Imagine for a moment a private conversation between five evangelical pastors and one gay rights advocate. I think any of us could expect a wide range of possible outcomes of such a gathering, especially since three of them have (or had) strong ties to the Assemblies of God, one a Nazarene, and a Methodist. And then the gay guy — me.
Last year, when I invited a whole community to come together and talk about how the church can find some reconciliation with LGBT Christians, it was a potential recipe for disaster. It started with a bang (one audience member suggested that gay people have a demon), and ended up being something quite wonderful.
Even that was nothing compared to the raw intensity and genuine compassion that I witnessed this afternoon. All five of these men had a sincere desire to talk. Not to debate. Not to fight. But to talk — and most importantly, to listen.
Frankly, that last part is lacking in our conversation for LGBT equality far too often. We love to talk, but when the other guy opens his mouth, we close our ears only to wait for the right point where we can start talking again. Thankfully, that’s not what happened today. What did happen was a broad display of sheer, godly, wonderful humility.
The participants were myself, Dr. Steve Estep of Grace Church of the Nazarene, Pastor Mike Burnette of LifePoint Church, Pastor John Renken of Freedom Church, Pastor Carlo Serrano of GraceLife Church, and Pastor Charles Martin of Fellowship United Methodist Church.
Let me be clear: None of these men have endorsed marriage equality (nor do I expect that they will in the near future). All of them have very conservative positions on same-sex relationships, and they all have a strong belief that any form of sexual relationship outside of a heterosexual marriage between one man and one woman is sin.
So what’s there to talk about? I get hit from both sides quite regularly, so here’s my answer to that question: Plenty. Everything.
For the first hour of what became a three hour tour of everything gay, we discussed basics: definitions of the word “Christian” and “gay.” We discussed a little soteriology (salvation doctrine) for defining what a “Christian” is, and settled on “a person who is a fully devoted disciple of Christ,” but not necessarily the casual churchgoer. A “gay” person, we agreed, is a person who is sexually, emotionally, and romantically attracted to members of the same sex.
Carlo, who is also a counselor, asked if the “gay” definition is generally the same in the gay community. I assured the group that it is. We identify ourselves as gay because of our orientation, not our sexual acts. After all, the 15-year-old gay kid who’s a virgin is still just as gay as the nearly 42-year-old gay activist.
From there, much of the conversation centered on how we deal with the fact that as LGBT equality becomes more prevalent in our world, and that gay singles and couples may begin to visit churches a little more. Not that it’ll be a mass influx or anything (especially since the Church still has a strong “ANTI-GAY” label attached to it). As we move forward, though, we can definitely expect more visitation.
The key issue, I think, focused on expectations. What are the Church’s expectations for LGBT people? To their credit, I didn’t even have to delve into the failure of the ex-gay ministries because they all quickly agreed that they don’t work. Because they don’t. Kinda disappointed me, too, since I was armed with all kinds of facts, stories, and nifty pictographs. But hey, it freed up time for the core issue — what kind of expectations does the Church have for gay Christians?
Are gays welcome in your church?
Are gays welcome? All of them said yes. However, welcoming does not mean affirming, and we should be clear about that. I referenced so-called “bridge-building ministries” which don’t seem to take a stance on anything, often leaving gays feeling like it’s more of a trap than a bridge — clearly a one-way street. My message on the issue is clear: “Don’t let people sit in your church without letting them know where you stand.” Be clear. Be concise. But for God’s sake, don’t lead people on.
Otherwise, I’ll end up being the Admiral Akbar of the gay Christian community. “IT’S A TRAP!” (Damn, I wish I said that today!)
Even without the Akbar reference, they all got the point. Which then led us to what, I think, was THE defining point of our conversation — relationships.
Of the five, Charles (my own pastor, for the record — even though I’m bad about missing church a lot) is the most welcoming to LGBT people and couples. While his theology is on the most conservative side of the scale, his actions are based on sheer compassion. Since he’s discussed his views on his own blog, I know I can share them here.
For Charles (and I’m a first name kind of guy), he really wrestles with the fact that for those of us in the Church, the rules are pretty simple: Marriage or celibacy. For heterosexual folks, that’s generally not an issue. He paraphrased the Apostle Paul when he wrote that if you can’t control yourself, then get married.
With a broken voice, he said, “I really wrestle with this — because if gays are born as they are — then they don’t have the option of marriage.” No one really seemed to have an issue with the fact that sexual orientation isn’t a choice, so again, it wasn’t something we had to waste time on.
Marriage for gays? Sure. Straight marriage.
Here’s where I want to tread carefully. I have a genuine respect and appreciation for all of these men, and I do not want to give the impression that I’m looking down upon them or speaking negatively of what they said. But the greatest sticking point was over a clear unifying belief that they all shared — that gays have the option of total celibacy or marriage to the opposite sex. It is, after all, the Biblical thing to do in their view (yes, I disagree with them, but the chances of changing their theology on this is about as likely as changing their theology on salvation by grace). Here’s a group of five men — all married with children — who are relatively comfortable with the idea that a gay person can remain celibate and “be in God’s will.”
At one point, Mike asked me if I would be willing to lay down my sexuality for Jesus. A direct challenge. One that I had to think about. I explained that I had tried that. Been there. Done that. And no, I wasn’t talking about trying to be “straight,” nor was he. More on that in a minute.
I know, my gay and straight ally friends are fuming right now. Take a deep breath. Now let it out. Again.
Like I said, Charles approached the issue with a sincere compassion — how could it be that these human beings who are created by God don’t have the option of marrying the person they love? The option isn’t there, he said. He has several gay members of his church (including me). Charles is a man who genuinely cares about how to serve the LGBT members of his flock.
The others, though, seemed to be more comfortable in their theology — with a little compassion, but not really getting it. Their views were more black and white. The notion that “Jesus is all I need” was brought up. Frankly, at this point, I felt like slamming my head on the table a few times. Instead, I just took a few deep breaths and told my story, something I really don’t do as often as I should.
There’s power in your story
For many gay Christians, we go through several stages of our religious expression, especially when we don’t want to be gay. I sure didn’t. Those who knew me well in the late 1990s, knew me to be a passionate Christian, strong in my faith, and would work to do anything I could to bring Christians together in unity. I was all about bringing people together, and worked at every opportunity to do that.
For me, these efforts were never a way to “earn” salvation, but was an expression of that salvation. I was passionate. I was deliberate. I was… well, deep in what I call my “superChristian” mode. I did everything I could to focus on Jesus, the Church, and in helping others to catch the same fire I had.
I had people in my life all over the place. Great pastors, great friends. People who were real with me. But there was one place in my life I knew I couldn’t find that companionship, and that was in my bedroom. It was lonely. It was quiet. It was sheer solitude. And it was depressing. I avoided thinking about sex. Because any time I did, it was the wrong kind of sex that would pop in my mind. The wrong kind of attractions.
So I pressed forward. More work. More effort. More passion.
More loneliness. More quiet. More solitude. More tear-stained pillows. More sheer grief. I believed that Jesus was all I needed. I lived it. I walked it out. For years.
It. Just. Does. Not. Work.
Nothing could have prepared me for the time I finally met Curtis, because by then I was going deeper into depression than I am probably willing to admit. It was then that I finally realized how much I was working to hide myself from the truth — and how much I had deprived myself of that kind of companionship, romance, and togetherness that I now share. It’s a wholeness that I’d never before experienced.
And their theology would seek to deprive me of that – of health, of sanity, of wholeness. More solitude, or a heterosexual marriage I never wanted.
At that point, something broke. I can’t really explain it, but I felt like that just in sharing my story, that we all began to relate to each other not as pastors and a gay guy, but as men fellowshipping. We began to share things that I will not repeat. We talked about life. Love. Compassion. Challenges.
I fully believe that the Holy Spirit Himself began to fill the room and begin to minister to each of us where we were. It was at this point that we began to truly relate as fellow Christians in search of Jesus on these issues.
It was … for the lack of a better word… heavy. In a good way. In the sheer presence of God kind of way. None of us really wanted to debate these issues, and our conversation reflected that. But where we really met — and shared, and had true fellowship — was when we finally talked as people. We built trust with each other, and it became something quite wonderful.
My gay agenda
I don’t know if any of them will ever embrace marriage equality, and I doubt some of them ever will. But my goal and my true “gay agenda” was simple (when I said this, Steve held up his phone as if it were a recorder and smiled): To help them understand my point of view. And to begin a dialogue that would reach beyond that room, into our lives, and into all of our ministries.
The seed for this dialogue was planted last year. What I saw this afternoon was fruit (alas, not enough on the table, noted for future gatherings) — fruit of the Spirit. In every way. We all left with a little something extra.
So what’s the point of conversations like this? Here’s my takeaway: Tell your story. Let people get to know you. Share what’s on your heart. Because at the very heart of Christianity is relationship — relationship with Jesus and with each other.
Because when we forget to relate to each other, the relationship with Jesus and our related ministry just becomes hollow noise.
I thank God for this opportunity, and I thank every one of our participants for their time today. I look forward to our next opportunity.
DAVID W. SHELTON is a graphic designer, blogger, writer, activist, and author of The Rainbow Kingdom: Christianity & The Homosexual Reconciled. He lives in Clarksville, TN with his better half and their many, many pets.