Opinion: In defense of Pastor Robby Gallaty

It sometimes seems as if Tennessee just can’t catch a break. For a moment, with the defeat of Stacey Campfield, we dreamed that we might avoid the wrath of LGBT activists and late night comics for a little while, and finally catch our collective breath. Alas, Brainerd Baptist Church Senior Pastor Robby Gallaty has been shoved into that void, putting Tennessee in the cross hairs yet again.

Now, blogs with national reach are running headlines like “TN pastor vows not to ‘repent’ for homophobia: God says gays ‘must be put to death’” (The Raw Story) and “Tennessee Pastor: Don't Stop Hating Gays, God Wants Them Put To Death Anyway” (Joe.My.God). Most of the articles currently circulating center on a short clip decontextualizing a portion of what is a 50 minute sermon on the sin of homosexuality!

Now, I am as big a fan as anyone of exaggerated outrage for all the wrong reasons. But I think those of us who would argue for gay rights and who want to engage in a discussion with our adversaries have to recognize that such headlines may galvanize our hatred even as they disengage our rational minds. By raising the titillating prospect of a hateful Baptist pastor in the greater Chattanooga area who suggests that gays should be killed, these click-bait headlines rob us of the opportunity to examine what we truly disagree with in what the man is actually saying.

Gallaty isn’t a new Fred Phelps. An excerpt from his sermon makes a great headline for click-seeking blogs, and it’s great for business to make it sound like Gallaty is a Tennessee hillbilly who wants a Holy Holocaust to swallow the Gay Menace.

Let’s be clear: Gallaty is not suggesting that modern society should kill its gays, or that God would enjoy it if God’s followers did such a thing. Rather, citing Leviticus forms for him part of a long narrative of the Christian disapproval of the act–the culmination of which is that God can save the gays and heal them. This is pretty standard in many pulpits. We can be offended by the suggestion that we need healing, but we should drop the notion that Gallaty wants us dead; that’s a false impression! Having watched the entire sermon twice, I believe that Robby Gallaty truly feels compassion for us (we may think he’s misguided, but put it next to what you hear from hundreds of other Baptist ministers and I’ll take it instead of their sermons).

In constructing his narrative, Gallaty repeats the sadly familiar claims that caricature the “gay lifestyle,” employing such gems as “43% of men admitted to having in their lifetime engaged in homosexual activity [with] 500 different partners … 30% of men said they had 1,000 sexual partners … heterosexual males on average had 7 sexual partners” (beginning 35:30 in the video). Let’s be offended by this caricature of our depravity, but let’s not set him apart from the rest of the herd for employing caricatures of the gay community drawn right from the diaries of its most outlandish members.

If we only focus on those eight minutes of sermon taken out of context, we miss the opportunity to engage with the very real issues we have with a man who would, I believe, talk with us constructively if he weren’t at the center of a screeching mob. We also miss the opportunity to recognize that, however hurtful some of his comments are (particularly to the young and struggling people in his audience), this minister demonstrates that he is not in the most hateful 1% of his denomination, but may actually be in the enlightened 5% of that particular group.

Yes, I said it: Pastor Robby Gallaty’s position on the treatment of gays and lesbians may actually be progressive among his peers, for he directly addresses the hypocrisy of Christians and their cynical tunnel vision focused on the ‘sins’ of our community!

I want to reiterate that there is plenty to worry about in his sermon: the way it portrays LGBT people and sexual identity, the way it spreads shame and guilt, and its problematic reference to HIV/AIDS. But one of the most common demands I hear from LGBT activists is, “If they’re going to condemn the gay lifestyle, why not condemn all the other sins that the Bible declares?” Truly, most ministers do engage in a quick two-step that allows them to demonize homosexuality in particular.

Gallaty may condemn homosexuality, but he doesn’t set it on a special pedestal like many of his colleagues. He turns the laser focus on his audience, his fellow pastors, and himself in the parts of the sermon you probably haven’t heard. For instance, in the 48th minute of his sermon, he declares, “the sin of homosexuality may be wrong, but your sin is just as bad. Your sin is just as bad. My sin is just as bad.” We may want to cringe at the declaration of sin, but remember he’s pointing fingers back at himself: he’s putting himself and his congregation on the same level. That is, he’s giving them no room to judge!

I want to share with you a few moments from the sermon for your consideration. Some are problematic, hurtful, and dangerous, but others are quite beautiful when you understand the rhetoric that’s so common in many of his peers’ pulpits (and it is them to whom he should be compared).

My goal here is not to whitewash Robby Gallaty, but to present a more balanced and nuanced approach to what he said. I want to raise the question about whether we should ride into battle over click-whoring headlines, or whether we should first give a fair hearing even to those we perceive as enemies. I do not know Robby Gallaty’s heart, but one thing I am sure of: he’s not the man the LGBT blogosphere has made him out to be. Make your own determination based on a broader view of what he’s said or done, and if you criticize him, hit him where it hurts – in the truth.

The following quotes/notes reference or are transcribed from the full video of Gallaty’s sermon, embedded above and linked here.

From roughly minute 5:00 to 31:00, Gallaty constructs his “historical” narrative about norms regarding homosexuality from the pagan world through Jewish and Christian thought. Around 18:00 Gallaty turns to Sodom and Gomorrah. At 21:00 he turns to Leviticus 18. At 22:45 he is explaining that the death prescribed is a spiritual death, not a physical one. 24:20 is when he finally reads the law making homosexual activity a capital offence. He immediately turns to Romans and spiritualizes the death of homosexuality.

In 32:00 Gallaty suggests, of course, that homosexuals can be liberated from their sins and be washed in the Blood of the Lamb. But Gallaty turns that same point on his congregation. At 32:24 he demands, “Aren’t you all like that? We can look at our past sins and say hey thank god I’m not who I used to be. By the grace of God…”

To us, the mistake of equating an identity with choice is clear. His offers of healing are sincere and thus all the more disturbing, perhaps, but we shouldn’t be so jaded that we ignore that he’s also making a clear attempt to get his audience to empathize with—and thus minimize their judgment of—the ‘sinners’ he is discussing.

One of the most epic fails begins at minute 33:15, where he points out that the sin of homosexuality has consequences. 33:35: “It’s an attack on the family, and it’s an attack on the marriage, which is actually an attack on God…” And again at 35:10, he points out, “The majority of people who had contacted HIV/AIDS, over 2/3rds to be exact, looked in their past and engaged in some form of homosexual activity. There are consequences for one’s actions, particularly the sin of homosexuality.” As we noted above, Gallaty also employs a caricature of the gay relationship as being astronomically promiscuous. Then, he somewhat contradicts himself by backtracking and adding at 37:06, “I want you to know the issue with homosexual activity isn’t with commitment, it’s with the corruption of your identity…. Homosexual activity corrupts one’s identity in Christ….” He proceeds to talk about how sexual identity isn’t how we address people, and he distinguishes race from sexuality, arguing that sexuality is a choice, while biological gender and race are not.

At 40 Gallaty addresses the homosexual who came to him and explained he had a real desire for men. Gallaty acknowledges the desire is as real as the desire of a man for his wife, or his neighbor’s wife, or Gallaty’s own former desire as an addict. The man claimed he had no desire for women, and Gallaty confessed he could not understand the struggle the man must have been going through, saying at 41:29, “but one thing I do know is this, that if you love Jesus and it sounds like you do, then your love for Jesus has to supersede any love for any person on this planet, including men. And I don’t know why God has chosen you to take the high road, but for the Glory of God and for the honor of God in your body, you may have to remain single for the rest of your life. And I said, the cool thing is this: God over time will heal you. He’ll heal your relationship with him, he’ll heal your relationship with other people. He may not take the desires away forever but he will heal you.”

BUT… from here on I believe we see the pastor’s take-home message, the one that caused him to warn his listeners to wait until the end to see what he was saying. He is engaging in ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ rhetoric, however he is not only earnest about it but he never lets his audience lose sight of the fact that they are in no position to judge. He calls their attention DIRECTLY to pulpit hypocrisy, and the hypocrisy of judging fellow sinners.

42:10 “See one of the challenges … I have with pastors behind this pulpit preaching to people about the issue of homosexuality is this: is that you and I have seen way too many pastors who are overweight railing on people about homosexual activity. We’ve seen way too many ministers stand behind the sacred desk and talk to people about adulterous activity and yet they have a wandering eye over their wife and they have pornography in their past … and yet they’re gonna stand here and condemn the people of God. Friends, why is it that we turn a blind eye to gluttony, which is a sin? Why do we turn a blind eye to greed, and selfishness and immorality? Why is it that we turn a blind eye to our own sin and yet we elevate sins like homosexuality and adultery above others?

At 43:10, he clearly demands that his congregants call sinners to repent, but but he continually points out that this is true for all sinners. Indeed, he cautions against elevating homosexuality as a special sin yet again! “So what do I do Robby? What do I do with someone in my life who comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I have these desires for men, or women’? What do I do? You respond to them the way you would with any sin. ‘Repent, and turn to God! God can heal you if you turn to him and run to him!’ You have to understand, the sin of homosexuality violates God’s plan, I get that … but it’s not the worst sin in the Bible and it’s not the only sin in the Bible. [Then directly addressing his audience] If not for the grace of God, where would you be?”

With regard to parents, Gallaty walks a fine line, and in my opinion he walks it better than most of his contemporaries, though the rhetoric is still harmful to children and at-risk individuals, I believe. At 43:46 he asks rhetorically, “So what do I, Robby, if my son or daughter comes to me and says, ‘I’m gay?’ What do you do in that situation? Parents listen to me! Future parents, listen to me! You love ‘em. It’s your son! It’s your daughter! Why wouldn’t you love them? You love them as Christ would love ‘em but you don’t make a concession for their sin. It’s the same way you’d treat your 16 year old boy who comes home from school and says, ‘Mom, this is my new girlfriend. We’ll be in the room tonight on Friday night, we’ll have the door locked, we’ll see you in the morning.’ Do you do that, parents? You don’t do that! … You speak the truth in love, but you ALWAYS COUCH IT IN LOVE! And I think we need more love in the Christian church. Amen?” What I read here is that parents shouldn’t approve of their child’s sin – which is harmful. But in a world where we read of many parents who put their children on the streets because of ‘religious’ convictions about the issue, I see Gallaty’s example of the wayward heterosexual son and the demand for love as a clear statement to his congregants that casting children out is inappropriate and un-Christian behavior.

Gallaty doesn’t exempt himself from scrutiny, as when he mentions his own past drug abuse, and he reveals that he is not removed from his subject when he thinks about the topic. At 45:00, he admits that, when writing the sermon, “I had to stop typing and take a walk, I had to go upstairs… I said Candy this is just heavy stuff. When I’m studying this I’m just mindful of my own depravity, I’m mindful of my own sin. And if not for the grace of God where would I be today, right?”

Following an unfortunate interlude in which he discusses a letter from gay congregant who is ‘healing,’ Gallaty is clear on how Christians ought to deal with gays. At 47:50 he says, “So Robby what do we do as a church? How do we respond as Christians? Christians, let me just share with you: when we are dealing with people as we are, let’s remove the sarcastic vocabulary that we have, let’s get rid of the intolerant attitudes we have, let’s change the words we use. Stop bashing gays! Stop telling jokes about gay people! Remove the word ‘queer’ or ‘fag’ from your vocabulary! That doesn’t need to exist! I think we need more repentance in the body of Christ and less rhetoric. ‘Cause we get cute in the church from time to time and if it’s not for the grace of God – listen to me – the sin of homosexuality may be wrong, but your sin is just as bad. Your sin is just as bad. My sin is just as bad. Shouldn’t the church be a safe place for people to come to? See, the church is a hospital for the saints, it’s not a cruise ship for the Christians, and the problem is if we’re not careful it becomes a cruise ship, right. Because what happens is someone comes hurting and they’re helpless and they say, ‘Hey I’m struggling with homosexuality,’ and immediately in some churches we label that person as an outcast and they never come back again. We should be welcoming as a church, and I just want to say for the record, if you’re struggling with homosexuality or are in that lifestyle, we welcome you here! I’m glad you that you’re here. We want you to be here…. Let’s be more loving to people. Let’s be more compassionate to people. And let us be more mindful of our own sin.”

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