Theological questions on LGBTQ issues is one of the areas where much of the Church has some serious wrestling to do.
Beyond wrestling with some of the outstanding scholarly work being done (see for instance, NT scholar JRD Kirk) the main question much of the Church must contend with is that of functionality: What does the church do? Why does the church exist?
It is my contention that the Church established by Jesus exists to be a healing agent within cultures, that it exists to be a force which removes barriers to God, and that it is to be a place of worship for all people (Mark 11:17). In this regard, many churches must seriously consider both their theological positions (what we believe) and their missiological posture (what we do) toward LGBTQ image-bearers who are being systematically excluded from the Church. In fact, I think many churches need to actually sit down and answer the following question:
“Is it more important for us to have an anti-LGBTQ posture, or is it more important for us to be the Church?”
About a year ago I had an experience that reminded me far too many churches are choosing to embrace a hard-line anti-LGBTQ posture– even when such a posture results in them ceasing to be the Church. (Just as a clarification, I don’t think those who still hold non-affirming theology automatically cease to be the church. See Preston Sprinkle for someone who doesn’t hold affirming theology but, in my observation, maintains a loving and nonjudgemental posture.)
At any rate, let me tell you the story and what I’ve learned:
I had been working with a church of refugees from Congo and Angola, and my role/goal was to help the pastor develop leadership from within the congregation so that they would have a self-sustaining structure. We met weekly in the basement of a local church because they simply could not afford their own building, and eventually the hard financial times caught up with the head pastor.
One day I unexpectedly found us having a conversation at my kitchen table where he told me, “I don’t have any money and I have to take another job. I’ve been offered a position in a different part of the country, and I’m leaving in two weeks. I’ll need you to take over the church.”
As much as I loved every last one of them, I gently pushed back and told him that I didn’t think it was right for me– a white guy from America– to be the one teaching and leading a congregation of African refugees. The church needed indigenous leadership, I argued. However, he didn’t feel that such structure existed yet, and that if I said no, the church would just close. I reluctantly agreed to take over with the understanding that I was going to immediately begin training people within the congregation to take over as soon as possible.
As a formality, he wanted to introduce me to the pastor whose church basement we met in (I didn’t know him/had never met him), and he set up a breakfast meeting for a few days later. As I sat down in the Denny’s booth and added cream to my coffee, the first words out of his mouth made me realize that the whole meeting was doomed from the beginning:
“I know who you are. I’ve read your blog. I need you to tell me about your position on homosexuality.” he said.
Ugh. I couldn’t believe the conversation was starting this way.
I tried to be gentle and diplomatic in my reply, not wanting to do anything to unintentionally harm the refugees. Knowing from reading his bio online that he didn’t have a theological education (strangely, we have a lot of pastors in Maine who have never been to seminary) I pointed to the fact that there is some great scholarship on the issue he should check out. He told me that someone once gave him pamphlets on homosexuality and the Bible and that he found the arguments unconvincing, so there was that. I even explained that I too had my doubts on how to approach some of those verses, but that I knew at a minimum I would not condemn LGBTQ people, and that I believe they must be included in the church.
Instead of the theology of it all, he seemed most stressed out by the idea that I’d perform a gay wedding in his church. I couldn’t figure out why this was even on his radar– the congregation was a conservative, Congolese Pentecostal church. If you’ve seen the documentary God Loves Uganda, you’d know that (due to Western influence) many African Christians are anti-LGBTQ to an absolute extreme, and this particular church was definitely not affirming. I explained that since the church itself was not affirming (and that I did not hold an ordination which allowed me to perform an LGBTQ wedding), the idea of an LGBTQ wedding was inconceivable. Thus, the whole thing was a non-issue– at least from my standpoint.
I was there to help them develop their own leadership and to love them– and that was all.
As the conversation ended however, it quickly became clear that my refusal to denounce LGBTQ individuals was a critical issue for him– and that having an anti-LGBTQ posture was actually more important than being the Church.
“I’d be a shame for the refugees to not have a place to meet because of you.” he said.
Ugh. My heart sunk when he said that. How hateful can a person get, that they’d kick out a bunch of poor refugees because the one person directly helping them thinks that LGBTQ people should have a seat at God’s table as well?
I have loved the refugee community, and the idea that they could be refugees once again on my account was actually heartbreaking. I didn’t even know what to say, so the meeting ended with the pastor looking across the table and saying, “you do what you’ve got to do, and I’ll do what I have to do.”
Ending with such a threat was bad news for the refugees, and the Congolese pastor knew it too. Even though he needed the money, he turned down the job offer and stayed at the church– a move that I thought would at least save the day for the congregation, though it came at a high price to himself.
Sadly, it didn’t save anything. Just a few weeks later we had a funeral for a young pregnant woman who was killed when her former boyfriend purposely ran her over with his car. Instead of relegating the African congregation to the basement where we were normally forced to meet, we were allowed to have the funeral in the sanctuary where the white congregation met. However, just a short time after the funeral we got what I had hoped to avoid: an eviction notice. We were told we were being kicked out because we had forgotten to plug their microphone back in, but I knew what it was really about.
It was about the choice to be anti-LGBTQ instead of making the choice to be the Church.
The chief irony however, is that the refugee congregation was able to find new space right away– at a Methodist church who would only agree to share their space if the church welcomed LGBTQ persons. On that day I smiled as I thought about the words of Joseph to his brothers: “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”
As time and space has come between me and that situation (which definitely triggered my church trauma), I am reminded that the lesson learned is so much bigger than this individual story– because all churches are being faced with this choice. Some are choosing to be the Church, and some are choosing to embrace an anti-LGBTQ posture.
You see, the Church Jesus established is to be a house of worship for all people, and that includes LGBTQ individuals. The Church exists to be a safe place, a place where people can come and connect with God, and a place where people can find love and healing from the wounds of this world– and that too, includes LGBTQ individuals. The moment they’re excluded, ostracized, or shunned instead of being embraced and loved, is the moment such a body ceases to be the Church.
So, regardless of one’s individual theology relating to LGBTQ, we’re faced with some pressing questions:
Do we want to stand against people made in the image of God, or will we include and love them?
Do we want to be a place of healing for some people, or a place of healing for all people?
Do we want to be anti-LGBTQ, or do we want to be the Church?
Me? I choose to be the Church, and I do so without apology.