By T.R. Robertson
The reaction of Christians to a prominent athlete’s admission of homosexuality can provide one clue to how the church is relating to culture.
On February 9, Michael Sam, a senior defensive end for the Missouri Tigers football team, publicly “came out” in an ESPN interview. The news went viral nationally. In traditional and social media, Sam was heavily praised for his courage in announcing he is gay. In May, he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams and the celebratory kiss with his boyfriend on national TV was replayed many times during the following days.
This news was huge in the hometown of the Tigers, where I live. I wondered how Bible-believing students I know would react to it. Would they stay true to biblical principles, or would they follow the cues of culture?
Holding on to Sound Doctrine
One student admitted he and his friends had generally tried to avoid the subject.
“It’s such a sensitive issue with a lot of people,” he said. “You’re not going to do anything but bring yourself a lot of trouble if you say what you really think.”
For others, the reaction to the news was a communal shrug.
“I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about it,” said one Christian upperclassman. “Mostly we had already heard the rumor a long time ago, so it wasn’t a big deal.”
Both of these responses reflect the trend among younger Christians to de-emphasize the issue. Some young people from conservative, Evangelical backgrounds have consciously changed their opinion, deciding that calling homosexuality a sin is outmoded. Others continue to believe firmly that homosexuality is sin but are hesitant to say so among their non-Christian friends.
A much larger group find themselves in a tight squeeze between their church heritage and the culture in which they’ve come of age. The temptation is strong just to go with the flow. They haven’t made a conscious determination to change their minds. They’re just following the trend among Christians to downplay the importance of doctrine.
This gradual erosion of reliance on Scripture as the authority on cultural issues isn’t new to this generation. It’s reminiscent of the gradual acceptance of divorce and remarriage over the past several decades. Many who softened their stance on divorce didn’t do so based on a critical reexamination of the relevant Scriptures. They simply lost their balance in the flood of failed marriages.
The best approach to reestablishing our firm footing is to renew our focus on God’s heart as revealed in the Scriptures. But we need to be sure we’re being equally faithful to all of God’s teachings.
Engage, Not Enrage
Westboro Baptist Church showed up in Columbia to protest Michael Sam. The group’s appearances and startlingly offensive protest signs at all sorts of venues have become a fairly common sight in America.
Westboro’s true agenda became clear when its members began protesting at the funerals of soldiers. The group had no interest in engaging nonbelievers in redemptive discussion or debate. They were only interested in enraging those who oppose them.
Ironically, after the death of Westboro founder Fred Phelps in March, some commentators agreed his extreme actions had done more to increase acceptance of the LGBT community than any other factor. The group’s tactics sent most conservatives scrambling to distance themselves from Westboro’s stance. As pro-LGBT activists and media continued to paint their opponents as homophobic haters in the mold of Westboro Baptist, conservatives became quieter and less sure of themselves.
Pitched arguments over the moral or political aspects of cultural issues seldom lead to anything productive. It’s far better to engage people in conversations that are relentlessly focused on missional goals.
A discussion that centers exclusively on a mission to win an argument for truth, without being balanced by a mission to win people to Christ, is likely to accomplish neither. Peter counsels as much when he says, “Do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:15, 16).
Lead with Love
Lesbians frequently attend the prison chapel services my wife and I help with. We were both raised with the principle of “hate the sin; love the sinner.” The more we’ve gotten to know some of these women, though, that mantra seems inadequate.
The second greatest commandment mandates we should always lead with love. Perhaps a better guiding rule would be, “Love all sinners; everyone is a sinner.”
Occasionally one of the lesbian women will summon up the courage to ask whether we think homosexuality is a sin. I point them directly to the Scriptures.
I ask them to turn to Leviticus 20:13, where homosexuality is clearly labeled as a sin. I then point out verses in surrounding chapters that label tattoos and mistreating strangers as sin.
We then turn to Romans 1, which also describes homosexuality as a sin—alongside murder, gossip, and disobeying parents.
We tell them homosexuals are indeed sinners—and so are gluttons, like myself, and people who gossip about gays. Then we show them how Romans goes on to promise there is enough of God’s love and grace to cover us all.
This astonishes them because they’re not used to Christians leading with love. The believers they’ve encountered are eager to stand firmly on the commands of God regarding sin and judgment, but fail to demonstrate they also stand firmly on the second greatest commandment.
These women are even more amazed when we learn their names and cheerfully invite them to come back in the following weeks. We talk to them about their lives and their families, just like we do with the others. We do our best to make them feel loved, so they will know God loves them.
Do Not Conform to the World
Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Faithfulness to this verse can make a huge difference in effectively responding to people who have made troubling choices.
This past March, World Vision announced it was going to begin recognizing employees’ same-sex marriages. The reaction from conservative Christians was swift and negative. Tens of thousands instantly withdrew financial support from critical world relief projects, including more than 10,000 individual child sponsorships.
Within 48 hours, World Vision reversed itself.
World Vision’s decision and subsequent reversal was, at best, a public relations nightmare, alienating both the conservative and liberal factions of its support base. At worst, it may indeed have been evidence of a slide toward conforming to the world. As an organization with its feet firmly in both the religious community and government circles, World Vision surely feels the competing pressures more acutely than most parachurch organizations.
It can be argued, though, that many of those reacting against the move were also guilty of conforming to the world.
Some of the reactions from these followers of Jesus, and the inflammatory language used, was not unlike what we commonly witness on political talk shows.
We like to point out the hypocrisy of those who react with instant intolerance against the intolerance of the religious right. But when we use the same tone and tools used by the world, we risk becoming tools of the same power that is behind the actions of the world. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does” (2 Corinthians 10:3).
Speak Where All the Scriptures Speak
I was raised in a church where the priority was to define right from wrong, boldly defending the true teachings of Scripture. Too often I saw a church culture more interested in the “being right” part of righteousness, to the exclusion of the “being loving” side of righteousness.
Some who grew up in that tradition have rebelled against it. They’ve either abandoned their reliance on the authority of the Bible, or they’ve abandoned their faith entirely.
I also rebelled against it, but in the other direction. I still believe the only sure guide in life is the Bible, which teaches about holiness and grace, righteousness and reconciliation.
In Matthew 5, Jesus reaffirmed the timeless centrality of obeying the commandments of God. Then he took it a step further by putting the focus not on our actions, but on our hearts. Having barely caught his breath from hammering home the guilt in our hearts, he went on to challenge us to love our enemies.
At the end of his ministry, Jesus repeated the importance of obedience when he told his disciples, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). In that same final conversation he also told them, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
My continual prayer for myself and my fellow Christians is that we will have the courage to speak where all the Scriptures speak, and to steadfastly refuse to compromise on the essentials of holiness and love.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.