The Benedict Option and the Nashville Statement

Over the weekend, I wrote a long email to Rod Dreher in response to some things he had said about the Nashville Statement. This morning, he published it on his blog, along with some responses of his own. Although I don’t agree with everything he said in response, I will think through what he has to say before responding in more depth. In the meantime, I share my letter and encourage you to check out his responses. At the end of this post, I’ve also included several important points from online discussion of the letter, from Rod Dreher, Justin Taylor, Matthew Schmitz, Denny Burk, and Dan Mattson. I am grateful for the thoughtful discussion I have seen in response to the letter. 

The Benedict Option

Dear Rod,

I’m writing in reply to your response to criticisms of the Nashville Statement. Although some of your other responses, like the email from Chris Roberts and the piece on the cost of the divorce culture, addressed some of my concerns, I think it would be helpful to explain my worries about your response in more depth.

In the first place, I was surprised by this post because, when I read The Benedict Option, I was particularly impressed with your analysis of the sexual revolution in Chapter 9. You spelled out the ways that it has not only corrupted the surrounding culture, but has also penetrated into the church, undermining many Christians’ faith. Like Russell Moore’s 2014 keynote on “Slow Motion Sexual Revolutionaries,” you spoke prophetically of the ways that Christians have been co-opted by the sexual revolution. You made clear that we need to recover a distinctly Christian way of thinking about sexuality and living in sexual purity. Your whole book is about how we need to stand apart from the anti-Christian ethos of modern culture, and do better at building community practices that enable us pass on the faith, catechize, and keep us from turning into moralistic therapeutic Deists.

But there are two ways of distancing ourselves from the ethos of the broader culture.

The first—which I understood you to be advocating in The Benedict Option—is a repentance which recognizes that we have been drawn away from God and into worldly ways of thinking. We need the purification that can only come through asceticism, and so we seek the encouragement and accountability of other Christians to be faithful and to pass on the faith.

The second, however, is to become a self-righteous clique, whose members don’t call each other out, but instead focus on blaming all their problems on those outside the clique, whether other Christians who fall short by the clique’s standards, or non-Christians.

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Matthew Lee Anderson on the Nashville Statement

Some of our readers may have heard of the Nashville Statement, put out by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The statement advertises itself as a defense of Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality, yet fails to address some of the most serious threats to the sanctity of marriage, precisely because the Southern Baptists have already surrendered to the spirit of the age on divorce, reproductive technologies, and the like.

In a series of tweets this morning, Ryan Anderson pointed out one of the problems at the heart of the statement: its drafters’ failure to articulate in full what Christianity teaches about the virtue of chastity:

I will be interested to see if Denny Burk and others from the CBMW take the time to respond to Ryan’s question. I will not prejudge their answers, but given the other ways in which the Nashville Statement fails to articulate what the Bible teaches about marriage, it would not surprise me to find that they neither understand what the virtue of chastity is nor are able to articulate what it requires in marriage.

Matthew Lee Anderson (no relation) has a very good, in-depth response to the statement that spells out why he will not sign:

The failure of this document, then, is (again) not merely rhetorical. The omissions are as significant as what it explicitly includes. Nor do I think those omissions are merely a matter of differing prudential judgment about what our times require: I have described the statement as failing to meet the minimum conditions for public judgment, because I think there are actual Bible verses that indicate as much. While evangelicals practice self-loathing more than they ought, a statement from churchmen that asserts that a particular view of sexuality is essential to the faith mustacknowledge our own complicity and entanglement in the very spirit that is being denounced. Otherwise, it fails to bear the authority of the Gospel it proclaims, an authority which stems from the confession of our sins and the proclamation of Christ’s saving work. Such a dual announcement is the necessary and indispensable precondition for our judgment of the world. The absence of such a confession leaves the affirmations and proclamations withering on the vine, without the grace and life of humility which allows us to see that we, the evangelical churches, have helped make this world as well. If the confidence and courage that the statement enjoins sound forced or hollow, this is why.

It’s one of the best essays on how Christians should respond to the sexual revolutions I’ve seen. Please check it out.

Review: Single, Gay, Christian by Gregory Coles

Gregory Coles’ Single, Gay, Christian releases today. Go buy it.

Single, Gay, Christian

Writing a review for my friend Greg Coles’ new book is a bit like taking a photograph of the Grand Canyon… using an old-fashioned camera… with a cracked lens… and overexposed film. It is doomed to fail utterly at the task of representing the experience of actually journeying with Greg as he relates his personal story of how he discovered that God could love gay people like himself, like me, and like others. For this reason, as well as due to the genre of Greg’s book (memoir), my comments here will not follow the pattern of a standard review, but will be instead a somewhat stream-of-consciousness reflection on how I was personally impacted by Greg’s story.

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The Pursuit of Banality

Gregory Coles is the author of Single, Gay, Christian, a memoir about faith and sexual identity that will be released tomorrow (August 22) by InterVarsity Press. He’s also a piano player, a baker, a worship leader, and a PhD candidate in English, not necessarily in that order.

Greg Coles

In my ideal world, being gay and celibate wouldn’t occupy a great deal of my thought life. (Not-having-sex doesn’t take very much time, after all…)

I’m not saying that I never want to think about being gay. It’s an important part of my experience of the world. The ways I’ve encountered Jesus, the dreams I’ve given up for him, the joys I’ve discovered along the way—those things are all indelibly informed by my sexuality. I face different challenges and enjoy different opportunities because of my same-sex orientation. The last thing I want to do is scrub away my life’s particular details with a bottle of Clorox and a sponge.

But if I had my way, I would think about gay celibacy the same way I think about my career options, or what I should have for dinner, or whether I want a pet ferret. I would think about it the way I imagine that straight people think about being straight, as if it’s simply part of life. It wouldn’t need to be a stentorian shout or an embarrassed whisper in the chambers of my mind. It would just be. It would be normal. It would be banal.

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Is the “Side B Gay Christian Movement” a Millstone?

One thing that has always struck me about Rosaria Butterfield’s story is how different it is from my own. By Butterfield’s account, she initially dated men and had a few bad experiences. She did not start to date women until her late twenties, after becoming involved in feminist academia. From her telling, it seems it was less a matter of pursuing relationships with women because she was naturally attracted to them, and more a matter of rebellion against traditional ideas. And indeed, Butterfield describes her primary sin issue as rebellion against God’s design.

Image result for Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

Contrast this with my own story. As I’ve discussed before, I first started to realize that I was attracted to other guys around puberty, though I was in denial about it for quite a while. I was horrified and ashamed over this, because I was committed to following Christianity and never bought the revisionist arguments about sexual ethics. As a result, my primary response was to try to rid myself of my feelings for the same sex. A lot of my questions and difficulties came from the realization that my feelings just weren’t changing, despite my best efforts. I certainly had (and still have) some struggles with sin in terms of things like lustful thoughts, but I’m a virgin, and I never got into porn.

Why should we expect that the same approach that worked for Butterfield would work well in my situation?

It’s definitely true that there’s a single Gospel for all believers. Nonetheless, we usually recognize that people in different situations will need different approaches to bring this same Gospel to bear in their lives. Continue reading

A Response to Rosaria Butterfield

Many of our readers are likely familiar with Rosaria Butterfield, who has a powerful testimony being converted to Christianity while being a professor specializing in queer studies. Although I’ve had certain disagreements and frustrations with her, she had always struck me as a compassionate, honest, and fair person.

Rosaria Butterfield

For this reason, I was surprised when I recently happened upon this video of Rosaria Butterfield talking to a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church. Starting around the 53 minute mark, she made slanderous statements about several groups near and dear to me—the PCA, Reformed University Fellowship, and Spiritual Friendship. I was surprised by the degree to which she misrepresented these groups, because I was expecting better from her.

For example, at one point Butterfield stated,

Especially today, and I know I’m speaking in a PCA church, so I understand the stakes of this, but especially today, the PCA is smitten in a stupid way, and I’m using a hard word, very stupid way, and to their shame, to the gay Christian movement, both A and B.

She also added, “RUF, I’m talking to you here.”

“A and B” refer to the “sides” of the debate on gay relationships and Christianity. This terminology was originally developed at Bridges Across the Divide and later popularized at the Gay Christian Network. Side A is the belief that the sex of the people in a sexual relationship has no bearing on the morality of the relationship, while side B (the view espoused by the writers on Spiritual Friendship) is the belief that the only appropriate context for sex is marriage between a man and a woman. Rosaria’s claim here is that both sides, including in particular the revisionist “side A,” are well-represented within PCA and RUF leadership. This is an extraordinary claim. The doctrinal statements that PCA and RUF pastors and elders uphold take the “side B” view, as Butterfield herself does.

I am fairly familiar with how the PCA is approaching sexuality. Over the past few years, I’ve been a member in good standing of two PCA churches in fairly liberal college towns (Chapel Hill, NC and Madison, WI). I’ve been close with a pastor at each church, and paid some attention to denominational politics. I’ve had a number of friends studying at Covenant Seminary. In all these settings I’ve had numerous discussions regarding sexuality.

And while I never participated at RUF as a student (having gone to a Christian university for my undergraduate work), I’ve known quite a few students and alumni from the group. Several of my friends have gone on to do RUF internships or to go on staff with RUF. And the work of RUF matters to me, to the point that RUF is second only to my local church in terms of how much money I’ve given.

My experience further solidifies my belief that Butterfield’s claim is patently false. I see no evidence that leadership of RUF and the PCA are embracing a “side A” perspective at all. Perhaps Butterfield is just talking about laypeople in the pews or students who attend RUF events, rather than leadership? But it’s not fair to the PCA or to RUF to blame them for the culture in which they’re trying to do faithful Christian ministry. Unless Butterfield can provide substantial evidence to back up her claim, her statements about RUF and the PCA amount to slander.

She also made some harsh and unfair criticism of Spiritual Friendship:

Or hey, I could go “side B” with Wesley Hill and the Spiritual Friendship gang, where I would learn that my sexual desires for women were actually sanctifiable and redeemable, making me a better friend to one and all, but for the sake of Christian tradition, I should not act on them. Well, if you haven’t figured out by now, I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks. So let me tell you right here, that telling someone like me that I am to deny deep desires because of Christian tradition is simply absurd. Christian tradition is no match for the lust of the flesh.

I think that sexual strugglers need gay Christianity and all of its attending liberal sellouts, including the side B version, like fish need bicycles, to refresh an old feminist slogan. Gay Christianity, touted as the third way for those churches and colleges, is a poor and pitiful option to give someone like me. And while some people see a world of difference between between acting on unholy desires and simply cherishing them in your heart, our Lord would say otherwise. If anger is murder and lust is adultery, then the differences that separate the factions of gay Christianity, the differences between Matthew Vines and Wes Hill, take place on a razor’s edge, not a chasm.

This represents a very serious misunderstanding of what Spiritual Friendship promotes and teaches. Spiritual Friendship has always defended the orthodox Christian teaching on sexual ethics (see here, here, here, here, and here, for a few examples).

Now I do want to acknowledge that much of Butterfield’s view is probably from this post by Wesley Hill. At least Ron Belgau and I have long had certain concerns about this and some of Wes’s other writing. Primarily, we thought it was too ripe for misinterpretation and needed more explicit theological development. We also realized it could come across to our critics as viewing temptation or sin too positively, or could encourage sloppy thinking that would actually cause some of our readers to view temptation or sin too positively. Ron has pushed back against this some and attempted to provide a more rigorous reflection on some of the issues in Wes’s “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” post.

To be honest, our readers really need a much fuller explanation of what we’re trying to say than can feasibly be done in this blog post. And we need to figure out within Spiritual Friendship to what degree there is agreement among the contributors. Ron and I have started discussing how to do a longer series of posts to discuss some of the questions at hand, but will want to take some time to develop it carefully. But in immediate response to this video, I want to clarify what we are not saying.

I want to be clear: we are not saying that as long as you’re not having sex, you’re fine. None of us would say that viewing pornography or entertaining lustful fantasies, for example, are morally acceptable, even if those are sins that some of us (like many other Christians) struggle with. We take seriously Jesus’s teaching that lust is adultery.

Additionally, we are not saying that desires to have sex with someone of the same sex are sanctifiable or something to be “cherished.” Wesley Hill was trying to describe aspects of his experience other than the desire for sex, and as I said, the point really demands a more rigorous explanation than he has yet provided.

Another strange notion in Butterfield’s presentation of our view is that we just pursue celibacy “because of tradition.” This isn’t really how we would describe it. We try to avoid gay sex because we believe it’s what God wants of us. The reason I haven’t pursued a sexual relationship with a male isn’t just because I want to respect tradition. It’s because I love Jesus. I believe that pursuing that kind of relationship, as with any other sin, would hurt my relationship with Christ. As a Protestant, the value of tradition for me is that it helps me understand what God has taught in Scripture. But Scripture is my ultimate authority, because it’s where I believe God has infallibly spoken.

And to deal with the sin in my own life, what I need is the Gospel, discipleship, and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s certainly not just a matter of me doing the right thing in my own power because I trust tradition. We’re pitting the Gospel, discipleship, and the Holy Spirit, rather than tradition, against the lust of the flesh. I’m baffled why Rosaria Butterfield seems to think we claim otherwise.

I hope that Rosaria Butterfield, and anyone else who has seen the video, can come to a better understanding of where the PCA, RUF, and Spiritual Friendship stand. And I think Rosaria Butterfield owes these groups an apology for slandering them.

The Aim of Christian Friendship

Over the last decade of my life, I’ve realized more fully the importance and true meaning of friendship. As a celibate Christian without the likelihood of future marriage, and for others like me, friendship within community is one of the main ways our sanctification works itself out. Friends point out our strengths and weaknesses, and challenge us to move forward; we need this in order to grow and mature in the faith as we struggle to believe along side of one another.

In the past few years, my friendships have taken a variety of forms. My friends and I have sung karaoke together. We’ve laughed and cried together. We’ve sat in silence pondering the world’s problems. We’ve savored beauty within nature and in the amazing taste of a mocha. We’ve gone on vacations and stayed up late playing board games.

There is immense joy to be had through sharing these moments with friends. That joy is good and should be celebrated. But the exhortation of friends calling me forward is even more important. The friends who most challenge and encourage me serve me to the highest degree, because they call me to walk more closely with God.

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Friends as Family Perspective

We are looking to enhance our understanding of the experiences of celibate gay Christians and their support system. We would like to interview friends who are close to celibate gay Christians or function as family in the lives of celibate gay Christians and could speak to that friendship. We would like to understand how people have built supportive friendships and to learn about the challenges, approaches, and your shared wisdom in building such relationships.  You don’t have to be living together as family, although a communal life together is an option for being included in the interviews. We are also open to interviewing celibate gay Christians who are in a covenant partnership or related relationship that is intentional in the way we described above.

These interviews are confidential, and we have some funds to support a limited number of interviews.

The interview takes about 40 minutes or so to complete and is typically done by phone or Skype. If you are interested in sharing some of your experience, please email me at markyar@regent.edu.

 

How Should We Then Live?

The recent debate surrounding the essay “Conjugal Friendship” by Giacomo Sanfilippo has yet again reminded me of a the importance of dialogue surrounding sexual minorities in the Orthodox Church. I’m not an expert in the theology of Florensky so I will leave the theological particulars to Sanfilippo and other theologians. I do have experience though in how the Church discusses sexual minorities and interacts with the LGBT community. I have read a few critiques and seen several posts by Orthodox writers and clergy reacting to the post on “Conjugal Friendship.” Most seem to be reading into his essay or assuming the worst about it and lamenting what they see as just another attack on the Church’s steadfast commitment to the traditional sacrament of marriage. I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few reflections on how we as a Church can better discuss the various paths available to sexual minorities within the Church rather than Sanfilippo’s specific content or that of his critics.

   ©️ 2017 Gregg Webb

What I took away from Sanfilippo’s essay was less the specific arguments or case he makes for developing an Orthodox theology of Same-Sex love, and more the fact that he is attempting to find paths of living for sexual minorities within the church. As both a gay man and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I wrestle daily to try and figure out what I am called by my church to surrender and to give up. I am constantly reminded of all that I am asked to forsake at the Church’s request of fidelity to its, and my own, understanding of same-sex sexual expressions. I don’t need to be reminded that the path my heart most naturally is inclined towards, that of pursuing a husband and a family in a same-sex partnership, is not available to me. I don’t need to be reminded that I am called daily towards chastity and celibacy and to remain steadfast in following all that the Church teaches related to sexual intimacy. I know these things all too well and those battles within my heart rage continually. I need no reminders of these battles or allegiances. Continue reading

What is My “Identity?”

Blue Question

In discussions surrounding LGBTQ people, people often talk about “identity” or “who someone is.” For example, people might argue that it’s wrong to prevent people sexually active in gay relationships from participating in certain ministry positions because of “who they are.” On the flip side, there are Christians who argue that gay “identity” is something wrong that we must reject.

At least from my perspective as someone who has studied math and computer science, this discussion is quite confusing. When making arguments, I’m used to having clear definitions of the terms at play, or at least being able to ask for them. So for example, in mathematics the word “identity” is used in a precise sense, like “tan(x) = sin(x) / cos(x)” being an identity because it’s true for all x. But I don’t see such a precise meaning at play here.

What does it mean for something to be “who someone is?” And is that the same thing as it being their “identity?” It seems most people would say that “human” and “male” are components of my identity, but “hungry” is not. Some languages like Spanish have different words for “to be.” Are the rules for “identity” ones that would be familiar to speakers of those languages? What are the rules at play here? Continue reading