“Welcoming but Not Affirming”

Yesterday in my seminary class, I had an exchange with an adjunct faculty member who is the pastor of a rather large Canadian church about the question of LGBTQ folks and church.  I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the exchange and why I feel that full, unreserved inclusivity is so important.

I challenged this fellow on a statement he made equating being gay with “being in the army” or “being in the police force.”  In order to flesh this out, I should mention that his church has strong teachings on nonviolence and thus would believe that it is wrong to participate in state-sponsored violence.  My challenge to him was that orientation is not a “choice” and therefore I took issue with the comparison.

Although he walked back this statement when challenged, he still took time out to talk about “how hard it is to leave the police force” thus invalidating his equivocating of the earlier sentiment.  I find this baffling given the mountain of scientific evidence that orientation is not a conscious choice.  And even if he is not saying that orientation is wrong, even the appearance of equating it with the choice to enter a profession is deeply irresponsible.

Also he used the phrase “orientation is temptation” which is also very problematic.  As much as he protests that his church has gay pastors (as long as they are celibate), the subtext/fine print matters.  The message being communicated to LGBTQ people by this posture is not “you are sinful,” it is “sin is your identity.”  And that is so destructive.  In the article, “How Denying My Sexuality Destroyed My Ability To Love Those Most Like Me,” Patrick Gothman shares poignantly how damaging these ideas are.  “I wasn’t gay – not really…being a good son of the church was my identity now.”  Although high-minded, asking people to deny their core identity is wrong.  The message “you are more than just your sexuality” is primarily aimed at LGBTQ people.  Any denial of that is a mark of disingenuous privilege.

Heterosexual people are not told that their attraction to people of the opposite sex is innately sinful. (I want to acknowledge that there is nuance to this as purity doctrine has been very harmful, especially to women. However, I’m still hesitant to equate this with the LGBTQ experience). In the theological paradigm of the adjunct,  those who do not “feel called to singleness” have the opportunity to find holistic fulfillment of their sexual identity in a marriage context.  (while I also have some doubts about that theological paradigm, this is not the blog for that.  I would highly recommend the work of Bromleigh McCleneghan on this topic.)

Denying this right to LGBTQ people doesn’t make you “righteous” nor does it line up with the inclusive love of Jesus.  To be completely honest, there is more biblical precedent for polygamy than our current concept of marriage.  And given that women were treated as property in the cultures that gave us both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, I would treat the topic of marriage with much more care and discernment.  (I also find it interesting that even though LGBTQ people existed in the time of Christ, he never addresses them, in fact one of the first converts to Christianity in the book of Acts is an Ethiopian eunuch i.e. a racialized sexual minority but I digress)  The thing is, often in the church, the cultural preferences of the dominant social groups get grafted into theology and eventually evolve into “biblical” teaching.  This excellent article from Icthus (a journal of Christian thought produced by Harvard) on the church and interracial marriage provides some intriguing examples of this: When Culture Becomes Theology

Ultimately, it comes down to the fruit of these ideas.  And the fruit is universally bad.  A recent study of U.S. college students had the following alarming results:

“Lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts.  For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.  Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”

LGBTQ youth make up a disproportionate amount of the homeless population in both Canada and the United States.  The True Colors Fund notes that “half of all teens get a negative reaction from their parents when they come out to them, and more than one in four are forced to leave their homes.”  And unfortunately, Christianity plays a large role in this problem. (Christianity and the Parental Rejection of LGBT Youth)

Full disclosure, I work in an affirming church so this is very close to my heart.  I’ve met multiple LGBTQ people who attend our church because they need a safe place to love Jesus.  We’ve had parents share about the grief of finding out about the suicide attempts of their gay and trans kids and how glad they are that our church exists.  I have sat in my pew, broken by their experiences and humbled by the fact that they can still love Jesus even after what the Church has put them through.

So I’ll conclude with this:  if your church is non-affirming, please be up front about it so that LGBTQ people know not to waste their time in a community that won’t let them be fully human.  The vague message of “everyone is welcome” when the reality is that they’re not, is not helpful.  In an article about Pentecostal Christianity in Australia, “Welcoming, but not affirming,”  one pastor said: “It’s almost like with one hand you’re shaking them by the hand, and with the other hand you’re slapping them in the face.”

I’d also recommend this excellent George Mikhail article which articulates the reasons why “Welcoming but not affirming” is unhelpful: Time’s Up For Politely Anti-LGBTQ Christianity.

Lastly, for those who are struggling with the scriptural basis of an affirming perspective: Check out the excellent Bible For Normal People episodes on Intersex Christians, the episode with Jen Hatmaker, as well as the work of Matthew Vines.

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