A recent Christianity Today article explained “How to Evangelize Your LGBT Neighbors.” It’s easy to assume that gay rights have been won, based on Obergefell and marriage equality, and, given polling on the increasing acceptance of LGBT rights, that the fight is over and won. But as far as things have come, mainstream evangelical magazines like Christianity Today are still treating homosexuality as a disorder. What does evangelizing your gay neighbor look like in 2018? Let’s take a look and find out, and unpack how things have–and have not–changed.
The article is written by Rosaria Butterfield. Butterfield has a very strange (and fairly uncommon) biography. In 1999, Butterfield was a lesbian tenured professor of English and Women’s Studies Departments, with a research focus on feminist theory and queer theory. Then she converted to Christianity, left academia, married the pastor of a Reformed Presbyterian Church (i.e. Calvinist), became a homemaker, had several children, and became a homeschooling mother.
Butterfield is perhaps best known now for her anti-gay activism. Interestingly, Butterfield never claimed that her sexual orientation changed, and she’s been critical of conversion therapy. Her claim is not that “sexual temptations” change, but rather that they should not prevent someone from living a whole and godly life. Or something like that.
And so, with that as her background, Butterfield sets out to explain to the evangelical readers of Christianity Today how to evangelize their gay neighbors—presumably, from experience.
Butterfield begins as follows:
Some believe that we live in the midst of a moral revolution, with “liquid modernism” flooding into the bulwarks and mainstays of post-Christian cultures. Others call this sort of talk “alarmist” and believe that we live in the days of happy progress, where we can finally realize a true melting pot of human potential. No one feels this tension more than Christian parents whose children are, for a season—perhaps for a very long season—lost to the LGBT community and its values. It can feel shameful to admit to others in your church that you are torn between your faith and your child and that you fear losing one for the other.
She didn’t take time to wade in. She went all in.
Moreover, Butterfield takes time to sympathize with evangelical parents whose children are “lost to” the LGBT community. She doesn’t seem spare a thought for young LGBT people rejected by their families. Their suffering does not matter.
Butterfield does, however, address the suffering of LGBT individuals who are still in the church. Their suffering matters to her, perhaps because she knows thier pain—denying same-sex attractions while attending a church that teaches that these attractions are sin, wrestling with that day in and day out, while getting the stink-eye from fellow Christians.
For others, perhaps you feel the weight of those in your church who struggle with same-sex attraction and are faithful members of your church, forsaking sin and living in chastity, but still feeling torn between the culture of the church and the culture of the world. Or perhaps you are someone who also struggles with same-sex attraction. You are silent, though, and the hateful things people in your church say make you more silent every day. If you are someone struggling with same-sex attraction in God’s way—forsaking sin, drinking deeply of the means of grace—then you are a hero of the faith. Nothing less.
I am no psychoanalyst, but this appears to be how Butterfield does it—she labels her sexual attractions sin, but in exchange she gets to view herself as a “hero of the faith.” There is meaning in that, in telling yourself that your suffering is for a cause, that you are more than just an individual person with an ordinary life. You are a hero of the faith.
Butterfield set out to talk about evangelizing your LGBT neighbors. After this introduction, she returns to that theme:
For all of these burdens—parental, communal, or personal—the Bible has the answer for it: the practice of daily, ordinary, radical hospitality. I believe that if Christians lived communally, then people who struggle with same-sex attraction would not be driven away from the church for intimacy but instead would find real intimacy within the family of God.
That small paragraph right there is the core of her message. She believes, in other words, that if the church fostered a deeper sense of intimacy among members of the church, LGBT individuals would not leave this intimacy to find intimacy elsewhere. I wish I knew more about the psychology or sociology behind terms like intimacy. I have always used the term differently in a sexual or romantic context than elsewhere—a distinction Butterfield seems to want to erase.
If LGBT people had access to deep, intimate friendships and community bonds, Butterfield contends, they would not have the same need or desire for sexual and romantic relationships. I don’t think that’s true. Yes, all people need friendship, and community. But would Butterfield apply her claim that intimate friendships and deep community bonds can replace a desire for romantic and sexual bonding to straight people, too? Does she suggest that no one should marry?
Consider a commune where no one marries, where all members live communally in friendship. Even there you would still see sexual desires, and couples pairing off. The only way to avoid that would be some sort of totalitarian system that limits the amount of time you can spend with any one person, or bars two people from ever being alone together.
Yet Butterfield is not talking about eliminating straight marriage, only about creating close communities and doing more to accept and normalize singleness. There are serious limitations here. Remember in Forbid Them Not, when Cooper says he was especially lonely that night in New York City because he had just spent the evening with Peter and Gwen, and that seeing them together reminded him of how lonely he is, being single? That would happen, all the time.
But let’s move on:
Where should you start? As a church community, designate a house where members live and where people can gather daily. And then start gathering daily. And not by invitation only. Make it a place where the day closes with a meal for all, and with Bible reading and prayer, and where unbelievers are invited to hear the words of grace and salvation, where children of all ages are welcome, and where unbelievers and believers break bread and share ideas shoulder to shoulder. This is the best way that I know of to evangelize your LGBT neighbors—and everyone else.
I first saw the gospel lived and loved in a house like this.
This gives us more information about Butterfield’s own background, but it also raises a whole bunch of questions in my mind. I live in a community where I know many of my neighbors. This is intentional. We do not have people over daily—I’m not that much of an extrovert—but we have acted intentionally to be there for our neighbors, to be the home where our friends’ children know they are always welcome, to create a sense of belonging, and community.Here’s the difference—my hospitality isn’t bait. I’m not trying to reel people in to convert them to my brand of some religion. I practice my own version of radical hospitality, because I believe that helping others and creating community is the right thing to do, not because I have some sort of ulterior motive. I don’t. I don’t invite people in my house because I want to change them. I invite them into my house because I want to know them, no strings attached.
Butterfield gives a nod to sharing ideas “shoulder to shoulder,” but the overall import of her words is clear—this is not about an equal exchange of ideas. It is not about neighbors learning from each other’s experiences. It is about one set of people who are convinced they already know everything, and that their job is merely to dispense what they already know to their neighbors, who have only inferior knowledge. “Come, learn from us” is not hospitality.
Butterfield discusses Ken and Floy Smith, who practiced this radical hospitality for her, when she was a new Christian, and newly broken up with her partner (“because I knew that obedience to Christ was commanded”). Butterfield says that as she grew as a Christian, and learned from the Smiths, “Union with Christ” emerged as “a central component” to her identity.
The way to evangelize your LGBT neighbors is the same way the Smiths evangelized me: by reminding them that only the love of Christ is seamless. Not so for our spouses or partners. Only Christ loves us best. He took on all our sin, died in our place bearing God’s wrath, and rose victorious from the dead. And yes, Christ calls us to be citizens of a new world, under his lordship, under his protection, under his law.
That’s … cool … but Christ doesn’t wash the dishes after supper. He isn’t in bed next to you when you wake up. He doesn’t audibly respond when you tell him how your day went. He can’t rub your back when it hurts. And maybe Butterfield would say that that’s part of radical hospitality, eating together, talking together, rubbing someone’s back if it hurts, but I’m going to come back to what I said before—you’re still going to end up with sexual attractions and pairing.
I’m also skeptical that it’s possible to practice radical hospitality on the level you’d need here without burning out.
And Christ puts the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6)—and he calls us to live in a new family of choice: God’s family. So we evangelize the LGBT family by living differently than others, by living without selfishness or guile.
I’m actually seeing a bit of guile, in that the entire purpose of practicing radical hospitality is to evangelize people.
Imagine your neighbors began inviting people over every night and sharing meals, but all they wanted to talk about is how happy they were to be members of The Way of the Purple Mermaids, and how much the Great Sea Shell helped them in their lives, and didn’t you want to hear more? And if you said hey, can I tell you about a problem I’ve having at work, they responded by telling you that The Book of the Purple Sea Turtle had advice for your situation. Wouldn’t you feel like their whole “radical hospitality” thing maybe came with some strings that weren’t originally divulged?
I’d have much less trouble if this weren’t in an article titled “How to Evangelize Your LGBT Neighbors.” If this were in an article calling on Christians to build community and help each other, to invite their neighbors over regularly, to get to know their neighbors, to be their for their neighbors if they need help, I wouldn’t have an issue—despite the fact that doing these things would involve mentioning a Bible verse when giving requested advice, or sharing one’s beliefs when asked. I don’t have a problem with people being open about their beliefs. I have a problem with people being sneaky.
This bit, though, I am less bothered by:
The gospel promises that our neighbors who leave the LGBT community for Christ will receive a hundredfold blessing of new family in Christ. From where will this hundredfold come? Will it drop from the sky? No. It comes not only through the presence of Christ in us but also from individual Christian families and from the body of Christ as found in the local church. This means that while there is solitude, there is no chronic loneliness. This means that birthdays and holidays are spent with your family of God.
This means that you are known and you know. This means that you live a life filled with godly intimacy. If the church is not ready to deliver on this hundredfold promise, to what are we calling our friends?
If you’re going to urge LGBT people to remain in the church but practice celibacy, you damn well better actually let them be a full member of the church. None of this second-class Christian thing. It’s still a horrible choice to force people to make—to keep their religion and forego romantic and marital intimacy, or to leave their religion and family—and it’s a manufactured choice. But don’t pretend there’s room in your church for celibate LGBT people if there’s not.
Toward the end, Butterfield addresses how to treat people, and the free exchange of ideas:
In a culture of biblical hospitality, we develop real friendships. We talk about our differences as people who can see each other’s point of view even if we don’t share it.
When we meet a neighbor who identifies within the spectrum of LGBT life and identity, we commit ourselves to listening and to treating each person we meet as an individual. We understand that sins of identity run deep and hard.
I was with Butterfield until the last sentence—you’re not truly treating someone as an individual if you come into it with assumptions about them, and a preformed conclusion that they are embroiled in sin. I also think I figured out why Butterfield’s advice feels cultish to me—I looked it up, and her entire conversion story reads like the story of someone joining a cult. It’s unsurprising, then, that she would provide advice that sounds like cult recruitment tips.
Maybe try being a good neighbor because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re trying to get your neighbor to leave their spouse and convert to your religion. Also, maybe try admitting that intimacy among friends is not the same as intimacy between romantic partners. I get that it’s the same word, but it’s really not the same thing.
I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!