Julie Rodgers blogged for Spiritual Friendship between August, 2013 and October, 2014. Prior to that, she had spent a decade with Exodus International, serving as a keynote speaker at the final Exodus Freedom Conference in 2013. Until this past Monday, she also served in the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College, counselling students who were struggling with sexual orientation or gender identity issues.
On Monday, Julie resigned from Wheaton and put up this blog post. The post was mostly a cri de cœur about the damage done by conservative Christians who bind heavy burdens on LGBT people—particularly youth—without doing much to help. But she also wrote, “Though I’ve been slow to admit it to myself, I’ve quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now.”
Although I spoke with Julie briefly as recently as a week before she put up this post, I had received no indication at all that her views were shifting, and did not learn of it until a friend drew my attention to her post Monday afternoon.
Julie is right that conservative Christians have done a bad job of showing Christ’s love to LGBT people.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for binding on heavy burdens without lifting a finger to help—and they returned the compliment by having Him crucified. I think it would be difficult for any honest observer to look at the way Christians have invested their time, talent, and treasure over the past 40 years and say that there has been as much concern for helping people to bear burdens as there has been on binding those burdens on. This is a betrayal of the Gospel, and Julie is right to call attention to it.
However, she is wrong in trying to respond to the brutality of modern-day Pharisees by watering down the Christian teaching on sexual ethics (as she herself agreed when she reviewed Matthew Vines’s book). Jesus was more demanding than the Pharisees when it came to sexual ethics (e.g. Matthew 19), but when confronted with a woman who had committed adultery, He did not lecture her about sexual sin; He forgave her, saved her life, and told her to go and sin no more. In the post just linked, I wrote:
The surprising thing about the teaching of Jesus and Paul is that they are both much kinder and much more demanding than the scribes and Pharisees. In His teaching about lust (Matthew 5:27-30) and His teaching about divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:3-12), Jesus presented a very demanding call to holiness.
If the woman taken in adultery became a follower of Christ and listened to His teaching, she would quickly learn that to “go and sin no more” as a follower of Christ demanded even more than obedience to the law of the scribes and Pharisees. But she would be learning that hard teaching from a teacher whose love and compassion had, very literally, given her a new lease on life.
Spiritual Friendship has always defended the orthodox Christian teaching on sexual ethics (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for examples that I can think of off the top of my head. Julie herself did so here.). But I am convinced that preaching the law without love is the work of a spiritually sterile soul. Along with our other writers, I have sought to foster within the Christian community the kind of loving pastoral concern that Christ showed to the outcast and the sinners of His own day.
We originally published Julie’s writing because she articulated the same passion. Now that her beliefs have changed, a number of people have asked us how we intend to respond. Here are answers to at least some of those questions.
Will Julie continue to write for Spiritual Friendship?
When the founders and regular writers at Spiritual Friendship originally got together, we united around the following statement: “God created us male and female, and His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage.”
We stand by that view today. Apart from rare, clearly labeled exceptions, we will not publish authors who do not share that belief. We will also never publish posts that are not intended to support those who are trying to live in accordance with that belief.
Given where Julie is at now, we will not be publishing her writing. (Since she hasn’t written anything for us since October of last year, this more or less continues the status quo.)
Will Julie’s posts remain on Spiritual Friendship?
We have no plans to remove them. However, because we had no prior warning about Julie’s shift in views, this is, necessarily, a preliminary answer. The following reasons seem compelling to me:
First, precedent argues that a responsible Christian publication would not immediately remove an author’s posts because that author comes to disagree with the publication on an important point. For example: a couple of years ago, Joseph Bottum, formerly an editor at First Things, came out in favor of same-sex marriage in a widely discussed article in Commonweal. While clearly rejecting Bottum’s conclusion, the editors at First Things did not remove Bottum’s articles from their archive.
Second, in the wake of her letter, many Christians will want to scrutinize her views. Spiritual Friendship has 20 posts—more than 20,000 words—that she wrote over the course of more than a year. This is an important resource for Christians who want to develop a responsible and informed opinion of her role in the debate. She began her blogging career at Spiritual Friendship with The Story that Led Me Here. Will she be able, as she continues to share her evolution, to explain why the convictions she articulated here and elsewhere changed? Others will want to evaluate the judgment of the editors at Spiritual Friendship for publishing her and the administration at Wheaton for employing her. Without the posts that describe what we knew then (as opposed to what we know now that she has come out in favor of same-sex relationships), important primary evidence needed for fair judgment would be lost.
Third, it is an unfortunate fact that a great deal of Christian writing about homosexuality is neither honest nor responsible. Removing these posts would make it difficult for honest readers to evaluate claims made about Julie, about Spiritual Friendship, or about Wheaton. Without them, there would be no way to tell the difference between a fair criticism and a straw man attack.
Fourth, and finally, regardless of what she believes today, we originally published her posts because we believed they said something worth saying. That has not changed, even if her mind has changed on gay relationships.
Does Julie’s change of heart show that describing oneself as a “celibate gay Christian” automatically undermines commitment to orthodox belief?
It’s a little bit surprising to me that her public change of heart would be presented as evidence of the failure of the Spiritual Friendship project by those who argue that we should call ourselves “same-sex attracted,” or that we should give more attention to orientation change. The unfortunate reality is that every organization that has promoted orthodox beliefs on homosexuality has had prominent members change their mind and support gay relationships at one point or another.
For example, the Former Ex-Gay Leaders Alliance includes leaders from Exodus International, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and a variety of local ministries. These leaders had previously argued strongly against describing oneself as “gay.” They had promoted orientation change, and many of them were married. Yet their convictions also changed, often with far more tragic consequences for their families than anything Julie has done. (It’s worth noting that Julie herself was involved with Exodus much longer and far more deeply than she was involved with Spiritual Friendship.)
The entire Christian community ought to ask why these changes of heart are so common.
With regard to Spiritual Friendship, we have honed our own approach from lessons learned from these numerous past failures. One of the first posts I wrote for Spiritual Friendship was called Conversion and Perseverance. In that post, I stressed that persevering in the Christian life is what I later called an arduous good: a real good which can only be achieved at the cost of suffering.
One concern that I have with Julie’s post is that she presents celibacy as the only option for LGBT Christians. While that is the reality for many of us (see this thoughtful commentary by Wesley Hill in the Washington Post yesterday), several of our bloggers have entered opposite sex marriages, despite being predominantly attracted to the same sex. Kyle Keating has written a good overview of the writings on this site that explore various issues related to marriage. I have obviously been a long-time advocate of the view that celibacy can be a graced expression of God’s healing work in a person’s life and that chaste friendship can be an important source of support. But we certainly do not believe that it is the only way God could call a Christian struggling with homosexuality to holiness. Additionally, the acronym “LGBT” includes “bisexual,” and the dynamics with bisexual attraction can be different in ways that her post neglected to consider.
It’s important to acknowledge that Christian responses to LGBT Christians have often been hostile, and have pushed people away. But it’s also important to notice the seeds of hope. Wes wrote a post last year that explores the tensions of the Church’s response, the good and the bad. There have certainly been responses to Julie in the last few days that exemplify how much farther we have to go. But it’s also important to notice the positive developments.
In a commentary on Julie’s situation published earlier this morning, Owen Strachan wrote:
It is surely true that celibacy is a difficult road. We should empathize with all who yearn for union but cannot find it. If we hear the testimony of individuals who experience only same-sex attraction and just correct their views, we disobey Christ’s call to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). The ground for compassion is the incarnate Christ, who entered into our sorrows and wept at a fallen world (John 11:35).
But Christ does not only minister to us poor sinners. He sets an example for us. The argument that biblically faithful Christians deny people with SSA the opportunity to be loved neglects much, including Christ’s own model. Jesus did not marry. Jesus did not father children. Jesus lay by himself at night, with no one to warm him. In terms of a spouse, he had no inside jokes to share, no walks to take, no hand to hold, no anniversary to remember. If ever a single person feels strange for being unmarried, they may know that Jesus lived that same life.
The life of Christ was not easy, but he was the happiest man who ever lived. He drew disciples to himself. He poured out his life for the needy and desperate. He had close friends. By his blood, he created a family, a church, ensuring that all who came to him for salvation would never walk alone, but enter into a community that stretches over every boundary of the earth. The tired, the rejected, the prodigal, the baby choking on its blood in the wilderness — all these have a home, a name, and a future in Christ (Ezek. 16).
Strachan has been critical of Spiritual Friendship, and we have not always agreed with his conclusions. But Strachan’s response to Julie is also a huge leap forward from what I heard 25 years ago growing up in the Southern Baptist Church.
The path forward for all of us is to find what it means to preach the truth in love. Spiritual Friendship will continue to embrace orthodox Christian teaching on sexual ethics and will continue to explore how that teaching can be lived in love.
Pray for Julie. Pray for her students at Wheaton. Pray for her critics. Pray for the other writers at Spiritual Friendship. In the midst of important arguments about theology, let us not forget the human lives at the center of the debate.
Pray that all of us will draw closer to Christ and closer to each other by persevering in seeking the truth in love.