You can always tell what is happening in the Christian world by the sorts of books that are getting published by Christian publishing companies. Beyond the standard theology and bible commentary books, much of what comes out of the likes of Bethany House, Crossway, Zondervan, and alike are books that attempt to be helpful and timely for Christians and ministers. Three books that I have read recently seem to be an indication of a much needed change in the church. Compassion without Compromise, Openness Unhindered, and Messy Grace all address the issue of homosexuality and same-sex attraction in relation to Christians and the church and each raises a host of significant points. In this post I want to consider a few of the issues they raise.
First, and most fundamentally, the treatment of homosexuals by the church must be considered. These books exist because, quite frankly, we have done a poor job of this generally speaking. Each of these books is in some way a testimonial to the extravagant grace of God in spite of our failures to love homosexuals well. The most extreme example is found in Caleb Kaltenbach’s Messy Grace.
Messy Grace Summery and Review: Caleb definitely has an unusual story, which his book chronicles. When he was a child, his parents divorced in what seems a rather amiable split. Shortly there after his mother entered into a lesbian relationship that would last until her life partner, Vera, passed away. Though unbeknownst to him until his college years, his father, as it happens, was also gay. Caleb experienced dizzying contradictions in the actions of both the church and the LGBTQ community. Through his mother, he came to know, love, and count as friends many in the LGBTQ community though he never experienced same-sex attraction. He, while supporting his mother and Vera at a gay pride parade as well as a number of other occasions, also experienced the vitriol that could be spewed at homosexuals by Christians. He learned from such encounters that Christians hated gays. In high school, he joined a Bible study with the hopes of learning Christian beliefs so that he might refute and destabilize them. The opposite would happen. These Christians treated him with love and, as he read his Bible, he saw that Jesus was also a promoter of loving people, especially those who might be understood as oppositional or even enemies. It wasn’t long till he had given his life to Christ and been baptized. In an ironic turn of events this led his mother to reject him (seeing the mere act of conversion as an affront to her way of life) and the church to embrace him. For the details and the rest I encourage you to pick up Messy Grace by a fellow Talbot School of Theology alumnus. It is a very easy read, written in the typical pastoral/conversational tone, which I find off putting, but my distaste of the stylistic choices are overshadowed by the uniqueness of the content. I give Messy Grace a 3/5.
Kaltenbach tells devastating stories of Christians spraying urine on homosexuals at a gay pride parade, drivers being judge-y about his mom’s LGBTQ bumper stickers, and the physical aversion of a conservative Christian family to their gay son slowly dying of AIDs. The stories hurt to read as they display the poor understanding of social convention and theology. To be honest, reading Kaltenbach’s book helped me understand why the LGBTQ community often binds love and approval together, for to long many Christians seem to have displayed a lack of love to them so that their lack of approval might be not be questioned. Christians can have a difficult time interacting with brothers and sisters that have LGBTQ pasts, consider Rosaria Butterfield’s comments in Openness Unhindered:
Questions lag and nag, even after repentance, even after all of these years. Some days I want to pass as another fifty-something church lady. But these questions vex me: What about homosexuality? Did I ever get some special insight from the Holy Spirit as to why it is a sin? Did I immediately upon conversion (or ever) feel that “unnaturalness” about homosexual sex that Romans 1 outlines? Or as a friend recently asked me, “Rosaria, when did the ‘yuck factor’ about homosexual sex hit you upside the head?”
Dr. Butterfield laments these insensitive attempts to engage her back story and admits “Lesbian sexuality did not feel unnatural. It occurred to me that I don’t have to feel it to believe it. And then this opened up the Scriptures in a whole new way. My feelings fell with the fall. There is no shame in this.” It strikes me that I can think of no parallel to this for any other sin category. In fact, the only time such questions might be understandable would be if someone emerged from a cult or another religion into Christianity.
- What about Mormonism?
- Did you ever get some special insight from the Holy Spirit as to why it is a cult?
- Did I immediately upon conversion (or ever) feel that “illegitimacy” about Mormon theology?
- When did the ‘crazy factor’ about Mormonism hit you upside the head?
Even then these questions would require a close relationship to be asked with so little tact. But what does it say about Christians that we can be so careless of the feelings of those who are even our friends and members of the body of Christ.
Openness Unhindered Summery and Review: In her first book, Dr. Rosaria Butterfield narrated her tradition from a Ph.D’ed feminist/queer theory literature professor and an active member of the LGBTQ community into becoming the wife of a Presbyterian minister and church planter with four adopted children. In this book, however, she dives more into the theology behind the transition. How she came to realize that her greatest sin was not homosexuality, but unbelief and pride. How she came to understand the supremacy of scripture for the direction and telos of life. How she came to understand the importance of the local church for the Christian life.
Unlike Messy Grace, though Openness Unhindered and Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert are narrative as well, they are written in the style and manner of a trained and disciplined master. Butterfield’s prose are refined and disciplined. More than just being a writer of high quality though, Openness Unhindered is one of the best books I have read on sexual sin of any kind. Openness Unhindered easily gets a 5/5.
A second issue to consider, which builds off of the previous one, is the need for the church to be counter cultural. All three books have been authored, in the case of Compassion without Compromise partially authored, by someone who was in the LGBTQ community and was unceremoniously rejected upon conversion to Christianity. It would be easy to point the finger at the LGBTQ community and demand that they explain how they are any different from what they’re claims about the church if they are expelling people upon conversion to Christianity. But that is not the point, in fact, I am not sure why that is not expected. Worldly or secular groups will act in line with secular values, and sameness is a secular value, as is universal affirmation, as such we should expect that Christians who cannot affirm many lifestyles and value diversity should not be welcome in such groups. Rather than be surprised then, we should expect such treatment, and return it with love:
Love Your Enemies “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 ESV)
Christians are called to be counter-cultural by loving those who are different, and not just different but potential enemies, and not just potential enemies but active persecutors. And make no mistake, there is an LGBTQ agenda (I know that sounds crazy Republican-voting-assault-rifle-collecting-Trump-supporting-Bible-thumping-Islam-fearing-gay-hating propaganda, but do not write it off till you look into it). In Compassion without Compromise Adam Barr and Ron Citlau write:
The truth is, there is an agenda. There is a strong, organized movement across all levels of our culture. The aim of this movement is simple: To silence any opposition, not only to homosexuality, but to a wide range of sexual expression… One of the key aspects of this campaign involves a turning of the tables. Essentially, once the LGBT agenda has gained sympathy (mission accomplished), then normalcy (mission accomplished), a critical component remains: to demonize those who are recalcitrant. To demolish remaining opposition.
This, I should note, is not two Christians discussing some nightmarish conspiracy theory about the “gay agenda.” These comments are written by a former homosexual and are summarizing a 1987 article title “The Overhauling of Straight America,” which was later published in book form under the title After the Ball. It is not an obscure work in the LGBTQ community, nor is it some ad hoc rant, but rather a systematic battle plan to subvert traditional sexual ethic written by two Harvard educated thinkers, one a neuropsychiatrist and the other a public relations expert.
Compassion without Compromise Summery and Review:
As it stands now, I believe Barr and Citlau have written the book for Christians to own on homosexuality. It is accessible, contains both testimonial and theological discussion, it touches on all the major issues involved from the perspective of one who is tasked with loving his gay neighbors (that is to say, there is much psychologically left to say, but that is unnecessary given the audience of the book).
I give bar a 4/5, I have some issue with stylistic preferences, but the text is overall very well done. Not to mention that this books is extremely practical, equipping believers to think through and respond to the very difficult questions that society and our gay friends and family will ask us.
I want to discuss one last issue presented in all three texts: the importance of the Bible and the local church. Both Dr. Butterfield and Caleb Kaltenbach came to faith because of an open Bible. They approached the Bible as critics and skeptics, but found themselves ensconcing it as their authority before their initial tasks were complete. Barr and Citlau close their book with an afterward about the necessity of understanding the Bible as the perfect, errorless, and inspired word of God. All four authors are saying something about sexuality and the Bible, and it amounts to this: you can get your understanding of sexuality from the culture, from your personal feelings, or from the Bible. For the Christian, there is only one legitimate option. The world, and therefore culture, is fallen. Our feelings and desires often lead us into temptation and sin rather than toward Jesus, for they too are fallen. Thus there is only what the Bible says, if we are intellectually honest, then we must admit that it speaks clearly.
The local church too plays a large role in each text. For Kaltenbach, Christians as a hazy, undefined group can be hated and opposed, but the Christians from the church group he met could not be. They loved and welcomed him in. Dr. Butterfield is effusive with gratitude for a local church pastor and his wife because they opened their home and then opened their church (when Dr. Butterfield was ready). Barr and Citlau state openly that the Christian life is stunted when pursued on one’s own or even just in one’s family. The family of God is necessary for sustained and substantial spiritual growth.
There is some much more that could be said about each of these books and in this conversation, but this is where I will leave you.
Thanks for reading,