I am in Boston this week, attending my third Q conference. And like the Q conferences I’ve attended before, this one is inspiring, thought-provoking – and unsettling. Many of Thursday’s sessions addressed the gay dilemma in the church, either directly or indirectly. Though several conference speakers, including Q founder Gabe Lyons, upheld an orthodox Christian view of sexuality, audience response clearly showed that a sizeable minority of the Christian leaders here support gay inclusion. And tragically, no speaker really offered a compelling view of orthodox Christian sexuality. Instead, author Debra Hirsch’s talk on “Redeeming Sex” offered more titillation than truth, comparing heaven to “a continuous orgasm” and relaying questions like: “I asked Jesus into my heart, but how do I get him into my (sex organ)?”
Hirsch’s talk was the first of three afternoon talks that specifically addressed sexuality and/or homosexuality. I agreed with Hirsch’s criticism that the church has failed to address human sexuality properly – that it tends to breed a fear of sexuality; reduces male/female or masculine/feminine to merely the physical; and fosters few positive conversations about sexuality. I also wholeheartedly agree with Hirsch that the church needs to develop a robust theology of sexuality. The problem is that Hirsch didn’t offer any solid theology; instead, she delivered a mix of pop psychology and opinion. She suggested there is “social sexuality” and “genital sexuality”; “multiple masculinities and femininities”; and then spoke of the need to bring sexuality and spirituality together – again, offering vague definitions of both without grounding any of her assertions in Scripture.
“Completely absent was the view that God can redeem sexuality in any way….However, in many Christian circles today, if you even hint that you might believe sexuality is within the scope of God’s ability to redeem, you’re marginalized as an alleged proponent reparative therapy.”
Unfortunately, Q attenders weren’t exposed to any of this rich theology. Instead, what followed was a discussion on the “The Church’s Gay Dilemma” between Matthew Vines and Julie Rodgers. Vines is the author of “God and the Gay Christian” and founder of the Reformation Project, which seeks to train Christians to support and affirm LGTBQ people. (I had Vines on Up For Debate in June to debate Dr. Michael Brown on whether one can be gay and Christian.) Rodgers is a gay, celibate Christian whose hiring to work in the chaplain’s office at Wheaton College last year sparked controversy.
Vines reiterated the same arguments that he does in his book. One, that condemnation of same-sex relationships can’t be a “good tree,” so to speak, because it yields the “bad fruit” of brokenness and pain among same-sex attracted people. Vines also argued that condemnation of same-sex behavior in Scripture can be reduced to just six passages. (Again, had a solid theology of marriage and family been presented at Q, this premise would have been exposed as completely invalid because the marriage metaphor permeates Scripture from beginning to end.) Vines then asserted that monogamous same-sex relationships weren’t “on the radar of the biblical writers.” They envisioned homosexuality only as a promiscuous excess of sexuality. As result, their seemingly wholesale condemnation of homosexuality needs to be re-interpreted as only condemning homosexual sex outside of committed monogamous relationships.
Rodgers, though she identifies as gay, affirmed the sexual boundaries expressed in Scripture as good: “I just trust that the boundaries God put around sexuality are for our flourishing.” And, she brilliantly responded to Vines’ argument that the biblical writers were simply ignorant when it came to same-sex monogamous relationships. Her quip, “I don’t think God was like, ‘Whoa, where did they come from? Gays, who knew?’” elicited a big laugh from the audience. Yet she, perhaps rightly, accused the church of applying a double-standard when it comes to homosexuality, stating that she knows several LGBT people who have been asked to leave the church, but not one (I’m assuming promiscuous) straight person.
This led to a brief discussion, or confession, of the church’s transgressions in this area. Lyons, though he affirmed orthodox teaching on sexuality, lamented the callous and sometimes abusive way the church has treated gays. And, Rodgers challenged the church to be as serious about the call to hospitality (i.e. welcoming same-sex attracted people into relationship) as it is to sexual purity.
Overall, I thought this discussion was positive. However, it had a glaring omission. Completely absent was the view that God can redeem sexuality in any way. In fact, at one point, Lyons stated that only a small percentage of people have experienced any change in their sexuality and referenced Alan Chambers, the former president of the now-shuttered ex-gay ministry Exodus International. Chambers famously stated that “99.9 percent of people I met through Exodus’ ministries had not experienced a change in orientation.”
Interestingly, though, the only substantive study of people who have claimed to experience a change in sexual orientation tells a different story. In fact, that study by Dr. Stanton Jones and Dr. Mark Yarhouse showed that 23% of those studied reported success in the form of “conversion” to heterosexual orientation and functioning. Another 30% reported they were able to live chastely and had “disidentified” themselves from homosexual orientation. None of the subjects studied reported that they had been harmed in any way by seeking change. (For a fantastic explanation of this study and the limits of the social sciences to settle the moral debate over homosexuality, I highly recommend Dr. Jones’ article in First Things.)
However, in many Christian circles today, if you even hint that you might believe sexuality is within the scope of God’s ability to redeem, you’re marginalized as an alleged proponent of reparative therapy. I have never believed in reparative therapy, but I do believe in the transformative power of the gospel. At my church, there are literally dozens of people who at one time struggled with same-sex attraction, but do so no more. So, this narrative that sexuality is a fixed and immutable trait is difficult for me to swallow. And, it strikes me as ironic that those, like Lyons and Rodgers, who uphold an orthodox Christian view of sexuality because they believe Scripture trumps experience rely solely on experience to discredit the possibility of sexual redemption. In truth, the view that sin tendencies, sexual or otherwise, are immutable is not only non-existent in Scripture; it’s contradictory to Scripture.
“How can believers assert that sexuality is somehow exempt from the transformative power of the Spirit?”
Kimball, on the other hand, came to Christ as an adult and explained that as a non-Christian musician, he had lots of friends who were gay. However, when he became a believer, he immersed himself in Scripture and realized the necessity of placing the Word above experience. This led him to believe that homosexual practice is sin.
Gushee, reiterating some of the prior assertions, then said that condemnation of homosexuality “creates a disastrous box,” which gays “cannot escape.” He called the established Christian understanding of sexuality a “toxic body of tradition that bears bad fruit,” delivering “harm, rather than care.” At this point, Lyons interjected, suggesting that the “definition of love is up for debate right now.” Is the “truest love” encouraging same-sex attracted people to embrace and express their attraction? Or, do we accept the traditional Christian narrative – that calling people to forsake those tendencies will “lead to their flourishing”?
“I think if the Spirit can raise the dead, He can radically change every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality. I’m hoping I’ll hear this perspective at Q today, but I’m afraid it’s become so marginalized and politically incorrect that no one dares speak it.”