I have experienced discussions about homosexuality in church circles ever since I was a teenager. So for me, this is a well worn topic, and my views on it have changed during and after my time in the church. There’s more about that in this blog post.
A key point of objection that non-church people have against the church is that it is homophobic and subverts anything outside of its heteronormative patriarchy. For this reason, progressive churches often make a point to communicate that they have a welcoming attitude towards homosexuals and the broader LGBT community.
Many of the Christians that I know are genuinely and completely convinced that the church should be fully welcoming to LGBT people. I’ve never known anyone to be insincere about this or just take this position merely as a tactic to keep the church relevant. And to these people – for what it’s worth- I’d like to thank you and encourage your good intentions. Let’s work together on this important issue in our society. Even though I’m not part of your church, your church is part of the society I live in. And any way that society becomes more inclusive of marginalized people is a good thing.
There are many different reasons to reject the anti-gay history of the church. The most common argument that I’ve heard is basically that Jesus was a cool, relaxed and loving guy that would not have any problem with gay people. Some people go farther and make an argument that the Bible is actually not anti-gay in any way. One claim used to support such arguments is that when considering the Biblical historical context it’s clear that the anti-gay parts of the Bible are referring to abusive and/or pedophilic relationships in ancient Greece. Obviously, pedophilia is bad, so this is a great way to reframe and dismiss extreme anti-gay verses in the Bible.
I really don’t know what truth there is to this historical context argument. Even if abusive man-boy relations were prevalent in the past, how can anyone be sure that these Bible verses refer to only the pedophilic relationships and not to all homosexual relationships? Also, why doesn’t the Bible just say pedophilia is bad? But at this point this reasoning gets utterly absurd. No one should need the Bible to clarify the indisputable: abusive pedophilia is abhorrent. Few people I know read the Bible as a clear set of dos and don’ts. It’s obviously not Morality for Dummies.
Clearly, I am not convinced of the idea that reading the Bible “in the proper context” helps it make any more sense. The content of the Bible has already been retold, rewritten and translated over time and there is already so much latitude for interpreting it however one sees fit. Adding the “proper historical context” layer does not narrow down the possible interpretations, it just gives more freedom for anyone to interpret the Bible however they want to.
But I do agree that overall, the collection of Jesus’ teachings in the Bible promote love, forgiveness and inclusion. Also, many churches decided a long time ago that quoting the Bible to derive literal truths was kind of a fundamentalist thing to do. So rather than play that game with the fundies, they just resort to easier and less pedantic reasoning: Jesus is love, therefore it’s ok to be gay.
The modernizing of the church and its stance on LGBT is clearly a good thing, regardless of the reasoning used by religious people. This change is vaulting churches over the line from being on the wrong side to being on the right side of history.
Of course, I need to point out here that I do not think that modern Christians came to their conclusions from a relationship with a God. My alternative hypothesis is that decent people understand that being anti-gay is bad from observing the world around them and then they adapt their religion to support their own conclusions. Classic rationalization.
Imagine that you knew someone who was extremely selfish. If they used prosperity gospel to justify their over consumption you would probably want to be critical of their selfish actions and on the post hoc rationalization of their actions. In the case of homosexuality, I want to congratulate pro-gay Christians on their actions, but I’m still critical of their rationalization (as I understand it). To my mind, this is just being consistent.
That being said, I don’t intend to dwell unnecessarily on the reasons why people are solving the ills of society. Doing good things is still good, irrespective of my particular interpretation of the do-gooder’s reasoning. I’m happy to waive a rainbow flag with a group of Christians for the benefit society.
But alas, unfortunately, very few churches have completely transitioned to being LGBT friendly. And the reason for this is exactly that one detail that I try so hard to not get hung up on: LGBT friendly churches draw their LGBT friendliness subjectively from their religion and not from objective moral reasoning. Unfortunately, because of this, modern Christians are being slowed on their walk to justice because they are carrying kicking and screaming conservative Christians along with them.
And of course I can understand the desire to keep the Christian family together. I grew up in a church that provided me with a unique inter-generational community that I haven’t really experienced anywhere else. And just as people like their family despite disagreements I understand that people in church communities will like being in a community with other people despite their differences.
Unfortunately, in a religious context this often means extending far too much respect for traditional views on sexuality and gender roles. Modern Christians are afraid of being not Jesus-like and rejecting the religious beliefs of others (usually older people) in their churches. Churches are groups that are bound by belief statements, and rules about who’s allowed in the group, who can vote, who can lead and who can get married. Families don’t have any of these written covenants. So you can go to Thanksgiving dinner without representing your relative’s bigotry. But you can’t be a member of a church without in some way representing the written statements of shared beliefs of your congregation an/or church conference.
The desire for unity and respect in church comes at a very high cost. I suspect that any marginalized or minority group observing this process would not be comforted by the slow, respectful deliberation on the most basic issues of non-discrimination.
Imagine playing on a baseball team that was having a conversation about how to “address the issue” of black players on the team. Imagine attending a school where the principal was “carefully listening” to everyone’s opinion about whether or not girls should be in science class. Imagine attending a church that has lengthy discussions about how to “approach the issue of same-sex people”.
A Plea to LGBT-Friendly Christians
Hey you, liberal Christians, LGBT equality is the defining social justice issue of our time, so please get extremely serious about working on this in your church. I know many of your Christian friends and family are not as progressive as you are, but you need to decide what your priorities are! You can keep your friends and family, but you cannot continue to support anti-gay policies in your church institutions. Declaring yourself an LGBT ally but still appeasing the haters means that you’re still sitting on the fence.
So vote, make decisions, split churches, reorganize, rebuild, reinvent and do whatever it takes. Maybe some old people will leave your church or maybe you have to find yourself a different church. Please, just get this done for the benefit of your church and our society.
Obviously, there is also a cost to taking the extreme position that I’m recommending. I presume that your instincts tell you that such a tactic is based too much on mortal hubris and that it usurps your community of believers and the Holy Spirit itself.
It’s true that this might add a significant burden of cognitive dissonance to your mind. Using an uncompromising approach could make you feel that you’re admitting to yourself that modern secular values are a better framework for decision making than reading the Bible, praying or having church discernment processes. My personal solution to this problem would be simply abandoning Christianity and becoming an Atheist and a Secular Humanist. In my opinion, that’s the best way to make all of the cognitive dissonance go away.
However, in the interest of social justice, I honestly would not mind at all if you proved me completely wrong. The issue of equality for LGBT people is not owned by any single person or group. So, if there is a religious argument for taking an unrelenting stance in favour of LGBT rights, I encourage you to embrace it with energy and passion and preach it from a mountain top. I will be very happy to be an ally with you, regardless of the reasons for your conviction.
However, if your first priority is to be a church at all costs and you stay languishing in stagnant, conciliatory language and interminable dialogue with anti-gay Christians, you will not be treating LGBT people fairly in my opinion.
Besides, what are you afraid of? Social justice movements are accelerated by activists but only truly take root as older generations give way to new ones. Are you afraid that all of the older and more conservative people in your church will break off and suddenly they will become the future of Christianity? I doubt it.
I do recognize that in this post I am really using broadstrokes to paint every thing anti-gay with one brush. I think that there is some room to make the case that some Christians do not discriminate against homosexuals, they just hold a religious belief that God commanded no one to ever engage in homosexual acts. So while these things may not all be exactly the same, I do think that any heteronormative interpretation of religious morality is a disservice to modern society. Thus I think my broadstrokes approach is appropriate in this case.
“LGBT” and “gay” are used here somewhat generally and sometimes interchangeably. I could have been more wordy and specific.