Justin Lee has written a book that has so much to commend it. Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay-vs-Christian Debate (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012 - published as Torn in the US) movingly relates his own personal experience of same-sex attraction whilst growing up in evangelical circles and coping with negative responses from individuals, churches and other Christian organisations. A victim of some of the genuine homophobia and lazy thinking within the church, his persistent desire to educate those who misunderstand same-sex attraction is impressive and his balanced treatment of its origins is one of the most helpful I have read. I would share his scepticism and embarrassment when it comes to the ex-gay movement and think his last chapter entitled ‘The Way Forward’ hits nearly all the right notes as he encourages the church to improve its pastoral response to the whole issue. More generally his consistent call for all sides to listen more to each other is one all would do well to hear, as is the challenge to the church to repent of the mistakes we have made in the past.
But for all of Lee’s evangelical heritage it is his handling of the Bible that is consistently the weakest part of the book. He is at his best articulating experience of same-sex attraction – at his worst interpreting Scripture. It becomes increasingly hard not to conclude that he has been more swayed by his bad experiences than good exegesis.
So, for example, I don’t think he understands the biblical gift of celibacy correctly. In the Bible, celibacy it is not portrayed as being just for those who are happily single. And marriage is not God’s only answer to human loneliness, nor sex the only way to experience true intimacy – but Lee allows that impression to be given. His revisionist treatment of the classic proof texts just creates doubts rather than delivering any killer blows – a simple task when you don’t interact properly with any of the counter-arguments. But this is enough for him to quickly push them to one side, conclude they are just culturally bound, and embrace the good fruit he sees coming from long-term same-sex relationships. There is sadly no interaction with the wider biblical theology of sex and marriage and no persuasive reasons are given to depart from two thousand years of Christian tradition at this point in church history. Without this his arguments are unpersuasive to anyone who (like me) would need a slightly more rigorous argument to change my mind on a massive ethical issue than the fact that there are happy gay Christian couples, and a definition of grace that sounds like it comes from the cheaper end of the market.