As a former seminary student, I was drawn to an article in yesterday’s New York Times under the above title which reported, “Battles for acceptance by gay and lesbian students have erupted in the places that expect it the least: the scores of Bible colleges and evangelical Christian universities that, in their founding beliefs, see homosexuality as a sin.”
The article goes on to say, “Decades after the gay rights movement swept the country’s secular schools, more gays and lesbians at Christian colleges are starting to come out of the closet … rejecting suggestions to seek help in suppressing homosexual desires.”
This should come as no surprise, however. The seeds for this scenario have been germinating for years and painted in painful Technicolor in many places including the book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters. In this 2004 best-seller, Barna group president David Kinnaman writes that the faith has an image problem with research indicating Christians are now best known for what they are against rather than what they are for. He reports that, “the gay issue has become the ‘big one,’ the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation”. Kinnaman explains, “Out of twenty attributes that we assessed, both positive and negative, as they related to Christianity, the perception of being ‘anti-homosexual’ was at the top of the list”. Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young church goers say this phrase describes Christianity. He tells readers, “If you are interested in communicating and expressing Christ to new generations, you must understand the intensity with which they hold these views.”
Perhaps even more sobering, Kinnaman affirms that, “Christianity’s image problem is not merely the perceptions of young outsiders. Those inside the church see it as well.” Kinnaman warns, “Both inside and outside the church, they are telling us to wake up to this issue!”
Because of our opposition to homosexuality, outsiders cannot picture the church as the loving community of believers Jesus envisioned. Many people in the gay community don’t seem to have issues with Jesus but rather with those claiming to represent him. “When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor or business associate,” Kinnaman points out, “you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: anti-homosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in those terms, but that’s what outsiders think.”
The ramifications of this are enormous. We know Christians have changed their minds about what the Bible teaches on many issues over the centuries. Though most believers throughout Church history who have used the Bible to condemn other Christians may have been acting in good faith, history has revealed to us that what were many were actually defending was their presumption of what the Bible teaches, not the truth of Scripture. If the controversy over homosexuality follows the pattern of previous issues the church believed that the Bible was so clear on — such as, slavery is God-ordained, women and blacks should not be allowed to vote, interracial marriage is wrong, women should neither preach nor teach, the list is endless — then eventually mainstream opinion within the church will fall into line on this issue too.
The good news is, in many ways, this now presents us with great opportunity. When opportunity knocks, it’s been said, the wise will build bridges while the fearful will build dams. Kinnaman explains that his purpose in writing unChristian, is “to pry open the hearts and minds of Christians to prepare us to deal with a future where people will be increasingly hostile and skeptical toward us.”
A new generation is waiting for us to respond, as brought home in this article. Howard Hendricks, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, was fond of saying to his students, “They should charge admission to this place so that visitors can see how people used to live 50 years ago!” I pray for a day when the church will be the engine rather than the caboose when it comes to changing society.
I myself spent three and a half years as an “out” gay man at an evangelical seminary, which though clearly is not yet up to speed on the issue of homosexuality, was a place where differences of opinion could often coexist and foster humble and amicable discussion. As a result, I had many rich opportunities to share with my fellow students in seminary stories from my own pilgrimage: about coming out at a young age; living openly until my sexuality was put on hold after coming to faith and being taught that being gay and Christian was a contradiction in terms; about being a former leader of a New York City-based so-called ex-gay ministry during which time I was profiled and gave my testimony as an ex-gay on The 700 Club; and about how the ultimate ensuing integration of my Christian faith and Jewish roots with my sexuality — a result of study and reflection on the biblical texts, many conversations with people on both sides of the issue and an increased awareness of the critical importance of context when interpreting the Bible — served, not to steer me away from, but rather to deepen my passion for God and appreciation for the responsible study of Scripture.
While at seminary one friend told me, “Alex, you have no idea how many young gay men and women you are ministering to as you challenge the perceptions and attitudes of their future pastors as you are interacting with them in your classes. If you never work in a congregation as a pastor, you will still have had a huge impact on the lives of men and women you may never meet!” I pray that this will be true for many of the young students highlighted in yesterday’s article.