A "farewell, Brian McLaren" moment, or not
I recently received this note from a reader of my books, someone I had met on a trip to Asia a few years back:
I read recently about your recent stand on homosexuality ... Don’t know if everything is correct – but this was my comment on that article:,
“I have regarded Brian as my mentor in coping with expressing my Christian faith in the postmodern world but now I have to break ranks with him - it leaves me devastated. "Neither do I condemn you - go and sin no more" the words of Jesus in the situation of the woman caught in adultery gives me guidance on this issue - "not to condemn" is not the same "it is not sin". To use a supra concept of "Loving God and Loving Neighbour" to excuse what is clearly sin in the Bible is to dilute the fundamental of obeying the Bible for its teaching authority in our lives in defining ethical behaviour - what else will happen next?
Brian my dear friend, thank you for journeying with me and opening my eyes to see my faith being worked out in a post modern world - your journey has taken you in a different direction from where I want to go - I feel lost as to who will be my next guidepost, but I will carry on this journey with Jesus as the author and finisher of my faith ...”,
I met you when you were in [Asia] some years ago. If you get to read this and would like to respond it will be great but otherwise it’s ok. God bless you brother.
Thanks for sending me your comment. I appreciate your warmth and feel your sadness in needing to (as you say) break ranks with me. There is a lot I'd like to say - but I'll just offer three (actually four) brief comments.
First, as you probably know, I'm not a "we have to keep ranks" type of guy. One of the characteristics I most appreciate about "a generous orthodoxy" or "a new kind of Christianity" is the freedom to stay unified and stay in fellowship even when we disagree. In fact, if we only "keep ranks" with those with whom we agree, it pretty much guarantees we won't be challenged to think new thoughts and grow into new areas. So, it's important for you to know that if you hold a different view than I do, whatever the issue - I would not want to "break ranks" with you. In fact, I am continually enriched, instructed, and challenged by people who differ with me on this and other issues - and I hope the reverse could be true.
My view on human sexuality has indeed changed over a period of thirty years, and actually, the views of most conservative Christians have also been changing over that period. It wasn't too long ago that the only conservative position was, "It's a choice and an abomination." When that position became untenable due to increasing data, the conservative position evolved to "it's a changeable disposition, and we know how to change it." When fewer and fewer people who claimed to have been reoriented were able to sustain the reorientation, the position shifted to "it's a hard-to-change disposition, but it can be done with great difficulty." More recently, I hear conservatives say "the disposition may be unchangeable but the behavior is a choice, so people may choose to live a celibate life or a heterosexual life, even against their orientation." All that's to say that it would be unfair of me to break fellowship with people who are themselves on a journey, just because they aren't where I am at this point.
So I'm glad that difference doesn't need to mean division. Which brings me to a second comment ...
In many settings - some cultural, some multi-religious, some denominational, not taking a firm anti-homosexuality stance can cost you your reputation, your job, and even your life. Because you have been an outspoken supporter of my work in the past, I can see how my public stand would put you in a terrible position. If you don't publicly break ranks with me, people may practice "guilt by association," branding you a "friend of sinners," or worse - someone in ranks with a heretic. Those costs would be very high. So be assured - I don't criticize you for breaking ranks with me - and doing so in the most public way possible. I can see how even if you privately agreed with me (and I know you don't), it would be almost impossible to do otherwise than break ranks, as you say. Many of my friends have been in a similar position. I'm deeply sad about this - for both sides - but understand it.
Finally, this issue is not going to go away. A significant percentage of people are gay - I would guess around 6%. This percentage seems to be a remarkably consistent feature of every human culture and population, every denomination, every religion, including those who deny it exists among them. If each gay person has two parents, the issue affects 18% of the population. If each gay person has one sibling and one friend, we're up to 30% who are directly affected by the issue.
It's much easier to hold the line on the conservative position when nearly all gay people around you are closeted and pretending to be other than they are. Eventually for some, the pain of pretending will become greater than the pain of going public. Whenever a new son or daughter comes out of the closet, their friends and family will face a tough choice: will they "break ranks" with their family member or friend, or will they stay loyal to their family member or friend - which will require them to have others break ranks with them?
In my case, I inherited a theology that told me exactly what you said: homosexuality is a sin, so although we should not condemn (i.e. stone them), we must tell people to "go and sin no more." Believe me, for many years as a pastor I tried to faithfully uphold this position, and sadly, I now feel that I unintentionally damaged many people in doing so. Thankfully, I had a long succession of friends who were gay. And then I had a long succession of parishioners come out to me. They endured my pronouncements. They listened and responded patiently as I brought up the famous six or seven Bible passages again and again. They didn't break ranks with me and in fact showed amazing grace and patience to me when I was showing something much less to them.
Over time, I could not square their stories and experiences with the theology I had inherited. So I re-opened the issue, read a lot of books, re-studied the Scriptures, and eventually came to believe that just as the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) ... we had been wrong on this issue. In this process, I did not reject the Bible. In fact, my love and reverence for the Bible increased when I became more aware of the hermeneutical assumptions on which many now-discredited traditional interpretations were based and defended. I was able to distinguish "what the Bible says" from "what this school of interpretation says the Bible says," and that helped me in many ways.
So - many years before I learned I had members of my own close family who were gay - my view changed. As you can imagine, when this issue suddenly became a live issue in my own family, I was relieved that I was already in a place where I would not harm them as (I'm ashamed to say this) I had harmed some gay people (other people's sons and daughters) earlier in my ministry.
I know this won't be convincing to many people, but it's an honest though brief accounting of my story. I express a similar thought in my new book (p. 52). I'm addressing the issue of hostility toward other religions, something many people feel they must uphold in order to be faithful and orthodox Christians:
I think of a friend of mine from the same background of Christian fundamentalism I hail from. When his son came out, he had no support to help him accept the possibility that his son could be both gay and good. With deep ambivalence, he stood with his tradition and condemned his son. The cost -alienation from his son - was high, but it grew unspeakably higher when his son internalized the rejection and condemnation of his community and took his own life. Or I think of another friend, the mother of a gay son, also from my heritage. She came to me in secret to talk, knowing that one of my sons had come out around the same time as hers. Through tears she said, "I feel like I'm being forced to choose between my father and my son. If I affirm my son, I'm rejecting everything my father stood for. If I stand with my father, I'm rejecting my son."
In religion as in parenthood, uncritical loyalty to our ancestors may implicate us in an injustice against our descendants: imprisoning them in the errors of our ancestors. Yes, there are costs either way.
I want to add one more brief comment. You ask, if we change our way of interpreting the Bible on this issue (my words, not yours) "- what else will happen next?" Here's what I hope will happen. After acknowledging the full humanity and human rights of gay people, I hope we will tackle the elephant in the room, so to speak - the big subject of poverty. If homosexuality directly and indirectly affects 6 - 30% of the population, poverty indirectly and directly affects 60 - 100%. What would happen if we acknowledged the full humanity and full human rights of poor people? And then people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses and impairments? And then, what after that? What would happen if we acknowledged the spiritual, theological, moral value - far beyond monetary or corporate value - of the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, of seas and mountains and valleys and ecosystems? To me, Jesus' proclamation of the reign or commonwealth of God requires us to keep pressing forward, opening blind eyes, setting captives free, proclaiming God's amazing grace to all creation.
So - thanks for your note, for the warm spirit in which it was written, and for the invitation to respond. No need to be devastated. You will be fine. God bless you too, my brother! I hope our paths cross again soon. In friendship, as always - Brian