Skip to content

the kingdom of heaven: not just for Pharisees anymore

Hi there.  I’m writing this post because of the great amount of personal conversations and conviction I’ve experienced the past few weeks, months, and years on this subject and because I thought it would be helpful to tell my story and to put a collection of my views together here on paper (so to speak).  My hope is that this post might end up helping heal other people’s stories as well.  I want to thank my friends for the authenticity and stimulation all of our recent discussion has brought me.

Because that’s all this is, right?


And without that discussion, without that real engagement, there can be no actual healing.


I spoke with a friend a couple of nights ago and I showed her the first draft of this post.

And after looking it over, she put my laptop down and told me a story I had completely forgotten.

She told me how we were walking on campus late one fall afternoon last year when, as we walked past our local United Church of Christ, I scoffed at the rainbow flag that tossed about in the wind above the church and made some sort of comment about them capitulating to the changing winds of culture and being unfaithful to true, biblical Christianity.

Inclusiveness Ministry?  LGBT Ally?  Genderbread person?



I echoed the angry words of my closeted, contemporary, conservative Christian culture.

Now for many Christians, homosexuality is just something that doesn’t really ever come up in serious discussion.

It just kind of lingers beneath the surface and keeps itself quiet in the closet.

It’s really not until we find ourselves living or working with a flesh-and-blood, bona fide homosexual that we begin to think through our previous assumptions.

It’s not until we find ourselves (God-forbid) actually kind of liking a gay person that we reconsider what we’ve been taught:

that it’s sin, there’s no discussion, and don’t you dare mention it unless you’re condemning it – oh, and if you have to talk about it, it’s not called being gay (it’s called struggling with same-sex attraction).

That gays are going straight to hell.

Per the standard model, I didn’t particularly have to think about the intersection of my Christian faith and human sexuality until about a year and a half after my parents’ divorce.

It was then that my mother decided (or discovered) that she actually loved women instead of men.

Like that.

I mean, yuck, right?  Geeze!

It was a shock that thrust homosexuality center stage, which would tear apart my identity as a Christian for a long time.

A woman who has since completely broken off contact with me stayed at my mother’s house for a couple of days a while ago.  Towards the end of her stay, she made a comment about how it must be so, so hard for me to live with the knowledge that my mom was going to hell because she was living with her partner.

This was all pretty nonchalant, very off-the-cuff, and I was expected to just swallow it.

But I was completely shocked.

At this point I was fully convinced that homosexuality was a sin, but I’d also done my research on judgment day and, at least according to my version the Bible, as long as you were a Christian it didn’t matter if you were gay or not…you could still get into heaven!  And my mom was a Christian, so it would be okay!

But this was different news!

I think I somehow managed to quell my shock at her statement as she tearfully took my hand into hers.

“It’s okay, it’s okay!” she told me again and again. “It’s not your responsibility to save her.”

Trying not to rock the boat, I ruefully nodded in awkwardly anemic affirmation.

“I uh…I know,” I lamely responded.

What I wish I had done was scream “because Jesus has already done that!

What I wish I had articulated to her is something that I now tell anyone who asks my opinion on the issue; and whether you identify as Christian, LGBT, neither, or both, I hope this is something we can all agree on.

God loves you just the way you are.  Right now.  Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done.  And this doesn’t mean that you won’t keep on improving and transforming and dying to yourself and being healed as a result of His love but it does mean that you don’t have to change who you truly are for God to accept your entirety right now.

That you already fully have His love and acceptance isn’t something you can just skip over.

That you don’t have to sacrifice your God-given identity to earn His approval is kind of important.

He earned that for you on the cross.

So back to the story.  This woman said something to me about how hard it was for her, spiritually, to be staying there with my mom and her partner and that she felt terrible that I had to live there full time with them and be exposed to that lifestyle.

Then she buried me in an enormous, oblivious, watery hug.

That was probably the worst part.


“any plain reading of the holy scriptures…”

“any bible-believing christian…”

“he’s twisting scripture…”

Have you heard phrases like this?

These comments are so ignorant because they operate under the staggering assumption that the speaker’s particular sect of a particular religious movement or tradition has sole access to the entirety of revealed truth.

That they are the one



and interpretation of the Bible.

That it’s an absolutely central issue and that there’s no other possible way of looking at it if you’re a real Christian.

It’s not important what specific strain of religion or irreligion you identify with most; this claim is an arrogant one to be making.

Because we first have to realize that we’re not anything like God and that He doesn’t like the same things we like.

We first have to come from a place of humility where we recognize that God is bigger than our personally constructed belief systems, that we cannot ever lay claim to the name of Y H V H, that we will never have full understanding of the person, power, and implications of the God incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth.

Any statement that assumes otherwise is supremely prideful.

And people, especially when it comes to the religious, have always had prideful things to say.

Reminds me of the most vocal religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees.

A bit of background:

Pharisee, from the Hebrew פְּרוּשִׁים, or pĕrûshîm, literally translates as set apart.

The Pharisees were a group of people who saw themselves as set apart.

Set apart.

From everybody else.

Because of their religious beliefs.

The Pharisees were the mainline, powerful, religious institution of Jesus’ day who, along with the Sadducees, maintained and operated the temple’s sacrificial system in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees honorably desired to keep Israel faithful to her sacred religious tradition under a pagan, Roman rule and occupation.

They were the forces responsible for the interpretation and teaching of the Jewish scriptures, the Tanukh (which included the Torah), and for deciding how the faith was to be practiced in everyday life (the esteemed vocation of the Rabbi emerged from this tradition).

The Pharisees, you may also remember from Sunday school, weren’t big fans of Jesus.

And Jesus wasn’t a big fan of them either.

They’re actually the ones to whom Jesus says “the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven before you.”

The ones that Jesus says have murderous blood,

the ones He calls “sons of hell.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

The religious folk of Jesus’ day

(the ones who saw themselves as their culture’s moral guardians,

the ones who wouldn’t have anything to do with those deemed “unclean,”

the ones who called themselves set apart)

are called out by Him for what they are: sons of hell.


Jesus says that their hearts have grown hard, that somewhere along the line they’ve gotten it wrong.

Missed the message, messed it all up.

Gone way off course.

I want to emphasize this.

Jesus tells the self-identified conservative, set apart religious folk of His day,

the ones so convinced of their impending salvation,

that He will






He says this to the religious.

It’s certainly not what anybody was expecting.

The Pharisees, if they’d heard that their G-d was coming to earth as a man, they’d expect Him to be just about ready to go off on all of the bad people, to make them pay for all of their sins and to go ahead and reward all of the wholesome religious folk like themselves.

But that’s not the God we see in the actions of Christ.

Because Jesus doesn’t tear up a brothel with a “whip of cords.”

Jesus doesn’t call the moral outcasts a “brood of vipers.”

He saves that for those parading their outer cleanliness, for the “righteous,” for those stringently guarding their narrow gate.

He saves that for the Pharisees.

And the hurting, the forgotten, and the neglected?

He heals them.

Those society has called sinful and cast out, Jesus redeems and treasures.

He invites the sick to participate in the inauguration of His Father’s Kingdom.

He eats with them.

He drinks with them.

He parties with them so much that Matthew tells us He has some people calling Him “a glutton and a drunkard”.

Meanwhile, He tells the Pharisees that though one day they will come to Him pleading “Lord, Lord!” he will cast them into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It’s been said that all of the traditionally religious folk will be awfully surprised up in heaven when they see all these people who didn’t fit their mold right up there with them.

But Jesus says they aren’t even making it past the gate.



if we could make the small jump to modern times…

I’m going to be on that side of the debate.

I’ll align myself with the judgmental and the closed-minded over the marginalized, the persecuted, and the oppressed.

I’ll risk siding with the Pharisees over love and offending the God who is love .


I can’t risk that.

I won’t.

I will always err on the side of love.

And love is the one thing the Pharisees seem to miss the point on.  Jesus says that though they tithe their herbs properly, “they neglect justice and the love of God.”

So you can follow the rules down to a T and still miss the point entirely.

I guess I mention the Pharisees because I see their legacy live on in the lives of many people today.  I see startling similarities among the brand of American Evangelical Christianity that I’m so familiar with.

But today, even the antigay crowd isn’t anti-love.  What is generally said is that it’s just the physical culmination of that love in sex that is an abomination.  It isn’t basic homosocial affection and brotherly love that is inherently sinful, it’s just the actual act of sex.

But…what if two gay people agreed to ban all physical contact and interest in each other but still commit to sharing their lives together, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health?

No sex…would it still be sin?

I was speaking with a friend last week who told me that homosexuality was “just disgusting” and therefore wrong and against God’s will.  I don’t think she realized that men being physical with men is something that’s always going to be painfully weird to straight people, just like heterosexual affection is always going to be painfully weird to homosexuals.

And this orientation, regardless of your view of its moral acceptability, it’s not what you could honestly call a choice.

I’ve spoken with countless individuals, Christians mostly, who have prayed and fought to suppress their desires day after day after day and been on their knees begging for the Lord to take away their homosexuality each night.

I’ve heard from all manner of desperate people.  Those who have suffered bullying or abuse as a result of their orientation, those ostracized from family or faith community because of this secret shame.

Those on the edge of the cliff and thinking that it might just be easier to just take one final step forward.

Stories like this, they don’t describe a choice to “pursue a gay lifestyle.” Stories like this, they make me think that maybe the problem isn’t God, that maybe homosexuality isn’t some disease to be cured, that maybe God just has the common sense not to fix what




Let me be clear: I’m in line with standard Christian teaching on human sexuality.  Any act (reckless lust, heterosexual union, masturbation, sexual predation) outside of the consensual, covenantal relationship most commonly referred to as “marriage” is not the ideal.

Sexual sin is deadly.  It’s addictive and it’s dark and it brings forth death.  Intentional sexual activity of any kind outside of the bonds of a committed relationship, ideally MARRIAGE, is (in the long run) harmful and against God’s desire for our lives because sex is a sacred and powerful thing and it deserves better.

Which leads me to the conclusion that promiscuous, gay sex is harmful and destructive and deeply saddens God.

But promiscuous, straight sex?

That’s not any better.  That angers Him equally.

To take one as worse than the other is pure hypocrisy.

The writer Paul says in his letter to the Romans that “God shows no favoritism.”

None whatsoever.

And neither should we.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul asks “what business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?”

So regardless of your moral stance on the issue, how can we, especially as young Christians, argue from a ‘Christian’ perspective that we have the moral imperative to legislate who or who not other people should be able to love?

This game of imposing our religious beliefs on others just because we are in the majority is a dangerous one; I would not very much like it, for instance, if the Muslims gained a majority in this country and moved to criminalize the sale of alcohol.

Because the United States of America is not a theocracy, it is your duty to honor the separation of church and state, whatever your personal beliefs.

Which leads me to another thing I never thought I’d be saying.  Just two days ago, two days ago, after years and years of hating all of my mother’s partners and causing untold strife in the home and family she was trying to build for us, I realized it.

Love is love.  Even if you believe it’s “misguided.”

Because despite popular belief, homosexual love (like it’s cousin, heterosexual love) is not just sex.

It’s hand-holding and it’s tearful goodbyes, it’s teaming up to wash the dishes together and it’s meeting the in-laws for the first time. It’s commitment and spooning and growing old and serving God together for a lifetime.

In the book of John, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be known by the love they have for one another.  What he spoke harshly about was not love (misguided or otherwise) but judgment and hate.

Homosexuality, if sinful, is a sin of love. I concern myself much more with sins of hate — including hating homosexuals.

Oh, and before I forget:

the comments I was making in the beginning of the post about the unfaithful liberals?

Do they sound familiar?

That’s because the segregationists made them too.

So did the pro-slavery folks, back in the day.

So did the Pharisees.

you there, with the beard! no smiling!

So here we are,

back to the beginning

with the Pharisees.

The group whose dogma was questioned

whose power base was threatened

whose callous judgment was called out for what it was

and who, instead of being an ally to their Christ,

they killed Him.

Brothers, too often when it comes to our LGBT brothers and sisters, we are the Pharisees.

So let’s end their legacy.

It’s just something that needs to be exterminated.

Regardless of what you believe about homosexuality.


As for next week’s election?

Please don’t see it as anything other than choosing between the lesser of two evils.  One candidate is not the anti-Christ and the other is not our savior.  Let’s not forget that those roles have already been filled.

And so though I feel a jaded, sharp disappointment towards both parties, I want to propose that maybe the lesser of two evils here isn’t the standard ‘Christian’ choice.

Because Christianity does not equal social conservatism.  The Pharisees were social conservatives.  So are the Taliban.

That said, with some extremely notable discrepancies, I see one candidate who basically favors a set of policies that cater to the institutions of the rich and powerful and one who is fighting for the oppressed.

So make sure to raise your voice and cast your vote according to Kingdom Values.  Not ‘family values’.

They’re not the same thing.

(Now all we have to do is win him over on this whole abortion thing).

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Melissa #

    you know something interesting?
    in high school I had discussions (or rather my teacher had a one-sided discussion with my class) that Jesus actually was a Pharisee. Those were the caste he associated with the most, I believe, and while yes, they angered each other, they also associated with each other a lot. I wish I could remember more details, but it’s been several years. You can probably find something about it on the Internet though, if you cared to look. Or maybe talk to a religious studies professor.

    Also, you said your beliefs on sex are in line with Christian teachings. How are those different from Catholic teachings, if there is a difference. As I remember it, it is basically no adultery, no coveting anybody else’s spouse, and no sex unless in intend to create a life. Is the Christian Church the same? And is that why you considered same-sex love a sin?

    November 5, 2012
    • Interesting. The Catholic church considers sex without the intent to create life a sin and the Protestant tradition of Christianity says sex is great even if there is no potential to create new life, as long as it’s within marriage. There is a very small difference.

      The “rules” could probably be summed up as “sex is for love, not just for fun” and “don’t cheat on your partner, emotionally or physically.”

      Personally, I don’t think the Bible has a lot to say about same-sex love. Jesus says absolutely nothing about it. Out of the some 34,000 verses that make up today’s text, homosexuality is mentioned a whopping total of 6 times. It certainly condemns predatory sexual actions and the licentiousness of drunken orgies but even those 6 mentions don’t speak about committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships as we understand them today. That just wasn’t even a concept that existed to be condemned back then.

      Does that answer your question?

      November 5, 2012
      • Although the Bible basically says “dont have gay sex” several times (in Leviticus, Romans, 1 Timothy), it never appends that line with “unless you are in a committed, monogamous, same-sex relationship”.

        December 12, 2013
    Seriously, this post speaks straight to my heart. I seriously was passionately yelling AMEN in my head a million times. I’ve struggled with these issues and have come to a conclusion similar to yours. I love when you mentioned that love is love. Whether it is “homosexual” love or “heterosexual” love. That’s undeniable. I feel so strongly that as the church we need to BE THERE 100% for the LGBT community, and not only with the intention of changing them, but instead embracing them and showing them that they have a place in the church and how much God loves them. I look at a gay couple who loves God and wants to get married and compare their relationship to marriage tainted by unfaithfulness and abuse. Is the straight couple a better representation simply because they are straight?

    Also, AMEN again to your words on the upcoming election. There is no candidate who is the “choice for the good Christian” neither candidate will change our world, only God can.

    November 5, 2012
    • Thank you for the support Allie, it was awesome to meet you the other day. I think that you touch on something here when you recognize that we need to be there for the LGBT community without the intention of changing them. It’s like we were talking about in the car; if we’re only giving people in third world countries food and medicine and education so we can hand them a Bible and expect them to confess our God, we are severely missing the point.

      As Christians, our job is not to love others so that we can convert them; that’s terrible rhetoric. Love with an ulterior motive isn’t actually love. Our job is to love others as Christ loved us: recklessly, selflessly, and without expectation of anything in return.

      November 5, 2012
  3. This is a brave, thoughtful post, Ryan. I can relate to the journey you’ve been on. I used to look down on people who began questioning their long-held assumptions about homosexuality, simply because one of their close friends turned out to be gay. Then I found myself in the same boat and discovered that’s probably one of the BEST reasons to reexamine our beliefs.

    November 5, 2012
    • thanks for stopping by, Ben. That’s an excellent point. It’s funny, though your writing has influenced me enormously, when I started reading your blog a couple of months ago you were one of the people I actually looked down on for “not remaining faithful to true, biblical Christianity” by “capitulating” on the gay issue and complementarianism. Oh, how the Spirit has already begun to soften and heal my hard heart.

      November 5, 2012
  4. Pam #

    True intelligence comes from the heart of wisdom, my dear Ryan. We each have a choice, every single day, every single moment to live by the letter of the law like the Pharisees or the Spirit of the law, as our beloved Jesus did.
    I pray you continue to question beliefs that were given to you and make your own choice through discovery.
    “Ignorance never settles a question.”
    Much love for you,

    November 6, 2012
    • Pam, thank you for reading this and also for the patience you’ve shown me these past few years. For me, the Spirit of the Law will always win, but I know that’s not true for everyone.

      I had a conversation with a friend yesterday who was entirely convinced that we should side with the people with “the correct theologies and doctrines” instead of those who are actually going out and serving others because “they don’t believe the right things.”

      To me, what you BELIEVE is not as important as what you actually DO, but he said Jesus wouldn’t agree.

      All I could think of was Mark 3: 1-6.

      Want to know my “theological tendencies?”

      Love God and love others. It’s that simple. It really is. Or else it’s all worthless.

      November 8, 2012
  5. Mary #

    What a great message, my son. I am so very proud of you and how much you have grown as a person. I like the fact that you are questioning your thoughts and making your own decisions about this and many other social issues.

    It is not an easy thing to search your heart. To thine own self be true.

    Love you! Mom

    November 7, 2012
    • glad you read this mom 🙂 I love you too. call me soon.

      I am proud to be called your son.

      November 8, 2012
  6. Emily Otnes #


    February 5, 2013

      it will help undo all of the damage this post caused 🙂

      February 5, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. How this is so not about popular opinion « Ben Irwin

thoughts? leave a comment here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: