today is that your sexual orientation is the core of your identity: “Who are you? You are gay.” End of discussion. I believe the Christian faith would call us to a different answer. The calling to be a disciple of Christ is a calling to radical obedience, to become that which we are not. All of us face a fundamental challenge of reforming our identity into Christ. We face fundamental questions of what God made us to be. The overarching teaching of Scripture is that we are called to become like Christ, and that calls us on a journey of self-sacrifice.
Next, we get a reference to that somehow-not-yet-dead question of whether or not sexual orientation can be changed. (Of course, nothing about the pastor’s response is rooted in any decent science.)
Todd: Well, that’s not totally convincing, but I wasn’t expecting a waterproof answer. A lot of God’s commands are mysterious. So what about the change question? Can my orientation change?
Jones: The best answer is an unequivocal “perhaps.”
No, it’s not. This has been proven time and time again, and it’s vile to suggest otherwise. While the pastor’s column does say that a gay Christian should be wary of any program that promises a “cure” for homosexuality, it also suggests that people who suppress their same-sex attractions or take on a life of chastity as an alternative to being LGBT are much better off, even if it means they will still face a degree of hostility from the church:
Many of our churches so emphasize family life that those who are single are treated as if their lives are “on hold” until they get married. The individuals who are succeeding at this life of chastity tend to be people who have found committed, chaste relationships in Christ of care with same-sex and opposite-sex sisters and brothers. To succeed in this direction, you have to face the risks of sharing your story with more people, and be ready to challenge your church and other Christian communities to be a help rather than a hindrance in your pursuit of God’s will for your life.
Soon after suggesting that gay Christians should seek help from mental health professionals to “heal” their same-sex attractions, Jones attempts miserably to explain what makes a person gay. His claim is that it’s very minimally related to genetics and biology, and largely related to environmental factors:
There’s a statistical measure of the power of a genetic influence called “heritability,” and the heritability of same-sex orientation is approximately on par with the heritability of many common attributes of personality and many proclivities towards certain types of behavior, such as the proclivity toward church attendance or even television watching. And few of us would say that we go to church or watch television because our genes made us do it.
Persons from broken homes or an absent parent, or who have experienced some form of sexual abuse, appear more likely to struggle with same-sex attraction and engage in homosexual behavior than those who have not experienced those things.
What a horrific analogy. Suggesting that a person is gay because of childhood abuse or a broken home is perhaps one of the grossest things you can say to them, and it blatantly defies all kinds of research to say that sexual orientation isn’t substantially inherent. But are we really surprised that a person like this doesn’t check his facts?
In his last act before bowing out, Jones says outright what we know he’s thinking: that we’re all just sick.
In many ways the decision decades ago by the major mental health organizations that homosexuality is not a mental illness is right. Experiencing same-sex desires does not itself qualify as a mental illness. But what was wrong about that decision is the false conclusion drawn by many that same-sex attractions (and other sexual variations) are as normal as heterosexual inclination. Further, many make the false claim that homosexual persons are just as emotionally healthy on average as heterosexuals, which is simply empirically not true. Homosexual orientation is consistently associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and similar conditions, even if many gay and lesbian persons are not depressed, anxious, and so forth.
Perhaps it never occurred to the pastor that the incessant discrimination, ostracism and bigotry LGBT people face from churches like his are the primary reason for all that depression and anxiety. But he and his backers are too closed-minded to accept that there could be any way of thinking aside from their own — even if it means turning the other cheek at the number of lives they’re hurting.
In his final resounding piece of advice to Imaginary Todd, Pastor Jones offers this: Acknowledge that you are sinful, immoral and broken. Tell your church so. And then, after promising that you won’t give in to your sinful, immoral brokenness, ask for a leadership position in the church that you obviously love more than you love yourself.
And now we’re back to Tony’s critique of the pastor’s advice. Tony suggests finding another church, where announcing your status as a second-class citizen is not a prerequisite for gaining the respect of your peers. But for those who are as disturbed as I am with the pastor’s suggestion that this process should guide the way for LGBT people in any Christian faith, that’s not a strong enough solution.
If ever you’re made to feel this terribly about being who you are, don’t just leave the church — leave the faith.