I don’t like conflict, really. Perhaps that’s strange given that this Crucible of Thought spends much of its time challenging current issues and thinking I see amongst my various tribes. But I’d really rather find some simplistic, easy answer to these challenges. I’d much prefer that each issue come with some convenient Bible verse that makes the whole problem go away. It would be so nice to live in simple agreement with those people I spent decades thinking of as my tribe.
But I can’t.
The simplest explanation (although it sounds faintly smug and certainly self-serving) is that God just won’t let me rest in the simple any longer. He keeps confronting me with what feels like a requirement to reassess things I thought I understood, that once seemed simple but no longer seem at all simple.
The issue I’m really grappling with right now is whether or not I can be an “affirming Christian” – that is to specifically say, whether I can accept a Christian in a homosexual, transgender, nonbinary, or queer lifestyle or identity, as a sibling in Christ without demanding that they cease that identity or lifestyle.
The problem for me is pretty straightforward: I already have a pretty solid idea where my heart and my spirit have landed on the issue. But my mind is really unhappy about it. My pastor used to say that there were times when his brain was deeply offended at something that was nonetheless blatantly apparent to his spirit, and his responsibility was to surrender to his spirit’s sensing a call from the Holy Spirit, and trust his brain to catch up later. In this matter, the answer, unfortunately, is much the same: so many things I’ve internalized over 48 years in the church are clashing deeply with what I sense that the Holy Spirit is saying to me.
Why would I even mess with this, knowing how much trouble it causes in Christian circles? Why not go back to simply ignoring the issue? Well, at least THAT is a simple answer: I have both friends and family who are directly dealing with this topic: they’re either affirming, or personally involved directly with LGBTQ people, or they’re LGBTQ themselves. If I’m going to be a faithful friend and a brother in Christ, and if I hope to have anything to speak into their lives, I cannot ignore the elephant in the room, so to speak.
So this uncomfortable conflict, which I really don’t like, not only directly affects me, but is directly within me. It’s me against myself. It’s not a conflict with someone else, and I can’t step back from the conflict by hanging up the phone, or turning off social media, or backing out of a meeting.
Except that’s not really true. I could, very easily, shut down this conflict instantly if I wanted to do so. All it would take, as I noted above, is to quote some convenient Bible verse to myself, and pretend that it makes the whole problem go away. I could easily appeal to those things I’d been taught that the verse means.
A few years ago, that would have meant that I was being faithful to those things I’d been taught to believe by older and wiser believers. In fact, given that faith was defined, so often, as believing without any confirmation, it would have been considered the height of faithfulness not to put a second thought into the inner conflict. Choosing to stand on those principles would be the very evidence of faithfulness. After all, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)
But now, it would also mean directly rejecting the call that God has put in my heart to “study to show myself approved.” The essence of studying, after all, is to question. Webster’s defines “study” as “application of the mental faculties to the acquisition of knowledge,” “careful or extended consideration,” or “a careful examination or analysis of a phenomenon, development, or question.” There’s that word – “question.” Nothing can be acquired or considered or examined without first acknowledging a lack of understanding: it means one must have a question to answer, some topic that isn’t yet fully grasped. Questioning is inherent in study. So “studying” is not to believe without doubt. More than that, “studying” is certainly not to search the scriptures for verses to back up my existing conclusions; it’s to explicitly, intentionally doubt my own conclusions and knowledge, and use not only my brain, but also my spirit to inquire with the Lord and His scriptures and every bit of information about those scriptures that may be relevant to the topic. It’s hard work, and if it’s going to be honest, it cannot start with preordained conclusions.
And here’s the interesting thing about “Abraham believed God.” We often quote that story as showing that faith is exemplified by blind obedience. But it’s worth noting that Abraham was eventually asked by God to do something that deeply offended his mind: to surrender his logical understanding of a promise that through his son would come countless offspring, and instead to sacrifice that son. And even before that, to not believe that his almost-hundred-year-old body was too old to sire a son, but to grow strong in faith by believing in the unbelievable. In some sense, he was commended for being willing to have his mind offended by his spirit’s conclusions.
So there’s no simple way out, most often. Faith is taking the hard way out, grappling with the matter that seems impossible to understand or to solve, and trusting God when there’s little or no evidence it’s going to work. “Now faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things not seen. For by it the people of old gained approval.” (Hebrews 11:1-2)
And with this, I come to the topic at hand.
Whenever I raise this LGBTQ topic with conservative Christians lately, I hear essentially the same objection: the affirming position is a cheap accommodation to sin, of taking the easy way out. Of avoiding conflict with the gay and queer community. Avoiding calling them to account for their supposed sin. Of wanting peace more than righteousness.
And it isn’t just directed at me for considering an affirming position. It also says the same about the gay or queer person themselves: that they want an easy way to justify their sin.
My first observation is this: That might possibly be true for some Christian gays or queers. But what about non-Christians who have no moral reason to avoid being gay or queer? If the whole issue is them avoiding believing they are sinning, how can that apply to someone with no inherent sense that it’s sinful in the first place? And yet it’s very obvious that unbelieving gays and queers struggle with this decision too, despite a lack of moral framework in which to anchor the decision. In fact, you’ll hear – if you listen – story after story of them wrestling with this issue even as young children, long before ANY Christian moral sense entered the equation, and many years before anyone uttered a word about sexuality or gender or “the birds and the bees” to them. They just knew they were deeply different, but couldn’t resolve the issue by just conforming to what they saw around them.
My second observation is this: I’ve discovered that not a single gay or queer person whose testimony I heard found this to be a simple issue. Rarely were they making this decision based on how someone else believed they should be acting. Rather than making a choice of aligning or not aligning with what Christians said about them, it was usually whether they’d come into alignment with who they utterly knew themselves to be – despite what others said about them.
Now, from this point forward, I’m going to talk exclusively about Christian gays, queers, or those who affirm them: people who come to this point of decision to be or to affirm LGBTQ positions, with a solid background of Christianity and a well-established framework of understanding about the “Christian” perspective on the topic.
Also, I’m not going to go into what I see as Biblical reasons that I’m willing to consider an affirming position, after actual Biblical study. For that, I’d point you towards the three books and a thesis paper about sexuality and gender on my Suggested Reading List page. It’s up to you to make your own decisions on what those works present, but I’m not going to repeat their points here, or we’d have an excessively long post. Suffice it to say that I’ve done that homework. It’s just not my main point today.
So we come to what I feel is the most important part of this question of affirming LGBTQ identity or behavior in oneself or others.
It’s this: Anyone who says it’s an easy way out has never done the crushing work of being required by the Lord to rethink their most fundamental doctrinal positions.
For the closeted or newly “out” gay or queer believer, it’s about accepting something about themselves that is utterly certain to alienate them from family and friends and faith community. Often of knowing that there won’t be a church within a very long drive that will accept them as they are. Of knowing that the pool of possible life partners suddenly shrinks by a factor of ten or more. Of being forever marked by mainline Christians as damaged goods. Of knowing that most interactions with non-affirming Christians will be attempts to convict or judge or change or even threaten them. These are absolute givens in today’s America.
For the believer considering taking a publicly affirming position, like for me, it’s finding they must repent of things they did and said for decades. Of mourning the deep and abiding harm they unwittingly caused to the “least of these.” Of knowing their family and friends may well reject them or now hold them at arms length because of those new conclusions. Of being abruptly shunned by nearly every family in their church. Of being dis-invited as “disruptive” from an entire faith community because they don’t toe the doctrinal line any longer. Of giving up that honor of leading their friends to the Throne Room in worship or preaching each week, knowing they’ll never again be welcome on that stage because they’re unwilling to be silent about what God has required of them. Of having their closest friends and deepest confidants convinced they are at risk of hellfire, because they choose to actively love sinners that those friends are unwilling to even have sitting in the pews beside them.
Does that sound like taking the easy way out? Seriously?
No, it’s far, far easier to simply sit self-righteously and smugly, holding a basket of dusty old religious doctrines and conclusions – “relics” – that they were handed and told “this is what we believe; don’t you dare change your mind,” rather than carefully examining each and every one. It’s easier to proof-text one’s chosen doctrine with a simplistic “plain meaning” reading of verses in isolation, rather than to wrestle with the Holy Spirit over what those verses really mean in context of each chapter, each book, and even the entirety of Scripture. It’s easier to separate oneself from entire groups of people rather than wrestling with their very different faith. It’s easier to only talk this over with like-minded anti-LGBTQ Christians, than to spend much time listening to gay or queer people pour out their story of lifelong pain and shame over who they were, and how they were treated by people who claim to represent the God of love. It’s easier to smugly tell them they’re going to hell if they don’t change, rather than to simply sit quietly and hear them out without protesting that they’re wrong or damaged.
So I’m not in this for fun. And I’m not into self-flagellation either. But I’m utterly determined to study to show myself approved, and I’ve given God and the Holy Spirit a solid “yes” to bring change into my heart and mind if He finds my ways unpleasing to Him. If it means I have to take the hard way out, I’m willing to do it.
And the really odd thing is that I’m finding that, despite the deeply difficult process I’m going through, I’m finding a deep peace in the process and the results.
I used to reject the “homophobic” label. I would insist I wasn’t afraid of them, I just disagreed with the LGBTQ community’s conclusions. But now I find that I was, in fact, deeply afraid of quite a few things. I was afraid I’d be corrupted or polluted by spending time with them. I was afraid my faith might be damaged. I was afraid of what would happen to our society, or the institutions of government and marriage that mattered so much to me. It was fear across the entire issue, constantly nagging at me as I watched what happened around me, mixed with increasing rage at the changes.
And now, not only am I finding my spirit quite settled despite my mind still racing with objections, I’m also finding myself at deep peace with what’s happening in culture and with moments of interaction with gay and queer people that I would formerly have hurried to escape. I’m finding a fresh ability to love people I formerly feared and hated, and that somehow just feels infinitely more Christlike to me, mirroring how Jesus treated people, especially how he actually TREATED sinners. It’s worth remembering that He knew that everyone He encountered was a sinner.
That’s not at all to say I think these pro-LGBTQ cultural changes are all correct. I see a lot of harm in how things are playing out. There’s going to be a lot that needs correcting, and plenty of people are making poor choices these days. It’s a massive overshoot of what I think will be the correct center. That bill will surely come due. At some point, the mistakes will become clear, even if many choose to ignore them.
But let’s be absolutely clear: I do NOT think that it’s ALL a mistake. Far from it. I’m now convinced that despite no small amount of faddish bandwagon-jumping by impressionable people, a large number of the LGBTQ community are really, truly, non-cis, non-hetero, and non-binary, and this is the right thing for the world to accept.
And it’s NOT my place to decide which are which. Period. Full stop.
But this forces me to ask an absolutely, totally, supremely critical question: for those who do choose poorly, and for the world that foolishly pushes too far over the proper balance, where will the church be when some of them realize they went too far?
Will we be standing self-righteously off in the corner, shrilly screaming “We told you so! See? We were right! You’re all going to hell!” or will we be down there on the streets, living amongst those who clearly need Jesus and His love, having befriended those sinners and outcasts like Jesus did, so that when some of them discover their mistakes, the Lord’s church is where they turn for healing and recovery and acceptance? And will there be faithful Christian gays and queers fully accepted and supported by the church, fully in love with Jesus, and also fully, deeply, completely understanding the pain, ready to minister to those who abused themselves and went with the fad, went with the crowd, instead of being true to themselves and the image of God in them? The church NEEDS them, because they can minister in ways that cis/hetero folks cannot. Can we love them all, no matter where on this spectrum they exist?
Will we let love cast out fear?
That, right there, is the core of my heart in this matter.
The church needs to be that “safe space” when the prodigals come home. And it also needs to be the safe space for those who are different but are still Christians loved by their Father and welcome to His table, without any reservation, without any fear.
At some level, this matter speaks to me of the parable of the wheat and the tares (or weeds).
24 Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and left. 26 And when the wheat sprouted and produced grain, then the weeds also became evident. 27 And the slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’ The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No; while you are gathering up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and at the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Matthew 13:24-30)
Truly, this season sees a lot of tares, in many areas of culture, but there’s also some real wheat beginning to mature. Things that need to happen are happening, and trying to rip out all the error will uproot the non-error that is needed and valuable. Instead, let it grow, and at some point the weeds will be easy to separate out. But not yet. Jesus’ parable was shocking to those who listened to it in person, and it’s still shocking today – mainly by its compassion and patience, and mainly to those who want to attack sin with every weapon at their disposal. But that wasn’t how Jesus lived, and I think it’s not how I should be living either.
And so I’m finding a contentedness and rest in taking that hard way out, which requires not just the challenging work of standing up for an extremely unpopular position, but also requires that difficult but necessary long view and patience and peace, waiting for the harvest to mature.
I hope I’ve given you some things to think about. I’d love to hear your thoughts in response.
Before I go, I have a simple appeal: please consider signing up for the email notifications of new posts on the blog, or subscribing to the podcast on Anchor.fm, or following Crucible on Twitter. It helps me to get a sense of how I’m connecting with people, and helps me to refine what I’m doing here. Thanks so much.