Jason Brown was my co-founder and co-pastor at City Church of Long Beach for 3 1/2 years and is a dear friend. He now lives in Iowa and works in the financial services sector.
I was a senior in college when I first wondered what the Bible and Christian faith had to say about homosexuality. It was 1993 and I was one of the leaders of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Central College. One of our worship leaders, a freshman I didn’t know, came out of the closet. We were wondering what, if anything, we needed to do.
Honestly, I hadn’t given the subject of homosexuality much thought. Mostly this was because I didn’t have to. The broader cultural debate was just beginning. I didn’t have any gay friends . . . at least none that had ever opened up to me. There was no presenting issue that forced me to consider this subject theologically or biblically. Until now.
As I entered the conversation about homosexuality, I quickly discovered that a lot of people had thought a lot more about this than I had. And the people who had thought about it had strong opinions. I was admittedly naïve and new to the conversation, but it seemed like there were two groups of people in my relational sphere who actually cared about the issue.
Group 1 said, “Jesus is Lord and the Bible is God’s word.” This group made a Biblical case for why homosexual practice is sinful. Most – no, make that all – of my evangelical Christian friends were in this group.
Group 2 didn’t think Jesus was Lord and didn’t view the Bible as authoritative. This group didn’t see anything wrong with homosexual orientation and relationships.
I had lots of conversations with people in both groups. Both were passionate, surprisingly so, about the issue. Each wanted to convince me they were right. Both groups had decent points to make. I found out the stakes were high. For folks in Group 1, the discussion was actually about the authority of Jesus and the Bible. For folks in Group 2 it was about liberty and justice for all.
Honestly, I didn’t meet anyone in Group 1 who thought homosexual relationships were a legitimate expression of human sexuality. Similarly, I didn’t meet anyone in Group 2 who thought that marriage should be restricted to a man and woman.
One group, though, identified with Jesus and the Bible. And this fact, despite some of the reasonable arguments on the other side, made the decision easy. I was definitely with Group 1. They were the Group who wanted to follow Jesus and took the Bible seriously. And, by corollary, I accepted Group 1’s approach to the issue. It seemed the only option.
Fast forward ten years. It’s 2003 and I’m an Area Director for InterVarsity. Another leader of the InterVarsity chapter came out the closet. In addition to being a leader in InterVarsity, he was the student body president – and someone I had developed a friendship with. I helped the students and staff of InterVarsity figure out what, if anything, we needed to do about this.
We decided we needed to ask him to vacate his leadership position – not because he declared he was gay, but because he declared his sexual identity a gift from God, was openly seeking a same-sex relationship, and was proactively working to change InterVarsity’s position on the issue. He didn’t vacate his leadership position, so we told him that while we would welcome his involvement in InterVarsity, he was no longer allowed to lead.
For several reasons this incident was a bigger, more complicated deal than the one a decade earlier. That particular InterVarsity chapter was one of the largest in the country at the time (over 500 students). Homosexuality had moved from the margins of society to something that was considered normal on college campuses – more normal than being Christian. The person in question was a friend who, it seemed to me, had charted this course deliberately to try to create a very public debate. Plus, the conversation between “conservatives” and “liberals” on this issue had grown increasingly heated. Our decision received national attention. People on both sides of the issue hated and loved us and let us know it.
In the ten years between the first and second incident, I had done a good deal of reading, thinking and talking about the subject of homosexuality. I was much more familiar with the relevant Biblical texts, and there was a growing appreciation for the fact that the church had spoken with near unanimity on this issue for 2,000 years.
I had also read about some of the social science and had come to the conclusion that sexual orientation wasn’t a choice – something I did think in 1993 – but something we were more or less born with. And here’s another thing. I had several conversations with college students who were wrestling, often through tears, with their gender identity. This wasn’t my experience as a college student, but was definitely my experience in working with college students.
And one other thing. On several occasions, I saw someone in Group 1 move to Group 2 as his/her view on homosexuality changed. Moving towards greater acceptance of homosexual practice coincided with moving away from belief in Jesus as God and the Bible as authoritative. If I had a conversation with a Group 1 person who said, “I’m rethinking homosexuality,” I could expect that by the end of the conversation he/she would have also said, “I’m beginning to wonder about Jesus.” This was my experience, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
So, even though there had been a great deal of cultural ferment in the decade since my first encounter with this issue, the Group 1/ Group 2 paradigm seemed largely intact. There were those who denied the Lordship of Jesus, viewed the Bible as interesting but not particularly trustworthy, and had completely accepted homosexual orientation and practice as normal. Then there were those who maintained an “orthodox” view of Jesus and the Bible and believed homosexual practice was sinful.
I was still firmly in Group 1 because I obviously wasn’t in Group 2. And, as hard as it is to believe, I didn’t know anyone, directly or indirectly, in Group 1 who had the same view of homosexuality as those in Group 2. (I now know these people existed, but I didn’t come across them in conversation or in the books I was reading at the time.)
Well, it’s 2017 and the 1993/2003 Group 1/Group 2 paradigm has evolved. It’s not that Group 2 has changed. I suppose they’ve changed numerically. There’s lots more Group 2 folks. But, the doctrine (can I call it that?) of Group 2 has remained mostly the same: they don’t think Jesus is Lord and don’t view the Bible as authoritative and don’t see anything wrong with homosexual orientation and relationships.
However, Group 1 has changed.
Now, there are people in Group 1 who believe Jesus is Lord, the Bible is authoritative, AND the practice of monogamous, life-long homosexual relationships is to be accepted if not celebrated. Group 1 folks – those who follow Jesus and the Bible – believe different things about homosexuality. Group 1 people aren’t moving to Group 2 as their view on homosexuality changes. I’m sure I’m mixing metaphors, but this is a sea change and it has been a tough pill for me to swallow.
Admittedly, I’ve questioned the faithfulness of the people in Group 1 who believe something different from me on the issue of homosexuality. But these people sit across the table from me (sometimes literally) and assure me they love Jesus and the Bible. They’ve even told me they’re seeing things differently because of their fidelity to Jesus and the Bible. I had none of these conversations in 1993 or 2003, but they are a regular occurrence these days.
When I first started having these “across-the-table” conversations – somewhere in the neighborhood of three years ago – I thought, “You’re crazy.”
There’s a problem, though. I know them. They have faces. I know they aren’t crazy. I know they love Jesus. I know they’re reading their Bible (sometimes more than me). And they are as passionate in wanting to remain in Group 1 as I am. Both of us are absolutely certain we’re not in Group 2.
I’ve been wondering what it would mean to let these folks, my friends who share the same core beliefs but think differently about homosexuality, be in Group 1. I know the wondering is in some ways silly. It assumes I can deny them entrance, which is above my pay grade. So, maybe a better way of putting it is that I feel like I have no choice in the matter. We’re both in Group 1. We’re both on the same team, so to speak.
Which makes me anxious.
I’ve got no problem sitting across the table from someone who shares that he doesn’t think Jesus is God or that the Bible is no longer authoritative (I realize there’s a big range of opinions on exactly what the authority of the Bible means with Group 1 folks) and saying, “God bless you. I’m glad you’re my friend. I hope we keep eating together. But we’re not on the same team.” I actually think it’s healthy to acknowledge we’re in different groups.
For whatever reason, I’m nervous about doing this with someone who agrees on the core stuff – Apostle’s Creed type stuff – but differs with me on another issue, even a really important issue. I’m definitely not a church historian (or theologian, as you can tell), but it seems like we’ve done this for 600 years. Our view or their view on something changes, so I create a new group or they create a new group. And the process of creating these new groups is rarely pleasant. Is it a violation of Jesus’ prayer that we be one – so that the world might know Jesus? Maybe.
Staying together is incredibly messy and painful. It will require an excruciating level of trust. I have no idea what it looks like to operate as a church or denomination that allows the different views on homosexuality a voice. It’s a possibility I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. My practical side says, “Let’s just get into different groups.” But, I’m not sure this is the right thing to do.