Dear Church, I love you. I am part of you. And so it is with a heavy heart that I am forced to say, yet again, that this is our reputation. Whether you like it or not. This story is on repeat in my world. I hear it over and over and over again.
This is how so many in my community — my LGBT people — see us. And to be honest, I don’t blame them. For far too long Christians (including myself) have run from the world of LGBT people. The trenches have been hewn deep and the path forward (if it exists) is difficult terrain indeed.
And so, with the knowledge of the limits of my understanding, I want to offer six insights for your consideration. I may be entirely wrong about them. I’m happy to admit that. But then again, I may be right.
1) LGBT Christians exist
Hi. My name’s Joel, and I’m a Christian… who happens to be gay. I’m also not alone — there is a whole host of us, trying to get on with the task of stewarding God’s creation. We come in peace.
I grew up in middle class, conservative suburbia. The idea that a Christian could also be gay was entirely foreign to my worldview. The two were, by definition, mutually exclusive.
That was shattered as I came across people who were faithfully serving Jesus, who demonstrated dramatic Holy Spirit-type fruits, and who knew the Bible far better than I could ever hope to.
We all have boxes by which we order the world, and mine were slowly, painfully dismantled piece by piece. It took a long time for my theology to make sense of what I was seeing in these people’s lives — that one could, in fact, be a gay Christian — but gloriously, I came to see that these people are vital members of the body of Christ. This was a journey which took years of prayerful discernment, but by God’s grace I have become stronger for it. My understanding of God has expanded, and my walk with Jesus enriched. Far from straying into the wilderness, it was here that I have found faith all over again, vibrant and alive.
I know that our presence in the world feels like something of a paradox to some, and paradoxes by their very nature make people feel uneasy. Ambiguity is uncomfortable. Clarity is nice. I get that — I truly do. Neat boxes have their place, but I don’t fit into them, so what do you do with me? I tend to think that the option to ignore our presence is past its use by date.
2) We chose Jesus. We didn’t choose our gender or sexuality
I never chose my sexuality. Why would I? Like most queer folk, my sexuality has meant that I’ve lost friends, have strained relationships with family, am constantly having to validate my existence, have gone through depression, and am on edge every time I walk into a Christian space (despite being a church leader doing a PhD in theology).
There was never a time when I made a decision to abandon heterosexual desires. If this is what you think, then I’m sorry, but you’ve lost our attention already.
What if, for a moment, we moved our focus away from something that we didn’t choose, to something that we did? Here we find a pearl of truth that never ceases to amaze me — despite being insulted, embarrassed, marginalised, sidelined, devalued, undervalued, misrepresented and caricatured, LGBT people still rock up to church. Why? Because they understand what it means to love the body of Christ, even when the body of Christ fails to love them back. I know lesbians who are exceptional musicians who aren’t allowed to touch a microphone in church because they are deemed ‘unnatural’. I know gay people who aren’t allowed to stand at the door and welcome people, because they are seen as ‘immoral’. I know LGBT folk who aren’t allowed to attend Bible studies, despite holding degrees in theology, in order to ‘protect the flock’. Of course, I am not arguing that churches should act against their convictions in this area. That’s a fool’s task. I am simply pointing out that these men and women, despite the humiliation that they face, still rock up, still seek to serve, still pray fervently and still follow Jesus with everything they have, and all of this without the support that their heterosexual counterparts enjoy.
If you ask me for an example of Christlikeness, you’ll find me pointing at these people. They, more than any other group, teach me what grace looks like within the family of God.
3) Sometimes, the Bible isn’t quite as clear as some people make it out to be — and that’s a good thing.
It takes an ounce of humility and a mountain of courage to admit that you may be wrong about something. It then takes a momentous amount of mental energy and sheer willpower to actively deconstruct perceived realities and reconstruct new ways of thinking. Most straight people I know simply don’t have the time, or desire to put in that kind of work.
LGBT people don’t have that luxury. In my experiences, LGBT Christians are more widely read, more deeply thought out, and more prayerfully invested in this topic than most pastors will ever be, simply because it is our lived reality every breath of every day.
This being the case, whenever somebody tells me that the Bible ‘clearly states’ that homosexual sex is inherently sinful, I often don’t even bother engaging with them anymore. That’s the honest truth. Far too often these people are simply parroting something that has been handed to them, ignorant of broader dialogues, without any attempts at wider reading or critical examination. It’s like a pregnant woman having to explain to every adult she comes across how babies are made — do the research yourself people!
That being said, there are other times when people approach me with genuine questions, recognising that the Bible is a stunning, complex book full of rich meaning and cultural nuance. In these instances, it is such an honour to sit down and discuss what texts mean and how we see God at work in and through them. We may come to different theological conclusions, and we may disagree about how texts translate into a twenty first century context, but at least these conversations have honoured the complexity of the discussion we are having. I appreciate so deeply that these people have taken the time to hear another perspective, and I pray that they are richer for it. I know that I certainly am.
At the end of the day, my conviction that the Bible is my highest authority has lead me to the point where I affirm God-honouring, faithful, self-giving LGBT relationships. I am so convinced that this is truth, and am not ashamed to offer it to those who would care to engage.
4) Celibacy can be beautiful, but it isn’t for everyone
I am so grateful to God for my friends who have chosen, after years of deliberation and prayerful seeking to pursue a life of celibacy. When I look at their lives and witness, I am reminded that God is worth sacrificing all things for. They teach me time and time again the importance of rich community and finding our joy in Christ, rather than an intimate partner. Those who pursue celibacy well show me that God’s family and the nuclear family are not the same thing.
The question has to be asked at this point, what does ‘celibacy’ actually mean? For Jesus, and for Paul (both of whom lived celibate lives), celibacy was a gift, given to some people (Matthew 19:8-12, 1 Corinthians 7). If a person found themself ‘consumed with lust’, then Paul stated that they should pursue marriage — they clearly were not gifted with an ability to remain celibate. Ever since Paul penned those words, every strand of church doctrine has universally taught that celibacy is a beautiful part of the church, voluntarily entered into by those who seek it. As the church, we have a responsibility to ensure that those who walk this path are cared for, loved well and included on all levels.
The idea of forcing celibacy on to any individual is, from my reading, contrary to scripture. And yet that is what many within the current church are demanding of LGBT people. Until recently, the majority of church leaders understood sanctification for LGBT people to be heterosexuality (hence “ex-gay therapies”). They’ve dropped that teaching, and now hold that celibacy is the mark of the truly faithful. Celibacy as outlined in scripture is not something that can be enforced by church leaders. It’s gifted, by God.
Of course, there are LGBT people who will remain single for life due to circumstances outside of their control, in exactly the same way that there are heterosexual individuals who will find themselves in the same situation. This is not celibacy. This is singleness, and is a very different category. Celibate people have the opportunity to marry, and choose, because of their gifting, to refrain.
Celibacy can be beautiful, and there are people in my life who truly are gifted with the ability to embrace this way of living. There are others in my life who have had it forced upon them, with no hope for reprieve, and it is, in all honesty, crippling.
5) LGBT people have been hurt, often by the church
I hope this one goes without saying. If you haven’t heard the stories, seen the wounds, wept within the brokenness or raged against the pain then may I humbly suggest that you are, most likely, part of the problem. Open your eyes and take in the carnage — while some are battling to remain, others are are leaving the church in droves. Not because they want to, but because they are recognising that they aren’t welcome there. If your very existence is constantly framed as a theological problem, then it’s kind of hard to feel loved, no matter how heartfelt that love might be.
And here’s the reality — if LGBT people don’t find love in the church, they will find it elsewhere. They will flee to communities where they will feel validated and accepted, no matter how far these communities take them from Jesus. That’s what hurt people do. I have lost count of the people I have spoken to who have been driven from their loved ones, their churches and even their families because of a gender or sexuality that they never chose.
What you do with the reality of this pain is, of course, up to you. May I suggest that you begin by apologising to LGBT people in your life who have been hurt by the church’s actions, while you have sat by, complicit by your silence. Perhaps you could post on a public platform “To my LGBT friends, if I have hurt you in my words, my actions or my silence, I seek your forgiveness.” Start a conversation. Take the first step. Begin the healing.
6) We’re happy to talk, but there is a difference between talking and ‘talking’.
Every LGBT Christian I know understands that there’s a difference between going out for lunch, and ‘going out for lunch’. If it weren’t so distressing, I could see how it could be comical.
One is a genuine desire to hear our story. The other is a poor disguise for rebuke. We get that you are speaking from a place of love. We understand that you are concerned for our well-being and spiritual walk. This is not a request to stop talking to us. This is a plea to stop treating us as your theological projects. We are, first and foremost, your brothers and sisters.
There will be times when we will be angry at the church — please just listen to us. There will be times when we will need to express our hurt — would you cry with us? There are moments when we will be lonely, and will just need someone to eat pizza and watch trashy movies with. Would you be that person?
At the end of the day, there is probably no rebuke that I haven’t already heard. But I can guarantee that I (and so many LGBT Christians) have a story that you know so little about. When this is the dynamic, and your intention is to ‘correct’, please don’t be offended if we politely decline your request to ‘talk’.
I have laboured over these six points for some time, because I am so aware that we all have a tendency to become defensive when a light is shone on something as sensitive as this. I offer these here not as directives to be followed, but as observations I have made along the way.
I love the church. I love the church with everything that I have, and I am so saddened by the reputation that we have formed for ourselves. My hope and prayer is that as we seek Jesus, as we live out his radical call of love and as we pursue his kingdom, we would see a movement of LGBT people thriving in the church. This can only happen once we meet each other with deep authenticity, open minds and hearts bold enough to wade into the hard work of seeing each other as brothers and sisters, co-heirs to God’s eternal riches.
This post originally appeared on Joel’s blog, BibleFaithSexuality.com
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