Last month, two very high profile Christian leaders, Franklin Graham and James Dobson, addressed publicly on a radio program how they believe Christians and the church should respond to LGBT people, and specifically to gay children. This broadcast was also published on James Dobson’s website. With 1200 stations and 3.3 million online followers, this particular program has an incredible reach. With that reach comes tremendous responsibility because, as the Bible says, the power of life and death is in the tongue (Proverbs 18:21).
Unfortunately, Graham and Dobson said a variety of things that do not accurately represent Scripture, are untrue, and are potentially harmful to the very real people, parents, and children who have to deal with these issues in their lives. The fallacies in their remarks need to be identified and called out so that believers will be able to respond in a holy and Christ-like manner as they encounter families and children who are dealing with these very real issues in their lives, rather than respond in an unkind and ungodly manner due to fear and misinformation. It’s not a task I relish. In fact, I’ve been a strong supporter of Operation Christmas Child, led by Franklin Graham, for many years, both personally and through the church I pastor. However, when unbiblical misinformation is spread that threatens the physical and spiritual well-being of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, homes, and churches, we must step up to protect them, no matter how high-profile or well-respected the purveyors of that wrong information have been in the past.
So where did Graham and Dobson go wrong? It’s easy to take complex issues and try to reduce them to policy positions and soundbites, even more so when our fears, sometimes unfounded and irrational, come into play. That’s always unfair, but especially so when we’re dealing with real people and real lives. The inaccurate statements they made are the types of inaccuracies that have led well-meaning Christian parents to throw their gay children out of their home, that have led gay children to abandon their faith, and that have even led LGBTQ children to take their own lives. How big is the problem? On Christian forums that provide emotional support for gay teens and young adults that are considering “coming out” to their families, it is standard practice to advise these young people to have alternate living arrangements in place prior to “coming out.” Why? Because the experience of being rejected by their family and forced from their home is so commonplace. Because of these kinds of consequences, inaccuracies of the kind held forth by Graham and Dobson must not be left unchallenged, especially when the persons espousing such fallacies are persons of tremendous influence. The costs are simply too high.
Before I address the inaccuracies and fallacies in their statements, here is a transcript of what Graham and Dobson had to say:
Franklin Graham: “We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children. What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches.”
A moment later, after saying that gay people could go to heaven if they repented of their sins and accepted Christ, Graham said: “You cannot stay gay and continue to call yourself a Christian. You can’t do it.”
We’ll save Dobson’s statements for a bit later. For the moment, let’s break down where Graham made statements that were wrong and unbiblical with a few questions:
Is being gay a choice?
It appears that Graham thinks that being gay is a choice, since he suggests people can just stop being gay. So what does the Bible have to say about whether or not being gay is a choice?
Nothing. We can have great and lengthy theological debates about what the Bible says about sexual relationships as it relates to being gay, but there can be no debate about the origins of sexual orientation because the Bible never speaks to the subject. It only speaks to our behavior.
To draw our conclusions about the origins of sexual orientation, we have to turn to the life experience of flesh and blood gay people and what they tell us about how they came to be gay, as well as, for those of us who are heterosexual, our life experiences about how we came to be straight. And when you turn to those life experiences, they are remarkably similar in description. At the dawn of adolescence, some of us naturally, through no choice of our own, started to notice the opposite sex. Others, naturally, through no choice of their own, started to notice the same sex. Some gay people say they knew they were different long before those first actual sexual attractions appeared on the scene. What you don’t hear over and over again is that people made a choice. They didn’t. That’s not their description, and it’s not our own heterosexual experience, either. Since the Bible doesn’t speak to the issue of the origin of orientation, we can accept the validity of our experiences and move on.
Because of that, it’s inaccurate for Graham to tell people to just stop being gay. It’s not reasonable. It’s not biblical. To the contrary, the attempts to do so are often destructive. Countless lives have been lost to suicide, and countless families and futures have been destroyed by forced attempts at changing sexual orientation. For those interested, I can easily provide numerous examples, but because the idea that we choose our orientation is so obviously misguided, let’s move onto the next question.
Is being gay contagious? Can my kids catch it from their friends? Will a gay child convince my straight child to become gay? Will being around gay children lead my children to become too compassionate toward gay people?
We can’t be sure what Graham meant by his recommendation to quarantine our children and our churches from gay children. There are, however, three potential implications to what he said, reflected by the four questions above. So let’s deal with these related questions–all about the influence that gay children might have on our homes or our churches.
First, it’s possible that Graham might have been saying we need to be careful lest we end up feeling too compassionate. That would suggest that compassion is a bad thing. The Bible says that when Jesus saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matt. 9:36-38) I can think of few people better described by the phrase “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” than a gay child. Gay children have often been rejected, ostracized or shamed by their own family. They often feel detached from other kids and isolated. They’ve frequently been pushed away by their churches. We have every reason to feel compassion for them. When Jesus saw harassed and helpless people, he called them “the harvest” and said there is a need for workers to get out into the field and bring them in.
That sounds very different from Graham’s call to avoid or reject harassed and helpless gay children. Gay children are a part of God’s harvest. God feels compassion for them. God wants the church to get out into the harvest. To suggest that we guard our hearts, homes, and churches against compassion runs counter to everything the Bible teaches.
Second, it’s possible that Graham is saying that gay children might influence our children to become gay. That ignores a few basic realities. First, people don’t choose to be gay. We’ve already addressed that. We can take it a step further though. Find a gay person and ask her or him about their initial reaction to realizing they were gay. What you’ll hear–and what I’ve learned from conversations with many gay people and from reading the stories of numerous others—is that almost universally (and by that, I mean I have yet to see an exception) the first reaction of every gay person was that they didn’t want to be gay. They wanted to be straight. They fought against the idea they were gay. Let’s face it: Being straight is a much easier road. Less bullying. Less name-calling. Everyone accepts opposite-sex relationships. It’s easier to get married. It’s easier to have children. There is less fear of growing old alone. No worries about your parents disowning you for your orientation. No worries about being thrown out of your home or your church. If it were a choice, and it’s not, people wouldn’t choose it anyway. That gay child Graham says not to reach out to didn’t choose to be gay, and your child isn’t going to choose to be gay under their “influence.”
Third, it’s possible that Graham is repeating the age-old fear that being around gay people will somehow just naturally lead to more people being gay—as if it’s contagious. This might be inferred from Graham’s concern that if Christian families reach out to gay children to influence them with the gospel, those gay children will somehow influence the children of those parents instead, presumably to being gay.
If being gay were contagious, there would be many more gay people in the world. I had gay friends in high school and college. I have at least one relative growing up who was gay. And I didn’t catch one little bit of gay. It’s not something that just rubs off on you. Gay kids were in my home. I was in their homes. Some I knew were gay, and some I didn’t know about until later. And still, l didn’t catch a thing. Now logically, if sexual orientation is contagious, it might be possible that being heterosexual would be contagious, too—and with 95-97% of us running around as heterosexuals not caring who we infect, if that were the case, “gay” should be eliminated by now. Based on real-life experience, it should be pretty obvious that if you don’t choose your sexual orientation, you’re not going to catch it and change it just because you happen to be around people whose orientation is different from yours.
Consider this: Gay people have being trying to catch heterosexuality for years. They didn’t want to be gay. They thought maybe if they dated the opposite gender, they would stop being gay. Many gay people have even married heterosexually, hoping it would change their orientation. It didn’t—and it didn’t change the orientation of their straight spouse either. What it did, in many cases, was create a lot of pain for all involved.
Franklin Graham’s advice runs counter to the exact mission for which Jesus came and to which Christians are called.
I don’t know which of the three possible meanings Graham intended, but I do know that all three are inaccurate. Regardless, there is a deeper problem with his advice. It runs counter to the exact mission for which Jesus came and to which Christians are called. We are called to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). We are called to be people of influence, not to shut our doors—whether of our homes or our churches—to some of the people who are hurting more than anyone else. Let’s face it, despite our society’s alleged enlightenment, our society is not now and never has been pro-gay for children and teenagers. No matter how many laws are passed to outlaw discrimination, children are going to be mocked by their peers for any perception of difference no matter how many anti-bullying assemblies the school sponsors. (When it comes to housing, food, and employment, God is a non-discriminatory God. “He causes His sun to rise on the good and the evil and the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous.” If you want to be considered God’s child, you’ve got to be non-discriminatory, too. Check out Matthew 5:45.)
Gay children—rather than being people the church should turn out—are among the most disenfranchised members of our society. We might even call them “the least of these.” Jesus said if we meet the needs of the “least of these,” we’ve actually been ministering to him, and if we reject “the least of these,” we’ve actually rejected him (Matt. 25:31-46). Not only is Graham’s advice to churches dangerous to gay children, it’s also dangerous to the church. Essentially, Graham is telling the church to stop being the church. To stop being salt and light. To worry about our safety. To worry about what reaching out to gay children is going to do to our country. But Jesus taught that he is the kind of a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one (Luke 15).
Over and over during his life on earth, Jesus was attacked by the religious leaders of his day for reaching out to the wrong people. One of the classic examples of this is when Jesus went to have dinner with a religious leader named Simon. While they were having dinner, a woman who had a reputation as immoral came in and began to wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, dry them with her hair, kiss them, and then rub expensive perfume into them. Simon was extraordinarily disturbed that Jesus would let a woman like that touch Him. Jesus’ response? He sharply rebuked Simon for his lack of hospitality and compassion, praised the woman, and sent her on her way with salvation. Jesus treated the woman Simon wanted Jesus to turn away with deep love and deep respect. Perhaps there is a lesson there for Graham and for us.
So let’s review: being gay isn’t contagious. Your faith, however, is supposed to be contagious. People should be catching that. Even gay children. But how are they going to catch your faith and the love of Jesus if you keep yourself quarantined?
Are gay children the enemy?
Again, Simon viewed the woman as enemy. Untouchable. But Jesus didn’t. Jesus never seemed to think the disenfranchised were his enemies. Graham, on the other hand, seems to imply that they are. I realize that Graham would say he was referring to Satan, but his words left the unavoidable implication that the gay children these Christians sought to influence were part of the enemy’s plot.
There is an enemy. Satan is our enemy. He does want to devour—but he’s not doing it through gay children. Ironically, Satan doesn’t need to devour the church if he can get us to stop loving people. Every person is created in the image of God and is the target of Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross. Are there people who behave as enemies of the church? Yes, but it’s not gay children—and even if it were, Jesus said to love our enemies and overcome evil with good. But again, gay children aren’t the enemy. They aren’t evil. They’re children who Jesus came to draw to himself.
Do we need to abandon love to reach people for our faith?
When Graham criticizes the idea that we can influence by being “nice and loving,” he negates the Scriptures that directly teach that we can and should. He negates Peter who writes that we are to be prepared to give an answer with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3). Jesus routinely influenced sinful people (amongst whom we are all numbered) by being loving. The woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house definitely felt that Jesus was loving—even though her sins were many. The woman at the well was almost certainly treated more kindly by Jesus than she had been by any man in her life up to that point and by any member of her community (John 4). Zaccheus was treated with so much kindness and acceptance by Jesus that he flipped his whole livelihood the day Jesus came to eat with him (Luke 19). In fact, in the rare instances when Jesus wasn’t “nice,” it was typically toward someone who was being harsh to others. We need to make sure we sound less like Simon the Pharisee and more like Jesus. We don’t need to abandon love to influence people for the faith.
Do we get to decide who we let into the church?
No. There are only two types of people that the Bible says have no place in the church: those who are being willfully rebellious against God, and a person who is being divisive. Being gay doesn’t make a person rebellious against God or divisive. It makes them, well, gay.
It boils down to this: God decides who gets let into God’s church. It’s God’s, not ours. God is not willing that any should perish (Matt. 18:4). I can’t help a child avoid perishing if I shun her or if I push him away.
Unfortunately, from beginning to end, almost every word Graham said was unfounded and scripturally inaccurate. The few founded words—that gay people can be saved but they have to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as their Lord—apply to all of us. In those founded words, however, he seemed to imply that they needed to repent of their orientation and stop being gay. That is neither Scriptural nor reasonable. Because of that, Graham’s teaching on the subject—no matter how many other good things he has done through Samaritan’s Purse—must be rejected to protect Christian parents, their gay children, and gay children outside the church. Graham has misrepresented the heart of the Savior, and we must be sure we don’t imitate his error.
Jesus said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. [For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.] What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the 99 on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the 99 that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matt. 18:10-14).
Graham’s advice bears no resemblance to the heart of the Father and the mission of the Son as described by Jesus. If we want to be children of our Father in heaven, we need to be sure we are imitating God’s heart in the way we live out our lives toward others—and especially toward wandering and searching children.
Now, let’s turn out attention to Dobson. Here’s what he had to say:
James Dobson: “You know, it’s a whole lot broader than just the gay agenda. LGBT people understand when they’re saying, well, you know, people who have this inclination want to fall in love and want to express this in the form of marriage and so on. LGBT: You know what the “B” stands for? Bisexual. That’s orgies. That is lots of sex with lots of people.
“And now transgender has taken over the schools, and they’re teaching that gender is not a biological circumstance with which you’re born. Gender is chosen and they’re teaching 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds that.”
So where did Dobson go wrong? Let’s break it down with a few questions:
What does it mean to be “bisexual”?
“Bisexual” simply means that an individual is sexually attracted to both genders. It says nothing about the person’s actual sexual activity. There are unmarried, celibate, bisexual people. There are heterosexually married and faithful bisexual people. There are unmarried, committed, sexually active bisexual people. And there are undoubtedly married and unmarried promiscuous bisexual people—just as there are married and unmarried promiscuous heterosexual people. Orientation indicates nothing about behavior. By misleading his audience to connect orientation to promiscuity, Dobson unfairly creates suspicion and anger toward bisexual people, and, by inference, all LGBT people.
What does it mean to be “transgender”?
Transgender means that a person’s biological gender (sometimes called assigned gender from birth) doesn’t match their internally perceived gender.
No one is saying that anyone gets to choose their gender. In practicality, the experience of some 5- and 6-year-olds that Dobson references is not that they are being taught in school that they can choose whether to be a boy or a girl, but that they were born with a biological gender identity that does not match their internal gender identity. Like discovering that one is gay, gender dysphoria is not something a child chooses; it is usually a very unwelcome discovery to feel that one’s gender is incongruent with one’s biology. Are those of us who are not transgender able to understand that? Almost certainly not. Our sense of self is so interwoven that we can’t imagine what it would be like were it not so interwoven. We don’t need to understand something to be compassionate, however. Unfortunately, Dobson’s inaccurate representation tends to arouse anger towards transgender people instead of arousing compassion.
For those who haven’t inferred it from earlier phrasing within the article, I am theologically Side B. For readers unfamiliar with the terminology, that means that I believe the Bible teaches that sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage do not honor God. (Side A believes that all loving relationships honor God.) I share that now for this reason: If you happen to be a person who holds to that same theological belief, I want you to realize that we can hold that belief and still be loving, gracious, and even protective toward the LGBT community and most certainly toward gay children. If you happen to be a person who is Side A, I hope you can see that we can love and respect each other although we might theologically disagree and that all of us can do everything within our power to protect gay children, who are often just trying to manage Side S—Survival—because we can agree that every individual is loved and pursued by God.
Graham and Dobson are in error in their beliefs and attitudes regarding the LGBT community and what the Bible has to say about LGBT people. They are not a reliable source for information on how to build Christian homes and communities, because their errant information puts people whom God loves in harm’s way. If we follow their lead, we will cease to honor the heart of the Father and we will endanger people who have been created by in God’s image, who are loved by God, and pursued by God through the redemptive work of Christ.
Make no mistake: People will die as a result of their remarks. Parents will hear these errant teachings, believe them, and be influenced to reject gay children they otherwise might have helped—sometimes even their own. As a result of that, some of those gay children will take their own lives. Gay children are five times more likely to attempt suicide than straight children. Highly rejected gay children have been found to be eight times more likely to attempt suicide. Can you think of a higher rejection than being put out of your home by your Christian parents or put out of your church—as a gay or transgender child—simply for an orientation you didn’t ask for? Don’t let someone created in the image of God, loved by God, and pursued by God fall through the cracks because of errant information, regardless of the source. Instead, reach out. And while you’re at it, pray for Graham and Dobson—that they will experience the love of Christ themselves so that they grow more willing to extend that love to the “least of these.”
Dan Kaser is a heterosexual, married (29 years) father of two and a Side B pastor of a conservative church that seeks to genuinely reflect the heart of the Father.