How Can We Transform the Conversation?

During Thanksgiving dinner, some of my family asked me what happened during Thursday night’s talk entitled Gays and Christians: Transforming the Conversation?

The intent of the talk was a substantial yet respectful dialogue between two friends with different perspectives on homosexuality. Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian network, is a gay-identifying evangelical who believes that Scripture is not conclusive on the issue, and Christians with same-sex attraction can find companionship in monogamous relationship and marriage. Ron Belgau, a gay-identifying celibate, believes gay relationships are not harmonious with Scripture, and Christians with same-sex attraction should pursue the option of celibacy. Justin and Ron routinely tour colleges not as debaters, but presenters of how Christians committed to Scripture can respectfully agree and disagree over the contentious topic of sexual ethics.  Most evangelicals simply don’t know how to talk about this issue. Both Justin and Ron recognize the difficulty of discussing homosexuality within the church, but also how gay Christians and those struggling with same-sex attraction have often been met with ignorance, disgust, and insensitivity in their moments of need and vulnerability. Justin and Ron also recognize that many Christians often entirely refrain from engaging in the conversation for fear of being labeled as bigoted or hateful.

In their presentation, Justin and Ron shared very personal details of adolescence, and the anguish of realizing they were attracted to the same sex. After faithfully examining their identities as Christ-followers they arrived at different conclusions on what Scripture says in regard to same-sex relationships. However, Thursday night they focused primarily on how they agreed: namely the importance of civil dialogue. Obviously both sides sincerely believe contradictory claims and base those claims in Scripture, yet both engage in a respectful exchange of ideas for the sake of investing in the other person. Justin and Ron emphasized the importance of hearing one another’s life stories, respecting the conscience of the other, and seeking to understand before being understood. Often this experience is humbling— it involves defining our terms, learning which terms can come across as offensive, and addressing misperceptions. It is important to differentiate seemingly obvious terms like, “gay,” “attraction,” or “orientation.”

Fr. Mario Bergner is an ex-gay priest from a local parish who leads a ministry called Redeemed Lives. He declined the Friday convocation spot he was offered and pressured his way onto the Thursday panel with Justin and Ron, claiming he was discriminated against by the school. Instead of sharing his personal story of change, he attempted to reframe the conversation into a debate on the morality of gay sex—completely contradicting the purpose of the evening. He began by placing a vestment on his shoulders, stating he spoke with the authority of the Anglican church. He laid out a monolithic view of the human person that discounted the realities of gender and sexuality, essentially claiming that male, female, and sexual identities were temporary “post-fall” realities. He proceeded to explain the three great ills of the church today, namely the pill, abortion, and homosexuality. In graphic detail he described anal intercourse, presented questionable psychological data, and accounted for the numerous times ex-gay affiliate organizations were persecuted in Europe. His presentation was characterized by a sense of entitlement and narcissism, and it was the most uncomfortable thing I have sat through. He accused the college of all sorts of wrongs—which were all inaccurate. He was angry, and at points condemning.

During Q&A period, Ron expressed his remorse that these organizations were targeted by European governments, but related how he, a celibate gay Christian, was initially accepted and then denied a teaching position at a school over the phone by the academic dean. “Discrimination” works both ways. Justin also responded with grace and sympathy in the midst of an incredibly tense atmosphere. The room was filled with anticipation, at points you could’ve heard a pin drop.

After being asked what the church could do to better love LGBT Christians or those struggling with SSA, Fr. Bergner simply responded that the church helped him by “getting him out of homosexuality.” He then remarked that he and Justin “didn’t share the same Gospel.” Fr. Bergner essentially modeled the antithesis of respectful conversation.

We need to recognize that transforming the conversation is far from easy, but it is precisely hurtful instances such as these that prove the necessity of further reflection and dialogue. We need to extend abundant grace and sympathy where none is given, twice as much in this conversation. As hurtful and condemning as Fr. Bergner’s words were to the student body—we must refrain from generalities that paint him with too broad a brushstroke. I cannot stand seeing the terms “hate” and “bigot” thrown around haphazardly. As hurtful and aggressive as his presentation was, he was a part of the generation that saw his friends die of HIV/AIDS, therefore his methods should be questioned, but not his motivation. I won’t call his presentation graceful or loving because it wasn’t. But the use of such terms as “hate” or “bigot” causes more damage than good. It prevents people from giving others the benefit of the doubt and alienates people from full engagement with difficult issues. It is too easy to write someone off by labeling them a “hateful” human being. We need to pray for Fr. Bergner—and continued healing and reconciliation.

Refraining from offensive or inaccurate language can be the first step in transforming the conversation here at Gordon. Many proponents for LGBT rights are quick to throw around descriptors like “hate”—often with the effect of distancing or alienating those with a more traditional perspective on sexual ethics. It creates defense mechanisms that are difficult to overcome. Similarly, traditionalists often use the term “gay lifestyle,” which is terribly reductive, and imposes a single story on people’s experiences. The term often evokes associations with promiscuity, hook-up culture, and pornography. How can you assume all people romantically attracted to the same-sex live any kind of lifestyle?

In the same way, we need to recognize this is far more than a debate on sexual morality or Biblical exegesis. This is about your friends at this school. This is about my closest friends—the people I love. This is about the people you see everyday in Sunnyside Chester’s and Gillie’s, made in the image of God. You know people who are gay, or who are struggling with same-sex attraction, even if you don’t know it: every person on this campus knows someone. Why should they suffer in silence questioning simple, determined realities you take for granted? Simply the notion of companionship—of having a relationship with someone of the same sex and sharing life together; is an uncertainty for gay people attempting to reconcile their faith and sexuality.  This basic desire for relationship is viewed with relentless suspicion within evangelicalism. Given the church’s unhealthy elevation of sexual morality, we’ve come to equate such basic longings with less than savory terms such as the “gay lifestyle” or the “gay agenda.” We even equate individuals with political motivations: one might mention how gays are coopting the gospel, or re-defining the 2,000-year-old institution of marriage. The only “lifestyle” or “agenda” gay people have is to live their lives in peace. For Christians holding their faith and sexuality in tension, it means living into the fullness of who God intends you to be. I (like Justin) believe that is found in the recognition rather than in the denial of relationship.

As Ron mentioned on Friday, as your friends become more vulnerable about their struggles and experiences, treat them as human beings. They’re still the same person. We need to refrain from attaching political messages to the stories of people afraid to speak for so long. There’s no perfect thing to say after such an exchange, and it’s best friends that realize this.

Lastly, as students in a Christian institution we need to discern the core of our faith from the secondary issues. This was done quite nicely on the gender perspectives panel. The Gospel is not Jesus Christ died for my sins plus complementarianism (or egalitarianism). The Gospel is not Jesus Christ died for my sins plus voting Democratically (or Republican-lly). The Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and day-by-day, I as an individual am conformed from sin into newness of life. My life is not my own, but rests in the identity of Christ. Fr. Mario, Justin, and Ron would assent to this with their whole being.

The question for LGBT students at Gordon is does my identity in Christ preclude other identities (such as sexual identity)? I am first and foremost a human being made in the image of God found in Christ Jesus, but I am also male, I’m a student, I’m a son, and I’m American. It would be difficult to function without identities—we need them to label our intrinsic experiences. The tendency should not be to shirk away from identity labels in favor of a paradisal Eden where gender and sexuality don’t exist—where this world doesn’t matter and constitute aspects of who we are. Creation Regained does not mean a return to Eden, it means the immanent advent of the Kingdom of Heaven. The things we do in this world have kingdom significance.

There are some students on this campus who have always experienced exclusive attraction to the same-sex, and they can’t explain why. We need to value people more than talking points. Gay students deserve to have their voices heard through more venues than If I Told You, and Sexuality week gave them that chance. I commend President Lindsay, the administration, and the sexuality week committee for enabling discourse. We can’t take it for granted. My hope is that we can continue learning to have these difficult conversations, to love and respect one another, and genuinely hear and understand one another. I believe the Gospel is bigger than what we believe about homosexuality, and I also believe it’s one of ultimate reconciliation.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” — 2 Corinthians 5:18–20

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10 thoughts on “How Can We Transform the Conversation?

  1. I was not there but I do agree with Fr Bergner that Justin does NOT share the same gospel. It IS VERY clear in scripture that homosexuality IS sin.

  2. Ian Drummond says:

    This is a brilliantly written observation and commentary, Ian. Proud that you are at Gordon helping all of us converse a bit more intelligently about such things.

  3. Ruth-Melkonian-Hoover says:

    Thank you Ian for this thoughtful response and important contribution to the conversation. God be with us all.

  4. Fr. Robert Royer says:

    Ian, this is an excellent article and summation of striving to cultivate knowing the other as person and not merely as label (regardless of the label in vogue at the moment). If the Church does not engage people as persons she has nothing left to offer. Listening, and not waiting to talk, is the essence of that knowledge. As someone who speaks from within the tradidition of the Orthodox Chuch, I am saddened by the actions of fellow clergymen who try to reduce the complexity of the human person to an “issue.”

  5. brian says:

    Although, articulate…..the blogger clearly misses the point of the gospel’s. Jesus through his love died for us to take away our sins, he calls us all to love one another. He also issues a stern warning about sin. Hell is talked about more than any other subject in the bible. because it is a real place ! Christ knows that most people will harden their hearts through sin, and will not accept Christ ! Jesus said that the greatest man born of a woman was John the baptist….and his entire ministry was to preach about repentance, and making your ways holy and right before God ! the old testament gave us reasons for losing our way to heaven. and Jesus himself pointed them out again. This is not to be taken lightly because of “personal feelings” . each one of us is given a measure of spirit..(hope)…and each one of us is attacked with issues of temptation..(sin) it is our relationship with Christ that determines how we act on these temptations !! we either resist, as God calls us to do with his promise that the temptations will flee from us. or we give in and the temptations become a sin that leads to a lifstyle that leads to death eternally, as it separates us from God. this issues is a personal one…but it is still an issue of sin…please read the book of romans 1st chapter, as it clearly shows that in the last days.. what this particular way of life will lead too. God gave us all this instruction, because he loves us all

  6. Inga says:

    God bless you, Ian, for your courage and for your kindness. Do not be deterred by disdain and fear.

    I second Fr. Robert Royer’s comment.

    I would like to recommend to your attention an essay on the plight of gay Christians written by an Orthodox theologian. http://womenintheology.org/2013/11/19/fragile-repentances/

  7. I just want to add to my prior comment to your write up (BTW-very well written). We must ALWAYS come to any argument/discussion/conversation with a loving heart and not one of condemnation. After all, are we all not sinners? One thing that I didn’t agree with Fr. Bergner is that there was no gender or sexuality. Genesis 1:27b says,”male and female created He them.” and Genesis 1:28 says,”and He blessed them…be fruitful and multiply…”. I am surprised at the very least that this was said by Fr. Bergner.

    “He laid out a monolithic view of the human person that discounted the realities of gender and sexuality, essentially claiming that male, female, and sexual identities were temporary “post-fall” realities.”

    This just is not scriptural.

    As you have also written, (as I know it is not your argument that you are presenting here),

    “The tendency should not be to shirk away from identity labels in favor of a paradisal Eden where gender and sexuality don’t exist—where this world doesn’t matter and constitute aspects of who we are.”

    I feel this should be addressed. Where “gender and sexuality don’t exist” is a basis for gender issues discussions is immediately off on the wrong foot.

    Homosexuality is sin. So isn’t stealing or how about coveting? We all do some and many forms of sin. The issue should really be, Are you right with God? Not,you have a special sin of homosexuality that makes me not want to be near you or converse with you. We are all sinners. Love the sinner…hate the sin. Notice LOVE the sinner comes first.

    Thank you, Ian, for all your insights and thoughtful “thinking”. It is always good to discuss a discussion, in my opinion.

  8. […] with the event itself or the events leading up to it, please take a moment to read the post, “How Can We Transform the Conversation?“ by Ian Isaac, a student who was in attendance that […]

  9. katie knudsen says:

    Thank you, Ian. I just read this, however belatedly. It was beautifully written and made excellent points. As a “minor” theologian myself, I would respectfully disagree with the above comments that “homosexuality is sin.” I honestly cannot find that anywhere in the Bible. The sin of Sodom was a lack of hospitality and violence toward the “other.” Leviticus also condemns eating shellfish. We’re not quite sure who “homosexual offenders” are, and Romans 1 is illustrating a form of idol-worship. We can argue, respectfully, whether homosexual behavior is sin (certainly not a priority Jesus had), but PLEASE let us not argue that a massive part of a human’s identity, one that is not chosen and is (from what I’ve seen) impossible to change, is sin, when the Bible does not claim it is so.

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