When a trusted individual sins in a way that can ruin dozens of young lives, Christian groups and communities need to respond quickly. Here’s one case study of ongoing recovery
I interviewed Rosaria Butterfield 3½ years ago as her first book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, was coming out and heading toward wide readership. Since then she’s spoken widely throughout the United States and sometimes faced LGBTQ demonstrators displeased with her movement from lesbianism (and a tenured Syracuse professorship in women’s studies) to Christian believer and pastor’s wife. Here are edited excerpts of a new interview before Patrick Henry College students.
You’ve previously spoken of your fascinating conversion, so I won’t ask about it today: Folks can read excerpts of our interview in WORLD (March 23, 2013) or watch it on YouTube (see below), as more than 120,000 people have. Let’s talk about what’s happened since: What were you thinking when you first saw demonstrators? Wow: This is the world I helped create through my earlier teaching, and I don’t get a free pass. I know the Lord has forgiven and delivered me, and given me joy in a life that I never could have imagined living before—but I did this. I taught thousands of students to despise the Bible. The blood is on my hands.
What’s a typical campus appearance like? I don’t usually go and just talk to people. I meet individually with everybody who’s upset. That can sometimes take a long time. I make sure the protesters are invited to my lecture, and I try to have what’s called a “talk-back session.” I have at least an hourlong question/answer session that is not ever filtered through anything.
What are the typical questions? They have a wide range, but they are often questions about God’s holiness, God’s goodness, and the authority of Scripture.
‘In Christ we are not in bondage, but we don’t have complete deliverance. Some have more crosses to bear than others do.’
Any progress? When I go on campus, people want to tell me what the Bible says, but they haven’t read it. I say, “Look, I’m an old-school professor: You have to read the book to have the conversation. You can ask me anything, but if you haven’t thought about what it means to be an image-bearer of a holy God and have the most precious commodity anyone could possibly have, a soul that will last forever, humor me. Give me six months and work it out for yourself.” Students on secular campuses are often very quick to take me up on that. Christian college campuses are a little different.
Easier in some ways being on a secular campus than a Christian campus? Sometimes at a Christian college, especially one taken over by heretical ideas, those students are using the Bible and using the name of Christ to defend the very thing that Christ came to deliver you from: sin. If I go to a secular campus and say I’m a Christian and believe that sin distorts, distracts, and manipulates every human being, students will often say, “Tell me more. We are curious to know about the problem of evil.” But, if I go to a Christian college that has been taken over by heresy, sin and repentance are words not allowed on the table. That’s really sad, because the threshold to a holy God is repentance.
Tell us about the hindrances to a new life that you discuss in your new book, Openness Unhindered. One is a prosperity gospel approach that says once you become a Christian it’s all good, it’s all easy. Another hindrance is the way that the world has made an idol out of something, sexual orientation, that tears out the heart of the gospel.
Do those two go together: When you have a strong same-sex attraction, it’s very hard not to indulge, and some say the Christian life should not be hard? Christians do bear a responsibility to our brothers and sisters who are deeply burdened by unwanted homosexual desires—and those deep burdens mean hopes and dreams are lost and dashed. In Mark 10:28-31 Peter says to Jesus, “We’ve left everything to follow you,” and Jesus says, “Yes, you’re going to lose husbands and wives and children and farms and families for my sake and for the gospel, but you will receive a hundredfold in this life with persecution, and in the age to come eternal life.”
What are churches typically doing right, and wrong? The church should function as a family for people who look at their sin patterns and feel very strongly that they need to live in singleness to obey the Lord in fullness. Instead of taking the singles in our churches and saying, “Wow, you need to be fixed or fixed up, and we need to do that right now,” we need to respect people and include them in our families in real ways because we are brothers and sisters.
Is requiring celibacy plausible? I reviewed in the March 19 WORLD a book by Ed Shaw, who says it can work, with strong effort by individuals and the church. Is it implausible that you are called to drive a fresh nail into your indwelling sin pattern every day? That’s what the gospel asks everyone to do. A hospitable church for people who are struggling with unwanted homosexual desires is one where we’re not pretending to be all cleaned up. Original sin makes us not just broken but guilty and corrupt. In Christ we are not in bondage, but we don’t have complete deliverance. Some have more crosses to bear than others do.
You write in this new book that it is not the absence of sin that commends believers but the presence of Christ in the midst of struggle: That’s what sets believers apart. You also say the doctrine of original sin is the most democratizing idea in all of human history. How so? We are all on the same page, struggling with an indwelling sin. Some people see their original sin pattern as a cuddly tiger: “It’s a little tiger. If I buy it a collar and name it Fluffy, it won’t hurt me.” Three months later, it’s destroyed your marriage and your family, and eaten you alive. What if you buy a house with a beautiful garden and decide your method of gardening is, “Let it flourish, no need to beat back the pests?”
Hey, that’s my method of gardening. Why doesn’t it work? The master gardener says, “It needs to be pruned. It needs to be battled.” That’s the nature of my soul, and my humanity after Adam. If I let go, I will become a danger to myself and to you.
When you say that on a college campus, I suspect many people think talk of original sin is crazy, but some probably get solemn and think, “Yeah, that’s who I am.” Is there any way to predict which way people will go? One of the great joys of speaking on college campuses is you get to know that the Lord has already made perfect divine appointments. When some reject the gospel today, that does not mean it’s not working in their hearts and lives.