Review of Justin Lee, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate (New York: Jericho Books, 2012).
Given the growing acceptance of homosexuality in American society, the issue of homosexuality is one that we as Bible-believing, Reformed Christians must face head-on. We do not have the option of burying our heads in the sand in the hope that this issue will go away.
But I believe we need to stop viewing this merely as a theological issue or a political issue to be debated and positions drawn. We need to wake up to the human dimension. We are not talking about a mere doctrinal issue, such as one’s position on inerrancy or the millennium. We are talking about real human beings made in God’s image. Even more importantly, we are talking about the many gay young people growing up in our churches, including conservative Reformed churches.
You may think you know with absolute certainty what the Bible teaches on this issue, so why read another book on it. It may be an open and shut case to you. You might be thinking, “What’s so hard about this issue? The Bible plainly teaches that homosexuality is a sin. God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Understanding what the Bible teaches is not the point of this book. There are plenty of other books making various exegetical and theological arguments about homosexuality in Christian ethics. I’m not recommending this book for its particular approach to the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. (Justin does provide one chapter giving his interpretation of the key texts. And, for the record, I don’t agree with all of his conclusions.) Rather, this book is helpful because it puts a human face, an evangelical human face, on this issue.
I urge you to read this book for that very reason: Justin’s compelling story. He was raised in a solid Christian home, within the context of the evangelical piety of the Southern Baptist church. So fervent was his piety, that he was nicknamed “God Boy” by his peers in high school. When he first encountered the subject of homosexuality on campus he was immediately condemning of it and argued that Christians should “hate the sin and love the sinner.” Ironically, he did not know it at the time, but he was gay. The book tells the story of how he gradually came to that realization, in spite of his view that homosexuality was contrary to God’s will. Justin never had the phase of his life as a gay person where he lived in open rebellion against God and slept around promiscuously.
Justin’s story paints a flesh-and-blood portrait of the kind of gay youth that are growing up in our churches today. If, according to the latest studies, 3.8% of the population in the U.S. are gay, then we need to confront the fact that as many as 3.8% of our covenant children may be a well. The gay people that we see on TV, the ones who are “out” in the entertainment industry or that we see in the big urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York tend to be secular and highly critical of the church. But the covenant children coming up and “out” in our Reformed churches are birds of a different feather altogether. They love God, his Word, and the church. And so we must figure out how to relate to them in a way that does not push them away from Christ but shows them a way forward.
Here are some of the things I hope you can take away from this book, even if you remain unpersuaded by his argument that committed, same-sex relationships can be morally acceptable for Christians:
First, Justin convincingly shows that homosexuality (i.e., same-sex attraction, as distinct from same-sex activity) is an orientation, not a “lifestyle” or a “choice.” One can think same-sex activity is sinful and still acknowledge that homosexuality is an unchosen orientation. If this book convinces you to come around on this critical point, even if you disagree with everything else he says, then reading this book will have been worthwhile.
Second, he helpfully explains the word “gay” and defines it to mean someone who is attracted to people of the same sex. The term is used “to refer to people’s attractions, not necessarily to their behaviors” (p. 52). This is a bigger issue now than it was 10 to 15 years ago, when “homosexual” was the neutral term, and “gay” had negative connotations of a licentious lifestyle, a tinge of radical activism, and a sex-based self-identity. Now, the situation has flipped. “Homosexual” is tinged with the negative connotation that gays are psychologically disordered, and “gay” has become the neutral term. It is the commonly accepted term for someone who is attracted to people of the same sex, regardless of their beliefs about the morality or immorality of same-sex relationships. It says nothing about their sex life (celibate, monogamous, or promiscuous), and even less about their politics. The logical implication, then, is that there is such a thing as a “gay Christian,” a term that is broad enough to include those who are in committed, monogamous same-sex relationships, those who are not but are saving themselves for one, and those who are committed to celibacy. I realize that this terminology (the use of “gay” in a neutral sense) is pushing the boundaries for some, but it would be nice to see Reformed Christians join the rest of the human race in the 21st century.
Third, if you are sympathetic with the “Two Kingdoms” approach to the Christ-and-Culture debate, then you will resonate with Justin’s critique of the polarized culture war over this issue. The book’s subtitle is ambitious and yet valid: “Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.” Justin is absolutely dead-on when he argues that the political activism of many segments of the evangelical Christian community around this issue has damaged the credibility of our witness to Christ in the world.
Fourth, Justin’s tale of his disappointing experience with ex-gay ministries is enlightening. Since he was raised in a model Christian family and did not have a distant father, his own story does not fit the standard ex-gay theory of the cause of homosexuality. The prominent ex-gay ministry, Exodus International, disbanded (at least at the level of an umbrella organization) after this book was published, but the philosophy behind ex-gay (or reparative) therapy remains alive and well and is used by many evangelical and Reformed counselors. Justin shows why this influential counseling theory is unhelpful to people like him.
Fifth, his recommendations for how Christians with differing positions on this issue should get along more peacefully are helpful. He calls those who believe that committed same-sex relationships are acceptable, “Side-A Christians,” and those who believe that the call of God to gay Christians is to be celibate, “Side-B Christians.” Although Justin is a “Side-A Christian,” his call to those in his own camp to have respect for “Side-B Christians” is to be welcomed and adds strength to his own para-church ministry, the Gay Christian Network. Things become more complex when dealing with ecclesiastical contexts where church discipline is practiced. Each church or denomination will draw the lines differently, but Justin’s cutting edge proposals need to be taken seriously.
We need to temporarily bracket our ideological positions and begin the process of getting to know (and love) gay people in all their variety. Those who are Side-A. Those who are Side-B. Those who don’t know which Side they are on. Liberal Christians. Conservative Christians. And, yes, conservative Reformed Christians who also happen to be gay. Getting to know real people who are gay is a journey. It is a journey of discovery. Ultimately, it is a journey of love, and love is the fulfillment of the law. Justin’s story is one that we as Reformed Christians need to hear. It will shake up some of our stereotypes and it may even set us on a new journey if we are willing to open ourselves to the notion that God’s grace may be wider than we had thought. This book is a great place to begin if you want to take a first step on that journey.