Not long ago, a former student of mine wrote an article for The Atlantic describing his experience coming out as gay at Liberty University, the evangelical school where I teach. He described how, after confiding his secret to me, I responded by saying, “I love you.” After the story was published, I received messages from across the country, some taking issue with my response, some affirming it. Either way, the messages indicated that assuring a gay student at a Christian university that he was loved was somehow remarkable.
Perhaps, then, the most helpful feature of Glenn T. Stanton’s book Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor: Being Friends in Grace & Truth (Moody Publishers) is simply that it exists. Stanton is director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family. The Southern Poverty Law Center (which supports gay rights) lists the Colorado Springs organization as one of a dozen major groups that allegedly “help drive the Religious Right’s anti-gay crusade.” It’s noteworthy, then, to encounter a Focus on the Family scholar—someone known for debating LGBT advocates across the country—who authored a book calling Christians to love, befriend, and respect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.
The book reflects a shift in both the tone and tactics of an organization that critics charge with linking homosexuality with pedophilia and otherwise misrepresenting social science research. While Stanton does not waver in affirming the orthodox biblical view of sexual relations as designed for one man and one woman within marriage, neither does he waver in affirming that Christians must handle LGBT issues and people with love and grace.
A Unique Situation
Stanton notes that today’s church is facing unprecedented questions. “The mainstreaming of homosexuality in society and the redefinition of marriage and the family,” he writes, are “historically and culturally unique” phenomena. And in our pluralistic society, traditional views on marriage and sexuality seem increasingly weird and bigoted.
But Stanton reminds us that the Bible calls each generation to understand the particularities of its culture in order to better serve it. With no obvious precedent for the situation the church finds itself in today, the way it deals with LGBT issues will unavoidably set a pattern for the future, for better or worse. Getting it right—or at least better than we have so far—is of crucial importance.
The book’s strength lies in providing clarity on fundamental points of the discussion (including definitions of terms as basic as “gay,” “transgender,” and “queer”). It also helpfully treats more complex questions, like whether to attend a gay wedding or how to welcome unrepentant, partnered gay and lesbian couples into a congregation without compromising church teaching. Often, Stanton says, we are in greater need of basic information than moral passion:
We can’t talk thoughtfully and productively about what we don’t understand. And the fault is not in not knowing the facts and truth about something, for not one of us can understand everything accurately. The fault lies in assuming and acting like we do.
Instead, Stanton urges us to “step out of the safe, neat Christian boxes” we’ve made and cultivate understanding and friendships with those who are LGBT. But we should not, Stanton emphasizes, make such friendships only to share the gospel. We should share the gospel just as we always might with anyone we are in relationship with, but developing friendships solely for that reason, Stanton writes, is “not a friendship; it’s a project.”
The first step toward understanding and friendship is getting beyond stereotypes. The LGBT movement, Stanton points out, is much like the Christian community in that it draws from diverse backgrounds and moral beliefs. Drawing on his own friendships and experiences, backed by solid biblical principles, Stanton portrays gay and lesbian neighbors as authentic, three-dimensional human beings.
The book wisely—if not always winsomely—calls for both sides of the LGBT debates to come in from the extremes and look past prevailing assumptions, stereotypes, and false dichotomies. Christians especially must strive for more nuanced positions on LGBT questions. Stanton advises adopting neither what he calls the “abusive” posture at one end of the spectrum nor the “sentimental” stance at the other.
To stake out this more moderate ground, the book devotes a chapter to explaining the biblical design for human sexuality, a rendition undoubtedly at odds with the understanding of most gay-rights advocates. However, Stanton gives attention to a host of other sins addressed in the Bible—lying, arrogance, pride, and scoffing—in order to discourage undue focus on homosexuality. He remains biblically faithful while offering a humanizing and sympathetic portrayal of same-sex attraction and behavior, noting that a universal desire for intimacy lies at the root of nearly all sexual sin. The chapter closes with a list of “nonnegotiables,” beginning with the reminder that all people are made in God’s image and have “equal dignity and value.”
The book also addresses some trickier issues with wisdom, humility, and generosity. For example, Stanton’s call to accommodate transgender persons in their use of public restrooms is as commonsensical as it is refreshing. Further, the book provides helpful, practical examples of churches and Christians who have handled various relationships and questions with love and grace, both inside and outside the faith.
Despite offering the church such a singular and important contribution, Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor has weaknesses both in style and substance. For instance, Stanton’s overly earnest attempts at folksiness fall flat more often than not, and the jokes he relays from conversations don’t translate well into writing.
More serious is Stanton’s sometimes facile treatment of key points of debate. He proclaims, for example, that Christians cannot support same-sex marriage as a civil matter because it would pave the way for an “experimental family form.” But this line of attack is insufficient to refute same-sex-marriage arguments that currently prevail outside the church and are gaining traction within. To say that same-sex marriage is an experiment is not to demonstrate that it is unjust or unwise. Our public witness on the sanctity of marriage has to go beyond opposing departures from the status quo.
Similarly, in calling for mutual respect from both sides of the cultural divide, Stanton challenges those who liken opponents of same-sex marriage to racists and Nazis. But in dismissing all such analogies as “simply beyond the pale,” he misses an opportunity not merely to expose their faultiness but also to sympathetically acknowledge why some gay-rights advocates find them persuasive. Inflammatory charges of bigotry may be grossly unfair, but readers need to know why.
These faults aside, Stanton deserves applause for exhorting believers to love their LGBT neighbors unconditionally. His book may indeed hasten the day when such an idea is truly unremarkable.
Karen Swallow Prior teaches English at Liberty University. She is the author of Fierce Convictions—The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson).
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