When conscience and ‘obedience’ pull in opposite directions

A couple weeks ago we looked at a helpful short post from Danny Coleman in which he discussed the anxious conflict gnawing at many Christians who are reluctantly convinced that obedience to God’s Law requires them to be unkind, unjust and unloving to LGBT people. Coleman pithily describes those Christians’ dilemma:

They do not hate or fear LBGT people. They fear God. They carry a perception of the wrathful Old Testament God who will destroy cities or nations if “sin” is found in the camp. … Attempts to reconcile this ancient God of wrath with the God of love and inclusion that Jesus represented tend to create a sort of cognitive and spiritual dissonance. And so, most Christians don’t hate and fear gays — they really want to love them. What they fear is God’s wrath and what they hate is the idea of the destruction God will bring down if LGBT people are accepted — if “sin” is allowed.

The problem is that even for Christians bound by such a stunted view of sin, conscience says something else. Conscience tells them that even if they don’t feel fear or hatred, behaving as if they fear or hate others is still wrong. So they feel trapped — torn between the conflicting demands of conscience and “obedience.” If they avoid the guilt of sinful disobedience by allowing “sinful” others in the camp, they incur the guilt of mistreating those others. Conscience pulls them toward love of the other; “obedience” pulls them in the other direction.

You can see the enormous strain of this being-pulled-apart in a recent guest-post by Peter Wehner at Tim Dalrymple’s blog on Patheos’ evangelical channel. The post, titled “An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality,”* reveals Wehner’s struggle to reconcile the tug of conscience with what he perceives as the demands of obedience. He begins by stating that “I’d associate myself with the views of Timothy J. Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City,” linking to a recent discussion in which Keller inadvertently restated, endorsed and underlined the point Danny Coleman made above. Keller said:

If you say to everybody, “Anyone who thinks homosexuality is a sin is a bigot,” [Jonathan Rauch] says, “You are going to have to ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible.” Completely disassemble their whole approach to authority. You are basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their entire faith out the door.

That, in a nutshell, is the fear Coleman describes. And it is the fear that pervades Wehner’s argument.

But Wehner is also more honest than Keller. Keller pretends as though the accusation of bigotry arises solely from the belief that “homosexuality is a sin.” Wehner recognizes that, in reality, the accusation of bigotry arises from Christian support for legally enforced bigotry. He seems to recognize that the problem is not so much that Christians like himself believe “homosexuality is a sin,” but rather that this belief has led many such Christians to deny full legal equality to LGBT people. I am an enthusiastic, almost obsessive, coffee-drinker. I don’t think Mormons are bigots because they regard drinking coffee as a kind of sin. But if the Saints suddenly lost their minds and began lobbying for laws denying coffee-drinkers like myself the right to marry, or insisting that it should be legal for employers to fire coffee-drinkers, then, yes, that would be bigotry.

Wehner doesn’t explicitly call out Keller for the self-serving disingenuousness of his “Anyone who thinks homosexuality is a sin” straw-man nonsense, but I give Wehner credit for acknowledging the legitimate substance of the complaints about anti-gay bigotry. The main thrust of his argument is to challenge that substance without challenging the belief he shares with Keller, that homosexuality is a sin.

Wehner’s conclusion isn’t wholly conclusive. He seems extremely cautious not to be perceived as advocating “disobedience” lest he incur the wrath of God or of the tribal gatekeepers of evangelicalism. But he’s clearly pointing toward a solution that I think can work for conservative evangelicals like Wehner or Keller or Dalrymple. They don’t need to change their theology or their hermeneutics in order to stop denying other people full legal equality and civil rights:

I think it’s reasonable to say that even for orthodox Christians,** how the Scriptural injunctions against homosexual behavior should manifest themselves in modern American law and society are not self-evident. For example, you might believe homosexual conduct is not what God intended but (like idolatry) that view should not be written in law.

I’d be quite pleased if more anti-gay Christians would settle on that view. (Keller calls this a “Neo-Anabaptist” position, but really it’s just plain Baptist — more Roger Williams than John Howard Yoder.)

My main point here, though, is not the conclusion of Wehner’s argument or the logic he uses in getting there. What strikes me more is the impulse compelling him to make this anguished argument — which, again, is the strain of being pulled in opposite directions by the demands of conscience and the demands of “obedience.” For Wehner, as for many white  evangelicals, “their whole approach to authority” compels them to believe that God demands a “firm stance” opposing homosexuality. Yet Wehner’s conscience is pulling him the other way — he seems to genuinely regret the harm that is being done to LGBT people by Christians who advocate laws denying their civil rights.

The pangs of conscience are clearest toward the end of Wehner’s post, when he recalls a conversation with former InterVarsity president Steve Hayner:

“I doubt whether God will have much to say about our political convictions in the end,” Steve said to me, “but I’m quite sure that he will have something to say about how we loved the least, the marginalized, the outcasts, the lonely, the abused — even when some think that they have it all. Political convictions that lead toward redemption and reconciliation are most likely headed in the right direction.”

Hayner describes a trajectory leading “toward redemption and reconciliation” and emphasizing the powerless, “the outcasts, the lonely, the abused.” And Wehner says, “It seems to me there is great wisdom in his words.”

It seems that way to me, too. But I should warn Wehner that the gatekeepers of the white evangelical tribe don’t look kindly on anyone who allows this wisdom to shape their hermeneutic. That, they say, would be disobedient. It would “ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible. Completely disassemble their whole approach to authority.” You’d be asking them to kick their faith out the door and they’d prefer, instead, to kick you out of the tribe.

Just ask Steve Chalke. Chalke’s evangelical credentials were beyond question — even more than Keller’s or Wehner’s or Dalrymple’s. But he was judged to have headed too far “in the right direction” of reconciliation and love for the outcast, and he was banished from the evangelical tribe — cast into the outer darkness with the mainliners, the “progressives” and the Episcopalians.

But here’s the joyous thing that Steve Chalke discovered. He’s not anguished. He’s not torn between conscience and obedience. For Chalke, obedience to God and conscience are pulling in the same direction. That unity of direction is at the root of the meaning of the word “integrity,” which is why Chalke’s farewell letter to the tribal gatekeepers — his manifesto in support of marriage equality — was titled, “A Matter of Integrity: The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation.”

When conscience and obedience are integrated — when they are pulling in the same direction — then faith becomes something that perpetually challenges us to become better people. It calls us to constantly expand our love and our capacity for love and to move ever onward, ever outward and ever Christward.

Peter Wehner is clearly aware of the discomfort and anxiety that comes from the kind of faith Danny Coleman described and Tim Keller endorsed — a form of faith in which conscience and obedience are at odds, pulling in opposite directions. It’s like being stretched on a rack. And, one way or the other, such faith will always entail being racked with guilt.

Maybe Steve Chalke is right. Maybe God is a better person than you think. Maybe obedience to what God wants doesn’t have to produce a queasy, uneasy conscience and the nagging sense that treating others unkindly and unfairly is still wrong, even when it’s done out of a sincere attempt to be obedient.

I’ve experience both forms of faith — the fearful kind Coleman describes and the fearless sort Steve Chalke advocates. The latter is a lot more joyful.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I had a hard time getting past that title, which seems like the archetypal headline for any in-group discussion of out-group people. You could fill a bookshelf with the unspoken assumptions packed into and conveyed by those six words: An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality.

Here are some potential alternate versions of that title:

• “A Member of the Tribe Observes Outsiders.”

• “I am a legitimate person. You are an issue and an abstraction.”

• “The Myopia of Privilege.”

• “Jonah looks at the Ninevites.”

• “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a homosexual.”

• “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. And you’re welcome.”

That actual title — “An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality” — includes something of all of those, and more. And that’s before we even consider the false assumption that “an evangelical Christian” must, by definition, be looking at homosexuality from the outside — that no evangelicals are LGBT and no LGBT persons are evangelicals. (Here are links to more than a dozen blogs written by people who are both.)

While there’s something of that attitude pervading the whole post, the general spirit of Wehner’s piece is better than that title.

In general, though, I’m way beyond tired of articles and blog posts titled “An Evangelical Christian Looks at …” It’s long past time for a new wave of articles titled, instead, “An Evangelical Christian Listens to …”

** The colloquial use of “begs the question” to mean “raises the question” leaves us without a term for what Wehner is doing here. “Orthodox Christians,” he says, are those who believe the Bible declares homosexuality to be a sin. And we know that the Bible says so because this is what “orthodox Christians” say the Bible says. He’s assuming the initial point. Or presuming it, actually.

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  • “An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality”

    I’m…pretty sure the first image that came to my mind from that title isn’t what he intended.

    Okay, back to reading the article.

  • Now now, they’re not all like Peter LaBarbera. ;)

  • David_Evans

    “For example, you might believe homosexual conduct is not what God intended but (like idolatry) that view should not be written in law.”

    That’s very well put. Consider also the commandment to do no work on the Sabbath. As one of ten explicit commandments this surely must have a very high priority, but I don’t know any Christians who want it to be the law of the land.

  • Drinking coffee is not at the heart of your being. Sexuality is at the heart of anyone’s being. So thinking homosexuality is a sin is completely and utterly different from thinking drinking coffee is a sin. People can give up coffee relatively readily, even if they’re highly addicted to it. Someone can’t give up their sexuality. Further, coffee really is kinda unhealthy. Being attracted to people of the same sex is not.

    The comparison is unworthy of you, Fred. In trying to defend certain Christians, you’ve bent so far that you’ve smacked the people they’re oppressing. The belief that homosexuality is a sin is incredibly wrong. It’s wrong factually and it’s wrong morally. It harms people. It’s not okay.

  • AnonaMiss

    I got the impression that Fred was less trying to defend them, so much as offering them a baby step, and a way to save face in their hateful culture while taking that baby step. Most people are unable to make the jump from “Everyone I know says that if I’m ok with letting gay people marry then I hate Jesus” straight to “It’s OK to be gay.”

    Sometimes you need to go to where someone is to begin to lead them out.

  • But he was judged to have headed too far “in the right direction” of
    reconciliation and love for the outcast, and he was banished from the
    evangelical tribe — cast into the outer darkness with the mainliners,
    the “progressives” and the Episcopalians.

    I always crack up when Episcopalians are called out like this.

    Mostly because I am one.

    (And a queer one to boot.)
    Don’t be afraid of the outer darkness! We’re Episcopalians! We’ve got enough candles for everyone and at Easter that’s not even enough, we set stuff on FIRE to get our symbolic New Light.

  • And in doing so, he compared homosexuality to coffee drinking. Which is a minor choice in someone’s life. Comparing someone’s sexuality to a choice about beverage consumption is incredibly offensive.

    And yes, I do see him as defending them and I think he’s wrong. Why choose the idea that homosexuality is a sin to die in the ditch over, and not, oooh, giving to the poor?

  • I do hope we can let people be evangelical and pro marriage equality. In the churches I grew up around, it’s not going to happen.

  • Well, no. If they outlawed work on Sundays, who would serve them their food when they go out to eat after the church service?

  • jwhawthorne

    Perhaps we’re talking about this the wrong way. Let’s have Christians advocate for laws forbidding marriage after divorce. Marriage is not “one man and one woman…at a time”. We wouldn’t advocate such a position because conscience tells us that it’s not compassionate in the face of others’ real-life situations.

  • JustoneK

    Heathens? We can’t be havin that.

  • Patter

    And: let’s have Christians advocate for laws forbidding idolatry. In the US, that means 99% of the population goes to jail, including damn near all the Christians!

  • Yeah, no more pledge of allegiance to the Flag, and especially no more taking the Lord’s name in vain in the middle of the idolatrous chant.

  • P J Evans

    It’s not about coffee-drinking as such – there are religious that consider caffeine use to be a sin, and that’s the comparison he’s making.

  • Romans 14. Our faith is strong enough to surmount supposed sins. Yours is not? Then we will not force you to marry the same sex, but only hope, or pray, that you will one day feel comfortable enough in your faith to deem this acceptable if God calls to you.

  • Well, not asexual people.

  • Jamoche

    We could all start using the Latin – “petitio principii”. It’s hardly the first Latin phrase to enter the vernacular, and it’ll get rid of that annoying translation that confusingly includes an otherwise unused definition of “begging” and an out-of-left-field “question”.

  • stardreamer42

    50 or 60 years ago, that was very much the law of the land. Look up the history of “Blue Laws”. Even today, there are parts of America where businesses aren’t supposed to open until noon on Sunday, presumably so as not to interfere with people going to church.

  • A man is currently suing the state of Oklahoma for forcing him to commit idolatry by having a picture of the statue of Sacred Rain Arrow on it. His argument is that by the existence of this license plate, he is being forced to be complicit in the worship of other beings and he’s not okay with that. Either Oklahoma removes the license plate or his religious freedom is impinged upon.

  • AnonaMiss

    Since when is humoring someone for the sake of argument a form of defending them?

  • Wouldn’t it only be idolatry if the state was forcing him to pray to Sacred Rain Arrow?

  • Rowen

    Um, mind if I ask you a question? Are you gay/bi? Cause, as a gay man, I don’t see a problem with this analogy. Sure, it has some of the holes that you’ve mentioned, but I don’t see that as a huge flaw, nor do I see Fred comparing what I do with drinking coffee.

    Plus, this type of argument has been around for a while. See: “Leviticus bans pork. You take the sausage out of your mouth, I’ll take the sausage out of mine.” or “Leviticus bans touching the skin of a dead pig. There goes football.”

  • stardreamer42

    The alternate description of “begging the question” that has not been distorted out of all recognition is “arguing in a circle”. Also, if you’re talking to someone with any formal training in logical proofs, “making the thing you’re trying to prove into one of your postulates”.

  • Really, it only makes sense if you allow a Christian’s religious freedom to include the ability to never be exposed to any other way of life, or even the allusion to any other way of life. Which means in order to win this case (which the man is being allowed to make, after appealing up to a higher court once already and winning a court of appeals notice at 2-1), he’s going to have to prove that his religious freedom trumps everyone else being allowed to have religious freedom.

    Scary thought if he were to win, but I don’t think he can.

  • I can live with getting people to the “shut your pie hole about whether or not you think it’s a sin” stage before getting them to the “gee, an honest reading of the Bible would indicate that considering it a sin is not consistent with the moral message enunciated by Jesus Christ” stage.

  • An excellent riposte to the omg gay marriage people:


  • Lori

    Well, nothing says good Christian like “fuck you”.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Well, not asexual people.

    Define ‘sexuality’ a little broader, or provide an alternate term encompassing ‘to whom one is not sexually attracted as well as to whom one is’ (to clarify: gay men aren’t attracted to women, which is as relevant to their sexuality as that they are attracted to other men). Because the asexual folk I know absolutely consider that aspect of themselves to be, as Lliira says, “at the heart of [their] being”.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    And when it’s windy for the Easter Vigil, with a mini bonfire next to a bunch of people in vestments, that can get pretty exciting!

    (Another heathen Episcopalian here, shamelessly reciting the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday before swigging wine. Or blood. Whatever.)

  • Ah, referring to sexuality as a character trait, not necessarily the expressions of that sexuality (i.e., actually having sex). I get you now. Agreed, when something is a part of your nature, it’s going to have an effect on everything you do, even if only in the most subtle of ways.

  • Alix


    For this asexual person, my asexuality is so crucial to me only because everyone else makes sexuality a big deal. In my daily life? In terms of how I’d prefer to self-define? It’s really not something I think about much at all.

    And then I talk to other people, and they treat it as such a (bizarre and) intrinsic, defining part of my character that it comes up even when I am baffled as to why it would.

  • Matthias

    I for my part don’t consider sexuality at the “heart of my being”. Until I read this article I in fact hadn’t thought about sex for about a week (and if this isn’t entering into TMI I hadn’t had sex for 5 years). I fail to see how this constitutes the “heart of my being” anymore than the fact that I hadn’t been part of the catholic church I had grown up with for a similar amount of time, or should I label myself as an acatholic?

  • Alix

    You said that much better than I did. Thank you.

  • drkrick

    In some places, for some businesses. My memory goes back more than 50 years, and there were places to eat open, as well as some stores. I remember a drugstore at the Jersey shore that had all the “Sunday legal” merchandise located on the same couple of aisles so the rest of the store could be roped off when they opened that day.

  • Alix

    So is there ever an acceptable analogy, then? It seems to me Fred’s arguing from religious law – accepting their premise and pointing out, in a way they can understand, the flaw in their thinking.

    “In a way they can understand” being, of course, a crucial part of arguing with and/or educating someone.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If you were a sexual person rather than an asexual person, would you or would you not be a different person?

    If you would be, you see my point. If you would not be, I go off to blink in confusion and try to make life make sense again.

  • Alix

    Er. That’s akin to asking me if having three eyes and being born on Mars would make me a different person. Sure. If I’d gotten up at 6 today instead of 7 it’d make me a different person, too.

    That still doesn’t make my lack of sexuality a critical aspect of my own identity.

    This question makes as much sense to me as “That hobby you don’t do? Other people do it, so you’d be a different person if you liked it too, right?” And it’s a perfect example of what I mean – it’s not something I think about, it’s not something I identify as intrinsic to my own sense of identity – but it’s something other people pick out as intrinsic to my self-definition, and I find it a bit bizarre.

    Edited for clarity.

  • JustoneK

    I’m going to like this from several computers now.

  • EllieMurasaki

    One or two of your comparisons don’t apply. I’m not sure which, because the presence of the other one or two is confusing me. Either being an asexual person is as crucial to your identity as being born human on Earth, or it’s as crucial to your identity as getting up early and not doing crochet. That is, either it’s absolutely vital or it’s absolutely not. Can’t be both.

  • Ellie often has to follow these conversations through email, so ze may not be able to see that edit. Going to include a copy of your post at the end of this reply just in case.

    It’s probably difficult to imagine if you’ve been this way for as long as you can remember, but for a person with an active sex drive, decisions made can sometimes be influenced on many levels by sexuality. Just try and imagine what role sexuality would play in being receptive to advertisements!

    I’d say it’s a core part of your nature, if not your conscious identity, because you’re going to react much differently to the things which other people take for granted. You don’t necessarily have to think of something often in order to be influenced by it.

  • Alix

    Sorry – I was using the Mars thing to point out how absurd and completely from left field that question seems to me.

    It’s not anywhere near a central, defining aspect of my identity. It’s just a quirk, like having hazel eyes and not liking football. I’d be a different person if those things were different, but that doesn’t make those central.

  • For Ellie’s benefit in case ze can’t see the edit:

    “Er. That’s akin to asking me if having three eyes and being born on Mars would make me a different person. Sure. If I’d gotten up at 6 today instead of 7 it’d make me a different person, too.

    That still doesn’t make my lack of sexuality a critical aspect of my own identity.

    This question makes as much sense to me as “That hobby you don’t do? Other people do it, so you’d be a different person if you liked it too, right?” And it’s a perfect example of what I mean – it’s not something I think about, it’s not something I identify as intrinsic to my own sense of identity – but it’s something other people pick out as intrinsic to my self-definition, and I find it a bit bizarre.

    Edited for clarity.”

  • Alix

    That makes sense. I still don’t know that I’d agree that it’s a major aspect of my identity, though I am now wondering if we’re defining things differently.

  • Matthias

    Well unless a genie comes along and gives me a sex drive I won’t ever know if it would make me into a different person but I’d say no it wouldn’t.

    To illustrate my point let me discribe you how my evening went:

    I came home depressed because RT-PCR didn’t work again (being stuck at the same task for over two weeks and failing in different ways sucks). My girlfriend listened to me, cheered me up, then I made meatloaf and matched potatoes, while she prepared the salad during this time we listened to the news. While the meatloaf was in the oven we sat outside,enjoyed the weather, I listened to her stories form school, we discussed if we should go swimming tomorrow morning. Then we ate, washed the dishes and both went to do some work and blogging on the computer. In a few minutes we’ll go to sleep.

    Now if we had a sex drive what exactly would change in this list? I guess we would have sex before going to sleep but everything else would stay the same right? (At least I hope so it is of course possible that I would turn into a cassanova and leave start bedding anything that moves but I prefere to think my fidelity is not just rooted in that). And thus the core of myselfe would still be the same.

  • AnonaMiss

    Sexuality not being a core part of a person isn’t limited to asexual people, either. I’m a (mostly hetero)sexual person who doesn’t consider sexuality anywhere near the core of my identity – honestly, I mostly consider it an annoyance/distraction. (Having a cubicle directly across from the most attractive man I’ve ever met may have something to do with that.)

    I don’t consider my sexual attractions to be any more a part of me than my food preferences. I hate eggplant and adore brussels sprouts, but if that were reversed, well, whatever. It only really matters at meal times. Which video games I like are a significantly more central part of my identity than who I would like to goink.

    Now, I realize that I have a certain level of luxury/privilege on this front – as a cis heterosexual I’ve never been asked to define myself in terms of sexuality, or had my sexuality challenged by society. But yeah, sexuality is a spectrum in multiple dimensions: you don’t have to be asexual to prioritize it waaay down on the scale of “things that make me who I am.”

  • “Identity” might be the fuzzy word. Identity can be either the whole of a person’s nature as it relates to social expression, or it can be that social expression itself.

  • Lori

    Aside from the fact that I don’t think the analogy was meant to create a perfect comparison between coffee drinking and sexuality, I also have some problems with the idea that labeling something a sin is this horrible thing that automatically does harm or is some special kind of awful.That privileges religion in general, and conservative Christianity in particular, in a way that I’m not comfortable with.

    I don’t give a rat’s ass that some people think I’m a sinner (and plenty do, for a variety of reasons). I don’t share their beliefs and I don’t believe that their definition of sin is going to result in me being sent to eternal torment or anything else.

    I do care if they try to write their beliefs into law and I care that our culture gives so much weight to their beliefs that even non-believers end up essentially agreeing with them that their notions about sinfulness are a BFD. In and of themselves those ideas really shouldn’t be a BFD to anyone but them. IMO we’d all be better off if we did think that some Christians’ notions about the sinfulness of sexuality were of no more import to the rest of us than LDS beliefs about caffeine.

    ETA: The fact that a person could give up caffeine without changing their fundamental being doesn’t make it OK to expect them to do so based on beliefs they do not share. I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with LGBTQ rights resting on the notion that sexuality is inborn and immutable. I think sexuality is more complicated than that, but what really bothers me is that it shouldn’t matter. How I express myself sexually is none of anyone else’s business as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult. I feel like arguing based on sexuality not being a choice is giving away far too much ground, on more than one front.

  • Alix

    Well, that, and there’s a difference between how one self-defines (i.e. the things an individual considers the most major aspects of oneself), and all the many, many things that go into making a person who they are.

    Running with your ad receptivity example – I find football boring as hell. Ads using football or football stars bore or confuse me. My not liking football is a part of who I am, and I’d be a different person if I liked it, but it’s also not a major aspect of my self-definition. I don’t see it as something that has a huge impact on my daily life.

    My lack of sexuality’s very much like that. There are times it does become really important to me – usually when others are arguing asexuals don’t exist or are subhuman – but in the vast majority of my life, it never comes up. It exerts the same influence as my football disdain. And people who insist that my asexuality must be a huge aspect of my identity baffle me in the same way that an avid sports fan insisting my lack of football interest defines my life would.

  • Alix

    …I’m not sure that last sentence is grammatically correct. Hopefully, it’s clear enough, though.

  • P J Evans

    And to make it even more obvious that it’s All About Him, the license plate doesn’t say what the statue is about or its name. (Oklahoma has a bunch of ‘specialty’ plates, including one for ‘In God We Trust’. Which you would think would be appropriate for this guy.)

    I saw a picture of the plate. The image is a silhouette of an Indian shooting an arrow.