A young evangelical who was recently "outed" by a blogger and accused of leading a dishonest life decided to share his story, including a past same-sex encounter.
In an interview with Ed Stetzer, vice president of Research and Ministry Development at LifeWay, Jonathan Merritt said he had "physical contact that went beyond the bounds of friendship" with a man in 2009.
As someone who had committed to follow Jesus at age 13, Merritt said he was "overcome with guilt" following the encounter and went to see a Christian counselor.
Merritt, who is a faith and culture writer, planned to share his story "of my brokenness" for some time. "Because it is part of my spiritual journey. And because it underscores the power of the Gospel to transform lives," he told Stetzer.
"Although I was unable to choose when I would share some of these painful memories, I am thankful for the opportunity to share it now."
The interview was published Thursday, days after gay blogger Azariah Southworth wrote his controversial post on Merritt. Southworth, who no longer identifies as a Christian, "outed" Merritt as gay, maintaining that leaders should be honest and transparent.
He wrote: "Jonathan Merritt is a good man with great intentions. Jonathan pushes for a society which seeks to understand the 'other' ... I agree with his approach and I know he is being genuine in this approach. I feel though what has led Jonathan to this thoughtful and effective approach is his hope for a future where people like me and him, gay people, are no longer excluded but included in every aspect of society.
"He rides the fence because of the strong anti-gay stance his religious community continues to take. He is brave by daring to push the envelope a bit but not enough to give himself away."
Southworth, who came out in 2008, said he took no pleasure in exposing Merritt's sexual orientation, adding that it wasn't an easy decision. But his reason for outing him, he asserted, was the need for honesty.
"We must have radical honesty in the character, intentions and identities of our leaders," the blogger, who now claims to be agnostic, stated. "I truly hope for the day when leaders of the LGBT community and leaders from the anti-LGBT community can come to the table with no secrets or agendas but simply to know one another."
The blog post came amid debate over Merritt's commentary on the Chick-fil-A and gay marriage flap. Merritt had written a column last Friday in The Atlantic, defending the fast-food chain as it faced backlash from the LGBT community over a pro-traditional family statement made by Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy.
Merritt found that he had "kicked the hornets' nest" with his column and in a follow-up, he stated, "Our society must begin to recognize that "being 'anti-gay marriage' is not the same as being 'anti-gay.'"
The Southern Baptist also reiterated his argument that boycotts (with many planned against Chick-fil-A) are "generally ineffective."
When Southworth called on Merritt a few days later to "come out," the gay blogger claimed he also had evidence to back his claim. But many questioned the blogger for what at least one commenter called an "appalling" move.
Stetzer also considered the "outing" ignoble.
"My heart grieves to see such low integrity," said Stetzer.
Merritt, who considers homosexual practice a sin, said he was sexually abused at a very young age by an older male. That led him to feel shame, guilt and confusion – until he dedicated his life to Christ as a young teen.
"Rather than run from God, I decided to walk with him in this. And, I believe that helped shape my worldview that sin can be overcome," he said. "It's through that lens that I write. And, it's through that brokenness that I try to live."
His same-sex encounter in 2009, he said began when he was "contacted by the blogger" in response to an article he wrote about sexual brokenness. They exchanged emails and texts, some of them inappropriate, for a couple of weeks.
They met for dinner when Merritt was traveling through a city near the blogger.
"As we were saying goodbye, we had physical contact that went beyond the bounds of friendship. I was overcome with guilt, knowing I had put myself in an unwise situation. We never saw each other again and we ceased contact after a period of time," he recounted.
Upon his return home, he met with a Christian counselor and said he began to acknowledge to himself "that I have sin in my past, sin for which I accept responsibility."
"It's from my brokenness, that I feel I can now be transparent, honest, and authentic about these accusations," he said. "I'm thankful that I am able to make better decisions about how to handle a difficult situation. And, I'm thankful that because of grace, I can identify with those who have dealt with similar situations."
Merritt said he doesn't identify as "gay."
"I believe there can be a difference between what one experiences and the life that God offers. I'm a cracked vessel held together only by God's power. And I'm more sure each day that only Christ can make broken people whole."
He further affirmed his commitment to the Bible's "unambiguous standards for sexuality."
"I'm committed to this journey in Christ, and I'm committed to remaining within the Christian community while maintaining valuable friendships with those who are not Christians," he added. "Sometimes this means being vulnerable and transparent when it's tough. But that's also when we can lean in and know that the truth is never something to be ashamed of and that in our brokenness we can find strength."
Southworth released an open letter on Thursday to the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, saying that he is "very conflicted" and not proud of "'outing' your own." But given that "what is done is done," he now sees an opportunity for a discussion with the SBC.
"So lets do that, okay? Not the typical fear based rhetoric, misinformation or half-truths. Let's have real talk," he requested.