Student Criticized for Recognizing Gays’ and Christians’ Shared Humanity

The Christian News Network posted an article last Thursday calling into question a Religion News Service opinion piece by Tré Goins-Phillips, an editor at Liberty University’s student newspaper, in which he called for common ground with homosexuals.

I think I can see where the criticism comes from. That doesn’t mean I agree with it.

I have a personal connection here, I’m glad to be able to say. Tré is a family friend, and has been since my wife and I became good friends with his parents at church in Virginia thirteen years ago. I’ll stick with journalistic convention, however—even though it feels a bit odd to me—and refer to him by his last name here.

Sexuality Is Not Identity

In his brief article Goins-Phillips affirms Apple Computer CEO Tim Cook, who recently came out as gay, for not making his sexuality his primary identity. Goins-Phillips is right on target here. LGBT activism has been too much characterized by gay/lesbian/trans identity-adoption, placing of sexual orientation at the center of persons’ self-awareness and interactions. Goins-Phillips approvingly quotes Cook,

“Part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender,” Cook wrote. “I’m an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things. I hope that people will respect my desire to focus on the things I’m best suited for and the work that brings me joy.”

I can’t find anything to object to in that, and neither can Goins-Phillips, who responds,

In a time of adamant activism and partisan politicking, Cook’s words seem to be a rare commodity. With pro-gay, anti-gay, and I-don’t-know-yet-gay groups advocating for one thing or another, the individual lives behind these labels of sexual orientation have been lost…. Had [Cook] allowed his sexual orientation to define who he was — had he been gay first, and an intelligent human being, capable of greatness, second — he might not be where he is today.

There’s nothing to object to there, either!

So then what is it that’s being called into question? Apparently it’s his call for finding common ground:

Conservative Christians’ and Homosexuals’ Shared Humanity

At the end of the day, we have to find common ground. Common ground is what makes the world continue to move, grow and advance. Cook gets it. He understands the weight of his announcement. He understands its importance, but also sees that there are things in this life of even greater importance — what it means to be human.

Criticized Wrongly For What He Said

As Heather Clark put it in her Christian News Network article,

But some have expressed concern over Goins-Phillips’ comments and progressive tone, including Dr. Paul Michael Raymond of New Geneva Christian Leadership Academy and Reformed Bible Church in Appomatox, Virginia.

“The common ground that we are to have with homosexuals is the gospel,” he told Christian News Network. “If they reject the gospel, then we are to reject them and pray that they repent—and it is possible that they do so, as Paul the apostle had many in the Church of Corinth who were repentant [former] homosexuals, effeminate individuals, and they were sanctified and experienced the grace of God.”

“We don’t have to be unkind to them or hateful or smearing—I don’t think that’s the right approach—but we do have to be steadfast in our doctrine and in our belief when it comes to their practice,” Raymond continued. “We out-and-out say, ‘No, I’m sorry, this is against God’s law and I pray that you see the error of your ways,’ but we cannot have real intimate fellowship with [them] or tolerate sin.’”

He said that he found Goins-Phillips’ assertions to be like those of many professing Christians today—rooted in humanism rather than Scripture.

I’ll have to respectfully disagree with Dr. Raymond here. The common ground we have with LGBT people is not, first of all, the gospel. It is our humanness: created in the glory and dignity of the image of God, fallen into sin, seeking where to go and what to do with that. That’s a crucial part of the gospel, to be sure, for it’s what makes Christ’s death and resurrection such good news. Something tells me, though, that it’s not the part Dr. Raymond had on his mind.

I see Goins-Phillips’s article as affirming our shared experience in the human condition. That’s what he wrote about after all. He didn’t say we should tolerate sin. He said, “We are human beings with innate value — first.” That assertion isn’t “rooted in humanism.” It’s rooted in the first three chapters of Genesis, particularly Gen. 1:26-27.

Criticized For What He Didn’t Say

It was a brief article, though, and there is much besides that, that he left unsaid. N. T. Wright once commented on the dangers of teaching theology, something to the effect that, “One has to preach everything one believes every time one opens one’s mouth, or be accused of not believing it.”

Goins-Phillips addressed homosexuals’ (and straight persons’) humanness, not their choices with respect to sexual morality, and not their activist politics. Had he called for common ground on that, then there would have been something worth questioning.

That’s not what he wrote, however. He didn’t even mention the topic. It seems rather uncharitable to question a writer’s steadfastness on a topic on which he hasn’t spoken. It’s odd to require (as Dr. Raymond almost seems to do) that every time one mentions homosexuality, one has to emphasize a call to repentance. That might help assure conservative readers that a writer is appropriately conservative along with them; but it would be burdensome, boring, and annoying for a writer to make it his goal in every piece to reassure his readers that way.

A Couple of Minor Criticisms of My Own

Goins-Phillips could have been clearer, I think, in one short three-word sentence: “Cook gets it.” Often when we say someone “gets it,” we’re giving them a near-global word of approval, at least on the subject under discussion. In fact that’s what Goins-Phillips is doing, for in his article, the subject under discussion is Cook’s insistence on being a full-dimensional human being. The problem is that some readers might not be so attentive to the context, thinking that Goins-Phillips’s “it” referred to something other than that, broader than that, possibly even something opposite to that. To my knowledge, Cook doesn’t “get” the gospel, the truth about God’s intentions for sex, or anything else of that nature. Goins-Phillips doesn’t claim he does. He could have perhaps saved himself some grief had he pointed that out more definitively,

So then, these are two points he could have perhaps clarified. It would have involved his drifting into a defensive writing stance, however, that he might not have wanted to adopt. His piece says what it says, after all. It isn’t always an author’s job to explain what he isn’t saying; sometimes it ought to be sufficient simply not to say it.

That’s especially the case when one is dealing with a 600-word limit, as I suspect he was. I have learned to write rather defensively here, clarifying as much as possible in the original post so I don’t have to do so later in the comments. For better or worse, I don’t have a word limit.

I have one real criticism. In the last paragraph, where he writes, “I’ve found my common ground,” I wanted him to finish the sentence, as in, common ground with what or with whom? It seems to me that just as transitive verbs require an object, so also, “I’ve found my common ground” requires a “with” clause following it.

I wouldn’t have gone to Christian News Network with that complaint. I wouldn’t even have called his parents.

I agree with what Goins-Phillips affirms in this article. We do need to recognize our common humanness with people we disagree with. We can support the idea of not being defined by our disagreements. This is what he said, and there’s real wisdom in it. The criticisms brought against him are odd, and seem to be based on things he didn’t say.

Good job, Tré!