Yesterday, there was a bit of a dust-up on progressive Christian Twitter. A white feminist criticized a black man for his association with complementarians. The pushback she got included both criticism of the racial aspects of her comments and her own non-affirming beliefs toward LGBTQ Christians. It looked, at first, like it was going to be a productive conversation. She asked questions about what it meant to be affirming, and said she wanted to celebrate gay marriage but struggled with “Biblical sexual ethics.” But when a bunch of people asked what she meant by that, while others noted that “Biblical sexual ethics” isn’t a single,consistent thing, she accused people of bullying her and left the conversation. There were a lot of comments, so I can certainly understand how it felt like a pile-on, but none of the criticism I saw was rude or unkind.
This got me thinking about how I engage with Christians who might be sympathetic and appear to be sincerely well-meaning, but aren’t exactly affirming. It’s hard. I usually try the route of patient, thoughtful explanation, and it very rarely seems to get me anywhere. So far, I’ve resisted the temptation to grab people by the shoulders, shake vigorously, and scream “Don’t you know your bullshit theology kills people?” Somehow, I think that would be even less helpful. But it’s hard to always be nice and always stuff down anger at harmful stereotypes or toxic theology. Also, I’m not sure catering to people’s desire to be treated with kid gloves *when their theology is killing people* is actually helpful, because it allows the harm to persist. If you’re standing on my foot, I can believe that you didn’t mean it and refrain from calling you an asshole while still insisting that you get off my foot.
So, this post is for those Christians who want to learn more about LGBTQ+ affirming Christianity, or to understand why we get so cranky the thirty-seventh time we hear the phrase “Biblical sexual ethics.” I’m hoping it will explain some of the anger and frustration that seems to go along with these conversations and give you some ideas for engaging more productively.
Don’t expect LGBTQ+ people to justify their lives, their relationships, or their existence to you.
Please, just don’t. When you engage with LGBTQ+ people, you need to understand that they’ve spent their whole lives hearing pastors and politicians denounce them, lie about them, and blame them for everything wrong in the world, up to and including natural disasters. If they’re Christians, or used to be Christians, they’ve probably had the Biblical “clobber verses,” the ones taken out of context to support the idea that being gay is a sin, thrown at them more times than they can count. They’ve also had their legitimate criticisms of that Biblical interpretation, like “Doesn’t Ezekiel say the sin of Sodom was selfishness and inhospitality?” or “How are we so sure we know the exact meaning of a word Paul made up?” completely ignored.
If you want to understand the Christian arguments for affirming LGBTQ+ orientations and relationships, putting your one gay friend on the spot is not the way to do it. Read Matthew Vines or Justin Lee or Kathy Baldock or any of a number of authors or bloggers first. If you’ve got specific questions, some of those authors might be willing to email you more info, or discuss the subject on Twitter or their blog. Or not. Educating people is hard work and everybody’s got a limit. But if you do the work of developing a basic understanding of the core arguments, you’re much more likely to find people who are willing to explain the tricky bits.
Also, remember that if you’re not their parent or their pastor, people aren’t accountable to you. (And even if you’re their pastor, they really do have the right to leave your church.) You might totally disagree with someone’s beliefs or their interpretation of scripture, but they don’t owe you a justification for why they think that way or live that way. I guarantee you that you’re doing things that don’t match up with someone else’s interpretation of the Bible, and not just the gotchas like mixed fibers. But if they were to come up to you and demand to know why you celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday, or pray with your hair uncovered, or have a Christmas tree, you’d probably be a bit put out. So, don’t do that to LGBTQ+ people. Especially because being LGBTQ+ is usually a much more central part of people’s identity than what they wear to church or when they go.
With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
If you’re going to make an argument about same-sex relationships, or about trans people existing as their real gender rather than their assigned at birth gender, expect that argument to be turned back on you. This is kind of the inverse of the previous point. Not only do people not owe you a justification, but if you critique them and aren’t living up to your own standards, they *will* point it out.
This can be a good opportunity to examine your own beliefs, even if it’s also difficult and frustrating. If, for example, you don’t think Paul’s “I do not permit a woman to teach” was a hard, fast rule, binding for all Christians everywhere, then why is that different from what he said about same-sex sex?
Really think about what you mean by “The Bible clearly states…” or any phrase that starts with the word “Biblical.”
People use “Biblical” to mean pretty much whatever they want it to mean, often without a whole lot of critical thought. Do you mean that you can find a scripture to justify the thing you want to justify if you pull it out of context? Do you mean something is discussed positively in the Bible? Do you mean it meshes with the life and teachings of Jesus? Or do you really just mean that it’s something your church teaches is biblical?
Whatever you think about the Bible, it doesn’t speak with a unified voice on pretty much *anything.* There are multiple creation narratives, multiple gospels. Different authors, different genres, different audiences.
There’s also the problem that people emphasize, and preach on, the parts of the Bible that support their existing beliefs, and discard or explain away the parts that don’t. Every Christian does this. Whether you interpret everything through sacrificial atonement, or focus on what Jesus said above everything else, or pore through Daniel and Revelation for specific prophecy about the end times, everybody’s got an interpretive framework. There’s no such thing as a plain reading. Even things as innocuous as verse numbers or the translation you use are a choice that can subtly shift meaning.
So, acknowledge that you have an interpretive framework, figure out what it is, and bring that to the conversation, rather than an overly simplistic “The Bible says X.”
My framework is that you can look at the Gospels as multiple stories of Jesus choosing people over rules. Not ignoring the rules or throwing them out completely, but never, ever, elevating them above people. So, if an interpretation of some other part of the Bible harms people, then I’m not on board with that interpretation. Yours is probably different. But if we know where the other person is coming from, we have a much better chance of a productive conversation.
Remember that this really is life and death.
A lot of the time, people like to argue religion or politics without really having a stake in it. It’s fun to toss around ideas and see what sticks, or to try to convince other people of things. But that can become less fun in a hurry when the argument affects you directly. It gets even more grating when the person you’re talking to *doesn’t want to acknowledge* those effects. One of the most frustrating conversations I’ve ever had with someone non-affirming involved him arguing that there was no way anti-gay theology could drive people to suicide because the church preaches against sex outside marriage and straight people aren’t killing themselves as a result. Setting aside the many things wrong with that comparison, if your response to “People are dying because of your church’s teachings,” is “Nuh-uh, not our fault,” instead of “Shit, how can I help?” then you really need some empathy.
Again, doing the research is your friend here. The Trevor Project has a lot of statistics. You could also read a conversion therapy memoir, like Boy Erased or Saving Alex. Or read up on the problem of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness due to family rejection.
Remember at the beginning when I talked about the temptation to shake people and yell at them? I have that strong reaction because this really is life and death. Teaching that LGBTQ+ relationships and lives are sinful does real, tangible harm. It twists people’s self-image and convinces them to hide or distort who they are. It results in parents rejecting gay or trans kids, and the scores of problems that go along with that. It matters.
People who have been harmed by this theology are probably not the people to answer your questions. The hurt is too fresh and the damage too severe. But you can still learn a lot from them if you’re willing to listen. If they’re angry, try not to take it personally, because if people had prevented you from getting married, tried to keep it legal to fire you for who you are, shouted slurs at you, and held you responsible for the downfall of civilization, you’d probably be angry too.