There is a recent spike in American Christians voicing concern about their religious freedom and the threat of persecution. In fact, President Donald Trump’s latest speech at the United Nations was largely centered on religious liberty.
But what is it that Christians actually mean when they say they feel disrespected, hated or even persecuted by the culture, the media or even the government for being “biblical” or “believing the teachings of the Bible?”
Let’s be honest — most Christians who complain that they are under attack for their ”biblical” beliefs are talking about their views on LGBTQ people, same-sex marriage, and/or the ordination of LGTBQ people as clergy. The biggest disagreement within the American church today revolves around the role of LGBTQ people in the church. More broadly, some white American Christians feel persecuted or under siege because their religion is becoming less and less understood as the default faith, and they are dismayed that more and more young people are turning away from the church altogether.
Christians upset about the perceived shrinking of the church’s cultural and societal influence, however, should first strive to understand why young people are leaving. When young people are asked why they left institutional Christianity, the most common explanation is the way churches and Christians have historically mistreated LGBTQ people, and what they continue to say and do regarding the rights and inclusion of LGBTQ people today.
There are complex theological and scriptural issues in play regarding ecclesial matters such as whether a church should perform same-sex marriages or ordain LGBTQ people, and I believe Christians of good will can agree to disagree. But there are also some core theological principles that are not up for debate, and which anyone who claims to follow Jesus and the teachings of the Bible must acknowledge.
First, all the initials of LGBTQ represent people made in the image of God, and we have to start there. LGBTQ people are beloved of God, and as all human beings, are made in the image of God, as Genesis 1:27 teaches us. To me, that means affirming and protecting the dignity and civil rights of LGBTQ people in U.S. society and around the world. That also means that churches, regardless of their theological views or biblical interpretations on these matters, must seek to repent and repair the harm inflicted on LGBTQ people. Too many LGBTQ Christians have felt crushed by the rejection they have experienced from the churches in which they grew up. We should also lift up the particular love and care for marginalized people that Jesus has taught us (Matthew 25:31-46).
As an evangelical Christian myself, I do believe that the Bible should be central to how we decide hard questions, and a commitment to the authority of scripture should cross all our differences. However, current biblical scholarship and reflection have shown that issues related to LGBTQ identity, orientation and behavior are more complex than has often been taught in evangelical churches. To give one example, there are credible, orthodox Biblical scholars who have shown that the idea of committed Christian same-sex relationships was likely not envisioned in Biblical times, and therefore some of the most often used verses in the Bible to condemn same-sex relationships may not apply to a healthy, covenantal relationship at all.
Equally important is the matter of consistency. Many Christians who claim to be persecuted for following scripture regarding LGBTQ people exhibit an upsetting lack of faithfulness to scripture in how they treat poor people, about whom there are more than 2,000 verses in the Bible. Many of these same Christians also stumble over their obligation to welcome the stranger. Let me be 100% clear on this — a follower of Jesus cannot support tearing immigrant families apart at the southern border, and those who do are disobeying Christ and the word of God.
Can you imagine if Jesus sat on the sidelines? What if Jesus, instead of nurturing the sick and feeding the hungry, stepped back in fear that his actions would be categorized as “too political”? Christians, in elected office or not, have a habit of ignoring or watering down the boldness of Jesus’s discipleship and love.
Miraculously, Jesus has survived all of us Christians.
The conversation about faith must extend beyond debates about the text of the Bible. How do followers of Christ care for their neighbor, regardless of ZIP code, race, ethnicity or religion? Shouldn’t that stand as the standard metric for Christianity? In the end, faith without works is dead.
During the tour for my latest book, “Christ in Crisis: Why we need to reclaim Jesus,” I passed through Seattle. During my visit, I had the opportunity to speak with many former and current activists trying to manage the crisis of homelessness affecting the city. If we were to tackle this issue through a Jesus lens, it would become immediately clear that our treatment of individuals experiencing homelessness mirrors our treatment of Jesus himself.
This is a call to reclaim who Jesus really was. Jesus’ name has been sabotaged and weaponized, used by some Christians to legitimize bigotry and hate.
However, people of faith and people of no faith, Christians and non-Christians alike, can glean something powerful from the way Jesus conducted his life. In the bitter polarity of our nation and time, we can all come together to recognize that when we protect and support our society’s most vulnerable, we are all better off.
I do believe that state coercion of people of faith is something that all of us committed to a pluralistic and democratic society should vigorously oppose, whether it comes from the left or the right. Yet that must be balanced against a second principle, which is that one group’s liberty must not come at the expense of another’s. As Christians, let’s make sure we are known by the way we love our neighbors as ourselves, especially those different from us, and the way we treat all human beings as image bearers of God.