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First Thoughts

The Real Difference Between Traditional and Gay-Affirming Christians

A Gracious Invitation

In 1909, The First Baptist Church of Jacksonville founded Riverside Baptist Church as one of dozens of churches it was planting around the city. A lot has changed in those 115 years. For starters, the church is now called Riverside Church at Park and King. More significantly, the church now openly affirms every manifestation of the LGBTQ+ lifestyle.

The gay-affirming stance of Riverside Church places it at odds with the traditional understanding of biblical sexual ethics held by churches like First Baptist. That much is obvious. Also obvious is that most of the time, when these disagreements are revealed, people get angry and hostile.

It was out of concern for those issues, that the church’s current pastor, Adam Gray, graciously invited me to his church to have a conversation about these matters in a way that was both candid and kind. They hosted me a few weeks ago and called the event, Truth in Love: Disagreement without Disparagement around Human Sexuality.

An Honest Disagreement

Pastor Gray and I understood each other since before the event was scheduled. I know him to be a man who is very clear about embracing the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ lifestyle. He knows me to be a man who has been equally clear about the sinfulness of that lifestyle. Neither one of us has played games or pretended to be something we are not.

That means we are doing a rare thing in today’s world. We are having an honest disagreement. Even more rare is the ability to have such a disagreement without rhetorically gouging out each other’s eyeballs.

We both believe these issues are important and impact many people who aren’t going to agree any time soon. We also both think it will elevate the conversation to be able to speak candidly while preserving interpersonal kindness. That was the purpose of the event.

What We Share in Common

Our public conversation emphasized that we both care about the Bible and we both care about people. Depending on which side you are on, that might surprise you. Conservative Christians might express doubt that a pastor who rejects a traditional understanding of human sexuality could value the Bible, but Pastor Gray was at pains to make clear that he wants to do this. Similarly, gay-affirming Christians would doubt that a man like me could care for people in the LGBTQ+ community when I insist that they are living in sin.

I take Pastor Gray at his word, and I think he takes me at mine. But we are not both correct. We are both sincere, but one of us is sincerely wrong.

The Real Difference

Both Pastor Adam and I value people and the Bible, but we don’t value them equally. In fact, Pastor Adam values people and their experiences in such a way that he insists that our interpretation of Scripture conform to the experience of people. In this way, he places people and their experience in authority over the text of Scripture.

You can see the priority of experience in everything from his testimony, where he decided to embrace what he called the beauty of same-sex relationships, to the way he handles texts of Scripture. When Pastor Adam reads passages in Scripture about homosexuality, he interprets them very differently than passages in the Bible about other topics. When he engages Scripture as it addresses other matters, he always handles it in a dramatically more straightforward way than the passages on homosexuality, which always get a lengthy explanation of why they can’t really mean what they seem to say. You can also see the imposition of experience in the questions he received from conservative Christians in the audience who just don’t really buy his claim that Scripture is as important to him as he claims.

For me, the shoe is on the other foot. I value both people and Scripture, but in a way that insists that our experience must conform to Scripture. In that way, I place Scripture as the authority over people.

You can see this insistence on Scriptural authority in everything from my testimony, where I revealed how I came to believe that God’s Word must be obeyed even when I don’t understand it, to the way I handle texts of Scripture. When I read passages of Scripture about homosexuality, I treat them the same way as texts about murder, rape, reviling, blasphemy, drunkenness, and dishonesty. I employ a straightforward style of interpretation that assumes the reason that every reference in the Bible to homosexuality is negative is because God disapproves of the practice. You can also see my insistence on biblical authority in the questions I received from the gay-affirming members of the audience. When they hear me say that I love members of the LGBTQ+ community, they just don’t buy it because I don’t affirm their behavior.

You can judge my evaluation for yourself by watching a video of the event here.


The Problem of Authority

The demarcation between traditional and gay-affirming Christians is the line of authority. Traditional Christians think we should always place our experience underneath the authority of God’s Word—even when that experience is about something as personally and potentially painful as our sexuality. Gay-affirming Christians think what is important is their personal joy and fulfillment about their preferred sexuality. They truly cannot understand why passages from a text that is thousands of years old should ever keep someone from engaging in practices that make them feel happy and fulfilled.

Of course, traditional and gay-affirming Christians cannot both be correct. Someone is right, and someone is wrong. If traditional Christians are incorrect and experience is what counts, we have needlessly brought pain into the lives of people who are doing nothing wrong. If gay-affirming Christians are wrong and it is God’s authority that matters, then they have disregarded the eternal truth of Scripture and are guilty of grievous sin.

The problem for the gay-affirming argument is that it is God who makes people, determines the boundaries of their sexuality, and has revealed those boundaries in his Word that remains just as relevant today as it was when it was first written (1 Peter 1:23-25). The problem for gay-affirming Christians is that every human being is desperately wicked and deceives themselves into hating the things God loves and loving the things God hates (Jeremiah 17:9). The problem for gay-affirming Christians is that the path into the grace of God continues to be found, not in a stubborn insistence that our sins are good, but in repentance that begs God for mercy in the midst of our disobedience. As Jesus himself said, “If you don’t repent, you will perish.” (Luke 13:5).

The stakes could not be higher in this debate about biblical authority. And all of us who love our LGBTQ+ neighbors must pray that God will soften their hearts and lead them to do what is required of every human being. They must leave their life of sin and run into the merciful arms of Jesus to receive his forgiveness and transformation.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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