Jonathan Merritt is an important Southern Baptist leader. The son of a former president of that denomination and current mega-church pastor, Merritt is a leader in a new breed of younger evangelicals. Including the likes of Gabe Lyons, Shane Claiborne, and a few others, these authors and speakers are more socially progressive than their parents’ generation, without budging much on evangelical theological standards.
Thus Merritt, whose written books on how Christians should love the enviroment and how Christians should leave the culture wars behind, wrote a piece for the Atlantic Monthly‘s website defending Chik-fil-A.
In response, Azariah Southworth, a gay, former evangelical TV host, wrote a post that read,
I feel though what has led Jonathan to this thoughtful and effective approach is his hope for a future where people like me and him, gay people, are no longer excluded but included in every aspect of society….
Exposing this truth of Jonathan’s sexual orientation is not an easy decision for me. I take no pleasure in doing this. As I type this my stomach is turning because I know of the backlash he will receive. I have thought about what all of this will mean for him and for me. I base my reasoning in the importance of living an authentic and honest life…
(The nature and history of my relationship with Jonathan will not be disclosed. However, if evidence is required to back my claim it can be provided).
Jonathan responded, over the weekend, on Ed Stetzer‘s blog:
In 2009, I was contacted by the blogger in response to an article I wrote about just that–that Christians must love people who experience sexual brokenness. We corresponded several times by email and text for a couple of weeks, some of them inappropriate. When I was traveling through a city near him, we met for dinner because we’d corresponded so recently. As we were saying goodbye, we had physical contact that went beyond the bounds of friendship. I was overcome with guilt, knowing I had put myself in an unwise situation. We never saw each other again and we ceased contact after a period of time.
I strongly urge you to go read the post on Ed’s blog now. Then come back here for my thoughts.
Writing a post like this is a touchy thing, and I do so with much trepidation. I have never met Jonathan, but I’m writing this with full knowledge of the possibility that he may read it — in fact, I hope that he does. That is, I hope that he avails himself of some theological perspectives that a more progressive and open than those he learned in the SBC and at the ultra-conservative Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I also write because readers have asked my opinion on the matter.
The Ethics of “Outing”
In the conservative Christian blogosphere, there’s been outrage that Jonathan was outed. For instance, at the Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor writes,
I commend Jonathan for his honesty, and Ed for seeking to provide a forum to do this in the right way, just as I lament the utterly unconscionable actions of professing believers who seek to take political-theological advantage of rumors and pain.
In the fall of 2008, after I had filed for divorce, some bloggers demanded that I write publicly about my personal life. Even (now former) friends like Andrew Jones were convinced that my personal life demanded a public airing. Justin Taylor’s former boss, John Piper, even released a video that was only a lightly veiled threat to “out” the truth of my divorce. (He then went on sabbatical and, as far as I know, never spoke of it again.)
He never did, and I was, for the most part, able to write and speak about my personal life in a way that I hope respects my former wife and protects my children.
Jonathan, I suppose, had no such choice. Southworth seems to have dirt on him that would leave no doubt as to what happened. While I think it’s unfortunate, Justin and Andrew and I know this: If you put yourself forward as an purveyor of public ideas, your life is open to scrutiny. It may not be fair, but it is the way of our world, the world of the panopticon. I imagine that Jonathan, as the son of a megachurch pastor, knew this when he wrote his first book. But if my own experience is any guide, then I’d guess that these are scary, horrible days for Jonathan. I pray peace for him.
I asked you to read Jonathan’s answers on Ed’s blog, and I hope you did. There’s a lot in there for a progressive to be uncomfortable with. Firstly, Jonathan ties his sexuality to an experience of abuse during his adolescent years. While he never admits to being attracted to men, he acknowledges that he did have an encounter with Southworth that “went beyond the bounds of friendship.” That paragraph is couched in the admission that he was abused. There are two truths that must be clarified in this:
- Childhood sexual abuse deeply affects and even damages a person’s adult sexuality.
- Childhood sexual abuse does not make someone gay.
But it’s this comment in Jonathan’s response that will get the most scrutiny:
I don’t identify as “gay” because I believe there can be a difference between what one experiences and the life that God offers.
I’m not going to exegete this as though it’s a verse in scripture. I’m simply going to ask, What constitutes “gay”?
It seems to me that, regardless of your theological thoughts on the matter, if you’re naturally attracted to the opposite sex, you’re heterosexual. If you’re naturally attracted to the same gender, you’re gay. If you’re attracted to both, you’re bi-sexual. And if your sexuality is more complicated than those three categories, then you’re queer.
Myself, I’m heterosexual. I have the good fortune of having close friends in each of the other categories, and they have shed light for me on their experience. I understand different versions of human sexuality much better because of their friendship and honesty.
The Bible, however, does not weigh in on these categories. Primitive as it is on issues of science and biology — and, yes, sexuality — the Bible doesn’t really show any sophisticated, developed, modern view of sexuality. Those of us who esteem the Bible as the inspired word of God are left with the task of weaving the ancient narrative of scripture into the fabric of our modern understanding of human sexuality.
This isn’t an easy task, but it is possible. For instance, one can make the commitment to interpret specific verses of the Bible (“Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error”) always in light of the overarching themes of grace, acceptance, and the progressively opening kingdom of God (“So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus”).
One doesn’t need to interpret the Bible this way, but one surely can.
Is Jonathan Merritt gay? I don’t know.
Is Tony Jones divorced? Yes, indeed, I am. It may not be God’s ideal for me, but it is part of my story and my self-identity for the rest of my life — and, I imagine, for the next life as well. I don’t get to pretend that I’m not divorced. I don’t think the Bible, though it condemns divorce, has the final word in my self-interpretation regarding my divorce and remarriage.
Jonathan, if you’re reading this, there are ways to understand the biblical narrative in light of your own experience of human sexuality. You may want to look into those — they offer great freedom, and they are still true to God’s Word.