For Christians, the LGBT debate has always been framed as a question of sexual ethics. Our argument has centered on six or seven biblical passages that appear to mention homosexuality negatively or appear to establish a heterosexual norm: the sin of Sodom, the laws of Leviticus and the list of “the unrighteous” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. For most of my career, these ideas formed the foundation of my views and teachings as an evangelical minister and professor of Christian ethics. I co-authored a popular textbook that stated this position flatly: “Homosexual conduct is one form of sexual expression that falls outside the will of God.” I wasn’t mean about it. But I said it.
In recent years, my moral position has shifted. It has dawned on me with shocking force that homosexuality is not primarily an issue of Christian sexual ethics. It’s primarily an issue of human suffering. With that realization, I have now made the radical decision to stand in solidarity with the LGBT community.
Working through this issue has taken me back to the very roots of my faith.
In 1978, when I was a hopelessly confused 16-year-old ex-Catholic kid, I stumbled into a Southern Baptist church near my Virginia home. I was looking for something — anything — to make sense of life. Four days later, I was a newly minted born-again convert. I was attracted by the vibrant faith, moral certainty and loving spirit of the people I met in that church. My life was transformed. By 1993, I had been ordained in a Southern Baptist church and received a doctorate in Christian ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Union Theological Seminary is a school in the liberal Protestant tradition, though at the time I remained firmly anchored as a Southern Baptist. But I was initiated into an ethical tradition that revered those very special human beings who stood against majority opinion in their era to follow God and conscience, as they understood was required of them — come what may. Teachers like Glen Stassen of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (later Fuller Seminary) and Larry Rasmussen of Union taught me about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, the silence of most “good” Christians amid the slaughter of the innocents, and the few, great resisters such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a hero to these mentors and to me.
Studying race and black theology in a context blessed by the presence of James Cone and Cornel West, and hearing about the largely silent white church during the harrowing days of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, I came to believe that silence in the face of majority contempt for a minority is just as immoral as direct perpetration of evil. Too often, people are silent when minorities are being victimized, because majority opinion is powerful. It is hard to cut against the grain of your entire culture, and courage is costly.
Since the 1960s, when the gay rights movement began in America, Christians and their leaders have struggled to figure out how to respond to the growing tolerance of same-sex relationships. Most in Christianity have responded by offering endless debates over how to interpret that handful of biblical passages. Books erupted. Congregations fought. Denominations split.
For me, the answer to this debate has become simple: There is a sexual-minority population of about 5 percent of the human family that has received contempt and discrimination for centuries. In Christendom, the sexual ethics based in those biblical passages metastasized into a hardened attitude against sexual- and gender-identity minorities, bristling with bullying and violence. This contempt is in the name of God, the most powerful kind there is in the world. I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors. I also now believe that while any progress toward more humane treatment of LGBT people is good progress, we need to reconsider the entire body of biblical interpretation and tradition related to this issue.
Put simply, it finally became clear to me that I must side with those who were being treated with contempt, just as I hope I would have sided with Jews in the Nazi era and with African Americans during the civil rights years. With that realization, I began working on my new book, “Changing Our Mind.”
It is hard to describe exactly why my moral vision shifted in this way. But undoubtedly, it had much to do with my move to Atlanta in 2007 and my growing contact with LGBT people, especially fellow Christians. I hardly knew anyone who was gay before that move, but afterward, they seemed to be everywhere, and a few became very dear friends. It became clear to me — in a deeply spiritual place that I will allow no one to challenge — that God was sending LGBT people to me. The fact that one of these LGBT Christians is my dear youngest sister, Katey, has made this issue even more deeply personal for me than it would have been. The fact that one place where she developed a deep struggle with her sexuality was in evangelical churches has contributed to my new moral commitment to make evangelical families and churches safe places for LGBT people.
Evangelical Christians, such as Denny Burk and Robert Gagnon, are criticizing me because I’m now “pro-LGBT.” They want to shift the discussion immediately to the debate on same-sex relationships and the proper interpretation of those six or seven most cited Bible passages. I want to move right back to what really matters the most to me — loving this particular 5 percent of the population in exactly the same way that Christians are called to love everyone. That means attending to what most harms them and doing something about it. And that means offering full acceptance of LGBT people, ending religion-based harm and contempt, helping families accept the sexual orientation of their own children, and helping churches be a safe and welcoming place for every one of God’s children. For this reason, I have accepted invitations to contribute to the work of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Family Acceptance Project.
I am pro-LGBT in just the same way I hope I would have been pro-Jew in 1943 and pro-African American in 1963. I stand in solidarity with those treated with contempt and discrimination. And I do so because I promised in 1978 to follow Jesus wherever he leads. Even here.
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