Review: What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming?

What does it mean to be welcoming

Travis Collins’ new book What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming: Navigating LGBT Questions in Your Church (IVP Press, 2018) starts with fairly basic points:

  • We are speaking about people, not mere issues. “This conversation, however, is not about dispassionate topics, academic subjects, and isolated matters.” He declares, “This is a conversation about people — people created in the image of God. People who love and are loved.”
  • The conversations are complex, our motives are complex, our denominations and congregations, which can be complex in their diversity, are all things pastors and all those in the life of Christ’s church must contend.

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How to Evade the Real Issues

In the weeks following the Revoice Conference, quite a number of critical responses have focused on “identity.” The primary objection seems to be that we make being LGB into an “identity,” which isn’t a biblical way to talk. As I’ve written before, it’s not clear what our critics mean by “identity.” What exactly is the objection? Oftentimes, it just seems to be using words or phrases like “gay” or “sexual minority” in reference to ourselves; the same objections do not usually arise regarding those who use “same-sex attracted” instead.

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Rosaria Butterfield claims that many of us are “not converted” and “cannot have union with Christ” because we have “made an identity” out of our sexuality. (Source)

This has always struck me as an odd way to argue, and I have wondered why ideas around “identity” and “ontology” are so frequently central to criticism of Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. I do think there are legitimate concerns surrounding identity, and in particular how we are to view ourselves as Christians. And those of us who contribute to Spiritual Friendship are fallible humans who may get these questions wrong at times. But I’ve found that at least in some cases, there is more going on than the “iron sharpens iron” discussion I would hope we can have. Continue reading

More Reflections on Revoice

Today over at First Things, I’ve got a piece up reflecting on this year’s Revoice conference, which was the highlight of my summer. Here’s a snippet:

In a line that’s become a kind of mantra among Revoice attendees and presenters, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet has said: “[Y]ou can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” What Revoice offers—and, please God, will go on offering for years to come—is a way of thinking Christianly about homosexuality and other non-straight sexual orientations that moves beyond enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce. Revoice is trying to pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?

Please read the rest!

Where Else Could We Go? Reflections on #Revoice18

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:68

Revoice Worship

As other reflections start to trickle in and I’ve had the chance to consider what the past few days of the Revoice conference have meant to me, I keep coming back to the words of Simon Peter in the Gospel of John, words that were echoed multiple times in different seminars, testimonies, and conversations over the weekend. They come after one of Jesus’ hardest teachings—one so difficult that many of his followers turn away: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” Jesus says, using such seemingly uncareful language that later on the Romans would accuse the early church of practicing cannibalism.

In one sense Peter’s confession is not particularly encouraging—in fact it feels like a sort of backhanded compliment. “Yes Jesus we’ll keep following you, because there isn’t any other better option”—the apparent implication that if there was, the disciples would be right there with the rest of Jesus’ followers whose retreating backs were all that remained of their loyalty. And yet Peter’s declaration of allegiance to Christ contains the very thing that holds any of us near to Christ despite sin, suffering, and opposition: “You have the words of eternal life.”

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Where the World Attacks

In the mornings lately I’ve been reading through the book of Exodus with the help of Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s commentary, and today I came to his discussion of the Sixth Commandment. In the course of discussing its ramifications, White says this:

Homosexuality refers to sexual relations between men or between women who are attracted to members of the same sex. Homosexual acts are closed to the transmission of human life and do not originate from a genuine biological and affective complementarity. They cannot participate, therefore, in the basic goods proper to married love. For that reason, the Bible treats them as intrinsically disordered sexual acts. They are unchaste and contrary to the natural law.

The Torah does not ignore the fact that there are many human beings who experience a predominant or exclusive attraction to members of the same sex. Quite frequently people with strong homosexual inclinations do not choose their condition and experience it as a trial. Scripture affirms unequivocally that each human being is created in the image of God and possesses and intrinsic dignity, such that he or she is due respect, affability, and love. This is no less true for people who commit or who are tempted to commit homosexual acts. With regard to the weaknesses that befall human beings in the domain of human sexuality, it is best to recall the saying: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32). Human beings are frequently morally frail in matters of sexuality and should be looked upon in the light of God’s complete truth, which implies his compassion and mercy.

This strikes me as a succinct and lucid statement of what Christians have traditionally believed about homosexuality. But I was struck afresh, this morning, by the double emphasis here.

In the first place, yes, same-sex sex acts are inherently (not circumstantially) immoral (i.e., in the classic language, “intrinsically disordered”), and that is part of what Christians are given to say in the world. But we are always also called to say another thing, and that is this: The people who perform those acts, or who want to, are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are beloved of God, and they should be loved, honored, and and sheltered by all of us who name the name of Christ too. The problem, though, is that so many of us downplay or omit one or the other of these two truths when we speak about homosexuality.

There’s an apocryphal Luther quote that goes like this:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him.

Conservative Christians are fond of using this quote to insist that we must stand up for the truth of the historic Christian sexual ethic even as it is being attacked in contemporary Western cultures, and that to fail to do so is to fail to be orthodox, faithful, biblical. And, in a mainline Protestant church like the one I belong to, I feel the force of this. These days it can seem easy to preach Christ in every way but the way that He challenges progressive sexual mores. It can feel like taking the easy road to harp on Fr. White’s second paragraph in the excerpt above rather than the first.

And yet “the world” that “Luther” mentions in that quote is not always the world of progressive secularism/liberalism. Sometimes “the world” attacks the truth of Christ on the second point that Fr. White mentions — by tempting Christians to demean, disdain, ignore, overburden, or otherwise harm LGBTQ people. “The world” and “the devil” can manifest themselves in so-called “progressivism,” yes—and they can manifest themselves just as easily whenever a Christian heaps shame on LGBTQ people (“There’s something more askew in your life than there is in that of heterosexuals,” is what a pastor once told me), or offers a quick solution to their complex dilemmas (“Just get married!” is literally the advice I saw from a conservative Christian last week, as if I haven’t ever considered that possibility), or caricatures their sex lives (“Gay culture is inherently promiscuous”), or damages their faith (“If you want healing from same-sex attraction, it is available, and you have only to say yes,” I have been promised by Christians numerous times), or in any number of other ways attacks their dignity. If you are in a so-called conservative church and you are loudly proclaiming the truth about homosexuality at every point but at the point where that truth insists on the worth and lovability of LGBTQ people — if you are binding up heavy burdens on them and not lifting a finger to help (cf. Matthew 23:4) — then you are not proclaiming Christian truth, no matter how much you may seize the high ground and claim otherwise.

Christian truth is a many-splendored thing, and we can fail to let its facets gleam in characteristically “progressive” ways as well as in “conservative” ones.

The one who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Rosaria Butterfield, Sam Allberry, and Christopher Yuan on Temptation and Sin

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Sam Allberry discusses the difference between temptation and sin with Denny Burk, and explains why saying that same-sex attraction is sin can “crush” the faith of young Christians with same-sex attraction, and “tip them over the edge pastorally.” Taken from “Q&A with a same-sex attracted pastor—Sam Allberry” starting around 12:13.

Reading yesterday’s Public Discourse article by Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield, I was startled to read their claim that distinguishing between the temptation of same-sex attraction and sin, as Ron Belgau did in his recent Public Discourse article, is a Catholic thing, something we Reformed Protestants just don’t do, or at least ought not do.

As a Reformed Christian (PCA) myself, I’d be the first to acknowledge that there are real differences in how Reformed Christians tend to think about sin and how Roman Catholics tend to think about sin. But I’d never have thought to draw the line where Burk and Butterfield do, precisely because so many Reformed Protestants, including those presently or formerly same-sex attracted individuals most connected with Burk, Butterfield, and the Nashville Statement—Sam Allberry, Christopher Yuan, and, well, Butterfield herself, all repeatedly draw this distinction in their writings and in their talks.

The following quotes, taken directly from Butterfield, Allberry, and Yuan’s writings, show that they draw quite similar distinctions to the ones Burk and Butterfield criticize Belgau for drawing. (Note: Kindle locations give the approximate starting point for each quote, and appear to vary between different Kindle editions; if you have trouble locating the quote, search for a few words of the first sentence.)

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Public Friendship

Over at Commonweal, David Michael writes about his Swedish wedding and how it drew his and his wife’s friends in at every turn:

Ignoring the standard U.S. wedding magazine checklist, filled with inconceivable items like second lingerie fittings, my then-fiancée Johanna made a simple checklist: food, decorations, music, readers, a priest. Next to every item, she wrote the names of our friends.

I balked at putting our friends to work, but for Johanna, it wasn’t even a question. “That’s the best part. They actually get to spend time with the bride and groom during the preparations. You might only get five minutes with them at the actual wedding. Besides,” she added, “I helped out at all their weddings.”

When she set up shop at her grandmother’s house a few days before the wedding, several of her friends joined her. A law student who had previously studied cooking began to bake the desserts and cake. A couple arrived with their baby tucked in their backseat alongside a PA system, dance-floor lights, and a keg of homebrew. They were joined by more Swedes, and soon there were more than a dozen family members and friends working side-by-side. We made decorations and prepared the food, pausing for a meal or to go swimming in the sea before continuing with the preparations. Even the Americans got in on the act: our friend Rachel arrived, all the way from Seattle, bearing the programs and nameplates that she’d designed and printed, and her husband came with the suit I was borrowing from him. The day before the wedding, a dozen or so people—Americans and Swedes—helped decorate the church reception hall from mid-afternoon until well into the night. Admittedly, there were moments I wished we’d had the money to pay someone else to set up, but the work provided a sense of quiet meaning and care that’s hard to find at a bar or a restaurant. For our friends, the work provided the opportunity to make their love manifest.

I was lucky enough to be a guest at this wedding, arriving with two other American friends in time to help set up the reception hall and mingle with the other guests while doing so. One of them brought me a beer and pulled his chair close to mine so we could chat and get to know one another while he kept an eye on his baby son asleep in a carrier on the lawn. The way David describes the atmosphere in his essay is precisely how it was: the mood was laidback, the conversation was meandering, and the occasion wasn’t “about” anything other than being together.

And for David, one of the most significant things about these Swedish customs is that it provides something in short supply in the States: “a public notion of friendship.”

What occasions do Americans have to tell friends that we love them for who they are and to acknowledge that love publicly? Our culture allows us ample opportunities to make friends, but it affords very few opportunities to mark that friendship. And even when we have those opportunities, we often squander them.

At least among American men, declarations of love between friends are frowned upon, if not verboten. If we do express our mutual love, we frame it in irony and wit, employing terms like “bromance.” But when you cannot directly say “I love you”—privately or publicly—your capacity to love your friends becomes diminished, and friendships are reduced to what Aristotle calls “friendships of pleasure.”

By contrast, at David and Johanna’s wedding, the multiple-hours-long reception provided an opportunity for friend after friend to offer toasts, publicly celebrating and declaring their love for the bride and groom.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that this is one of my hobbyhorses: We need more ways to honor and celebrate our friends! On finishing David’s essay about his Swedish wedding, I found myself thinking about the times, after my speaking gigs, when I’ve been asked for thoughts about how we might begin to do that—how we might learn to more easily and readily declare in public our love for our friends. From now on, I may just send them a link to David’s piece and say, “Start here. Look for ways to do things like this.”

 

An Honest Question for Denny Burk and His Calvinist Friends

Denny Burk

In response to a tweet calling my recent Public Discourse article defending Spiritual Friendship and Revoice “the single most helpful, most thought provoking, and most clear thing” from the Spiritual Friendship perspective, Denny Burk tweeted in reply,

I agree. And I would add that Belgau has many other thoughtful articles on these themes on the Spiritual Friendship website as does Wesley Hill. There are still important differences between us, but I appreciate the thoughtful engagement here.

In light of recent controversies, I genuinely appreciate this acknowledgement, even though differences remain.

In an effort to explore at least one dimension of those remaining differences in a—hopefully!—thoughtful and charitable way, I want to ask Denny—and his associates like Albert Mohler, Owen Strachan, and Colin Smothers—a question about how Calvinists should view the sanctification of friendship in this life, in cases of ongoing struggle with the desire for homosexual sex.

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Am I a Sinner Saved by Grace?

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Public Discourse just published an article in which I make a major defense of Spiritual Friendship and the Revoice Conference. In this post, I want to focus on a point that Albert Mohler—president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College—made in his recent briefing on the Revoice Conference:

But finally, as we try our best to think compassionately and clearly about these issues, I think we have to turn to a text such as First Corinthians chapter 6, verse 11, where Paul writes: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Now in First Corinthians 6 as in Romans chapter 1, Paul mentions specific sins, but by implication, he is indicting the entire human race. But speaking of our identity as sinners saved by grace, he says, “Such were some of you,” and then uses the language of being washed, sanctified, justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. It can’t be an accident, and we must not miss the power of that verb tense: “such were some of you.”

That’s not just a message for those who’ve organized and will be attending the Revoice Conference. That’s a word for every single Christian all the time.

I am puzzled.

The claim that we must speak of all sins and struggles with sin in the past tense is a surprising position for the leading Calvinist in the Southern Baptist Convention to take. In “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” [pdf], Mohler’s protégé Denny Burk quoted John Calvin:

We hold that there is always sin in the saints, until they are freed from their mortal frame, because depraved concupiscence resides in their flesh, and is at variance with rectitude.

There’s no past tense to struggles with sin there, unless you’re in Heaven—in which case, I assume you are not listening to Mohler’s briefings or reading my blog: you have a better Source of instruction readily available.

The claim is also puzzling, because this insistence on the past tense comes in what Mohler says is a discussion of “our identity as sinners saved by grace.” But if we are not sinners, but only were sinners, then it makes no sense to speak of “sinner” as part of our present identity.

It’s important to pay attention to the last two sentences. Mohler’s argument here goes far deeper than just saying that he thinks it would be wiser for me to say, “I am a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction,” rather than to say, “I’m a celibate gay Christian.” He’s making a much larger claim about the verb tenses which “every single Christian all the time” should use for talking about their struggles with temptation and sin.

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A Happy Convergence

Sometimes it really does seem that Providence arranges remarkable and helpful convergences.

This week, just after I’d read these hope-giving lines from Eve Tushnet’s reflections on her role in the whole “gay Catholic” conversation and the upcoming Revoice conference —

We’re constantly being told that same-sex sexual desire is disordered, which I accept, as I accept all that is taught by Holy Mother Church. But when people (or ducks) try to tell you how to order your desires, they always try to get you to keep the expression of desire the same, but change the object. This is the “become straight” option, if “option” is the word I want. There is another way for desire to become ordered: same object, different expression. People who long for same-sex love and intimacy should maybe be encouraged to learn how to do that, since it is good, and holy, and beautiful.

— I happened to get an email from a friend that pointed me to a letter written by the great Evangelical Anglican preacher Charles Simeon (1759-1836) to his friend Mary Elliott. This letter, it seemed to me, dovetailed beautifully with Eve’s blog post. Here is an excerpt from the letter, written the year before Simeon’s death:

In your letter of this morning you express a fear that you may love your dear Mother or a friend too much; and I am anxious to correct that idea without loss of time; first, because it is a source of disquiet to the conscience, and next because it is an error which almost universally prevails in the Church of God. That we may show our love improperly I readily grant; but that we can love one another too much I utterly deny, provided only it be in subserviency to the love of God. I think I have explained to you that word fervently (‘see that ye love one another with a pure Heart’): its precise meaning is intensely. No two words in any two languages more exactly agree than ‘intensely’ does with the original. If then our love be with a pure heart, this alone were sufficient to establish the point. . . .

Christianity does not encourage apathy; it is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections. It admits of their full operation, but tempers them as to their measure and sanctifies them to the Lord. I have often been comforted by knowing that Lazarus and his sisters were peculiarly beloved of their Lord, and that John was an object of His more than ordinary attachment; and from hence you will see that, if I have written this for your instruction, I have had an eye also to my own vindication, if I should appear to err in the discharge of the most delightful of all duties.

If you’ve never been told by your fellow Christians that the personal object of your desire—not just what you might want to do sinfully with that person, but rather the personal object him- or herself—is wrong for you to have, period, then this might not resonate with you as much as it does with me. But for those of us who have been told that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—for those of us who have been told that the way to godliness is by removing ourselves altogether from the kinds of friendships in which we might be tempted—it comes as healing balm when you’re told instead, “Christianity… is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections.”

It’s not a sin for men to love men, or women to love women. On the contrary.