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FIRST-PERSON: The Gospel & culture engagement

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) — It would be easy to assume a posture of resignation to the seemingly unstoppable cultural slide against biblical standards of morality. Especially on the issue of homosexuality, those who contend for biblical morality in our society are increasingly in a defensive position. More public policy losses than wins pile up, while the near universal affirmation of homosexuality from virtually all segments of societal opinion makers is clearly moving public opinion.

Indeed, it’s enough to cause some to retreat from engaging the cultural debate, believing there’s little likely return on such an investment.

Whether or not evangelicals ever have been in the moral majority (or even retain strong influences in some places), it has always been true that ultimate success will not be won or lost at the ballot box, through legislative bodies and in the courts of our land — and no serious evangelical cultural warrior should think otherwise. Spiritual transformation of individuals is necessary ultimately, and such transformation in critical mass may result in cultural reformation.

Still, it remains true that seeking spiritual transformation of individuals is not unrelated to cultural engagement of society — and the two need not be seen as mutually exclusive, even contradictory endeavors. If you think otherwise, consider Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a one-time leading lesbian political activist and atheist scholar at a major university who, although an “unlikely convert” to Christianity, nevertheless became just that — after a pastor reached out to her.

Butterfield published last year an autobiographical account of her conversion, “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.” Eloquently — and at times provocatively — written the book is an incredible story of God’s grace. “And such were some of you” (1 Corinthians 6:11) is the testimony of all who experience God’s grace, but some testimonies are strikingly so. This is one.

More than just a story of her own spiritual journey, Butterfield offers an important critique of the Christian bubble that too often shields evangelicals from engaging with those with whom we disagree — and, therefore, limiting our opportunities to see Christ’s transformative work as demonstrated in her life.

Butterfield’s path to Christian conversion started with a simple letter from a Presbyterian pastor who responded to an op-ed she wrote critiquing Promise Keepers. Pastor Ken Smith challenged Butterfield to consider her presuppositions and offered to discuss the issues with her.

As a radical feminist and vocal lesbian who could be readily assumed to be intractably opposed to a Christian viewpoint, especially from a pastor, it would have been easy for Smith to shake his head at Butterfield’s liberal opinion piece, resigned that engaging her would be fruitless, and move on to more seemingly promising ministry opportunities of that day. Because he chose the opposite path, Butterfield is a trophy of God’s grace advancing the Gospel in ways few can.

Smith’s letter was so disarming Butterfield didn’t know what to do with the correspondence. It certainly wasn’t fan mail, but neither was it hate mail, both of which she collected in two boxes on her desk.

“I didn’t really know how to respond to Ken’s letter, but I found myself reading and re-reading it,” she wrote. “I didn’t know which box to file this letter in, and so it sat on my desk and haunted me.”

After throwing away the letter several times only to retrieve it again and again from the recycling bin, Butterfield responded to Smith’s offer to dialogue, resulting in at first a telephone conversation and then an accepted dinner invitation to the pastor’s home.

“Ken and Floy [the pastor’s wife] did something at the meal that has a long Christian history but has been functionally lost in too many Christian homes,” Butterfield wrote. “Ken and Floy invited the stranger in — not to scapegoat me, but to listen and to learn and to dialogue.”

And the sincerity of Smith’s faith greatly impacted Butterfield.

“The most memorable part of this meal was Ken’s prayer before the meal,” she writes. “I had never heard anyone pray to God as if God cared, as if God listened, and as if God answered. It was not a pretentious prayer uttered for the heathen at the table to overhear. (I have heard a few of those at gay pride marches or in front of Planned Parenthood clinics.) It was a private and honest utterance, and I felt as though I was treading on something real, something sincere, something important, and something transparent but illegible to me. Ken made himself vulnerable to me in his prayer by humbling himself before this ‘God’ of his, and I took note of that.”

After about two years of ongoing conversation and growing friendship with the Smiths, Butterfield confessed faith in Christ, completely overturning her life, personally, and especially professionally as the most popular teacher in gay and lesbian studies at her university.

“My journey out of lesbianism was messy and difficult. I spent a lot of time in prayer — and still do,” she writes.

Butterfield has strong words for Christians who counsel acceptance of homosexuality, like a Methodist pastor and dean of the chapel at Syracuse University who advised her she “didn’t have to give up everything to honor God.”

“I’m grateful that when I heard the Lord’s call on my life, and I wanted to hedge my bets, keep my girlfriend and add a little God to my life, I had a pastor and friends in the Lord who asked nothing less of me than that I die to myself. Biblical orthodoxy can offer real compassion, because in our struggle against sin, we cannot undermine God’s power to change lives,” Butterfield writes.

Butterfield experienced great trauma in leaving lesbianism, feeling like a traitor to the homosexuality community. But she has also experienced rejection by God’s family. Butterfield recounts a story of how her lesbian past was so upsetting to some fellow Christians she was advised it would be better if she kept it to herself.

“An elder’s wife, someone I valued as a friend, asked me what I would do if a homosexual entered our worship service. I quickly shared with her my testimony, apologizing that I hadn’t done so earlier. I gave her a chapter of the book that you are holding in your hand and I asked her to read it and to let me know what she thought of all of this. A week later, she came to talk. She took a deep breath. All the color drained from her face. She looked like she had just witnessed a crime scene. Manifesting disgust and horror, she told me that she wished that I hadn’t shared this with her. She quickly added, ‘Oh, I’m fine with this information, but B (the other elder’s wife) could never handle it. Do you have to tell people about this?’ This. Rosaria’s unmentionable past. Rahab the Harlot. Mary Magdalene. We love these women between the pages of our Bible, but we don’t want to sit at the Lord’s Table with them — with people like me — drinking from a common cup. That’s the real ringer: the common cup — that is, our common origin in depravity. We are only righteous in Christ and in Him alone. But that’s a hard pill to swallow, especially if you give yourself kudos for good choices.”

We have no hope of greater cultural engagement if some of us can’t even countenance open acceptance of those who have actually turned from immorality to follow Jesus.

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases related to gay marriage whose outcomes could very well change dramatically the legal status of this matter. The cases may also encourage even greater societal approval of that which the Bible unalterably condemns as immoral.

Whatever the outcome of these cases and whatever the results of innumerable other public policy and cultural contests about homosexuality, the Christian mission remains the same (even if religious liberty may suffer as a result of the Supreme Court’s rulings). The Gospel still must be preached in a winsome, engaging way, even to those who are seemingly unlikely converts to the message.

Only God knows how many other Rosaria Champagne Butterfields are awaiting such a Gospel engagement.
This column first appeared at the Florida Baptist Witness, online at gofbw.com. James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • James A. Smith
  • James A. Smith, Sr.
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