Monday, July 27, 2015

A Place to Belong: Too Good to be True?

[This is the first in a three-part post called, "A Place to Belong." The second part, "Belonging in Brotherhood," can be found here, and the third part, "Finding Home in the Body of Christ," can be found here.]

There's been a lot of talk recently about the "demand" of life-long celibacy for Christians who are gay.*

Fred Harrell, pastor of City Church in San Francisco, and Stan Mitchell, pastor of GracePointe Church in Nashville, have each recently announced the shift of their evangelical congregations away from the traditional sexual ethic--which Harrell described as "demanding life-long celibacy" for non-heterosexual members--and towards the affirmation of same-sex marriage. Each pastor used language that described this prior "demand" of celibacy for non-heterosexual members as discriminatory and ultimately harmful. (For full context, click here for the City Church letter and the GracePointe Church article.)

Similarly, a couple weeks ago, Julie Rodgers--a former contributor at Spiritual Friendship and someone whose work I've frequently quoted and recommended to others--revealed on her personal blog that she has "quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now." I've only met Julie in-person once, but I've had a great deal of admiration and respect for her ever since I started reading her blog a few years ago. Her passion is infectious, as well as her love for Jesus and for the marginalized. I continue to respect Julie and value her contributions to this conversation, but I'm disheartened and disappointed in this shift on her part--a shift, like the churches mentioned above, into serious biblical error. It's particularly interesting, however, that this shift seems to have very little to do with a change in Julie's biblical interpretation.

There are certainly biblical and theological arguments that are often made in support of same-sex relationships. Indeed, City Church cites its own reevaluation of Scripture as a basis for its shift. However, even when appeals are made to a new understanding of specific passages, most changes of conviction on the matter of same-sex relationships also seem to depend heavily on casting celibacy (or as some of us like to call it, “living faithfully as an unmarried Christian”) as a demand**—an expectation imposed upon gay Christians by the Church that causes unreasonable hardship—rather than a personal decision made by those who are specially gifted.

Julie continues along these lines [bold emphasis mine]:

"I’ve become increasingly troubled by the unintended consequences of messages that insist all LGBT people commit to lifelong celibacy. No matter how graciously it’s framed, that message tends to contribute to feelings of shame and alienation for gay Christians. It leaves folks feeling like love and acceptance are contingent upon them not-gay-marrying and not-falling-in-gay-love. When that’s the case—when communion is contingent upon gays holding very narrow beliefs and making extraordinary sacrifices to live up to a standard that demands everything from an individual with little help from the community—it’s hard to believe our bodies might be an occasion for joy. It’s hard to believe we’re actually wanted in our churches. It’s hard to believe the God who loves us actually likes us."
It's important to say here that I agree with much of what Julie has to say in her blog post. I think her diagnosis of the problem in our conservative evangelical churches today is pretty spot-on. I've seen the hardships that many same-sex attracted believers face within my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, illustrated in disturbingly bold colors for me even within the last few weeks. I’ve spoken with a number of men recently—men who hold firmly to the traditional sexual ethic—who live in constant fear of rejection by their friends and their church, who regularly deal with the shame of hearing their attractions compared to dangerous sexual behaviors and pedophilia, and still others who are denied the opportunities to teach or disciple younger men simply because they are same-sex attracted. This is wrong.

Yes, the situation has improved dramatically over the last few years. More and more evangelical conservative churches--including PCA churches--are learning how to care for their LGBT members and love them well. I have experienced this firsthand—in the churches I’ve been a part of as well as my presbytery. I think we’re heading in a good direction. However, Julie's diagnosis remains largely true: conservative evangelical churches have far too often dropped the ball when it comes to loving and including gay members and providing the necessary support for the difficult road they are being called to walk.  When churches continue to idolize marriage as an ultimate human experience—as something one needs to be happy and fulfilled, even sanctified—is it any wonder that celibacy starts sounding more and more like an unreasonable demand? Is it any wonder that Christians start to believe that God actually owes them earthly happiness and fulfillment? Is it any wonder that lifelong singleness starts sounding like a lifetime sentence?

So yes, I believe Julie has identified a very real problem. However, it must be said: the solution arrived at by Julie, as well as City Church and GracePointe--to be supportive of same-sex romantic relationships--is the wrong answer entirely.

So what's the right answer? 

First, whatever can be said about the followers of Christ and the ways we often fail to love as our Savior loved, our only rule for faith and life remains the eternal Word of God.

Don't get me wrong. Our experiences are important. They must never be ignored or discounted...and Church, you have a long history of ignoring and discounting the experiences of gay Christians. I am frustrated that many Christians will get more upset about the fact that I just said "gay Christians" than they will about the illegitimate shame and alienation that I and so many others have felt within the Church--even those of us who hold firmly to the traditional biblical sexual ethic.

However, our experiences can never, must never be used as a basis for softening or ignoring that which is taught in the words of Scripture about sexuality: sex is a gift designed exclusively for the covenant of marriage, and the covenant of marriage is designed exclusively to unite one man and one woman. Let that be said, and let the record show.

So okay, if affirmation of same-sex relationships is not the answer to the problem of unwelcoming and unsafe churches, what is the answer?

Churches must learn how to unashamedly embrace the traditional biblical sexual ethic while also unashamedly embracing the gay believers trying to walk faithfully in their midst.

What would that look like? Scott Sauls engages our holy imaginations here:

"What if we embraced a renewed biblical vision for the church as a surrogate family where every person, married and divorced and single, hetero attracted and same sex attracted, has access to spiritual friendships as deep as that of David and Jonathan, whose mutual accessibility, transparency, and loyalty rivaled the love between a man and a woman?"

That's powerful stuff. Essentially, churches must learn what it truly looks like to be a family. Church communities cannot simply tell gay Christians “don’t have gay sex” and then continue on with business-as-usual, but neither can church communities tell gay Christians “you can get married too” and then also continue with business-as-usual. The first option ignores the problems of loneliness and isolation. The second option tries to fix the symptoms without addressing the root problem (while also violating God’s created order). Our answer must go deeper, and our answer must be biblical. The Church must stop seeing herself as a collection of family units and start seeing herself as one Family, one Body—the Bride of Christ.

Too good to be true? 

Now you might be thinking, "This all sounds swell, Stephen, but it will never happen." Maybe it sounds like a pie-in-the-sky dream that a church could ever be just as committed to the thriving and flourishing of its gay members as it is to the traditional sexual ethic. "That's been tried," you may be thinking, "and it doesn't work. One will always win out. Churches can talk a big game about their 'loving community,' but at the end of the day, the gays will be left out in the cold."

Maybe you’ve heard this all before. Maybe you’ve been burned and disappointed—repeatedly. You are not alone.

Is this vision really possible? Is it too good to be true? Can churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic actually be places of inclusion and belonging for LGBT believers? Or should we just admit that we're fighting a losing battle, abandon the "demand" of the traditional biblical teaching on marriage, and simply make sure that people are growing "to love Jesus more?"

If the picture of churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic was truly as bleak as Julie and others have painted it--we might be tempted to answer "yes."

But friends, while I do agree generally with Julie's diagnosis of the problem, there is more to the story—a lot more. Her diagnosis is by no means the whole picture. And the part of the picture which has been left out is precisely the part which gives me hope. See, I don’t think the vision we've described here is just a pie-in-the-sky dream…and I look forward to telling you why.

[In the next two segments of this three-part post, I hope to bring that pie down from the sky and onto our dinner tables. I look forward to sharing some real-life ways that my Christian friends as well as my church here in St. Louis are actually living out this vision of Christian communities that are just as committed to the "belonging" and flourishing of gay Christians as they are to the traditional sexual ethic. I hope you will be as encouraged as I am.]


* For the sake of clarity, when I say “gay,” I simply mean “attracted to the same gender.” I use it as a descriptive adjective, with no other implications regarding behavior or identity. When we have these conversations, I think it’s helpful for us to use language that our neighbors can understand and to which they can relate. However, I understand that some remain uncomfortable using “gay” even as a descriptor, and if this is you, I humbly ask for your patience as we continue this conversation.

** I actually don’t believe God demands life-long celibacy from anyone—and neither should His Church. But I do believe that God requires life-long sexual faithfulness from all of His children, whatever their orientation or marital status, and I believe this requirement precludes any consideration of a same-sex relationship. For Christians who marry (and many same-sex attracted Christians are happily married to people of the opposite gender), faithfulness means abstaining from sex outside the bounds of that covenant. For Christians who remain unmarried (whether because they are same-sex attracted or for any other reason), faithfulness means sexual abstinence. God does not demand celibacy, but He does require faithfulness.

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