"That Religion, or the Duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and convictions, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other."
--Article XVI, Virginia Declaration of Rights, 12 June 1776
(written by author of US Constitution, George Mason)
On May 10th, former Missouri football player Michael Sam became the first openly gay player ever drafted in the National Football League. The selection set off a firestorm of reaction across social media, mostly in support for Mr. Sam. A few, however, voiced displeasure. One of the highest profile was Washington lobbyist Jack Burkman, who said he was going to lead a boycott against the St Louis Rams for drafting Mr. Sam, claiming that by signing the gay player, the Rams were "trampling on Christian values." Is Mr. Burkman right? Have the St. Louis Rams and Mr. Sam "trampled" Christian values? In a nation where 77% of the 315 million residents self-identify as Christians, the question deserves examination.
I was born in 1963 to a football coach and a stay-at-home mom in small-town Texas. My conservative parents were members of a local church and took my family there every time the doors were open. As a six year old, I became a Christian. The next four decades saw me graduate high school and college, become an officer in the US Army, get married and enjoy the thrills of becoming a daddy, experience the searing pain of divorce, and engage in combat during four wartime deployments. My Christian faith has been subjected to the pressures of many fiery trials.
What I've discovered is that some of the tenets of the faith I learned as a little boy were proven absolutely correct and have served me well through many stormy seasons. But owing to some of these storms my understanding in other areas was exposed as having been amiss. Beginning in my late 20s, I purposed no longer to base my spiritual identity solely on what others said, but on a careful examination of the Bible. After more than two decades of studying Scripture and observing how the concepts have played out in the trials of a real life, I have come to a few conclusions.
On the most fundamental level I have observed that the Bible is right and true. But I have also regrettably observed that a considerable number of believers in this country have squandered the chance to demonstrate that life-enhancing truth from within the crucible of life. Fortunately, I believe a recalibration with the truth will make it possible for Christians to regain lost opportunity. One of the key areas where we've gone off the tracks over the past several decades has been in how we have interacted with our society on the subject of gay lifestyles.
Though it is mentioned in numerous places in both the Old and New Testament, one of the most oft-cited passages is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which states "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." Many believers cite this passage to stridently oppose gays. Regrettably, the way this opposition manifests itself often exposes an insufficient knowledge of Scripture and, if I may be allowed, reveals a problem of the heart among some of us who call ourselves Christians.
Viewing the passage in context, it is clear Paul is not suggesting that Christians set about to oppose gay people. To the contrary, he expressly noted a few verses earlier (Chapter 5, v.9-13) he "did not at all mean" the believers were to avoid association with people outside the church who engaged in immoral behavior "for then you would have to go out of the world." Paul explicitly wrote that it wasn't his job to accuse or judge people outside the church of anything. "For what have I to do with judging outsiders?" he said. Paul's purpose for including the list of what the Bible defines as sinful behavior was to take the Christians to task for not living to Jesus' standard within the church.
How, then, should believers behave towards those outside the faith whom they meet, especially when those people are characterized by one or more of the behaviors listed in chapter 6, verse 9? Though Jesus never directly addressed the subject of homosexuality, He did provide two direct examples of how He responded to those guilty of two of the sexual sins listed in 6:9.
The first is the well known story of the "woman at the well (John 4:9-24)." Jesus shared with a Samarian woman how she could have eternal life. At a certain point in the narrative, Jesus reveals to her that he is fully aware she is a multi-divorcee and was presently living with a man outside of marriage. Yet he did not condemn her for this obvious violation of Jewish law, instead reiterating His offer of eternal life. But perhaps the most pertinent to our discussion was the John 8 account (chapter 8:3-11) of the Messiah's encounter with an adulterous woman.
The religious leaders of the day were trying to put Jesus in a no-win situation by presenting Him with a woman who had been caught "in the very act" of adultery, in order to put Jesus to shame: they reasoned that if He agreed with Moses (Leviticus specifies death for adultery), He'd look bad in the eyes of the people for passively watching as this poor woman was stoned to death; let her go without punishment, and He would be guilty of putting aside the law - heresy among the Jews of that day. After marveling at the coldness of these religious leaders' hearts, He spoke some of His most well-known words: "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." After all the accusers dropped their stones and walked away, He told the woman "I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more." In that moment, He demonstrated the mercy and love He had for the woman, offering her acceptance and love, yet without compromising His own standards.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul emphasized the centrality of embodying the heart and spirit of Jesus in empowering believers to engage the world as did their Savoir. "I pray that out of his glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being," Paul explained, "And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."
Jesus commanded - not 'suggested' - that His followers "love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another." Instead of following our Leader's example and demonstrating sacrificial love for others, however, a number of Christians in contemporary America seem to be characterized more as judgmental than compassionate.
The Bible does identify homosexual activity as wrong. But the 1 Corinthians passage also identifies other wrongs: the sexually immoral, adulterers, thieves, the greedy and drunkards, among others.
There's no soft way to say this, so I'll just be blunt:
With what justification can we Christians cite the Bible as the standard for opposing gay lifestyles, yet not give equal emphasis to standing against heterosexuals who engage in sex outside of marriage, those who commit adultery, those who steal (or cheat on taxes), are greedy or get drunk? If we are to be consistent, we have to recognize all categories of the sins of that 1 Corinthians 6 are equal in the eyes of God. Yet we don't. Instead, we pick those sins that seem to affect other people, while wholly ignoring our own. How many "normal" heterosexual Christians have remained sexually pure their whole lives? Evidence suggests a very small minority (full disclosure: I must confess I am not one of the pure).
Upon what logical basis, then, can a person be guilty on some of the sins of 1 Corinthians 9, be unrepentant of same, and yet with vigor and righteousness condemn others who may be guilty of sins from the same list?
In the book of Matthew, Jesus speaks to this issue of myopic believers when He warns to be careful of judging others, lest we be judged by our own standard of measure. "Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye," He continued, "but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? ...You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye."
So we circle back around to the issue raised by Mr. Burkman of whether the St. Louis Rams have "trampled" Christian values by drafting a gay player. If a Christian supporter were to logically endorse this effort, there would need to be concurrent boycotts planned against any team that drafted heterosexual players that had sex outside of marriage, routinely got drunk, were greedy or slandered others. One might imagine the NFL would have trouble fielding a single team if those who engaged in the sins listed in 1 Corinthians 6 were prohibited from the league - and I would imagine that were the same standard applied to those supporting the boycott, none would qualify to conduct it.
Instead of leading a coalition of Christian leaders to boycott an NFL team owing to the presence of a single gay man, how much better would it be to see instead devoted followers of Jesus building a coalition who would commit themselves to loving others as Jesus loved, and themselves living pure and moral lives? Imagine the impact that could have on our society.
Such an effort would encourage men and women who follow Jesus to live the hard, disciplined life required by the Bible of Christ-followers. Such people would genuinely care about others; would love them sacrificially; be no respecters of status, class, race, gender, nor any other category; and put the needs of others above their own. In short, they would prove a fair representation of the genuine Jesus in a world desperate for His authenticity.
Let each believer, then, examine his or her own hearts. Let us live to the example of Christ; givers of true love. Let us henceforth be known more for our love of and service to others, rather than for judgment and condemnation of those who may be different from us. As was seen in this country as a product of the First and Second Great Awakenings, when believers live out their faith as it was modeled by Jesus, societies have been positively transformed. Let us, then, as professed followers of Jesus Christ, live what we say we believe to the glory of God and the benefit of our fellow citizens.