Conversation with an unlikely convert
Lita Cosner chats with Dr Rosaria Butterfield
Rosaria Butterfield is the author of Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered. She is a public speaker, pastor’s wife and mother. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from Ohio State University, is a former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University, and served in the English Department and Women’s Studies Program there.
In the title of her first book, Rosaria Butterfield describes herself as an ‘unlikely convert’. Her testimony is widely available both in Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and on many YouTube videos.1 While her conversion included rejecting the lesbian lifestyle she previously saw as a “cleaner and more moral path”, Rosaria is adamant that she was converted not out of homosexuality, but out of unbelief.
A key part of her journey was her friendship with Pastor Ken Smith and his wife Floy. Rosaria says they proved to her they were interested in real friendship. They did not immediately invite her to church or share the Gospel. While that’s a Christian’s first instinct in many situations, she thinks it can make the non-Christian feel like they are nothing more than a new evangelism project to us. While we should certainly share the Gospel, she advises that Christians who want to reach unbelievers can start by just listening. “Ken and Floy spent a lot of time just listening to me—and it wasn’t spare time, it was costly time.”
Reading the Bible
I asked Rosaria how her training as an English professor affected her reading of Scripture. “I was not raised in an evangelical church, so I didn’t know about this particular pattern of reading that the evangelical church often seems to encourage, the ‘verse a day’ type of reading. And I’m glad I didn’t know about it, because it would not have made any sense to me; it would have just driven me mad! As an English professor, I specialized in how a book fits together as a whole. So I would say the Lord used all of that training when I came to Scripture.”
Yet Scripture was also challenging her assumptions. “I was writing a book from a lesbian feminist perspective trying to tear down the Bible. I was opposed to all gender/race oppression, and the Bible, I had heard, was filled with both. I had been raised Catholic, and Protestants have a different canon, and I needed to know why. I had heard about authorship problems in John, and authorship is a key question for English professors. Now, I don’t really think everyone has to confront that; I love the thought of a simple faith that receives the Word of God as a balm to your soul, and not feeling the burden of needing to work through these issues.
“But it was really interesting to discover that the Bible was actually answering my questions. Many times in studying a subject, you have to go outside the text to get answers. But that wasn’t the case with the Bible. So the Lord used every bit of my training, and I would even go so far as to say that the reason I have the training I have was for this moment.”
Biblical marriage is a creation ordinance
Rosaria emphasizes the need to approach this issue from the standpoint of a biblical view of creation. “Evangelical Christians only want to talk about the New Testament, and you cannot argue for sanctity of marriage from the New Testament alone. You must understand biblical marriage as a creation ordinance.
“But when you talk about creation, then you step on people’s toes! ‘Oh no! That’s going to offend people. We have scientists in our church!’ But do you not think that any of us who came to Christ out of a life of sin that we loved and enjoyed weren’t offended by the Gospel? The ‘offence’ of the Gospel is one of its signature forms of love.”
Rosaria emphasizes how the idea of male/female marriage is founded in the Genesis account. “You can’t defend the binarism of male and female and the integrity of the male/female binarism in marriage—which is at the centre of the Gospel, not its margins—without understanding it as a creation ordinance, which you can’t do in the New Testament. So if you’re just a ‘New Testament Christian’, you’re part of the problem.”
The ‘yuck’ factor
Rosaria has spoken out against the ‘yuck’ factor used by many evangelicals. “When the LGBT community started to campaign for gay marriage, they attempted to white-wash what counts as gay and lesbian sexuality. ‘We’re just like you, we just want companionship, we want to be able to visit each other in the hospital.’
“However, there were many Christians who said, ‘I smell a rat, because for whatever reason, I know what you’re not telling me, and I want other Christians to understand that this is serious sexual sin that can be damaging and dangerous.’ And so they wrote articles that encouraged Christians to respond with what they would call ‘the yuck factor’. ‘This is disgusting; you have the right to be grossed out about it. If it smells like there’s rotten fish here, there really is.’ And they weren’t wrong. The Bible does say that we are to have a kind of internal ‘resistance to sin’ (1 John 2:3).
“But when Christian pastors portray same-sex attraction as yucky and disgusting and horrible, this encourages gay jokes and it encourages people to speak carelessly. And people in the room who have never told anyone what they’re struggling with will have just perceived that they had better find the exit, because this is a completely unsafe place.
“And then to make matters even worse, you may think the same-sex acts you’re describing are ‘yucky’, but some people don’t. And so faithful Christians may not be tempted until they listen to your sermon or read your blog post. So as Christians talk about sin, and especially sexual sin, we need to do so with decency and modesty (Philippians 4:8). We need to give people the room to confess their sins to their pastors and elders and not unwittingly cause our brothers and sisters to stumble.”
Engaging in hospitality
Hospitality is a passion for Rosaria, and it is also the topic of her upcoming book. “Hospitality is not some quaint art where your teacups match. Hospitality is where you open the doors wide open, because you recognize you have neighbours who are dying of chronic loneliness, and such people will gravitate to anything that fills that void. Our homes can be sanctuaries for people.” In fact, she says, “The LGBT community values hospitality, and the skills I learned there I now use as a pastor’s wife.”
Standing on a biblical foundation in a hostile culture
Many Christians feel intimidated by the opposition they face in our culture when they take a biblical stand on gender issues. Rosaria said, “In some ways Obergefell2 was decided in the worst possible way for Christians, because sexual orientation became a protected category of personhood under the Supreme Court decision. So as Christians, on what grounds can we deny that someone’s sexual orientation gives them particular civil protections? The biblical ground is that there is no such category of personhood as sexual orientation because we believe Genesis 1:27 is true.
“And here the evangelical church is its own worst enemy, because I think many people in the church are embarrassed about Genesis 1–11. They’re embarrassed about literal 6-day creation; they just think intelligent people shouldn’t go there. Nevertheless, Christians are going to have to be articulate in explaining and living out what it means to be an image bearer of a holy God, one that rejects sexual orientation as a category of personhood for something better.”
How to engage your homosexual neighbour: first steps
Many want to engage people in this area, and share the Gospel with friends and family who identify as homosexual, but they don’t know where to start. Rosaria suggests approaching this subject in a gentle and caring manner. “We can all engage in Gospel issues from the posture of good neighbours. A good neighbour can’t support gay marriage, because that actually puts a stumbling block between a fellow image-bearer and the God who made him or her. Part of being a good neighbour is also listening well. Many times people will ask me, ‘How do I talk to my neighbours who identify as LGBT?’ But a better question might be, ‘How can I listen so I know where they’re coming from?’
“When we stop seeing homosexuality as a ‘special sin’ and start viewing the issue through the lens of the Gospel, we can start to engage in a more helpful way with our neighbours who struggle with this issue. And when we see this as a creation issue, we have a firm foundation for defending the biblical view of gender and marriage.”