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.

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

My Benedict Option

The Station

I recently had lunch with a friend, and we discussed The Benedict Option. He asked me, “Isn’t that basically what your house is doing?”

I live in a house that we’ve named “The Station.” It’s a duplex with an upstairs and a downstairs apartment. For almost ten years, the upstairs apartment has been occupied by various women from the University of St. Thomas Catholic Studies program. The downstairs apartment had had a variety of occupants, until I moved in with four Catholic men.

When I moved in, I was close friends with the entire house. Seven of us had lived together as undergrads in the Catholic Studies Rome program. So when we started “The Station,” we had already had four months’ experience living in community together (when I say “living in community,” I mean living in that community; I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “living in community,” only living in communities). And over the next couple of years, the house solidified into a pretty dynamic place to live as a young Catholic. 

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The Benedictine Confessional

The righteousness of the saints in this world consists
more in the forgiveness of sins
than in the perfection of virtues.
—St. Augustine

To my knowledge, I’ve only written about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the subject of Rod Dreher’s new bestselling book—once, and it was after the SCOTUS Obergefell ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states. In that post, I quoted from the Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths:

What the pagans need on this matter [of same-sex marriage] is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

In other words, if anyone is going to be convinced of the Scriptural, traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sex, it’s going to be because of winsome, attractive, beautiful Christian practice of that teaching. The living out of the biblical teaching on marriage is what will be persuasive, when all political and theological arguments seem to be ineffectual. And that viewpoint, it would seem, is what the “Benedict Option,” at its best, is all about. It’s about strategically regrouping and recommitting ourselves to serious discipleship so that the world can see we’re not just interested in “culture warring” but that we’re mainly about living out what we profess to believe.

I still think, two years after Obergefell, this is basically right. But I’ve also been thinking lately, since Dreher’s book has been published and I’ve now had a chance to read it, about a qualification or addendum I’d want to make: When Griffiths talks about Christians’ “burnishing the practice of marriage,” that can’t mean “practicing Christian marriage ‘successfully’ or flawlessly.” It also, and inevitably (given the reality of what the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion call the “remaining corruption” of those who are regenerated in Christ), must mean confessing sin and finding forgiveness and pursuing reconciliation in our marriages.

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Rediscovering Friendship, Alabama-style

I’m in Birmingham, Alabama for the next few days to preach at the Cathedral Church of the Advent and — you guessed it! — to give a talk later tonight on “spiritual friendship.” The good folks over at AL.com were kind enough to let me say something on their website about friendship, and I thought it would be worth sharing here too. An excerpt:

When I move to a new city, as I have had to do four times in the last decade, the question that usually looms largest in my mind is: Will I be able to make new friends here? I’ve been single all of my adult life, and without a spouse or children to help ease my transitions, I rely a lot on friendship, both for the support and comfort I need but also so that I can have a dependable place in my life to give support and comfort to others. Friendship isn’t just an optional luxury for me. It feels more like a calling.

For a while, my passion for finding and cultivating close friendship felt like an uncommon hobby with no blogs or group texts or nerdy conferences where I could go to gush with fellow hobbyists about it. Sometimes it seemed as though I were making things up as I went along, performing a dance of friendship I had to choreograph myself. I knew a lot of people were like me — men consistently report wanting close friendships at the same rates that women say they do — but it also seemed like a secret that none of us wanted to discuss with each other.

But then, being a Christian, I decided to start rummaging through the history of my religious tradition, looking for friendship exemplars — forerunners and models and saints — whose lives and writings might be able to give me guidance for my twenty-first century life…

Read the rest here.

Gay Men and Falling In Love – Part III

In the last few posts in this series on gay men and the phenomenon of falling in love (Part 1, Part 2), we have spent a bit of time framing the conversation well.

We first walked through the theological and philosophical foundations of personhood where we highlighted the positive strivings of humans over against a pathologizing of human desires. Then, we looked at how humans attach to other humans and what security and anxiety looks like within those relationships. In this third and final post, I’m going to bring both of those realities together and contextualize it for the gay celibate community in our current cultural climate.

Hopefully, by the end of this series, we will see a more complex view of what it means to have feelings for another human. We may not have concrete answers but maybe we can begin to ask the right questions.

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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.

Podcast: “Homosexuality and Christian Faithfulness”

I recently sat down with Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary — well, sort of; I sat in my office and talked with him via Skype — and I wanted to share that conversation here. Darrell interviewed me about my Washed and Waiting and Spiritual Friendship books, and while there may not be a lot that’s new here if you’ve heard me talk before, maybe it’s still something a few of you might appreciate.

Here’s the breakdown of the conversation:

00:56

Hill’s books and background

02:23

Same-sex attraction and the Christian

07:45

Hill’s book, Washed and Waiting

10:58

Sexuality in 1 Corinthians 6 and Romans 8

14:12

Hill’s conversation with this parents

17:35

How the church can minister to same-sex attracted and single people

20:10

Hill’s book, Spiritual Friendship

25:20

Jesus’ example of singleness and self-sacrifice

30:50

The concept of friendship

36:00

Three categories for friendship

39:27

Friendships with a deeper lever of commitment

41:35

The need for friendship

42:31

Multiple layers of friendships and serving together

43:32

Hospitality and staying connected

 

A high school “AP Friendship” class?

Rat and Mole with Dragonfly

My first earnest prayer was for a good friend.

At eight years old, I developed a haunting sense that I didn’t fit in anywhere, and that insecurity only grew more intense through high school and into college. But what I discovered there floored me and, no, it wasn’t just the friendly people.

In an honors Great Books program characterized just as much by intellectual joy as by rigor, students of all majors were mixed together and plunged into the most influential texts and the biggest questions of Western history. And after discussing enough modern epistemology, epic poetry, mystical theology, and Victorian literature in a room of political science, viola, anthropology, and business majors, I discovered the biggest idea I’ve ever seen.

Our best discussions have been the ones in which we got to know the author, cared about what he or she cared about, and tried to discern the truth they communicated. My best job interviews have been the ones in which I have gotten to know the company, articulate my understanding of what they care about, and discussed how I could help them love what they care about.

To read a book, have difficult conversations, and get a fitting job, all require that I become a good friend: to care about the other person, care about what they care about, and seek their good and the good of whatever they love. True friendship binds all things together.

My most earnest prayer today is that I would continue to become a good friend.

Today, I am a high school teacher, and it is my job to commission students to faithfully enter whatever comes next. But marriage is not a universal calling, nor is college. Nor is church ministry or a traditional job? So to what can I commission my students?

To friendship with God and man. 

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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.