There are two obnoxious tendencies that many people seem to fall into quite naturally. The first is to universalize your personal story as the basis for making presumptions about the lives of people around you. The second is to define yourself against other people. I definitely do both of these. Growing up moderate Southern Baptist, I have always defined myself against fundamentalism, and since it’s very hard for me to understand where fundamentalists are coming from, I often come up with presumptuous cynical explanations for why fundamentalists do what they do instead of just admitting I can’t understand them. So here’s the question with which God has confronted me recently: do I have to say that other people are lying about their stories for the story of my journey with God to be valid?
This seems like what’s being expressed by self-described former lesbian Jackie Hill in her response to the Grammy performance of Macklemore’s song “Same Love” about same-sex marriage. “Somebody’s lying,” she said in her interview with Wade-O Radio. I was debating whether or not to put “former lesbian” in quotation marks, but I decided not to, because then I would be doing exactly what Jackie seems to be doing, saying she can’t be telling the truth about her personal journey without invalidating the witness of every gay Christian that I’ve known.
Jackie shares that God came to her in a vision and cured her of her same-sex attraction:
“The girl who you’re with will be the death of you,” said Hill recalling the message. “At that time, my eyes were opened to that it wasn’t just homosexuality that would be the death of me. It was my complete and entire lifestyle. It’s not just, ‘You’re gay. You’re [also] lustful, you’re prideful, you’re a thief, you’re rebellious, you’re a masturbator and you’re a porn addict.’ I saw all of these things that deserved Hell and I really believed and saw that God would be just in sending me there.”
I start to get a little bit skeptical when I read the last sentence. It seems like she’s reciting a doctrinal statement rather than describing an epiphany. But you know what, it’s her story. Maybe some people really do have epiphanies where God speaks doctrinal statements into their thoughts. Hill shares that her sexual experiences “became deeper than lust” and cultivated “an addiction to people boosting [her] self-esteem.” Without having to agree that homosexuality is sinful as such, it’s clear that Hill was being spiritually damaged by what she was doing. I don’t have the right to say that she’s lying about how God reached into her life to guide her to the life that she now lives, but I would also contend that Hill doesn’t have the right to say that gay Christians with different testimonies must be lying.
It really aggravates me when anti-gay people try to tell me that I personally just don’t want to “submit” to God’s will on account of my affirmation and acceptance of gay Christians. I’m very aware that I’m not able to recognize without God’s help what’s really good for me and I need God’s guidance through His written word. That’s a completely different issue regarding my personal discipleship. What I’m opposed to is the presumptuousness of giving yourself the authority to declare that every single gay Christian who has come to peace with their sexuality and now has an interpretation of scripture and God’s will that involves living a chaste, holy life within that sexuality is either lying or demon-possessed. In a similar way, I’m opposed to saying that either Islam is a religion that inherently produces terrorists and Mohammed must have been possessed by a demon in writing the Koran, or else what I believe as a Christian isn’t true.
I spent several months trying to teach computer and gym classes in a private Muslim school in Flint, Michigan. Though I had to quit the job because of my own mental health issues, I worked with very beautiful people who seemed to exhibit the fruits of the spirit Paul talks about in Galatians 5:22-23:”love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” So even though I am convinced that Jesus’ cross and resurrection are in some way the unique means of attaining eternal communion with God, it would be dishonest and unfaithful to what God has shown me in my interactions with Muslims to agree with those who say that Islam is an invention of the devil designed to destine them for eternal damnation.
Likewise, I have not only lived in community with gay Christians, but I have been mentored by them. Two of the most important pastors I’ve had were lesbians. Their character looked nothing like whoever Paul was talking about in the oft-cited anti-gay clobber passage in Romans 1:
They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. [vv. 29-31]
In my interpretation, if you’re going to use Romans 1 as a proof-text to say that the Bible condemns all forms of same-gendered sexual intimacy (as opposed to just polyamory and adultery), then you have to also be comfortable saying that all “practicing” gay people exhibit these awful qualities that Paul presents as the inevitable result of whatever behavior he’s describing in Romans 1. I’ve lived an unhealthy, drug-infested debaucherous lifestyle that filled me with the wickedness described here, but this had nothing to do with sleeping with the right-gendered person. There are anti-gay activists who do quote verses 29-31 to claim that even though gay people might appear to be nice, they’re actually filled with utter wickedness. I recall reading this in the words of one of the missionaries who pushed the anti-gay death penalty law in Uganda.It’s a tremendous claim about your own clairvoyance and unique intimacy with God to say that you know for sure God can’t be working in other peoples’ lives who have prayerfully and faithfully pursued His will but ended up with a different set of conclusions about how they are supposed to live. When your testimony amounts to saying, “I used to be exactly like you before I got saved,” you’re being dishonest and arrogant, because everyone’s spiritual journey is apples and oranges to everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean that God didn’t deliver you powerfully and give you what you needed to gain deeper intimacy with Him for you to concede that other people with contradictory experiences don’t have to be lying.
One of the most important verses that Paul wrote is Romans 14:14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Paul is not just talking about sacrificial meat; this principle can be applied analogously to everything. There are things that are absolutely poisonous and sinful for me to do that other Christians can do without sinning, and there are things I can get away with that would hurt other Christians. But I should be sensitive to other Christians’ moral foibles and not do things that don’t hurt me in front of others if they’re going to be hurt or offended (Romans 14:13).
The bottom line is God doesn’t make arbitrary universal commandments for us to submit to just so He can feel like a boss. Paul’s logic in this verse is the same as Jesus’ logic when he says “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus is saying that God’s primary concern with the Sabbath is not that you honor him by not working but that you enjoy his rest. The Pharisees who wanted the Sabbath to be an arbitrary rule and not a benevolent gift just wanted to give themselves power as the rule-enforcers. These two verses and many others like them have led me to conclude that all of God’s moral teachings either have to do with treating other people justly or gaining the “purity in heart” that will allow us to “see God” (Matthew 5:8), a.k.a. love God and love your neighbor.
Jesus’ main dispute with the Pharisees concerned the “heavy burdens” that the Pharisees tried to “lay on the shoulders of others” (Matthew 23:4) which had nothing to do with “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). The validity of my salvation should not depend on anointing myself to lay burdens on the shoulders of others to carry. The most mature Christians I have known have been the least confident in the exclusive truthfulness of their interpretation of God’s teachings. I really think that one of the primary benefits of the spiritual fruit that God cultivates in us is the ability to trust that God can work very differently in the lives of Christians whose beliefs contradict mine. As we grow in maturity, we become less self-assured of our own infallibility.
Some people are wired in such a way that they could not be functional Christians if they didn’t believe that the world was created 6000 years ago or that every disease in the world is really the product of demonic spiritual energy. Some Christians like John MacArthur have everything in their theological system staked on believing that nobody really speaks in tongues today; other Christians would completely lose their faith if you could prove to them that they were just talking gibberish instead of a language of the Holy Spirit. Catholics believe that Mary and other saints have made appearances throughout the centuries and should be called upon to intercede for us with God. Orthodox believe that it’s appropriate and not idolatrous to pray to icons of saints which have sacramental spiritual power as physical objects.
I’m not willing to say that any of these impossibly irreconcilable beliefs are the product of insincerity or demonic possession or even that there is one right view of Eucharist or saints or the use of physical objects in prayer. Somehow God is meeting all of us where we are, allowing us to appropriate his truth imperfectly according to our discipleship needs and the capacity of our understanding at each point in our journey. This doesn’t mean that I get to say anything goes in my own discipleship journey. By no means! If I want to see God, which I consider to be the goal of my existence, I need to listen very carefully to the way He speaks into my journey by studying the testimonies of other Christians who have gone before me, especially those that are canonized into scripture. As for those who have leveraged their testimonies of personal deliverance into a soapbox, I would have to ask: Do you only obey God to give yourself the authority to tell others what to do?