In your book What’s so Amazing about Grace? you tell about your friendship with Soulforce leader Mel White. What is your position on gays and lesbians in the church?
You don’t beat around the bush, do you? Mel—formerly a ghost writer for famous Christians and now a prominent gay activist—was one of my closest friends for years before he revealed to me his sexual orientation. (He still is a close friend, by the way.) He had repressed and hidden his homosexuality, and in fact was married and was making a fine career in Christian publishing and also in ministry as a pastor and professor at Fuller Seminary. Mel became a window to me into a world I knew nothing about. He tells his own story in the book Stranger at the Gate. We all know know well how explosive this issue can be. I get hate letters full of equal venom from both sides: from conservative Christians appalled that I would maintain a friendship with Mel and write compassionately about gays and lesbians, and from the other side wishing I would go further with a full endorsement of gay rights.
In my relationship with Mel White, I have to remind myself that it’s not my job to present the absolutely proper, balanced viewpoint of the church. No, he receives much judgment and condemnation from the church, and also much reasoned disapproval of his life and decisions. I simply try to balance that off a bit by being loving and nonjudgmental. I’ve become good friends with Mel’s partner, too. I found it impossible to have a close friendship with Mel when I ignored the person who shares his life. I don’t agree with some of Mel’s choices, but they are Mel’s choices, not mine, and thus between Mel and God. I think back to Jesus and how offensive he must have found the people he dealt with; yet he treated them with respect, compassion, and love.
On an issue like this, I try to start with what I’m absolutely sure of, and work outwards. I’m sure of what my own attitude should be toward gays and lesbians: I should show love and grace. As one person told me, “Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.” When people ask me how I can possibly stay friends with a sinner like Mel, I respond by asking how Mel can possibly stay friends with a sinner like me. After all, Jesus had much to say about greed, hypocrisy, pride and lust—sins I struggle with—but did not mention homosexuality. Even if I conclude that all homosexual behavior is wrong, as many conservative Christians do, I’m still compelled to respond with love.
Do I believe that gay people can be committed Christians? Absolutely. I know far too many of them to doubt that. I also believe that alcoholics and prideful hypocrites can be committed Christians. In short, sinners can, and I’ve stepped back from ranking other people’s sins.
It may be helpful for us to think through our relationships with divorced people. Do I feel awkward? Do I avoid talking about their current partner, or former life? Or I think of my greedy friends, or gluttonous friends. How do I handle their weaknesses?
Would it be accurate to say that you do not believe God judges homosexual feelings, as heterosexuals experience these temptations too, but that you would consider acting on them and engaging in homosexual activity, either in the mind or in the flesh, to be sin according to the Bible?
It would be more accurate to say that I intentionally don’t take sides on this issue. I’ve observed that as soon as a person does take sides, communication ends. I hear from gay Christians who are very disappointed that I don’t condone their point of view, and I hear from traditional Christians who are very disappointed that I don’t condemn homosexual behavior. As long as I get angry letters from both sides, I feel better.
Do I agree with gay Christians’ interpretations of the six passages in the Bible that may or may not relate to their behavior? No. They may be right, but so far I’m unconvinced. I also disapprove of sexual promiscuity, whether of the hetero- or homo- variety.
Nevertheless, I start with what I’m sure of: my attitude toward homosexuals. It seems to me that’s the clearest message we have. And the atmosphere of judgment and condemnation is so strong that I feel no need to represent a balanced viewpoint myself. So I don’t take an official position. I simply try to love the gay individuals I know, and bring a little grace and mercy to a church that puts this particular sin—if indeed it is that—in a special category. I’d rather maintain contact with “gay Christians,” who are so isolated, and also conservative Christians, who often have little understanding of the issue.
Dag Hammarsjkold used to say he started by finding the smallest point of common ground between two opposing sides and then work outward from there. Likewise, I prefer to claim the solid ground that pleads for mercy and understanding for both sides. I’m certain about what our attitude should be toward homosexuals, even if we conclude that their practice is sin, and I plant my flag there. It takes no grace to show love to someone just like me; it takes a lot of grace to show love toward someone of whom I disapprove. I’ve learned to leave the judgment aspect to God.
Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that the church judged divorced people as harshly as they judge homosexuals today. I agree that the temptation and the homosexual orientation are not sin. Beyond that, I stubbornly refuse to answer. I’ll let others debate the morality and the biblical exegesis, and plenty of people seem willing to do so.
Is it ever possible to “love the sinner and hate the sin”?
Actually, we do that all the time, don’t we? The Bible uses the word abomination about those who lie, dishonor parents, and commit adultery—yet we find ways to love such people while not approving of their behavior. Again, the Bible also has very clear and strong words against divorce, yet most Christians have found ways to love divorced friends and relatives. We need not approve of a behavior to show love toward a person—if we did, we’d all be in trouble. As a friend of mine who works with AIDS victims said, “I learned that Christians get very angry toward other Christians who sin differently than they do.” Some people put homosexuality in a special and unique category of sin. I guess my view of sin is broader than that.
Our main attitudes, I think, should be humility and service. I have mentioned Ed Dobson’s church in Grand Rapids, that refuses to take any political stances, and mobilizes its members in helping with AIDS sufferers. They disapprove of homosexual behavior, but prefer to put their energy into practical helps, and find that later those whom they are serving are far more open to their message.
I should point out that there are articulate gay Christians who do not see homosexuality as a sin, particularly when it is exercised in a committed relationship. With some scholarly support, they interpret the few verses in the Bible differently than the church has historically. Although I disagree with their interpretations, some of them are quite sincere Bible-believers, and have concluded that the authors were writing about specific practices of temple prostitution, not contemporary gay behavior. Other gay Christians, of course, valiantly struggle to overcome their temptations.
After I wrote about my friendship with Mel White, I received a number of letters condemning me for continuing the friendship. “How can you possibly remain friends with such a sinner!” the letter-writers demanded. I’ve thought long and hard about that question, and come up with several answers which I believe to be biblical. The most succinct answer, though, is another question: “How can Mel White possibly remain friends with a sinner like me?” The only hope for any of us, regardless of our particular sins, lies in a ruthless trust in a God who inexplicably loves sinners, including those who sin differently than we do.
What do you think about gay churches?
I’ve attended a few gay and lesbian churches, and it saddens me that the evangelical church by and large finds no place for homosexuals. I’ve met wonderful, committed Christians who attend Metropolitan Community Churches, and I wish that the larger church had the benefit of their faith. At the same time, I think it’s unhealthy to have an entire denomination formed around this one particular issue—those people need exposure to and inclusion in the wider Body of Christ.
When it gets to particular matters of policy, like ordaining gay and lesbian ministers, I’m confused, like a lot of people. There are a few—not many, but a few—passages of Scripture that bring me up short. Frankly, I don’t know the answer to those questions. I’m a freelancer, not an official church representative, and I have the luxury of saying simply, “Here’s what I think, but I really don’t know,” rather than trying to set church policy.
Do you see any hope for compromise?
Of course, mainline denominations have come to terms with the homosexuality issue, opening welcoming gay and lesbians into leadership and in some case blessing ordinations and gay marriages.
Evangelicals have not moved in that direction, and still struggle mightily with the issue. My church in Chicago spent a couple of years carefully studying homosexuality. The church had openly gay members, but did not allow practicing homosexuals in leadership positions (as they did not allow unmarried “practicing heterosexuals,” whatever that means). The committee studying the issue looked at the biblical and theological and social aspects and finally came down in the same place: welcoming homosexuals in the congregation but not affirming them in leadership roles. Conservatives got mad and left by the welcoming posture. Many gays and lesbians also left, hurt that the church reinforced their “second-class citizen” status.
I have no magic solution. I do believe the church should primarily police itself, not the world at large (see 1 Corinthians 5). We must humbly follow what Scripture teaches, but we must not single out one sin above others, and we must always show a spirit of love and humility. That’s no answer, but may be the beginning of dialogue, at least.
How can evangelical Christians develop an attitude of grace (if not acceptance) toward gay and lesbian Christians?
The only way is through personal exposure. It’s amazing how feelings change when suddenly it’s your daughter or your brother who comes out of the closet. In my case, it was my friend Mel. The issues I had read about suddenly had a face, a person with a story. When that happened, everything changed. That’s one reason why I think it’s sad that the churches have so little contact. I have attended gay and lesbian churches whose fervency and commitment would put most evangelical churches to shame. Disapproving conservatives should have contact with those people, and vice versa.
Most Christian churches say gays and lesbians must give up their sexual orientation to be accepted. What do you say to churches like this?
If a church is saying you need to give up sexual orientation, that church needs some education. I know of some ministries who try to change sexual behavior, but none that try to change sexual orientation—all admit that any change involves a lifelong struggle. I would hope a minister or rector is open to dialogue, and I would hope that a gay or lesbian would have the strength and confidence to sit down with that minister discuss the psychology of sexual orientation as well as the biblical objections he has.
I’m not gay or lesbian, so I would probably approach that minister differently. I would point to how Jesus dealt with people who were moral failures—I’m starting where the minister is, who sees gays as a moral failure. Jesus chose one such woman, a woman who had five failed marriages in her resume, as his first missionary. I would also ask the minister if he requires all who attend his church to leave their “sins” at the door. Does he interview each person about their sexual activity? Does he exclude people who show pride, hypocrisy, or legalism, which are the sins that seemed to upset Jesus? Does he see the church as a place only for people who see things alike, and for people who have arrived rather than people who are on the way? I’d ask questions like that.
Many gays and lesbians have been harmed by the church’s attitude toward them, so much so that they will never set foot in one again. What do you say to these people who have been ostracized from the church and who have perhaps lost their faith?
They may need some time away from the church. I am convinced, however, that the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone, in isolation. If a person can’t see fit to enter into an institutional church, at least they should look for a small group or Bible study or some gathering of live human beings struggling along on the same pilgrimage. I also find it helpful for a wounded person to look for a radically different kind of worship experience than the one that wounded them. If they came from an Assemblies of God or Brethren church, try an Orthodox or Episcopal church, which approaches worship very differently and may not trigger the defense mechanisms from the past.
I could tell you stories—and in my books I do tell stories—about the church I grew up in. For sheer meanness and closed-mindedness, it rivals any church I’ve seen. And yet if I simply gave up on all faith because of my past church experience, I would be the one who loses most.Copyright © 2009 by Philip Yancey