Re-orienting Our Understanding of Sexual Orientation
Rosaria’s Message to the Church
Dr. Rosaria Butterfield said it was difficult to describe her unlikely conversion to Christianity, but settled on defining it as a mix of an alien abduction and a train wreck. ‘I lost everything but the dog,’ she said.
Butterfield was speaking September 3, 2015 at Central Avenue CRC in Holland, MI, at the invitation of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, also in Holland. ‘Her story is a gospel story and magnifies the glory and power of God’s grace. It’s also a story that challenges the church in the way they love and share the gospel with the LGBTQ community,’ explained Pastor Chip Byrd.
Butterfield’s address was based on her new book, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ.
Butterfield was raised in a ‘normal’ childhood, attended Catholic schools, and experienced a heterosexual adolescence. But there was a longing for a deeper connection with her woman friends during her college years, even while she was dating men. The shift into a lesbian mindset was subtle. Her love for the LGBT community was in step with her sexual preference, she explained. When she graduated from Ohio State University with a PhD, she left for her English teaching position at Syracuse University with a lesbian partner. ‘I had chosen the enlightened path,’ she thought.
She felt her life was happy and meaningful. She and her next partner shared many common interests and were by definition good citizens. They were involved in AIDS activism, children’s health and literacy, golden retriever rescue, and their Unitarian Universalist church.
‘It was hard to argue that she and I were anything but good citizens and caregivers. The LGBT community values hospitality and applies it with skill, sacrifice and integrity. I honed the hospitality skills I use today as a pastor’s wife in my queer community.’
Road to Change
Butterfield began reading the Bible as part of her research for a book on the religious right. ‘I took note that the Bible was an engaging literary display of every trope and type. It had edgy poetry, deep and complex philosophy, and compelling narrative stories.’ That was very interesting to an English professor. However, ‘it also embodied a worldview that I hated,’ she stated.
When Promise Keepers came to town and ‘parked their little circus’ at the university, Butterfield wrote an article published in the local paper. The article generated a lot of hate mail, but one letter from a local pastor stood out because of its tone. She responded to the letter from Pastor Ken Smith, and the seeds of friendship took root.
According to Butterfield, Smith and his wife, Floy, broke the two cardinal rules for Christians dealing with heathens like her, and that’s what kept her coming back. They didn’t share the gospel with her, and they did not invite her to church. ‘Because of these omissions to the Christian rulebook as I had come to know it, I felt that when Ken extended his hand to me in friendship, it was safe to close my hand in his. I was not Ken’s project. I was his friend.’
Using her PhD training, Butterfield began reading the Bible like she would any book, examining its authority. ‘Slowly and over time, the Bible began to take on a life and meaning that startled me. Some of my well-worn paradigms no longer stuck.’
Starting to test the logic of the Bible by looking at God’s attributes of goodness and holiness and authority Butterfield learned the Bible’s statements about sin were followed by offers of repentance and forgiveness. She also realized the Bible had the right to interrogate her life and her culture, not the other way around.
Her friends knew she was reading the Bible under the guise of research, but an encounter with her transgendered friend J. gave her ‘secret tacit permission’ to keep reading it. J., a former Presbyterian minister, then left two large milk crates of theological books on her doorstep. In Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was a note in the margin in J.’s handwriting, ‘Be careful here. Don’t forget Romans 1.’
The verse seemed to provide a haunting literary echo to Genesis 3,where Eve’s desire to live independently of God’s authority had earlier made perfect sense to Butterfield. ‘The two chapters – one in Genesis and one in Romans – stood out as bookends of my life. But not just my life; it is what ails the world.’ Butterfield reasoned.
After reading Romans 1:29-32, Butterfield came to the conclusion that homosexuality is not the end-point of the problem, but one step in the journey. It is consequential rather than causal, rooted in original sin. ‘For the first time in my life, I wondered if I was wrong. I tried to toss the Bible and its teachings in the trash.’
But she kept reading at the encouragement of Pastor Ken and his wife Floy. She was fighting the idea that the Bible is inspired and inerrant. ‘I didn’t even believe in truth. I believed in truth claims.’
For two years, she straddled two worlds and two lives, at times feeling like the worst of hypocrites, Then one Sunday, she left the bed she shared with her lesbian partner and went to church. She kept returning to hear more sermons, a series focusing on the Gospel of Matthew. Pastor Ken paused during one sermon and asked the congregation, ‘Do you still lack understanding?” repeating Jesus’ words to Peter in Matt. 15:16. ‘I was a thinker; understanding came before obedience. Did I really want to understand homosexuality from God’s point of view, or did I just want to argue with Him? I prayed that God would make me a godly woman, then laughed out loud at the absurdity.’
Butterfield explained that she came to Jesus while singing Psalm 119:56, ‘This is mine because forever all thy precepts I preserve.’ Looking up the verse in the Bible, she noted the use of a helping verb in the translation, ‘this has become mine …’ Something about the helping verb caused a shift in Butterfield, and two ‘retaining walls’ came crashing down. First, she realized she had just sung condemnation unto herself because the Bible was not hers. Second, when the words ‘this is mine’ came out of her mouth, she truly wanted ‘to hear God’s voice breathed into my life.’ ‘It was Jesus I had been persecuting the whole time. Jesus triumphed and I was a broken mess. I lost everything but the dog.’
While her lesbian sexuality still did not feel ‘unnatural’, it occurred to her that she didn’t have to feel it to believe it. ‘When we defend our right to a particular sin, we are cherishing it. Painfully I’ve come to believe homosexuality is a sin. But so is homophobia. For those who struggle with homosexuality, I know it is a heavy cross to bear.’
Christians need to be careful not to add an unbearable weight to the burden, Butterfield cautioned. ‘The solution for all sin is repentance’. Butterfield said that while Christians can struggle with homosexual temptations, they cannot just add Jesus to the mix and not repent. ‘Make no mistake. This is spiritual war. Our identity cannot be rooted in sin.’
In June the US Supreme Court redefined marriage, and by that redefined personhood. Sexual orientation is now a category of personhood, according to Butterfield. ‘Marriage is a creation ordinance. That’s why you cannot redefine it.’
Butterfield’s second session detailed the creation of the category of homosexuality as a personhood, replacing God’s created male and female categories. This shift dates to Sigmund Freud, who replaced the biblical category of being made in God’s image with the psychoanalytic category of sexual identity, she explained. Freud was a product of German Romanticism, which claimed one knows truth through one’s personal experiences. Image-bearing is what sets humans apart from animals for Christians, and the categories we use to represent image-bearers matters to a holy God.
Michel Foucault, a French historian, wrote, ‘Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy into a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was a new species’.
Butterfield emphasized the use of the words form, soul and species. The use of the word ‘form’ implies that sexual desire shapes the basic building block of our selfhood. The use of the word ‘soul’ implies that sexuality, not Gods image, was the real harbinger of humanity. The use of the word ‘species’ means that a new concept of humanity was born.
By taking out the concept of bearing Gods image, we have a new category of humanity of sexual orientation, Butterfield explained. ‘I believe the concept of sexual orientations is a lose-lose paradigm, especially if you struggle with unwanted homosexual desires.’ The identification makes us more numb to heterosexual sin and more aware of homosexual sin, she said. Homosexual sin is a fruit of other sins. Personally, Butterfield said she found her sin to be rooted in pride rather than lust.
Because of her past, Romans 1 will always hold a powerful place in her life. She used to think she knew better than the Bible to determine right from wrong. ‘I realized the Bible was God’s word and had the right to condemn me, not the other way around’.
Romans 1:18-20 puts forth the biblical idea of ‘natural revelation,’ the disclosure of God and his laws as they are found in nature. ‘These words made me mad I didn’t believe it for a minute,’ she said. Butterfield found it ‘patronizingly insulting’ that the God of the Bible would hold us responsible for our ungodliness and unrighteousness. ‘Natural revelation exposed my sin, but only in the gospel did I find the cure. It goaded me to know the gospel and caused me to doubt the Universalist position that sin doesn’t matter’.
Thomas Aquinas, Butterfield’s self-proclaimed favourite dead white guy, believed that natural law led to natural moral awareness. But Butterfield knew that ‘sexual sin ran deep and hard for me’. She needed something more. ‘Natural law is effective biblical ethics and public policy, but it is an incomplete pastoral instrument, because law is not the gospel. I needed the expulsive love of my risen Saviour.’
When Romans 1:26 references ‘unnatural,’ it refers to the practice, not personhood. ‘It references what a person ought not do, not who a person is. There is no ontological category of sexual orientation.’
Calling sexual orientation a dangerous road, Butterfield pointed out that sexual orientation cannot be sanctified. ‘You cannot repent of sexual orientation. You can repent of sexual sin.’
Butterfield urged Christians to exhibit ‘love for all believers, especially people who think differently than we do.’ She encouraged Christians to practice true hospitality, one of her greatest joys as a pastor’s wife.
The question eliciting the most emotional and lengthy response from Butterfield was posed by a Hope College student who identified himself as a ‘gay Christian man’. He stated that he was exclusively attracted to people of the same gender (unlike Butterfield) and questioned where in the Bible a commitment to celibacy was required
‘I’m not a poster child,’ Butterfield answered immediately. ‘I was not converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief,’ she asserted. Butterfield also explained that while some people have one cross to bear, others have ten, but she also offered the encouragement that ‘the Lord does not give you more than you can bear.’
Butterfield also stated that the church needs to be careful about how it is adding weight to those ten crosses being carried by people with unwanted same-sex attractions. One such weight is the thought that singles ‘need to be fixed or fixed up.’ Another added burden is Christians presuming that same-sex attraction is a choice. The church also should not presume that people with unwanted sexual desires are unsafe to be around. ‘You know who’s unsafe to be around? Those who don’t know what they’re struggling with,’ she cautioned.
Also, the church can add to the burden by not being a true family of God. ‘If the church is not being a family of God, are we really sharing the gospel?’ she questioned. As far as facing a life of celibacy, she reminded the student, ‘God never tells you to think about how you’re going to hang on for a lifetime. He tells you to worry about today.’
Two other questions focused on how to frame the discussion of homosexuality without using terms such as ‘gay lifestyle’ and ‘gay Christian.’ Butterfield promotes using the term Christian to encompass all Christians, stating that desires don’t define personhood. She also said the term ‘gay lifestyle’ was created as part of the culture war, and it would be helpful not to use the expression.
One man questioned how Christians should respond to the labels of ‘homophobic’ and ‘haters’ bestowed upon them when trying to defend their view of marriage. ‘Christians have lost the culture war,’ she responded. She pointed out she didn’t use the present-perfect tense ‘are losing’ in her response. ‘No, we have lost.’ While it is sometimes necessary to take a stand, Butterfield suggested Christians should focus on engaging people rather than their positions. ‘Deal with people as people,’ she said.
Approximately 700 people crowded into Central Avenue CRC, and another hundred watched the presentation from an overflow room, according to Byrd. Butterfield earlier had hosted an informal session for about 70 pastors and another less intense session for local families.
Rosaria’s Second Book
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s new book, Openness Unhindered, takes on the thorny issue of identity – sexual identity and Christian identity – encouraging readers to ask the important questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where am I going?’
Given the recent US Supreme Court decision to redefine marriage, and even before, sexual identity has been at the forefront of the culture war, a war which many, including Butterfield, believe has already been lost. Many Christians simply don’t know how to respond to the chaos, and Butterfield’s book offers timely suggestions.
Subtitled Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ, the book takes its title from the last two words of the book of Acts. The words describe how Paul went about his teaching and preaching. ‘My prayer is that this book will serve as a bridge to Christ for those of us whose sin (sexual and otherwise) has clobbered us more times than we can count, and for our churches and Christian friends who want to help but don’t know where to begin or what to say,’ Butterfield writes.
Butterfield is uniquely positioned to speak with authority on the subjects of both sexual identity and Christian identity, having experienced a ‘train wreck’ conversion from life as a lesbian activist to one of preacher’s wife and mother.
The book traces the history of how sexual identity came to define a category of personhood, one not created by God, and how that shift has been detrimental to today’s society. Butterfield’s PhD training is evident in her logical outlay of ideas and robust vocabulary, though the reading is made easier by definitions of words such as ‘teleological’ and ‘neologism’ in the margins.
Butterfield then also looks at what it means to identify as a Christian and how Christians should be offering hospitality and building community with all other Christians. The need for continuous repentance of all sin is a recurring theme throughout, without minimizing the need for grace and a risen Saviour in the Christian life. ‘One reason I am writing this book is that I believe we need a more stalwart understanding of sin, repentance, and sanctification to provide pastoral care to all people struggling with unwanted sexual temptations,’ Butterfield writes.
Much like her previous book, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, which told the story of her conversion to Christianity in detail, Openness Unhindered is worth the potential self-discomfort of personal sin conviction and literary effort if Christians are to answer the call to be a true family of God.
Taken with permission from Christian Renewal (Canada), October 7, 2015.
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