taking the words of Jesus seriously

For decades, questions of LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion have ruptured across our country, tearing through denominations, churches, and families. Some of Jesus’ most ominous sayings (“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child”), originally spoken about a different sort of religious persecution, have taken on tragic new meanings.

LGBTQ Christians are urging, pleading, shouting: “We are people too. We love Jesus too. Why can’t we belong in the family of God?”

The conservative response, which we will unpack below, always returns to some form of “…but I’m not a bigot, and how dare you call me that while I’m explicitly saying that I love you?” The traditionalist response, all these years later, is still based on the old maxim that we can “hate the sin, love the sinner.” In this case, which is it? Is the real essence of this position love or bigotry?

There is an analogy that might be helpful in our exploration of this question. But for it to be meaningful, the explorer must acknowledge the fact that sexuality is something a person is born with, just like skin color. It is not a “choice” or a “lifestyle.” If you can’t get on board with this, it might be a good time to close this window and look into some educational resources about LGBTQ people (perhaps by visiting Justin Lee’s website).

Okay, if we’re all still here, let’s consider some analogous questions of racial equality. Many American Christians argued passionately from Scripture in the 19th century to keep chattel slavery in place. After slavery was abolished, many turned back to the Bible for arguments against interracial marriages. Were these arguments offered from a place of love or bigotry? Were arguments to keep Black people enslaved really for the benefit of the slaves (as many people claimed they were), or were there ulterior motives?

At this point we might draw a few preliminary conclusions: just because we use the Bible to make an argument does not mean the argument is loving or correct; just because we say we love someone does not mean we are actually engaged in loving them.

Seven years ago, a quotation credited to pastor and author Rick Warren went viral. It reads, in part: “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them.” He goes on to call this perspective nonsense and adds, “You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” The quote was used by many to defend their traditionalist views of sexual ethics.

First of all, we’ve already agreed to acknowledge that being gay is absolutely, unequivocally not a “lifestyle” someone simply chooses. And by rejecting that characterization, we must also reject the idea that opposition to LGBTQ relationships is “disagreement.” You can’t “disagree” with a person’s sexuality any more than you can disagree with their height or age. The word Warren is looking for here—if he’s thinking of sexuality—is disapprove (as blogger Bryn Donovan noted years ago). But even “disapprove” is a little off, right? How can you disapprove of someone’s height, or age, or ethnicity?

Perhaps the real word he’s saying-without-saying is “dislike.” Warren’s contention is that we can continue to hold onto our convictions and still be compassionate. But how can this be, when our conviction is a dogmatized, codified disliking of another person’s sexuality? Let’s just think of the concrete effects of holding onto this
conviction. People often think—especially if they hold a “Side B” view (that being gay isn’t a sin, but gay sexual activity is)—that the only demand of their view is that sex is denied to queer people. But communities who hold this position do not condone any romance in the lives of LGBTQ people. So the list is actually much longer:

READ: All Christians Should Celebrate the SCOTUS Ruling on LGBTQ+ Discrimination

-No sex

-No dating or marriage—meaning all the wonderful aspects of romance and commitment that have nothing to do with sex! (No one to hold hands with on a walk; no one to lovingly accept your deepest hopes and fears; no one to cuddle with when you’re lonely; no one to give you insightful words of correction because they see you at your worst; etc.—perhaps take a moment to consider what you have found to be life-giving in your own romantic relationships.)

-No child-raising with a co-parent who is present and committed to you and the children

-No participation in sacraments (if the person is “unrepentant,” i.e. dating or married)

-No baptism to symbolize new life and freedom upon entry into God’s family

-No communion with Jesus at the table of remembrance and belongingMaybe it’s becoming clear why queer folks think people hate them if they “disagree with their lifestyle”? The view would deny them important parts of the human experience that might help them flourish.

I thought of this Rick Warren quotation recently as I came into contact with a new movement called the (&) Campaign, whose website actually uses some of the same language when it declares that “we must speak truth with compassion (&) conviction.” I want to be clear up front that I think this seems like a great organization doing important work. They are seeking to gain a political voice for urban Christians with “a Gospel-centered worldview that is committed to redemptive justice (&) values-based policy.” However, what is “values-based policy”? They go on to define these values as “timeless moral codes and beliefs transferred through religious teaching, family, culture and community.”

It is clear from their 2020 Statement that one of these “values” is heteronormativity: “All attempts to remove more traditional religious beliefs from the public square should be opposed. We, like many other Americans, affirm the historic Christian sexual ethic.”

And here’s the proverbial proof in the pudding: even in a progressive-thinking, deeply justice-oriented organization like (&) with a brilliant and talented leadership team: the “disagreement” over the gay “lifestyle” has concrete and dehumanizing consequences. In that same 2020 Statement, the campaign goes on to say:
“Religious freedom and LGBTQ civil rights are not necessarily in irreconcilable conflict. Faith-based charities, hospitals and colleges should not have to choose between surrendering their convictions and closing their doors. At the same time, LGBTQ people should not lose jobs and housing because of how they identify… we encourage all 2020 candidates to support the Fairness for All Act, which will grant basic civil rights for LGBTQ people while also protecting religious freedom for all faiths.”

This is the best compromise an organization can offer when it insists on its traditionalist view: we won’t necessarily need to take away your civil rights; indeed, we believe you can retain your basic civil rights. Meanwhile, the ACLU has strongly criticized this same Fairness for All Act, warning that it would give permission to “those who would turn LGBTQ people away from jobs, health care, housing, even taxpayer-funded programs, simply because of who they are.”

For the (&) Campaign, what is at stake is religious freedom. The religious belief they no longer feel “free” to hold in our changing society is that sex is immoral outside a heterosexual marriage. There is no time here to make the argument that a faithful interpretation of the New Testament would lead us to fully include our queer siblings in the life of the church. (You can return to Justin Lee’s site for some accessible arguments.)

But my mind, as it does on most subjects, returns to Jesus. Imagine him in a marketplace where a vendor, because of their devout religious beliefs, refuses to do business with a (so-called) “sinner,” one who has deviated from the sexual mores of the culture. With whom does Jesus side? In the name of religious freedom, does he send the “sinner” away? Or does he rebuke the vendor, remove the outcast’s shame, and welcome them into God’s family?

About The Author


Jon Mathieu (MDiv, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) is a pastor at Harbor Online Community, an inclusive online church. He is also the community engagement editor for the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine. He lives in Chicago, IL.

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