Is there any subject in contemporary American discourse that has become more divisive than that of sexuality? “Cultural wars” swarm around the issues of sexuality. Public policies are debated, Christians are threatened, and Gay and Lesbian men and women are attacked. The politics of sexuality have become very angry on both the conservative and liberal sides of the debate. Glenn Stanton knows this well, he’s been engaged in these conversations for 23 years. Yet his example is important for the church, for he reminds us that we cannot talk exclusively in terms of politics. Glenn Stanton models bridge building by encouraging real friendship with those in the LGBT community.
The distance between those of a conservative Christian persuasion on sexual ethics, and those who advocate for a more progressive sexual ethic is wide. In some cases those on either side hate their counterparts. In many other cases they are simply uncomfortable with one another and struggle to know how to relate well. Stanton understands this struggle; he works for one of the largest conservative Christian organizations in the country, which devotes itself to advocating for conservative Christian family values. In his post at Focus on the Family, Stanton serves as Director of Family Formation Studies and spends the bulk of his time researching, writing, and teaching. He also frequently debates those on the other side of the issue. His commitments and values are clear and strong. Yet, Stanton has demonstrated our convictions do not require us to hate or demean those with whom we disagree. Stanton models for us the importance of friendship with our Gay neighbors.
Over the years Stanton has developed a number of meaningful relationships with those who are advocates for gay marriage, even gay men themselves. He notes that these are not strategic relationships, they are simply genuine friendships. That is to say, he does not view his relationship with others in a pragmatic sort of way, as a stepping stone to some other ministry. Rather, he cares deeply about the individuals he knows. He invites all Christians into this same practice and way of thinking.
In Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor Stanton argues that Christians can and ought to be friends with those in the LGBT community. He articulates several core values that all Christians ought to embrace, among them:
- Everybody is a human person. No exceptions.
- Every human person is of inestimable worth and value, none more than another. No exceptions. (15)
These statements are obvious enough to the average believer. Yet, in many discussions and interactions with opponents Christians seem to forget this most basic doctrine of the Imago Dei. We become obsessed with political agendas and culture wars and lose sight of real people made in God’s image. Stanton’s approach and philosophy, his bridge building, is really quite simple: be a friend. He advocates listening and respect. He advocates compassion and personal interest. It’s a rather unremarkable philosophy in this sense but it has built bridges.
Stanton shares through his writings of the numerous relationships he has with those who disagree with him on a very crucial issue. He speaks of being invited to gay weddings (and writes about how to handle that issue with conviction and compassion), he speaks of being invited to stay in the homes of gay friends, sharing laughter and tears with one another. He writes as one who has genuinely loved those who disagree with him. He writes as one who believes in the importance, power, and beauty of friendship.
It’s important for the church to reflect on Stanton’s example. Focus on the Family has a terrible reputation among Gay Rights organizations. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, accuses Focus of driving the Religious Right’s “anti-gay crusade.” The fact that Stanton has been able, out of that hated organization, to develop meaningful relationships with gay men is no small feat. We need to heed his example and follow in his footsteps. Stanton is, after all, just imitating his Lord. Jesus, when he meets the woman at the well, speaks to a social pariah, a woman hated by Jews for her syncretism and for her promiscuity (John 4:9, 18). Yet, even in the face of the disciples shock and horror, Jesus ministers grace to her (v. 27). We ought to do the same.
Stanton is not alone in this effort. We have already looked at the ministry and compassion of Karen Swallow Prior, and we could add to this list the ministry of Brad Hambrick who has written a wonderful book similar to the one Stanton has written. We need more men and women who earnestly desire to be good friends, to be kind, compassionate, and understanding. We need men and women who will love like Jesus, not overlooking sin but not letting such differences create hate and distance. I am immensely thankful for Glenn Stanton’s example in this area. May we all seek to build bridges like him.