The Bible does not treat homosexual sex or marriage as an agree-to-disagree issue. It’s univocal in its definition of sex and marriage. It’s also univocal in its prohibition of homosexual sex. Finally, it warns people who engage in such behavior that they will not inherit the kingdom of God. These are serious matters. To simply agree to disagree would be to disregard the eternal destiny of the people whom God is eager to save. Not only are people who engage in ongoing unrepentant sexual sin in jeopardy, but those who give them false hope are in danger as well.
In 2014, I attended Matthew Vines’s conference on the Bible and homosexuality. His stated goal was to “promote inclusion of LGBTQ people by reforming church teaching.” The organization he started, The Reformation Project, teaches that homosexual sex and same-sex marriage are biblically permissible, and its goal to mainstream this theology into the church is overt and clear.
Fast-forward to last month, when I attended the Unconditional Conference put on by Embracing the Journey (ETJ). Hosted by nationally known pastor Andy Stanley and held at his church, which boasts a weekly attendance of nearly 40,000 people, the event sought to create a theologically neutral space where parents and leaders could learn how to minister to youth who identify as LGBTQ. In other words, the stated intent was not to change anyone’s theology.
Before I explain my concerns, I want to highlight some positive elements of the conference. For example, I appreciated the focus on leaning into relationships with friends and family who identity as LGBTQ. Too often, believers shy away from them or, worse, end their relationships by their callous and disrespectful behavior. I’m glad the speakers encouraged Christians to change course in this regard.
The conference also provided many practical dos and don’ts. For example, if your child tells you they experience same-sex attraction or are confused about their gender identity, don’t freak out. Don’t lecture them immediately. Don’t assume they’re engaging in homosexual sex or transitioning. Instead, thank them for being vulnerable. Invite them to share more of their story. Listen and reassure them that you love them.
These are true and important principles that I have taught in my speaking and writing for nearly two decades. I think the conference got these and several other points right.
Three Serious Concerns
Despite these good aspects, the conference was deeply problematic because of the false and somewhat hidden premise that permeated most of the teaching: Followers of Christ can participate in homosexual sex, same-sex marriage, or transgender “transitioning.” That premise undergirds three serious concerns I have with the Unconditional Conference.
First, the Unconditional Conference claimed to be theological neutral but wasn’t. Virtually every aspect of it operated on the unspoken premise that it’s permissible for followers of Jesus to satisfy LGBTQ desires. The conference website says, “No matter what theological stance you hold, we invite you to listen, reflect, and learn as we approach this topic from the quieter middle space.” ETJ cofounder and conference organizer Greg McDonald said, “We have no desire to change your theology.”
Despite this claim, the hidden premise that permeated the conference was that walking with Jesus can include same-sex marriage as well as transgender “transitioning.” Not only did no one say anything to the contrary, but virtually every speaker, facilitator, and volunteer spoke in a way that led one to believe those behaviors are permissible. For example, Greg and Lynn McDonald talked at length about their son who is “married” to another man. They showed family pictures of their son and explained how, although they made parental mistakes at first, they now have a positive relationship with him. They never said their son’s “marriage” was not valid or that anything was suspect or sinful about his current expression of homosexuality.
Another example was David Gushee, who previously announced at Matthew Vines’s conference in 2014 that he changed his position to a gay-affirming view. Around that same time, he published Changing Our Mind, a book that calls for the “inclusion of LGBT Christians” and advances a fresh interpretation of the Bible supporting his new view. At the Unconditional Conference, he assured the audience that “this conference is not about changing anyone’s theology.” Although he never made a biblical case for his pro-gay view, he made several vague references to dangerous and harmful theology. For example, he argued that Christians once advanced biblical arguments for slavery and antisemitism, but because of the harm it caused people, Christians returned to Scripture for a fresh consideration. The implication was that the interpretation that “homosexual sex is sin” also harms people and should be reconsidered. In fact, his book, which focuses on changing your mind to his theology, was sold at the conference.
Furthermore, two of the conference speakers, Justin Lee and Brian Nietzel, are both “married” to other men. Their teaching wasn’t billed as a perspective from the other side on this issue. Rather, they were held up as authorities on the subject who could help parents better understand their own LGBTQ children. Since no one at the conference said or implied their “marriages” were not valid or that we shouldn’t see them as models for LGBTQ kids, parents could reasonably conclude same-sex marriage is an option for their children.
What the Unconditional Conference did was tantamount to a pro-life conference inviting—as one of their speakers—a Planned Parenthood employee who not only has had an abortion but also teaches as if it were a good, moral, and God-honoring decision. Attendees would reasonably conclude the “pro-life” conference believed abortion is an appropriate option.
What this abortion analogy also shows is that many pro-choice arguments sound persuasive because, like the Unconditional Conference, they are based on hidden (but faulty) premises. For example, pro-choice advocates claim, “Women should have the freedom to choose,” or, “Women should have the right to control their own bodies.” Notice how the fundamental question, “What is the unborn?” is not addressed. Worse, the pro-choice advocate simply assumes the unborn is not a human being and carries on making their case with that hidden premise.
The Unconditional Conference approached their topic in the same way. For two days, the speakers addressed how to minister to people who identify as LGBTQ but intentionally didn’t address the fundamental question of whether homosexual sex or same-sex marriage is sin. Worse, they simply assumed they are not sin and carried on offering advice with that hidden premise.
One final example worth mentioning is the parent panel discussion on “The Transgender Journey.” Approximately 75% of the parents in the room either shared their story about their transgender child or spoke up in some way. I thought to myself, surely among the parent attendees, there must be someone who thinks satisfying transgender ideation is inconsistent with their Christian convictions. Surprisingly, not one person said something to lead me to believe they thought their child’s social, hormonal, or surgical transition was problematic. Preferred pronouns were accepted and, according to one parent, failing to use them is tantamount to violence. There was no pushback to transgender ideation. They simply accepted the transgender experience and baptized it with Christian lingo by saying, “Jesus would love them.” To be fair, parents did say they were emotionally distraught and struggled to understand their child’s experience. But the counsel of the facilitators and other parents was merely to love their child and cope during the transition, not to uphold biblical principles and disciple their children accordingly.
Perhaps the best evidence that the conference was not theologically neutral was the response from leaders who advance pro-LGBTQ theology in the church. While at the conference, I asked one of them if the conference aligned with their goal. Their answer: “Yes.” That made sense. After all, the Unconditional Conference is advancing their cause.
After the conference, one progressive Christian attendee posted the following summary: “Every speaker, video, book and breakout I saw fully affirmed LGBTQ+ folks! I saw pastors advocating for inclusion, parents welcoming their children’s same-sex partners into the family, trans folks sharing their transition stories, and queer people leading at literally every level.” This was not a theologically neutral conference. It’s precisely what LGBTQ leaders want to see in the evangelical church, where they believe there is a stronghold of biblical fidelity that resists normalizing homosexuality and transgenderism in the church. The conference did take a position but attempted to downplay it.
Second, the Unconditional Conference advanced a false dichotomy of possible responses to a child who identifies as LGBTQ. Most of the speakers described two different approaches to ministering to kids who identify as LGBTQ: the “traditionalist script” and the “new script.” The traditionalist script was characterized as unbiblical, unloving, and abusive. Andy Stanley said it has a limited vocabulary that includes only four words: “Homosexuality is a sin.” Parents who follow this script typically don’t listen to their kids when they “come out as gay.” Rather, they lecture their kids about the “clobber passages,” don’t talk about the love of Jesus, lack empathy, and push them to the brink of running away. The speakers provided numerous disturbing, real-life examples. In one case, a father kicked his lesbian daughter down the stairs. In another example, a gay son came to a hospital and asked the nurse if he could visit his dad, who was about to die. The father told the nurse, “Don’t let him in because I don’t have a son.” This was the conference’s characterization of the traditionalist script.
The new script advanced by the conference has a “larger vocabulary.” It doesn’t focus on the “clobber passages.” Rather, it encourages parents to love their child, lean into a healthy parent-child relationship, and invite their child to walk with Christ. The way the speakers talked about the new script implied that Christian parents can support their child’s eventual same-sex marriage or “gender transition.”