In the wake of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s “Nashville Statement,” RD published commentaries by Daniel Schultz, who called the manifesto “less of a theological statement than a Facebook post,” and Candace Chellew-Hodge, who argued that “this kind of damage has only been done to the LGBT community because we have given them the authority to do it.” Below, Eric Reitan opts for the point-by-point rebuttal that, we felt, might be of greater utility to readers with family or friends who find this sort of thing compelling. ⎼ eds
I am a straight cisgender Christian man, but for years I have listened to my LGBT neighbors, made LGBT friends, and vicariously shared in their struggles and triumphs. As an ethicist, I’ve wrestled with the lessons of those experiences—lessons that recently culminated in a book on same-sex marriage and Christian love. Based on that work, there is much I want to say to the authors of the Nashville Statement, who sought to reaffirm hostile conservative Christian views on the (presumably sinful) existence of LGBT people. But since the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s manifesto has 14 articles, let me limit myself to 14 points of my own.
- You do not speak for all Christians. In fact, there are many faithful Christians, across denominations, who strongly disagree with you. And although you write your manifesto with the kind of confidence that suggests you can’t possibly be mistaken about God’s will, that confidence doesn’t make you right (but does raise important questions about humility and hubris).
- The Christians who disagree with you cannot be dismissed as nothing but sell-outs to secular culture. In my book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic, I argue that Christian support for same-sex marriage flows from nothing less central to Christian faith than Christ’s command that we love our neighbors as ourselves. I’m hardly the only Christian LGBT ally who thinks so. You may think we’re wrong, but if so you need to wrestle with our Christian arguments rooted in Christian values, not caricature us as cultural accommodationists.
- You cannot hide behind the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra. Of course we can love people who do sinful things. But the question is whether things like same-sex marriage and gender-affirming surgery are among those sinful things. Sometimes it’s unloving to take something to be a sin in the first place. Can I love my diabetic neighbor properly if I think it is sinful for her to use insulin? Of course not. If our condemnations leave a trail of dead bodies and broken lives, they might be out of sync with the law of love.
- The first act of Christian love is compassionate, empathetic attention. This was the first thing the Good Samaritan did on that Jericho road: he paid attention to the robbery victim. Likewise, we must listen to our LGBT neighbors. We must hear their stories. And we can’t shrug off this demand because we think we already know the truth based on what the Bible teaches. When teachings we support lead our LGBT neighbors to cry out in suffering or outrage or despair, love does not permit us to plug up our ears with Bible verses.
- And love does not permit us to use the Bible to slam people down. C.S. Lewis once warned that “we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of encyclopedia out of which texts…can be taken for use as weapons.” It is tempting, when LGBT persons and their allies challenge inherited teachings, for conservatives to pull out “clobber passages” to beat their critics into silence. Anyone who cares about the law of love would do well to avoid this temptation.
- Speaking of the Bible, human theories are always subject to error—and that includes your theory that the Bible is not subject to error. Let’s return to our friend C.S. Lewis, who had a high view of Scripture, but was no biblical inerrantist. In his Reflections on the Psalms he insisted that the “human qualities” of the biblical authors show through in the text in the form of “naivety, error, contradiction” and even wickedness. There are many Christian theories about the Bible. Your theory needs to be weighed against the alternatives.
- There is more than one interpretation of the “proof texts” invoked to condemn same-sex intimacy and impose rigid gender expectations on those who feel strangled by them. Biblical scholars, trained in the original languages and adept at reading texts in their cultural and historical contexts, do not all agree with your interpretations. Oh, and you might want to wrestle more deeply with that “In Christ there is neither male nor female” bit.
- There is more than one interpretation of the Genesis creation story, in which God created Adam and then fashioned Eve to be his companion. The lessons you draw from it imply that gay men, unsuited for the kind of helpmate God created for Adam, must go through life without any helpmate, and lesbians, similarly unsuited for the kind of helpmate God gave Eve, should go through life alone. That’s an interesting take on a story in which God says, “It is not good that Adam be alone”—but it is neither the only one nor the most plausible.
- Paying attention to scientific research about human sexuality and gender is not putting science above God. When scientists explore these topics, they are turning their attention to our neighbors with the aim of accurately reporting what they find. Science can help us see our neighbors more honestly, without biases and prejudices. And that’s an important part of loving our neighbors as ourselves—something Jesus lifted up as a core piece of living in accord with God’s will.
- Based on the weight of the evidence, social and behavioral scientists overwhelmingly agree that trying to change a person’s psychologies and dispositional structures to conform to rigid social expectations is not a realistic option for LGBT people. Conservative Christians tout a few studies that say such change is possible. But even if we trust them (and there are reasons not to), what these statistical outliers show is that the vast majority of, if not all, attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity will fail. What’s more, as those who have survived such “change efforts” attest, any change that does occur is merely behavioral—little more than an attempt to escape abuse by adhering to conservative norms through repression and self-denial, rather than undergoing some religious revelation that prompts a lasting internal identity shift.
- If you say that every same-sex relationship is sinful, consistency demands that whenever it falls within your power to do so, you work to break up every loving, monogamous, faithful same-sex couple, and encourage your community to advocate for broken relationships, broken homes, and people stripped of things that bring meaning and joy. Perhaps that is the true intent of this statement. But if that’s the order you’re giving to your congregants, you must honestly confront the fact that your LGBT neighbors will experience this in exactly the way that loving, married heterosexual couples would: as an assault on their family, freedom, and happiness.
- In your statement, your understanding of “heterosexual immorality” offers heterosexuals a place to express their sexuality: in marriage. But the categorical rejection of “homosexual immorality” condemns any expression of a homosexual orientation at all, ever, even in the context of a lifelong partnership of loving fidelity that may well be rooted in a Christian understanding of God’s divine plan. To treat every expression of someone’s sexuality as immoral is to impose on them a burden of self-repression enormously heavier than any you would ever dream of placing on your straight neighbors. If you love your LGBT neighbors, you will pay attention to how this burden affects those who actually try to bear it. You might learn the effect can be soul-crushing.
- If you have a theory about human sexuality and gender and you learn that communities teaching this theory have driven LGBT persons to despair—in fact, that acting upon this theory is a leading cause of the astronomical rates of substance abuse, homelessness, and even suicide among an entire swath of God’s people—then you may want to rethink your theory. And if you care about your theories more than you care about the lessons of compassionate attention to your LGBT neighbors, you may want to rethink your claim that you love them. And if extracting rigid gender and sexual requirements from the Bible (or natural law traditions) matters more to you that living by the law of love that Christ laid down, you may want to ask whether that comes from your allegiance to Christ or from some other motive.
- If you’re going to make public pronouncements about the lives of your LGBT neighbors, you should first immerse yourself in their struggles. Break bread with them. Form enduring friendships—and not just with those who, like abused children hungry for scraps of parental approval, are putting on a brave front while carrying the weight of “costly discipleship” you require. Maybe you should also break bread with the parents of all those gay and trans Christian teens who killed themselves. You know the ones. They believed you when you said “the pardon and power” of God’s grace could heal them of their “sinful” desires. But when those desires didn’t go away, they decided God must have rejected them. And so they rejected themselves in acts of final self-obliteration.
Love for your LGBT neighbors calls you to pay deep and sustained attention to them in all their rich diversity. Until you do, you have no authority to make pronouncements that impact their lives, and your platitudes about love ring hollow.