Revoice Reviewed: Wesley Hill aims for a world without shame
The surprising report from the recent Revoice Conference at Memorial Presbyterians Church, St. Louis, is that at least one session presented a Biblical view of homosexual sin. If so, we should praise God for the witness of that speaker.
Unfortunately, the session I review, Wesley Hill’s plenary address, was not that session.
A regular Evangelical sermon
Mr. Hill, perhaps the best known, certainly the most prolific advocate of “spiritual friendships”—celibate, gay friendships that are somehow more than normal friendships but less than sexual—was keynote speaker at the closing session of the Revoice Conference. His talk, a sermon really, was in many respects little more than an anodyne twenty-first century Evangelical message.
What was surprising about Mr. Hill’s sermon, even unnerving, was the enlisting of standard Evangelical themes on behalf of a sin that is not yet standard among Evangelical Christians. We are used to sermons that deal with sin lightly, sermons that deal with temporal emotions rather than the eternal soul, sermons that deal only with the human suffering brought about by sin—”lack of flourishing”—rather than sin’s offense against a holy God.
In one sense, then, this was ho-hum Evangelical fare. Preached to any other audience by any other preacher it would elicit no more than a yawn. But preached by this man to this audience, it still possesses the power to provoke. Which is unfortunate, because the fact that it was preached by a gay man to a largely gay audience should not be the sole reason it arouses indignation.
Similar sermons are preached by straight preachers to largely straight congregations week after week, sermons dealing lightly with sin, treating sin’s greatest costs as psychic and the remedy of the cross as psychological and therapeutic.
So what’s the problem?
Why deny gay Mr. Hill and his largely gay audience a form of preaching that goes on weekly in straight churches?
For two reasons. First, because as Mr. Hill states at the outset of his sermon, shame somehow attaches to gayness. And a sermon which seeks to remove that shame does incalculable harm to our gay friends, family members, and brothers and sisters in Christ. Gayness is the last realm of shame in the Evangelical church. It should still live elsewhere. Shame should attach to adultery, divorce, greed, deceitfulness. But so long as shame lingers by the grace of God in the gay realm, to remove shame from the lives of gay men and women without repentance first removing the sins of gay identification and gay sex is to oppose the work of the cross.
Second, we must oppose this particular sermon preached to this particular audience because this is where the battle for God’s truth lies today. We don’t choose our battlegrounds. They come to us. For decades Evangelicalism has been retreating from the holiness of God, the necessity of repentance and the power of Christ to make new creations of sinful men. If we do not stand here, we will not stand at all. After all, in the maelstrom of sin described in Romans 1, just one sin is called the sin of “shameless” men. Remove shame from gayness and our last redoubt of shame falls with it.
Mr. Hill took as his passage John’s account of the woman caught in adultery. In his introduction he told the story of a boy being called out by his father for looking with desire on a shirtless friend. Nothing more happened. No act took place. But shame at the father’s rebuke was intense.
“I imagine many of us in this room tonight can identify with that,” Hill said. “And you can remember specific moments in your life when you felt… the ‘solidity’ of shame, the ‘mass’ of shame weighing down on your chest”
You were outed “at school, in front of a group of friends you weren’t ready to come out to,” you “forgot to clear your browser history and your parents saw it,” you “heard a denunciation from the pulpit, the likes of which you’d never heard about any other sin.” You felt, “I must be more broken. I must be more fundamentally askew than anyone else sitting in this church.”
If this is you, Mr. Hill said, Jesus gives you an out from your shame. “I want you to think about that moment [of shame], as painful as it may be to remember that, because that’s where I believe God wants to meet us. That’s where, I believe, God’s grace can come tonight.”
When the Law is tolerated instead of embraced
Despite a somewhat promising beginning, the sermon very carefully and precisely went south from there. Mr. Hill points out that Jesus does not simply re-write the Law to erase the woman’s shame. He is right. The Law still stands. Unfortunately, Mr. Hill, along with other Evangelical defenders of gay “friendships,” cannot bring himself to acknowledge the goodness of that Law:
One of things that unites all of us in this room is we have not been able to shake the conviction that God has spoken a word for our sexual lives. God has given a vision of what sexual holiness and flourishing looks like, and we read it right at the beginning of the Bible, God created male and female and gave them to one another to be in a lifelong covenant of marriage, an exclusive covenant, ordered to the bringing into the world of new life, the procreation of children. And we’ve seen that. And we may struggle with it. I struggle with it. I don’t always understand why it’s there. I am not always sure that I can actually follow it. But we see that and we can’t surrender that. We can’t let go of that. Our consciences are bound to it.
But at least he’s honest, isn’t he? Why object when truth is honestly stated? What more could you ask?
Well, for one, Mr. Hill could begin by understanding with Paul that the Law is good and perfect but we are sold to sin, that God does not answer to us for His Law, but we to Him for violating it.
Chronic questioning of God’s sexual standards in Scripture is unbecoming in those claiming to pursue the righteousness of the “historic Christian sexual ethic”—especially in preachers, who are called not to complain and question, but to declare God’s truth. Such language and affect is far too passive-aggressive for a man claiming to speak the Word of God: “we have not been able to shake the conviction… we’ve seen that… we may struggle with it… I struggle with it… I don’t always understand why it’s there… I am not always sure that I can actually follow it… But we see that and we can’t surrender that…” There is no love of God’s law here.
Declaring truth to hide a lie
In addition, Mr. Hill conceals his rejection of one area of truth by his affirmation of another. The question is not whether God has made marriage the sole location for sexual legitimacy and holiness. Few professing Christians deny this. The question is whether God has also “spoken a word for our sexual lives” and “given a vision of what sexual holiness looks like…right at the beginning of the Bible” when it tells us, “Male and female He created them.”
Jesus elaborates on this statement from Genesis in condemning divorce,
But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore they are no longer two, but one.
Certainly, if this passage opposes divorce, it just as strongly opposes today’s sexual blending and confusion. In Mark’s account, Jesus emphasizes the one flesh nature of marriage to combat divorce. Today His words as easily repudiate the LGBQT agenda by emphasizing God making us male and female.
There is no third option. Male and female, God made man. Not queer. Not bi. Not trans. Male and female. Paul’s option of celibacy does nothing to lessen the binary nature of male and female: “Male and female God made them, and for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and unite with a woman, becoming one flesh together with her.” There is no room for celibate gay friendship here, only two sexes with the one flesh union of marriage the sole outlet for desire. The entire queer construct dies on this statement by Christ, yet Mr. Hill disingenuously claims to be following the Law of God even as he ignores this transparently obvious application of the passage he claims to embrace.
Mr. Hill makes two initial points from Christ’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery:
And that’s what we see in this story. Jesus is gonna fight against the shame of this woman. We’re gonna see that. He’s gonna redeem her, but not at the expense of His law. Not at the expense of changing the standard of morality to fit her life. That’s the first thing I want you to see.
The second thing this story shows us, though, is that the beginning of our being set free from shame, the moment when we begin to feel that weight lift a little off our shoulders, is when we begin to realize that we are no better off, and we are no worse off, than any other Christian before God, whether gay, or straight, or bi, or wherever you are on the spectrum, you are not farther away, or closer, to God simply by virtue of who you are. It’s not about you finding some hidden resource within yourself that will somehow make you right with God. This woman gets saved from shame, not by being told that she’s not a sinner, but by being placed in the company of other sinners.
Note the nature of the redemption Mr. Hill describes: “Jesus is gonna fight against the shame of this woman. We’re gonna see that. He’s gonna redeem her.”
And from what is she saved? “This woman gets saved from shame,” Mr. Hill says.
Christ came to save men from shame according to Mr. Hill. Not damnation. Not the wrath of the Father. Shame. Not even Hell. Shame. To Mr. Hill, shame is Hell. Shame is damnation. This travesty of Divine justice and mockery of the atonement serve as the cathartic climax of Mr. Hill’s sermon. Get saved from shame by Jesus.
Note further the mechanism of this “salvation.” The adulterous woman is saved from shame, “by being placed in the company of other sinners.” Not by being counted among the saints. Not by being made a citizen of Jerusalem, the city on a hill. Not by being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Not by having her sin removed as far as the east is from the west, but by being placed in the company of other equally unwashed sinners—the callous men seeking her life as a means of testing of Christ. If this is the extent of what Christ does for us, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But this is not the salvation of Christ. The blood of Christ washes our guilt even as it cleanses us of the sinful actions from which guilt flows. Salvation clothes us in white robes and numbers us among the saints, it doesn’t place us with sinners.
How Jesus uses shame
Let’s be even more clear about this. In the Gospel of John the only sure deliverance we see provided the adulterous woman by Christ is from temporal death by stoning. When Jesus says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more,” he is referring to the condemnation sought by the men who no longer condemn her, the death sentence they would have imposed on her. This statement is not the equivalent of Christ’s statement to the woman with the issue of blood: “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Nor was she delivered, as Mr. Hill claims, by Christ eradicating her shame, but by Christ amplifying the shame of those surrounding her. Shame saved this woman. It’s not what she was saved from, but what she was saved by. The men who walked away were afflicted by shame. Hers was not negated. Theirs was stoked. Perhaps Jesus wrote their sins in the dirt. Perhaps he simply scribbled to give them time to see their own sins. But shame descended upon them all, leading her accusers to depart. Note that Mr. Hill can’t even bring himself to admit the salutary nature of shame in the woman’s accusers.
Ironically for Mr. Hill’s point, what Jesus did actually increased the woman’s shame. Mercy multiplies shame. Paul was not ashamed of his life as a persecutor until he knew the mercy of Christ. Kindness is coals of fire on the heads of the wicked. Jesus’ kindness didn’t remove shame from this woman, it increased it. She cannot be angry. She cannot blame others. She cannot be stiff-necked any longer. She has nothing against her now but her own shame, no accuser but her own conscience—and the knowledge that Jesus knows. Shame is her hope. In that shame lies the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Yet Mr. Hill would remove that shame even before she has tasted repentance.
No need to change
Mr. Hill makes a third point from the story of the woman caught in adultery, perhaps the most disingenuous of his entire sermon:
The third thing we see, friends, in this story in John 8, is that the end of our shame, the moment that Jesus takes away our shame, the moment that He says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you,” is at the very same moment, our liberation for a new way of life. Notice the final words, again, that He says. “Go your way.” Don’t just stay here in the temple, where they dragged you up, go your way. “Go your way. And from now on, do not sin again.”
Now for a long time, I’ve heard that as just Jesus setting up an impossible standard. What do you mean, ‘don’t sin again?’ Of course, I’m gonna sin again. It sounds legalistic. It sounds like a new law. But notice where it comes. It comes after the announcement, the promise that He’s made, ‘I don’t condemn you.’ I don’t condemn you. What He’s saying is, ‘Go, go your way, and don’t sin again, because you’re free! You are radically liberated by My promise that I am for you. I’m not going to hold condemnation over your head. Instead, I’m going to take all of your sin upon Myself and bear it away through the cross. And now you are liberated for a new life.’ So, what do you want to do? Go! Live your life. Go love your neighbor. Go serve your community. Go pour out your life as a beautiful blessing for the world. And make the grace of God look marvelous in the world.
He’s setting this woman free. No longer does she have to cower in shame. She knows that she is no farther away from Jesus than any of those people who thought they were her betters, who thought that they were here superiors. She has received this free promise, no condemnation in Christ. And she’s now been liberated to live a new life.
That’s where we are tonight, friends. When you were baptized in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, God made a promise to you. He said, ‘You are my child. I don’t condemn you.’ There’s no condemnation anymore. I love you. I cherish you. I treasure you. Now go and live in the light of that.” Celebrate that. Dance to that. Sing to that. I think it’s no accident that the worship has been so electric this week. And it’s because we know, we’re hearing that word again to us, we are not condemned by Christ. We are accepted in the beloved. You. Me. Gay people have been called into fellowship with God. We’ve heard that word of no condemnation over us, and we’re now just ready to sing about it. We’re ready to live in the light of that liberation.
Mr. Hill proclaims salvation from shame, redemption from repentance and freedom from the constraints of the Law rather than freedom to obey God’s holy commands—a most degrading soteriology.
In the joy of this salvation we should dance, sing and celebrate. Don’t feel constrained to obey the Law. You were baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in that baptism God promised to be a Father to you and never to condemn you.
Wow. Mr. Hill understands the pathos and flair of Evangelical preaching, even if he has no idea of its historic ends.
There is catharsis here. But it’s the catharsis of smoke and mirrors because, in the end, despite the emotional release, there’s no sin to repent of in Mr. Hill’s sexual universe, only shame. So dance. Be gay. Be happy. Be effeminate. You were baptized, and in your baptism God made a promise never to condemn you.
This is classic Evangelical preaching of today. Veering from sacramentalism to revivalist emotionalism in the same breath, Mr. Hill lays out a vision of a world without shame. What a world that would be: a world of shameless men like Mr. Hill.