Can Another 'Gay-Friendly' Faith Group Help Steer the Conversation for Christians on Homosexuality?

The Imago Dei campaign is the latest among a handful of emerging faith-friendly initiatives attempting to defuse heated conversations among Christians on certain polarizing issues, specifically homosexuality. Although this latest evangelical-led movement holds the view that homosexuality is a sin, its supporters affirm that both "straight and gay" people bear the "image of God" — not exactly a newsflash for some Christians, but definitely a necessary acknowledgment as far as those who lead similar organizations are concerned.

(Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)A policeman pushes traditional marriage supporters from the street in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013.

Imago Dei, a Latin term translated "image of God," is the name of a new campaign launched last week by the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference that represents 40,000 churches. Joining Rodriguez in affirming the Imago Dei in all people, including "victim and perpetrator; citizen and undocumented; believer and unbeliever," are listed leaders Jim Daly, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, James Robison, and Mat Staver.

"We want to do away with the polarizing, negative rhetoric that seems to captivate and hold hostage conversations within groups. Even in the public sphere, there's so much venom and polarizing rhetoric, and we want, as Christ-followers, to shine the light of Christ with love. It begins with the Imago Dei," explained Rodriguez.

In the campaign website's statement of purpose is the prominent pull quote: "For the image of God exists in all human beings: black and white; rich and poor; straight and gay; conservative and liberal; victim and perpetrator; citizen and undocumented; believer and unbeliever."

The campaign's inclusion of "gay" in its statement has caught the eye of observers, with a Huffington Post headline stating: "Evangelical Campaign Says Everyone —Including Gays — Reflect God's Image." Another headline, at Time.com, announces: "The Imago Dei Campaign: Evangelical Groups Say Gays Made in God's Image."

As for the inclusive nature of Imago Dei, particularly in regard to gays, Rodriguez told The Christian Post that the movement has nothing to do with a cultural war and does not espouse any political agendas. He, and his co-signers, want only to end the "rhetorical bullying" and facilitate "redemptive and reconciliatory" interactions — not to "condone any behavior" or "endorse anything that runs counter to a biblical worldview."

That's where Rodriguez's Imago Dei differs from two other fairly new campaigns also launched from a faith-based perspective: The NALT Christians Project that declares that "not all Christians are like that" and The Reformation Project that aims to "reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity."

While NALT encourages Christians to publicly declare a belief "that there is nothing anti-biblical or sinful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender," The Reformation Project aims to convince those that hold a conservative Christian view on sexuality that "the Bible is not anti-gay" and "careful, persistent arguments about those passages [that are used in anti-homosexuality arguments] have the power to change every Christian church worldwide, no matter how conservative its theology."

NALT and The Reformation Project obviously differ in their messages from the Imago Dei campaign, but the fact that the latter affirms the humanity of all people is enough for celebration, according to Alan Chambers, founder of the now-defunct Exodus International.

The ex-gay organization was known for trumpeting reparative therapy as a "cure" for Christians with unwanted same-sex attractions. Last year, Chambers disavowed his organization's methods, apologized to the gay community for causing any members "trauma" and dismantled the nonprofit he had been leading for 12 years — to the delight of critics, and to the dismay of some longtime supporters. He now leads an organization called Speak. Love., whose mission is to "serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about faith, gender, and sexuality; and partnering with others to establish trust, reduce fear, and inspire hope."

Chambers, still getting familiar with the evangelical-led Imago Dei campaign, said on Friday that he finds its inclusive statement "great" and thinks it is "hitting the nail on the head."

"That's a wonderful thing to point out, and it's something I've been trying to highlight in the last few months as well, that everyone does reflect the image of God," Chambers told CP. "You can find the image of God everywhere you look if you just look hard enough." Even in "monogamous, long-term faithful marriages" among people of the same sex, he added, commenting on some of his gay and lesbian friends.

"What I find in many of those relationships is that they're bearing the image of God in the area of faithfulness, commitment and love, trust and fidelity and all of those things," Chambers explained. "Nowhere in that do I even have to make a judgment on the morality of homosexuality or anything like that."

Although Chambers believes the Bible shows that God's creative intent and expression for human sexuality is "one man and one woman for one lifetime" (as he told Relevant magazine last year), he says he refuses to live forever entrenched in a debate about the issue.

"I think that's a pit that we Christians have dug ourselves into, thinking that we constantly have to live in a split-screen debate mentality, like we're on Fox News or CNN, constantly debating the cultural issues when we can simply say, 'These people bear the image of God. They're reflecting God's image in this way,'" said Chambers.

"Let that stand alone. Whether someone is a Christian or not, they're bearing the image of God, in my opinion, in some way, and I think to reflect on that positive is a wonderful thing and something that is desperately needed in the church today."

(YouTube/Relevant)
Alan Chambers: A Conversation About God's Intent for Sexuality

Sally Gary, author of Loves God Likes Girls, works through CenterPeace to help church leaders, educators and families "learn a more Christ-like response to individuals experiencing same-sex attraction."

She, like Chambers, is pleased with the Imago Dei campaign's message, telling CP she found it "beautiful."

"The message is Christ's message, which is we're all one in him. We're all children of God. We're all made in the image of God, and that alone gives us cause for respect from each other," said Gary. "We love each other as God loves us which is unconditionally and that's a powerful message that certainly needs to be heard today."

The Imago Dei campaign comes after Pope Francis insisted last September in a lengthy interview that Christians need not talk about "hot-button" issues, like homosexuality and abortion, "all the time." Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, also stated last year at the start of his tenure that Christians need to "communicate the way Jesus did" when discussing such issues, "convictionally, but with the sort of kindness that recognizes our ultimate goal is the Gospel."

"Did the pope motivate us? No. We've been developing this campaign for about a year and a half now," Rodriguez clarified when asked if his Imago Dei campaign was inspired by calls among prominent religious leaders like Francis and Moore for a more temperate approach to discussing issues like homosexuality.

Rodriguez, also immersed in campaigning for immigration reform, explained that the inspiration for Imago Dei came from a heart broken over witnessing young victims of sex trafficking on street corners in Sacramento, Calif.

"My goodness, here's a little girl made in God's image exploited, sexually sold. And here are cars going down the street, totally passing her by like the Good Samaritan parable, neglecting the very fact that she's in need of being rescued, of being delivered, of being healed," the NHCLC president explained of his thoughts at the time.

"Why can't we recognize the image of God in every single human being?" he added.

"Why can't we just recognize the image of God in every single human being? Black, white, yellow, brown, Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, gay, straight. Every human being carries the image of God. Why can't we recognize that?"

For LGBT-affirming Christians, like ordained Progressive Christian Alliance pastor and NALT Christians Project co-founder John Shore, simply "recognizing" the Imago Dei in gay and lesbian persons is not enough.

"This movement appears to me, from what I've seen of it, to do virtually nothing to help gay people understand that homosexuality is not a sin," said Shore, who also blogs at Patheos. "This is just more Christian waffling."

As far as Shore is concerned, the Imago Dei campaign is just another "right wing evangelical Christian" movement, especially with folks like Jim Daly counted among its leadership. Daly is president of Focus on the Family, a socially conservative nonprofit that frequently sparks the ire of left-leaning groups and other critics. But the Christian organization has been seeking of late to soften its approach in discussing frequently divisive issues, such as homosexuality.

Surprisingly to some observers, Daly remarked last year on NPR that homosexuality is not a "super sin," although he maintains the belief that gay sex is sinful. At a 2013 event on the campus of the University of Colorado, Daly confessed his organization's shortcomings to about 125 students, some of whom were holding protest placards reading "Focus Isn't My Family," "No H8," "Lez Be Honest Who Am I Hurting by Loving a Girl."

"We've created an animosity. We've said we hate the sin and love the sinner. But when you peel it back, sometimes we hated the sinner, too. And that's not the Gospel," said Daly.

(YouTube/Focus on the Family)
Jim Daly speaks with students at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs campus.

The Focus on the Family president's NPR remarks were taken with a grain of salt by some LGBT advocates and even criticized by some conservative Christians. But there were those who applauded the nonprofit for getting back to "the main thing, which is the Gospel of Christ."

But Shore, the Patheos blogger who also co-founded The NALT Christians Project with gay writer and activist Dan Savage and Wayne Besen, also a gay rights activist, told CP that Christians affirming LGBT individuals as bearing God's image is a no-brainer, and that the Imago Dei campaign fails to go far enough.

"What they're saying is God loves gay people just as much as God loves straight people. That's not the same thing as saying homosexuality is not a sin. That fine line is one evangelicals are becoming increasingly adept at walking. This is another example of that tightrope walking. It sounds like it's affirming, but it's not. That's why I don't like it," Shore added in his assessment of ImagoDeiCampaign.org.

(Image: LifeWayResearch.com)LifeWay Research reported on a 2012 survey: "Being a born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist Christian often corresponds with a negative view of homosexuality. Among those groups, 82 percent say homosexual behavior is a sin while 14 percent say it is not a sin. In contrast, 29 percent of all other religious groups say it is sinful and 51 percent say it is not."

Numerous surveys consistently confirm that, in general, Americans' attitudes toward homosexuality is increasingly positive, while "born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist Christians" are more likely to maintain a negative view of homosexuality, according to a 2012 survey from LifeWay Research.

Younger Americans appear to be the driving force behind the positive shift in attitude toward homosexuality (and same-sex marriage). The Public Religion Research Institute revealed in its 2011 survey, "The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights," a chasm between evangelical youths (18-29) and their evangelical elders (65+).

"Forty-four percent of white evangelical Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to only 12 percent of evangelical seniors and 19 percent of evangelicals overall," according to the PRRI report.

The chasm will only grow wider and Christians will be forced to change with the times, according to Shore.

"There's no question that what is commonly referred to as Progressive Christianity, which is to say Christianity which is clearly LGBT-affirming, that sun is rising and the sun of the Christianity that holds to a traditional view of things like gay people and women is waning. The Christianity that has been so predominant in this country for a long, long time is on the way out. The new Christianity is increasingly becoming the dominant Christianity," said Shore.

He added, "Theology follows sociology. The sociology is changing. Theology then will change. Churches will change, pastors will change. They better. We all know, to the younger generation, the gay issue is a non-issue." And pastors concerned with filling their pews will be "forced to re-think their theology on gays and lesbians and women."

"That Christianity is not attractive. It's less attractive everyday. In 10 or 20 years it will be a joke," said Shore.

Chambers' response to suggestions like Shore's: "I don't think people are in need of changing their mind, whether they are pro-gay or pro-tradition or whatever. There's never going to be a time when every single person agrees on every single thing. I think for anyone, regardless of the issue whether it's on sexuality or abortion or any of those things, regardless of what our opinions are, no one's ever going to believe the same thing."

He added, "For someone to point at another [person] and say 'you are wrong,' is to instantly become the authority. I don't think any of us are the authority. I think we live in a pluralistic society where we all believe different things. Even in the church we believe different things, and for far too long I think we've allowed those things to divide us – which is why there's more than 33,000 Christian denominations out there in the world today. Something is dividing us on nearly every point, and I think we have to move beyond that.

"It's OK to go to the church you go to, it's OK to hold to the opinion you hold to. But where I think we can come together, where I think we can find common ground is to say, 'We're all created in God's image and we all bear that out in some way,' and let's focus on that. Let's focus there for a long period of time and see, just maybe, if that will change the course of our discussions and our conversations and take us far away from the split-screen debate that we've been involved in ..."

Among the reasons Millennials leave their churches, according to the PRRI study, is that most of them believe religious groups alienate young people by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.

"People are looking for a place to belong, and if there is any place on planet earth that someone should feel warmth and compelled to be involved in a place where they belong, it's in the church," said Chambers, considering how churches can improve on that front. "That's how I think we can solve this problem with young people who are becoming disenfranchised with their faith and who are leaving their faith behind."

He believes major change will come when Christians "put down their weapons" and lift up the Gospel.

"What we need to do for them, is we need to say to them, 'You belong here, no matter what issue it is you bring to the table, no matter what thought it is you're having, no matter what questions you may have, you belong here. God loves you no matter what.' I think when we lead with that good news, which is really grace, when we lead with that, we'll see a reformation," Chambers added.

Sally Gary, of CenterPeace, agrees: "We have gotten so caught up in fighting and arguing that we've missed opportunities to be Christ to a world that desperately needs to hear that message of unconditional love and acceptance wherever you are."

She added that "anything that allows us to have a Christ-like response to the conversation that creates an environment where Christians, young people who have grown up in churches can come and ask questions of their own developing sexuality within a Christian context is certainly a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

"We need to have a place within church, within faith-based organizations to ask those questions. If we continue to be silent in the church, then where do our kids go to ask questions about their sexuality?"

"I don't have to agree with everyone," said Rodriguez, commenting on the Imago Dei campaign. "I believe in biblical truth. I want to share truth, but I want to share truth in love. I can't share truth if they see me as an enemy, if they see me as an opposing force. I don't want, as a Christian, to be known by what I oppose. I want to be known by what I propose — a personal relationship with God through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

He added, "We want to do away with the negative perception of evangelicals and Bible-believing Christians, that all we do is oppose things. We want to fill the air and fill the atmosphere and charge the atmosphere with a redemptive and reconciliatory message, which is we're all made in Gods' image."

Rounding out his remarks, the NHCLC president said, "I believe in the biblical definition of marriage and I staunchly repudiate all vestiges of homophobia."