The next time you’re confronted with a homophobic or transphobic person who wants to bully you with the Bible, try this simple four-step formula for dealing with the situation, courtesy of the chorus of the Kenny Rogers hit “The Gambler,” whose first four lines go like this:
You got to know when to hold ’em.
Know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when to run.
If you can remember those four simple lines, here’s how they can guide you through a method for copying with Bible bullying.
“Know when to hold ‘em”
Rule: Be in the driver’s seat.
Place yourself in a position of strength by helping set the rules for the discussion.
We need to limit our exposure to anything toxic and that includes toxic, homophobic and transphobic spirituality. Some people are able to string together a list of Bible texts to try to build a case against LGBTI people. They rattle the texts off as fast as they can, in the hope that they can overwhelm and intimidate people. Because they use so many texts, you cannot easily respond to them. Conversations like this can be spiritually and emotionally damaging.
Madelynn Haldeman taught religion at La Sierra University. In a Sabbath School class, Haldeman provided a strategy to help people who felt overwhelmed by legalistic Christians. I am not aware of her applying the strategy to discussions relating to sexual orientation or gender identification. But the strategy helps slow down the conversation and that limits the time that you are exposed to shaming theologies. This is how one might apply the method to the discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
- State: “This conversation is so important we need to discuss it thoroughly, one text at a time.”
- Then say: “We can discuss one and only one Bible text today.”
- What is a text that shows God does not approve of homosexuality?
- Discuss only the text, in Biblical context, and either agree or agree to disagree.
- Then state how you see things. For example, you might say: “Jesus loves LGBTI people. John 3:16. ‘Whosoever believeth.’ Whosever is a broad term and it includes LGBTI people.”
- Terminate the conversation and leave.
“Know when to fold ‘em”
You are under no obligation to ever respond to a Bible bully. Unless you are feeling emotionally and spiritually strong, you can decide not to engage the Bible bully. Should you want to respond, you can do that when you are feeling strong.
“Know when to walk away”
Rule: Pass the ball.
You can refer people to a website or to a book to read. I have business cards, which contain the website address for an affirming Christian website. I hand the cards to people and ask them to read what is on the website and after they read through the website to contact me again. I use the same approach in online discussions. You can hand a person a tract or a book to read. This takes the heat off of you, because the person’s argument is with the author of the website, tract or book, not with you.
Rule: Call a penalty.
This is how you can respond when people are becoming spiritually abusive.
- Name the problem. Say: “Telling people that they are going to hell is spiritual bullying.”
- State a consequence. Say: “I do not discuss the Bible with people when they engage in bullying.”
- Physically get up and leave. This terminates the conversation.
This method is effective because there is no name-calling and no blaming. You are telling the person your policy when there is spiritual bullying, and you are implementing your policy.
“Know when to run”
An old boss of mine used to say, “A pretty poor set of feet lets a face take a pounding.” We do not have to take a spiritual and an emotional beating.
In some cases, a family member or a friend might want a homophobic pastor or theologian to talk to you. There is a significant power differential between a lay person and an ordained minister. Some of this relates to the power of the position. For many people, a minister has the authority to speak for God. In most cases, education also places a lay person at a disadvantage. Most people do not have a bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. degree in religion. Be cautious when considering engaging a member of the clergy who is known to be a Bible bully, because so much power is aligned against you. Should you want to stop the conversation from starting, you can say, “We are not having this conversation.”
I have told abusive pastors, “I do not recognize your spiritual authority.” You can continue by saying: “We are not discussing this.” You could say: “My firmly held conviction is that same-gender sexual relationships are not sinful.” That can be followed by: “I am not going to discuss this topic with you.”
Finally and most importantly, affirm yourself
Your worth as a person, and the validity of your sexual orientation or your gender identity, do not depend on how well you defended your position. As the editor-in-chief of this magazine has said over and over, “You are wonderfully and uniquely made in the image of God, and that is enough.”
A lifelong counselor, teacher and educator, having worked in elementary and secondary education for 25 years, Gary Simpson is a member of the Canadian Counseling and Psychotherapy Association and has spoken and led workshops on gay-straight alliances, bullying, spiritual self-defense, gay Christian identity, and the needs of GLBT youth and young adults.
Currently studying at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., he holds a B.Ed. from Union College in Lincoln, Neb., an M.A. in Guidance and Counseling and Ed.S. in Educational Psychology from Loma Linda University in Riverside, Calif., a Master’s in Religious Education from Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta, and a Certificate in Sexuality and Religion from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.