“What Is Brian McLaren’s Position on Homosexuality?”

Brian McLaren in Malaysia in 2007

That was the very first question I was asked at the first coffee break at Thursday’s conference here in Kuala Lumpur. It was a conference of pastors and other church leaders to explore the perspectives of the emerging church movement. The question, asked honestly and not aggressively, brings up all sorts of issues for a Christian leader/speaker/author like myself in a foreign land like this.

Brian was here in 2007, and many people have spoken fondly of his visit. I’ve addressed and met with many of the same people. The pastor who asked the question was one of them.

But, he told me, he’d read lots of things on the Internet about Brian since that visit — about Brian’s universalism and social views and that Brian blessed his gay son’s wedding. He said, “I’d like to ask Brian about sexuality and about John 14, but I figure asking you is the next best thing.”

He said this with a smile. Like I said, he was not being disrespectful or aggressive. He really wanted to know.

There are three issues that this confronted me with:

1) Brian McLaren is one of my dearest friends, but I don’t speak for him. Emergent Christianity is a network of relationships, not a canon of doctrines. We do not all ascribe to the same set of beliefs. Brian and I agree on much, but we’ve never cataloged our agreements and disagreements. I don’t actually know how much we agree and disagree on. So, of course, I couldn’t answer the question on that premise alone.

2) Who cares what an American church leader thinks? This is something I’ve been struggling with all week. While I love love love to travel, and I’m thrilled to be invited to places like Malaysia, it’s also humbling and even awkward to be addressing these earnest pastors with my thoroughly Western ideas. It’s embarrassing that they’re keenly interested in Brian’s (or my) perspective on a social issue, when I don’t know the name of even the most famous pastor in their country.

Of course, I’m not naive. American church leaders have an influence here because we write books and blogs and such. So in my talks, I’ve tried to do two things. I’ve tried to focus as much as possible on theology — not on anything that could be seen as more American imperialism. And I’ve tried to always couch everything I say as my experience from my context.

3) The American church and the global church have a tenuous relationship. This is the most important point, and it’s the thing that I spent the most time talking to the pastor about. The aforementioned imperialism of the American church’s past missionary efforts are always in the background of conversations like this. I told the pastor that while I couldn’t speak for Brian, I’d be happy to tell him my views on homosexuality, which I did.

After explaining that I am a strong advocate for full inclusion of all persons at all levels of church leadership, and that I also advocate for full, legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples, I said something else. I said that as an American Christian, I realize that this puts me at odds with much of the rest of the world. I said that America has a unique history, which includes slavery, and that much of the church got that social issue wrong. A lot of us in the States don’t want to make that mistake again, and we think that we’re on the right side of history this time. But, I reiterated, we realize that this makes tense the relationship between us and the Malaysian church, as well as the church in most of the Global South.

I think there’s no quick and easy remedy for this. Those of us in America who are allies are following out consciences and our best interpretations of the Bible and the Christian tradition, I said, and he is doing the same in his context. I asked him to afford me the benefit of the doubt, and I would do the same for him.

No one converted yesterday. I didn’t recant my stance on sexuality, and he didn’t become an ally. But he did pull up a chair next to me at lunch, and we sat together again at tea. He even intimated that if I come back, he might ask me to preach at his church. To be honest, I think that I made a friend yesterday. I hope that I did.

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  • Kenton

    What a wonderful story of two people showing grace to each other. I would only hope that showing that kind of grace is not limited to people from different countries and cultures and would also extend to your fellow Americans who differ from you as well.

    • sofia

      Tony can be, and is, much more candid with his fellow Americans precisely because he is one, living that experience. I’m thankful for his grace with the Malaysians, as well as for his proud stand for human (gay) rights in his home country.

  • Thanks Tony, well felt and well said.

  • Myron Penner (“B” non”A”)

    awesome post!

  • Well done. Good missiology. Good community “in Christ”. I’m convinced that a proper application of Phil 2:1-5 a conversational opportunities like this is often severely lacking. We are hardwired to try to be “right” and convince someone of our “rightness”. “Having the same mind that was in Christ” is NOT about homogeneity of theological positions. I think it has more to do with mutual submission to each other in Christ. I think I have often avoided sharing my own position in such situations in the name of “peace and harmony” but have missed an opportunity for some real “in Christ” community.

  • That is an awesome story – thanks for sharing it. What you did is begin an authentic relationship by providing an honest and graceful response. And the by-product: this person is that much more likely to become ally than if you spent time trying to persuade or win an argument. I think debating and persuading have their place, especially online (when establishing a relationship is difficult) and in the public forum; but nothing compares to the 1-on-1 relationship where both parties can build a true bond and develop trust in each other as fellow human beings.

  • Well done my friend. I think you handled such a fraught question as wisely and as well as could be hoped for.

  • Ratchet

    This is great, TJ. Thanks for your care with the subject and with ALL the people.

  • DJ

    That was simply beautiful, Tony. May the rest of the Church follow suit…

  • Sivin Kit


  • toddh

    It makes me wonder why he asked the question. Is it a big issue worldwide, or is it only a big issue for them because it’s a big issue for us?

    I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be a big issue worldwide, only that it’s the one issue right now that’s splitting denominations in the U.S. and that is the evangelical litmus test for orthodoxy. So, is that the case in Malaysia as well?

    • It is definitely a growing issue here. To my surprise, many pastors have asked me about it. And the Lutheran bishop talked about it in his address.

  • Michael Jordan

    Hi Tony–no secret here that I disagree with you about this. But kudos to you for recognizing the ecclesiological tension and understanding that your views are colored by your social location. That’s the kind of thing that helps everyone to grow.

    • Mike, I was just forwarding this to you, especially because you often try to persuade me with the perspective of Christians in other countries, and was literally about to hit send when i saw your comment!

      Tony, Mike and I live in the same town and work hard at keeping an open chair beside each of us for the other.

      • And I’m humbled to have you both as readers.

  • Kien

    Malaysian Christians also have to factor in the view of the majority Muslim community towards homosexuality. Probably more important to ensure homosexuals are safe from harm and sexual orientation should not be a ground for how people are treated under Malaysian law. I think conservatives can agree on this.

  • Cathy Mia Kolwey

    It is true that the relationship between American and Global church is tenuous at best.

    This was a great example of how to tread lightly on sacred ground.
    Glad you made a friend Tony, and didn’t accidentally stick your foot in your mouth!

    That is what it is all about really: relationship building.

  • Beau

    Number 2 characterized my whole year teaching in India and hangs like a cloud over my potential trip this summer. I’d be very happy to hear your thoughts on this (as well as other non-American readers of this blog) in the coming weeks.

  • Wow, you handled that well. As to item 2 – they care because certain American church leaders have helped create an environment in some countries where killing GLBTQ people is the preferred method for “dealing” with them.

  • Christa

    I just wanted to say thank you for the encouragement to speak up for full inclusion and civil rights in a productive, gentle, and potentially relationship-risking conversation. Although all people won’t be as gracious as your new Malaysian friend, I want to give this a try instead of hiding my support in silence and fear of not fitting in.

  • Todd

    Tony, how you can ever reconcile yor views with Paul’s in Romans 1 is beyond me. You sound very humble in your post when you talk about best interpretations of the bible, but once again you exchange the truth of God for a lie. You have got to know that your view is opposed to the clear teaching of scripture. I hope that the truth of God’s word will penetrate your hard heart. If he saved me he can save anyone.

  • Sonia Randhawa

    A note on the context of the question. In Malaysia, religion in highly politicized and judging from the photograph (which shows two prominent Malaysian activists), the people Brian met in Malaysia reflected this. One issue that the Government is using in its attempts to hold onto power, in the face of a strong Opposition, is sexuality. The Leader of the Opposition has been prosecuted for sodomy (not found guilty), and movements which have been portrayed as being pro-Opposition (rather than pro-democracy) have been linked to the budding LGBT movement. This would be one of the reasons why there has been interest in the issue among pastors in Malaysia – because it is becoming an important political issue.

  • Hi Tony, really well written blog, thanks mate. I can certainly afford you the benefit of the doubt but I’m left hanging…

    I seem to hear a lot of “I think that the Church needs to abandon its fundamental beliefs because secular society has decided to move on from them”, veiled as talk of “the question being more important than the answer”.

    Fundamentally, does thinking that homosexuality is wrong make someone a bad person? Most of my atheist friends – and, it seems, many emerging church leaders that highly respect – seem to think “yes”. But what do you do if you do actually think it’s wrong, from a biblical standpoint, and that it’s an important issue to be wrong about, but at the same time you don’t want to be the one to throw the first stone?

    Sorry, I am cheating a little, I am hitting you with the same questions I’ve been hit with… Would love your input and thoughts!

    • Rob Petrini, you asked: “What do you do if you do actually think it’s wrong, from a biblical standpoint, and that it’s an important issue to be wrong about, but at the same time you don’t want to be the one to throw the first stone?

      I just went through this personally, as a gay man. I won’t go into the details here since it’s already been written about on Kimberly Knight’s Patheos blog as well as on my own blog. But your question is really about tension. What, for example, should a young conservative pastor do if he has many gay friends yet at the same time believes that homosexual behavior is “wrong” because certain parts of the Bible (which he accepts as the “word of God”) say so? How does the young pastor manage that tension?

      One option for him would be to keep his beliefs in the closet. This way he does not offend his gay friends and disrupt the relationships.

      Another option for him would be to inform his gay friends of his belief. This way he can remain faithful to his convictions.

      All of this depends on what the young pastor feels is more important. His religious beliefs, or his relationships? The question is, can he have both?

      I don’t think he can.

      If he openly shares his beliefs with his gay friends from the get-go, then it will be clear to those gay friends that he sees them differently, even if he outwardly treats them the same as always. Because the gay friends will always know that even though he “loves the sinner” he still “hates the sin.” Under such burdened circumstances, no genuine friendship can really last. But at the very least, openness is honesty. And that allows everyone to make informed choices at the very start as to how to proceed with relationship.

      If the young pastor remains silent yet still maintains his belief that homosexual behavior is “wrong,” it can be extremely destructive in the long term. Imagine, for example, the young pastor’s gay friend of many years tells him he met another man and has romantic feelings for him and that those feelings are good. Then the pastor bluntly informs his gay friend that gay romantic feelings and gay love are sinful because the Bible says so. Imagine, now, if this is the first time the pastor has ever said such a thing to his gay friend after many years of friendship. To the gay friend, it would demonstrate a unique level of betrayal and deception. It calls into question the young pastor’s motives for maintaining the friendship. As such, it would be as if the young pastor’s friendship all this time was the perpetration of a religion-induced fraud.

      So basically, I think closets are bad for everyone.

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  • Thanks R Jay, I really appreciate it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t struggling with the same questions. I definitely agree closets are not good for anyone.

    • One of the sources of tension for many Christians is how they behold the Bible. For many, it is believed to be the word of God. It is universally authoritative. And it’s prohibitions against homosexual behavior are “clear.” Yet what has also become “clear,” especially in the past thirty years, is that gay people of faith are not creatures of perversion demanding sexual license, but are children of God who are moved by a genuine spiritual impulse to answer their own unique call of faith. As such, many Christians feel stuck between a traditionalist view of the Bible, and the knowledge and firsthand experience of the humanity of their gay friends and acquaintances.

      One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Mark 1:40-42. A man with leprosy went to Jesus in search of healing. And the first thing Jesus did — without even uttering a word — was he “reached out his hand and touched the man.” To touch a leper was a violation of the Torah (see Leviticus 13:45-56; then Leviticus 5:2, 3). Jesus broke the holy Law in order to extend grace. Because to Jesus, the humanity of the social outcast (as lepers were) was more important than abiding by the strict code of the Law. And to put it into contemporary imagery, the man’s leprosy is not akin to “gayness” (or “homosexuality”). The man’s leprosy is akin to “outcastness.”

      It is an object lesson I always share when it comes to the tension felt by many evangelical Christians between extending grace and obeying scripture. Grace always must come first, and many times in spite of scripture. As Jesus demonstrated.

      The letter of the Law cannot, and must not, trump the spirit of grace.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with you R Jay, Grace must always trump the Law. I’ve likened the tension in which we live as Christians to Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. There’s always this tug of war we have with our interpretation/view of what obedience is against what Grace is. It’s easy to do that from a distance but when it’s close to home, Grace takes on a whole different measure. Lately I’ve noticed that change with mainstream Christianity’s view on divorce.

    Regarding homosexuality, I think most Christians are at that stage when Teyve realises his daughter, Chava, is marrying outside the faith. He can’t handle it, it bites him at the core. It’s not until the end of the movie when Teyve, with all that is going on around him, sees his daughter, and seems to relent that little bit. Love wins.

    At the same time, what is it that defines my Christianity? Love? Grace? Who defines such terms?

    Without the Bible being the centrepiece our faith everything becomes relative. That’s where we get Grace from. That’s the only place we get Jesus from. That’s where our understanding of love comes from. I am open to re-interpretation of the Bible… God knows how many times we got wrong before…

    I also understand what it means to be socially ostracised. I am a Christian pastor in a defiantly secular culture. My mother is waiting for me to get a real job, my extended family think I am a cult leader and my friends are waiting for me to outgrow this “phase” I am in. It’s a lonely place to be in. It seems to me that it was those very people, in those lonely places, that Jesus sought.

    • Love is the centerpiece of faith. Especially where one accepts the maxim: God is Love.

      I am often asked how I can call myself a Christian and yet not accept the Bible as the centerpiece of my faith. My answer: I don’t need it. It is a treasure, to be certain. And one which I deeply revere. But it is not the center. It is a witness to Grace. But it is not the source of Grace. It is a witness to Love. But it is not Love. It is not God.

      As for our understanding of Love, it does not derive from the Bible. It derives from our Oneness with God, and with one another. And no book is the foundation of that Oneness. It happens directly.

      We do not need to take the Bible out of our faith tradition, nor should we. But we must keep it in its proper place. It can inform our faith. But it must never command it. When we allow it to do so, it becomes an idol. God alone — Love alone — must command our faith.

    • I can certainly understand how faith and ministry can make you feel isolated from your family. I went through that many years ago with my family, though thankfully we repaired our rifts. I hope the same for you and your family members.

      Secular culture has a history of hostility toward religion, though there is good reason for it. Religion often asks for such hostility due to its own sad record of intolerance. But as time goes on, I hope people recognize that “faith” is not the purview solely of religion, and equality and tolerance are not the purview solely of secularism. We need to heal lingering wounds of history, get beyond our past, and move forward along a trajectory of evolved interrelationships where we embrace faith, equality and tolerance as elements of our common humanity, and not as tools for promoting agendas.

  • Its all about relationships and dialogue

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  • JWinter777

    For those of you who are accepting homosexuality as God-given, what you do with the myriad of persons who have left homosexuality and have either embraced their heterosexuality or are living celibate lives? And how do you tell former homosexuals they didn’t really need to work hard to understand their same sex attractions because you are really born gay? One more question. How do you prove that some people are born gay when there is NO science to prove homosexuality (there is no gay gene) and the Scripture doesn’t suggest in any way that homosexual expression is of God?

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