Campus Conversations about Sexuality and the Church
Martha Greene Eads

As the percentage of US jurisdictions that legally recognize same-sex relationships passes the halfway mark, many Christian congregations and ministries are launching or renewing conversations about whether and how to include partnered gays and lesbians (Capeheart, 2014). Administrators at church-related colleges and universities attend closely to such conversations. Among the signers of the June 25, 2014, letter appealing to President Obama for religious exemptions to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) were the president emeritus and interim president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and key administrators at many church-related institutions, including Bethel, Biola, Calvin, Dordt, Eastern, Geneva, Gordon, Houghton, John Brown, Northwest Nazarene, Nyack, and Tabor. According to The Advocate, the letter’s signers want their organizations to be able to “ignore the LGBT nondiscrimination order” and seek assurance that “it [would be] impossible for those LGBT people employed by religious organizations who believe they have experienced discrimination in the workplace on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity to file a formal complaint or seek damages” (Brydum, 2014). Within days of the letter’s being made public, at least one college president who signed it issued a statement responding to criticism from members of his campus community. “My sole intention in signing the letter,” wrote D. Michael Lindsay of Gordon in a July 2014 news release, “was to affirm the College’s support of the underlying issue of religious liberty, including the right of faith-based institutions to set and adhere to standards which derive from our shared framework of faith, and which we have all chosen to embrace as members of the Gordon community.” Lindsay’s decisions to sign and then to explain signaled that people on his campus hold varying opinions in the debate about LGBT inclusion.

A range of opinion on the issue certainly exists at Eastern Mennonite University, where I teach English. Just four days before the group letter went to President Obama, EMU’s board of trustees issued its own statement emerging from a semester-long listening process regarding university employment practices. In response, at least in part, to student demands for a hiring policy change, the trustees had charged the president’s cabinet in November 2013 with initiating a six-month period of discussion about whether to hire gay and lesbian job applicants in covenanted same-sex relationships, defined in a public statement on the university’s web site as “monogamous relationships pledged for life and recognized by civil and/or religious authorities” (www.emu.edu/listen). The statement also acknowledged that “[t]he Mennonite Church USA, and virtually all denominations, has [sic] been struggling with these questions for many years. We are sharply divided in our opinions. While we are entering a more formal process to gather feedback from EMU stakeholders, the fact is that we have been listening for many years. We acknowledge that we will not come to consensus internally or externally at the end of a six month listening process… The president has frequently said, ‘As a church college we will debate every issue the church is, or should be, debating’.” During the listening process, university leaders suspended the hiring policy that barred employing partnered gays and lesbians.

Few EMU stakeholders objected to having a debate about the issue, but a number objected to having a debate that appeared to be based on stakeholder feedback. Some questioned the usefulness of gathering electronic survey results and notes from the spring semester’s listening ­process-facilitated discussions. Why, they asked, is the debate not focusing primarily on biblical teaching? After all, the EMU community lifestyle commitment states that “[w]e are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and believe that the scriptures establish the basic principles that should guide our life together.” Authors of the listening process document anticipated this question, explaining, “Scriptural and theological study are ongoing disciplines at EMU. During this listening process, it is not our desire to enter into theological debate when some of the most respected theologians and church leaders do not agree on interpretation. Rather, it is our desire to focus on relationships and prayer in a way that reflects the life and love of Christ in the midst of deeply held beliefs and values.” This focus was evident in a series of facilitated discussions in which individuals briefly summarized their own and listened to others’ perspectives, as well as in formal and informal prayer meetings, several of which students initiated and led.

Now that our formal listening process is over, some on campus wonder if we have missed an opportunity to demonstrate for our students a model of engagement in respectful yet rigorous intellectual debate. Before the listening process began, our campus chaplains had scheduled a visit by a theologian who writes about embodiment, but illness forced her to postpone her visit. (She re-scheduled to speak at four campus and community events in September 2014.) A brave pair of faculty members who held opposing views about the proposed hiring policy change did tackle the topic in an interdisciplinary senior seminar on identity, but two of our university theologians, Ted Grimsrud and Mark Thiessen Nation, who in 2006 proved their ability to disagree civilly in a series of campus presentations and an ensuing book, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality (2008), reported having had no invitations to share their work in the listening process. Clearly, some listening process organizers worried that extended, campus-wide discussion of biblical texts about the subject would lead to irreparable breaches of relationship, and perhaps it would have. Nevertheless, student requests for academic dialogue finally prompted a presentation to be held two weeks before classes ended in April by a Bible and religion professor on L. R. Holben’s What Christians Think About Homosexuality: Six Representative Viewpoints (1999).

In this new academic year, however, several EMU faculty and staff members hope to cultivate a deeper and more comprehensive academic engagement than we have had thus far, while still providing participants with a measure of emotional distance. To that end, we have planned a semester-long series of interdisciplinary conversations about books by Christian insiders to the LGBT-inclusion debate. Reflecting together on the perspectives of people from beyond our campus might enable us to engage our critical faculties in a way that we would not dare to if our conversations were based on our own personal accounts, and the writers’ various approaches and authorial stances will provide fresh content for several lines of inquiry within a set of academic disciplines.

While a university community would need more than a semester to read all the recent publications on homosexuality and the Church, Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, and Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian offer a fascinating range of perspectives on LGBT inclusion in the Church. Many college students, regardless of their sexual orientation, will relate to the books’ authors, each of whom is a bright, young (or young-ish), gay Christian. Seeing that three young men who grew up in fairly similar Christian circles can come to such different conclusions may help the EMU community understand better how our own convictions vary so widely, and each of these writers is likely to help readers who don’t share his conclusions understand better why others might. A fourth book we have deemed worthy of inclusion in our book study series is Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Faculty and staff members may identify more easily than students will with this middle-aged writer, but her life journey as a lesbian atheist drawn into the Church (rather than wondering, like Chu, Hill, and Vines, how the churches in which they had grown up could be capacious enough to include gay people) helps to illustrate the diversity of desire and experience among Christians who experience same-sex attraction.


Faculty members in sociology and US history willdjrlm find rich material to explore with students in Does Jesus Really Love Me?, in which Jeff Chu offers plenty of evidence that no Christian campus or denomination is unique in trying to juggle the apparently competing commitments that Scripture and individual stories invite. In his discussion of the Evangelical Covenant Church, North Park University’s sponsoring denomination, Chu quotes Rebekah Eklund, a former member of the denomination’s executive board: “[The two sides] ‘are almost having different conversations. The conservative side wants to talk about the Bible. The other side is sharing stories. You can tell stories all day long, and they’re wonderful and they’re valuable, but for people who think the Bible says no to this issue, it’s not going to change anything’” (195). Like EMU’s listening process, Chu’s discussion of the ECC focuses on personal stories, including those of the gay ECC missionary who established a blog entitled “Coming Out Covenant,” a lesbian who legally married her partner of thirty-eight years in 2005, and a gay teen whose pastor-mom feared for some time that his coming out would result in her being fired. In a denomination that requires its homosexual clergy to remain celibate, ECC leaders (according to Chu) have worked to sustain conversation about the issue. Even those he interviewed who hold conservative views of marriage remain open to dialogue.

Although he grants considerably more space to presenting the perspectives of gay marriage advocates than of those who challenge gay Christians to pursue celibacy, Chu nevertheless presents the latter as fair-minded and even likable. This charitable approach is one of Does Jesus Really Love Me?’s strengths and maximizes its appeal to a wide range of Christian readers from very different kinds of communities. For example, as a Princeton-, London School of Economics-, and Harvard-educated contributor to such publications as Conde Nast Portfolio, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company, Chu is a partnered gay Brooklynite who might be expected to have little interest in, much less appreciation for, small-town religious life. Impressively, though, whether he is writing about administrators at the Church of Christ’s Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas; proponents of Exodus International and similar reorientation ministries in Orlando, Florida, Irvine, California, and Kirkland, Washington; or even members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, Chu communicates respect. I concluded his chapter on Westboro feeling as if I finally had some sense of how that group landed where they are. Expressing surprise that no one during his four-day visit to their community rebuked him about his ­non-membership in their church, much less his sexuality, Chu recounts that one of his hosts simply asked, “You’re searching for something, aren’t you?... Well, I really hope you find what you’re looking for.” Chu continues, “Steve says this so sweetly that, for as many seconds as it takes for the words to form in my mind, I think, What if they’re right? Maybe they’re right! Damn! But just as quickly, I know this in my heart: Their god is not my god, and their faith is not my faith, and there can be no middle ground” (71). 

As this excerpt illustrates, Chu’s writing is intensely personal. Such emotional immediacy in a sociological, investigative work makes the book a page-turner. Somehow, writing as confessionally as he does, Chu also manages to avoid the prurient. He describes his year-long journey across the United States as a pilgrimage, opening the book as well as each of its sections with an epigraph from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Introducing himself as “no theologian, no crusader, just a regular guy trying to hang on to something resembling the faith I grew up with,” Chu goes on to weave brief first-person accounts by and email exchanges with his interview subjects into the story of his travels (7).

The great-grandson of a missionary to Hong Kong, Chu grew up in a Southern Baptist family, which has equipped him especially well to write his book’s first chapter, focusing on an employment controversy at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention. Calling Nashville “the capital of Christian America,” Chu describes interviews with five of its residents, ranging from Lisa Howe, the soccer coach dismissed from Belmont after announcing that her partner was pregnant, to Richard Land, the former head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. In addition to interrogating his own point of view, Chu perceptively identifies the central irony in the approach of Baptists such as Land: their high level of engagement in secular politics seems incongruent with the historical insistence upon the separation of Church and state.

Chu’s generosity of spirit flags slightly when he writes about his own family and the people associated with his Reformed high school in Miami, Florida. Sounding at least slightly derisive, he reports that his “Bible-teacher grandma stirred up some old-fashioned Baptist revival in her warbly soprano and hailstorm of hallelujahs” and that his “taciturn father” could only explain Chu’s mother’s grief over Chu’s homosexuality by saying “[w]e’re not just Christian. We’re Baptist” (1, 16). He recounts that decision-makers at Miami’s Westminster Christian School not only fired Chu’s married Bible teacher for having a gay relationship but also assigned students such artistically questionable novels as This Present Darkness and signaled consistently that “a Westminster Warrior’s chief means of glorifying God was winning baseball games” (3). Recounting the assembly at which his “perpetually ill-at-ease principal” announced the teacher’s dismissal, Chu writes, “At the mention of the word homosexual, I knew the truth. Even if I didn’t have the words to define it then, I knew I had feelings like Mr. Byers’s. And this was the lesson that I learned: Nobody could ever, ever find out, because if they did, I would be damned and cast out, just as he was” (4).

Although he does not state explicitly that he blames his parents and school leaders for creating the conditions for his own psychological suffering, Chu makes clear that they were the ones without “words to define” homosexual desire and its implications. Their inability to articulate a vision of the life a gay Christian might hope to live left him painfully ill-equipped as an adolescent to make sense of his experience in the context of a Christian community. As an adult, Chu obviously has familiarized himself with all sides of the issue, but he has done so as a relative outsider to the Church. That disjunction—between his profession of faith and his low level of investment in a congregation—left me wanting more from his otherwise satisfying book. His decision to spend a year interviewing folks across the country makes for fascinating reading, but a strategy of planting himself in one congregation for fifty-two Sundays—as well as for mid-week Bible studies, potlucks, weddings, and funerals—would yield at least as fascinating a sequel. Confessing in his introduction that “it’s a good Sunday when I manage to get myself into a church pew,” Chu says he longs to “go off into my own little corner of the world and figure it out on my own and with my God” (6).

Three hundred and thirty-nine pages later, he concludes that his year-long pilgrimage has shown him the importance of “distinguishing between the church and the God that it purports to represent” (345). While he acknowledges that one individual’s view of God is limited and he expresses a commitment to the Christian
community (apart, somehow, from the “bureaucratic, extra-biblical bullshit that we sometimes mistake for church”), he nevertheless holds to a highly personal understanding of God: “My God isn’t simply the God I believe in but the God I want to believe in and need to believe in. A God of unimaginable grace, a God of patience, a God of justice, a God of unconditional love, a God whose wisdom and mercy are incomprehensible to our feeble minds” (347). Pledging to continue his quest to know this God better, Chu declares (defiantly or poignantly?), “[I]f therefore I am one day damned to hell, all I can say is that have tried my best” (348). In “try[ing] his best” to work out his salvation in relative isolation, Chu risks placing his trust in and subsequently advancing a Gospel emerging more from his own longings than from the collective witness of a discerning, Spirit-led community. Discussing his book with college students could pave the way for subsequent conversations about applied ecclesiology.


While they probably will appreciate washed and waiting coverChu’s book, faculty in theology departments will surely find Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, a slightly older book, an even better candidate for inclusion on their course reading lists. A thinner volume at 160 pages, including notes, Washed and Waiting nevertheless plumbs the ecclesiological and pneumatological depths Does Jesus Really Love Me? skirts. Making no effort to offer the kind of sociological overview Chu’s book provides as a context for his personal reflections, Washed and Waiting is a more conventional memoir. Its mood is different, too; while Chu’s blend of confessionalism and journalistic breeziness takes readers on an emotional roller coaster ride, Hill, writing as a New Testament doctoral candidate at England’s Durham University, maintains a more sober tone as he points to the hope he has found through suffering. The two writers’ discussions of anxiety around their same-sex desire illustrate this point. Chu writes:

Land and, to a lesser degree, [Pete]Shelley, discuss homosexuality—and homosexuals—in a cold, clinical, almost dehumanizing way. They tell me that human identity is about more than sexuality. Ideally, they say, it should be found entirely in Christ. But from there they reduce gays and lesbians to godless, sexualized objects, as if because of homosexuality, full personhood is forfeited. What’s left are just vessels of depravity.

This is what I hear them say, and I know this is as much about my ears as it is about their lips. This is what I hear them say. And it’s complicated, because I have my own context for hearing their words. To hear them is to hear my parents’ disapproval. To hear them is to hear the disdain of friends and relatives who are too timid to say what they really think about my sexuality, except when I’m not around. To hear them is to hear the echoes of my own fears of damnation. (23–24)

 Hill also writes about the “depravity” associated with homosexuality:

For me and other gay people, even when we’re not willfully cultivating desire, we know that when attraction does come…. It will be attraction to someone of the same sex. And in those moments, it feels as if there is no desire that isn’t lust, no attraction that isn’t illicit…. For many homosexual Christians, this kind of shame is part of our daily lives. Theologian Robert Jenson calls homoerotic attraction a “grievous affliction” for those who experience it, and part of the grief is in the feeling that we are perpetually, hopelessly unsatisfying to God. (136–7)

Each excerpt is a downer, no doubt, but not in the same way. Chu moves from his perceptions of others’ disapproval and his own fear to situate his hope for life as a partnered gay Christian in the understanding of a God tailored to his want and his need. Hill finds solace and even inspiration as a celibate gay Christian in the God he glimpses through accountability relationships within his congregation and in the writings of other Christians who uphold what he calls “the truth of the position the Christian church has held with almost total unanimity through the centuries—namely, that homosexuality was not God’s original creative intention for humanity” (14). Drawing from the writings and biographies of Roman Catholic role models Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins, he also looks for wisdom to the Apostle Paul; Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox priest; and the scholar-novelists J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, a Roman Catholic and an Anglican, respectively.

An Anglican himself, Hill offers an account of the ways in which his participation in the fellowship of the saints awakened and deepened his understanding of the Holy Spirit’s capacity to work in him. A wise and loving friend directed him to Lewis’s essay “The Weight of Glory,” which helped him recognize the New Testament’s promises of God’s delight in those who yield to the Spirit’s transforming power. Having written movingly about his fear of his same-sex desire’s preventing him from ever pleasing God, he then describes his shift toward profound hope:

My homosexuality, my exclusive attraction to other men, my grief over it and my repentance, my halting effort to live fittingly in the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit—gradually I am learning not to view all of these things as confirmations of my rank corruption and hypocrisy. I am instead, slowly but surely, learning to view that journey—of struggle, failure, repentance, restoration, renewal in joy, and persevering, agonized obedience—as what it looks like for the Holy Spirit to be transforming me on the basis of Christ’s cross and his Easter morning triumph over death…. I am learning to see that my flawed, imperfect, yet never-giving-up faithfulness is precisely the spiritual fruit that God will praise me for on the last day, to the ultimate honor of Jesus Christ…. I can still endure—I can keep on fighting to live faithfully as a believer bearing my broken sexuality—so long as I have the assurance that my life matters to God, that, wonder of all wonders, my faith pleases him, that somehow it makes him smile. (145–147)

In so writing, Hill offers both challenge and encouragement to all Christians who want to live faithfully, regardless of sexual orientation. Although he indicates in his introduction that his intended readers are gay Christians pursuing celibacy and those who care about them, he reveals his hope that other readers will benefit from “overhear[ing]” his discussion, especially those who have “struggle[d] long and hard with persistent, unwanted desires… chemical dependencies, eating disorders, mental and emotional disturbances of various kinds…. The Christian’s struggle with homosexuality is unique in many ways but not completely so. The dynamics of human sinfulness and divine mercy and grace are the same for all of us, regardless of the temptations we face” (19). As I read his book, I found myself first wanting to recommend it to single gay friends, then to single heterosexual friends, and finally to married friends too. Struggles with loneliness, compromised integrity, disappointment, and unfulfilled purpose are universal, and Hill’s honest treatment of these elements of his biography thus far would likely resonate with nearly every Christian reader. Even those who disagree with his conclusions will surely sympathize with him in his struggle and admire his eloquence.

Chu does. In one of Does Jesus Really Love Me?’s most poignant chapters, he praises Washed and Waiting as a “personal and detailed story from a Christian man, … [an] articulate expositor of an argument [most evangelicals] will find attractive” (149). In the same way that I want to read the sequel Chu might write after spending a year involved in a church, however, Chu wants to read a book by Hill called Washed and Still Waiting [emphasis mine] thirty years from now. Wondering if a gay person can really remain celibate for decades as Hill aspires to, Chu traveled to Minnesota for a three-day interview with Kevin Olson, a fifty-seven year-old celibate gay Christian. Upon his return home, Chu pulled out his copy of Washed and Waiting to reflect on a key passage: “In the solitude of our celibacy, God’s desiring us, God’s wanting us, is enough. The love of God is more valuable than any human relationship. And still we ache. The desire of God is sufficient to heal the ache, but still we pine, and wonder” (quoted in Chu 161). Chu describes his response upon re-reading the passage: “Maybe my desire for God is too small. Maybe I chose the easier road. But that first night back at home, I said a prayer for Kevin, I gave my boyfriend an extra kiss, and I said a prayer for him, too” (161). Clearly, Hill’s perspective resonates with Chu in some significant way, and Chu’s willingness to take Washed and Waiting seriously would provide participants in a campus book study series with a remarkable model of appreciative inquiry.


Matthew Vines, another young gay Christian writing out of personal experience, has also read Washed and Waiting. In one of the copious endnotes to his God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Marriage, Vines briefly describes Hill’s book as “helpful for understanding same-sex orientation (although I disagree with the author’s theological stance)” (186). Unlike Hill and Chu, who respectfully acknowledge the perspectives of both partnered gay Christians and formerly-gay Christians who report having had their homosexual desires reversed, Vines writes primarily to convince readers that both hopes for sexual reorientation and the expectation of celibacy for gays and lesbians are destructive. His clear sense of purpose makes his book a fascinating case study for writing and rhetoric courses, and a faculty member with expertise in rhetorical analysis will find much to discuss in it.

Vines begins by announcing that he is writing for Evangelical Christian readers, stating on page two that he holds “a ‘high view’ of the Bible. That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life” (2). He devotes much of the rest of the book, however, to explaining how the biblical writers—as well the writers of other influential pre-twentieth-century Christian texts—could not address the topic of gay marriage because they were simply incapable of conceiving of the kind of committed same-sex partnership to which Vines himself aspires. “In societies that viewed women as inferior,” he explains, “sexual relationships between equal-status partners could not be acceptable. Same-sex unions in particular disrupted a social order that required a strict hierarchy between the sexes” (109). In other words, Vines explains, the “passive” male in an ancient-world same-sex relationship would have suffered humiliation in carrying out a function suited for females. Examining Judeo-Christian proscriptions against gay and lesbian sexual practices, Vines explains that a misogynistic outlook subsequently trumped by Christ’s teachings was to blame (93). Moreover, he argues, even those in the Greco-Roman world who tolerated such practices often viewed them as over-indulgence by people who were unwilling to limit their sexual experience to opposite-sex partners. “In Paul’s day,” Vines writes, “same-sex relations were a potent symbol of sexual excess… The context in which Paul discussed same-sex relations differs so much from our own that it can’t reasonably be called the same issue. Same-sex behavior condemned as excess doesn’t translate to homosexuality condemned as orientation—or as a loving expression of that orientation” (106). Only in the past century, he asserts, have people come to recognize that “same-sex orientation is both fixed and unchosen” (134).

Such claims need significantly more support. Thomas K. Hubbard argues persuasively in Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (2003) that same-sex relationships did not necessarily involve the kind of active-passive dynamic that Vine says would have been humiliating to one partner in ancient cultures. He challenges the widely held perception that sex between Greek males

conformed to an age-differential model with the older partner as active wooer and the younger as the passive object, [making] boys, as passive ‘victims’ of penetration (considered isomorphic to exploitation)… parallel to women, slaves, and foreigners as instrumental foils to the adult citizen males who wielded the political franchise and thereby the right to phallic supremacy. However, one finds little support for this interpretation in the textual evidence…. Even in master-slave relations, the dynamic was not necessarily one of unchecked power to dominate. (10, 13)

Moreover, Hubbard argues that “[c]lose examination of a range of ancient texts suggests… that some forms of sexual preference were, in fact, considered a distinguishing characteristic of individuals. Many texts even see such preferences as inborn qualities and thus ‘essential’ aspects of human identity” (2). While Vines does draw from several of the texts Hubbard has studied, he does so in a highly selective fashion.

Similarly, Vines cites Bernadette J. Brooten’s Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (1996) to make his case without mentioning her challenge to Michel Foucault’s well-known assertion about homosexuality’s only having been a concept for roughly the past one hundred years. Brooten writes, “I present [ancient] non-Christian material… for a category of persons viewed in antiquity as having a long-term or even lifelong homoerotic orientation. A number of ancient sources that mention female and male homoeroticism together provide further evidence that people in the Roman Empire worked with a concept of homoeroticism that encompassed both women and men.” Citing Clement of Alexandria, Brooten suggests that early Christians “probably played a crucial role in the development of the concept of homosexuality” (9). A close look at Brooten’s and Hubbard’s scholarly work next to Vines’s suggests that he has cherry-picked from among sources that they consider with far more complexity.

Furthermore, Vines’s engagement with the Christian objection to homosexual practice based in arguments about male and female physical complementarity is superficial. He does quote from the work of Robert A. J. Gagnon, perhaps the most influential Christian scholar to argue against gay marriage on the basis of complementarity, but he does not engage with Gagnon’s work on Romans at a deep level, dismissing it by concluding, “Gagnon contends that the core problem is the violation of anatomical complementarity, but his argument is highly speculative” (111). He draws support for this dismissal from James Brownson, whose Bible, Gender, Sexuality (2013) appears to have inspired Vines to write his own book. At times, God and the Gay Christian comes across primarily as re-packaging for lay readers of Brownson’s somewhat more academic writings.

Vines’s book, in short, gives (most notably in the form of thirty-three pages of endnotes) the impression of having summarized thoroughly serious biblical, cultural, and theological scholarship for earnest Christians who seek wisdom on this subject but lack the training, confidence, and/or time to engage in academic research for themselves. His book’s tone is invitational, even chatty, as he asks, “Whoever you are, and whatever experiences or doubts you bring to this discussion, will you walk with me as I share the evidence that changed my dad’s mind?” (20). A few pages later, he writes, “In this chapter, we ask a different question: Does new information we have about homosexuality also warrant a reinterpretation of Scripture? As a starting point, let’s review the traditional interpretation of the Bible’s verses about same sex behavior… First, I want to define the terms I’ll be using throughout this book” (24). Still later, after quoting a passage from Ephesians, Vines asks, “Do you see what this passage is saying? It’s taking the marriage language of ‘one flesh’ from Genesis 2:24 and pointing us beyond our original understanding of it” (135). In a campus-wide conversation about this book, a writing teacher would likely relish the opportunity to help students understand why some readers will find Vines’s conversational approach winsome, even comforting, while others will find it patronizing.

Equally rich material for rhetorical analysis are Vines’s frequent use of emotionally charged anecdotes. Interspersed with his interpretations of various biblical and theological texts are Vines’s accounts of gay people who have suffered as a result of traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality.  Arguing for the fixity of same-sex attraction, he quotes from his friend Stephen Long’s blog and asks, “[H]ow… could God want that degree of emotional torment for anyone?” (30). Forty pages later, he writes about the man Stephen loved, whose “struggle had become so intense, so dark, so futile, and so dangerous that he had finally given up” (50). Further on, he writes, “Let me share the story of Rob and Linda Robertson, a Christian couple from Seattle I’ve come to know. Their story is heart wrenching [sic], but their actions and attitudes as parents demonstrated deep, unconditional love” (157). Their gay son Ryan, he recounts, sought relief from sexual guilt in illegal drugs and eventually died of an overdose. “[T]heir non-affirming understanding of homosexuality ultimate led Ryan to a place of despair and tragic self-harm,” he charges. Acknowledging that many Christian teachings are difficult to follow, Vines nevertheless concludes that “no other teaching that Christians widely continue to embrace has caused anything like the torment, destruction, and alienation from God that the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships has caused.” In denying marriage to gay Christians who have not experienced a clear call to the celibate life, he continues, “we separate them from our covenantal God, and we tarnish their ability to bear his image” (158).  He reiterates and expands on this claim:

By branding same-sex orientation broken, we are wrongly rejecting a good part of God’s creation. And with awful consequences, we are tarnishing the image of God in Ryan Robertson and so many others like him.

Instead of making gay Christians more like God, as turning from genuine sin would do, embracing a non-affirming position makes them less like God. So it isn’t gay Christians who are sinning against God by entering into monogamous, loving relationships. It is the church that is sinning against them by rejecting their intimate relationships.

But if the church were to bless committed same-sex unions for gay Christians, we would advance God’s sanctifying purposes for their lives. Until then, we are distorting the image of God, not only in the lives of gay Christians, but in the church as a whole. (162)

Undoubtedly, as Chu and Hill have demonstrated in less melodramatic accounts, the institutional Church and many individual Christians have created hostile situations in which people who experience same-sex attraction have suffered. Vines’s rhetorical approach, though, is so obviously manipulative that his pathos hamstrings his logos.

Wrapping up his book, Vines announces in its final chapter that he considers himself to be planting “seeds of a modern reformation” (162). Having left his undergraduate studies at Harvard to research the Bible and homosexuality, he established an organization called The Reformation Project in 2013 to “identify and empower Christians who are committed to making their churches affirming places for LGBT people” (172). He invites readers to embrace his mission, summarizing the stories of three others who share his commitment and issuing a multi-pronged challenge to share progressive views publicly, advocate among pastors and church leaders, and establish congregational support groups. He urges LGBT readers to come out and urges all to “take some risks…. That kind of sacrifice isn’t easy or convenient. But God’s image will be tarnished until LGBT believers are welcomed as a full, thriving part of the body of Christ. As you seek to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, I hope you will ask yourself: What am I willing to sacrifice for my LGBT friends?” (177).

Vines’s sudden shift in the book’s last chapter from supporting same-sex marriage to affirming comprehensively a full range of LGBT identities and practices seems abrupt.  Earlier, he argues for the fixity of same-sex attraction, suggesting that ancient thinkers’ incapacity to conceive of such a thing prevented early Christian leaders from developing constructive teaching on same-sex marriage. [Again, he has overlooked one of Bernadette J. Brooten’s points; she argues, “Whereas we often dualistically define sexual orientation as either homosexual or heterosexual, [ancient Greeks and Romans] saw a plethora of orientations.  (When we in the late twentieth century think about it, we also recognize bisexuals and transsexuals, leading us to speak of a spectrum rather than a bifurcation” (3)].  Moving from bifurcation to spectrum himself, Vines has made no attempt to present a theological framework for evaluating bisexual practices or for responding in a distinctively Christian way to those who identify as transsexual.  Pulling up two more chairs to the table of “inclusion” just seems the hospitable thing to do, so Vines does it.

Although God and the Gay Christian’s highly selective treatment of sources and manipulative rhetorical strategies make it a less artistically admirable book than either Does Jesus Really Love Me? or Washed and Waiting, Vines’s contribution to a campus book study series is sure to be as valuable as Chu’s or Hill’s. As the closest in age of these writers to most college students, Vines will strike many as being someone they could know and like. His sense of purpose is compelling, as is his broad mission to extend hospitality to all people, especially sexual minorities. Vines is heading where the wider culture is going; even before my university’s listening process ended, at least one staff member and a number of students were advocating not only a policy change for partnered gays and lesbians but also a comprehensive affirmation of practices across the LGBT spectrum. A discussion of the way in which Vines urges such hospitality might prompt subsequent campus conversation about the physical body’s significance within Christian thought, including the ways in which Gnosticism continues to influence Western views of embodiment.


Rosaria Champagne Butterfield does notsecret thoughts address this subject in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, but she takes on plenty else. As a Syracuse University faculty member in the 1990s, she taught literature and women’s studies, and faculty in either of those fields will likely find her book worth discussing with students. Perhaps even more interesting would be consideration by a social work professor, since by its conclusion, Secret Thoughts becomes more an indictment of our country’s broken foster care system than a discussion of homosexuality in the Church. Surprisingly, Butterfield makes little effort to explain why she concluded after her Christian conversion that she should abandon her lesbian partnership and her work as a LGBT educator-activist; instead, she focuses on describing her conversion itself, the difficulty of making the life changes she deemed necessary, and the joy-filled rigors of her subsequent and continuing journey as a home-schooling parent and pastor’s wife.

While Chu, Hill, and Vines each offer convincing accounts of having experienced exclusive same-sex attraction since their youth, Butterfield’s experience aligns with the view that human sexuality and identity can be fluid. She recounts having thought of herself before her conversion as “an ‘informed’ lesbian—someone who had had relationships with men and found them wanting and dissatisfying” and who “[found herself] bonding with women over shared hobbies and interest and feminist and leftist political values” (33). Her eventual and apparently happy heterosexual marriage suggests that she has had more viable choices than Chu, Hill, and Vines, but she recounts that breaking up with her partner and abandoning her academic field still caused her considerable anguish:

The Bible told me to repent, but I didn’t feel like repenting. Do you have to feel like repenting in order to repent? Was I a sinner, or was I, in my drag queen friend’s words, sick? How do you repent for a sin that doesn’t feel like a sin? How could the thing that I had studied and become be sinful? How could I be tenured in a field that is sin? How could I and everyone that I knew and loved be in sin?...

Conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos…. Often, people asked me to describe the “lessons” I learned from this experience. I can’t. It was too traumatic. Sometimes in crisis, we don’t really learn lessons. Sometimes the result is simpler and more profound: sometimes our character is simply transformed. (21, 27)

The life transformation Butterfield describes in Secret Thoughts carries her almost beyond recognition.

She spills little ink, however, describing the details of her sexual desire’s transformation, a remarkable authorial decision within a social context that increasingly regards sexual desire and practice as central to human identity. Critics of Secret Thoughts might argue that Butterfield was never “truly” lesbian to begin with, but readers who identify as bisexual will be better equipped to read her account sympathetically. Ultimately, Butterfield seems to regard sexual expression as peripheral rather than central to identity, and she wastes no time in her book criticizing homosexual practice. She simply indicates that as she studied the Bible and listened to the preaching of Ken Smith, the Reformed Presbyterian pastor-friend who led her to faith over a period of two years, she concluded that her “sexuality was sinful not because it was lesbian per se but because it wasn’t Christ-controlled. My heterosexual past was no more sanctified than my homosexual present” (33). In a chapter entitled “Repentance and the Sin of Sodom,” she describes reading Ezekiel 16:48–50 and concluding that the sins with which she needed (and still needs) to contend are “pride, wealth, entertainment-driven focus, lack of mercy, lack of modesty” (31). Pointing out that “there is nothing inherently sexual about any of these sins,” she goes on to note that “we don’t see God making fun of homosexuality or regarding it as a different, unusual, or exotic sin. What we see instead is God’s warning: if you indulge the sins of pride, wealth, entertainment-lust, lack of mercy, and lack of discretion, you will find yourself deep in sin—and the type of sin may surprise you” (31).

Undoubtedly, Butterfield does ultimately regard homosexual practice as a type of sin, which will offend many readers who affirm gay marriage and even more extensive inclusion of sexual minorities in the Church. She writes protectively about her LGBT friends, however, while demonstrating willingness (even eagerness) to denounce forms of sin that many Christian congregations appear reluctant to address.  Regarding premarital sex, masturbation, and pornography use, she observes, “What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sin gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be ‘healed’ by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left after this annihilation is up to God” (83). Butterfield argues for a total overhaul of human identity through conversion, which includes but is in no way limited to sexual practices.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, then, more than Washed and Waiting and dramatically more than Does Jesus Really Love Me? and God and the Gay Christian, is a Christian perspective on life in general rather than on ­sexuality in particular. Butterfield’s concerns are broadly social as well as personal; her final expression of gratitude in the book’s opening acknowledgments is for the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America’s “historical and bold stand for abolition and for the example of Christ-commanded racial advocacy that this sets for us today,” and her final two chapters focus on the mission she and her husband, who have adopted four children of different races and fostered others, have embraced: recovering “the lost art of simply being able to care for children lost in emergencies, from snow days that strand children at home and send parents to work, to domestic abuse or worse. We see this as an investment in community” (xii, 126). Writing at length about Reformed Presbyterian doctrine, Butterfield vividly illustrates in chapters four and five, “The Home Front: Marriage, Ministry, and Adoption” and “Homeschooling and Middle Age,” not only our country’s urgent need for an improved foster-care system but also adoption’s theological significance.

These chapters are the book’s best. As an English professor at a church-related institution embroiled in conversations about LGBT inclusion, I found myself disappointed in the obliqueness with which Butterfield discusses the Christian call she perceived to stop living and teaching literature from a lesbian perspective. More discussion of her decision to embrace an extremely traditional gender role as a home-schooling mother would have been welcome, too. (The book’s copy-editing oversights annoyed me, as well, but I recognize that Crown and Covenant, Secret Thoughts’ publishing house, probably has a smaller staff than many other presses do.) I was surprised and more than satisfied, however, by Butterfield’s powerful discussion of the call she believes all Christians should heed to address the systemic injustices that many children face. And although she does not affirm diversity of sexual practices for Christians, her vision of God’s Kingdom is nevertheless one in which humans of diverse backgrounds will flourish together. Believing that the Church is where the Kingdom begins, she rebukes Christians who want to worship only with others who resemble them in appearance and outlook, who choose to join congregations

...made up of people who are just like they are, who raise their children using the same childrearing methods, who take the same stance on birth control, schooling, voting, breastfeeding, dress codes, white flour, white sugar, gluten, childhood immunizations, the observance of secular and religious holidays…. We in the church tend to be more fearful of the (perceived) sin in the world than of the sin in our own heart. Why is that?

Here is what I think. I believe that there is no greater enemy to vital life-breathing faith than insisting on cultural sameness. When fear rules your theology, God is nowhere to be found in your paradigm, no matter how many Bible verses you tack on to it. (115)

The root of Butterfield’s conviction is easy to trace; if Ken and Floy Smith had feared her presence in their home and subsequently in their congregation, she might have never come to Christian faith. 

In writing about Ken Smith, Butterfield marvels at the openness with which he invited her into conversation, an openness that Christian university campuses would do well to cultivate. In response to an opinion piece she published in a local paper, Smith sent Butterfield a two-page letter that “invited me to think in ways I hadn’t before” (9). Although many other readers responded—some appreciatively, some angrily—to her article, only Smith invited her to his home for dinner and conversation she describes as “lively and fun” (10). Over the two years of dinners and conversation that followed (in her home as well as in the Smiths’), Butterfield came to recognize “[o]ne thing that made Ken safe as well as dangerous was a point of commonality between us. We are both good teachers. Good teachers make it possible for people to change their positions without shame” (14). Through their willingness to open their lives to one another—and to converse for two years over shared readings—the Smiths and Butterfield risked and experienced real change.

Much of their shared reading, Butterfield recounts, was in the Bible. EMU’s listening process documents make clear that we are unlikely to engage in formal, campus-wide Bible study about homosexuality in the Church. The board of trustees’ June 21 announcement, though, also indicates that conversation around the subject will continue: “Out of respect for EMU’s relationship with Mennonite Church USA and its ongoing discernment of human sexuality, we defer action on formally changing EMU’s policy on hiring employees in covenanted same-sex relationships. The November 2013 board decision to suspend personnel actions related to the current hiring policy will remain in effect as the discernment process continues” (Cloos, 2014).  Although some in the university community wish that a more conclusive, theologically-grounded decision could have emerged from the time- and energy-consuming process we underwent last spring, we recognize that the outcome gives us a chance to approach the issue again. Perhaps by reading together these four books by Jeff Chu, Wesley Hill, Matthew Vines, and Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, we will help “make it possible for people to change their positions without shame” (14). As we assess each book’s contribution to a particular academic discipline, we plan also to ask how each author has used Scripture to make a case. Perhaps other Christian college and university communities will benefit from engaging in similar conversations. Surely, intellectual, interdisciplinary interrogation of texts on a campus is an enterprise worth undertaking.


Martha Greene Eads is Professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.


Works Cited

Brooten, Bernadette J. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996.

Brownson, James V. Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

Brydum, Sunnvie. “Faith Leaders Beg Obama for Religious Exemptions in ENDA Exec. Order.” The Advocate (June 27, 2014). http://www.advocate.com/enda/2014/06/27faith-leaders-beg-obama-religious-exemptions-enda-exec-order.

Capeheart, Jonathan. “Good Times for Gay Marriage,” Washington Post (20 July 2014): A23.

Champagne Butterfield, Rosaria. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2012.

Chu, Jeff. Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

Cloos, Kassondra. “EMU Trustees Postpone Decision on Hiring Practices.” Daily News Record (June 21, 2014). http://www.dnronline.com/article/new_emu_trustees_decide_on_same_sex_marriage.

Gordon College. “Questions Regarding the Letter to President Obama,” news release, July 16, 2014. http://www.gordon.edu/article.cfm?iArticleID=1625.

Grimsrud, Ted and Mark Thiessen Nation. Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality. Harrisonburg, Virginia. Herald Press, 2008.

Hill, Wesley. Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Hubbard, Thomas K., ed. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2003.

Vines, Matthew. God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. New York: Convergent, 2014.

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