I Really Do Appreciate Christians Who Go to Bat for LGBT Rights

But com’on, is Jesus their best reason for stepping up to the plate?

A young man named Matthew Vines has taken on a big challenge: trying to convince Evangelical Christians that their virulent opposition to homosexuality is wrong. Those very righteous people don’t seem to grasp that their anti-gay rhetoric is mean-spirited, destructive, evil. They may claim that they don’t hate gay people…no, they love them, and want to get them to turn away from sin. But they remain mired in aggressive and arrogant ignorance about gay people. They bring shame to theology.

Matthew Vines is the gay Christian who founded The Reformation Project, “a Bible-based, Gospel-centered Approach to LGBT inclusion.” He goes right into the lion’s den, presenting programs to as many evangelical groups as will have him, and he wrote the book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.

So I give a hearty Bravo! to Matthew Vines, and I wish him well. Now, full disclosure here: I am gay and have had to deal with the hard-heartedness of the church—though not on as grievous a level as many others. I have had the support of my family—after a few rough patches—and I have been with my husband for 39 years…well, we weren’t actually able to marry legally until we had been together for 30 years.

While I very much welcome Christian support for gay rights, Christian theology can bug the hell out of me, even when it means well—especially when dubious reasons are given for supporting good causes. I breathed a heavy sigh recently when I read a piece by a Christian pastor who offers earnest and eloquent support for LGBT rights. John Pavlovitz wrote an article titled: “The Church Beloved: A Manifesto of LGBTQ-Affirming Christians.” It is really a beautiful article—and “manifesto” is an appropriate word because he doesn’t just advocate gay rights, he challenges evangelicals to clean up their act; it truly is an in-your-face statement:

• “we will try to respond not in kind, but in kindness.”
• “but we also will continue to speak without censoring or softening, because that is how injustice is allowed to fester and reproduce.”

Now, of course I’m not at all surprised that Pavlovitz calls in Jesus to make his case. And naturally he can get away with this because—well, Jesus is all about love, right? Here are a couple of his Jesus-statements:

• "We believe Jesus calls us to love one another, not to tolerate one another; not to warmly embrace some and to hold others at a distance."
"Love is indeed winning and we are the loud and shimmering proof. If this is bad news to you, we’re going to refer you to Jesus and let the two of you work it out."

It is understandable that Jesus is considered the supreme good guy. If you’re brought up in the church, you find out that Jesus is God’s son—and what could beat that credential? At an early age you also learn the song, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (at least in the Protestant tradition). Christian art adds to the mystique, depicting Jesus welcoming little children and offering his healing touch to the multitudes. The folks in the pews see Jesus in the stained glass windows and hear the best snippets of the gospels read from the pulpit.

If these folks, however, venture to read the gospels, they soon run into some alarming texts. But they can rely on the staff of paid propagandists—their priests and pastors—to soften and spin the troubling verses: ”Oh, Jesus didn’t mean that…” As if they would know. I sometimes do wonder how Christianity has survived with so many of the negatives about Jesus in full view in the gospels.

But part of the Christian game is to create what Bart Ehrman has called the “Jesus of the imagination”—Jesus as you want him to be. In David Chumney’s book, Jesus Eclipsed (reviewed in my post last week), he mentions Bible scholar Helen K. Bond’s reference to “a useable Jesus.” “What she means by that,” Chumney says, “is a historical Jesus whose message would address more directly the social concerns of interest to progressive American churches.”

Pavlovitz has come up with a “useable” Jesus.

But there’s also the “non-usable” despicable Jesus. I’ll offer just five examples here of the negatives about Jesus (out of many).

• Mark 4:10-12; Jesus explains that he teaches in parables to prevent people from repenting (paraphrasing a text from Isaiah) ….No, I’m not kidding.

“When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret[ of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” But the parables are so obviously meant to help people understand. Where did Mark get this idea? …but that’s another long story…

• Matthew 25:44-46; Jesus says that people who fail to show compassion will be punished forever:

“Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment…”

• Matthew 24:37-39; Jesus predicts that, at the coming of the Son of Man, human suffering will be massive, comparable to the genocide at the time of Noah. Jesus did not have a happy ending in mind for humanity; so much for having a having a friend in Jesus:

“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

• Mark 3:28-30; Jesus lets it be known that blaspheming the Holy Spirit is a really bad thing—in fact, there’s no appeal, no reprieve.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”

• Luke 14:25-26; Jesus casts himself here in the role of cult fanatic. This is pretty brutal. You gotta hate your family?

“Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

This text is perhaps the ultimate challenge for the Christian spinmeisters. Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message Bible) gets rid of the word hate: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple.”

In a recent Debunking Christianity post, Robert Connor spoke the truth: “The overwhelming majority of Christians don’t know bupkis about what’s in the New Testament.” They sure don’t seem to know about Luke 14:26, and I don’t think that it would go over well with them—even Eugene Peterson’s dishonest translation, i.e., you’ve got to “let go” of your family, is a shocker. By the way, in Hector Avalos’ book, The Bad Jesus, there is a 39-page chapter explaining why the word hate here cannot be watered down. Too bad, Christians are stuck with it.

It’s very tempting to say, “But…but..but Jesus couldn’t/wouldn’t have said any of those things.” Well, sure, if you’ve bought the church’s stained-glass version of Jesus. If it’s any comfort, however, we have no way of knowing what Jesus said about anything. We have Jesus as seen through the gospel filters. It should be very troubling—shouldn’t it? —that the gospel writers were totally okay putting these brutal, unmerciful words on the lips of their Jesus character.

NOW WATCH: the usual gang of Christian apologists who haunt these pages will rush forward to explain/complain that I have “taken Jesus out of context.” Yawn.

The claim that “Jesus calls us to love one another” doesn’t ring quite so true in light of these texts; indeed, the portrait of Jesus in the gospels is very much a mixed bag. Doesn’t Pavlovitz know this? Is he just unaware of the grievous failure of NT scholars to achieve consensus about what Jesus really did and said? His version of Jesus is a fantasy. Again, Helen Bond: “There’s nothing wrong with wanting a useable Jesus, but he shouldn’t be confused with the Jesus of history.”

Understandably, of course, the evangelicals have also created their own useable Jesus—one who would denounce Pavlovitz’s wishy-washy “progressive” manifesto.

There are other standards by which to justify pursuit of human rights and equal treatment under the law. Non-Christian religious ethicists—and of course secular ethicists as well—have solid reasons for affirming LGBT rights. It’s my guess that most NT scholars would consider it a stretch to bring Jesus into this conversation at all.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.