For some time now, I’ve been aware of the deep “rabbit hole” that this topic is leading me into. The question of how Christian faith intersects with the experience of LGBTQ+ people provides no simple answers, regardless of what you might read online or hear on a Sunday morning. Anyone who claims this is a straightforward issue is either trying hard to keep you on their side, or they haven’t given it much thought.
(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)
I’m not quite ready to talk openly with people about what I am about to write, but perhaps being honest about what it’s like to be in the place I am right now will make it easier for others down the road—easier in a healthy way, if not in a comfortable way. Here are a few of the deeper issues that have been surfacing as I’ve started asking questions about where all of this will lead:
A number of years ago, I watched an interview on CNN with Ted Haggard, who was at the time President of the Evangelical Fellowship of America, and another pastor, whose name I’ve since forgotten, but who was pastoring an openly affirming church. I can’t recall the specific topic of conversation—perhaps a new law had been passed—but Haggard was arguing his case for an understanding of marriage from the traditional Evangelical perspective and the other pastor was arguing from what was referred to as the “liberal” position.
As I listened to the two pastors arguing their points, I suddenly realized just how much their disagreements were actually rooted in their fundamentally different understandings of what the Bible is and how it should be read. Each of these pastors approached the Bible from such a different angle that the questions they were pressing each other with were missing their intended targets entirely. I had never seen this problem illustrated so clearly before.
More recently, a good friend of mine sent me an email expressing some of his frustrations with how Christians use the Bible. At one point, he wrote, “I don't believe the bible is literally from God because it is too wrapped up in culture. But that's okay in my mind since that isn't necessary to be a Christian...That said, I believe the problems with the church stem from this literal belief in God’s Word, which is strange to me since to me it is so obviously not.”
He said he was hesitant to talk to me about this because, in his words, “Church leaders need to be somewhat guarded and probably often respond with some level of dishonesty (self-preservation) or avoid the questions the best they can.”
As our church dives into this conversation, we’re going to have to explore our different approaches to scripture and ask, What exactly is the Bible and how are we supposed to understand what it has to say about homosexuality?
The first sermon I ever preached was in my Pentecostal youth group, where I took full advantage of the opportunity I’d been given to address what I was convinced was the most important message for Christian teenagers to understand: stay away from sin!
The sermon was called Sin in the Camp and was based on the story of Achan’s sin in Joshua chapter seven. The Israelites set out to take over the city of Ai, which should have been an easy victory for them, but instead, they were sent home with significant casualties and a keen sense that God had abandoned them on the battlefield. Eventually, they discovered that a man named Achan had stolen some of the ‘devoted things’ and had hidden them in his tent. After he confessed and the loot was recovered, he was put to death along with his entire family. The lesson was clear: if you sin, you will be found out, and you will be punished severely.
Avoiding sin was a big part of what it meant for me to be a Christian in those days. And when everyone around me agreed on what counted as sin, it was easy to know what I needed to avoid, even if avoiding it was still a challenge. But as I entered young adulthood, I started to realize that once I got outside of our local church, people who loved Jesus actually disagreed about what counted as sin. At first, I would judge people, chalking the disagreement up to a diminished version of faith, but that approach didn’t last long. Eventually, I came to see that the concept of ‘sin’ wasn’t quite as straightforward as I thought.
I expect this will be a significant challenge for us as our congregation dives into conversation about the place of same-sex relationships in the life of the church. For some, the Bible clearly prohibits same-sex behaviour, while for others, whatever the Bible has to say, it can’t be talking about the people they know and love who believe in every fibre of their being that this is the way God created them. How will we decide? How will we ever be able to figure out whether or not this is something that puts us at risk of falling out with God?
A number of years ago, our church’s staff team attended a conference that featured the author, Phyllis Tickle. She was introducing the primary themes in her book, The Great Transformation, but at some point went on a tangent about how the church had mistreated the gay community. She raised a number of interesting points that our staff kept coming back to for days afterward.
In one of these office conversations, I made a comment about how, while I could imagine that some future version of myself might believe differently about the gay/Christian debate, I could not imagine how I could ever reconcile such a different belief with being a pastor. If that day ever came, I felt like I would have to resign.
Everything I knew about the Christian faith had been handed down to me by a long succession of men and women who have shared their experiences and understanding with the generations that followed, and the deep value I placed on this tradition simply wouldn’t allow me to see how I could both hold an affirming position and be responsible for passing on that same tradition.
But it feels like there is somehow a growing gap between who I am today and who I was when I attended that conference. One afternoon a couple of months ago, as I was pulling out of the driveway of the church parking lot, an unprompted question surfaced in my mind: What if I spent as much energy being open to something new as I spend making sure I am faithful to the tradition?
The idea struck me in a profound way, and I started thinking about how important it is for me that I remain faithful, and how I was interpreting that word. The Christian tradition is something that I value deeply, which is why these current conversations weigh so heavily on me. But as I peer over the edge of the rabbit hole, I find myself asking questions like, Why do I value tradition as deeply as I do, and what, exactly, do I value about the tradition I am part of?
I recently listened to an episode of The Liturgists Podcast where the hosts engaged in a two-hour long dialogue with various people touching on a wide variety of questions pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community and the church. It was a stretching episode on a number of levels, but even more challenging than the content of the podcast itself was something a friend said to me when the podcast episode came up in a conversation this morning.
He said that if our church moves on this issue, it would make it like any other social club; that while it would still be a good club, by abandoning the obvious direction of the Bible on this issue, we would be abandoning the one thing that differentiates Christianity from other groups out there in our community. I was certainly able to appreciate just how challenging some of what he heard in the podcast would have been—as it was for me—but his response hit me hard.
I couldn’t understand how a decision to interpret the Bible differently on one issue would suddenly negate the unique calling of a church to represent Jesus in the world. I’m well aware of the significant role scripture plays in a church’s identity and formation, but I have a hard time understanding how everything has to fall apart if that piece of the puzzle is removed. What is at the core of our faith, anyway? What is the thing that, if removed, would leave the Church with nothing more to offer than the local Rotary Club or BIA?
My friend’s comment pushed me even closer to the edge of the rabbit hole, and, before we went our separate ways this morning, I said something that I hadn’t voiced out loud before, and that I’m not sure I’d even thought of before: My fear is not that the church will be impoverished if we question what the Bible says on this issue, but that maybe the church is already impoverished because we’ve made the Bible so untouchable that we aren’t even willing to challenge what we think it says.
Each of these themes—the Bible, Sin, Tradition, and the Church—presents its own challenges to how we approach this current conversation. And there are other themes, too, raising important questions that demand a depth of thoughtfulness, self-critique, and faith that most of us (including myself) are not ready for.