NOTE: This piece was originally written at the time when the United Methodist church decided collectively to continue as nonaffirming, as noted early in the piece. This was long before the current early 2022 push to demonize trans kids and other pushes to demonize LGBTQ+ folx. Thankfully the principles hold despite slightly changing circumstances. And this piece unwraps some key dynamics that sadly continue today.
In the last couple of articles (see here and here) I’ve been analyzing what rhetorical scholars call “devil terms,” and doing so using political versions of the phenomenon. This week I’m going to wrap in “god terms” as well. I’ll specifically look at what happens when a particular set of beliefs around “family values” is viewed as a “god term,” especially how that affects some churches’ stances toward LGBTQ+ inclusion.
Mini-spoiler: that move pushes lots of other people into being viewed as embodying “devil terms,” including LGBTQ+ folk. I believe this kind of rhetoric is underpinning decisions such as those made this week by the United Methodist church to exclude LGBTQ+ folk from full communion.
Today I plan to focus on how this works and how I believe Jesus flipped the script on these kinds of issues through his parable of the Good Samaritan (found in Luke 10:25-37).
(Please note that, as you’ll see, these principles apply to lots of other issues as well. Future articles are sure to go there, including further into how this kind of “god term”/”devil term” thinking informs purity culture generally.)
Some Preliminary Notes
If you’re smarting from the UMC’s decision, parts of this could be a bit hard to read. But I hope reading this helps you understand and have strength going forward.
Even if you uphold the decision and/or disagree with my read, I hope this article will at the very least help you understand why Christians and others outside the church may see these beliefs and related rhetoric and practices as unhealthy ones that hurt people rather than helping them.
I had previously written a piece about the complexities of ostracism. This stuff is obviously related to that as well.
Context about “Moral Disgusts”
So, as I’ve been outlining in the “political disgusts” series on this blog, the neurobiology of morality is in the same centers of the brain as the parts that “distastes” and “disgusts” are. In other words, there’s a reason we say that people “leave a bad taste in our mouth.” I previously have applied that to LGBTQ+ issues, but am expanding on that here.
“God Terms” and Devil Terms
Please hold that in mind as I get back to the concepts of “god terms” and “devil terms”—because it’s related. See, as I’ve described, rhetoric scholars use the concepts of “god terms” and “devil terms” to describe terms in various cultures that we defend at all costs and/or cast out or fight at all costs. Naturally, it’s those ideas and people we associate with “devil terms” that “leave a bad taste in our mouth.”
Rhetoricians aren’t being religious when they use these terms, and they often use political examples to explain how this works. But the conversations I’ve been having with conservative people about this issue of “one man, one woman” have helped me see how this god terms and devil terms thing works even better, so today I’m focusing on that.
“One Man, One Woman” as a “God Term”
See, in this case, it’s clear to me that defenders of “traditional marriage” and “family values” see what they call “one man, one woman” as their “god term”—the thing to be defended against all else.
This is the thing, in their view, that is pure, holy. Not the reality of messy human marriage, mind you, and certainly not the messiness of sex. But the idea of marriage.
Complementarianism and “Family Values”
And not just any marriage. If you’re not familiar with it, the “traditional marriage” defenders usually hold the theology known as complementarianism, which emphasizes men being leaders while women have “different roles.” Even the “softest forms” of this theology, like the ones I grew up around, tend to see men as physically and intellectually stronger than women, and more capable of leadership in lots of ways.
They especially emphasize that men ought to have more of a say than women in public spheres, especially “sacred spaces” like the pulpit.
They therefore see “one man and one woman” as a form of preserving gender hierarchies and fighting to keep the sacred pure (and oddly male). They’re also fighting for “pure gender identities.” Any interplay between genders seems distasteful to many of those holding this view.
They also see it as preserving physical intimacy among people to only very specific and limited places and times. There’s a big emphasis on procreation as part of this package, too—which also plays a part of their concerns about same-sex sexual relationships and marriage.
God and Gender and Sexual Orientation
It’s important to see that this “god term” these Christians have is not actually God. It is also not like God.
Sure, traditionally Orthodox Christian theology in the centuries and the Bible have often presented God as a “he” and used analogies of God as the male bridegroom being the church’s female bride.
But most orthodox Christian theology, as based in the study of the Bible—also holds that outside of the incarnated presence of Jesus as an unmarried male, God is neither male nor female. The Bible actually uses female analogies for God, uses female terms for the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity is just that—three persons working together.
The Trinity’s interactions are never presented as a marriage situation. And there’s absolutely no mention of whether God has sex or sexual urges, much less in the senses often associated with “traditional marriage.”
Is Sexual Orientation Itself a Sin?
All of this theology about traditional marriage doesn’t actually start with God at all, but with the narrative of Adam and Eve as created by this God. This God, mind you, who isn’t actually described as having a gender identity, much less any reference to a sexual orientation in the “traditional sense.”
In fact, I believe that’s why so often those who defend “traditional marriage” as an idea often get disgusted by the messy incarnated realities of sex of all types. I don’t think it starts for them with the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. It seems to me that they feel shame at the very idea that we’re created beings.
I think this strain of theology sees humans as unworthy of God’s attention, as impure, because they have human bodies with any desires to connect to others physically—and as subordinate to God in terms of power relationships.
There’s a term for this belief: Gnosticism. The Christian church through the ages has often decried it as heresy in light of the evidence that the Bible shows God coming to earth in embodied form in Jesus.
But first, let’s try to understand the defenders of family values better.
Here’s the interesting thing: Despite this theology about God as genderless and gender-fluid spirit and the incarnation of Jesus as an unmarried man, the defenders of “family values” definitely don’t think “made in the image of God” means that asexuality and gender fluidity might actually be a thing.
No, they will tell you that “one man one woman” is the most important thing God wants—and that procreative relationships are the only faithful kind that will keep us from extinction.
This “God Term” as Creating Feelings of Threat
They defend it as “the Truth”—sometimes they even get ALL CAPS and shouty about it.
They get super defensive. They see anyone who thinks differently as a threat.
Here’s where the “devil terms” idea comes in. See, if procreative “traditional marriage” is your god term and you believe this idea must be “kept pure”—then all of a sudden it makes a certain sense from this perspective to see LGBTQ+ people (as well as others—I’ll save that exploration for another time) as a threat.
Same-Sex Unions as “Devil Term”
It took exploring this issue from a “god term”/”devil term” perspective to see it clearly. One of the worst things from this perspective would naturally be unions outside of traditional marriage.
The Bible and “One Man One Woman”
Never mind that the Bible is positively overflowing with examples of people it presents as faithful to God who did not fit the “one man, one woman” mold. Never mind those verses in the Bible about same-sex unions being “unnatural” are most likely talking about pederasty, gang rape, and sex with angels, all of which involve exploitation of power relationships rather than the type of loving, consensual same-sex relationships that didn’t exist in biblical times.
Never mind that whole swaths of Scripture are dedicated to calling out those who exploit power to hurt others, and defending those who don’t fit the mold of society and of this vision.
Enter Moral Disgust
To those socialized into being defenders of traditional marriage, it doesn’t matter. When your “god term” is the unmessy, unhuman ideal of “traditional marriage” than your devil term is those who would even feel the impulse to unite their bodies in ways you might not have thought of. Might even—and this is the worst betrayal of all—wish to sanctify such a union with the blessings of the church.
(Note: You also have to work extra-hard to pay no attention to the domestic violence and other #churchtoo situations behind the curtain when you think this way.)
A married gay or lesbian or trans clergyperson in a loving relationship, seeking to serve God and love their neighbor as themselves? That’s clearly no longer a human. That’s surely a devil. Right???? This is clearly the worst betrayal of God.
People from this perspective might, with a supreme effort, be able to “love the sinner but not the sin” when we meet them. But THE TRUTH IS THE TRUTH, and they would need to somehow repent and be healed of these urges if they are to become truly holy, truly right with God.
The Bible and Incarnational Thinking
I mean, there’s no way that all those verses in the Bible about ALL humans being created in the image of God could mean anything other than being created for “traditional marriage.”
There’s no way that all those examples of people in the Bible living what are declared to be faithful messy human lives outside of what we now have baptized as “traditional marriage” could possibly be in any way loving or faithful, much less pure.
And there’s no way that “traditional marriage” or the church that defends it could be anything other than pure, worthy of “god term” status, right????
How the Parable of the Good Samaritan Can Assist Us Here
I would argue that this was a similar situation into which Jesus spoke the parable of the Good Samaritan. Someone asked him who his neighbor was supposed to be, and Jesus told this story about a man who fell into the ditch after being robbed and beaten up.
He then went on to explain that two religious leaders walked on by before a Samaritan came by and helped the man.
Jesus then offered the clincher—no matter how seemingly impure the person is, it’s the care for the wounded that matters when it comes to loving your neighbor.
Jesus’ Narrative Redefines What and Who Is Really “Holy”
See, the Samaritans were those who fit the “impurity devil term” of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ audience would have seen them as religiously and morally and politically impure. Jesus’ point was clearly this: you’d better look more to who takes care of others and lives the law of love if you’re really looking for “righteousness” or “godliness.” The rest is just trappings.
But that whole understanding of righteousness and worthiness exemplified by the Good Samaritan story doesn’t fit with “the church’s teaching” on morality about these subjects from a “family values” perspective.
Let me say that again. What Jesus said about “morally and politically suspect” people who try to follow the law of love their neighbor as they love themselves doesn’t fit with the church’s teaching.
Godliness as Loving Our Neighbor in Embodied Form
What if what Jesus says lines up with a ton of other Bible passages about how taking care of the “least of these,” the poor and the oppressed—things we can actually impact with both our attitudes and our behavior—is actually meant to be the most important thing? What if that is the “god term” we’re meant to defend?
A Distinction Between Righteousness and “Inherent Purity”
Even if you don’t believe that is as important as defending traditional marriage, surely the parable of the Good Samaritan shows us that God in Jesus valued the actions of those who were seen “impure” by the religious folk of the day.
I believe that he presented this as an example to follow and a lesson to learn.
My Journey on These Issues
For those of you coming to my work for the first time: As I described earlier, I grew up socialized into the first set of principles I’ve described. But I am thankful to also have been taught—and encouraged to read the Bible in full—so I have also inherited the second set. For a long time I struggled with the conflict between them.
I finally decided that what the story of the Good Samaritan shows us ought to be so much more important than views of traditional values. In fact, after my divorce, I came to see that viewing “traditional marriage” as a “god term” causes a lot of damage in its wake. It’s taken me until this point to articulate it in quite this way, but the conviction has been growing for a long time.
Repenting of “Family Values” as a Destructive Idol That Claims Lives
From where I stand now, I can see how a lot of ordinary Christians—not devils, but ordinary Christians—on the ground level have unwittingly elevated this concept of “traditional marriage” into a god term to an extreme extent. The statistics of suicides and homelessness among LGBTQ+ teens testify to this.
Whether those propagating this view have meant it to happen or lot, this elevation of “family values” has left lots of people wounded in the ditch. I repent of my part in that, and seek to do different—and follow in Jesus’ steps—by calling out the problems with this approach.
I don’t believe the parable of the Good Samaritan—reinforced by much of the rest of my reading of Jesus’ words and the rest of the biblical text—tells us that’s okay to either put people in the ditch or to leave them there. If you wanted a tie back to the ten commandments, you could even call such a belief not only heretical but idolatrous.
Jesus Called Out Religious People Who Bullied and Those who Enabled Bullies
If you look carefully at when Jesus literally seems to enact “call out culture,” the walking on by/beating people up behavior is the type of behavior he calls out, EVERY TIME. Jesus doesn’t call out this behavior to hurt people, but he does draw attention to the way it hurts people. And he asks those who enact it to repent.
Applications to Today
I believe Jesus still asks his followers to do the same today. To ask church folk who are defending “traditional marriage” in a way that leaves people in the ditch to turn away from what could be descriptively called an “idol” of “family values.” Because any reasonable analogue to the Good Samaritan parable puts LGBTQ+ Christians as either the person in the ditch or as the Good Samaritan themselves. In most cases both.
I believe that Jesus, in telling the story and asking us to follow in his steps, gives us a mandate to call out this type of behavior in today’s world as well.
This is one of the key reasons I started this project—because I believe in my own life that it’s important to follow Jesus’ example. I’m hoping to encourage, help, and to equip others to do the same where I am with what I have.
One Final Important Note about “Purity of Beliefs”
I believe that the parable of the Good Samaritan underscores the point that there ought not be a “litmus test” for beliefs in order to see what people are doing as righteous.
Whether or not you see yourself as following Jesus, no matter what “devil terms” your politics are known by, if you’re looking out for the marginalized and wounded in society, I believe that behavior is righteous behavior. And if you ARE the marginalized and wounded in society, regardless of your beliefs, you are absolutely worthy of love and support.
Avoiding “Devil Terms”
Because life is complicated, it’s harder in my view to call any of us purely unrighteous, but if you find yourself consistently enacting or supporting beliefs or policies that hurt those who have been wounded, you might be heading down that road. That doesn’t make you a devil—and I’m not God, so I don’t think it’s not my final call.
But as I often feel responsible to point out, it’s not a great look on you. And it doesn’t create a healthier society. If you seek to follow Jesus, he might just be calling you to repent, even. No matter whether you follow Jesus or not, I hope you join us who are seeking to live another way.
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s keep working on behalf of the wounded and bullied, and against those behaviors and policies that harm them. We can do this thing.
Like what we have to offer and want help speaking up and dealing with the conflicts that often accompany that? If you sign up for our weekly email newsletter in the top bar and confirm your email address, we’ll send you a link to our “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” in the final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around.