Nothing Has Changed

Before I made the leap from Side B (the belief that gay sex is sinful) to Side A (the belief that God blesses same sex relationships) I believed that to shift my beliefs on the matter would radically alter my life, my faith, and my very religion. To me, the chasm between Side A and side B was as wide as the gap between Christianity and Hinduism, and to allow myself to get a boyfriend would be the equivalent of praying to Shiva. A world where I was free to pursue my dream to have a partner was a fundamentally different world, and a God who approved of same sex relationships was a different God. The dream of partnership felt as inaccessible as all my childhood dreams: no, Hogwarts is not real and I will not be receiving a letter informing me that I am a wizard. No, Narnia does not exist and I will not be finding the wardrobe at a thrift store any time soon. No, Doctor Who is only fiction and there is no Time Lord blazing across the night sky in his TARDIS, rescuing humanity from the horrors of the cosmos. No, there is no such thing as a gay relationship that God blesses, and there is no such thing as a God who would condone such a thing as moral. Such a life, such a God, is only fiction.

And then something astounding happened: it wasn’t a fiction to me anymore. By a long, tumultuous and at times dangerous process, I came to believe that I had been wrong. I now believe that gay people can experience long lasting, monogamous bonds that can be blessed by God. I had believed that such a shift would be a fundamental transformation that would devestate every aspect of my life. But it didn’t.

I believed I would worship a different God if I believed I could marry a man, but I don’t. He is still Three in One, the great I AM,  the maker and sustainer of worlds. He is the same God who hung on that cross and died for my sins. He is still the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am still a great sinner, and he is still a great savior. Christ is still the Son of God in my life, with as much glory, mystery, and compassion as before.

I believed that my Bible would be less meaningful and authoritative if believed gay people could marry, but it isn’t. I still read my Bible every morning, and it is still the God breathed and inspired scripture it was before. It is still the final authority in my life, and engaging with it is still one of the most important journeys I could ever make.

I believed that the shape of my faith itself would be radically altered if I accepted gay marriage, but it isn’t. The creeds that define the central aspects of my faith have not changed, and I can still speak them, affirming every word.

I thought that I would compromise the integrity of my intellect if I affirmed gay relationships, but I haven’t. I find that my intellect is as robust as ever, and that I have not had to stoop to compromised forms of theology to believe that God blesses gay relationships, nor have I had to compromise other deeper values of hermeneutics that act as guides in my life. Instead, I have found that the integrity of my mind and the integrity of my heart are now finally dance partners instead of rivals.

The glorious and beautiful truth is this: nothing truly significant has changed. I believe the same things, worship the same God, and have the same faith. Even in practice, my faith has not changed. What has changed is that I feel that I have grown in my faith, and have more deeply surrendered my sexuality to God. When put into perspective, all that has changed is a shift in how I view one aspect of human nature and how God responds to it: something that, despite all the “doctrinal statements” the church throws about these days on homosexuality, has not enjoyed any central and authoritative doctrine or creeds. I stand in disagreement with the majority of the Church, but not in such a way that excludes me from her company.

I know this now, but for years I didn’t. For years, I had emotionally confused secondary Christian questions with the central Christian questions. I believed that the question of gay marriage was as central to my salvation and as pressing as the question of whether Christ really did die on the cross and atone for my sins. This is not to say that these secondary questions are not important, or that our ideas don’t have real consequences. They are extremely important and must be confronted with grace and wisdom, but it is to say that I – and much of the church – have confused the secondary for the primary, and there is only one word for such confusion: idolatry.

Yes, we will have our disagreements, and we will have our convictions, and we will all struggle to the best of our ability to try to fathom the will and words of a perfect creator with our sin-stained and limited minds. But at the end of the end of the day, to follow Christ and to believe in his grace is the best any of us can do, regardless of whether we are gay or straight, married or unmarried, affirming or non affirming. If he is God, he is big enough and good enough to pick up all the pieces our best attempts at following him leave in our wake.

The Fight for Grace

Several weeks ago, a good friend messaged me.

“Your writing puzzles me,” she said. “Because Stephen the Writer seems to feel far more secure and certain of God’s love than Stephen the friend. Stephen the friend struggles daily with knowing that Jesus loves him. Stephen the Writer speaks confidently about the security of God’s love. I know it is terrifying to be more honest, but I think you should be.”

She’s right, of course. I told her that when I talk about God’s eternal, unchanging, unconditional love, I am preaching to myself as much as to others. I want to believe that God loves me no matter what and, sometimes, I do believe it. But it’s much harder to be honest about the reality than it is to talk about the ideal. It’s much harder to speak about me, in the middle of the journey, than it is to speak about where I am going.

When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that there is no greater struggle in my life than accepting God’s grace for me. More than any addiction or despair, I have struggled with knowing that Jesus loves me with an impossible love, right now, right here, no caveats, no exceptions.

I have patterns engraved in my psyche – patterns so deep that they have carved me out like the Grand Canyon. They are the patterns of shame, hiding, and fear. I’m a yoga teacher, and the Sanskrit term for these patterns is samskara – scars left on the human psyche, body, and spirit through years of repitition. A samskara can be positive or negative, but above all it is formed by habit. A drug addiction is a samskara. Practicing piano every day creates samskara. Keeping secrets from those you love most creates samskara. Samskara takes practice to form, and I practiced my self-loathing, my shame, and my hiding for years. From a very young age I loathed and feared myself for my same sex attractions, but the more I hid and the more I ran the more deeply I hated myself; the more I feared that I was absolutely unacceptable to God. I recently read through some old writing of mine and stumbled across a phrase that vividly describes how I felt for years through much of highschool and college: “I feel like a survived abortion.”

Now that I am out of the closet and trying to live my life with honesty and integrity, I feel like I am in physical therapy for my psyche. Every day, I take on the monumental task of choosing to believe that God loves me. Some days I believe more fully than others. Sometimes I crash, and I’m convinced that he can’t, he won’t. Sometimes I even still lie in bed and wonder if I am going to hell because I have walked away from the traditional ethic, because I self-identify as gay, because I have momentary slipups as I am trying to learn what it means to be a healthy sexual being for the first time at the age of 25.

I recently finished watching the show American Horror Story: Coven with my friend Nathan. There was one scene in the show that got to me:  one of the most redemptive, lovely characters gets trapped in hell and caught in an infinite loop of her most nightmarish experience. That scene haunted me, and I would lie in bed as it played over and over in my head. It was nothing more than a cinematic display of the samskara I had created for years: the fear of God rejecting me, the fear that, despite my best efforts, I was still going to hell because of my sexuality.

It’s difficult. It hurts. Sometimes I call up my friends, desperate for some kind of affirmation. Sometimes I am able to believe, sometimes not. But I have chosen always to walk towards the cross. I have decided, with gritted teeth and cold determination, to believe that when Christ died on the cross, he died for me, too.

I don’t just struggle with God’s love in the context of a lifetime of learned patterns. I also struggle with his love in the context of recent wounds, bruises, and doubts. I struggle with the shame of walking away from the traditional ethic on homosexuality, even as that choice probably saved my life. The struggle to live the traditional ethic consumed five years of my life – five years of endlessly fighting for a “life affirming sexual ethic”, five years of nurturing spiritual disciplines, five years of fighting to live in community as a celibate being. Five years is not a long time, and yet I would rather receive a lethal injection than go back. The pain was too much, despite all the things I tried to do right. And let me be clear – it wasn’t the universal call to chastity that broke me, and it wasn’t the possibility of never having sex. It was the requirement of lifelong celibacy that crushed me – the fact that, for me, monogamy, or marriage, or committed, faithful love with the person I love would only ever be sin. Friendship and spiritual disciplines were not enough to save me from being crushed. The mandate of required celibacy crushed me, even while I believed – and still believe – that the vocation of celibacy is beautiful and vital for the life of the church.

There is talk in the non-affirming gay community of all the ways to make gay celibacy sustainable, but no, I’m done. After five years of trying, and trying, and trying, I have discovered that it is too dangerous for me.

That was the truly horrid part of it all: if fulfillment could be found in the life of gay celibacy then it should be pursued, but if it could not be found then there was simply nothing to be done. If you are one of the unlucky ones for whom mandatory lifelong celibacy is a white-hot brand on your soul, you simply have to endure it, forever. It was a definite bonus if you found relief and joy, but if you didn’t, you simply had to keep walking. Pain, in those circumstances, did not matter – at least not enough to walk away and find help. That’s what “carrying your cross” means: It means pain, and it means pain that will very likely kill you.  Carrying a cross isn’t about being whole or happy, it’s about suffering to the very end. Someone’s pain doesn’t matter enough to put that cross down – even if it is pain so ferocious that it results in a putting a bullet through their skull. The sacrifice is all that matters.

This raises a disturbing question: at what point does the concept of “carrying a cross” become a safegaurd against an individual ever making necessary healthy life choices? At what point does It become a shield against someone ever seeing their own self abuse that hides under the guise of religious obedience?

In the traditional ethic, even my screams felt invalidated, because this was my cross, and I was to take it to my grave. When I went limping and whimpering to others in the church like a wounded animal, the response was always the same:”we are sorry you are hurting. You can rest with us for a time. But just keep going. This pain is part of it.” And even when I wept and said, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” The answer was still the same: “This is what it means to carry your cross. Just keep going.” When my body became a crisscross tapestry of scars, the answer remained the same. When I would lie in bed awake for hours, replaying the fantasy of killing myself over and over and over again in my head, the answer remained the same. When I started failing all my classes, the answer remained the same. It was the most terrible game of chicken ever imaginable: hold yourself over the flame for as long as you can. If you withdraw, you do so at the cost of your soul. If fulfillment and happiness finds you, that’s nice and a definite bonus. But if not, you just have to keep burning. This is your cross.

After finally cracking and walking away, self-hatred and shame are inevitable. There is shame for putting down that old rugged cross that they all said was supposed to kill me, and choosing to find a better life. There is self hatred for having the audacity to believe that, perhaps, God would rather have a living son who loves him than a dead son who died a martyr on the hill of his sexual orientation. The voices still keep me awake sometimes, and sometimes the voices sound an awful lot like God, speaking His disapproval that I walked away instead of choosing the long, slow, roasting.

Does Jesus really love me? At the end of the day, I come to this: His love is all I have. And no matter how horrible the journey sometimes becomes, I find that I love Him, too. I see a Jesus who was perplexing, demanding, and tender, and I love Him. I see a Jesus whose heart burst for the brokenhearted, the poor, the rejected, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who mends the broken hearted, who releases the captives, who heals the blind, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who invites us to carry a terrible cross with Him, but who also says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life, and I love Him.

If I believe God is good, if I believe He is love, then I also have to believe that He is merciful when we suffer, when we are wrong theologically, when we try our very best. I have to believe that His love is bigger than all our suffering, our valiant attempts at right living, or our capacity to be right or wrong. And I hope that, some day, I will be able to believe that more fully.

Sharing Stories of Brokenness

Yesterday, John Smid posted a powerful reflection titled “Where do the Tears Come From?” discussing monday’s post,  In Which I Have Breakdown: An Open Letter to the Church. He discusses how, even though we both come from very different backgrounds, he related to the pain I expressed, and he shares his own experiences of excruciating pain as he tried to live out his faith as a gay man. These are stories that I believe the Church must absolutely hear, and I hope that more lgbt people have the courage to share their stories of brokenness within the church.

I lived outwardly according to the church’s expectations. I was given the message early on that if I was obedient, and trusted God, then I would find peace and contentment as well as hopefully a significant change in my attractions and ability to connect with my wife within our marriage. Each day living out the reality that it wasn’t happening.

I think Stephen is saying much of the same thing, only as a single man.  He expresses such innate desires for love, connection, and yet the religious culture conveys that there is no option for a gay man to have those desires fulfilled. Some would say that he can accept that he is gay, but conveys the message that celibacy is the only option. For a young man to think he will live the rest of his life alone can be insurmountable.  And if he is honest with himself, he knows he will never find compatibility with a woman.

I can fully understand the depression that comes along with those ideals. I spent 24 years within a marriage that was incompatible with my sexual orientation. I held to the standard that I had no option but to remain in the marriage and stick it out somehow. Lonelier, and with deeper shame each year I felt hopeless that I would ever find a true soul connection in this life. I just thought it was my lot in life and I’d better find a way to discover joy in it. Exhibiting  some kind of satisfaction on the outside and speaking of love and contentment publicly,  I was lost and internally dying from the core. A daily sadness, and anxiety was my true inner experience.

Another challenge is that the majority of straight folks do not begin to understand because it isn’t their experience. We’ve often heard that people don’t want our homosexuality shoved in their faces. But in reality, heterosexuality is a glowing presence, actually in our faces every day. Young lovers kissing in the park, elderly folks walking holding their hands in peaceful joy. Television movies of love and romance everywhere during the holidays. Ads, commercials, book covers,  all about heterosexual love. As a gay man, I believed I could never have what I was seeing around me every day, but they could live it out publicly. It was a glaring reminder of the turmoil within my own life.

Be sure to read the whole post here.

In Which I Have a Breakdown: An Open Letter to the Church

Back in October, just before I left the blogosphere for my sabbatical, I had something of a breakdown.

What made the breakdown so devastating was that I didn’t see it coming at all. It had been a fairly good week, and I, for the most part, was feeling perfectly happy and content.

And then I made a mistake: I read theology. I read Wesley Hill’s response to James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, and it felt like the ground vanished beneath me and I went into a terrifying free fall. (I tend to have a bad track record with Wesley Hill’s work. Every time I try to read something of his, I usually end up sobbing in a corner somewhere, not able to breathe.)

Old feelings that I used to struggle with on a daily basis suddenly materialized inside of me – feelings of debilitating unworthiness, fear, shame and anger. Those voices that had plagued me day after day for years – the voices that told me that I am fundamentally loathsome and less-than for my sexuality – wrapped me up like a boa constrictor and wouldn’t let go. There was also an anger that rekindled inside of me and tore up my insides like a wildfire: anger at the church, and at my experiences in church as a gay man. I can only describe this experience of shame and anger as being so intense it became a physical sensation of anguish and immobility, like an internal claustrophobia that pressed in on all sides, crushing me. The experience was so intense, and so debilitating, that I curled up into the fetal position in bed and sobbed till 2 AM.

In the aftermath of the break down, I retreated into nurturing spaces, and I had good friends who surrounded me.  With their help, I got through.

Since then, I’ve found myself pondering what happened. Why did I have such an intense reaction to reading Wesley’s piece? There is the obvious fact that, as with ex-gay therapy, I found Side B theology (it’s ok to be gay, it’s just not ok to have gay sex) deeply traumatizing, and contact with it can still trigger me in unpredictable ways. But I also suspect that my previous experiences with theology – especially conservative theology – about homosexuality has felt alienating, belittling and dehumanizing. I grew up deeply influenced by very conservative theologians, and the way the some of them talked about me felt horrible and dehumanizing, like being stripped naked in the examining room. By the time I went to college, I could barely engage with straight, conservative people on the topic at all. I was too angry, too hurt, and wanted nothing to do with them. I wanted to scream, “I’m right here – stop talking about me as if I’m not here. Don’t talk about me, talk to me. Talk with me.” To them, this crucial part of my own humanity – sexuality – was no longer human, but a fascinating theoretical concept people used to talk about any number of terrifying things: the wrath of God, the fallenness of humanity, the fall of Western civilization. My capacity to share physical love with another human being was now what preachers and well-intentioned scholars used to illustrate the most horrifying and terrible theological concepts about God and the world.

After a lifetime of that, it turned into an emotional trauma. And, as trauma goes, it gets triggered easily, even by things and people that don’t warrant such a response. Several months ago I was reading an article on Huffington Post by Father James Martin – a Catholic Jesuit priest who has shown considerable kindness to the LGBT community. And yet I found that the article just made me angry – all I could hear was another straight man talking about me. The anger was not warranted, but it felt too similar to other voices I had heard in the past.

I expect something similar happened with Wesley Hill’s writing. Wes is himself gay, but it probably felt too similar to other words and experiences that were deeply wounding to me. It wasn’t just theology to me – it was something far more immediate and real.

I want to take this experience I had several months ago and make a very simple point: when you talk about theology as it relates to gay people, you aren’t talking about abstract theological concepts, you aren’t talking about a book you recently read, and you aren’t talking about politics. You are talking about our lives.

You are talking about experiences, questions and traumas that have shaped us, tortured us, and terrified us. You are talking about the sometimes daily battle to overcome the deep feeling of inhumanity that has plagued some of us since we were young. You are talking about the tears, the numbing, the suicidal ideation and the prayers over countless nights, pleading with God that he would have mercy and make us normal. You are talking about the torture of the closet, the unbearable burden of keeping secrets from those we love the most, because of the conviction that if we stepped outside of the closet, we would be seen and rejected. You are talking about terrible questions that plague us: is it fundamentally evil for me to fall in love, to be committed to a single person, to raise a family? You are talking about relationships and bodies and marriages and families. You are talking about people.

This isn’t just theology for me, and this isn’t something I read in a book or on a blog. This is my life. And, unlike most straight Christians, I don’t have the luxury of putting down the book or closing the blog and putting it out of my mind when it gets too challenging or uncomfortable. I can’t put it down when these theological questions have very huge, terrifying and immediate implications for my life, like whether I must be celibate for the rest of my life, or whether it will be fundamentally immoral for me to fall in love and have a family.

This is why so many gay people don’t ever want to walk into a church again. This is why there is unspeakable rage at the church, or why the dialogue between LGBT communities and the church can be so explosive. It’s because we are struggling with a lifetime of little hurts that turn into traumas, and sometimes just by existing, moving, and talking, you trigger those traumas, and we experience that compounded shame, fear and hurt all over again.

When I think about theological discussions regarding homosexuality in the church, I find myself pleading the words of Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

All I want to say is this: be gentle. Your status and security as a Christian doesn’t depend on you “speaking the truth in love.” You don’t always need to be a speaker of hard truths and a prophet into the lives of those you disagree with. Instead, be a healer, a listener, and a student. Be a fellow traveler to share a campfire with as we all journey closer to what it means to be like Christ.

An Interview With James Brownson, Author of “Bible, Gender, Sexuality” (Part 2)

Today, we are continuing our interview with James Brownson regarding his book “Bible, Gender, Sexuality”. Be sure to check out part one.


James Brownson is the James and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI), husband, father, and friend. He’s also the author of The Promise of Baptism: An Introduction to Baptism in Scripture and the Reformed Tradition. He blogs at on topics related to the Greek text of the lectionary, his most recent book, as well as on theological education, the life of the church, and a few other topics that may catch his interest.

I know you wrote an entire section on Romans 1, and you could hardly do justice to it in a single blog post, but could you briefly outline how you understand Romans 1 as it pertains to homosexuality?

 The same-sex eroticism addressed in Romans 1 is characterized by Paul as driven by excessive passion, as degrading, as impure, and as contrary to nature.  What I try to do in my book is to seek to understand what each of these categories would have meant in the ancient world.  Once this is determined, then the question becomes the extent to which the same strictures necessarily apply to all long-term committed gay or lesbian relationships today.  I suggest that there is room for debate and discussion here, when Paul’s language is clearly understood in its original context.


Homosexuality is often compared to other sexual practices that are condemned, like incest, pedophilia, and polygamy. Why do you believe homosexuality is not comparable to these other sins?

 Each of these is probably best treated distinctly.  Some people compare homosexuality to incest, because both issues are addressed in Leviticus 18 & 20.  And since incest is a prohibition which Christians continue to accept today (so the argument goes), the description of male-male sex as an “abomination” in the same chapters should also be relevant today.  But this begs the question about why they are in the same chapter.  It would seem that they are together because they both deal with sexuality, but that doesn’t make them equally binding.  Robert Gagnon argues that they both are motivated by concerns over “too much sameness” in sexual relations, but I don’t think this argument has any exegetical backing.  By contrast, I argue that what motivates the negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism in these chapters is a revulsion against excessive practices by surrounding nations, which speaks only tangentially at best to committed, long-term relationships today.  There are lots of things that Leviticus teaches that Christians don’t accept today, so these texts, taken alone, are quite inconclusive.


 The analogy with pedophilia often comes up when the persistence of sexual orientation is brought into the discussion.  Just as pedophilia is often highly resistant to treatment, but remains always morally wrong, so (it is argued) same-sex behaviors continue always to be morally wrong, even if it is hard to change sexual orientation.  But this analogy rather badly confuses things.  Pedophilia is always self-evidently morally wrong because it is a violation of children, and is driven by self-centered desire on the part of the perpetrator.  Whether committed same-sex relationships can be tarred with the same brush seems considerably less than evident.  Or to put it differently, because children can never be fully accepting equal partners in a sexual relationship with an adult, and because such partnership is a necessary precondition for acceptable sexual behavior, pedophilia is always morally wrong. But it is certainly not self-evident that the same sort of argument must necessarily always apply to all same-sex relationships.


 Polygamy enters the argument in a somewhat different way.  Among the many possible forms of this argument, let’s explore this one:  If marriage is not exclusively between a man and a woman, but can exist between any two people who desire to be together, what is to prohibit polyamorous relationships, say, between two men and three women?  If they all want it, and accept the implications of the commitment, who is to say no?  At the root of this complaint is the worry that the approval of same-sex relationships represents a capitulation in our culture to the idolization of personal preference, and the loss of any objective standards against which those preferences are to be measured.  I’m somewhat sympathetic to this concern, but I think it needs to be expressed more clearly.  I don’t think that the church should consider accepting same-sex relationships simply because “people should be able to do what they want, as long as everyone agrees and no one is harmed.”  Rather, the question is whether for gay and lesbian people, as for straight people, erotic love can be drawn into sacrificial relationships of devoted love and concern for the other that reflect divine love.  If these same dynamics can work in same-sex relationships, then these relationships can be sanctified and drawn into divine love.  I’m not convinced that polyamorous relationships can reflect divine love in quite the same way, though that, of course, is a rather long discussion in its own right!


In the book, you discuss how the traditional view of gay relationships might contradict the witness of scripture in regards to celibacy. Can you explain how?

 Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7 that some have the gift of celibacy, but not all (see 1 Cor 7:8-9).  “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”  I take that to mean that for those people who experience the absence of sexual fulfillment as a serious impediment to faithful living, the committed love of marriage is the divinely ordained solution.  All are called to celibacy at some points in their lives, but the question is whether gay and lesbian persons are necessarily all called to celibacy for the entirety of their lives.  That’s problematic, given Paul’s acknowledgement of the difficulty implicit in universalizing a call to celibacy, though this problem is an unavoidable consequence of the traditional position.  


Most people in the church have very little access to the lives of gay people. What do you wish the Church knew about about gay people?

 I find that the most constructive question I can ask in a conversation on this issue is “Do you know personally and well someone who is gay or lesbian?”  I find over and over that this is the single most important factor in reframing the way people think about this issue. Until people can put a human face on this issue, they tend to react given their own assumptions and experiences of gender.  So that’s what I think is most important—not that people know something about gay people, but that people know gay people!  Until that happens, it’s very hard for people to get outside their own (heterosexual) framework and assumptions.


What do you wish the Church would do differently as they continue to debate the issue of homosexuality?

 My first prayer is actually not about the issue, but about the status of the disagreement within the churches.  I hope that Christians can do a better job of recognizing that there are brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree on this issue.  To acknowledge such a disagreement among Christians doesn’t mean that the issue doesn’t matter.  Christians can, and often do disagree on issues that are real, substantive, and painful.  But something changes when we see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, in the midst of our disagreements.  We may be more inclined to listen.  We may be more prone to recognize that we don’t know everything already.  We may be more patient, and trust that the Spirit can work to lead us into the truth, even when we disagree.  We may be willing to live with each other in our differences more graciously.  That would be a huge first step!


 Beyond that, the church needs to recognize that the traditional approach simply isn’t working.  Reparative therapy is ineffective in the vast majority of cases (witness the collapse of Exodus International).  Gay and lesbian people find that the answers that the church attempts to offer often don’t address their experience, and in far too many cases cause pain, rather than bring blessing (witness books like Justin Lee’s Torn).  And young people, by and large, just don’t buy the traditional sorts of arguments.  Something isn’t working here, and the church must open its eyes to that truth.

An Interview With James Brownson, Author of “Bible, Gender, Sexuality” (Part 1)

Last year, I read an extraordinary book by James Brownson called Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. I found it personally cathartic in my own journey as a gay Christian, as it helped me sort through some major theological questions I had at the time, but I also found it to be one of the most lucid, comprehensive, and brilliant discussions of scripture and homosexuality I have ever read. Dr. Brownson manages to combine academic and scholarly brilliance with a patience and gentleness that is much needed in the church surrounding debates about homosexuality.

wpid-lr-Jim_Brownson_2014.jpgI’m thrilled to have him on the blog this week, answering some questions about his book. I hope everyone who reads this – even those who ultimately disagree with Dr. Brownson’s conclusion – will also read his book and engage with his insights and challenges.

James Brownson is the James and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI), husband, father, and friend. He’s also the author of The Promise of Baptism: An Introduction to Baptism in Scripture and the Reformed Tradition. He blogs at on topics related to the Greek text of the lectionary, his most recent book, as well as on theological education, the life of the church, and a few other topics that may catch his interest.

What was your goal in writing Bible, Gender, Sexuality?

I had lots of different goals, but one way of describing my overall goal was that I wanted to hold together and integrate three of the deepest loves of my life:  my love for my son, my love for the Scriptures, and my love for the church.

You mention in the first chapter that you used to hold a view of homosexuality that is very different from what it is now. Can you share what your views on gay marriage were before you started to reexamine the issue?

Here’s a link to an article that I published shortly before my son came out to us.  It probably is the best example of where my mind was at that time.  I took a moderate conservative position that didn’t give full approval to same-sex relationships, but also recognized the question of pastoral accommodation as one option needing further exploration in the church.

At the beginning of the book, you tell the story of how your son came out as gay. In what way did that experience lead you to reconsider your beliefs on homosexuality?

I think that the core issue was a simple one.  My own denomination, in its official positions, made a strong distinction between a same-sex orientation (potentially problematic, but morally OK in itself), and same-sex behavior (which was not considered morally acceptable under any circumstances).  When my son came out to us, he wasn’t in a relationship; he was just trying to figure out how he operated emotionally and relationally.  I may not be the world’s greatest parent, but I knew enough to realize that if I said to him, “It’s OK for you to have a gay sexual orientation, but it’s not OK for you to act on it,” I was really saying to him, “It’s not OK for you to be gay.”  So the core distinction that my whole perspective was based on just didn’t work when I had to deal with someone in real life, as opposed to a merely theoretical position.  That was probably the first thing that sent me back to study again.

But not much later, I began to realize that this orientation/behavior distinction just didn’t mesh with the teaching of Jesus, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus says that lust is equivalent to adultery (Matthew 5:27-28), and that anger is equivalent to murder (Matthew 5:21-22).  In other words, Jesus teaches that the inclination to a sinful action (like adultery or murder) is just as culpable as the sinful action itself in the eyes of God, who knows our hearts as well as our actions.  Correspondingly, if same-sex behavior is always wrong in the eyes of God, then the inclination to that behavior must also be always morally wrong in the eyes of God.  I recognize that the orientation/behavior distinction attempts (albeit unsuccessfully) to be pastorally sensitive to the struggles of gay and lesbian people  Moreover, this distinction matters in terms of social legislation on all sorts of issues.  From a legal perspective, the inclination to steal is not punishable, until you actually steal something.  However, Jesus teaches that this inclination/behavior distinction is ultimately unworkable when it comes to of our relationship to God, who cares both about disposition and action.  Either the whole thing (sexual orientation and behavior) is capable of being sanctified, and brought into the realm of divine grace, (which I have come to believe), or the whole thing necessarily alienates someone from the life of God, and needs to be changed (but the church increasingly recognizes that reparative therapy doesn’t work in the vast majority of cases).

Why do you believe the Church has precedent to reconsider her views on same sex relationships?

I think that the most relevant precedent lies in the fact that the church has reconsidered its position on a variety of issues, when it has realized that it is confronting issues that have not fully been addressed before.  For example, as the role of women in relationship to men in our society changed (for example, when the U.S. granted voting rights to women), the church reconsidered its position on the relationship between men and women as well.  The same was true on the question of slavery in the 19th century, as the commercialization and expansion of the slave trade exposed more fundamental problems. Similar dynamics have shaped changes in our society (and in the church) on attitudes toward inter-racial marriage.  I think that there are a number of dimensions of same-sex relationships today that the church confronts that it has not faced directly before, and which call for a reassessment of its position:  We know much more now than at any point earlier in the church’s life about sexual orientation and how it operates.  Specifically, we now know three things for the first time in history about sexual orientation:  (1) the vast majority of gay and lesbian people do not choose their orientation, and (2) in the vast majority of cases, sexual orientation is highly resistant to even well-meaning efforts to try to change it, and (3) that gay and lesbian persons simply aren’t, by and large, sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender.  Up until fairly recent history, none of this was widely recognized or acknowledged.  It is now. Also, up until very recently, the possibility of gay or lesbian couples living together in committed relationships with the support of society as a whole did not exist in any meaningful way.  Each of these could be expanded in much more detail, but these are the core issues that suggest that we have to look at all this again.

Central to the book is the concept of “moral logic.” Can you explain what moral logic is, and why it is a useful tool for understanding Scripture, particularly as it pertains to sexuality?

I coined this term to get at issues which, I think, almost all Christians recognize and assume, though not always explicitly.  That is, if we are to wisely apply the commands and prohibitions of the Bible, we need to know not only what the Bible says, but why it says what it does.  I use the example in my book of “Thou shalt not kill.”  Everyone agrees on what the text says, but we have disagreements on exactly what it means, particularly when it comes to just-war theory or the “power of the sword” in the hands of a lawful government.  So if we want to apply the text wisely, we need to explore the underlying motives in the text.

I further argue that we can’t simply posit these underlying reasons as self-evident; we need to find exegetical support for them within the Bible itself.  And when we turn to the negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism in the Bible, I suggest that a big part of the disagreement in the way folks read these texts is that we disagree about why the Bible says what it does.  Consequently, we disagree on how this negative portrayal does or doesn’t apply to committed same-sex unions today. So we have to go back to the texts to determine their “moral logic” more clearly.

One of the most compelling ideas you present is that gender complementarianism between male and female is not exclusive and not a sound theological model for excluding same sex relationships.  What brings you to this conclusion?

The problem with “gender complementarianism” is that it is a category under which a variety of different notions co-exist.  For some, “gender complementarity” means that men lead, and women submit.  Others reject that idea, but claim that it’s all about procreation.  For still others, it’s more centrally about the fittedness of sexual organs.  These are very different sorts of rationales.  So I insist that if you want to use the category, you have to be more specific about what it actually means, and you must find exegetical support for your more particular interpretation.  Otherwise, people will simply assume that whatever they mean by “gender complementarity” has divine blessing, without any exegetical support.  When I examine the relevant texts, I believe that while a variety of patterns of similarity and difference between men and women are part of the creative diversity intended by God, and are to be celebrated, Scripture does not teach a particular, normative form of gender complementarity that is binding on both genders in all times and places.  I’m an egalitarian, and I don’t believe Scripture teaches that that men always must lead; I don’t think that procreation defines the essence of marriage in Scripture (and thus I accept the legitimacy of contraception, and of marrying couples who are beyond child-bearing years); and I don’t think that the Bible says anything anywhere about the fittedness of sexual organs, so you can’t base a theory of gender complementarity on this assumption.  Since I haven’t found a specific form of “gender complementarity” that is normatively taught in Scripture, I don’t think that the category is relevant to the discussion of same-sex relationships.

To be continued. 

Of Icebergs and Selfish Theology

During my time away from the blogosphere, I spent a lot of time thinking about why, on a personal level, the vocation of celibacy fell apart for me. Earlier this week I wrote about how I only ever experienced celibacy as a vocation of “no”. I would like to keep exploring why, in day to day practice, celibacy fell apart for me.

The Iceberg Problem

In the midst of trying to live sustainable celibacy and overcome the vocation of “no”, I thought that I could take a route that many others on the gay celibate path were following: affirming their sexuality and sexual identity, but still holding to the traditional teaching that to behave homosexually was sinful. This allowed them to integrate and embrace their sexuality, while not compromising their moral convictions.

I tried desperately to make this work. I embraced the gay identity, considered myself a member of the gay community, and (rightly) told myself that there was no sin in orientation and temptation. I focused on the fact that while Scripture speaks to homosexual action, it is silent on the topic of sexual orientation. This differentiation between orientation and action, however, proved to be just as unsustainable.

While I believe I was right to say that orientation is not itself sinful, I found it increasingly difficult to determine the difference between a homosexual orientation and a homosexual action. When I started to examine – and no longer take for granted – all the ways I think and behave homosexually,  I experienced something of an existential crisis. Was thinking a male actor in a film hot a “homosexual behavior?” What about all the times I was involuntarily drawn to other men because I found them irresistibly attractive? What about catching myself daydreaming about men I thought were beautiful, or fantasizing about a sickeningly saccharine life with a perfect husband? What about falling in love? What about dreaming of a monagomous, lifelong relationship? If homosexuality was a categorical sin, then not only was my capacity for lust and promiscuity disordered, but also my capacity for faithfulness, sexual fidelity, and long suffering love for another man.

It would be easy to say that the only kind of homosexuality that mattered was external homosexuality – the pornography and the sex and the making out with strangers – but scripture did not afford me that luxury. In the scriptures, I saw that the heart matters just as much as the body. In scripture, if we lust after a woman, we are adulterers, and if we hate a brother, we are guilty of murder.

I finally concluded that I simply could not affirm the interior world of homosexuality while condemning the external experience – not without also affirming cunning interior sins of lust and romantic longing as well. I found it deeply contradictory on an intuitive level. It was like imagining an iceberg, and then saying that the submerged portion was “good” or at the very least “neutral”, while also calling the 5% above water “evil”, when the iceberg was one whole. I realized that the division between internal and external homosexuality, like the division of the iceberg, was nothing more than a clever illusion. It’s all part of the same continuum. Being told, “It’s ok to be gay, but it’s not ok to act gay” is like being told, “It’s ok to be an introvert, you just can’t act or think like one.” It’s like being a fish, and then being told not to swim. The act of swimming is an integral part of fishhood – the internal and external actions of homosexuality are what it means to be gay.

Accepting internal homosexuality while rejecting homosexual actions also felt like a set up for accidental revolution. Affirming gay personhood while denying them the power to act accordingly emphasized an inherent inequality for gay people. It felt too much like all the other horrible voices of inequality we have heard over the years: it’s ok that you are a woman, you just can’t be a woman in congress, in the voting booth, or in the pulpit. It’s ok if you are black, you just can’t be black in my neighborhood, in my church, in my side of the bus, or in my business. It’s ok if you are gay, you just can’t enjoy marriage, romance, sexuality, or family.

My Selfish Theology

At the end of the day, the ugly truth about my traditional convictions and celibacy was this:  it was selfish.

On the surface, it had all the appearances of self-sacrifice and carrying my cross. It looked like a triumphant act of laying down my life to serve Christ, even to myself. Over time, though, I realized that that was all an illusion.

My traditional convictions were about nothing other than me. My salvation. My eternal security. My own fear of rejection: from God, from family, from Church. It wasn’t about self-sacrifice at all. It was about self-protection. It never once occurred to me to consider the implications of my beliefs on a group of people the size of a country. It never once occurred to me to ask if what I was demanding of myself as a moral absolute was sustainable for every other gay Christian in the world. I never once considered the consequences of my beliefs on gay teenagers, on married gay couples, on church and community and history. I simply didn’t care. It wasn’t about them, it was about me.

With such a selfish mindset, I was all too comfortable shrugging off experiences and entire groups of people who didn’t fit nicely into my worldview. What if not all gay people were capable of living a life of celibacy that brought glory to God? I don’t know. What about intersex and transgender people who don’t fit into my gender binary, complementarian vision of reality that was the foundation for my non-affirming views? I don’t know.

Sometimes, saying “I don’t know” is empowering, necessary, and even heroic, but eventually, I grew weary of the “I don’t knows”. I couldn’t say “I don’t know” to entire groups and experiences anymore, because I realized that, for me, the “I don’t know” was an act of ideological injustice. I needed a theology that included them, not excluded them. I realized that, for me, the “I don’t know” was just another example of my self-centered, self-protective theology.

Over time, I have had to build a new theology: a theology that is for everyone else, and not just for me; a theology that is indeed a “yes” and not a “no”, and a theology that doesn’t push me into a place of deception and destruction.

Despite how much my theology has changed, one thing needs to be made clear: my commitment to integrity, to holiness, to scripture, to the Person of Christ, has not changed. In fact, I can say with confidence that it is because of these commitments, and not in spite of them, that my theology has shifted so much. The beauty of the Gospel is that, while we may grow and shift with time, God’s love for us, and his faithfulness to bring about redemption in our lives, does not. At the end of the day, I have to believe that God’s love for me is larger than what I believe about marriage, or homosexuality.