Prioritizing Mercy When Discussing Sexuality

Prioritizing Mercy When Discussing Sexuality
April 5, 2024

By Tony Scarcello. Tony is a church planter, writer, and the pastor of Open Table Church in Eugene, Oregon. He regularly speaks all over the country, helping churches and leaders think biblically and lovingly about their LGBTQ+ neighbors. His first book, Regenerate: Following Jesus After Deconstruction, is available wherever books are sold. You can connect with Tony on Twitter and Instagram.


In Eugene, Oregon, where I live, there is a high population of homeless youth, many of whom identify somewhere within the LGBTQ+ community. And many of them were kicked out of their homes by parents with Bibles in their hands. [1]


It is not uncommon to hear about the various risks LGBTQ+ people experience. These risks can include verbal abuse, physical assault, or being ostracized from family, friends, and work; there are still many people who will not tolerate the existence of LGBTQ+ people. Bigotry and violence, while always reprehensible, should not catch us off guard. Ever since Cain murdered Abel, humans have had an “us and them” approach to life. We have always had people we fear, we reject, we despise. It is as old as our species. What should catch us off guard, and devastate us, is how often that hatred and violence has come from the hands of Christians.


In the 1970s, Key West, Florida, found itself to be quite a hub for vacationing gay men. Their presence, flamboyance, and parties were not welcomed by many Key West locals. They were referred to as invaders, screamed at, spat on, and attacked. One pastor, Rev. Morris Wright, was so disgusted by their presence that he decided to take matters into his own hands.


Rev. Wright placed an advertisement in The Key West Citizen in which he wrote, “If I were the chief of police I would get me a hundred good men, give them each a baseball bat and have them walk down Duval Street and dare one of these freaks to stick his head over the edge of the sidewalk … That is the way it was done in Key West in the days I remember and loved. Female impersonators and queers were loaded into a deputy's automobile and shipped to the county line.” [2]


For Rev. Wright, gay and trans people belonged dead or in prison. 


In 1981, the godfather of conservative American evangelicalism as we know it, Jerry Falwell, gave a talk on his radio broadcast where he described LGBTQ+ people as a type of infestation bringing about the moral and societal decay of America. He spoke of militant gays trying to silence him, warned of “homosexual recruiting tactics,” and promised, as long as he was supported with prayers and donations, to continue to lead the charge against this “satanic homosexual revolution.” [3] In the mid 1980s, Falwell famously told fellow faith leader Francis Schaeffer, referring to gay people, “If I had a dog who did what they did, I’d shoot it.” [4]


Falwell is arguably the most formative figure in conservative American evangelicalism. He spearheaded what is now known as the Moral Majority and was one of the most influential persons to tangle Christianity with conservative U.S. politics. His strategy and support saw the elections of men like Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. His son, Jerry Falwell Jr., was instrumental in Donald Trump’s successful bid for president in 2016. Falwell Sr. also founded one of the largest Christian colleges in the world, Liberty University.


All of that to say, Jerry Falwell is not a fringe player in American church history. His formative influence on American evangelicalism runs deep. Falwell regularly and pointedly painted the LGBTQ+ community as dangerous, devious, vagrants who, if accepted and tolerated, would corrupt the soul of our churches and America as a whole.


Fallwell did not see human beings made in the image of God when he looked at gay or trans people; at least, that’s not what his public statements suggest. He saw pawns of Satan and an ideology that scared him.


Falwell is not an outlier. He represents what many people considered common sense thinking towards the LGBTQ+ community. While it might be easy to say, “That was decades ago, we have gotten much nicer since then,” I am convinced that the church’s aggressive posture toward LGBTQ+ people has not disappeared; it has just adopted different forms. The barriers for LGBTQ+ people in the church today are subtler than they used to be, but nonetheless they keep sincere LGBTQ+ people curious about Christ and the church at bay. If you dig just beneath the automated smiles and brief handshakes of an average Western church on an average Sunday, I suspect you’d find the root system of Falwell’s posture towards gay and trans people, out of sight but still alive and well.


And Falwell’s attitude isn’t always out of sight, even today. In 2022, Pastor Dillon Dawes made headlines for comments he made from the pulpit of his Steadfast Baptist Church in Watauga, Texas. He told his congregation that gay people “are dangerous to society … all homosexuals are pedophiles … and should be shot in the head.”[5]


If you are reading this blog, you are likely a follower of Jesus who is appalled Dawes’s statements. I am also willing to wager that you don’t know very many (or any) Christians who would be supportive of Dawes’s egregious remarks. However, you also know as well as I do how easily perception masquerades as reality. Every time a Christian leader like Dawes makes headlines for a remark like this, the story sends a loud and clear message that Christians are bigoted, homophobic, and dangerous.


Can you believe there are LGBTQ+ people who still want to go to church?


It is puzzling to me that Christians who claim to follow in the merciful footsteps of Jesus sometimes behave so mercilessly. Consider what James, who very well could have been Jesus’s little brother, writes: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”[6]


The idea seems clear to me: Christ’s law gives freedom, not bondage or condemnation. If we don’t embody Christ’s mercy to others, we can’t receive it for ourselves. Christianity is “my chains fell off,” not “your desires condemn you.” God’s aim for his people is that they would be people of mercy, and in order for mercy to triumph, mercilessness must be judged.


Commentating on this passage, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright writes, “God’s mercy is sovereign. It will triumph… He will not forever tolerate a world in which mercy is not the ultimate rule of life.”[7] And yet, far too often when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, the church has allowed judgment to triumph over mercy.


I have heard folks charitably push back against applying this text to the LGBTQ+ conversation, fearing that this line of reasoning will lead to tolerance of sin. If we show mercy instead of judgment to people engaging in sexual sin, we might send the wrong idea about how we feel about their sin. When I hear this, it makes me wonder if people have forgotten that we put up with each other’s sin on some level all of the time. We are all, every one of us, sinners. We all have flaws, dysfunction, and broken ways of existing in the world. All of us. Some of us are better at hiding it, some of us have found deep healing with the Spirit of God, but all of us are affected by sin and brokenness, and all of us have the capacity to pass sin and brokenness on to others. 


 If we live in any type of community, be it church, family, or friend group, we make concessions for each other’s shortcomings. This is not the same as endorsing or encouraging sin. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that we are all a work in progress. Some desire and propensity for sin falls away at the moment of our coming into union with Christ; other temptations we battle for a lifetime. Sanctification is a slow, long obedience in the same direction, to borrow a phrase from Frederick Nietzsche.


The only people who might have a right to let judgment triumph over mercy are the ones whose propensity and desire for sin has been completely burned away in the refiner’s fire. Everyone I’ve met who comes close to fitting that description chooses mercy.


Rather than fixating so much on the sins of others, I suspect we would gain so much more traction in our own journey toward Christlikeness if we fixated on loving our neighbors and ridding ourselves of our own sin. The writers of Scripture do not call us to encourage sin, obviously—but they do call us to be merciful to one another.


If we can acknowledge that we have failed to be merciful to the LGBTQ+ community, we can acknowledge where we may need to repent, and we are then freed up to carry the ministry of reconciliation to our LGBTQ+ neighbors with the fragrance of Christ.

[4] Quoted in Greg Johnson, Still Time to Care (Zondervan, 2021), p. 13.

[6] James 2:12-13, NIV

[7] Tom Wright, Early Christian Letters for Everyone: James, Peter, John and Judah (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 16.