What Phil Robertson Gets Wrong

One brief remark on the Phil Robertson fiasco.

I understand and share all the concerns about religious liberty, which Rod Dreher, Russell Moore, and Mollie Hemingway have done a good job (as usual) of articulating.

But just because someone quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and is opposed to same-sex marriage doesn’t mean that they’re speaking up for a theologically informed, humane, pastorally sensitive view of what it means to be gay. Not by a long shot. And social conservatives should think twice before linking the concern for religious liberty to a vindication of Robertson.

I won’t quote Robertson’s remarks in full here—they’re easy to look up—but suffice it to say that he implies that if gay men could only open their eyes, it would dawn on them how myopic they’ve been. “I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.” The conclusion to draw from this comment, as Katelyn Beaty noted earlier today on Twitter, is “that gay men should just wake up to how awesome women’s body parts are.”

But, of course, that’s just not how sexuality works.

When I was in my early twenties and just beginning to allow myself to face up to my sexuality, I remember a wise pastor friend telling me that anyone with an Augustinian anthropology—for those playing at home, that’s a dim view of natural human ability to be virtuous and an uber-high view of God’s slow-moving, unpredictable grace—should have no time for the notion that gay people (or anyone else!) “choose” whom they’ll be attracted to. That seems obvious to me now, after years of thinking about these things, but at the time, hearing him say that felt like a revelation. A weight was lifted. Someone understood!

No one who takes seriously the mysteries of human nature and all the ways our hearts are opaque, even to ourselves, would say that embracing a Christian view of marriage and sexuality could ever be a matter of saying, “Gee, Phil, I’d never thought of it that way before, thanks!”

And making that point is also a matter of speaking up for Christian orthodoxy in the public square.

Update: See Ron Belgau’s follow-up post on Robertson.

Wesley HillWesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter: @WesleyHill.

49 thoughts on “What Phil Robertson Gets Wrong

  1. Pingback: What Phil Robertson Gets Wrong » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. Part of the challenge in this is the vitriolic response to the comments. You are right in saying that Christians shouldn’t be championing “religious liberty” on the heels of Phil Robertson and the “fiasco.” But what gets lost is the broader point. So, then, I engage with self-righteous individuals who spit out “bigot” and “intolerance,” zero in on this, and then leave no room for real dialogue because that agenda shapes the discussion. My concern isn’t supporting religious liberty but the public square that seems to be about the size of a Scrabble letter and getting smaller.

  3. I disagree with your argument. It implies that those who view homosexuality as a sin are required to make pristine theological arguments. No such obligation is placed on the other side of the debate. Phil Robertson, who as far as I can tell, is not a writer, never mind a theologian should not be held to those standards.

    To take a recent comparison, while many conservatives have criticized Pope Francis’s statements on capitalism, no one has stated he should be banned from the conversation for his muddled (to be charitable) understanding of rudimentary economics.

    • If one is unwilling to be excellent at teaching theological arguments, especially with such a massive audience we all have these days, then one simply should not teach.

      James 3:1-5

      • He was not taking a teaching position, in this instance. Phil Robertson was asked a leading question and answered it honestly. He does not claim to be a theologian. He answered a question with his opinion and the Bible. He may have spoken to crudely, but he was honest and pretty accurate to what the Bible says (even if he did paraphrase with a little good-ole backwoods, down south lingo). The verses he was paraphrasing, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, say what he spoke of, apart from the bestiality (but we know the bible does condemn bestiality too).
        Like I said. The man is not, or does not claim to be, a theologian, but he did speak true of the Bible. He was a bit crass, but honest.

    • But it does add to the impression that the problem the Christians have with homosexuality is based upon ignorance – that people experiencing SSA have chosen wrong. It is important that we give our message the integrity it deserves or otherwise risk it being dismissed for being uninformed.

  4. Pingback: A Brief Note on Phil Robertson and Double Standards » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

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  6. John,
    I think it’s important to note that how people are rushing to Robertson’s defense will be perceived as defending the manner in which he said them, which is more than just not “theologically precise”, and closer to embracing the problematic naivety toward sexual identity issues that characterizes too many evangelicals. When we make Robertson a champion for Christian sexual ethics in the public sphere, we run the risk of standing behind what is a ultimately a poor articulation of those ethics. That doesn’t do anyone any good.

    • In many ways agree with you, but unfortunately, I find that this only applies to one side of the argument. Who made Phil Robertson a champion for Christian sexual ethics? I hardly suspect GQ has become an evangelical organ while I wasn’t watching. Should I hold by breath for a network suspending someone for calling an anti-gay marriage figure a bigot?

      Now, as a Christian, I believe we should be held to higher standards but I also believe in confronting the world as it is, not how I want it to be.

  7. pretty poor commentary. i mean c’mon, the guy isn’t as articulate and theologically trained as you are. he doesn’t prepare sermons or write articles he just speaks off the cuff. He’ll learn from these rash comments but don’t start a three volume exegesis please. We should honor him for standing up for the truth, yet with humility and grace (as evident from his concluding remarks)

    • I think the point of the article is being missed. It isn’t just a simple circumstance where, by his comments, we see that Robertson’s beliefs are biblically accurate and lacking in the way of articulation. The article points to a fundamental disagreement between what the bible actually says and what Robertson’s comments say about his beliefs, not just the way he approached the question (which was also not the approach the bible, or any sound loving teacher would have instructed us to take). He seems to believe sexual orientation is our choice and if we would just stop for a second and wake up, we would see the right and logical way to live as God intended. The Bible teaches The Holy Spirit is the only one who can actually do this for us and orient our lives to Jesus. This is also true with many other sins that one person may be more tempted by than the other. Just because the other doesn’t struggle with the sin, doesn’t mean he has finally started thinking logically–he probably just has a different set of struggles that Jesus must change his heart to, through the Holy Spirit.

      • Yea, I Tried To Delete My Comment, Made It Because Of An Emotional Impulse. i Understand What You Both Are Saying (And Agree), And i Mistook The Writers Intentions. I Apologize

      • Mr. Robertson spoke regarding the practice of homosexuality, not the inclination towards it. His point was clearly that the practice is sinful and illogical and the biblical answer is (in faith) to turn away from it and to the natural (and logical) and God-ordained just like with anything else. Along with the rest of his public message it is made clear that this is accomplished through a faith encounter with the Lord Jesus.

        The new Testament authors did not equivocate or obfuscate the plain and terrible truth that if you embrace sin you will not inherit the kingdom of God. Why should Mr Robertson? Why should DG ministries?

        It may just be that the untrained and “vulgar” speech of the simple Mr. Robertson has vastly greater positive impact than the oh so educated and comprehending words of the professionals and academics at organizations like DG.

  8. It’s simple people he said what he believes. I stand behind him 100%. The bible is very clear about homosexual behavior and all the other sins that will keep a person from entering into the kingdom of God. Why are you all trying to make him seem uneducated? I believe he will hear well done good and faithful servant when he stands before God

  9. To be honest writer, you make no clear headway on your post. It is filled with post-modern confusion. Which way do you stand? Do you stand in favor of Phil Robertson standing up for (1 Cor. 6. 9-10) or Ephesians 5:5-6)? Paul warns in Ephesians 5:6 – “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” He says this after verse 5 which states “no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man with inherit the kingdom of Christ and God.”

    To me and Phil it is pretty simple: No fornicator outside the marriage between a man and a woman will be able to inherit the kingdom of God. That includes practicing homosexuals. That is clear to me. Therefore Phil Robertson stands firm with the Word of God and will not give into false-ness. I feel he rather took a soft passive stance concerning the questions he was asked. False teachers rampant in the church? Yes. This can be seen through the liberal “Christian” responding that Phil fails to see what Christians actually believe concerning the LBGT. Phil I think represents Christianity boldly by standing against homosexual activity.

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  13. If a Christian citizen in the U.S. cannot express his opinion without being hammered into oblivion by the cultural “voices” we have already lost our religious liberty. If a Christian citizen who makes no pretense about being a Christian leader or theologian cannot express his view of biblical Christianity without the blessing of the Church’s theologians then we’ve lost at least some measure of the priesthood of the believer. Either situation is regrettable. Rather than Christian leaders criticizing Phil Robertson perhaps we should help to clarify and better articulate what he was trying to say…we are often far too silent from our pulpits and from our ivory towers

    • If Phil Robertson’s message is about love, it is wrapped in judgment and hate. His comments about race equally reflect retrograde views that are often hyperbolic. He speaks to church groups, including his own. And now he has a much broader forum. From 2010, Robertson says: Robertson in 2010: “Women with women, men with men, they committed indecent acts with one another, and they received in themselves the due penalty for their perversions. They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.” These personal views, deep seated in southern evangelical and white supremacy, marginalize rather than inform the Robertson’s family and faith mission. If he is about love, then let’s see leadership regarding his comments. He has every right to voice personal opinion. A&E acted responsibly for understanding how those views are offensive.

  14. Perhaps the most distressing thing about this whole debate is the way that many have equated “standing for morality” with “taking a stand for Christ.” Now, while standing for morality is, by definition, a PART of standing for Christ (one can not proclaim forgiveness without also acknowledging that sin is sin) standing for morality by itself, apart from also speaking the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ is, in fact, the complete opposite of standing for Christ. (Let us not forget that both Christ and John the Baptist called those who did so “children of satan” and “brood of vipers”)

    Now I will says this, Robertson did do two things pastors often fail at miserably. 1) He did talk about his own sin, about growing up on sex and rock and roll in the 60s. 2) He did specify that he was making no eternal judgement on anyone and wanted to respect and love people and let God sort out the judgement part.

    Nevertheless, let’s face it, he made a highly marketable brand by intentionally talking a, well, for want of a better description, backwoods, redneck, down to earth style. I frankly find it distasteful to make a hero or a martyr of a man who made a lot of money and popularity and then got bit in the tailbone by the very people and method of rough speaking that catapulted him into that popularity. Nor do I feel the least bit of sympathy for A&E when the character they paid for and marketed created a public hulla-balloo by acting and talking inline with the character they paid him to be.

    It’s very disgusting one both sides, frankly; A&E for playing the “socially conscious, entertainment corporation” while making mega-bucks off of DD as well as those treating Robertson as if he were a poor, persecuted Christian Martyr fighting to keep soul and body together against the unfair meanies of politically correct Hollywood.

    Robertson and A&E make a stack of money by using each other and now they have had a parting of the ways ideologically. Big deal! Let’s be a little intelligent as churches and not get sucked into this morasse.

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  16. “…anyone with an Augustinian anthropology—for those playing at home…”

    You know, I’m not a dumb person. But I come from a rural background, and while it’s not “southern redneck backwoods” it is likely considered a northern plains farm hick version of it. I didn’t go to seminary. I just went to regular old college and got blue collar jobs. So I guess I’m playing at home because as I read the GQ article, my first thought wasn’t that he didn’t have his anthropology right, or didn’t have the correct theological finesse just so. I thought “well, kinda crude, but his heart isn’t unkind. I admire that he talks about sin and Jesus to the GQ crowd.”

    So here and there his cultural background, which necessarily infects his presentation and word choice the same as mine (and yours) do, threw the uber educated hipster Christian crowd off the rails (if my Twitter feed is any indication). Maybe he just doesn’t get it as well as we think he should, and his language wasn’t as careful, and all these fine point things that make it friggin’ impossible to say a word lest someone’s 8-year-seminary theology be ruffled an a history lesson be in order because we can’t be just loving Jesus if we don’t know all of those things which allow us to put it into correct context.

    Here’s the thing: when Robertson answered those questions, despite the off-putting manner he used, he did not have to bracket or preface it for those of us “playing at home.” He spoke plainly, and it was too discomforting for this world.

    There are millions of us who appreciate plain-speak, we’re not dumb, we love Jesus, we love people, and we don’t really understand why our own Christian brothers and sisters are willing to toss us into a burn heap because we didn’t get our anthropology right as we tried to talk about sin and our need for Jesus.

    Robertson comes as a package of roughness and contradictions and a few rounds of WTF and in the end, I see the perfect example of a jar of clay, the perfect example of refining fire at work, and even though I have every reason to be offended at the specific things he said, I choose not to be. I choose not to write the blog post that tells the world the things he did wrong because he spoke plainly and because we feel the need to make it more palatable for those who have chosen to be offended.

    I’ve grown to expect the non-Christian response to each of these incidents claiming that if I eat at Red Lobster or touch a football I’m a hypocrite (OT laws), but I’ve grown tired of our own Christian version of the pile-on where we ever so gently use a high-ended theological bat to finesse the message and completely miss the beautiful point: our weakness, even our imperfect words, reveals the strength of Christ.

    Anthropology? Lets use some grace with cultural anthropology and understand where Robertson comes from in his life experiences is in play and God still chooses to use him.

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  19. then don’t take an Augustinian view of human nature. come eastward, with the Cappadocians etc, where the sky’s the limit and you are not limited by ideas of “i did not choose this and cannot escape it.”

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  21. Wesley, I appreciate your words here. I appreciate that you took a different approach and explored this issue from the voice of experience, having come to terms with your sexuality and realizing it is something that cannot be changed by mere suggestion. I am sorry for the comments you have had to endure which don’t seem to fully appreciate or understand the position you take in this post.

    While I agree with you completely – that one cannot merely change their sexuality on a whim, and that Phil’s comments, while perhaps genuinely heartfelt (for him) and well-intended, do not accurately reflect Christian orthodoxy – I fear that it will be difficult for others to agree unless they have endured a struggle so intricately tied into identity, such as same sex attraction. It is difficult to communicate from a place of empathy without experience or openness to a mantra that may be different than one’s own.

    My thought is that many Christians were offended and subsequently enraged because they saw a reality TV idol of theirs being chastised for a belief they also hold. I understand that. At the same time, to say that Phil’s comments accurately represent the Christian view of marriage does a great disservice to the Church and also to those outside the Church, in my view, because the Gospel of grace is left out as is general empathy with those who do admit to same-sex attraction – both inside and outside the Church.

    In other words, while I do not believe Phil was intending to be the spokesman for everyone in the Christian faith, that is what people have made him. And I think this is unfortunate. Because it creates a culture war that divides those whose hearts have been regenerated by Christ (let’s presume that is the Church) from those who are in need of Christ’s love (presumed: the unchurched). And I also think it divides the Church – pitting those who have never struggled with issues of sexual identity (or other issues which often come under fire by the Church, seemingly more frequently than other issues) against those who have. And those in the Church who have wrestled with identity to this degree may feel as if their voice is silenced and their sexuality a burden unto themselves that the Church blames them for.

    So all that to say…thank you for voicing your perspective and speaking with vulnerability and transparency. This debate over the firing of Phil Robertson is, in my opinion, largely unnecessary on such a grand scale. But it is refreshing to hear you perspective in the midst of so many other competing and voices that all have started to sound the same.

    • Oh, thank you, thank you for that response. I was getting disheartened by some of the comments on this feed. You captured what I wanted to say but didn’t quite know how. I really appreciated Wes Hill’s article and tone. His book was instrumental in my own thinking and believe that it has greatly helped me in the community we are trying to reach.

  22. This article seems a tad misrepresentative of the story. Plus, we should stand by our brothers and sisters when they’re attacked, not join in on the assault. Phil’s theology may not be perfect, or even near perfect, but he understands the gospel; and neither your theology nor mine is perfect either.

    • we should stand by our brothers and sisters when they’re attacked, not join in on the assault.

      How you apply this principle in this case depends on who you think is being attacked, and who is joining in the assault.

      There is a lot of hostility toward homosexuality in Christian circles, including hostility directed to those of us who embrace a traditional Christian sexual ethic. Many of us perceive Phil Robertson’s comment as a further expression of that hostility, and perceive the Christian reaction, which circles the wagons around Phil and refuses to recognize why what he said was offensive, as doing exactly what you say should not be done: joining in the assault on brothers in Christ when they are being attacked.

      We have tried, in the midst of an us-vs-them response, to try to take a more nuanced view. You seem to be suggesting that, in the interests of defending a very wealthy entertainer, we should simply ignore the concerns of any of the people who may have been hurt by Phil Robertson’s remarks.

      • What I’m saying is, when our brothers and sisters are being attacked because they affirm a biblical worldview/morality (which Phil did) we should not join in.
        If a person is offended by someone saying that homosexuality is sinful then they don’t hold to a biblical worldview. I would also encourage people to read the rest of what Phil said in the interview. Which reads:

        “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”

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  24. Great article Wesley. I actually like Duck Dynasty and Phil seems a gracious enough man most of the time, but as he acknowledged, he is a sinner too. And while he probably didn’t have bad intentions with these comments, I think he’s guilty if not letting his words be seasoned with salt as it were.

    It seems to me like the conversation between Christians and homosexuals has been moved forward a tremendous amount over the last few years because of folks like yourself helping those of us who haven’t had that struggle understand how difficult it is to live as a believer with that struggle. This interview with GQ moves us backwards i think.

    Phil isn’t a theologian or pastor, but when you are as high profile as he is, you have to measure your words more carefully. People who are not believers, who are also living a homosexual lifestyle probably done watch the show and don’t see his character. Most probably think this is representative of what all Christians (at least in the South) think about them. And the response from Christians is backing that up.

    I certainly don’t think that Phil intended to cause this much of a ruckus, but as I tell my kids when they defend themselves with “I didn’t MEAN to!”, sometimes you have to mean NOT to.

    I really wish he’d come out and say. He should not have used the words he did, that he knows they were hurtful and that he has confessed his sin. And I wish he’d do it in the same backwoodsy, off the cuff way he did in the interview.

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  27. Wesley, thanks for this post.

    No one can deny how off-putting Robertson’s statement was. Remarks like “But hey, sin. It’s not logical, my man” come off as equally juvenile–and unproductive–as counter-slogans like “A hole is a hole”. A closer examination of the issues, hopefully with less inflammatory rhetoric, is needed.

    That said, I’m inclined to agree, with many of the commenters, that we shouldn’t hastily jump to any criticisms of Robertson’s statement, which after all were made off the cuff; nor should we be quick to condemn him as theologically illiterate. But it’s nevertheless worth exploring whether the opinions he expressed (and which I suspect–judging from his seemingly undeterred supporters following the fiasco–many others endorse) are justifiable from either a biblical or general Christian perspective. And I appreciate the effort made by the writers at SF to do just that.

    (**Disclaimer about language, below**)

    Now, while I don’t agree with Robertson’s remark, or the manner of its delivery, I have to confess: something about it resonates with me–though not necessarily in a good way. Being a gay man myself who’s never experienced gay sex, I sometimes have my doubts, too, whether it would be as enjoyable as I imagine (if I were ever to engage in it–which is doubtful given my convictions). I have a bisexual friend who reports that sex with women actually is–as far as the deed goes–more pleasurable than sex with men, given anatomical differences (though ultimately he still prefers the latter). Even porn downplays the “yuck factor” associated with gay sexual acts.

    And while this is only one expression of homoerotic love, it’s hard to deny its prominence. An inextricable part of my desire for homoerotic love is its (for lack of a better term) “consummation” in intercourse–the Venus portion of Eros, as it were. (Whether it really is inextricable, is debatable. I know those at SF doubt it is; I’m just self-reporting my own felt desires.) Hearing remarks like “it’s not logical” reinforce these fears that my desires are, at bottom, intrinsically disordered; that I’m longing for something disgusting, or inferior in comparison to “the real thing”. That’s just a simple suspicion based in fear. Even if it ever rose to the level of convinction, I doubt that it alone would ever suffice to dissuade one from such activity (like my bisexual friend). Yet it’s still a disconcerting thought.

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