This Cannot Be What Jesus Wants

Last week, Sean Harris, the Senior Pastor of the Berean Baptist church in Fayetteville, North Carolina – an evangelical church that had never experienced much controversy in the past – preached some disturbing words from the pulpit to all of the parents in his congregation.  During his sermon in support of a constitutional amendment that would not only outlaw same-sex marriage – which North Carolina had already banned in 2004 – but also ban any same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships as well, he gave some troubling advice to his congregation about how to deal with their children.  He told them:

So your little son starts to act a little girlish at four years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying “man up, son, get that dress off you and go outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,” you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.  Can I make it any clearer?  Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist.  Man up.  Give him a good punch.  Ok?  You are not going to act like that.  You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male.” 

And when your daughter starts acting too butch you rein her in and you say ‘oh no, oh no sweetheart.  You can play sports.  Play ‘em.  Play ‘em to the glory of God but sometimes you are going to act like a girl, walk like a girl, talk like a girl, and smell like a girl and that means that you’re gonna be beautiful, you’re gonna be attractive, you’re gonna dress yourself up.” 

You say, “Can I take charge like this as a parent?  Yeah you can.  You are authorized.  I just gave you a special dispensation to do that.”

Let me first say that I believe fervently in religious freedom.  I believe that, as disturbing as his words were, Sean Harris had the right to interpret his Bible in such a manner that advocated parents squashing like cockroaches any effeminate or butch trait in their children. He has that right under the First Amendment.  But that doesn’t make it right.

Moreover, in this article, I don’t care about the political implications of Amendment One, which, by the way, passed by a large margin yesterday.  Nor do I care to address whether homosexuality is a sin, a choice, a good religious issue to fill church coffers, or a good political issue with which to get someone elected.  What I do care about is that the members of this Church were laughing and saying “Amen” as their pastor advocated punching “effeminate” boys, cracking their limp wrists, and stepping in to tell “butch” girls that they are going to smell good and be beautiful.  I care that members of the Body of Christ were laughing and saying Amen as their pastor told them to squash like a cockroach any signs of girlish behavior in their sons.

I care, because, among those adults laughing and agreeing with their pastor – there is a high degree of statistical certainty that there were also “effeminate” boys and “butch” girls who were listening to that sermon and dying inside with each word.  They were dying inside as they listened to their pastor make fun of them.   They were dying inside as they listened to their parents laughing along with their pastor.

There were kids in that congregation who walked out of that church feeling like monsters.  There were boys in that congregation who had to go back to their youth group and endure their more masculine “friends” physically bullying them and calling them terrible names with renewed vigor because their pastor had just condoned “toughening them up.”  There were girls in the congregation who had to go back to their youth group and endure taunts of being called ugly and a lesbian from their more feminine, more beautiful group members.   But even more lamentable, there were kids who heard that sermon that had to feel, more than ever, that God didn’t love them as they were.  That He didn’t love them for their particular character traits that made them unique.  There were kids who went home feeling that God was ashamed and disappointed in them because of their interests and attractions.  This cannot be what Jesus wants.

Sean Harris later apologized for using words like “punch” and “crack the wrist” in his sermon.  He stated that he didn’t advocate child abuse against effeminate children.  He explained his word choices by stating that he was simply following Jesus’ example of using hyperbole to drive his point home.   I am willing to take him at his word that he didn’t want dads to go home and break the wrists of their less masculine sons.  I am not sure, however, that the eleven-year-old boy who likes to cook instead of play football will appreciate his nuanced used of a rhetorical device or find any solace in his explanation.   He admitted an error in his word choices, but not the underlying message.  Ok.  But what I can’t shake is that in the middle of these terrible choices of words, his congregation didn’t react with gasps or even silence – they reacted with laughter and affirmation.  Then, the next Sunday, they gave him a standing ovation.   He became a cultural martyr to them for having to endure attacks from the “liberal media.”  How on earth could a pastor who advocated punching a kid because he is effeminate become a cultural martyr within the Christian Community?  How is that even conceivable?

Please understand that I fully recognize that this pastor does not speak for evangelicalism or Christianity as a whole.  I recognize that there are countless churches and denominations that would never advocate such behavior.  Yet, I do feel like his extreme case is instructive of a pervasive problem in Christianity.  Namely, Christianity has become defined by many as “anti-gay.”  As Dave Kinneman, President of the Barna Group, states in his Book “UnChristian,” non-Christians see Christian hostility towards gays “as virtually synonymous with the Christian Faith.”  91% of non-Christians state that “anti-homosexual” accurately defines the Christian Church.  The way Christians treat homosexuality is the “key negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation.”  The picture he paints is stark.  For most non-Christians, the Christian faith is defined by its anti-homosexual agenda rather than by its love, grace, hope, mercy, truth, and salvation.  It is hard to argue with these findings.  The truth is that a great number of denominations and churches have made homosexuality their primary political and religious whipping boy.  They blame “the homosexual agenda” for a panacea of societal ills and natural disasters, elevate it to a special place of God’s condemnation that even the most conservative of theologians would not try to justify, and make it acceptable to mock and joke about homosexuality from the pulpit and throughout Christian culture.

Frankly, this stance is seen as mean-spirited and cruel to many non-Christians.  It fuels the image that Christians are cultural bullies who are more concerned with preserving their way of life than seeing people come to faith.  It keeps many adults, gay and straight, from ever entering a church.  These perceptions and consequences, in and of themselves, should give Christians an impetus to change.  That it also deeply impacts hundreds of thousands of kids who are going to church every week and hearing subtle, and not so subtle, sermons that their same-sex attraction — or even their non-gender conforming interests — makes them pariahs, should make Christians shudder.   Thousands of kids are wounded each week in the very place that should be their refuge.  And whether one believes that children who are experiencing same-sex attraction should embrace it or lay it down – it’s hard to argue that making them feel like outcasts and monsters is any sort of spiritual answer.

Sean Harris and his sermon at Berean Baptist Church is an extreme example of this sort of mentality.  It should not be used as a representative view of what Christians believe or think.  Yet, every  “effeminate” boy or “butch” girl who hears a sermon like Sean Harris’, will be left with a lasting memory of someone who supposedly spoke for God making them feel like they deserved a punch in the stomach instead of the warm embrace of a loving God.   This cannot be what Jesus wants.

About David Davies, Editor-in-Chief

David Davies is the Editor-in-Chief of Media Rostra. He is also a lawyer and a licensed minister, so he is basically distrusted by everyone on some level. He received his Political Science degree from the University of Tulsa and his Juris Doctor from the University of Arkansas. He is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Arkansas, a former "good athlete for his size," and current owner of The Law Offices of David Davies, PLLC -- an Estate Planning and Elder Law firm that has offices in Arkansas and Tennessee. He co-authored, with fellow editor, Aaron Brooks, the article entitled: “Exploring Student-Athlete Compensation: Why the NCAA Cannot Afford to Leave Athletes Uncompensated," in the University of Notre Dame’s Journal of College and University Law.


  1. This is all so true and heartbreaking.  I’ve heard pastors throw in a little anti-gay/homophobic rhetoric when it had absolutely nothing to do with what they were “preaching” about…..when will we ever get away from this….I guess when congregations start gasping

  2. SteveSnedikerNo Gravatar says:

    Based on the quote from Rev. Harris, this has nothing to do with his “interpretation” of the Bible.  Maybe the sermon was framed in a Scriptural text (James 1:21 in the KJV is my favorite – “superfluity of naughtiness”) but what was quoted could ONLY be construed as the words of a very mono-dimensional person.

    And his granting of a “special dispensation”?  Watch out for judgment on this man.  There’s more here than meets the eye.

  3. haleyheathburksNo Gravatar says:

    Davies, Great post.  This is a terrible story, though unfortunately it isn’t totally shocking.  I think the violent language he used is the main thing causing a stir here.  Surely, the majority of people who read a story like this are horrified by what sounds like a pastor granting permission to his congregation to physically and emotionally abuse their children.  But the outpouring of response, in my opinion, would be much reduced if he had made jokes at the expense of homosexuals without the accompanying language of violence towards children.  How many of us have heard from the pulpit “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” followed by the accompanying congregational laughter and done nothing?  Language of violence towards children is appropriately causing a stir here.  But so should, as you put it, the consistent use of homosexuals as “the whipping boy” of a large group of churches.  Using hateful langaguage like this towards homosexuality leads to feelings of alienation in some church members and feelings of superiority in others, neither of which are Christian ideals.  If churches want to have a sincere and honest discussion about what the Bible says about homosexuality, so be it.  But they should do so with upmost compassion and care, recognizing the personhood of homosexuals and understanding the hugeness of the issue to the lives of many.   I am so glad you posted this.  So thought provoking. 

  4. This post really made me think.  Conforming to society mores wasn’t Christ’s number one priority, that’s for sure.  That being said, are you advocating for allowing a child to be different from society’s rigid standards for how a boy or girl should act, or are you advocating for the church to just get over it all and tolerate homosexuality because that just needs to happen?
    If the latter is true, what other sinful activities should be tolerated/embraced/accepted by the church?  Or, if we don’t want to call homosexual conduct sinful, then what other activities specifically taught against by Jesus, the apostles, and Paul should we not worry about because we don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings?  Is this the only one?  If so, why?

  5. Interesting article! In response to Rodney, it seems to me that repentance is the message of this article, not tolerance. The sexual ethic raised by Jesus is a difficult one to keep for hetero- and homosexuals alike. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her. . .” (Mt. 5:28). Jesus’s ethic identified the root of the matter: we are all sinners.

    But, that’s only half the story. Why didn’t Jesus condemn the adulterous women at the well? You’ve already pointed out that Jesus had trouble conforming to social mores. To the Jews, sacrifice trumped obedience. But, for Jesus, the opposite is true. He charged the women to “Go and sin no more”. Isn’t this the offence of our faith?

    I’ve been the woman in this story, accused and guilty. Unfortunately our church, including me, has also been left waiting for someone else to throw the first stone.

  6. I think it is possible to teach scripture with love and compassion, without minimizing the hard truths and stand scripture has on some behaviors, however culturally distasteful.  The bible is very clear on homosexuality, it is certainly not a matter of interpretation from any honest bible scholars.  I think the church (the larger one) can do a much better job reaching, helping and loving folks who are hurting and distraught.  The path of avoiding difficult culturally sensitive issues in favor of topics that will not offend the audience is certainly not what Jesus would have wanted either.

  7. This was another extremely thoughtful article.  Leaving aside the fact that I believe churches SHOULD welcome everyone — gays, transgender, lady gaga — whatever — I believe that this pastor’s words about correcting an effete boy or a butch girl are walking the line of “fighting” words — which would NOT be protected under the 1st Amendment.

    You actually *can’t* threaten to hit a child or encourage another to do so.  That’s not protected speech — it’s a threat to a minor.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the part of this story that is most disturbing is that the congregation did not see it this way.

    Furthermore — how ignorant (on the face of things!) to suggest that notions of masculinity and femininity are somehow so simple or universal.  The raw stupidity of that idea leaves me breathless.

  8. Mitsu KuboNo Gravatar says:

    “This cannot be what Jesus wants” – how many times have we heard this phrase from all sides of a divisive issue?   As a non religious person, I’m constantly dumbfounded by how many people just nod their heads to the sermons of their religious leaders.  Even religious leaders/facilitators make mistakes in judgement (and if
    I’m not mistaken, only God should be the one judging), so I get so
    frustrated when I see people following their religious leaders blindly,
    without question or debate.