This summer, while at my favorite lake in Maine, I read Andrew Marin's powerful book, Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community.
Marin has an incredible story. During the summer after his freshman year at a prominent evangelical university, three of his best (Christian) friends told him they were gay/lesbian. In response, Marin, a straight, thoroughly evangelical Christian, felt called by God to immerse himself in the gay and lesbian community. He decided to spend almost all his free time there, listening and learning. He now lives with his wife in Boystown, a LGBT (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, and Transgendered) neighborhood in Chicago. For most of the last ten years, he has spent thousands and thousands of hours listening to gay folk, weeping with them, hugging them, and trying to see the world from their perspective.
Some of what they told him, we already know: There is a huge gulf between evangelical Christians and gays/lesbians. To a significant degree, because of our failures, they mistrust, despise, and are enormously hostile to evangelicals. In fact, they view us as homophobic bigots.
Marin also discovered a deep spiritual longing in this community. By patient, persistent listening -- even when wounded people vented their anger at Marin because of harsh, unloving experiences with evangelicals -- Marin eventually won their respect and the opportunity to talk about the love of God in Christ.
Marin's book is full of wrenching stories. John, the former president of the student body at one of the most famous evangelical universities, told Marin how he had prayed every night for 15 years that God would change his gay orientation, but it never happened. The majority of LGBT people Marin has met have begged God to change them. But for most of them, little or nothing changed. So they reject a God who, they believe, ignores their fervent, desperate prayers.
Marin points out that evangelicals have gone to great lengths to share the gospel with people of almost every culture. We study others' beliefs, incarnationally move into their neighborhoods, share their lives, and open our hearts and minds to understand another culture so we can share the goodness of Christ. We have done this everywhere -- except in the gay/lesbian community.
Marin has done that -- and shares what he has learned. He listens rather than judges. He avoids answering the immediate, inevitable questions: Is homosexuality a sin? Do gays and lesbians go to hell? A simple answer would end the conversation. What Marin does is shift the discussion to a larger question about God's love: When asked, "Do you think gays and lesbians are born that way?" he re-frames the question: "How do you think your genetic makeup relates to God's desire to be called your Father [or Mother]?" (p. 182).
Marin's book is full of both powerful stories and excellent suggestions on how to build bridges to the gay/lesbian community. This is an enormously important book that all Christians -- especially evangelicals -- should read.
That is not to say that the book has no weaknesses. I think that Marin is too individualistic and lacks an adequate understanding of the church and the communal responsibility of the Christian community for moral discernment and mutual accountability. Marin says that when a gay person tells a Christian that God has told him it is OK to be gay, it is wrong to "defend a traditional interpretation of God's posture toward homosexuality." That is to "step in between the other person and God" (p. 175). Instead, one should let God speak to that person "personally and individually telling each of his beloved children what he feels is best for their life" (p. 129). That is simply too individualistic.
On the other hand, Marin is surely right in stressing God's timetable. We too often rush into demanding instant change rather than waiting for the Holy Spirit to move on the divine schedule.
Whether or not one agrees with every line in Marin's book, it is clear that Marin is an evangelical who is unconditionally committed to biblical authority, and he longs to remove the barriers that prevent large numbers of gays and lesbians from embracing the gospel.
Why is this book so important? Because gays and lesbians, just like everyone else, are made in the image of God and loved by God. Because the issue of gays and lesbians is one of the hottest, most controverted topics today. Because evangelicals are almost universally viewed as homophobic bigots. And because our lack of love, relationships, and understanding prevent us both from sharing the gospel with this important community and also from making progress on other crucial agendas.
I hope and pray that many evangelicals become leaders in a new kind of sensitive, listening dialogue with gays and lesbians. That does not mean that we should change our position on homosexual practices or gay marriage. But evangelicals should provide a loving place where gays and lesbians can freely express their views even as evangelicals remain firmly committed to the biblical teaching that God's will for sexual activity is in a life-long marriage between a man and a woman.
Evangelicals should learn from Ed Dobson. Ed was Jerry Falwell's vice president in the early years of Moral Majority. But Ed became dissatisfied with Falwell's harshness and left to pastor the largest evangelical church in Grand Rapids. While there, he became involved in ministering to the gay community. They loved him, even though he did not hide his belief that any sexual activity outside a life-long marriage between a man and woman was sinful. Members of Dobson's church attacked him for welcoming gays and lesbians to his church and developing a strong ministry to those dying of AIDS. Dobson's response: "When I die, if someone stands up and says, 'Ed Dobson loved homosexuals,' then I will have accomplished something with my life."
If Jerry Falwell's vice president can speak and live like that, then surely many evangelicals across the country can do the same. Let's learn to listen, learn from, and above all, love gays and lesbians. God does.
Ron Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action, a professor and director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a member of the Red Letter Christians.