“Nobody Is Innocent”: David Gushee on Sexual Ethics, Suffering, and Full Inclusion for LGBT Christians

David Gushee is either a heretic or a hero, depending on which side of the theological spectrum you tend to inhabit—there will certainly be no middle ground after the release of his new book, Changing Our Mind.

For evangelicals, Gushee, a minister and Mercer University professor, has been their “leading” ethicist, with his award-winning Kingdom Ethics (available in six translations), used as an ethics textbook for evangelical seminars. This new book, however, might be more likely to be used as a doorstop in those same hallowed halls. That’s a shame, because there is plenty for anti-LGBT evangelicals to learn here—and plenty here for them to find biblical and theological cover if they find their own hearts and minds moved to change.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I have been critical of Gushee in the past—something we touch on in this interview. I saw him as someone who called the church to simply be nice to LGBT people, but he drew a line at full affirmation and acceptance of our community into the church. I am happy to report that with this book, Gushee has completely erased that line.

You devote a good part of the book to talking about paradigm leaps you have noticed in the Bible itself—such as the one made by the two heartbroken disciples who walk the Emmaus Road with Jesus without recognizing him at first. What made you finally take that final jump (or paradigm leap) to becoming an ally of LGBT people?

What I actually end up saying in the book is not a radical departure from what the trajectory of my thought over twenty years. I think that the most radical expression of the paradigm leap is what I would describe as an existential core decision to stand in solidarity with LGBT people—and especially LGBT Christians and ex-Christians, those who’ve been pushed out. It’s a choice of community, in a sense, a choice about loyalty. It has been gradually developing over a long period of time.

The last chapter in the book talks in the most detail about that leap, that change in loyalties that has happened; it certainly includes learning about my sister Katy and her suffering as a deeply repressed lesbian unable to claim her own sexuality and identity and learning more recently that a major factor for her was the fear of the disapproval of her church—and actually of her brother, me. I didn’t know all that.

I would say I managed to live the great majority of my life without a lot of exposure to the actual lives and journeys of LGBT people. That speaks very much to what happens in the evangelical world—if you create an environment inhospitable enough you drive people out or underground. That’s how I could manage not to have much exposure until I came to Atlanta and started to be in a seminary setting and in a church setting—neither of which were flag-waving kind of pro LGBT environments, but they were open and safe enough that people began coming.

So, friendships began developing, notably in my church setting and Sunday school class over time, and I went from zero to a fairly decent understanding of what it’s like to be an LGBT person and a Christian in America.

I would say that beginning to learn more and more about the suffering of wounded and closeted and exiled LGBT young people really began to affect me deeply, beginning with Katy. But obviously there’s a literature out there I had never studied; I began to read some of that and began to hear stories of the cruelest kind of rejections from families and churches.

I remember a long time ago somebody noticed that human suffering is really important in my ethic—my dissertation was on the Holocaust — and I’ve written a lot about those issues, but at last I began to focus on the suffering of what I would say is the church’s own most oppressed and wounded minority group. It’s not enough to kind of cluck sympathetically, “Oh, isn’t that too bad, we need to do better.” But, I was still being a bystander. I needed to stand in solidarity and be more like the rescuers—not that I can rescue anybody—but to stand in full support of those who had been so mistreated.

It was in 2009 when you and I had an exchange by email about my response in RD to  your review of Mitchell Gold’s book Crisis. You told me back then that you were in a rethinking process—at least willing to be in dialogue. What do you think it would take for the traditionalists, as you call them in your book, to come into that kind of dialogue? Do you think your book can move some of them?

I hope so. I think that the most promising site of dialogue is intergenerational in evangelical families, either because a young person comes out or because young people have friends who they also become loyal to and they find the tension between caring about their friends and processing what they’re being told at home and at church to be unbearable and they want to talk about it. The transformative change that I have most often seen in the evangelical world seems to be almost impossible without some kind of relational connection — a brother, a sister, child, cousin, a friend — that cognitive dissonance then forces a return to the scriptures and then there is an openness. Maybe then what the preachers have said about these passages or the overall message of the Bible can be questioned.

Evangelicals are interesting in a lot of ways. One of the ways they’re interesting is that they claim such an unparalleled authority for the Bible but tend to be resistant to recognizing the forces that affect how the Bible is read, including personal loyalties and life experiences and emotional commitments, convictions and feelings. On the other side, there’s often a refusal to recognize that we don’t just have scriptural texts, we have traditions of interpreting those texts. We have even the selection of which texts will be important and which texts will drop to the periphery. So, part of what I do in my book is to challenge that, to get that named and suggest new ways of configuring texts—and which texts would get attended to if we were to reopen this conversation.

But, I do think that some kind of driver of a personal nature seems almost always to be required to get people off of the existing paradigm enough to even be in dialogue about it.

As a lesbian who has been told repeatedly that my sexual expression is an abomination, I was particularly struck by your statement that no adult sexuality is innocent. Heterosexuality is not the gold standard of sex, inherently pure. You make the argument that none of us is sexually innocent, whether we are gay or straight.

Just as none of us are innocent in any dimension of our being. If we take a classic view of Christian theology seriously nobody is innocent. If nobody is innocent then we don’t get to rank ourselves as better than other people. This is an example where when you reopen some of these question other passages come to mind that had not been in the conversation. I started noticing passages such as “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus tells a parable to “those who look with religious contempt on others,” and all the warnings about self-righteousness and judging other people, like in Matthew 7.

All these core texts teach us gratitude for God’s grace, awareness of our sinfulness, humility before God and others and a posture of introspective desire to be a better person myself—and then a posture of love, and not of judgment, toward other people. I think those are core gospel themes that have been obscured while we argue about the six or seven passages that mention sexuality.

In the conversations I’ve had with more conservative Christians, this is a blind spot—a belief that heterosexuality is the purest form of sexual activity. But, also, it seems conservative Christians have forgotten that Jesus condemns divorce  and even calls those who remarry “adulterers.” You call the collapse of lifetime covenantal marriage as the greatest sexual familial ethic issue of our time.

I believe that’s true partly because of the dramatically negative consequences for children. Jesus actually teaches very strictly about divorce and I think the reason he did so was to cut off at the pass those who were attempting to stretch Jewish law so as to allow men to casually divorce their wives. The assumption seems to be that men are divorcing their wives in order to remarry someone they find more appealing, leaving their wives and children in the lurch … abandoned.

All over America, there are Christians in violation of this teaching—as many as 20% to 30% in a lot of our churches. There was a faint effort to fight this in the 70s that nobody even remembers and now, including in evangelical churches, almost nobody puts up a fight related to anything about divorce and remarriage, unless it’s especially egregious. Meanwhile, children suffer and families are dislocated and a lot of people get mistreated.

Teaching people to make a covenant with one person and keep it faithfully, for better, for worse, across an entire lifespan and raise children together is the standard. The “radical” innovation is, I’m suggesting, that maybe gay and lesbian people ought to be invited into that standard as well.

I think we ought to be having that conversation. I think one reason we’re not having that conversation is because it’s easy for pastors to pick on 5% of the population. It’s harder to criticize 30% of your own church members.

Do you support full marriage rights for gay and lesbian people in a civil sense?

Yes. I already pointed to that in 2008’s The Future of Faith in American Politics. I think the state and the church have very different purposes when it comes to marriage. The state recognizes that adult sexual relationships are important for two main reasons: one is that they often produce children, and the other is that they involve the sufficient intertwining of lives and emotional vulnerability that when they break up, it can be problematic in terms of disentangling lives in terms of property.

So the state cares about marriage fundamentally because of property and associated economic rights during marriage and what happens when the marriage is dissolved and the wellbeing of children. It’s also to regulate relationships with the goal of stability for the wellbeing of the adults and children involved.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I get from your book is that what you’re calling the church to do is to welcome LGBT people fully within the body of the church, expecting what is expected of the heterosexuals in the congregation such as celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. Is that right?

Yes. It’s interesting how simple things get when you come to conclude that what we’re really dealing with here is a historic misreading of the overall message of the Bible that is essentially a form of discrimination against a group when science clearly shows that one out of 20 or so in the human population have a gender identity or sexual orientation different from the heterosexual and male/female majority.

We have mistakenly made this into a moral problem when what we have is a variation in the human family that just exists.

When you make that pivotal shift then the issue looks a whole lot more like race and gender and every other group of people who were treated as other because they were different. So, the principle is simple enough an eight-year-old could get it: LGBT people should be treated just like everyone else.

But, again, it points up the larger problem that the church itself has about how it preaches its sexual ethics even to the straight people. With the proliferation of cohabitation, there are straight people living together who are obviously in sexual relationship with one another who either have no intention of getting married or just haven’t yet and there’s no church discipline for that. So, when LGBT people arrive at the church, we’re suddenly held to a higher standard. You can understand how we might say, wait a minute …

All of a sudden, you’ve got standards.


That’s why I would say that really coming to terms with the LGBT issue provides an opportunity to really come to terms with the overall Christian sexual and relational ethic issue.

Do you think the church is up for that?

I think some are. What I think is happening, and I consider it a great tragedy, is a deep dis-ease with what is wrong with American culture and what’s wrong with the churches related to lax moral standards and disintegrating families and so on. It’s a narrative of decline. There are a lot of reasons to have a narrative of decline. It’s very much related for people in America who have sense of cultural decline generally: “We’re not moving up, we’re sliding down.”

Then LGBT people come along and they get slotted into the narrative of decline: “If everything were right, the way it was supposed to be, the way it used to be then we wouldn’t have to be dealing with this problem.” So, a lot gets loaded on the shoulders of LGBT people. They become a symbol that’s not about them after a while. It’s about anxieties about cultural decline and moral confusion, Christendom fading, American religious pluralism, you name it.

The story of LGBT people is a different narrative, one of discrimination and liberation. That narrative looks more like women’s rights, the civil rights movement and the end of widespread Christian teaching of anti-Semitism and racism. That’s the narrative this needs to be placed in.

So many have so much invested in the moral decline narrative. Many traditionalists that I have met have a sense that they’ll lose something if they lose this battle.

I wish that everybody could focus—and I’m using my volunteer time on this issue—on the teenager trembling before their parents or their pastor getting ready to say, “I think I might be gay or lesbian.”

What we have to gain is the mental health and in some cases even the physical survival of that child. That ought to matter to everybody. But I really think the story has not been told that way. I think the starting point on this issue is suffering children and what happens when they speak to their families and bullying and rejection and psychological distress. When you start there, I think it can be a different conversation.

I think your book goes a long way to doing that and helping people. You talk about the bullying you suffered in school over different issues that helped you be able to step into the shoes of LGBT people who may face the same violence.

It took me a long time and I hope that my regret for the long journey is clearly communicated in the book. I am sorry it took me so long to put it all together. It’s like being in a movie where someone is trying to crack a safe and there’s six numbers and you have to get all six numbers right for the safe to open. I think that’s what’s happened for me. Finally, all six numbers came up and I was able to open the safe and I could see this in a new way. That needs to happen for all of us.