Experience And Scripture:

A Response To Denny Burk And Christopher Yuan

Transcript (from The Biblical Case for LGBTQ Inclusion)

Some people have known that they were gay from as early as they can remember. Other people become aware of it during adolescence. But for still others, especially those who grow up in a more conservative environment, it can be something that they bury deep down, as far away from conscious recognition as possible. That was the case for me. I assiduously suppressed any acknowledgement of my sexual orientation until I was 19.

Looking back, I’m grateful I was able to do that, not only because I don’t think I could’ve handled knowing I was gay when I was younger but also because it allowed me to work through my beliefs and questions about this topic on an impersonal level before confronting how it affected me directly. And despite feeling firm in my faith in so many other ways, when it came to LGBTQ issues, I was starting to have a lot of questions and a lot of doubts.

Sometimes, conservative Christians assume that any young believer who is questioning the church’s position on same-sex marriage is simply giving in to our changing culture and prioritizing fitting in over holding onto what is true even when it’s not popular. But I was no stranger to having unpopular and countercultural beliefs about sexuality. I learned at a young age that sex should be reserved for marriage. I still believed that when I was coming to terms with being gay, and I still believe that today. In college, I often felt like I didn’t fit in because I didn’t drink, I didn’t curse, I didn’t want to party, and I wanted to stay as far away from hook-up culture as possible.

Many of my values as a Christian were countercultural, and I was at peace with that. But what I was increasingly not at peace with was the church’s rejection of all same-sex relationships as morally wrong. When it came to other things I was taught were sinful, I wasn’t just given Bible verses to tell me that they were wrong. I was also taught compelling reasons why they were wrong. With things like selfishness, greed, or adultery, it was easy to see the harm they caused to other people. And even in other areas where Christian views were particularly unpopular, there were still good reasons for them. Sex should be for marriage because sharing all of our physical selves with someone should be matched by sharing all of the rest of ourselves with them, too. We should say with our bodies what we’re saying with the rest of our lives.

But as I got to know more gay people, I didn’t understand why my Christian values about sexuality couldn’t include them, too. Same-sex marriages embodied all of the same virtues that I had seen in my own parents’ marriage: faithfulness, self-giving love, covenantal, lifelong commitment. And not only was I seeing so many good qualities in committed same-sex relationships, I was also seeing an incredible amount of pain, hurt, and damage being done to gay people when their Christian families and churches told them that their sexual orientation was completely broken and that, as a result, it would be sinful for them ever to date, fall in love, or get married. It wasn’t just that the church was setting a difficult standard for gay people—it’s that it was setting a different standard for gay people. Dating, marriage, and sex within marriage were all fine and actively encouraged and celebrated for straight people. But because gay people were attracted to the same sex, all of those same things were rejected and condemned for them.

The negative impact of the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships

In Sunday school, we learned that Jesus was a champion of the underdog. When one out of a hundred sheep went missing, he would drop everything to find it. If one coin was lost, he would scour the house in search of it. He went out of his way to welcome and include the outcasts, and he didn’t let people slip through the cracks. But when it came to gay people, it seemed like the church was doing the exact opposite. It was creating the outcasts and then saying that’s just what being faithful to Jesus required. And that sort of rejection, more than any other single issue, was pushing away so many young people from the church, because instead of coming to know Jesus as the protector and defender of the marginalized, the message they were getting was that Jesus was the reason their LGBTQ friends were being rejected and marginalized in the first place. Seeing people not want to follow Jesus because of how much they cared about their friends who were being mistreated was heartbreaking to me, because if anything, that’s a reason people should want to follow Jesus. 

But the impact of the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships on LGBTQ people themselves was even worse. Certainly, it was pushing them away from God and the church, too, but it was also leading so many Christian families to push away their children in their attempt to be faithful to Jesus. A landmark study by the Family Acceptance Project compared the mental health outcomes of LGBTQ youth who were supported by their families when they came out to those who experienced a range of rejecting behaviors from their families when they came out, including religiously-based rejection. The differences were stark.


times more likely to attempt suicide


times more likely to have high levels of depression


times more likely to use illegal drugs

A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that, while religious faith was linked to lower levels of suicidal ideation in heterosexual youth, gay and lesbian youth who said that religion was important to them were 38% more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts than gay and lesbian youth for whom religion was not important. Young people whose faith was important to them and who were questioning their sexuality were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently compared to other young people who were also questioning their sexuality but for whom faith was not important.

And attempts to change gay people’s sexual orientation were no better. Another 2018 study from the Family Acceptance Project showed that LGBTQ youth were almost three times as likely to attempt suicide when they were sent to therapists and religious leaders who tried to change their sexual orientation. Overall, it seemed clear to me that the church’s condemnation of same-sex relationships and transgender people causes serious harm to LGBTQ people.

Experience and Scripture

When I shared my concern about these destructive consequences with others in the church, however, I sometimes heard a similar objection in response: that no matter how negative of an impact the church’s teaching seemed to be having on LGBTQ people, we could not place our experience over Scripture as our authority. This concern, I want to be clear, does contain an important truth. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that “the heart is deceitful above all things.” Proverbs 3:5 says to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Our experience is subjective and fallible, and if we just do what seems right in our own eyes, we can be led dangerously astray.

I fully agree with that critique, and that’s why I also agree that, as Christians, we have to look to Scripture as our final authority, and not our experience. But there’s another factor that we have to take into consideration. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all Scripture is God-breathed,” but Christians have long recognized that our interpretation of Scripture can still be wrong precisely because of our human fallibility. So while we should never place our experience above the Bible as an authority, our experience can lead us to reconsider our interpretation of the Bible. To put it another way, our experience shouldn’t lead us to revise Scripture, but can it lead us to revisit our understanding of it.

Trees and their fruit

The Bible lends support to the basic idea that even though our experience is fallible, it still matters and it’s still something that we should take seriously. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against false prophets, using a term that’s long been understood to refer to teachers of false doctrines. And he gave a famous test for how to identify false prophets from true ones. In Matthew 7:15-20, he said:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Denny Burk

Denny Burk

“It may cause someone personal distress and psychological ‘harm’ to tell them that they should not murder their neighbor. That would be a ‘bad fruit’ on Vines’ definition. Nevertheless, no one would permit murder just to avoid that ‘bad fruit.’”


This basic principle—that a good tree will bear good fruit, and a bad tree will bear bad fruit—is worth considering when faced with an interpretation of Scripture that seems to be causing a tremendous amount of harm. If our interpretation of the Bible is leading to an increase in suicides, drug abuse, loss of faith, and broken families and relationships, might that be a sign that our interpretation may be wrong, that it isn’t a good tree and it isn’t producing good fruit?

I think so, and that’s the argument I made in my book. That argument has been a powerful one for many people as they’ve weighed their beliefs about LGBTQ inclusion, but it’s also occasioned some critiques, so I want to consider those now.

Denny Burk and Christopher Yuan’s critique

First, Denny Burk in the book God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines, characterized my argument as saying that if an interpretation of Scripture—quote—“causes some people to feel badly,” then “it must be done away with.” Burk wrote that this would “create ethical anarchy if applied consistently,” saying that—quote—e someone personal distress and psychological ‘harm’ to tell them that they should not murder their neighbor. That would be a ‘bad fruit’ on Vines’ definition,” he continued. “Nevertheless, no one would permit murder just to avoid that ‘bad fruit.’”

But I have never and would never argue that mere bad feelings are the same thing as bad fruit. The problem with condemning same-sex relationships is not that it offends people or that it makes people feel badly. It’s that that sort of rejection is tied to much more serious and devastating consequences in LGBTQ people’s lives. Other Christian teachings, even when they’re very hard, like turning the other cheek or loving our enemies, don’t lead people to feel such a crushing weight of shame and hopelessness that they think it’d be better if they weren’t alive or if they’d never been born in the first place. That’s in a different category altogether than just having bad feelings.

Christopher Yuan

Christopher Yuan

Christopher Yuan, in his book Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, acknowledges that I’m talking about much more serious consequences than hurt feelings, but he argues that even suicide would not qualify as “bad fruit” according to Jesus. He makes two primary points to support that claim. First, he cites a passage in Matthew 3 in which John the Baptist refers to “good fruit” in the context of repentance, calling on the Pharisees to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Based on that text, Yuan argues that, for Jesus in Matthew 7—quote—“good fruit is essentially repentance, and bad fruit is unrepentance.” Secondly, Yuan argues that the Greek word for “bad” in Matthew 7 refers specifically to evil or wicked actions, so bad fruit can only mean disobedience to God’s commands, not destructive outcomes in people’s lives.

Holy Sexuality and the Gospel - Book by Christopher Yuan

Holy Sexuality and the Gospel by Christopher Yuan

But both of those arguments are more narrow interpretations than the text itself supports. Jesus’s words in Matthew 7 are broader than John the Baptist’s in Matthew 3, and while repentance would certainly qualify as good fruit and unrepentance as bad fruit, Jesus doesn’t restrict his words to those matters alone. And while the Greek word poneros—translated as “bad” here—does often refer to evil actions, the leading Greek lexicons all acknowledge that it has a broader range of meanings than that, and most of them specifically cite this passage in Matthew as an example of it being used in a broader sense to mean something that’s useless, worthless, and that has no value. The same word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe bad water in 2 Kings 2:19, bad land in Numbers 13:19, and bad food in Jeremiah 24:8.

Historic interpretations of Matthew 7:15-20

Moreover, throughout the history of this passage’s interpretation, many influential commentators have read “good fruit” and “bad fruit” to apply to more than just obedience and disobedience. Both Augustine in the 5th century and Martin Luther in the 16th century wrote that good fruit was what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 and 23.

In his commentary on Matthew 7, Augustine wrote, “The question, indeed, is most rightly put: What are the fruits He would wish us to attend to, whereby we might know the tree?” He noted that outward trappings of righteousness could be deceiving. Instead, citing Paul, Augustine concluded

“And what the fruits are by which we may know a good tree, the very same apostle goes on to tell us: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.”

Matthew Henry, one of the leading Bible commentators of the 18th century, wrote that Jesus’s statement that “you will know them by their fruits” applied both to individual teachers and to their teachings. He wrote, “Not that this is the only way, but it is one way, of trying doctrines, whether they be of God or not. What do they tend to do? What affections and practices will they lead those into, that embrace them?”

Charles Spurgeon wrote similarly in the 19th century, saying in his commentary on Matthew 7 that—quote—“this is the best test of any doctrine, the practice to which it leads.” In advising Christians on how to apply Jesus’s teaching to discern true from false teachers, Spurgeon said simply, quote: “If their teaching makes you better, if it makes you love God, if it draws you to holiness, if it inspires you with noble and heroic sentiments, so that you imitate Christ, then listen to them.”

Along the same lines, 18th century biblical scholar John Gill said of Matthew 7—quote—“their doctrines are here meant, and the effects of them,” and John Wesley also wrote that—quote—

John Wesley

John Wesley

“the goodness or badness here mentioned respects the doctrine, rather than the personal character.”

More recently, Richard Hays, one of the leading New Testament scholars of the last generation, appealed to Matthew 7:15-20 in his evaluation of differing interpretations of Scripture. In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, he wrote that we should subject “various accounts of New Testament ethics to the ‘fruits test’ that Jesus proposed for distinguishing false prophets from true,” saying that this is—quote—“what finally proves the value of our theological labors.” To pass this test, he said, sound interpretations of Scripture should lead communities to—quote—“manifest the fruit of the Spirit.” In sum, then, good teachings should bear good fruit.

And experience has led Christians back to Scripture to study it more carefully on important issues in the past. Most famously, Peter appealed to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Gentile believers in Acts 15 to argue in favor of including Gentiles in the church without requiring them to be circumcised and to follow the Old Testament law. In verses 8 and 10, he said, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us… Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” In recent centuries, Christian abolitionists also made powerful appeals to experience to argue against the horrific practice of slavery.

The importance of taking up our crosses

So experience is a relevant factor to consider in assessing the soundness of an interpretation of Scripture. But does that mean, as Christopher Yuan has argued, that my reading of Matthew 7—quote—”leaves no room for suffering and cross bearing in the life of the believer”? No. We are certainly not promised easy lives as Christians, and the moral demands of Christianity often require significant sacrifice and suffering, from giving without expecting anything in return to even being willing to lay down our lives for our friends. Indeed, suffering can be a sign of faithfulness to Jesus just as much as it can be a sign that something is wrong.

But while as followers of Jesus, we must be willing to endure suffering as part of the cost of discipleship, we’re also called as disciples to help alleviate unnecessary suffering in the world. So how can we tell the difference between suffering that’s simply a part of the cost of discipleship and suffering that is bad fruit coming from a bad tree? I think a helpful guide is looking to the character of God as revealed in Scripture. One of God’s core traits described in the Bible is that he is a covenant-keeping God. We’re called to reflect that aspect of God’s nature in our own lives and relationships. That’s why adultery is wrong and it’s why we’re called to orient our sexuality toward covenant-keeping rather than toward fleeting or lustful encounters.

If all that being gay were were a compulsion toward uncontrolled promiscuity, then as hard as it might be to deny those desires, doing so would still conform people more closely to the image of Christ in them. But that isn’t what being gay is. LGBTQ people have the very same capacity for self-giving, covenantal love as everyone else, and to say that they—and they alone—are required to deny even their desires for that kind of covenant-keeping relationship doesn’t make the same kind of sense.

Good teachings, even when they are very difficult, should make us more like God. Most straight Christians say that their marriages help them to grow in sanctification by putting someone else first, chipping away at their own selfishness. By denying LGBTQ Christians the possibility of that sort of self-giving, covenantal relationship with another person, we are denying them a path to become more like our self-giving, covenant-keeping God. So from that perspective, it makes more sense to view the suffering that non-affirming teachings cause as bad fruit that’s coming from a bad tree.

That said, our experience can only take us so far. It cannot and should not override the authority of Scripture, but it can be an invitation back to the text to study it more deeply. I hope you’ll take that invitation with an open heart and mind.