There is an interesting debate happening at Christianity Today over some recent public remarks made by the president of Exodus International, an organization that supports gay Christians who seek to be faithful in their sex lives. In this thoughtful interview with The Atlantic, the president, Alan Chambers, said that Exodus is not about “curing” homosexuals of their sexual orientation—what the organization’s many secular critics often call “praying away the gay.” He said that “99.9″ percent of the time, gay Christians will continue to struggle with same-sex attraction. He said,
We’re here to support people who are in conflict at the place where their attractions meet their faith… Our goal isn’t to snap our fingers and pretend those struggles don’t exist. But we have a conviction that same-sex sexual expression is incompatible with a healthy Christian sexual ethic. It’s not that we don’t have attractions. It’s just that we have a priority higher than our sexual orientation.
I don’t find these words controversial or surprising, especially given what I read and reflected on after reading Wesley Hill’s beautiful memoir about living as a celibate gay Christian. What landed Chambers in hot water, however, was his response when asked by the interviewer if he believes that a gay person “won’t go to hell, as long as he or she accepts Jesus Christ as personal savior?” He responded [emphasis mine]:
My personal belief is that everyone has the opportunity to know Christ, and that while behavior matters, those things don’t interrupt someone’s relationship with Christ. But that’s a touchy issue in the conservative group I run with. And there are definitely differing opinions on it. I don’t think you could even look at any one denomination and find that everyone believes exactly the same thing.
On the other hand, I do believe there is a right and wrong. I believe there is clarity on the issue of all sexuality in the Bible — on every aspect of it.
Let me say first of all that, if I were him, I wouldn’t have said it like that. (On the other hand, he was speaking extemporaneously to an interviewer who was likely unsympathetic with his views. Cut him some slack!) Of course any sinful behavior potentially “interrupts” our relationship with God. Forgiveness is available, but we need to repent and resolve to change by the Spirit’s power. The consequences of persistently failing to do so are spiritually dangerous. I agree wholeheartedly with Ben Witherington, a fellow Wesleyan and scholar who said this, in response to Chambers:
One cannot save one’s self by certain patterns of behavior but one can certainly impede or even destroy one’s relationship with God through sin whether moral or intellectual sin. God’s saving grace and forgiveness is not cheap grace, and it does not rule out such a possibility.
As Witherington rightly says, our salvation isn’t complete when we first receive justifying grace and new birth. It’s complete only on the other side of resurrection. Backsliding and falling away from saving faith, as Wesley warned, is a frightening possibility. To say the least, it isn’t pastorally helpful that increasingly loud voices within the church say, contrary to scripture, tradition, and reason, that homosexual behavior isn’t sinful. (I’ve obviously written and said a few things about that over the past several years.)
At the same time, however, I’m sympathetic with Chambers. He was asked, in so many words, if gay Christians who, unlike him, live in a same-sex, monogamous relationship are, as a result, going to hell. And he said, in so many words, no.
How is that not the correct answer? For one thing, we don’t get to say who does or doesn’t go to hell. God makes those decisions—which is fortunate for us. As even the curmudgeon Jonah well knew, God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
Also, Chambers is correct to discern, in this followup essay he wrote for CT, that many evangelical critics are singling out homosexual sin.
For anyone to point at one group of people with a certain set of proclivities and condemn them for those things while exonerating (or ignoring) another group with over proclivities is hypocritical and inconsistent. Can a believer persist in willful pride and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful alcoholism and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful gluttony and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful heterosexual pornography and still inherit the kingdom of God? If you aren’t consistently and regularly calling all sin sinful, and calling all people (including yourself) to holy living, then how can you do so for those living homosexually? And, if you are unwilling to pronounce the same eternal sanctions on all willful sinning believers as you do on the gay and lesbian willful sinner, how can you justify that?
His insight about “willful sinning believers” is, I think, on point. None of us Christians, I hope, wants to commit sin. But the fact is that we do sin, willfully or not, consciously or not. And we often excuse our own little sins—even sins like pride, which the Church has always identified as the chief sin. Sin is pervasive and it has great power to deceive us regarding the ways in which we commit it. The fact is that all of us will likely die with unconfessed sin for which we haven’t repented. To believe otherwise is to underestimate sin’s power.
Yet we Christians hope and believe that, in spite of our sin, we have a Savior whose suffering, death, and resurrection provide a way for all of us who call upon him to be saved.