Every teacher gets a bit nervous about answering hard questions well—especially the hard questions being raised in the larger culture that all Christians struggle to answer well. These are the kinds of questions Rebecca McLaughlin deals with in her book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. McLaughlin’s crisp reasoning and winsome presentation helped me imagine that I might be able to respond to such questions more capably having read her book, which I highly commend.
In our conversation we talked through a number of questions regarding taking the Bible literally, modern science, the denigration of women, and homophobia. And because McLaughlin has a consulting business to help speakers improve their skills in getting their message across, we also talked about specific ways we can get better in our presentation of God’s Word.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
- 4 Things Christians Must Reclaim
- 5 Reasons to Disentangle Sexuality and Race
- What We Need to Confront About Christianity
- How to Answer the 12 Strongest Objections to Christianity
Rebecca McLaughlin: People say the gay-rights movement is the new civil-rights movement, and so, if you are not willing to affirm same-sex marriage, you are morally equivalent to someone who’s not willing to affirm mixed-race marriage. And Christians said that back then, and this is what Christians are doing now, and so, you are a homophobic bigot and on the wrong side of history. As firmly as the Bible cuts in favor of racial integration in every way, including marriage, it cuts against same-sex marriage.
The Bible is pulling us in completely opposite directions on those questions.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to Help Me Teach The Bible. I’m Nancy Guthrie. Help Me Teach The Bible is a production of The Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org. Today, I get to talk to Rebecca McLaughlin. Rebecca, thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
McLaughlin: Thank you for having me.
Guthrie: You are a co-founder of Vocable Communications. You’ve served with the Veritas Forum, in which you helped Christian professors at leading secular universities grow their public witness. You’re also the author of a brand-new book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions For The World’s Largest Religion. And I have to tell you, when I saw an actual book yesterday, we’re here talking when we’re at the Gospel Coalition Conference in Indianapolis, I saw the book, that is the coolest book cover I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of book covers.
McLaughlin: Do you know, I am very visually unaware. And when I saw the book cover that Crossway produced for me, I was like, “Oh, this looks great.” I have known that this is something I have almost no opinion on. And I care about words, I don’t care about how things look, but if you’re going to judge a book by its cover, I feel like the cover’s…
McLaughlin: …better than the book.
Guthrie: Yeah. And I have to tell you, listeners, if you see a picture of it, it doesn’t do it justice, because it has all these circles on it, but when you see the actual book, it’s actually cutouts of all these numbers.
McLaughlin: It’s a very holey book. There are 12 holes.
Guthrie: That’s right. Well, I love the book cover, and I love what’s inside it too, because I have read much of it. Rebecca holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, so that’s a little intimidating to me, just to tell you. You also have a theology degree from Oak Hill seminary, where I’ve been, what a great place …for great people. Well, I was really anxious to talk to you, Rebecca, because I think you can help us, as Bible teachers, in a couple of very distinct ways. First, you’ve just written this really helpful book that I think is really helpful for those of us who fear that we might not be able to answer very difficult questions that will come up when we’re teaching.
And they might come up either because those people, the people we’re teaching have these questions themselves, but I think perhaps even more often, they know people who have these questions. They know these are the questions being asked in our culture. And they are afraid that if they get in a conversation with their neighbor or with a family member, that they’re not going to be prepared to answer them.
So that’s one thing I wanted to talk about. I’ll tell you what all the 12 hard questions are in her book, and then we’re going to focus on four of them. But then, there’s this other side of what you do. I saw on your website that you also offer coaching for speakers. And as Bible teachers, we know that we can have all the right answers to hard questions.
But if we haven’t worked at developing our skills of communicating and connecting with our audience, we’re never going to be able to get these ideas across in any kind of way that’s going to stick. So, I’m going to pick your brain about some of the things there too, but let’s start with your 12 hard questions for the world’s largest religion.
If you don’t mind, I’m just going to read the 12 questions…
McLaughlin: Sounds great.
Guthrie: …that you present in the book. Number one, aren’t we better off without religion? Second, doesn’t Christianity crush diversity? Three, how can you say there is only one true faith? Four? Doesn’t religion hinder morality? That’s fascinating.
Number five, doesn’t religion cause violence? Number six, how can you take the Bible literally? Number seven, hasn’t science disproved Christianity? Number eight, doesn’t Christianity denigrate women? Number nine, isn’t Christianity homophobic?
Number 10, doesn’t the Bible condone slavery? Number 11, how could a loving God allow so much suffering? A perennial question. And finally, number 12, how could a loving God send people to hell? Well, let’s talk about several of these.
I’d like to start with, how can you take the Bible literally? Because we’re speaking to Bible teachers who certainly take the Bible seriously, but yet we know some people, they have this idea of what that means, to take the Bible literally.
So, how do we respond to someone who would ask us a question like that?
McLaughlin: This was actually one of my favorite chapters to write in my book because I spent a whole lot of time when I was studying English literature looking at metaphor. Metaphor is one of my favorite things, and it’s actually one of your favorite things as well. If you’re a human being, you will find that you love metaphor. We’ll talk about that a little bit later.
So, often, this question comes up, do you take the Bible literally? And we feel like it’s an on/off switch? You either take the whole Bible literally, or you don’t. And as you mentioned, we tend to equate that in our minds to, are you reading the Bible faithfully? Do you take the Bible seriously? Because we had this idea that if something is not literal, it’s like less true than something that could be a truth that is expressed through a metaphor or through a parable or in some sort of non-literal form.
So, the place I would start with this is to say, let’s look at the words of Jesus. I find the red-letter Bible approach kind of irritating because I think the entirety of God’s word is given to us, and it is as much for our teaching and instruction as the words of Christ himself. But if we look just at Jesus’s words, we find that He constantly isn’t speaking literally.
If you think about the ways Jesus describes himself, He says He is the light of the world. He says He is the true vine. Like is Jesus literally a plant? Is that what we are expected to be? He says that He is the Good Shepherd, and He’s described as the Lamb of God. There are all these ways in which metaphor reveals truths about Jesus. But they’re metaphors, and if we try to take them literally, then we’ll get extremely confused.
If you have real faith, you will believe that Jesus is actually a plant. When Jesus starts using parables as well, the point of what He’s saying, when He tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, is not, “I’m reporting on a crime scene.” Like, “Go find this guy who walked from Jerusalem to Jericho.” He’s telling us a story with a meaning.
And in fact, Jesus actually rebukes people multiple times for taking Him literally when they shouldn’t have done. I don’t think there’s an instance where Jesus rebuked somebody for not taking Him literally when they should have. I mean, you could argue that there is but there are multiple instances where He rebukes people for taking…
Guthrie: He expects people to understand what He’s saying about Himself and His ministry.
McLaughlin: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days,” and they’re saying, “Wait a minute. It took us years to build this temple, what are you talking about? And He’s talking about His body. So, if we come to the Bible where this idea that every line should be taken quite literally, we’re going to be missing the truth of the Bible in many instances. Now, people don’t go from that to saying, “Oh, well, if you’re saying that you can take some parts of the Bible non-literally, which I think the Bible and Jesus particularly invites us to do, then does that mean we can kind of edge our way around the hard truths of the Bible, whether it’s miracles on the one hand, or genuinely like hard teachings on the other?
I would say not at all. So, number one, the Bible is extremely clear that Jesus was literally raised from the dead, bones, wounds everything. This is like a physical, literal reality, and to try to turn that into a metaphorical resurrection is to do violence to the text.
When Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the way that leads to destruction and many find it,” He’s using a metaphor, and He’s teaching an incredibly hard truth. So, there’s actually no correspondence between whether a truth is expressed literally or metaphorically, and whether it’s a hard truth that we might want to kind of try and edge around.
We need to read the Bible for all it’s worth, and we need to read it faithfully. And we need to discern when that means reading it literally and when that means understanding a God-given metaphor.
Guthrie: When people say this, like, “Do you really take the Bible literally,”are they really asking another question? Aren’t they really asking, “Do you believe that those miraculous things in the Bible really happened? Do you…Do you really believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?That Moses parted the Red Sea?”
And I wonder if they also, in today’s day, do you really believe that you’re not supposed to eat shellfish or wear clothes of mixed fabrics? Those kind.
McLaughlin: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. So, people think that we should have one blanket way that we approach any text of the Scriptures. And actually, in human conversation, that’s not what we do. So, if you said to me, “Oh, I’m dying to see my husband tonight,” I’m not going to take you to the hospital, right? Because I understand what you’re saying, “I’m longing to be with this man who I love.” You’re not saying, “I have a medical problem right now.” And we somehow expect that we should come to the Scriptures without the kinds of sensibilities that we navigate every day.
Now, having said that, I feel like in the vast majority of instances in the Bible, it’s actually pretty clear whether we should be taking something literally. And even as we look at particular parts of the Old Testament that you reference, laws about not eating certain kinds of food and not doing certain kinds of things that were given to a particular people at a particular time, and then are very specifically addressed in the New Testament and we’re given different kinds of instructions.
So, there are ways in which the New Testament gives us a way of understanding the Old Testament, we need to be attentive to that. I think there are some parts of the Bible where Christians legitimately disagree and would say, it is some people who would say, “Well, I think this is piece is intended to be taken literally” or “I think this piece is intended more as a parable than as a historical thing.”
I think there are some places where there’s legitimate disagreement, and that’s okay. This is complicated questions. I think in the vast majority of instances, it’s actually very clear. And as you say, the question behind the question, do you take the Bible literally? is often really, are you willing to submit to the authority of God’s Word? And I would say, as somebody who loves metaphor and believes that Jesus Himself used metaphor all day long, the answer to that is absolutely yes, I need to be ready to submit to the authority of God’s word.
Guthrie: I wonder if another way to respond to, “Do you take the Bible literally?” Can be to make a distinction between…there’s a difference between taking it literally and literalistically.
McLaughlin: So, that’s an interesting point you raise. There are some people who say, “Christians can be so wedded to the idea of taking the Bible literally and equating that in their minds to taking it seriously, that we don’t want to reclaim that language. We need to find another way.”
For example, saying, “Let’s distinguish between literally and literalistically.” I’m an English Ph.D., so I really care about the distinction between literal language and metaphorical language. And I think that if we help people to understand those distinctions, that you can speak the truth through a metaphor and you can lie with literal language, then I think we relieve people of that burden of feeling like, “Oh, well, I need to take everything literally, that’s my highest calling.”
So, one example I would give is, I could tell you that my father is a medical doctor, and I will be lying. He is in fact not. I can tell you, “God is my Father,” and I’m using a metaphor, but I’m saying one of the most profoundly true things about myself that I could say. So, I lied to you in literal language about my literal biological father, and I told you the truth in metaphorical language about my Heavenly Father.
So, I think that we should reclaim the language of literal, and I think we should reclaim biblical metaphor and help people to understand that actually, and we’ll get to this in some of your later questions, God has embedded metaphors in our fleshed out existence.
Guthrie: A lot of people have a lot of questions today about gender. So, does this fit into that?
McLaughlin: Yes. So the two main things that I would want to say, when it comes to the questions of gender in the Bible, is number one, we start with the idea often that God looked around at the world as it is, looked around, discovered male and female, discovered sex, discovered sexuality, and thought, “Haa, I better make some rules and laws about this.” We’re talking about the Creator of the universe.
He didn’t start off with the realities that we have now. He actually intentionally made those realities, and this why I’m passionate about biblical metaphor. If we look at the metaphor of marriage in the Bible, we see throughout the Old Testament, the prophets talking about God as a husband, a faithful husband, to his wife.
And so, we understand something about God’s love for us through that metaphor, and we can experience, in the best possible human marriage, we can experience a glimpse of God’s love for us. Through that metaphor, we see it in the New Testament as Jesus dies for his bride. We see Christian marriage being pictured as Christ in His church. And in Revelation, we see Jesus’s marriage to the church, that the marriage of the Lamb to the church, bringing heaven and earth back together.
So, this is a metaphor that strings its way throughout the scriptures, and it’s something that you and I get to experience in our real lives. At its absolute best, Human romance gives us an echo of Jesus’s love for us. And as I understand the Scriptures, that is the point of God creating male and female, and it’s the point of God creating marriage, and it’s the point of God creating sexuality, is to give us a glimpse of who He is.
I’ve recently stopped breastfeeding my third child. And there are beautiful biblical metaphors that compare God actually to a nursing mother. So in Isaiah 49:15, one of my favorite verses, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breasts and have no compassion on the child she has born? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.”
So as I had the experience of feeding my baby, I got a glimpse into God’s sacrificial, intimate, necessary love for me. So He’s embedded all these metaphors in our lived reality, and then He’s given us the scriptures to understand what they mean.
So, when it comes to men and women, I think the first thing I want to say is, we need to reclaim male and female as theological categories, not because we are drilling down in sort of gendered psychology, but because they’re actually about Christ-centered theology. And when it comes to the question of, doesn’t the Bible denigrate women? Another really important sort of stream that flows into this is the fact that the early church was majority female, even though the Greco-Roman world at the time was actually majority male due to common maternal deaths in childbirth and due to female infanticide, which was a big problem then, and is a big problem now in a lot of parts of the world.
So, most of the Greco-Roman world in the first and second century was men. About two thirds, it seems from historical evidence of the church, was women. So, Jesus drew women from the first. And if you chart that through church history to today, there are always been more women than men in the church.
So, I like to say that Christianity is the greatest movement of and for women in all of history, because Jesus actually radically changed how women were even thought about at the time he radically changed what marriage meant for women and elevated them drastically in ways that we today assume. So, I think rather than the Bible denigrating women, it actually lifts us up into a fellowship with God and into a place of theological significance that, to me, is so much more beautiful than anything else we could experience.
Guthrie: Someone who has that objection or assumption that the Bible denigrates women, they’re probably coming from that at a viewpoint maybe they feel restricted on the office that they can hold in the church. So, does this answer you’re giving to them, do you think it addresses that issue or how do you address that one?
McLaughlin: So, I’ll tell you when I first encountered the reality of what the Bible says about men and women and roles, and it was actually in the context of marriage and looking at Ephesians 5. And I was a student at the time, and I read Ephesians 5, where it says, “Wives, submit to your husband’s as to the Lord.For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church.”
And I was like, “You have got to be kidding me.” The things that distressed me about it were, number one, that it felt like it was denigrating women and like questioning their competence. But number two, which almost mattered to me more, it was terribly harmful to my witness. So, I’m coming to my friends with this radical gospel that is about Jesus dying for us, and it’s lifting up the poor and the weak and the marginalized and all the things that I longed to share with my non-Christian friends.
And then, it seemed like, you know, Jesus had lifted women up, and then Paul, it seemed, had squashed them right back down. And I was extremely unhappy about this. I spent a long time trying to beat pieces off Ephesians 5, to be honest. I’m being very real about that. And it took me a while to actually start paying attention to what is said about husbands in that passage, and to ask myself the question, imagine if those roles were reversed.
Imagine if what Ephesians 5 said to women was, “Wives, sacrifice yourselves to your husband’s to the point of death,” putting their needs above yours and being willing to go to the cross for them.
Guthrie: It’s a pretty big call.
McLaughlin: That would be a pretty big and pretty terrifying call. And honestly, if we’re looking, I mean, people sometimes say, like, kind of complementarian view of marriage enables spousal abuse. I feel like the reverse. To be honest, if you wanted a mandate for abuse, that sounds much closer to it. And if you look at what Paul actually says in Ephesians and then if you look at 1 Peter, we see that husbands are called not to lord over their wives, not to dominate their wives, not actually explicitly to lead their wives.
They are called to love their wives. That’s the word that’s used again and again and again, love, love, love, love, empathize with an honor. Those are the words that are given to men. Now, if husbands are actually doing that, and actually playing Christ to their wives, that is not denigrating women for a moment, that is lifting women up.
And as I think about that, from the woman’s perspective again, I’ve been married for 10 years now, and this idea that I am to submit to my husband, A, it means I’d be really careful who I chose to marry, which, thankfully, I was and have a wonderful husband. But B, it’s a real asset to me now, because if I want guidance from the Lord on something, I pray and I read the scriptures, and then I’m like, “Oh, I could ask Brian.”
Not to say that he is infallible, but actually, if I’m serious about what the Bible says, which I am, I can listen to what he has to say to me in this situation, I can ask him for guidance. And that’s pretty much a word from the Lord for me, which I know, in negative context, that can be abused, and I don’t at all want to affirm that. If a husband is leading their wife into sin or treating them with unChristlike ways, I don’t want to affirm that for a second. I don’t think the scriptures do.
But if you are married to somebody who is striving to live for Jesus, I can bring a question to him, and I can expect to get, like, word from the Lord from my husband. It’s a real joy. I feel a bit sad for him, he doesn’t get to have that from me.
Guthrie: Well, let’s talk about this question, has science disproved Christianity? I thought this was such a strong chapter in your book and the argument that you make. I suppose, especially, there’s so many parts of the Bible that we could be teaching through that if someone comes from a very scientific background that they might have questions about.
So, how do you answer that question?
McLaughlin: We tend to start with the assumption today, that there’s Christianity over here and there’s science over there and that they’re kind of alternative hypotheses, essentially. If you look at the history of science, you’ve discovered that not only did Christians literally invent the modern scientific method, but they did so because they believed in a Creator, God who is both rational and free.
I find this fascinating because the idea that there are universal principles that undergird our created reality seems very intuitive to us because we are exposed to science all day long. But it wasn’t intuitive to our forebears. And Christians started exploring this big.
So they thought, you know what, we have a Creator, God, who’s revealed Himself and who is rational and faithful and consistent and seems to have given us laws by which to live. I wonder if He’s given laws by which the universe should live. So, they started looking for these underlying principles. But they also believe that our Creator, God is free. And so, He wasn’t constrained in how He created.
He could create gravity any way He liked, for example. So, the only way to find out how God had done that was to go and look. You can’t just sit in your armchair and sort of deduce how God created because actually, He could have done it any way He liked. So, the philosophical foundation for science in the first instance was actually Christianity.
And what’s fascinating, today, there’s a philosopher of science named Hans Halvorson at Princeton. And he argues that not only is it historically the case that Christians literally invented science because they were Christians, but that today, science is better philosophically grounded by theism than atheism, and that, in fact, atheism doesn’t give us a grounding for science at all.
So, often, when we look back over the history of ideas, and the areas in which science and Christian faith seem to have come into conflict, or there have been, you know, famous incidents like Galileo or Darwin, or the Big Bang, these kinds of questions which in our minds are often a kind of Christian theologian versus atheist scientist situation, typically, actually, there are Christians on both sides.
The Big Bang, for instance, was first dreamt up by Catholic priest. And he was atheist scientist at the time. He had a really hard time getting the head around it and resisted it because it sounded much too much like the Christian narrative of creation. So, I do not want to minimize the fact there are real and complicated questions that we need to wrestle with as we look at the scriptures, as we look at science, and I don’t think there are always simple answers, and I think Christians can legitimately disagree on some of these questions.
But the idea that there’s Christianity over here that’s sort of anti-science and atheism owns all of scientific discovery is just impossible to justify historically. So, that’s somehow absurd.
Guthrie: Even in the present?
Guthrie: Because you mentioned in the book. You had a long list of very prominent scientists who are believers in many different sectors of academia and scientific study.
McLaughlin: So, one of the fun and kind of sad in some ways experiences I had when I was working at the Veritas Forum was that I was getting to interact with some people who are world leaders in a whole variety of academic fields. And what I started to notice was, we get the impression, for example, that a psychology of religion has discredited belief in God.
So, this idea that if you look at our deep past as humans, there are ways in which we actually kind of wired to believe in God rather than not. And people move from that to saying, “Oh, well, if humans are naturally predisposed to believe in God, then that somehow undermines the possibility of there truly being a Creator, God.”
But I knew that the guy who’d literally invented that whole field of discovery was an evangelical Christian, who’s now a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. So, over here on the ground, we have people making the argument, “All psychology of religion has discredited belief in the Creator, God.” And everywhere I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, no, no, no.” The guy who has pioneered this area of research is a very serious Christian.
And as I would look at all the different sectors of the academy that have supposedly discredited the Christian faith, oh, isn’t interesting how they’re very serious Christians who are literally world leaders in all of these spheres. And again, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some complicated questions, but I think we need to stop conceding science to atheists.
Guthrie: All right, let’s get to this question that is so difficult for so many people today. You phrased it this way, isn’t Christianity homophobic? By the use of that term, yeah, what do you mean by that term?
McLaughlin: The word homophobic is flung around a lot in somewhat sloppy ways. The definition of homophobia is a fear and distrust of people who are same-sex attracted. And I think that kind of attitude is one that we Christians need to repent of.
We shouldn’t be acting in fear and distrust and denigration of anyone regardless of who they are. Having said that, the word homophobic is often leveled at people who are simply saying, “Hey, for religious reasons, I actually believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
And there’s an interesting rhetorical thing that goes on, which I understand, but I think is very unhelpful and troubling, where people say, “The Gay Rights Movement is the new Civil Rights Movement, and so, if you are not willing to affirm same-sex marriage, you are morally equivalent to somebody who’s not willing to affirm mixed-race marriage.
And Christians said that back then, and this is what Christians are doing now, and so, you are a homophobic bigot, and on the wrong side of history.
Guthrie: This sounds very familiar.
McLaughlin: Yes. And this is something that I think a lot of us have sort of swum in for a while and haven’t necessarily known how to react to that because we rightly feel grieved by the ways in which Christians were, in many instances, genuinely on the wrong side of history, and frankly, never mind history on the wrong side of God’s word when it came to how people of different races have been treated, and especially in this country.
What’s complicated is that, number one, as firmly as the Bible cuts in favor of racial integration in every way, including marriage, it cuts against same-sex marriage. So, number one, the Bible is pulling us in completely opposite directions on those questions.
Number two, scientists tried for a really long time to demonstrate that there were meaningful biological differences between people of different races. Motivated by racism, they tried really hard to do this. And guess what? There aren’t. There are meaningful biological differences between men and women. And so, even before we’ve gone into the theology of these questions, to glibly equate same-sex marriage with a biracial marriage is actually deeply problematic because it’s sort of buys into this idea that people of different races have some deep biological differences, which they don’t, that’s a problem.
Third problem is that, if you look at the people who hold to a Christian view of sexual ethics in the world today, the majority of those people are people of color. Both in the U.S, where it’s you’re much more likely to actually, A, be a Christian, B, be an evangelical Christian, and C, be somebody who’s holding to a biblical view of sexual ethics if you are black than if you’re white in this country.
So, if you’re going to accuse everybody who thinks that marriage should be between one man and one woman of being equivalent to a racist, the people you’re throwing that at are primarily like women of color globally today, actually. So, there’s a little bit of reform there. But then more deeply, and going back to the earlier part of our conversation, if the point of male and female and the point of Christian marriage is to give us a glimpse of Christ and His Church, there is actually a deep gospel reason for marriage being one man and one woman.
And I think often when we try to answer the question, why do you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman? We go straight to the biblical prohibitions, which are important, but we don’t give people the love story that motivates the whole and gives logic to the whole picture, which is that the entire point of there being male and female and of their being sexuality in marriage is to give us a glimpse of Christ in His church and that that is a flesh-uniting love across difference.
Guthrie: In your chapter on this, you had a couple of statements I found very interesting. You wrote, “Within the Christian framework, one-body unity is not just for husbands and wives, it’s for everyone. In a biblical framework, therefore, friendship is not the consolation prize for those who fail to gain romantic love.” Talk about that.
McLaughlin: So what does Jesus say? “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Words of our Lord. He never got married, except that He will at the end of time to his people, right? So, we have this idea that there’s romantic and sexual love up here at high watermark, and then, anything else is sort of lapping at the bottom. You know, okay, maybe friendship kind of matters a little bit, but not really.
If we look at the scriptures, we get a very different vision. Paul calls us “one body in Christ.” He calls us “brothers and sisters.” He says, “We are knit together in love.” He calls his friend Onesimus his “very heart,” and he tells the Thessalonians that he was “among them like a nursing mother with her children.”
Like, other than sex, breastfeeding is the most intimate thing you could do with another person. I think that we need to reclaim fierce, abiding, non-erotic, non-romantic love within the church. And I think in order to be biblical in our sexual ethics, we actually have to resurrect a deep vision for non-sexual intimacy between Christians.
Instead, we have, typically, in our churches, elevated marriage in the nuclear family and forgotten that actually the primary family unit for Christians is not me and my husband and our three kids, it’s the church. And we have not lived into that reality.
So, we’re not being biblical enough. And because of that, we’re leaving people who are not in a sexual relationship out in the cold. That is not a biblical vision of sexuality. The biblical vision of sexuality is married people are in a specific way picturing Christ exclusive love for His church but that we are actually experiencing Christ’s inclusive love in our Christian family, which cuts across race, and age, and gender.
But is it experienced most profoundly in same-sex relationships? So, some people say, “You know, the Bible condemns same-sex relationships.” I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the Bible commands same-sex relationships of a level of intimacy that we seldom reach, but they’re not sexual.
Guthrie: Wow, that’s a great way to say it. One other statement you have in that chapter, and I found so significant, and significant in terms of being costly. You said, “Saying yes to Jesus means saying no to sexual freedom, but it does not mean missing out.” What a good word for our culture today.
A hard word for same-sex attracted Christians but a significant word.
McLaughlin: So maybe worth sharing, I have been attracted to women as long as I can remember. I, from childhood, was always more romantically drawn to women than men. And it’s kind of remarkable to me that God provided me with a husband, and praise God that He has, and I’m very happily married to Brian.
But I sometimes joke with him he never needs to worry I’m going to leave him for another man. This is a reality that I’ve lived with myself, and I feel like we need to recognize the fact that actually a significant proportion of Christian women, in particular, because incidence of same-sex attraction is significantly higher among women than men, actually.
But the instance of exclusive same-sex attraction is lower. So, about 14% of women, studies have shown, are attracted to other women, and only about 1% are exclusively so. So that they could never, like, just have never experienced attraction to a man. For men, it’s more like about 7% who are same-sex attracted, about 2%who are exclusively so.
So, if I look around at my church or your church, if there are 100 women in your church, you probably know 13 women like me. And it’s a challenge for all of us, I think, to recognize that our sexuality needs to be directed only to somebody we’re married to. And if we’re single, that’s, you know, that only applies when we’re married.
So, the challenge for all of us is, what will we do with the reality that we will find ourselves attracted to people we’re not married to? Will we submit that to Christ? And as you reference, we’re never going to miss out by doing that, because if the point of sexuality is to give us the tiniest echo of Jesus’s love for us, just like the point of human parenthood is to give us the tiniest echo of God’s fatherly love, I’m not going to miss out on the deep reality of love that I could experience by choosing to follow Jesus.
It’s, like, if I missed out on playing with dolls as a kid, and then as an adult, I got to have my own real baby. The doll was just a little picture to help me get used to the idea of a real baby. Jesus is the real thing, and sexual relationships of a doll, the toy car.
Guthrie: He’s the real thing now, and He will be the real thing into eternity. Marriage and sexual relationships will not last…
Guthrie: …into eternity, as Jesus said. But we are so right now what I can see, feel, experience right now. We have such a hard time thinking about our lives in light of eternity, and yet that’s what the Bible is calling us to do over and over and over again. That’s the essence of faith.
McLaughlin: And I think the Bible also gives us resources that we’re not tapping into, because it’s actually far easier to resist sexual temptation if you’re having your relational and emotional needs met in healthy ways. All of us need non-sexual relationships of multiple kinds, whether it’s within family or with friends, and I think we need to reclaim it.
The New Testament tells us five times, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Obviously, there’s cultural ways in which we can express physical affection that will vary whether you’re in New England or in Shanghai. But we need to be serious about manifesting our real love for each other in ways that are physical, in ways that are emotional, in ways that are just like experiential.
And I think that will help all of us actually, hold to Biblical sexual ethics because if you want to pour paraffin on sexual temptation, you leave someone alone where they’ve got no way to meet their legitimate needs, and suddenly, you know, you’re on some kind of app, trying to hook up with somebody.
We shouldn’t be starving ourselves of real intimacy, we should be providing each other with healthy, gospel-oriented intimacy that then helps all of us to actually uphold Christian sexual ethics.
Guthrie: That’s so helpful, Rebecca. I’m so glad that you are a voice, speaking this, into our Christian culture. It’s very helpful, very well said, very needed.
I want to turn a corner a little bit in our conversation. On your website, you talk about the coaching that you do for speakers. And I read this. You wrote, “Many leaders have good instincts about how to connect, but few are equipped with all the principles that are known to keep people’s attention to change their minds, to activate their memory.” And so, you actually offer training to public speakers on how to do some of those things.
So, I wonder, I don’t want you to give all of your secrets away. But would you tell us a couple of things? I assume that in that role, you watch someone speak, and then you critique them. I wonder if there are certain things that you find yourself saying over and over and over again because they’ such common mistakes in people who are trying to communicate.
McLaughlin: So, I often start with kind of a parable. I say, “Imagine the 13-year-old boy who has fallen desperately in love with a beautiful girl in his class. And everything she does fascinates him, the way that she touches her hair, the way she opens her book, the conversation she’s having with her friends. He is just fascinated by her, and he’s trying to think of all the things that he could possibly do to get her attention.”
As speakers, we typically think that we are the beautiful girl and that the audience is clearly listening to us. In fact, we are the spotty 13-year-old boy who is desperately trying to get the attention of his audience. So, the first principle is, you have to work really hard to keep people’s attention.
The second is that you actually, as part of that, need to make your audience work. And that applies in a whole range of different ways. But one is, we’re often given the advice that if you’re speaking to a large audience, you should speak more slowly. That’s terrible advice, because if you’re speaking slowly, you’re giving people lots of opportunity…
Guthrie: Check out.
McLaughlin: …to think about other things. If you are speaking quickly, you are forcing them to work to keep up with you, and so, they’re more engaged. Now. You shouldn’t deliver everything at rapid fire. You should have pauses, you should slow down, you should speed up. But on average, if you look at some of the best speakers in history, they’re actually speaking really quickly. And that principle of making your audience work applies across a whole range of areas, another of which, as we touched on earlier, is metaphor.
And if you use a metaphor with an audience, and Jesus knew this full well. In fact, the scriptures are absolutely filled with metaphors for this reason. You are asking them to connect one experience in their life with another thing. So, you’re asking them to do some filling in work there, and you’re also building a bridge between your experience and theirs.
I don’t know if you remember those metaphors in the Song of Songs where it’s like, “My beloved’s hair is like goats running down the mountain,” and we’re like, “Uhh, A, I’ve never seen the goats running down the mountain, and B, that just feels really kind of culturally weird to us.” So like that metaphor just doesn’t translate for us because doesn’t connect with our experience.
But when Romeo says of Juliet, “Soft what light from yonder window breaks, it is the east and Juliet is the sun.” We’ve all seen the sun rising, and we are capable of connecting this beautiful woman that Romeo has fallen in love with to the sun emerging. And even though that’s kind of a universal experience, every human has seen the sun rising, it grips us in this somewhat visceral way and helps us to understand how he is experiencing Juliet appearing on the balcony there.
So, there are ways in which metaphors will make our audience work, and will also be able to connect with them emotionally. So, those are two things that I would throw out there.
Guthrie: Those are good. I imagine you’re sitting across from people a lot of times and you’re fearing that what you’re going to say is going to crush them, because clearly, if they’ve come to you, they want to get better at this. And yet, I guess I can say from personal experience, sometimes I want to ask for someone’s input and critique, and other times, I just feel like I can’t take it.
I just want to keep making my same old mistakes because it’ll be very hard to hear what I’ve actually been doing that’s making me hard to listen to. So, have you had some times like that? That has been very hard and yet you think, “Okay, they asked, and I’ve got to tell them what’s keeping them from being heard, what’s keeping their message from getting across.”
McLaughlin: So, I’m going to spin this a little more positively.
McLaughlin: I’m often saying to people, “You need to take a risk.”
Guthrie: Take a risk? What do you mean?
McLaughlin: Audiences can sense when you are taking a risk with them, and when you are, in fact, hiding behind your notes, or failing to take that risk. It’s a little bit like, if you watch a wrestling match on TV, and you know that it is already pre-organized who’s going to win, you watch it with this, like, “I’m not really engaged because I know there’s nothing real happening here.”
But if you watch a wrestling match, or if you watch a sport game that you don’t know what the outcome is, you’re really engaged because you’re thinking, “Oh, gosh, there’s real stuff happening here.”
Guthrie: And you want to know what’s going to happen.
McLaughlin: People are taking actual risks. And if you stand up in front of an audience behind your notes, and cling on to those notes like a safety blanket, they know that you’ve decided in advance what you’re going to say, and they’re not worried if you’re going to lose your train of thought or say the wrong thing or suddenly spontaneously suddenly say something different than you planned, it says to them, “You know what? Just check out because this match is preordained and you don’t really need to watch it real-time now.You can always kind of catch up later in the highlights.”
So, I’m often saying to people, “I hate to tell you this, but you’ve got to take a risk with your audience, and you have to risk failing in front of your audience to really connect.”
Guthrie: That’s a biggie, that’s hard, Rebecca. Tell me about it.
McLaughlin: It’s hard for me as well. I don’t think you grow out of finding genuine public communication hard and emotionally taxing, and we shouldn’t.
Guthrie: Just even as you’re saying that, I’m thinking about something I did recently. It was this long session, I was training some teachers on something in particular. And so, I had a lot of it, where I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. But as you say it, I realize it was very back and forth. And I’m asking some questions. And in a sense, it was risky, because I don’t know how they’ll respond or where we’ll go with that.
But then there was a section of it that I did have more written out, and then turned to kind of relying on that. And it was interesting to me that afterwards, I had a conversation with someone who was there, and they felt that shift, and it wasn’t positive. It wasn’t positive. I think I lost them a little bit when I made that transition.
McLaughlin: And it’s tricky. So, Andy Crouch has these great three principles for public speaking, which is, do your homework, love your audience, be yourself. It doesn’t say everything, but I like those. Doing our homework to really be able to connect with an audience is a lot of work because I actually don’t think that the answer is go out there, without any notes, and just, as you feel led in the moment, say stuff.
Guthrie: That’s not going to be good.
McLaughlin: Unless you’re an extremely experienced speaker who has rehearsed a lot of things, a lot of times, you’re not going to be able to do a great job that way. I’m a big believer in working hard at the script, writing it out. . .
McLaughlin: . . .getting every line right, and then, internalizing it, which is a lot of work.
Guthrie: Is a lot of work.
McLaughlin: But our audiences are worth it. If we love our audience, we’re going to do the work for them.
Guthrie: This is reminding me. I was having a discussion with a good friend of mine. She had sent me a text. It was funny because I was sitting at my desk working on transforming my manuscript into an outline to work from, and for this very reason that you’re talking about, and I got a text from a good friend of mine. And she said, “Just a quick question, when you’re teaching, do you work from a manuscript or an outline?”
And I was like, “How can you be asking me this right now?” This is so funny, and so, I just texted her back, “Let’s talk.” And in that conversation, I came to two conclusions that kind of echo what you’re talking about what Andy Crouch said. I said, okay, as I seek to become less notes-dependent, I have two things driving me. I want to love my audience more than I love my words. See, because I write words that I like, and I want to use them, and that’s one reason I might stay very notes-dependent because I want to say it just that way. But I want to love my audience more than I love my words. And loving my audience means looking them in the eyes, and not taking on a reading tone so that they can stay tuned in, that’s part of loving the audience, right?
And then, the second thing was, I want to depend on the Holy Spirit more than my preparation. So, it doesn’t mean that I don’t do the preparation, but in that moment, as I’m seeking to communicate, I want there to be an active dependence on the Holy Spirit, that He is going to bring that to mind. He’s going to bring all that preparation work I did to mind for the purpose of communicating it.
McLaughlin: Yeah, yeah. I agree with that. However, or/and, I want to say those prayers after I’ve worked really hard. And I think sometimes, we can let ourselves off the hook of doing the work that God has given us to do by saying, “I’m going to depend on the Lord in that moment. I think we absolutely depend on the Lord, and we need to.
And without Him, I mean, unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers work in vain. But it doesn’t say, “The Lord builds the house, so laborers go and have a day off.”
Guthrie: I’ll just see what happens when I get up there. Ah, I don’t mean that.
McLaughlin: So, I think we need to work very hard for our audiences because we love them, and then I think we need to pray very hard. One of the things I find fascinating reading the scriptures is that, we feel maybe a little bit squeamish about rhetoric. The Bible does that all day long. Even when Paul is saying, “The message of the cross is foolishness,”the rhetorical build that he’s using is so powerful that I’m thinking, “Hmm,” You know, we take that.
Guthrie: It’s not that words don’t matter at all.
McLaughlin: It’s not the words that matter. And when he’s saying you know, “Where is the philosopher, where is the scholar of this age, has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” That is true, but he is deploying all of his rhetorical training to say that. And we translate that often to, “Ah, well…
Guthrie: You don’t have to work that hard, right?
McLaughlin: Our mind doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter how, you know, and in some ways, we kind of we’re anxious about emotionally manipulating people, which we should be. But the act of persuasion is something that we are called to in the scriptures. And that is something that is vital for us to do, and in the context of evangelism, the most important kind of persuasion.
It is not our responsibility how that person’s going to react, but it is our responsibility to try to persuade them, actually, the Bible calls us to that. So, I think we need to work harder, submit our motivations to the Lord, make sure that we are speaking for love of our audience and not for love of ourselves.
And this is like any speaker when I struggle with this. As I’m preparing to speak, there’s part of me that wants to do a great job so people will think that I’m like, really clever, and whatever, and part of me that doesn’t want to go out there and take a risk and fail and have people think, “Oh, gosh, you know…- What a loser.- …what a loser.” Exactly. And so, I need to continually pray through that and offer that up and say, “Actually, Lord, what I want you to do with me now is to make me self-forgetful, make me care more about the audience than about my own reputation.”
But part of caring for the audience is going to be me and me working really hard in my communication for them, right? A doctor doesn’t come into the surgery and say, “I love you so much. Let’s just see what happens. You know, sorry, I didn’t actually read up last night on your condition, because I thought I’d just like see what happened in the moment here.”
We want a doctor who has done her homework, and then meets us with love and compassion and prayer.
Guthrie: Last week, I was in Phoenix, and I was doing a Q&A. And someone asked the question. I think it was, “How often does the Holy Spirit work to change what you’re saying when you’re teaching?” I felt like there was an interesting assumption underneath the question, that the Holy Spirit’s only working if it’s changing what I prepared.
And my answer was, “Well, I believe the Holy Spirit was there when I was preparing. I don’t limit the Holy Spirit’s work to in-the-moment when it’s being given.”
McLaughlin: And in some ways, I think the question behind that question is, are you taking a risk with me? I’m I sitting there in the audience and you’re not taking a risk? And I kind of…people want…
Guthrie: I sense that.
McLaughlin: …the Spirit to move because they want Nancy to take a risk and say something she wasn’t planning to say. And yeah, I think we need to recognize that God is with us in the preparation process as we submit it to Him and as we work hard, or what the work that He’s given us to do, and then sure, in the moment, we want to be sensitive to the Spirit. I mean, I’m going to draw a few different threads together here, if that’s okay. A couple of years ago, I spoke at the women’s conference at my church.
And this was right to the point where I’d been praying hard through whether I should start talking publicly about my own experience of same-sex attraction. And I was speaking on the Friday night of this conference, and then I was giving part of a panel discussion on the Saturday morning. And on the Friday night, I worked really hard at a talk that was giving people God’s Word in various ways.
And I was debating whether I should disclose my same-sex attraction on the Friday night. And I talked to my husband, I said, “I’m thinking about doing this. What do you think?” And he said, “I don’t think you should do that. I think it would be emotionally distracting for people in the context of what you’re saying there to reveal that. I think you need to have them just focus on what you’re saying.” And I said, “Okay.” I wasn’t sure if he was right, but being a good complementarian wife, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do the thing.”
So, the next morning, I’m sitting on this panel, and somebody stands up to ask a question. And I think, because of various contexts that… I knew at that point, I think, you know what? I think now is the time for me to disclose this. That was a big risk for me. I’d only recently started talking to my closest friends about this. And here I was declaring to all the women in my church effectively this is something that I struggle with. But I felt led by the Spirit in that moment to speak about that. And I came back and I said to my husband, “I’m really glad that you advised me not to mention this last night. But actually, this morning, that was when I felt like God was prompting me to disclose that.”
So, I feel like we do need to be sensitive to the Spirit and ready to take the risks when He calls us to, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t do our homework.
Guthrie: That’s right. Well, Rebecca, this conversation has been so helpful to me personally, and I know it’s going to be so helpful to so many who are listening. Thank you for all of the work that you have done to think through these arguments. And by arguments, I don’t mean being argumentative. I mean, developing an argument to these very significant questions that people have, and that, for many people, are a hindrance to the gospel.
But you have handed us some tools, so we can open up the door with them to perhaps receive and respond to the gospel. So, thank you so very much.
McLaughlin: Thanks so much, Nancy.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to Help Me Teach The Bible with me, Nancy Guthrie, a production of the Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracts. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.