Anchored Leadership Conference—Letter to Sean McDowell
November 11, 2018
Thank you for your gracious welcome as I arrived at the recent Anchored Conference in San Juan Capistrano last weekend.
I attended to listen and observe. Wanting to be respectful of your event, I intended to follow up with emails with you, and each of the other main speakers. As you may well have expected, I did not agree with many of your biblical interpretations, insights, and statements in reference to sexual orientation, gender identity, and the LGBTQ community, in particular, those who are Christian.
Though I took copious notes indicating objections I would want to raise with you, that could be for another time if the situation arises.
Several times you asserted that your teaching is “consistent with Scripture.”
Yet, there is an ever-growing segment of Christianity who do not agree with your views and teachings. I don’t. I do not think I am any less serious my obedience and adherence to the Bible, about my faith, or lacking in relationship with God simply because I hold vastly differing views from those that are considered to be “traditional” views on sex and gender.. As to the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity at the intersection of faith, I believe I have studied this topic at minimal on a par, if not more than you have. Yet, I have come to different conclusions which I find consistent with Scripture.
You speak with certainty asserting you are on “God’s side” of this issue.
Clearly, you do not see homosexuality as a part of the natural spectrum of human sexuality, but rather as a sexual immorality. If I understood you correctly, this is why you do not approach discussions about homosexuality with an posture of “agree to disagree.”
Interestingly, when you quoted 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, you said, “I am interpreting this correctly.” I was a bit bemused. Your certainty can be handily refuted in examining historical records and allowing the evidence to speak.
Digging into the original translation notes of the Revised Standard Version (1946) on 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is exactly the work and research I am now engaged in doing.
You are likely aware that RSV was the first version of the Bible in which the word “homosexual” appeared. Logically, and hopefully, one might have expected a deep theological discussion took place when the members of the translation team combined the Greek words arsenokoitai and malakoi to become one word “homosexual.” Well, one would hope that a theological discussion took place prior to what we now know was a significant change in the text which has had immeasurable impact.
However, the historical recorded evidence shows something quite different happened during that translation work process. As I suspected from the historical contextual work I had done, the combining of the two Greek words to homosexual was culturally and ideologically motivated and biased, and not a theological decision.
From 1946 onward, there the word “homosexual” remained relatively unnoticed from a theological point of view until the late 1970s. There was certainly no theology constructed around it at the outset, nor over the 30+ years following 1946. Not only did the word and concept of homosexual/homosexuality shift in meaning and understanding during that period, is was largely theologically ignored. This is evidenced through the 1978 NIV translation notes.
Recall your funny story about your Mom closing all the “windows” in order that her computer work. Even a simple word like “window” has morphed over time. Likewise, the word “homosexual,” coined in 1868, does not equal the word in 1930, does not equal the word in 1950, does not equal the word in 1970, does not equal the word today.
Social and sexual roles of men and women, and those seen as masculine and feminine, have radically changed since ancient times. Those taking the sexual penetrated role “of a woman” in ancient times absolutely have no equivalency to those today who engage in same-sex sex. Same-sex sex in ancient times does not equal “homosexuality” in 1868, does not equal homosexuality in 1950, does not equal homosexuality in 1970, does not equal homosexuality today. We have gained greater understanding of human sexuality and sexual orientations over time.
You referred to the “historic Christian teaching” on sexuality, and in particular, homosexuality. My published research will prove the “historic” teaching of which you speak is less than 40 years old.
Context matters. Greatly. Understanding advances. Roles change. Words evolve and shift in meaning.
When that happens, belief systems and interpretations, which may have been partly or entirely wrong, are challenged and often reconsidered in light of new information.
You have a belief holding that marriage requires that the two partners need be of opposite genders. You used a beach ball analogy inferring that those of us who do not agree that marriage requires opposite gender are like a person trying to hold the beach ball down, or holding down a basic truth. I think you were trying to say that those who affirm same-sex marriage do not believe gender matters which “bumps against reality” and the contradiction will eventually surface.
You may be mixing a few complex thoughts together here in an attempt at simplicity. Just because I affirm same-sex marriage does not mean I do recognize gender variations, or variations in sex. I just do not believe that marriage requires opposite sexes or genders.
You continually refer to “gender” seemingly as we understand it today and presenting it also as an ancient category. Ancient peoples were categorized into masculine/male or feminine/female roles both socially and sexually; these are not equivalent to what we view as “gender” today. Context.
Several times in your presentation, you made what I would term “grand leaps.” You make an assumption about some verses, then build on it, and tie it all up in a tidy “God’s truth” package. This is sloppy and a tactic that Robert Gagnon is masterful at. Please be careful to not follow in those Gagnonesque assumptions-to-truth footsteps. Building to your narrative and reading into Scripture makes the Bible a sacred weapon often being used against LGBTQ Christians.
As to your take on Romans 1, dig in deep into Jim Brownson’s work, laying your assumptions aside, with a willingness to see anew. You are neglecting the nuances of history and context. Clearly, my opinion.
I am glad you read Karen Keen’s new book (as have I), and that they two of you are engaged in an exchange. I think Karen makes excellent points. Please be intentional about being a listener and learner to contrary points. This conversation of sexual orientation and gender intersecting faith is expanding and becoming more scholarly.
Listen to the input of those on the margins. You often appear to hear some points, and not the full development of topics. For me personally, the most tension-producing moment of your presentation was when you seemed to want to distance yourself and the conservative church/traditionalists from Karen’s statement:
“Unable to achieve celibacy but barred from forming covenant relationships, a gay person is caught in an impossible situation. Not surprisingly, this can lead to deep depression, suicidal ideation, and self-destructive coping mechanisms. By accepting same-sex covenanted relationships, we take into account the psychological and physical well-being of gay people. If the humanitarian exception to the rule had been offered to Ryan Robertson [a young gay may who died of an overdose at twenty] would probably still be alive today.”
Your rebuttal including quoting Christopher Yuan’s assertion that there is no empirical evidence that ties the historical teachings of the church to suffering.
Actually, along with massive amounts of testimonials and anecdotal evidence, there are studies. In the May 2018 V 54, Issue 5, pages 644-651, there is one such study “Association of Religiousity With Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt.”
Here is a snapshot of that study:
I wish more studies were available. I am sure in time, that information will be collected and published. Sometimes, during periods of shifting and change, we don’t realize our own complicit contributions to problems, or have the resources to prove what is needed.
While I hike, I often listen to books on Audible. I’ve been plowing my way through a 25 hour biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Interestingly, on my hike this morning, I was listening to a section from the period of about 1953 to 1956. Eisenhower had pushed for integration of the military (Truman proposed it, Eisenhower made it real), desegregation of public schools, and an end to Jim Crow laws. Shocking to our today sensibilities, civil rights was not seen as a “big” issue to the white population in general. The country was operating from a dominant white supremacy mode. People just did not think inequality was an issue or a problem.
Sure, some folks realized there was some discrimination going on, yeah, some people may have been dying, but heck, it wasn’t their fault, they weren’t doing it. There were no hard statistics on it—just stories, a few events here and there, but no real proof that real damage was being done and that change needed to happen. Eisenhower, despite the pushback from the comfortable segments of the population, did what was right by starting to dismantle discrimination in the military, schools, and in society.
He did it without the aid of “empirical data.” He did what was right because he could see the consequences and damages done to the minority.
So too, our relationship with God and belief in Him is not “provable” with empirical data. We can tell our stories of Him, our relationship to Him, and live our lives before others so that they might see Him in our actions.
So much of life, significant relationships and important decisions that we make are not based on empirical data.
So, I find your need for “empirical data” on the direct connection between the declined mental health status of many LGBTQ people and their link to a traditional non-affirming faith community disturbing.
All you need do is listen and read, Sean. You may say you do both. Well, listen better and read better.
I am sure it is uncomfortable to imagine that the teachings you promote are doing harm to others. When you specifically mentioned Ryan Robertson’s death, it was as close as I could have come to standing up and confronting you. Your soft words and good intentions still kill the spirit, body, and soul of LGBTQ people. Your attempt to distance your teaching and self from taking responsibility of harm was/is repulsive to me.
I wished I could place you face-to-face in that moment with his parents, my friends, Linda and Rob, and watch you distance yourself from the pain that traditional “historical” teachings have caused to them, their family, and in the death of their son.
One of the greatest benefits of relationship with God is the comfort of knowing you are supremely loved and accepted by the Creator. You may say what you imagine to be kind and truthfilled words to an LGBTQ person, but your rules, inferred need to change, or to be celibate, your interpretation of Scripture, your books, your speaking, your writing—all speak to non-acceptance of who they intrinsically are.
Surely you have read enough Brene Brown to understand the power and destruction in shaming. What you do and say to LGBTQ people is shaming. Wrap it in loving words, say it kindly, it remains shaming.
You say, along with others, these guidelines and rules are not yours, but God’s. You, along with others, fall back on scriptural inerrancy. Not only do none of us adhere to all the instructions and guidelines of the Bible, we all, all of us, read through our own lenses formed over a lifetime.
We allow the BIble in so many aspects to grow with time, to inform us as we know more about the natural world around us. Ancient peoples saw through the only lenses they had. They did not know, nor could they comprehend what we comprehend and understand today about so many topics.
Human sexuality is complex and has unfolded since the days when ancients did not even realize that a woman contributed an egg to the baby-making process. Male-female roles too have radically changed. Though the ancients would have seen me as less than, I am not less than simply because I am a woman. We are trying to to lift the extreme patriarchal bondage of the Bible off women, well, at least some of us are. Built into that biblical patriarchal system are strict gender binaries around roles and sex.
There was absolutely no concept of equal male-male sexual relationships in ancient times. The world was structured differently. Patriarchy has been in play for over 12,000 years and has only had a significant challenge to this system of domination in about the past 70 years in the US.
The shaming, disgust, excessive lust, abusive nature, and dominance of men taking the penetrative role over other men and males and treating them “as a woman” was happening then. We now know, if we choose to allow the experts in these areas to inform us, that there is a spectrum of sexual orientation. This knowledge has been unfolding significantly since the 1970s.
Paul could have never imagined what we know today. Paul could have never imagined a world not shaped by patriarchy and binaries.
For him, or any other biblical writer or historian of the time, to imagine a same-sex couple in love, mutual commitment, and creating a life and family in the first century is anachronistic. It would have been a ridiculous concept.
In one of your final points, you posited: “Shouldn’t nations with a minimal evangelical presence have substantially less suicides among the gay and lesbian population? Wouldn’t LGBTQ people in gay-affirming nations be more emotionally healthy than those in nations, such as America, with a significant evangelical non-affirming presence? The answer has to be yes.”
You continued in your talk, and on your blog:
“In reality, though, the Netherlands is perhaps the most gay-affirming nation in the world. It was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001 and has the highest percentage of people who affirm same-sex marriage in any EU country. And yet, according to one study, gay men in the Netherlands are at a much higher risk for suicidality than heterosexual men.”
(ASIDE: I want to point out that statistics about studies done in the Netherlands have long been misused. One of the most popular ones in the past has been “the Dutch Marriage Study.” I expose that misuse here.)
I looked at that study and discussed it at length this week with a friend who is a Norwegian citizen and theologian to help me understand the contents of the study. (Norway and the Netherlands share much in common with respect to attitudes and religious life.) Context, always caring about context.
Some of her comments:
“In general, Sean McDowell shows how little he knows about Norwegian history and the religious life here.
Yes, the Norwegian society is moving towards increasing inclusion.
– There is very little data on how LGBT life has changed, but the little we have shows the same as in the US. That through legalization and societal change, suicide rates go down.
There is no data at all showing differences between LGBT in conservative Christian circles compared to LGBT in affirming circles.
– Therefore he has no grounds to make a statement that conservatives don’t affect suicide rates. We actually don’t know that statistically. But from personal experiences, conservatives have a negative impact on mental health also in Norway.
The generally sunnier data in Norway compared to the US also have to do with the society as a whole.
In 1993 the Partnership Law was a fact.
In 2009 it was replaced by the Marriage Law (giving same-sex couples the exact same rights given to opposite-sex couples, including adoption and artificial insemination for women, no surrogacy as that’s illegal in Norway for all.
In 2016 the Norwegian State Church (the largest church by far in Norway, around 70% are members) voted that same-sex couples were allowed to marry within the church. They wrote a secondary liturgy that was approved and put into effect in 2017. (Both views on marriage are upheld in the Norwegian State Church. Most members are for and some are against, but it was decided it was not a church splitting issue.)”
Sean, you are still looking for numbers and studies that may not yet exist. Just listen. Seek out those who have been harmed by what you think are traditional teaching. If you want to hear, you will hear.
Several years ago, my pastor at the time appreciated that I was willing to go places and have conversation he could not or would not have. He said, “Kathy, there is a voice crying in the wilderness. I can’t hear it, but I think you can. Go listen.” Might you concede that affirming Christians, including me may be accessing God’s revealed truth that you cannot yet hear?
Sean, what we do know is that marriage is important and it does matter. We keep saying this, but somehow only connect this wisdom to heterosexual couples. Empirical data actually does exist on this. So, when a person is restricted from being married to the person to whom they choose to commit to, there are legal, psychological, mental health, and social consequences.
You mentioned that you’ve told your wife that you would risk everything if you found out God was not in agreement with you or if you needed to change your mind, or something along those lines.
I wish I could believe you on this. You’ve constructed a reputation as being an expert on this topic amongst your community. Your income and reputation are strongly tied to maintaining these views. Your jobs are anchored to these views.
I would like to believe that you would do what is right and in sync and obedience to God at all costs. We say we would lay down our lives for another, but would we give up the benefits of the lives we’ve constructed? I wish I believed you would do that, but I do not. You are after all, “Josh McDowell’s son.” (If you recall, it was your father’s books that were the final push to my conversion in the 1980s.)
If you were to change your mind and come out as affirming, you would likely lose reputation, jobs, and book royalties because that too would collapse. Those are huge sacrifices. I’ve watched many people lose all those things.
I suggest you watch Stan Mitchell’s Facebook page and read his stories as he interacts with LGBTQ people, parents, and pastors. There is great need for pastors to guide, heal, mend, and comfort those whom the church, and teachings like yours, has all but devoured. More pastors and leaders are bravely making that choice. The pastor of my home church in Nevada made that choice about two years ago.
Sean, at some point, someone you love deeply, whether that person is a child, a teen, or an adult, is going to come out to you. You will not be able to Bible, apologist, or reason them out of who they were created to be. When the cost of a particular life is of greater import to you than reputation and income, you may reassess your beliefs with new eyes and heart.
It’s going to happen.
I know you have read my book. If you would, I would like you to invest time in my two recent videos from a presentation I did in Austin. The two parts are long, but they are filled with research, history and insights. Part 1 and Part 2. I construct strong foundations on which to place ancient texts, translations, and modern understanding of sexuality for greater clarity.
I am open to further conversation, but not public debate. I dislike the posturing for the adoring crowds that is inherent in such forums.
On another topic, and for God’s sake, and I mean it, get rid of Alan Shlemon’s absolutely ignorant chapter on transpeople in your book. It is embarrassingly ill-informed.
UPDATED NOVEMBER 17, 2018: I receive a response from McDowell which did not engage most of the issues I raised, most problematically, the need for “empirical data” of damage by the conservative faith community on LGBTQ people. Predictably, he is sticking with the “historical view.”