Monday, August 10, 2015

5 Ways that my PCA Church is a Place to Belong for LGBT Christians.

[This is the 3rd in a 3-part series called, "A Place to Belong." The 1st and 2nd posts can be found here and here.]

Everybody wants a place to belong. In some way or another, I think all of us are looking for home.

More than places that feel like home, I think we especially long for people who feel like home to us—people who are safe, with whom we have a sense of mutual belonging. There’s a line from “Beauty and the Beast” (the stage version) that I’ve always found especially poignant. As Belle cradles the dying Beast in her arms, she sings to him, “I found home…you’re my home…stay with me.” Belle’s home is not her poor, provincial town. It’s not the Beast’s enchanted castle. It’s him.

Wesley Hill describes this longing beautifully:
 “I need people who know what time my plane lands, who will worry about me when I don’t show up when I say I will. I need people I can call and tell about that funny thing that happened in the hallway after class. I need to know that, come hell or high water, a few people will stay with me, loving me in spite of my faults and caring for me when I’m down. More, I need people for whom I can care.” 

The question I’ve been dealing with for the last couple weeks is whether or not churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic can actually be places of mutual belonging for LGBT believers. Can Christians who are gay* ever actually find home in such communities, or must we look for it elsewhere in communities that affirm and celebrate same-sex relationships?

It’s true: communities that hold to the traditional (and I believe biblical) sexual ethic have often been places of shame and alienation for gay Christians rather than places of grace and belonging. It should come as little surprise that many gay Christians abandon these communities—and the sexual ethic that these communities seem to embrace at their expense—as they search for home.  However, as I have said the past two weeks, this is not the whole story. There are many church communities holding firm to the traditional sexual ethic that are bearing very good fruit for the LGBT believers finding home in their midst. These stories should not be ignored.
Last week, I shared how my Christian friends communicate unequivocally that I belong in their brotherhood—without compromising their biblical convictions on sex and marriage. This week, I want to address a question that Fred Harrell raised in the letter to his congregation:

“If Jesus were the pastor of City Church, what would he say to the [LGBT members of our community] who are asking if they can belong?  […] What is a Christ-like response?”

As I’ve said, I disagree with Fred that affirming same-sex relationships is the Christ-like response. However, his question still deserves an answer. How can a church—for our purposes, a church that embraces the traditional sexual ethic—communicate to its LGBT members that they do indeed belong in the Body of Christ?

Belonging in the Body

“The church needs to be a nest for those inside & outside the framework of the nuclear family…an integrated community of single people, married people, families, widows, the elderly, college students, those of racial and sexual minorities, and all those I’m too naive to name.”Jeb Ralston

In the first part of this post, I mentioned the difficulties that men and women who are attracted to their same sex often face within churches that embrace the traditional sexual ethic—including my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. There’s still a long way to go, but I do believe that many conservative, Reformed churches (particularly within the PCA) are heading in the right and biblical direction…and we’ve already come a long way.

Today, I want to focus on one congregation in particular—Memorial Presbyterian Church—and just a few of the [many] reasons why my theologically-conservative, traditional, PCA church has been such a good place for me to call home.

1. Singles in positions of leadership:

As a congregation in the city, it makes sense that Memorial is more than 25% unmarried. Many singles, like me, have found Memorial’s community to be the kind of “nest” that Jeb described above. However, beyond being a place where it’s not odd to be unmarried, singles also hold positions of influence in every level of our church leadership—from community group leaders to church officers to the pastoral staff…and everywhere in between.

This is important.

Two weeks ago, I asked the question, “When churches continue to idolize marriage as an ultimate human experience …is it any wonder that lifelong singleness starts sounding like a lifetime sentence?” I firmly believe that one of the best ways a church can avoid idolizing marriage is to make sure that the positions and voices of influence within their community include wise, godly men and women who are not married. Leadership affects the ethos of a church, and when wise singles have voices of influence, they can help their churches become communities where one’s full inclusion and status do not depend on one’s marital status. 

While we rightly celebrate the joy and beauty of marriage, we must also communicate that marriage is not a necessary ingredient of spiritual maturity—nor is it a necessary ingredient of joy and beauty. Certainly, ministry to married couples and families is a big part of what God is doing at Memorial. However, as a church Family, unmarried people have an active role even in these ministries! Married couples and singles are not pit against each other in a competition for resources and attention, but rather, we serve one another in community.

2. Sexual minorities in positions of leadership: **

In addition to having many singles in leadership, Memorial is also a place where wise, godly believers who are sexual minorities hold positions of influence and leadership. It’s hard to fully describe how much this communicates to me regarding the heart of my church family and my place in her community. I’m no more broken than anyone else. Believers who are gay are able to use their gifts and serve our church community like anyone else—and they are held to the same biblical standards.

Personally, I’ve had the opportunities to teach children’s Sunday School, lead an adult Bible study, as well as lead portions of our “More About Memorial” membership class. I don’t take these opportunities for granted, especially when I hear from so many other men and women who are denied these opportunities simply because, like me, they are primarily attracted to their same gender (or simply because they’re honest about it).

3. Having the conversation:

Memorial doesn’t shy away from conversations about sexuality. Refraining from the divisive rhetoric of the culture war, our leaders address the issue of homosexuality with humility and pastoral care. The real people and real lives involved—both inside and outside our walls—are not lost in political debate…and neither is Truth.   

This past spring, the adult Sunday school class spent 9 weeks covering such topics as “God, Gays & Grace,” “Supporting SSA/Gay Believers,” and “Transgender Issues.” These classes were led by a local ministry with expertise in issues related to sexuality, and many of the speakers were themselves sexual minorities. I was encouraged to see the congregation unite around this opportunity to better understand those whose experience of sexuality (including the broken aspects of their sexuality) might look different from their own—as well as how to respond biblically and compassionately.

Likewise, I’ve never felt unwelcome to talk about my own experience as a gay person or my own sexual brokenness. On the contrary, in all my interactions with church leadership and fellow members, it’s been clear that my perspective is seen as valuable rather than as a nuisance. In fact, I was encouraged to share this part of my story when I led the portion of our membership class about being a community of grace and repentance—a community without the need for masks.

Churches don’t need to be vocally offensive or insensitive toward sexual minorities for LGBT believers to feel like they don’t belong or are unwelcome. Silence can often be deafening.

Thankfully, my church has been anything but silent.

4. Not forcing the conversation:

As open as Memorial is to conversations about sexuality, no one is ever pressured to be a poster child. As free as I feel to share about my experience as a Christian who is gay, I don’t feel like this experience is the only thing I bring to the table, and neither are my ministry opportunities limited to issues of sexual brokenness.

I have freedom to speak, and I have freedom to remain silent. I don’t walk around with a label on my forehead. My church family does not define me by my sexuality.

At my church, I’m not Stephen Moss: Gay Christian.

At my church, I’m Stephen Moss: Child of God…Brother in Christ.

That’s incredibly refreshing.

5. Environment where it’s okay not to be okay: 

 I still remember the first Sunday I walked through the doors of Memorial’s old historic sanctuary and sat down amidst this eclectic (and slightly eccentric***) group of people. I immediately knew this was a place where I didn’t have to pretend I had it all together. This wasn’t a place where I needed to fit a certain mold, because…well…there was no apparent mold to fit. Very quickly, Memorial began to feel like home.

At Memorial, I’m free to take off my mask and let my own quirks and eccentricities show. I don’t have to hide my vulnerability and brokenness, because at Memorial, the fact that we’re all broken isn’t just a theological proposition that we recite…it’s on display. Now, if our brokenness is where we are left, we have no hope. We don’t revel in our brokenness, but our brokenness drives us to the Cross. The gospel—the good news that, when we were rebels and helpless to save ourselves, Jesus came to pay our penalty and restore us to glory—is the only foundation upon which such a community can stand.  

This gospel is preached clearly from Memorial’s pulpit every Sunday, as well as in our liturgy and the sacraments. Our pastors feed us a steady diet of radical grace rooted solidly in the truth of God’s eternal and unchanging Word. As a community, we are called to repent of our failure to meet God’s holy standard, our failure to love as He loves. As we learn each other’s stories, we see the rich diversity of means God uses to accomplish his purposes of bringing about His Kingdom on earth and transforming his Church more and more—not into the likeness of good religious folks—but into the likeness of His Son.

All in the Family

“The answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” -- J. Louis Martyn, quoted here by Wesley Hill.

In Mark 10, Peter says to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

Taking up my cross to follow Jesus as a man who is primarily attracted to other men means giving up my desire for a same-sex romantic relationship—but it doesn’t mean giving up my desire for intimacy. More and more Christians (like Julie Rodgers and Fred Harrell) seem to imply that the ultimate answer to our loneliness is marriage, but could it be that the answer to our loneliness—regardless of our marital status or sexual orientation—actually is this new-creational community? When we are united to Christ, we are united to his Body here on earth. The Church becomes our Family—our broken, awkward, messy, and beautiful Family.

I believe God has said “no” to my desire for a same-sex romantic relationship. I don’t know what God has yet to say about my desire for a wife and children, but I do know this: regardless of whether or not I ever have a family of my own, I will not be alone. I will always have a Family. In the Church, I have many brothers and sisters. I have many mothers and fathers. 

Regardless of whether or not I ever have biological children, in the Church, I will have children. That vow we take every time an infant is baptized actually means something.

My church does not need to affirm same-sex romantic relationships in order to love and care for me well. My church needs to be my Family. My church needs to be the Church.

Perhaps you still believe this vision of a church that’s just as committed to the joy and flourishing of its LGBT members as it is to the traditional sexual ethic is an impossible, pie-in-the-sky dream. I understand. I know there’s been a lot of epic failure…and many burned bridges. Let’s keep talking.

But I hope I’ve demonstrated that epic failure is not the whole picture. My Christian friends and my church have set a beautiful example of what it looks like to unashamedly embrace LGBT believers while embracing the traditional, biblical sexual ethic. I pray that these stories will indeed become the norm in the Church. I pray that more and more of those who sit on the fringes of our communities will find their belonging in the Body of Christ—and I pray that Christ will be glorified.


*     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. Similarly, when I refer to "LGBT" or "sexual minorities," I am referring to those whose experience of sexuality is something different than "heterosexual." 
**     If there are no sexual minorities in church leadership, I at least think it’s important to ask some diagnostic questions: Is our church a place where wise and godly men or women who are open about their experience of same-sex attraction would be encouraged to serve and teach? If there was a gay person who fit the biblical requirements for church leadership, would he or she ever be selected for a position? Do we seek the wisdom and input of sexual minorities—whether in our church or in other churches—when we teach about sex and marriage? Can we even imagine these scenarios? If the answers to these questions are negative, LGBT believers are very unlikely to feel like they belong in that church community. (The same can all be said for singles in leadership as well).
***     In a recent profile compiled by our church, I was encouraged to see the following listed as one of our strengths: “People describe our church as “quirky.” We have embraced and delight in our eccentricity and are happy to be a place where people feel the freedom to be who they are as created in God’s image.” Amen.

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