Jesus commanded his followers to love all people at all times without exceptions. Love is supposed to be what distinguishes us as Jesus’ disciples. This is a baseline mark of Christianity that all Christians of all stripes should be able to agree on.
But for some reason, the actual practicing of love has become a source of contention within Christianity. And this struggle with love is perhaps most evident in the response of Christians to the LGBTQ community.
On the one hand, an ever-increasing number of Christians have come to the realization that God does not condemn same-sex relationships in any way, and we are thus free to fully affirm our LGBTQ friends.
On the other hand, many Christians remain bound to the conservative traditions they were raised with, and continue to believe that God disapproves of anything but one man with one woman. Yet most of them still recognize that they are called to love their LGBTQ neighbors.
But is that even possible? Can people truly love their LGBTQ friends while condemning their relationships?
What is love?
I should clarify, before going any further, that “love” is not so much a warm feeling of affection as it is an action. We love others by actively seeking their good, and by actively opposing that which causes harm. So let’s do away with the nonsense idea that we can say or do hurtful things, as long as we maintain some sort of emotion that we call “love.” It doesn’t work that way.
That being said, I should admit right now that I’m not actually going to tell you whether you can love LGBTQ people while condemning their relationships. Why? Because I know full well that if I were to simply say that, it wouldn’t do a bit of good. This conversation won’t be productive until both sides stop yelling at each other.
Instead, I would like to offer an analogy, use it to ask some questions and bring up some talking points, and let you decide for yourself how best to proceed. I am going to spend a little time setting up this analogy; I think it will be worth it, so bear with me.
Let me tell you a story
I attended Bob Jones University from 2006 to 2010. In 2008, they finally offered an official apology for their long-standing discriminatory policy of not allowing interracial dating or marriage:
For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than providing a clear Christian counterpoint to it.
In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.
When they referenced BJU’s “early stages,” they really meant the first 90% of their existence up to that point. Founded in 1927, BJU did not admit any black students until 1971. And their policy against interracial dating remained in place until 2000, when it was finally overturned after media uproar following George W. Bush’s visit to the university.
In 2014, after Steve Pettit became the university’s fifth president, BJU decided to clear things up once and for all in order to re-apply for tax-exempt status. “The Bible is very clear,” Pettit then said, “We are made of one blood.” But despite how “clear” the Bible may be, it did nothing to prevent the racist history of my Bible-thumping alma mater.
A 1960 sermon from the university’s founder and first president, Dr. Bob Jones Sr., presents a very different understanding of the Bible’s “clear” teaching on race. This sermon became a booklet, and it remained the university’s official “position paper” on race until at least 1986. Here’s a little sampling of what it said:
Paul said that God “. . . hath made of one blood all nations of men . . . .” But He also fixed the bounds of their habitation. When nations break out of their boundaries and begin to do things contrary to the purpose of God and the directive will of God, they have trouble. The world is in turmoil today because men and nations go contrary to the clear teaching of the Word of God. …
Now, what is the matter? There is an effort today to disturb the established order. Wait a minute. Listen, I am talking straight to you. White folks and colored folks, you listen to me. You cannot run over God’s plan and God’s established order without having trouble. God never meant to have one race. It was not His purpose at all. …These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South. They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them. They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray. But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent, orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God. …
If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty because He made racial separation in order to preserve the race through whom He could send the Messiah and through whom He could send the Bible. God is the author of segregation. God is the author of Jewish separation and Gentile separation and Japanese separation. God made of one blood all nations, but He also drew the boundary lines between races.
How did it make you feel, learning of BJU’s racist history and reading the above excerpts? Is your blood boiling yet? It’s truly hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that any people—let alone Christians—could have acted so cruelly for so long, and all with the pretense of serving God!
And BJU was hardly alone in this. Their voice may have been one of the loudest, and they may have been among the last to finally relent, but their views represented the majority of conservative Christianity only a few decades ago.
But have such things really changed at all? We’re working through different issues in our day, but are our responses all that different?
History repeats itself
Let’s pull out a few key facts to consider:
- When Bob Jones University—along with the majority of conservative Christianity—promoted racist segregationist policies, they did so on the basis that this was the “clear” teaching of the Bible.
- Today, the very same conservative Christians are convinced of the Bible’s “clear” teaching in the opposite direction.
- The Bible did not become any more clear in order to bring about their change. Rather, they changed after increasing social pressure forced them to see the reality of their actions. Only then could they acknowledge that the Bible never agreed with their racist policies.
- In the meantime, they caused an incredible amount of undeniable harm to those whom they spoke against. Regardless of whether or not they were driven by a sincere desire to follow biblical teaching, their actions were not loving. In retrospect, this is easy for us to see.
I’m guessing you can probably see where I’m going with this by now, but let’s go ahead and spell out the parallels.
- For many years, the majority of conservative Christianity has taught that the LGBTQ community is living in sin. They have worked tirelessly to institute policies restricting same-sex relationships. And it has all been based on their belief that this is the “clear” teaching of the Bible.
- Today, this is sadly still true for the majority, but a number Christians—even some conservative ones—are realizing that the Bible isn’t so “clearly” against same-sex relationships after all. In fact, while the Bible does clearly teach that it is not good for humans to be alone, it never once mentions, let alone condemns, the loving and consensual kind of relationships that exist throughout the LGBTQ community.
- The Bible has not become any more clear on this issue. There has been an increasing amount of wonderful scholarship refuting the idea that the Bible is against same-sex relationships, but the text is the same as it has ever been. And the day is coming when this will be a widely acknowledged fact. It is my belief that within a hundred years or so (though hopefully much sooner), the only remaining non-affirming Christians will be the Westboro Baptists of their day. For the rest of Christianity, the idea that God hates gay marriage will be just as abhorrent as the idea that God hates mixed-race marriage. But which side of history will you land on? How will your actions today appear in retrospect? Will you affirm your LGBTQ neighbors now, or will you withhold your affirmation until social pressure finally forces you, like BJU, to realize that the Bible never said what you currently think it says?
- In the meantime, those who continue to condemn LGBTQ relationships are continuing to cause an incredible amount of undeniable harm. Regardless of whether or not they are driven by a sincere desire to follow biblical teaching, their actions are harmful. It’s easy for us to see how harmful it was when Christians condemned mixed-race relationships. Why is it so hard for us to understand that it is exactly the same when we condemn same-sex relationships? Even if the Bible did speak against such relationships (which it does not), there is no denying the fact that our condemnation is causing real harm right here and now.
So I’ll go ahead ask again. Given what history has shown us, and given the undeniable harm that it causes, do you think you can love LGBTQ people while condemning their relationships?