I normally avoid documentaries that use questionable methods of Bible interpretation to promote the gay lifestyle as both natural and normative. For the Bible Tells Me So (2007), however, was not so easy to dismiss. Directed and co-written by Daniel Karslake, this manipulative yet compelling, slanted yet challenging documentary presents us not only with the expected attempts to reshape the Bible on a modern/postmodern lathe, but with the powerful, heart-breaking stories of five Christian, church-going families who are forced to deal with the reality of having an “out-of-the-closet” son or daughter.
Two of those stories featured families—that of openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and that of former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt—with celebrity status. But the one that carried the most resonance for me concerned an unknown middle-class family from the conservative Midwest. When the Reitans learn that their son Jake is gay, they at first refuse to accept his homosexuality and try to find ways to draw him out of the gay lifestyle. In the end, however, they not only accept and affirm Jake’s gay identity but join with him to petition the church to change its teaching on homosexuality and to accept gay unions as the equivalent of heterosexual marriage. Their activism on behalf of their son even leads them to spearhead a campaign against the teachings and ministry of James Dobson and Focus on the Family. (This time around, the enemy is not the Roman Catholic Church but the Protestant Religious Right.)
The documentary troubled me for many weeks, but I was able eventually to distance myself from it. That is, until I came face to face with a man (I will call him John) who had made some of the same difficult choices as the father of Jake Reitan. I met John at a religious retreat, and, after several hours of discussing the Christian faith and the often artificial barriers that we erect between denominations, he opened up and shared with me that his son was gay and living in a homosexual relationship. At first, John resisted his son’s lifestyle, but he eventually came to accept it and to defend it as a natural and acceptable choice. Though not an activist or a theological liberal, John slowly came to adopt a revisionist reading of scripture that would allow him to “un-sin” the homosexual practices of his son; he also came to believe that the church must embrace the choices of gays and lesbians, or it will lose not only the gay member but the family of that member as well.
In my discussion with John, I tried to make clear the distinction between the homosexual orientation (which is not, in itself, a sin) and the homosexual lifestyle (which is). I explained the full import of Paul’s teachings in Romans 1 and the helpful Catholic terminology that describes homosexuality, along with all sexual sin, as disordered desire. And I explained, as well, that though a thing might be “natural” (like a man’s hormonally induced desire to commit adultery or a deep-set, inbred propensity toward road rage), its naturalness does not therefore justify the act of adultery or murder.
I realize now that my arguments and explanations never really pierced to the root of the problem. Even if the Bible were not so clear in its defining of homosexuality (the behavior, not the orientation) as sin, the fact remains that all people whose consciences have not been seared know in their heart and their gut that it is morally wrong for two men or two women to have sexual relations. Yes, a very large number of people today suppress this knowledge, but then we all suppress our knowledge of sin when we want to do something or approve of something that we know is wrong.
No, the problem faced by John, by the Reitans, and by all Christian parents who learn that their son or daughter is gay is a much more practical one: What are we going to do? Shall we reject and disown our child? If we can’t do that, then what else can we do but accept their behavior? And if we accept their behavior, then must we not fight to make all of society—including, and especially, our church family—accept it as well? What other option is there?
The more I reflect on these difficult and painful questions—and let me make clear that John was a man of strong faith who loved his family, his church, and his God and who had struggled for many years with these questions—the more I come back to one simple answer. We must learn to follow Christ’s admonition to love the sinner but hate the sin. For too long the church has allowed its righteous hatred of the sin of homosexuality to morph into a hatred (and fear) of the homosexual himself. We have held strong to God’s moral standards, but in doing so we have lost our compassion for those held in the grip of a disordered desire. Those who struggle with a gay or lesbian orientation have feared that if they shared their struggles, they would be cast out of the church and treated as pariahs. And, in many cases, their fears have been justified.
Alas, over the last several decades, the church, in trying to make up for her lack of compassion and Christ-like love, has overcompensated. Today, many families and churches have allowed their commendable love for the sinner to morph into an acceptance and even a love for the sin itself. Those in the former group lack a full understanding of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness, seen so powerfully in his insistence on eating in the homes of prostitutes and tax collectors. Those in the latter group lack a full understanding of the true nature of sin. When we engage in sin we are not just breaking a societal code or offending refined sensibilities; we are living and acting in rebellion against our Creator and his desire for our lives. And when we do that, we inevitably hurt ourselves and pervert our nature.
Some argue that it is impossible to love the sinner while hating the sin, but C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, has disabused us of that argument. We all know how to love the sinner and hate the sin, for we do it every day—to ourselves. I hate the sinful things that I do, yet I continue to love myself. Indeed, the reason I hate my sinful behaviors is because I know that they are preventing me from being the person I should be, that noble person that I am in those fleeting moments when I conform to the image for which God intended me.
A Christian father can (and should) love and accept his gay son while simultaneously expressing his disapproval of his son’s sexual choices—but he can only do so if he understands 1) that his son is not “gay” in the same sense that he is male; 2) that his orientation does not define him as an individual; and 3) that his participation in the gay lifestyle is drawing him away from rather than towards his true identity and purpose. The Christian father must reach out, be patient, listen, and love, but he must not make the mistake of loving his son’s gayness as a thing in itself.
The wife who seeks to reconcile herself with her adulterous husband will not do so by accepting and embracing him as an adulterer. Rather she must accept and embrace him as a man of value and worth who has been turned from his proper course by the disordered desire of adultery. Alcoholics Anonymous has enriched the world with its 12-step programs, but I wish that instead of teaching their members to say, “I am Bob and I am an alcoholic,” they taught them to say, “I am Bob, and I am a man who has fallen prey to alcoholism.” The great missionary doctor Paul Brand helped teach us to refer to people with leprosy as leprosy patients rather than as lepers (no one refers to cancer patients as “cancers”).
Just so we would be better able to combine hatred for sin with love for the sinner if we thought of homosexuals not as gays and lesbians but as men and women made in the image of God who are struggling with a gay or lesbian orientation. We live in a fallen world, and the fact of that matter is that we are all afflicted by some form of physical, mental, or spiritual brokenness. We do ourselves and our loved ones no favors if we define ourselves or allow others to define us by that brokenness.
Christ extended unconditional love to the woman caught in adultery, but he also instructed her to leave her life of sin. By so doing, Christ did not condemn her, but offered her the possibility of freedom from her life of sin. Christ’s mission was to rescue the lost, not affirm them in their sin or label them by their sinful choices. Again, we hate the sins of those we love not because we are prudes and hypocrites but because in our love we would see them set free from all that would turn them aside from growing into the man or woman God created them to be.
The good father rejoices when his prodigal son returns, not because the son has chosen a sinful lifestyle but because he has left that lifestyle and come home. Had his son never made the choice to return, the father would have continued to love him and accept him as his son. Indeed, the father was the one who allowed him to leave in the first place and even provided him with funds. He grieved that the son made poor use of those funds, and he certainly did not affirm his poor choices, but he continued to love him nonetheless.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis reminds us that the reason Christ instructs us not to judge is because we do not know what choices we would have made had we been faced with the same psychological makeup and the same temptations as the sinner we are tempted to judge. The admonition not to judge does not imply that sin does not exist or that all actions are right actions, but that we can never know from the inside what struggles another person is really facing. There but for the grace of God go I.
Even so, the father must not stand in self-righteous judgment over his gay son, for he does not know how he would have fared had he been burdened with the same disordered desires as his son. Nevertheless, he must not allow Christ’s commandment not to judge (Matthew 7:1-5) to take the place of his high call to moral purity (Matthew 5:17-47). We do our gay sons and daughters no favor if we cut them adrift in a world of moral relativism where black is white and white is black. Let us instead make clear the binding nature of the moral law while reaching out our hands in compassion and gentleness, seeking to understand the struggles they are facing, and weeping over their poor choices even as Jesus wept over his beloved city of Jerusalem.
Louis Markos, professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His most recent book is On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis.
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