What is the dividing line between gracious silence and comfortable cowardice? At what point must our Christian duty to fight the evils of injustice and oppression outweigh our sincere desire to live in peaceful accord with our neighbor? When does truly biblical love look more like protest than amicable silence?
I have been wrestling with these questions in recent days, as I struggle to balance love and peace with what I believe to be righteous anger at the mistreatment and emotional abuse of people I dearly love in the LGBTQ+ community, by those who profess to follow Jesus Christ. After searching the heart of Christ in prayer, meditation, Scripture and Church teachings, and consulting the parishioners of Holy Cross and my superiors in the North American Old Catholic Church, I feel convicted by these words attributed to Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” I will no longer countenance silence when it comes to the love and dignity of God’s children.
The impetus for this open letter is recent blog posts by Pastor Wade Burleson, of Emmanuel Enid — a Southern Baptist congregation and unmistakably the largest, wealthiest and most influential church in our community, if not all of northwest Oklahoma. He sets the tone for his screed against God’s LGBTQ+ people, and “taxpayer-funded celebrations of immorality,” by likening Christians in loving, consensual same-sex relationships to adulterers and pedophiles, as he has done in other posts, including a more recent post in which he likened Pride to NAMBLA, a pedophile advocacy group.
There is little hope of redeeming a piece of writing after equating loving couples to pedophiles, but there has been no attempt at atoning for this egregious, entirely unwarranted, and decidedly un-Christian insult. Instead, we see pandering to the fears of many in this community that the so-called “gay agenda” will disrupt the long-established order of favoring white, heterosexual Protestants, to the exclusion and degradation of all others. Were it one pastor in one church — even a large, influential church — it might be overlooked as an aberration. But it is not. Sadly, this line of thinking, and the attacks and denigration it spawns in the name of Christ, is an all-too-common blight on the name “Christian.”
We’ve seen the old argument resurface — an argument we should best leave behind the days of segregation — that we need to force a Christian sense of “morality” in schools, to ensure all children conform to a narrow view of Scripture. One John Amos Comenius has been dug up from the 17th Century to advocate the role of teachers being “to bring students in line with the word of God.”
That was all well and good if you were a European Protestant male, and may be equally desirable today if you’re a white, heterosexual, Protestant male. But a quote from this same Comenius uncovers the true intent: “Apart from God, the source of light and of life, there is nothing but darkness, terror, agony, and everlasting death that knows no end; so that it were better that they had never been born, who stray from God and cast themselves into the pit of eternal destruction.”
Within the context of recent attacks on LGBTQ+ people, the meaning of including this quote is quite clear: little gay boys and girls need to be taught it would be better if they’d never been born, unless they can contort themselves into an evangelical torture box of denying who they are, all in the name of Christ.
This very narrow view of teaching “Christian morality” is not new. It advocated for slavery. It upheld segregation for 300 years after Comenius’ death. That same system still limits opportunities for women, re-segregates urban schools, and continues to yield unequal opportunities and outcomes for people of color, immigrants and non-native English speakers. If you want to see the evil harvest that comes from forcing Christian “morality” on children, it is now being exhumed at former “Indian schools” across North America.
Of course, any amount of evil can be justified in the name of Christ, if you twist and abuse Scripture in just the right way. The past week has seen much quoting of the so-called “clobber passages” — small bits of Scripture taken entirely out of context, poorly translated, and then fashioned into crude and cruel weapons to attack God’s children and the Body of Christ.
Perhaps the most popular of these misused and abused passages comes from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Bring up LGBTQ+ issues in this very conservative, very evangelical Protestant community, and it is expected someone will declare “homosexuality is an abomination,” quoting the Leviticus passages from rote memorization. It’s worth noting the acts outlined in Leviticus 18 and 20 are an abomination in the same Old Testament sense as eating shellfish and wearing mixed-fiber clothes — old Mosaic purity laws even evangelical Protestants are willing to overlook as archaic laws, fulfilled and put away by Christ. But, we still haven’t gotten to the true meaning.
Even if Leviticus were about homosexual relations as they are known today, the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) put away the old Mosaic purity laws (specifically addressing the question of forcing circumcision on Gentile converts). But, setting even that aside, careful and unbiased reading of the Leviticus passages reveals they have nothing to do with consensual adult homosexual relations.
Dutch theologian and linguist K. Renato Lings digs into the original Hebrew of these passages, and concludes the original translation dealt not with consensual adult relationships as we know them today, but rather with male-on-male incest — a relatively common concern within the context in which Leviticus was written. This reading is bolstered by the context of the passages themselves, in which the “clobber” verses appear amid a list of other prohibitions on incestuous relationships. Read in their proper light, then, Leviticus 18 and 20 have nothing to do with consensual adult same-gender relationships, as understood in a contemporary context.
“But, what of Romans,” you may hear the clobberers cry. The predominant interpretation of Romans 1:25-27, and Paul’s condemnation of same-gender sex as “unnatural,” is that it directly applies to homosexual relationships today. But, again, context matters more than a superficial and insincere reading of the text. The audience Paul was addressing in Romans did not consider homosexual sex to be abhorrent or unnatural — it was a rite of passage for adolescent males to submit to older men.
Paul was addressing a church community that still indulged in the habit of married men stepping out on their wives to satiate sexual desire with adolescent boys. That is the issue Paul is addressing — pederasty and adultery. And while some pastors in this community, and other evangelical churches across America, like to link those immoral acts to loving, consensual same-gender relationships, there is no social or biblical justification for this intentional vilification of God’s LGBTQ+ children.
Finally, we have to understand that Paul’s use of the term “unnatural” here is explicitly limited to a specific letter, to a specific church, in a specific place, at a specific time. The same sense of unnatural in the above “clobber” passage also is used by Paul to address men with long hair, and women who pray with uncovered heads. If we’re to seriously apply Paul’s sin lists in Romans as eternal mandates with no contextual boundaries, well, then, there are a lot of faithful evangelical women and long-haired evangelical youth pastors who have some explaining to do.
Next up is 1 Corinthians 6:18, which demands we “flee sexual immorality.” 1 Corinthians 6 is considered by many to be the clearest condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible. But, again, let’s look at translation and context. Paul uses two important Greek words here to describe the men in question: malakoi and arsenokoitai. Malakoi is best translated as being weak-willed, given to excessive lust and having no self-control. Arsenokoitai is believed to have been a word Paul invented for this passage. The most literal translation is “male-bedders,” a term that could apply to youth or adults. But the word’s use in other Greek texts is not purely sexual, and in many cases not sexual at all. Instead of the predominant view of arsenokoitai today, in its original use it was related to economic, social or sexual exploitation.
Again, the context here matters. As in Romans (and all his epistles), Paul is writing to a specific church, in a specific social context, in a specific place, at a specific time. And in that time, place and context, the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty — of grown men taking adolescent boys as lovers or sex slaves — had carried over into the Christian church in Corinth. I think we can all agree with Paul’s objection to taking teen boys as sex slaves, but that has absolutely nothing to do with loving, consensual adult same-sex relations, no matter how many blog posts or sermons conservative evangelical pastors write to the contrary.
The faith of the Founding Fathers also has been raised as reason to force Christian “morality” on members of the public, especially children — again, we have to wonder whose interpretation of Christian teaching is to be applied. To be sure, faith was important to the Founding Fathers (though at least several, especially Thomas Jefferson, were more Deist than Christian). But, in spite of their predominantly Christian world view — or, perhaps, because of it — the Founding Fathers went to great pains to explicitly set a boundary between church and state. It’s a boundary some pastors attempt to breach, with arguments against public programs based on their own understanding of faith and misunderstanding of Scripture.
Perhaps these pastors overlook, or have forgotten, it was members of the Baptist faith tradition who argued most vociferously for separation of church and state, because of the persecution they faced in Puritan and Catholic colonies. In 1802 the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association wrote to President Thomas Jefferson, concerned the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment may not be strong enough. “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty — that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals.” In other words, no pastors’ or politicians’ opinions, conservative or otherwise, have any business being forced between a LGBTQ+ couple and their relationship with Christ.
Jefferson reassures the Danbury Baptists they need not fear intermingling of church and state, stating emphatically the Establishment Clause creates a “wall of separation between church and state.” That wall — demanded by oppressed Baptists — specifically precludes recent demands for “Christian morality” in the public sphere.
The charge has been leveled at faithful LGBTQ+ Christians, their ministers and allies that they are “empty and don’t yet know it,” and “have no understanding of Western civilization and universal education.” Let’s start with the first supposed offense. This eloquent teaching of exclusion and hate calls to mind Matthew 23, in which Jesus excoriates “teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites,” who “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”
Christ condemns the Pharisees for being spiritually empty — for they “clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence,” and are “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Certainly, we all need to guard against such emptiness. But, we must remember, Christ speaks harshly not of those who didn’t conform to an Old Testament notion of purity, but rather of those who oppress and shame God’s children with an arbitrary, limited, self-serving and harmful application of Scripture.
As for the history of Western civilization, I am willfully and intentionally ignorant of certain rose-tinted, Anglo-Protestant views of history. But, I do not know any LGBTQ+ people, or any other historically oppressed people, who are ignorant of White Christians’ long and ignominious history of slavery, oppression, rape, murder, exploitation, genocide and vile injustice — all committed under the guise of biblical authority.
Of course, we do not hear conservative evangelicals own up to that disgraceful part of our shared Christian history. They don’t admit the hate and harm that stem from their Scripturally flawed and spiritually empty teachings on sexuality. Instead they claim to “love” LGBTQ+ people by preaching “truth.” This is the common and prescribed diversion statement — covering exclusion, hatred and injustice in a shroud of false “love.”
To call all we’ve seen thus far love, we would have to take a willfully ignorant reading of Scripture, proof-texting six or seven passages to affirm a hurtful, scared and spiritually (not to mention sexually) insecure bias against God’s LGBTQ+ children. In truth, in order to follow this harmful teaching, we would have to ignore the Gospel message and any meaningful relationship with Christ, in favor of a willfully limited and limiting misinterpretation of isolated and wildly out-of-context passages.
The “love the sinner, hate the sin” formula advanced by conservative pastors today yields something that can only be called “love” in a way that defies both Scripture and common sense. It manifests as fear, shame, exclusion, laws that deny basic human rights, hate crimes, depression, division of churches and families, and all-too-often, suicide for LGBTQ+ people who’ve been made to feel unworthy as God’s beloved children. I work every day with beautiful LGBTQ+ people, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, who have walked away from the Church, if not faith altogether, because of the way they’ve been treated by Christians, led by hard-hearted pastors who are either woefully ignorant or willfully negligent in teaching Christ’s message.
Hate. Fear. Exclusion. Division. Shame. Harm. Death. Driving people from the very arms of Christ. There is no quoting of misinterpreted Scripture, no eloquent sermon, no influential or wealthy pastor, who can convince me that is the Way of Christ. Are there different ways to interpret Scripture? Sure. And Jesus knew that. He told us how to discern between false prophets and true, between good teachings and evil. In Matthew 7, Christ tells us, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Hate. Fear. Exclusion. Division. Shame. Harm. Death. Driving people from the very arms of Christ. This teaching indeed yields very bad fruit.
As we move forward, we must love Wade Burleson, Emmanuel, and all other pastors and congregations like them. I believe these Christians think they are following the path of righteousness, due to fatally flawed theological interpretation and just plain lazy reading of the Bible. I pray for an amendment of heart for those who would exclude, and have harmed, God’s LGBTQ+ people. I pray for a reading and teaching of Scripture that follows the original intent and context, and more importantly, flows from the Holy Spirit and reflects the heart of Christ. I pray for a time when all Christians, regardless of denomination, will work to enact in this broken world the revolutionary Gospel message of unconditional love, justice, and equality — for ALL God’s children. Dear Lord, repair our hearts and make it so. Amen.