Along with my gay and out friend, Chet DeRoen, a former Assemblies of God pastor, I attended Pastor Steve Anderson’s Sunday night service at Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona. Anderson had recently added a new absurdity to his litany of inane statements which already include: women should never speak in church, Judaism is a wicked religion, and we should pray for Obama to die.
In a sermon that went viral, Anderson proposed a tactic to end AIDS quickly — the federal enforcement of the death penalty for men having sex with males, an act described as “capital offense” in the Israelite culture almost 2,500 years ago.
Anderson is a “King James only” preacher. He believes in the literal translation of the KJV version which means — what the written translation states in English today is what it has “always” meant.
Never mind that the word “homosexual” never existed in any Bible before 1946, and it has never appeared in the KJV. At any time.
The oft-quoted Levitical passage that Anderson uses to validate the execution of “homos” might be best read in context for an accurate understanding. The prohibition of Lev. 18 and 20 refers to the cultural indignity of placing a man in the sexually submissive role reserved for women only. Until as recently as the 1800s, the dignity of women historically was consistently far inferior to men. The cultural and biblical problem has been the demeaning of a man as one man sexually penetrating another male. The man taking the active role reduced a male, most usually a pubescent boy or young man, to the inferior status of a woman.
No matter what version of the Bible is used, context is everything. Context often takes the submissive role with “literal” Bible readers. When advantageous to their ideology, they imagine that words and social systems, have remained stagnant for over 20 centuries.
Let’s indulge Anderson and his “literal” gang in their KJV-version-only game and play along trying to imagine where his biblically validated hatred might have been birthed.
When the KJV was created, the Greek work malakos meant “soft.” When translated into the Modern English for the KJV, the equivalent of the day for malakos was “effeminate.” Although one part of the meaning of “effeminate” did describe men who took the role of a woman in sex, the word and its meaning more fully and accurately encompassed many additional female traits well beyond just roles taken in sexual activity. Traits such as morally weak, given to unnatural vices, lazy, unchaste, lustful, whorish, impure, given to lives of decadence in eating and drinking, and physically weak were considered feminine. These, yes these, were the known traits of a woman and characteristics associated with the word effeminate.
Malakos and “effeminate” were used described a disposition associated with all the negative traits assigned to women in that day.
Ancient cultures dominated by patriarchy, where men ruled, and systems built on gender hierarchy, where men dominated women, form an inextricable backdrop to the meanings of both malakos and the KJV translation to “effeminate.” Within those historical social structures, the worst way one could treat a man socially and sexually was to treat him as if he were a woman, and the worst thing a male could act like was a female.
Using reasoning and an information-based process like the above is what it means to translate and interpret passages in the context in which they were written.
Leviticus is not a call to execute gays, it is about sexual abuse and the abasement of another person. I am not impressed with Anderson’s reported ability to have memorized hundreds of chapters of the Bible. Reading, regurgitating and preaching out of context is foolishness, no matter the Bible version used.
Faithful Word Baptist Church and Fundamentalism
I didn’t attend Anderson’s church to confront his foolishness or hate-filled speech. That would be an entirely futile effort. Anderson is part of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) movement, and, further, a fringe part of that crusade; less than 15% of Baptists are IFB.
To understand why leaders like Anderson get stuck in their deeply flawed literalism, a bit of background might be helpful.
The Evangelical movement, birthed in the 19th century’s Second Great Awakening, migrated into two divergent groups at the turn of the 20th century: the Modernists and the Fundamentalists.
Following the unsettling and chaotic times of World War I, Fundamentalists—those who read the Bible literally—became more passionate about repentance and soul saving as America faced the impending (they believed it to be soon) vengeance of an angry God. Seeing the moral looseness and self-indulgence of the culture during the Roaring ’20s, along with the moral excesses brought on by the repeal of Prohibition, the Fundamentalists preached hard for a national imperative to turn back to God before it was too late.
In contrast, the Modernists took a more expansive view of the Bible and focused on the social issues set before them during industrialization and the massive growth of urban areas: poverty, injustice, hunger, disease, equality, and slavery. They, too, believed the Bible to be divinely inspired, but focused their attentions on understanding Scripture passages in context rather than understanding isolated passages literally, as did the Fundamentalists.
The Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 was a highly publicized court case pitting the Fundamentalists’ literal creation story beliefs against the beliefs of Modernist Christians, who found evolution consistent with, and not a threat to, their faith.
In the end, though Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution, the real loser, was the Fundamentalist belief system. In the public contest between God and science, science won. Nationwide, Fundamentalists took a beating in the power struggle for leadership in seminaries, colleges, universities, and denominations.
For the most part, they retreated into the south and established their own institutions. They didn’t want to be associated with anyone outside their circle. “Good” Fundamentalists refused to fellowship, or even pray with, Modernists, liberal evangelicals, or those in mainstream Christian denominations.
Over the next five decades, the chasm deepened between the Fundamentalists and all other Christians. The fundamentalists became religious isolationists and extremely apolitical.
This is the legacy from which people like Anderson and IBF come.
Everything in their worldview and the way in which they live their lives is entrenched in literalism, isolationism, repentance, soul saving, and the always impending vengeance of an angry God.
I’ve been around countless people of this variety. The street preachers I plant myself in front of at Gay Pride events come from this legacy. They simply don’t have the cognitive ability to see beyond their literal, black and white, fear-riddled world.
Typically, they are poorly educated. Anderson himself brags about never having gone to college. Not only are secular colleges “threatening” to fundamentalists, Anderson preaches that women shouldn’t seek an education; they are intended to marry, bear children, and guide the home.
The faithful at Faithful Word seem to embrace this dictate. From what I observed, there were lots of children, lots. A disproportionate percentage of women were either pregnant or had newborns or small toddlers alongside them. Strangely, I saw few, if any, junior high level teens.
The congregational mix appeared to be about 20% Hispanic, 10% black and the remainder, white. Admitting to a judgment call on my part, I strongly suspect college educated people were few in number.
Further typical of IFB and fundamentalist congregations, the women did not wear make-up or even mildly “fashionable” clothing. I will be the first to admit that I do not paint it on or dress it up, but I was certainly the fashion exception with my moderate make-up and bright colors. The repression of women, by my standards, was palpable.
Following Anderson’s attempt at a humorous and polished up account of the afternoon protest by over 100 people outside his church, he segued into the sermon text of the evening — Psalms 23.
You’ve heard the chapter even if you’ve never been in church. It’s the passage read at funerals due to its eternal pastoral and peaceful imagery. To his credit, Anderson clearly loves the Bible and studies it, but he has a difficult time staying on track; his motions and speaking patterns expose his difficulty in keeping focus. Weirdly, Anderson spun the normally serene message off into almost 15 minutes on the “biblical necessity” of owning a gun.
From my observations and research, it’s common to see the cross-section of several fundamentalist/ultra-conservative movements aligning and blurring at the fringes of Christianity: dominionism (the idea that Christians should control the government and social systems because, as they believe, they are the only ones able and called to do it), the Tea Party, and the citizen militia movement.
I’ve been to many, many churches, yet, before attending Faithful Word, I’ve never visited a church with such a high visibility of guns on hips. Anderson transformed a sermon on Psalm 23 into a call to husbands to keep their families secure with a gun, a shotgun, or, at minimum, a metal bat and good fighting skills until the man of the home could afford a good gun.
Before Sunday, I had never been met at a church door by a greeter packing a gun or witnessed the pastor proudly flashing his gun underneath his suit jacket. It is an unsettling feeling to experience in a church, a place I equate with sanctuary.
Is Anderson a rarity?
So, what do I do with this experience, observation and the several years of research I used to write my book?
First, it’s wise to acknowledge that unfortunately, people like Anderson are not rare. He just like to publicly shoot his mouth off more than most.
I suspect Anderson is a strong candidate for narcissistic personality disorder. He has a wildly inflated sense of the importance of his views and of himself. His church is only a congregation of about 100 attendees, including children. He certainly displays an excessive need to be prominently displayed online and seen in the news and online media. He sorely lacks empathy for others who are unlike himself. And finally, he is given to explosions of arrogance and anger. These are not descriptors for a Christ-follower, but rather, a narcissist, a self-important person often posturing behind a false Christian humility.
And again, I don’t think Anderson is rare. Sadly.
People abusively wielding Bibles at others, convinced their interpretation, their views, and their wisdom are best come in many flavors within the uglier segments of the Christian faith. The rhetoric which repulses and shocks so many believers today was commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s.
For the most part, the people in the pews today rarely hear vitriolic spews like Anderson’s. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening in churches and venues where most of us are not sitting, listening and reading.
Unfortunately the list of Christians with literal, fear-inspired theology seems endless. Aside from the ugly street screamers, I’ve personally experienced interaction/meeting many who, in their zeal, are convinced they are flawless in their biblical interpretations and speak for God while doing significant damage to the emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of the LGBT community.
These people include:
Michael Brown, Line of Fire host and author, who endeavors to posture himself as a compassionate biblical scholar who loves LGBT people, knowing what is best for LGBT people. His arrogance soared in 2010 when he strove to lead 500 Christian into Charlotte Gay Pride to impose his anti-gay beliefs and call for change to heterosexuality or life-long celibacy for gays. Brown confidently states that God has given him a mandate to lead a cultural revolution resisting the “gay agenda” which apparently set on destroying family, marriage, the church and country.
Robert Gagnon is considered the top conservative scholar of anti-gay theology. His attitudes are nothing more than contemptuous ideology wrapped in a theological sheath. Though his theology has recently been challenged by affirming scholars, Gagnon maintains a haughty attitude and refuses to answers those who question his theology. He regularly threatens to counter attacks of his work, but has not done so in almost two years. Scholars publish responses to refutations, they don’t take to Facebook and whine.
Anne Paulk, one of the leaders of Restored Hope Network, completely discounts the witness and experiences of those who have been harmed by the reparative therapy industry which she has been a part of for almost 25 years. Paulk increasingly answers her detractors with the attitudes of a petulant child. Her views are not based in science or research and have been dismissed by every major mental health care professional organization in the U.S. Still, she peddles them as God’s demands on LGBT people.
Scott Lively’s severely anti-gay rhetoric lay at the foundation of life-threatening legislation for LGBT Africans, Russians and Eastern Europeans. He lies and instigates. He is currently being tried for crimes against humanity in a district court in Massachusetts.
It would be overly simplistic to imagine that Anderson, or any others mentioned would respond to a compassionate plea to listening, re-examining Scripture and understanding of the testimonies of others unlike themselves. They are entrenched in their obsessive conviction and arrogant level of sureness. They know what God says, and believes, and thinks on the subject of human sexuality.
Using the Bible as the guidebook on human sexuality has certainly twisted and often lost the broader message of Christianity.
It is actually quite amusing to listen to Anderson, father of eight children, consistently refer to “sex” as “you-know-what.” He may easily screams whore, whoredom, harlot, sodomy and sodomite with exuberance, but will not utter the word “sex” from the pulpit.
What can be done?
Those of us who care about the truth and witness of our Christian faith, as well as respectful and dignified treatment of all humanity, we can begin to counter the fringe and ugly purveyors of religious doctrine by speaking up.
Thankfully, people are reacting; the media is reacting; gay-affirming straight allies, and, of course, LGBT people themselves are reacting. Comments like Anderson’s shock us; this is all good.
Words spoken and actions taken that demean any group of people are dehumanizing. Anderson and other extremists play the foil to reasonable solution-seeking conversations. In that sense, they serve a useful end. Their outbursts and stances create conversation often forcing otherwise ambiguous people to define their own stance.
So, maybe these opportunities can be wisely used?
When derogatory words are spoken or dismissive actions come are done by those who profess alliance with Christ, speak up. Whisper, if you must, at first. But certainly, don’t stay silent.
The way forward in fostering dignity, respect, and equality includes actively and persistently exposing the lies and educating with the truth. Both side may claim ownership of truthful and accurate Bible understanding, but assessing whether behaviors and attitudes of religious leaders and voices are Christlike is really not that complicated.
Does the ideology/theology foster life, love, spiritual growth, and emotional and physical wellness? Or, in complete contrast with the witness of Christ, does it bring destruction, fear, spiritual distance, and emotional and physical illness?
There is benefit to the yammerings-on by Anderson, Brown, Gagnon, Paulk, Lively and the like. For some Christians, once complacent on LGBT issues, who inherently know the God/Jesus/Spirit they align with, a clear contrast of words and actions between the “sides” is emerging.
Every time an Anderson calls for the execution of gays, or a Brown tells a mother that her gay child is broken, or a Gagnon condemns LGBT people to hell, or a Paulk dismisses the testimony of LGBT believers, or a Lively commits crimes against humanity in the name of God, reasonable Christians pray, think and talk about a new way forward to equality and justice.
Let the fringe get exposed and squeezed tighter and tinier, and let the people of God arise and become active and noisy.