Love Thy Neighbor, Part 1

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield knows a thing or two about effective communication. Before she submitted her life to Christ in 1999, she was a newly tenured English professor at Syracuse University. She was also a lesbian.

But through an unlikely friendship with the elderly pastor of a local church, Butterfield's life began to change. Over the course of two years, she asked questions about Christianity—and ultimately found the Answer.

For the last 13 years, she has been a pastor's wife, currently serving at the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C. She's also a mother to four adopted children—two of whom she homeschools—and author of the book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant Publishers, 2012). She frequently shares her testimony with students at secular and Christian colleges.

Christians were surprised to hear earlier this year that about 100 students at Wheaton College—a well-known Christian school in Illinois—protested her presence as vociferously as the gay activists on secular campuses. Butterfield was not.

Citizen: You've said recently that some activists have labeled you a "dangerous" person. What did you mean?

Rosaria Butterfield: Was that the Wheaton University protest? It happens kind of frequently. For the evangelical world, that was a real wake-up call. When you get protested on secular campuses, you can expect that. But for many people, that kind of reception at a well-known evangelical school was very startling. From my perspective, it's not.

What was up with that is that in some ways our college campuses are more fully in touch with the times than the rest of the world. The context behind that is the undermining of Scripture, the failure to really believe in the inspiration and the authority of Scripture. It's hard to find these days. Along with that, there has been a total disintegration of biblical integrity in the lives of people, and a widespread confusion about basic biblical doctrines. What does it mean to have original sin, to be made in the image of God, that Jesus atoned for our sins? You see almost an erasure of those biblical foundations.

Then add to that a widespread embrace of personal experience and epistemology. That was just unthinkable before the nineteenth century, but now people say they are Christians who have given their lives to Christ—but they don't need to repent of this particular sin, and they don't believe the Bible is true. We've allowed young people to believe that nearly anything goes.

So when I'm on a college campus—even an evangelical college campus—I'm not surprised that I need to start from the beginning. I think there are some people sending their kids to these colleges who are out there shaking their heads and wishing they had asked the admissions committee some different questions! But we who are not living in the complexity of these students' lives would do well to listen to their questions.

What do you think prevents some Christians from being both truthful and loving at the same time?

I think for too long, Christians have been comfortable having an intense, sneaky little raid into the culture they oppose. But I don't think that's the point. The point is that our hearts are supposed to break.

One of the realities in my life when I go onto a college campus is that I am able to meet with my protestors in private afterward. The takeaway is this: If you really want to put the hands of the suffering and the lost into the hand of our Savior, you need to stand close enough to them to get hurt. I think we've lost that. I think we've lost intimacy.

That's also why the Gospel is such a hard message. It's an intimate invitation and a very bloody reality. If we want to be more effective in sharing the truth in love, we need to have a real sense of loss in the context. We don't have that if we don't really know personally anyone who is different than we are. If we are so perfectly insulated in some magic little bubble, we have no idea that we are sacrificing our children to a culture that we don't even understand. So it comes down to relationship. Both truth and grace are in the person of Jesus Christ—relational concepts. If we try to sanitize that, woe to us.

That's also in the experience of people who are sending their children off to Christian college, where they lose their faith. If we don't understand the culture we are sending our children into, we can't even work that out for ourselves. There are a couple of kinds of naivete: We need to be a much more biblically literate culture. We are not. We must be lovers and students of the Word of God in ways that we are not. We must be fluent with the great cloud of witnesses that have come before us, and we are not. I love John Owen. I know he's a Puritan and wrote such long sentences because punctuation was a sort of novelty—but if you are willing to battle through that, he's really the master of not only helping us understand what indwelling or besetting sexual sin is and why it's so powerful, but also what grace is. "We are to wage an irreconcilable war against our choice sins." What a concept!

If we are using discourse, the relationship we have to the Word of God is central to this. But so is the relationship we have with the person to whom we are speaking. I will sit down and share differently with the neighbor whose kids I watch regularly than I will some random gay person. While my neighbor and I might have profound differences of our understanding of what it means to be an image-bearer to a Holy God, we still love our children and walk our dogs the same way. I will share that very differently than I would some stereotype of a human being that I don't really want to get to know. I think both are very important.

When you were living homosexually, what were you looking for from Christians?

I think I was looking to be left alone! I fully didn't understand why Christians couldn't leave consenting adults alone. The supernaturalism of the worldview based on God's revelation sounds like hocus pocus. Why anybody would build a life on that made no sense to me. I also was looking for some answers to some questions. When you're a secular materialist, how dare one group apply its concept of sin to another group? My notion of peace and justice and integrity was based on a material platform. God's is based on a completely different, supernatural one, and I didn't understand that.

I was an English professor by training, so the one thing I knew how to do was read a book and size it up. I had set up the Bible like a balloon that could be popped with my eyes closed—but once I started studying it, the context in which it arrived to us as God's revelation was a strong case, and I had to acknowledge that.

It was a two-year process. I was reading the Bible sometimes up to five hours a day. A lot happens when you read the Bible in very big chunks. I went in like most secular feminists. I had some gender gripes and some race and social-justice gripes. But it became clear to me that I couldn't read the Bible like a flat book. Good readers read in genre and in historical context. We apply that to everything. I was reading it as a scholar and I had some hard questions. But I also was learning a great deal. This was shocking—that God's declaration of sin was followed by invitations of grace. Especially when you are reading in these big chunks, it quickly becomes a gothic novel. The bloodbath is immediate! It's intense. So I was really captured by the hermeneutical integrity of the Old Testament. Many of the arguments I thought didn't make any sense—blending fabrics, etc. So it was very helpful to realize that issues of sexuality were part of the moral law, and issues of fabric were part of the ceremonial law. [Editor's note: Many Old Testament scholars divide Judiac law into three parts—moral, ceremonial (related to "cleanliness," the temple, and sacrifice), and civil (including judicial, for running the nation).]

Ultimately, the Christian life is not an intellectual engagement. If God is the overseeing author of this inspired document, and if this inspired document has been protected by God over the many years of its composition, then it needs to be read in the context of who the author is. God's goodness is an overriding attribute, God's holiness. The integrity of Scripture was really connected to those two things, including God's authority. So one of the things I had to face was if God is the Creator of the universe, who is higher than God? I really had to think about that. If you had a paper due on Tuesday and turned it in on Wednesday, that would not go well for you—because even in the world of materialistic humanism, my authority trumps yours. So how would my life look under the scrutiny of God's judgment? It was just a question, but it was a good question—and it led me to the conclusion that I didn't really want to understand why homosexuality was a sin from God's point of view. I just wanted to argue with Him. And that led me to ask, "Why do I want to do that?"

There was a pastor of a local church (Ken Smith) who had really, truly become my friend. I trusted him. He's still alive, in his late 80s, and he helped me work through these questions. He encouraged me to keep reading when I didn't want to. So ultimately, the Spirit of God works in the lives of people—even unlikely people. We shouldn't be surprised by that. The Word of God is a double-edged sword. One of the big gripes I had was why the Bible had the right to be so different from every other book in the universe. I wrestled with it, and I ultimately surrendered to it. The Bible's oncology—its circular argument—I started to realize the only person who could do that was God, because He is the creator of all things. So these intellectual problems led me to realize that if a Holy God made me, and if I was born in Adam's sin, it was no wonder I couldn't think myself out of it. It wasn't a thinking problem! Repentance is a strange idea. The fruit of the Christian life. But it struck me that maybe there wasn't shame in sin—maybe it just proved that God was right all along.

Of course, there is shame in sin when you realize that Jesus paid for it in the most painful, intimate and agonizing ways. But the initial place is that sin means God was right all along. And if God is my author, who am I to argue with His authority? So those were just some of the ways my mind would twist and turn. But ultimately, too, when we commit our lives to Jesus, one of the ways that figured for me was that after years and years of reading the Bible, cover to cover, voraciously—I did realize that not only was this declaration of sin and the offer of grace so stunning, but it was a stunning realization that I wanted it. I wanted to be under the cover of God's authority. I couldn't imagine what that would mean. I didn't just think it or accept it as something taught to me when I was 10—I had worked it out and it was evident to me that that was the case. And then it was just a painful, horrible, agonizing realization that all those years that I truly believed I was on the side of peace and social justice, goodness, caregiving, compassion—all those years, it was actually Jesus I had been persecuting the whole time. Not just some historical figure, but my Jesus—my prophet, priest, savior, king and lord. I think when you meet that Jesus, there is just no going back, because there's truly nothing to go back to.

At the time I was converted, I was a very newly tenured professor at Syracuse. I was in the lesbian community—not in a committed relationship, but in multiple committed relationships! I did not believe in gay marriage, because if it was an institution, why add good people to it? But my conversion stopped me in my tracks. I was not fired. If I had not been tenured, I might have been. But the Lord led me away to serve Him in other ways. While it's been hard at times—I loved the classroom and the dynamics of it—I have never regretted that decision or wondered what God was thinking. The things I have been allowed to do as a servant of a holy God are so much bigger than that. But there is loss, and it is sad. When a sinner comes to grace, there is a bloodbath right after that. I've never warmed to the narrative that if you just come to Jesus, everything will be all happy after that. We need to stop lying to people!

I think that's why unbelievers find us to be such a psychologically bizarre group of people. We need to be frank with them. One of my favorite questions from a gay man on a secular college campus was, "You're really telling me that the most important question in my life right now is not who am I going to have sex with tonight, but who am I before a holy God?"

The Gospel pinpoints us right where we are. When we pray that we would be a Gospel bridge to our lost friend, it needs to be really specific. It's not some kind of broad sweep. When people used to say, "Jesus is the answer," I would say, "What's the question?" It was fairly easy to just send evangelical Christians running in fear, only because I would ask things like that. Sexual addictions are not pleasant things, and anyone who has them knows that. Anytime you are a slave to something, it's not a pleasant thing. The Gospel message is truly something that says, "You don't have to be a slave to this anymore, you daughter of the King!"—and that is a beautiful thing. Maybe not in the immediate throes of the addiction—but once you get through that, the invitation to step off the track of your own addictive compulsiveness is a beautiful thing.

What communicated love to you most strongly when you were living homosexually?

The church that the Lord enfolded me into was filled with grace and truth. Those Christians were honest believers. They were humble believers as well. They weren't afraid of me. And they weren't afraid of introducing me to their children. They treated me like a human being. They answered my questions. I wanted to know what other people's sin patterns were. Mine was pretty obvious—or at least, one of them was. Don't assume your gay neighbor's biggest sin is his or her homosexuality. Mine was that I was an unbeliever! I felt I was in the company of people who really took the Bible seriously enough to open up their own lives before it.

Ground Zero of the Christian life is repentance. God brought me into a company of believers who really did share their repentance, and where hospitality—the door was just wide open. It wasn't just, "We do this every fourth Tuesday, and A through M bring some kind of dish with heart-attack-producing Campbell's soup in it." It was organic. The Bible isn't a museum icon. We don't keep it under glass. We lean hard and heavy on it. They manifested that.

The other thing which was so intriguing to me as an English professor was the way they talked about the sermon or the Bible and applied it to their lives. This idea that you could live as a person with life on Bible, Bible on life—it was this grand application of many of the life skills I've learned as a lover of books. How interesting to find out there was a much bigger conversation going on about that!

Different people need different things from the church. It's not one-size-fits-all. Every person has a specific question for which the Bible holds a powerful answer. For me, it was really powerful that I could go to Ken Smith or a colleague and say, "Enmity. What does that mean, that 'we are at enmity' with God?" It doesn't just mean we're enemies. Enemies become friends in all kinds of ways. It was powerful to learn that enmity meant something had to die. That was a powerful reality. I appreciated being in a church of people who really applied the Bible on life and life on the Bible in a rigorous way. I appreciate not everyone has to do that to be a good Christian—I'm just so stupid that I do. My patterns of sin and pride go so deep that I really needed a body of believers to help me understand what it was to do this.

I also appreciated that this was a no-frills church. We didn't have a rock band. We sang the Psalms a cappella. It's the book that helps you understand where God is in your suffering and your struggle. Mary Poppins was right—sing it and you will have it for life! So in some ways, that was just the reality that either the Holy Spirit shows up or He doesn't. Either our worship is a sacrifice of praise to a Holy God and He meets us there, or you have—painfully and powerfully—nothing.

We're not called to live relevant lives, really. We're called to live relinquished lives. And in that, He will call us to bring the relevant truth of the Gospel.

What can our readers do to build real relationships with gay people or others that are different from them?

That's where hospitality comes in. I really don't think you can ever truly get to know what your Gospel bridge is to another human being if you never have just at-home time with that person. We've become an overly privatized, squeamish group of people. There's a book I recommend by Dave Runyon, called The Art of Neighboring. If you don't even know their names, you're probably not doing that very well! Not only is it easy to read, but there are some other tools that allow you to make a grid of your neighborhood and really get to know them—first in a superficial way, and then getting into the more intimate issues. We've been using it in our neighborhood here, and we have about 40 neighbors now maxed out—names, emails, addresses. We've been able to put together mercy-ministry calendars for people who are very sick, who are older, shut in. The Gospel travels in those loving ways. And we've gotten to know some gay and lesbian neighbors. We've gotten to know that everyone tracks in some similar ways. We struggle when a pet dies, when a child is sick.

And that's really what Ken did with me. One of the elders at his church took a newspaper article to him and said, "We have got to shut this woman up! She's dangerous." And what Ken said was, "Maybe Flo and I should invite her over for dinner." That's how our friendship began. The gay and lesbian community is also very open to hospitality, so I was very comfortable with having conversations over dinner, and not at all comfortable with "come to church and let me tell you everything that's wrong with you." He violated the two rules of Christianity that night—he did not share the Gospel, and he did not invite me to church. Because of that, I knew it was safe to be his friend.

Where do you see this conversation headed in the future, given some of the recent developments in public policy?

I was speaking recently, and afterward, a little old lady came up to me and said, "I am 75 years old. I've been in a lesbian relationship for 50 years. I have children and grandchildren. I have heard the Gospel. Now what?" That's a conversation we're going to be having.

Right after (last year's Supreme Court decision striking down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act), I wrote a piece saying maybe it would be good for us to be on the losing team. Maybe instead of debating natural law, we will share the Gospel with the lost. I think that's what we were supposed to do first time around anyway. Maybe it's easy for me to say because I've been on the losing side both times around!

I've read Romans 1. I understand Paul made a really good case for natural law. But I'm not him, and you probably aren't either. And natural-law arguments very quickly derail into heavy-handed moralism, especially in a culture that says, "I create my reality." This is the wrong context in which to maintain a moralistic argument and think you're going to win it. Fifteen years ago, the gay-rights movement moved from pathology to oncology, saying gay is good. That changed everything. So we need to be a literate, Bible-believing community that is fluent in how to apply the Bible to our times—not sweeping generalizations of Christian morals. One of my favorite poets, William Blake, said to generalize is to be an idiot. That's not how Jesus treats people.  

In general, Christians rely more on the means of grace and discernment when we are on the losing team, so I am not wringing my hands about these political matters. The Lord is in charge, and if He is rebuking us through these political shifts, then we best learn our lessons. I am a Psalm singer for reason!      

For More Information

Learn more about Rosaria Butterfield at rosariabutterfield.com. The Art of Neighboring: Jesus' Call to Love Starts Right Outside Your Door (Baker Books, 2012) is available in multiple formats here.

© 2014 Focus on the Family. Originally published in the May, 2014 issue of Citizen magazine.

Next in this Series: Love Thy Neighbor, Part 2