This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume32, number2 (2009). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
The gay advocacy group Soulforce presents itself as a faith-based, civil rights organization, promoting justice for homosexuals by confronting churches and Christian leaders who promote the traditional biblical view of homosexuality. Soulforce has adopted teachings from both Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and views itself as a modern civil rights movement following the traditions of nonviolent protest. Founded by Mel White, a former ghost writer for Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, Soulforce believes the traditional Christian position on homosexuality is wrong, damaging to homosexuals, and must be confronted as its promoters must also be confronted, converted, or ultimately silenced. To this end, it has sponsored demonstrations at denominational conventions, churches, and conferences across the country, and has visited numerous Christian and secular universities. If pastors or Christian leaders choose to dialogue with this group, they should be aware of its erroneous theological positions and should clearly assert their disagreements with Soulforce’s beliefs and goals.
“We must stage powerful and long term direct actions against local churches and local pastors who are the primary source of the antigay propaganda in our communities….”
—Rev. Mel White, founder of Soulforce1
In the spring of 2008, pastors Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, T. D. Jakes, and Bill Hybels shared a dilemma. Each had been informed that his church was selected for a visit from Soulforce, a pro-homosexual religious organization that was sending a group of openly gay couples, along with friends and allies, to attend their worship services and inform their congregations of the “damaging impact of religion based discrimination” towards homosexuals.2
That wasn’t all, however. Soulforce would also “require” a forum for “personal and direct interaction” with each church and its leadership, which could take the form of a shared meal, panel discussion, or private meeting. If the pastors refused, they could expect “creative and visible nonviolent direct action.”3
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They weren’t alone. Administrators at Biola University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and numerous other Christian campuses around the country have received similar notice from Soulforce, often resulting in on-campus trespassing, additional security requirements, and arrests.4 Additionally, Focus on the Family’s facilities in Colorado Springs are visited regularly by Soulforce demonstrators, some of whom refuse to leave the property until their demands are met;5 the annual conference of American Catholic Bishops has had its mass interrupted by Soulforce activists;6 denominational conventions have been subjected to Soulforce-engineered demonstrations and disruptions of business;7 and Christianity Today magazine, commenting on the group’s activities, cited Soulforce as an example of “an inescapable conﬂict for every church” over homosexuality.8
Thus, an increasing number of Christian leaders are facing the question: What should we do when Soulforce calls? This article will attempt to answer that question by examining the history, beliefs, and tactics of Soulforce, and by offering biblical principles and strategies to assist pastors and leaders who will one day encounter this growing and aggressive organization.
REV. MEL WHITE AND THE HISTORY OF SOULFORCE
Soulforce was birthed in 1999 by Rev. Mel White and his partner Gary Nixon, with the intention of recruiting and training volunteers to join in “confronting the antigay words and actions of fundamentalist Christians.”9 White, a former pastor and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, had ghostwritten books for some of America’s foremost Christian leaders, including Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, and was recognized as an accomplished ﬁlm producer and communicator. In his autobiography Stranger at the Gate, however, he describes what was not well known about him: his private and lifelong struggle with homosexuality, a struggle he was aware of from his boyhood in the 1950s. Raised devoutly Christian, he felt his only option was to keep his sexual feelings a secret and marry, which he eventually did, fathering two children, one of whom became the well-known comic actor and screenwriter Mike White.
White recounts, movingly, his attempts to change his sexual orientation through counseling, intensive prayer, and even electroshock therapy.10 Unable to ﬁnd relief from his attractions to men, he engaged in a number of clandestine homosexual encounters, even while ghostwriting for prominent leaders such as Graham and Falwell, none of whom knew of his sexual leanings. For most of his adult life, he’d believed homosexuality to be wrong, so his lapses into same-sex encounters caused him considerable guilt. His thinking gradually changed, inﬂuenced largely by a psychologist at Fuller who advised him, in 1980, that even though he was a married Christian father, he was also a gay man who needed to accept it, fall in love with another man, and move on.11 An epiphany followed: “For twenty ﬁve years I had been in a kind of bondage, judging myself, hating myself, trying to change something in the heart of me that could not, should not, be changed.”12
He began discussing his sexuality with his wife, Lyla, and by 1984 he’d begun seeing Nixon, though still married, and eventually was amicably divorced from his wife (who is on record as supporting him in his work with Soulforce). He then formed a partnership with Nixon that was solidiﬁed in a California marriage ceremony in 2008.13 His “coming out” in 1993 sent shock-waves through evangelical circles, and the release of his autobiography the next year was accompanied by generous media coverage, from featured newspaper articles to interviews on 60 Minutes and Larry King Live. White was soon to became the most visible and vocal representative for those claiming to be genuinely Christian and openly gay.
From the beginning, though, his goal was not just to “come out,” but also to come out against.” I will not remain silent any longer,” he declared in 1993 while issuing a public challenge to those he referred to as the religious right. “I pledge myself to do my best to prove you wrong with all the courage, wisdom and love I can muster.”14 On this promise he made good. He would soon stage a demonstration against Pat Robertson’s CBN headquarters in Virginia Beach, resulting in trespassing charges for which he would be jailed and then, in Ghandi-style protest, begin a well-publicized hunger strike that would only end when Robertson came to him in jail and promised to change his rhetoric when speaking about homosexuals.15 A similar “Fast for Understanding” was staged in Colorado Springs in protest of Focus on the Family.16 Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church would soon face many similar public displays from White and his allies.17
By 1999, White and Nixon had organized and recruited others who shared their concerns and Soulforce was formed, seeking “freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance.”18 The ensuing decade has seen the group’s visibility and aggression expand, making itself known at annual denominational conventions, church trials for pastors charged with violating their denomination’s standards regarding homosexuality, Christian universities, and churches, both national and worldwide. With public support from allies such as Jay Bakker (son of PTL founders Jim and Tammy Faye Baker),19 Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mohandas Gandhi),20 and Yolanda King (daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.),21 Soulforce has solidiﬁed its image as both a civil rights and progressive religious organization.
White continues to identify himself as a bible-believing Christian,22 and the frequent references Soulforce volunteers and associates make to scripture, along with personal claims of faith, suggest a speciﬁcally Christian organization.23 Soulforce’s approach to the faith, however, is ecumenical: “Our Creator is not conﬁned to any church or synagogue, any temple or mosque. Our Creator is on the front lines where people are suffering injustice. And when we join God there, we discover what it means to be a son or daughter of God, what it means to be truly human.”24
Soulforce therefore believes that we are all children of God by birth (not rebirth, as Jesus claimed in John 3:3) who discover God’s fatherhood by doing social justice. In fact, the ﬁrst of the “Six Soulforce Beliefs about Myself ” announces: “I am a child of a loving Creator, a daughter or a son of the Soulforce at the center of the universe.”25 This belief stands in stark contrast to John’s declaration that “as many as received him [Christ] to them gave the power to become the sons of God” ( John 1:12 KJV), and to Jesus’ assertion that no one can come to God but by Him ( John 14:6).
So, while some Soulforce advocates may identify themselves as Christian, the organization’s self-description, posted on its Web site, is apt: “Soulforce is an interfaith and ecumenical movement.”26 The name Soulforce refers to teachings by Gandhi called satyagraha, his term for “truth force.” Gandhi taught that people should live by this truth force through deﬁning a “plan of action that developed inner lives while working to transform society.” These teachings inﬂuenced ﬁrst Gandhi, then King, both of whom White claims as inspirations and models: “Gandhi developed and reﬁned his Satyagraha or ‘soul force’ principles while leading justice movements in South Africa (1893–1915) and India (1915–1948). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., discovered Gandhi’s ‘soul force’ rules and used them to shape his own nonviolent civil rights movement in America.”27 White asks, “How would our [gay] civil rights movement be different if we rediscovered and applied those ‘soul force’ principles…?”28
Seeing itself as following in Gandhi and King’s footsteps— the oppressed (gays) taking a righteous stand against the oppressor (the church)—Soulforce holds to three primary beliefs concerning homosexuality and Christianity: (1) the traditional Christian position on homosexuality is wrong, (2) the traditional Christian position on homosexuality is damaging, and (3) the traditional Christian position on homosexuality must be changed or silenced. Understanding Soulforce requires an understanding of each point.
“The Traditional Christian Position on Homosexuality Is Wrong”
Soulforce promotes a revision of the Bible as it regards homosexuality. In doing so, it joins established pro-gay religious organizations such as the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, The United Church of Christ, and Evangelicals Concerned, all of whom regard the Bible as inspired, but believe that scriptural references to homosexuality found in Genesis 19:1–11, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:24–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, and 1 Timothy 1:10 have been mistranslated, misinterpreted, or simply misunderstood. White explains his position on homosexuality and the Bible: “Most people have not carefully and prayerfully researched the Biblical texts used by some people to condemn God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children. The Biblical authors are silent about homosexual orientation as we know it today. They neither approve it nor condemn it. The prophets, Jesus, and the Biblical authors say nothing about homosexual orientation as we understand it today.”29
To Soulforce, the traditional Christian view that homosexual acts are biblically prohibited, and that homosexuality itself is abnormal, is wrong. By extension, then, all Christians who hold such views are equally wrong.
“The Traditional Christian Position on Homosexuality Is Damaging”
Here Soulforce goes further than many pro-gay theologians, who simply declare the traditional viewpoint on homosexuality to be incorrect.30 Soulforce insists it is also damaging, causing depression and suicide among homosexuals, and violence against them as well.
Sometimes they claim the traditional view is damaging because unbalanced, homophobic people may use it as an excuse to assault homosexuals. In such cases it’s not the view itself, but its potential for misuse, that’s the problem. One Soulforce volunteer remarked: “I think over and over again how we must help all preachers understand how their negative ‘Biblical pronouncements’ about LGBT persons harms and hurts LGBT persons and gives some violent persons rationale for their violence against them.”31 White, in an open letter to a Catholic Bishop, makes a similar argument: “If God rejects us and you reject us, is it any wonder that our families and friends reject us, that we are demeaned by our classmates, ﬁred from our jobs, evicted from our apartments, hunted down and hounded out of the military, harassed and taunted in the streets, and even killed by teenagers with knives and baseball bats?”32
More often, though, Soulforce claims the traditional view is damaging in and of itself. For example, if you say homosexuality is a sin, that statement not only inspires others to hurt homosexuals, but the statement itself emotionally or spiritually violates them. White argues accordingly: “I’d rather suffer psychological or physical violence any day than be told over and over again the untruth that my sexual orientation is a sickness and a sin; that my Creator doesn’t love me as I am; and that my ﬁfteen year relationship with Gary Nixon isn’t blessed by God.”33
According to Soulforce, then, if you preach that homosexuality is a sin, you inspire others to commit violent acts against homo sexuals, and you yourself, by making that statement, commit violence against them as well. You diminish their sense of worth; you generate depression within them; you inspire rejection, abuse, and violence against them. Thus all Christians (Christian leaders, especially) who hold the traditional view are an ongoing source of suffering to the homosexual population. Consider a few more of White’s statements in this vein:
“These antigay, religion-based teachings and actions have become the primary source of misinformation against sexual and gender minorities, misinformation that leads to suffering and death.”34
“We know that all Christian churches share responsibility for the mistreatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans.”35
“Religious leaders are the primary source of misinformation that leads to suffering and death for sexual and gender minorities.”36
Mistreatment, suffering, violence, death—no wonder Soulforce declares itself “determined to help change the minds and hearts of religious leaders whose anti-homosexual campaigns lead (directly and indirectly) to—suffering.”37 If you believe that a certain teaching causes emotional suffering, physical violence, or death to any group, you’ll no doubt do what’s within your power to change the minds of the people behind the teaching, or silence the teaching itself. Inevitably, then, Soulforce’s ﬁrst two primary beliefs generate its third.
“The Traditional Christian Position on Homosexuality Must Be Changed or Silenced”
“This spiritual violence must end,” declares White. “We love…the body of Christ too much to allow it to continue these policies that lead to suffering and death.”38 Elsewhere he warns, “The toxic rhetoric ﬂows unabated, primarily from sincere but misinformed religious leaders. It is poisoning the national discourse, dividing homes and churches, ruining families and wasting lives. We must do our best to stop that ﬂow of poison at its source.”39
Traditional teaching on homosexuality sparks violence; religious leaders dispense a toxic ﬂow of traditional teaching; the ﬂow must be cut off at its source—churches, Christian schools, evangelistic institutions, or any other places where the traditional biblical view on homosexuality is promoted. But how? “What I suggest to all homosexuals and their supporters,” White advises, “is to create tension between the church and the gay community.”40
To create that tension, Soulforce chooses a church, Christian college, denominational conference, or organization, then contacts them to request a meeting, warning of potential demonstrations or other “direct actions” if they refuse. Such “direct actions” may disrupt or inconvenience, but the group adheres to a strict policy of nonviolence, and there’s no evidence of Soulforce demonstrators ever threatening, vandalizing, name calling, or using obscenity in any form. Some leaders who’ve hosted meetings with Soulforce have positive things to say about the encounters,41 while others who’ve refused to meet their terms have been obliged to have them forcibly removed from their property.42 The meeting they request normally includes an allotted time to present their views to the church or campus, informal discussions, distribution of their literature, and meetings with the church or college leaders.
Annual events include the Equality Ride (bus riders visiting Christian seminaries and Bible colleges), the American Family Outing (delegates visiting megachurches), and Soulforce Q (international outreach). Clearly, then, Soulforce’s attempts to change the church’s views on homosexuality are expanding. So let me offer three general suggestions to consider when Soulforce calls.
DIALOGUE IS OPTIONAL, NOT MANDATORY
We are not biblically required to respond to every charge leveled against us, nor to every request for a conversation. Jesus at times refused to engage in dialogue when dialogue seemed useless or distracting, or when those “baiting” Him hoped to provoke an argument (Matt. 21:24). Paul likewise reserved the right to deny audience to men who would introduce false doctrine to churches he was responsible for (Gal. 2:5). Soulforce presents its concerns as though every pastor or administrator is obliged to consider them, but the fact is, a leader’s responsibility is ﬁrst to the people he serves, not to an outside group demanding his attention.
There is scriptural precedent for avoiding conversations or debates that may divert a group from its primary goal, as there’s precedent for pastors protecting their ﬂock from error. Nehemiah, for example, knew his responsibility was to rebuild Jerusalem, leading his men to fulﬁll his God-given vision. When Israel’s enemies tried to distract him from this, ﬁrst by mockery (Neh. 4:1–3), then by threats (Neh. 4:11), then ﬁnally by an invitation to dialogue (Neh. 6:5–7), he ignored their attempts, focusing instead on the work at hand. In doing so he was hardly mistreating those who wanted to distract him. Rather, he knew his priorities, recognized his limited time and energy, and refused to engage with others who would divert him from his primary purposes.
Any leader contacted by Soulforce should “go and do likewise” by considering, ﬁrst and foremost, his priorities. How does their request for access to his congregation or group match the needs of the group itself, and his God-given vision for it? If it doesn’t, then a polite but clear refusal of their invitation is called for. But if after prayerful consideration, he concludes that an encounter with Soulforce would be in the best interest of his organization or ﬂock, then two more points should be considered.
SOULFORCE PREMISES ARE ERRONEOUS
Space prohibits a detailed response in this article to Soulforce’s claim that the Bible verses traditionally understood to condemn homosexuality have been mistranslated, misinterpreted, or misunderstood. A clear reading of these verses in context, utilizing common sense and respect for the inspiration of both testaments, leaves little doubt, however, as to their unambiguous prohibition of homosexual relations of any sort, under any circumstances. Still, an effective response to the pro-gay interpretation of Scripture requires an understanding of that interpretation and a detailed rebuttal of it.
It’s essential that those deciding to dialogue with Soul force ﬁrst brush up on the ﬁner points of pro-gay theology, because any dialogue with a group claiming homosexuality and Christianity are compatible must begin with either a concession to their claim or a challenge to it. Two helpful resources would be The Gay Gospel? How Pro-Gay Advocates Misread the Bible by Joe Dallas (Harvest House, 2007) and The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics by Robert Gagnon (Abingdon Press, 2002).
Likewise, the premise that traditional teaching on homosexuality leads to the suffering of homosexuals calls for rebuttal. No doubt there is prejudice against homosexuals, evidenced at times in acts of violence and cruel words. Proof of a link between biblical teaching and violence against homosexuals, however, is lacking, though Soulforce presents this premise as established fact. One might respond that Anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews) exists, and Christians generally believe Jews who reject Jesus the Messiah are unsaved. Does it logically follow that those who recognize Christ as Messiah therefore create Anti-Semitism? Likewise, Scripture teaches that parents should train their children, and some parents abuse their children. Shall biblical teaching on parenting be blamed for the horrors of child abuse, or shall we admit the obvious and signiﬁcant distinction between a belief and its perversion or misapplication? Soulforce claims to the contrary, saying that homosexuality is wrong is one thing; encouraging hatred towards homosexuals is something obviously and entirely different.
Consider Soulforce’s Concerns; Assert Your Own
Respectful dialogue requires a careful analysis of the other’s claims, so when dialogue with Soulforce is decided on, then hearing their concerns is necessary. Much can be learned in doing so. But an error Christians often make when dealing with homosexual activists is to overindulge their desire for us to hear their concerns, while offering none of our own. “The servant of the Lord must not strive,” Paul warned, “but must be gentle to all men” (2 Tim. 2:24). Some leaders who have dealt with Soulforce seem to have achieved at least that part of the passage, congratulating themselves for having been gentle and respectful, leaving the meeting keenly aware of Soulforce’s complaints and concerns. One wonders, though, if Soulforce had a clue about any concerns the pastors themselves may have had.
Paul did, after all, continue by saying God’s servant must be “apt to teach…instructing those that oppose themselves” (2 Tim. 2:24–25 KJV). Surely a Christian leader who believes that homosexuality is wrong will be concerned for the spiritual welfare of Soulforce delegates who claim to be both gay and Christian (as many do). Surely such leaders, believing homosexuality to be sin, will be concerned about this group’s aggressive commitment to encouraging its normalization and celebration. And surely such leaders will feel some injunction to, as Paul said, “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather, reprove them” (Eph. 5:11 KJV). So those hosting a dialogue should insure that time spent expressing these concerns to Soulforce is equal to the time spent hearing theirs. If a conversation is requested, then let it be understood in advance as a mutual dialogue, not a monologue, because in the end, this dialogue is inevitable and unavoidable.
The past year (2008) saw unprecedented aggression from the gay rights movement, as it sought legitimization of homosexuality and the marginalization of any group or individual who opposes it. And since the last organized force resisting this movement is, for the most part, the Christian church, Christianity Today’s editorial on Soulforce and a Christian response to it seems both relevant and ominous:
“Soulforce’s message to evangelicals is clear: You are next.”43
Joe Dallas is the program director of Genesis Counseling in Tustin, California, a Christian counseling service to men dealing with sexual addiction, homosexuality, and other sexual/relational problems. He is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors and is the author of three books on human sexuality, including Desires in Conﬂict (Harvest House, 1991) and A Strong Delusion (Harvest House, 1996).
1 “Why We Can’t Wait to End This Debate!” Interview in Gay Today.com, http://www.gaytoday.com/garchive/ viewpoint/051302vp.htm.
2 “Soulforce: The American Family Outing,” http://www.soulforce.org/pdf/AFOcomplete.pdf.
4 “The Equality Ride,” http://www.soulforce.org/equalityride.
5 “Pro-Gay Protestors Arrested at Focus,” citizenlink.com, May 2, 2005,http://www.citizenlink.org/CLFeatures/ A000000335.cfm.
6 “History of Soulforce 1999–2006,” http://www.soulforce.org/pdf/historybook.pdf.
8 “Coming Attractions: Gay Activism Is Not Just Found in Liberal Churches,” Christianity Today, August 1, 2003, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/august/31.33.html.
9 “Soulforce 1999–2006,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/pdf/historybook.pdf.
10 Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
11 Ibid., 155.
12 Ibid., 155–56.
13 http://www.allsaints-pas.org/site/DocServer/JEB080618_Mel_White_and_Gary_Nixon_Wedding_ Homily.pdf?docID=4624.
14 Stranger, 269.
15 “Partners in Soulforce,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/article/10.
16 “Mel White Launches ‘Fast for Understanding,’” Holysmoke.org, http://www.holysmoke.org/ sdhok/homo06.htm.
17 “Jerry Falwell, Mel White, and the Model of Intervention,” Colorado Confidential, http://coloradoconfidential.com/ showDiary.do?diaryId=2068.
18 Soulforce Vision Statement from http://www.soulforce.org.
19 “Soulforce Meets with Joel Osteen; New Birth Next Target,” Gay Christian Movement Watch, http:// gcmwatch.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/soulfarce-meets-with-joel-osteen/.
20 “Media Photos,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/article/746.
22 Stranger, 238.
23 See, e.g., testimonials of the Freedom Riders at the “Equality Ride Blog,” http:// www.soulforce.org/article/1440.
24 “History of Soulforce,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/pdf/historybook.pdf.
25 “Six Soulforce Beliefs,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/article/567.
27 Mel White, “A Soulforce Call for Direct Action: Bringing Truth and Love to Lynchburg,” February 22, 1999, http://www.soulforce.org/article/525.
28 Mel White, “The Original 17 Step Journey,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/article/531.
29 “What The Bible Says—And Doesn’t Say about Homosexuality,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/article/ homosexuality-bible.
30 See, e.g., John Boswell’s prominent defense of pro-gay theology, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), and for detailed rebuttal see Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), and Joe Dallas’ The Gay Gospel? How Pro-Gay Advocates Misread the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2006).
31 “Bishop T. D. Jakes Agrees to Ongoing Dialogue with LGBT & Straight-Ally Families,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/email_campaign/email_5_22_2008.html.
33 Mel White, “The Second Trial of Jimmy Creech,” Whosoever, http://www.whosoever.org/ editorial/creechtrial.html.
34 Mel White, “Why We Can’t Wait for This Debate to End!” Gay Today, http://www.gaytoday.com/garchive/ viewpoint/051302vp.htm.
37 “History of Soulforce,” Soulforce, www.soulforce.org/pdf/historybook.pdf.
38 “Declaring an Unholy War,” Circuit Rider’s Range, http://www.crrange.com/soulwar.html.
39 “History of Soulforce,” Soulforce, http://www.soulforce.org/pdf/historybook.pdf.
40 “Mel White Speaks about Being Gay and Christian in America,” Collegiate Times, http://www.collegiatetimes.com/ news/1/ARTICLE/8052/2006-11-16.html.
41 See http://www.soulforce.org/article/1107 for comments.
42 See http://www.soulforce.org/article/1483 for one of many examples.
43 “Coming Attractions: Gay Activism Is Not Just Found in Liberal Churches.”