Today, we’re confronted with words, phrases, and controversies that just a few years ago no one could have imagined: same-sex marriage, sexual orientation, gender identity — even the concept of “gay Christian.”
In her latest book, Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield helps to clarify these issues. Such debates — as we’ve seen too many times — are heated and divisive, even within the church. In her book, Butterfield helps us untangle the arguments; she gives insights into the mindsets and worldviews in play. And she shows the church a faithful and productive way forward.
ByFaith spoke with her about a few of the key points in “Openness Unhindered.”
Q: Where did the title come from? What does it mean?
Our essence of humanity is found in Genesis 1:27: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created them.”
A: The title, “Openness Unhindered,” comes from the last two words in the book of Acts: “And [Paul] stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28:30-31). Paul was open and unhindered in spite of shipwrecks, betrayal, slander, beatings, imprisonment, and loneliness. Paul could be open and unhindered in his service to the Lord because he learned how to apply faith to the facts. Faith does not make the facts of life disappear. Faith puts them in a new light — and in a new proximity to the power of the Lord Jesus Christ to make ways of escape that did not exist before, to give hope in the midst of hopelessness, and to change our hearts, our enemies, and our futures.
Q: Pride is a common stumbling block for people coming to faith. For you, the concept looked different and perhaps more revealing of identity issues.
A: I don’t agree that pride looked different in my case than it does for most people. I think that pride is at the center of the sexual-autonomy movement that we see today, both in expressions of LGBT rights and abortion rights, and, in my case, the fuel behind my sexual lust for women. Why? Because it is pride that says that we know ourselves and our needs better than God does. It is pride that declares God’s truth as an act of personal discrimination. It is pride that says that personal autonomy is a higher virtue than the life of the unborn. It was my pride that made me reject God’s diagnosis: My pride said that my sexual lust for women was “who I am” — a reflection of a morally neutral reality. It was God’s Word that said that my sexual desire for women was a distortion of who I am as an image bearer of a holy God, a distortion that has made me both guilty and corrupt (Romans 5:18).
Q: When you discuss your conversion you describe repentance as “bittersweet business.” Tell us what you have learned about repentance.
A: Repentance is a gift from God, a fruit of Christian living (Matthew 3:8), and the only threshold to God’s Throne of Grace that exists. To reject repentance is to despise the blood of Christ. To say that we do not need to repent is to call God a liar (1 John 1:10). You cannot bypass repentance to get to grace. Repentance changes the believer. Repentance is the balm that keeps the heart lilting to God’s will. Repentance, though, must be understood in the context of the doctrine of sin as we see it in Scripture. As hard as it is for us to believe this about ourselves, we all have been distorted by original sin, we are all daily distracted by actual sin, and we all are hourly manipulated by indwelling sin — and by “we” I refer here to believers. It is repentance that allows us to stand with the risen Christ alone (Romans 6:3-11). It is repentance that allows us to deal rightly with the way that sin is etched on our heart with a diamond pen (Jeremiah 17:1). It is repentance that allows us to know we are the adopted children of God, as only one whose heart and nature have been changed can see sin for its evil, even as we experience in the flesh its draw.
I devote an entire chapter to the doctrine of repentance in Openness Unhindered because repentance is both misunderstood and is vital to Christian living.
Community is a value of mine because it is a central practice to the church. Acts 2:42 describes this in the early church: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Q: You describe how “the concept of sexual orientation resituates sexuality from its biblical/creational context to something completely new: the foundational drive that determines and defines human identity.” What are the ramifications of this?
A: Our biblical ontology — our essence of humanity — is found in Genesis 1:27: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created them.”
The implications of this verse are far reaching. In it we see three ways that human beings have an essence that is different from all of creation: We are made in the image of God; we are distinctly male or female image bearers; we have a soul that will last forever. In this little verse we see that being born male or female is ontological — it has a human essence that cannot be changed — and that such an essence comes with moral responsibilities and constraints.
But the category of sexual orientation as a designation of personhood stands in opposition to this. It is a designation of personhood invented in the 19th century by Sigmund Freud, who declared that what separated humans from other higher mammals is that our different objects of desire made us different kinds of people and that acting on our sexual desires was central to human flourishing.
Michel Foucault, the famous French historian of ideas who tragically died of AIDS in 1984, declared that in the 19th century, “the homosexual was a new species” of humanity (“The History of Sexuality, Vol. I”). What he meant by that is that now personhood has been modernized and moved from its Judeo-Christian roots and into a psychological one. This subtle move within the history of ideas changed everything. What is the difference between experiencing unchosen homosexual desires (and driving a fresh nail into our choice of sin every day, as every Christian is called to do?) and declaring that this is just “who I am” and I cannot change? Everything.
This category of sexual orientation became an idol, first in the 19th century, giving birth to the idea that selfhood was autonomous from God, and next as reflected in the gay rights movement of the 20th century and the “gay Christian” movement of the 21st century.
Idols, of course, are predatory. The idol of sexual orientation as a form of personhood has now become, with the 2015 Obergefell Supreme Court decision, a civil right. We see that this single shift in the history of ideas — exchanging God’s ontology of personhood found in Genesis 1:27 for Freud’s — has robbed God of glory, weakened Christians’ resolve to battle sin, and opened the door to serious religious-liberty persecutions.
Q: Language is important to you. Consequently, you fear that our current language — about sexual orientation, mixed-orientation, marriage, gay Christian — is creating its own Tower of Babel in our churches. What do you mean? What do you suggest we do?
A: One of the powerful implications of George Orwell’s “1984” is this: Changing the language changes the logic. We have seen Orwellian logic played out in the world and the church as regards the sin of homosexuality. Is homosexuality sin or grace? What if it is unchosen? If we insist that others use language that emanates from sexual-orientation ideology, we change the logic of what it means to be people born in Adam who must battle sexual sin with the grace of God. Out of this mess emerged a whole plethora of new categories of self that come from sexual-orientation ideology: gay Christian, mixed-orientation marriage (a person who self-identifies as gay married to a person who self-identifies as straight). All of these made-up categories of self create excuse clauses for obedience to God’s Word.
Q: Community is an especially high value of yours. Why is that? And would you tell us how it has shaped the way you spend Sunday afternoons?
A: Community is a value of mine because it is a central practice to the church. Acts 2:42 describes this in the early church: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” We see here the fundamental characteristics of what life together in the church means. But I also have a very personal take on this. When I was in the lesbian community, someone’s home was open every night of the week, for food, fellowship, to stand between you and alcohol or suicide or depression. We were a family, and we acted like one. We shared life in a rhythm — and not by appointment only.
When I became a believer in Christ, I broke up with my girlfriend and I lost my family of choice, and that was very painful. It also seemed to me like Christians were on a starvation diet of community — and it is hard for starving people to actually eat a real meal. I often tell people that the hospitality gifts I use today I honed in my queer community. It’s important to give credit where credit is due.
There is another Bible verse that foregrounds my community zeal. Mark 10:29-30: “Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.’”
The promise that the believer will receive a hundred times as much now refers to the blessing of daily, real-life community and membership within the family of God. This means that no one is to suffer from crushing loneliness in the church. It means that every member of the church is a vital member of your family. If the church had a witness like this to the world, we would be in a much different place to share the hard truths and bitter mercies that also come with a life of faith. We are to alleviate one another’s hardships, not ignore each other’s needs for community. We must be especially sensitive to the single members of our church. They are vital brothers and sisters. They are not people who need to be fixed or fixed up. And they have urgent needs for life-giving community, and we must honor this.
Q: And could you tell us about the picnic table in your front yard? Why is it so important to your neighborhood?
A: When we moved to Durham in 2012, we wanted our neighbors to have real access to us. We wanted to create a space that was welcoming. We wanted to be transparent about the means of grace by which God infuses us with union with Christ. After reading “The Art of Neighboring,” we pilfered tips from this gem of a book to make our front yard a gathering place. Our green picnic table is a symbol of that. So is the tire swing and the open door and the water pitcher and cups and bug spray. We initiated weekly public-prayer walks, and we meet at the picnic table. Sometimes the picnic table becomes a lost-and-found for my neighbors. Sometimes it is a launch pad for coming through the front door. Either way, it moves hospitality from behind a closed door to a place accessible to all.
Especially today, Christians need to be accessible to our neighbors. As the world condemns us, our neighbors need to know that they can ask us directly to explain the accusations. Is the Bible hate speech? Do “bathroom laws” discriminate against people? A table in the front yard says please come and sit and talk and ask anything of me. Together, we can lean hard on the Bible to address all of our questions and needs.
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield is a former tenured professor of English and women’s studies at Syracuse University. She converted to Christ in 1999; her memoir, “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert,” tells the story of her conversion. She is now married to Kent, a Reformed Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, and is a home-school mother, pastor’s wife, author, and speaker.