Kevin Garcia posted an article today about being in an abusive relationship with his church. It’s good, you should read it. In it, he talks about how difficult it is for a queer Christian to feel truly welcome, loved, and accepted in a church that is not affirming of homosexuality.
We are the ones having to be brave, sensitive, nuanced, vulnerable, and accommodating in nearly every scenario. And often times, we’re expected to give a full apologetics on our theological backing for living fully outside the closet as queer Christians.
That’s not relationship or conversation. That’s playing defense.
And it gets super tiring.
I walk into a space, and automatically I’m having to justify my existence. I can’t ever just be. Even with my small group, the place where I’m most longing for that intimacy and connection, there is tension.
This is a great example of the need for what Wendy Vanderwal-Gritter calls “Generous Spaciousness,” or creating a space where people can just be without having to justify themselves. This should be normal in church, a place completely covered by grace so that no sin or perceived sin can place conditions on or otherwise influence our love for one another.
There’s so much in Kevin’s article that I agree with, but I’m having trouble getting past a few things:
It is easy for a straight person or pastor trying to figure out how to love their queer parishoners well to say things like “we need to choose love and relationship over agreement.” As a heterosexual individual, you don’t have to justify your life or your existence or your marriage or your theology to the vast majority of our culture, let alone the vast majority of Christians.
I get a lot of people who look at me and say, “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love you and love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?”
My gut reaction to that? It must be nice not to have to pick a side.
And I bet if I didn’t show up at your church, in your small group, you wouldn’t have had to think about it at all. Sorry to burst your bubble.
And that may sound harsh, but honestly, really, all you straight people out there are so damn lucky.
I really get that it’s much more difficult for gay Christians than straight Christians – that somehow generous spaciousness already applies to me, and not to queer believers. There are no elephants in my room, so to speak. But as much as it may be easier for me, I think Kevin does allies a huge disservice by saying that it’s easy. Please allow me to illustrate with my own story.
I’ve been studying theology formally for the past dozen years. Eight years ago I was pretty staunchly in the anti-gay camp, not in the sense that I wanted to stone anyone, but in the sense that I couldn’t read the relevant texts any other way: homosexuality was clearly a sin in the Bible, and the Bible shaped my whole worldview. I had studied the issue extensively, getting right down to the Hebrew and Greek of the relevant verses, and I felt very secure in my view of homosexuality on that basis. Arguments for different readings were becoming more and more common, but they seemed to me to be attempts to justify or get around what were obviously very unambiguous texts. I was grieved by the negative way many people perceived these texts, but felt sure that the text outweighed any other factors: homosexuality must be a choice in order for it to be sinful, and if it’s sinful it must be a choice, with the subjective perceptions of individual experience by homosexuals being, sadly, just plain wrong.
As I continued to study, my hermeneutic changed. I learned a lot more about the literary nature of the text, and changing standards of morality throughout the Bible. The tension between the prophetic and the priestly. But those particular texts are deeply priestly, and as much as I prefer the prophetic and can recognize the tension, I can’t dismiss the priestly, and I still have trouble with the arguments that dismiss those texts as referring to something else – the evidence for that, even after years of study and better arguments appearing, seems just a little bit too weak. Other arguments have become more helpful: more than ever, I read all of the Bible through the lens of Jesus, and I have a hard time imagining Jesus selectively and aggressively picking on homosexuality over and above other sins; I read the Bible theologically more and more, and my theology is similarly not so selective, and more concerned about systemic evil and God’s identification with the oppressed; and I am frequently comforted by the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15, whose presence and empowerment of Gentile believers caused the early church to accept that God loves whomever God chooses regardless of the rules. But those problematic texts are still there, alongside the ones where God commands genocide.
During this period of theological development, I also learned a lot about homosexuality. I’ve watched friends from Bible college come out with enormous backlash from their churches. I’ve watched friends from high school come out and carry on long-term and seemingly very happy and healthy relationships. I’ve had friends who are staunch queer allies correct my assumptions about homosexuality and gender normativity. I’ve read about a gender spectrum, a sexual spectrum, chromosomes, and socially constructed gender. I’ve even had friends confide in me about their own journey of accepting their sexuality in the church. Knowing just a little bit about the depth of their hurt, it became increasingly clear to me that I need to love and serve them unconditionally, no matter what those problematic texts say.
And that’s where it isn’t easy. While I’m no longer a biblicist (that is, I now see the Bible as witness to God in Jesus Christ, rather than itself being divine revelation floating down from heaven), the Bible is still fairly central to my identity as a follower of Christ. To count myself as an ally to LGBTQ+ people, believers and non, I live with a dissonance that cuts to the core of who I am. I’ve found a way to keep that dissonance from ripping me apart, and I do that by subordinating the importance of certain texts to the importance of loving and serving unconditionally. I really do say things like “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?” I don’t usually include the second sentence, or even specify “gay people” rather than just “people”, but my point is simply that saying this costs me.
By saying this, I have chosen a side. I have chosen to be an ally to LGBTQ+ people, even when I feel like I might be encouraging them to sin, might even be working against God. I don’t feel that way often, but those texts nag at me whenever I think about them, so I mostly choose not to think about them at all. I’ve chosen to sacrifice my integrity as a reader and interpreter of the Bible, to stop revisiting the same texts over and over again because resolving them is too hard and comes with too high of a cost. I’ve chosen a cop-out answer to the most difficult texts, even though by doing so I not only feel like a fraud, but I get called on that cop-out by people on both sides of the issue.
What compounds this for me is that I’m trained to be a pastor as well as a theologian. My theologian side is okay with mystery, but still has a lot of pride tied up in my ability to interpret the Bible well. But my pastoral side is subject to denominational faith statements and the views of any church that might hire me. They’re not exactly knocking my door down with job offers, but even if I were in high demand, I have to satisfy both parties (the denomination and the congregation) with clear, unequivocal statements. By being an ally, I have actually limited my influence in church circles where it is perhaps needed most. But while my theological and pastoral training compounds the issue for me, it also gives me the tools to continue to work through the theological and pastoral issues; for the average person in the average church, it must be much more difficult to navigate those difficult texts. For the average believer becoming an ally must be an even bigger deal, because it probably means going against the word of someone in a position of pastoral and theological authority in their lives. Their cognitive dissonance and professional pride might be less of an issue, but their social dissonance is probably much bigger than mine.
So no, it’s absolutely not easy for straight parishioners or pastors to choose love and relationship over agreement. Our identity as followers of Christ is central, and the Bible is central to our understanding of Christ. We do not set aside texts lightly, and we cannot do so without a deep cost. I look forward to a day when I can read the whole Bible without any sense of dissonance and love everyone without reference to the text, and I think that day might actually come. But in the meantime, I’ll continue to feel uncomfortable with the issue of homosexuality in the church, not because I need you to explain yourself, but because I can’t explain myself or feel okay with the fact that I’ve ignored parts of the text that I can’t come to terms with. My room, and the church, are full of our own elephants. It just might be that constantly calling on queer people to explain their theology and sexuality is projection of our own discomfort with the texts, not with you.
Our “unconditional love”, as Kevin’s friend Matthias points out, is rarely unconditional or even particularly loving. We suck at this. I’ve had super awkward conversations with other believers – hopefully not condescending, as he describes – but they were with seniors or people with very different political views more than with any gay believers. There are so many things that divide us, whether it is generations or politics or theology or just plain social awkwardness. I’m not saying any of this to minimize the struggle that queer people deal with in the church – it is so, so real, and we need to hear more about it and be reminded of it. But I’m saying this simply to point out that it’s awkward all around, and not all of it is outward-oriented; very little of my awkwardness is about you, it’s almost entirely about me. And I’m willing to bet that that’s the rule, not the exception.
Sometimes when we feel rejected, we say “what’s your problem?!” or “it’s your loss!” I’m recognizing the truth of those statements more and more. So if you ever feel like an outsider who’s been pushed aside, or feel like your allies offer cheap support, remember that it really is our problem – we’re just exhibiting our own issues, self-consciousness, and sinfulness. I’m sorry that it hurts you; it hurts us too, and we need to be aware of your hurt and ours, because most of us are in denial about it. The more we all realize that, the more likely we are to create genuine generous spaciousness, and give and receive the real grace and acceptance that we all need. So please, keep sharing these stories, they make a difference; I hope mine has too.