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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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.

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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The Desires of the Heart

Today’s Office of Readings includes a meditation from St. Augustine on Jesus’ saying that “No one can come to me, unless the Father draw him” (John 6:44). Augustine thinks that we are not drawn to God by necessity or under compulsion, but by love, even by desire: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

Augustine reminds his readers of how lavishly the Scripture appeals to our sense of delight: “How precious is thy steadfast love, O God! The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light” (Psalm 36:7-9).

And this of course echoes what may be his most famous saying, found in the Confessions: “You have made us for Yourself, oh God, and our hearts are ever restless until they find rest in You.” The Confessions are an extended meditation on desire, on the many false objects of desire that Augustine pursued until he discovered that they could not truly satisfy the desire of his heart.

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Eunuchs and “Full Inclusion”

One of the points proponents of same-sex marriage in the church often make is that the Bible’s trajectory is toward greater, not lesser, inclusiveness. Gentiles, women, eunuchs, “sinners” of various stripes, etc.—all these are, by the time we arrive at the end of the New Testament, clearly at the heart of the kingdom of God, pulled into the sphere of Christ’s church from the margins they occupied under the old covenant (Ephesians 2:11-12).

I hope to say more about this theme later in the week here on the blog, but for now I wanted to focus briefly the claim that the case of the “full inclusion” of eunuchs in the early church is analogous to the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church today. As the argument goes, eunuchs were “others,” outsiders, and not fully included in the people of God under the old covenant (see Deuteronomy 23:1). But now, in Christ, they are (see Acts 8:26-39). Likewise—so goes the progressive case—gay and lesbian people too, formerly not fully included (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), ought to be included now, in Christ, welcomed and wholly affirmed in their faithful, monogamous loves.

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The Long Defeat and the Long Loneliness

One of the primary ways I’ve thought about my own life as a gay, celibate believer and also about my larger project of trying to make the church more of a nurturing haven for other gay/SSA/queer believers is in terms of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “the long defeat.” His regal character Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, surveying the long years of her immortality and all the seasons of mingled loss and triumph she’s witnessed, says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Tolkien himself identifies with her: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Alan Jacobs comments:

It seems to me that this philosophy of history, if we may call it that, is the ideal one for anyone who has exceptionally difficult, frustrating, even agonizing, but nevertheless vitally important work to do. For such people, the expectation of victory can be a terrible thing — it can raise hopes in (relatively) good times only to shatter them when the inevitable downturn comes. Conversely, the one who fights the long defeat can be all the more thankful for victories, even small ones, precisely because (as St. Augustine said about ecstatic religious experiences) he or she does not expect them and is prepared to live without them.

This perspective on history and on the individual Christian pilgrimage has meant a lot to me. As someone who hasn’t received one iota of the promised “change” in my sexual orientation that some Christians have held out to me, and as someone who also hasn’t been able to embrace a more progressive understanding of same-sex marriage, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting a kind of long defeat: I’m gay but not seeking a same-sex partner, and I’m still gay and so also not seeking an opposite-sex spouse, and what that feels like is… well, it often feels like the way St. Paul describes his rather stark view of the Christian life in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

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One Brief Thought on the “Architecture” of the Various Christian Callings

This past weekend I visited City Church in San Francisco to have a public conversation with my friend Julie Rodgers about moral disagreement over same-sex marriage in the church. The goal of the conversation was to explore our differences—Julie is “Side A,” which means she believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and I’m “Side B,” believing that marriage is “male and female”—and to talk about what it might look like to find friendship and some kind of common cause in the midst of disagreement.

I won’t go into all of what happened at the event—the audio recording should be posted soon at the church’s website, and you can listen for yourself—but I did want to reflect a bit here on a couple of the points of divergence between Julie and me, in the hope of continuing the conversation…

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