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.

Gay Students at Christian Colleges: What’s Our Vision for Their Flourishing?

In January, I spoke to a room full of Christian college presidents for the annual gathering of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The topic they set for me was how to talk about a Christian theology of marriage with real compassion for students wrestling through questions of sexual identity. The CCCU has now transcribed my remarks, and you can read them here.

An excerpt:

I want to suggest to you that one of the most important things you can do on your campuses is cast a vision of what a hopeful future could look like for your students who are same-sex attracted. For so many of us, when we think about living out our lives in the evangelical church as gay—and as celibate, probably, for most of us—the future looks blank. We can’t picture what it would look like because we don’t have models of how this goes. I’ve spent all my life in the church, and I have rarely seen people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are talking openly about what it looks like to embrace a vocation of celibacy.

I remember recently talking to a Roman Catholic friend of mine who grew up in the church. He said, “From the time I was 4 years old, it was a huge question in my mind as to whether God might call me to be celibate”—because God might call him to be a priest. As soon as I heard him say that, I thought, “Our childhoods were so profoundly different because it never occurred to me that God might call me to be celibate. It never occurred to me to contemplate the single life.” I always simply assumed I’d go to college and meet my spouse like my parents did and live a Christian life by having kids and being part of a family values church. That was the future; that was the path. It never occurred to me that God might have in mind a vocation of celibacy. I apparently never read 1 Corinthians 7.

But this is the challenge for you, to cast a vision—and it doesn’t have to be one vision; I think there are 100 different models that this could take for your students—but to cast a vision [for your students]: “This is what a hopeful future looks like for you. If you’re same-sex attracted, and you’ve tried everything, and you haven’t experienced one iota of change in your same-sex attraction, and you’re wanting to give your life to God in celibacy, that does not have to equal loneliness. That does not have to equal isolation. … There’s a life for you. There’s a future for you that doesn’t simply look like alienation from your fellow believers in the church who seem to be so fixated on the nuclear family.” … What I am praying for you is that you will find yourself thinking of your same-sex attracted students not as a liability on your campus, but as people you’re in solidarity with.

You can read the rest here.

Why Do We Think the Bible is Against Same-Sex Marriage?

I’ve just returned from Calgary, Alberta where Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network (GCN), and I had a public dialogue on All Things Gay and Christian for the Anglican Church of Canada diocese there. It’s not the first time he and I have done something like this, but we both agreed that this one seemed to touch on all the major issues—debates over biblical interpretation, the church’s need for repentance for its treatment of LGBTQ persons, the need to celebrate singleness, to name just a few—in a way we felt was particularly effective. And it helps that Justin such a gracious and generous friend.

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Gregory of Nyssa on Friendship with God

Transfiguration of Jesus – Carl Heinrich Bloch

At the conclusion of his treatise on The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa wrote:

These things concerning the perfection of the virtuous life, O Caesarius, man of God, we have briefly written for you, tracing in outline like a pattern of beauty the life of the great Moses, so that each one of us might copy the image of the beauty which has been shown to us by imitating his way of life. What more trustworthy witness of the fact that Moses did attain the perfection which was possible would be found than the divine voice which said to him: “I have known you more than all others” [Exod. 33:17, 12]? It is also shown in the fact that he is named the “friend of God” [33:11] by God himself, and by preferring to perish with all the rest if the Divine One did not through his goodwill forgive their errors, he stayed God’s wrath against the Israelites. God averted judgment so as not to grieve his friend. All such things are a clear testimony and demonstration of the fact that the life of Moses did ascend the highest mount of perfection.

Since the goal of the virtuous way of life was the very thing we have been seeking, and this goal has been found in what we have said, it is time for you, noble friend, to look to that example and, by transferring to your own life what is contemplated through spiritual interpretation of the things spoken literally, to be known by God and to become his friend. This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because, like slaves, we servilely fear punishment, nor to do good because we hope for rewards, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by some businesslike and contractual arrangement. On the contrary, disregarding all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This, as I have said, is the perfection of life.

Source: Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (pp. 131-132).

Russell Moore and his critics

russell-moore-erlc

I don’t often comment on politics, and when I do, I’m more likely to talk about the dangers that contemporary American politics pose for Christian witness than to engage in partisan debate.

The current situation in the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is a case in point.

Theologically, ERLC President Russell Moore is a straight-up-the line Southern Baptist. On the controversial issues within the denomination, he never wavers from the orthodox Southern Baptist answers. He’s an inerrantist, he affirms six day creation, and he’s a complementarian, to cite just a few examples.

Politically, he has firmly opposed abortion and same-sex marriage, playing a leading role in defending Christian ethics in the public square.

Recently, he’s gotten into hot water with a lot of Southern Baptists for his opposition to Donald Trump.

There is nothing that he has called Trump out for doing that Southern Baptists have not long condemned. Trump has bragged about adultery, and about relations with women that at the very least verge on sexual assault. He is uncharitable and vindictive toward his critics. He is vulgar, and has very little concern with the truth of his assertions. There is no reason to believe his pro-life convictions are based on much more than political calculation. He is the sort of candidate the religious right was created forty years ago to oppose.

Moore has made clear that he’s not attacking any Christian who decided, after carefully weighing their options, that Trump was the lesser of two evils, and cast their vote for him. There is a “massive difference,” he says, between them and those Christians who sought to excuse Trump’s immorality or confuse the definition of the Gospel to make Trump seem like a serious Christian.

In the Old Testament, again and again, the prophets call God’s people to radical holiness, and the people, again and again, put their trust in princes and political alliances. That drama is being played out again today.

As a student of that history, I admire Russell Moore’s prophetic boldness in continuing to defend the Gospel, even when it is out of season.

I also hope, for his sake, that this particular “old, old story” doesn’t repeat itself among Southern Baptists today.

Photo credit: ERLC.

On Christians Who Change Their Minds

Over at First Things, I’ve got a new column on my frustration with the way the renowned Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff went about making his case for same-sex marriage:

Clearly, there exists in the church today the possibility of genuine, reasoned, substantive debate over the rightness of same-sex marriage. Some of the most humane and beautiful Christian writing I’ve read in recent years has come from same-sex-marriage advocates like the Episcopalian Eugene Rogers and the British feminist theologian Sarah Coakley. And that’s why Wolterstorff’s lecture is particularly dismaying: By firing cheap shots and caricaturing the traditional views he hopes to overturn, he hampers a debate whose depth and maturity could be further deepened.

Wolterstorff is, of course, simply one more example of the way Christians of all stripes are switching “sides,” so to speak, and affirming same-sex marriage. The popular blogger Jen Hatmaker made the news just this past week for the same thing, and she stands in a long line that includes, to pick only a couple of more recent examples, ethicist David Gushee and New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk.

There’s so much that could be said about this trend, and I tried to say a few constructive things in my column, but mainly I keep thinking about this post from my friend Alan Jacobs, written a couple of years ago now. Alan makes the point that if we, whether individual believers or churches or Christian organizations, change our views to affirm same-sex marriage because we think that’s what God has always affirmed, then that means we have to look back on all our long years of being non-affirming and view them as a capitulation to an ungodly cultural homophobia. We have to acknowledge that the church was—that we ourselves were—captive to an un-Christian way of approaching gay people for years upon years. Or if, like me, you think the historic Christian view of marriage is correct and that same-sex sexual practice is sinful, then you have to view all these recent changes of mind, like Nick Wolterstorff’s, as a similar sort of capitulation to culture, only in the opposite direction. And as Alan writes,

that’s the key issue, it seems to me — that’s what churches and other Christian organizations need to be thinking about. Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome. How do you plan to keep that from happening again?

It’s a haunting question, to be sure.

Amid the Wreckage of the Christian Right

eastern-airlines-401

Just before midnight on December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines flight 401 was descending toward Miami International Airport with 176 souls on board. The night was a clear with no moon.

When the pilots attempted to lower the landing gear, the green light indicating that the nose gear was down and locked failed to illuminate. They informed Air Traffic Control that they were aborting the landing, and requested a holding pattern. The controller directed them to climb and circle over the Everglades.

Over the next few minutes, as the pilots sought to trouble-shoot the problem with the landing gear, they didn’t monitor their instruments, and so did not notice that the plane was slowly descending. Over the next several minutes, the crew became so focused on fixing the landing gear problem that they lost situational awareness. They weren’t paying attention to their altitude, and missed warning chimes informing them that the plane was drifting downwards.

A few minutes later, the plane slammed into the Everglades, killing 99 of the passengers and crew on board; all of the survivors sustained injuries, most of them serious enough to require hospitalization.

*               *               *

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True and False Friendship

Suzzallo Library - University of Washington

I saw the Graduate Reading Room in the Suzzallo Library for the first time during freshman orientation at the University of Washington—just a few hours before the fateful party where Jason and I discovered our mutual love of planes. As it turned out, the reading room has proven a happier and longer-lived companion.

The reading room has always been a kind of academic cloister for me. As an undergraduate in the mid nineties, I had no cell phone, no laptop, no WiFi internet access. Once I settled into one of the comfortable armchairs at the end of the reading room, I was almost cut off from the outside world, left alone with my thoughts and my books.

The architecture called to mind the great halls of Europe’s castles and sanctuaries of Europe’s cathedrals. It was easier to conjure up the past there than it was in the more utilitarian modern spaces of the libraries at Saint Louis University and the University of Notre Dame. I could feel people, places, and events come alive as I read there, in a way that they did not in my dorm room or a coffee shop or in the the fluorescent glare of the Hesburgh Library.

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The Heart: Condemned or Called?

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila

In After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that as humans are a “story-telling animal,” and goes on to say, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

Over the last week, I’ve written a lot about my experiences and the experiences of my friends. In different ways, each of those stories grappled with its relation to the larger Christian story. Through those stories, I’ve tried to sketch some part of the range of gay experience, from anonymous hook-ups to highly idealized unrequited love.

Many Christians are suspicious of experience. They think that in our present fallen state, we are far too likely to be misled by our sinful desires, and that the only reliable source of moral judgment is found in the Bible or (for Catholics) in the Church’s teaching.

Pope John Paul II offered a more nuanced view. The Theology of the Body is a collection of addresses given by Pope John Paul II in the late 1970s and early 1980s and addressed to understanding the body and human sexuality in light of the Gospel.

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Revelation

[This post was originally written for Friday, October 14. A combination of weather-related travel delays and getting feedback from my friend Chris delayed posting until now.]

Notre Dame Basilica and Dome

In the fall of 2009, I moved to South Bend for a year-long exchange at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. At the Ethics and Culture Conference that November, I met Chris Damian, a Notre Dame freshman interested in philosophy and theology.

For the first couple of years after we met, we had interesting conversations when we ran into each other (which was not often) and exchanged occasional emails if one of us saw something we thought would interest the other. He was popular and charismatic, and I saw his natural leadership talents emerge as he immersed himself in pro-life activism and defending the faith on campus.

After a couple of years passed like this, I was in South Bend again for a conference, and we arranged to meet for dinner. At some point in the conversation, we got into a discussion of homosexuality and changing sexual orientation. Chris thought Christians should talk more about hope for orientation change.

I disagreed.

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