Welcoming But Not Affirming

I’ve been asked, as a pastor, to share how churches ought to engage with LGBT individuals, and why. It’s a daunting but important question as we seek to embody the gospel faithfully in our particular cultural context. Among the options currently out there—welcoming but not affirming, welcoming and affirming, and simply “accepting,” viewing the issue as something of a “disputed matter”—my own position is likely a variation on the theme of welcoming but not affirming. What does that mean? The proverbial (and, frankly, often literal) devil is, as is so often the case, in the details. 

 How have I arrived at this position, and how do I define it? As I read the gospels, I’m struck that Jesus seemed to delight in pursuing, loving, and restoring the outcast, the marginalized, and the excluded. Historically, LGBT individuals have experienced horrible persecution from Christians, even, and perhaps especially, from Christian leaders. This persecution, while considerably lessened recently in many sectors of contemporary American society, still exists, though often much more subtly, in enclaves of conservative American Christianity. It is also brutally, often murderously, present in certain societies throughout the world—many of which, disturbingly, are largely “Christian.” So, LGBT individuals who experience profound rejection, and even violence, at the hands of religious leaders are the kinds of people Jesus was keenly interested in pursuing. Whether the woman at the well with her five husbands plus the one who wasn’t, the woman caught in adultery whose accusers slowly slipped aside, or Zacchaeus, who dishonestly accumulated vast amounts of wealth (that’s a sin, right?), Jesus’ radical welcome saw past their behavior, looked at their hearts, and loved them. So this practice of not only welcoming but actively pursuing those broken-hearted, beat-up, and vulnerable divine-image bearers for whom Christ was pleased to die seems thoroughly biblical, and the implications for how the church engages with the LGBT community are profound. 

 However, despite the efforts of scholars like Robin Scroggs, Lewis Countryman, and, more recently, James Brownson, I remain convinced that the biblical prohibitions of sexual intimacy between two people of the same gender do, in fact, apply to our modern construct of same-sex relationships. Romans 1, which indicts same-sex sexual relationships between both men and women, seems to echo the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul seems to draw on the prohibition of men “lying with men as with a woman” in Leviticus 18:22 in saying that “sodomites” (that’s how it’s rendered in the NRSV, but it is a hard word to translate: RSV has “sexual perverts,” ESV has “men who practice homosexuality,” and NIV has “men who have sex with men”) shall not inherit the kingdom of God. I also find the use of Acts 15 to support the affirming position a stretch, as, while the apostles were careful not to place unnecessary burdens on the new Gentile converts, thus accepting them fully as Gentiles, they insisted that the Gentile Christians abstain from sexual immorality. So, while the entirety of the Jewish Law was not required for Gentile converts, the sexual morality of the Jewish Law was, and that included prohibitions of sexual intimacy between two men, or two women.

 Theologically, as the church has reflected on marriage over the millennia, the radical difference—yet profound compatibility and procreative potential—of a man and a woman has been an essential component of our understanding of marriage, as has the image of the church as Christ’s bride, with the consummation of redemption likened to a wedding feast. Altering our understanding of marriage in such a way that removes gender as a factor would strike at the heart of how we think about what it means that God created us “male and female” in his image, and the mystery that “a man shall leave his mother, and a woman leave her home, and the two shall become one flesh.” Again, I simply can’t embrace a theology of marriage, which I think that we all agree must be the context for sexual intimacy, that eliminates gender difference and also removes the potential for childbearing.

 So, how to balance the radical welcome of Jesus with the biblical prohibition against sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage? In the case of the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, and Zacchaeus, Jesus never affirmed their behavior (namely serial marriage, adultery, and financial malfeasance), but he did affirm them. That was Jesus’ priority—seeking and saving the lost. It strikes me that, at its best, this is what it might mean to be “welcoming but not affirming”—always mindful that the outcast, especially those rejected by our religious authorities (who look and dress and talk like me), are the ones that Jesus sought, first seeing broken hearts and bodies rather than sinful behavior. Yet, it also means that when Jesus shows up in our lives, we can’t stay the same; moving toward the new creation with Jesus requires reordering our lives. The Samaritan woman became an evangelist, the woman caught in adultery went her on her way to “sin no more”, and Zacchaeus made restitution before giving away half of his wealth. In Matthew’s gospel, we read two “calls” of Jesus to his disciples. One was a call to self-denial (Matthew 16:24), while the other was a call to rest (Matthew 11:28-29) Discipleship as a live of both freedom and self-denial is a paradox at heart of Christian life. Living in this tension has implications for each of us—gay and straight—as we seek to give and receive love in Jesus’ new community called the church, full of broken, yet redeemed, people longing for the new creation.

 Along with these biblical and theological reflections, it might be helpful to tell a bit of my own story, as a Christian, a friend, and now as a pastor, in wrestling through this crucial question. First, my ecclesial context has forced me to grapple with the consequences of profound disagreement on this question. I was ordained in The Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2002. The next year, Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, was elected and consecrated as the bishop of New Hampshire. This set off a conflict that has resulted in many Americans leaving TEC, and has brought the global Anglican Communion to the brink of schism. In the course of my ministry, I’ve spent quite a bit of time praying, studying, and listening—listening to the voices of LGBT individuals both in my congregations and in the broader church, and listening to angry, frustrated, and confused straight people, some affirming and others running the gamut between compassionately non-affirming and outright homophobic, as they try to reconcile faithful Christian living with the reality of LGBT people in our midst. I’ve also listened to the voices of Anglicans around the globe, many of whom, for an array of cultural and theological reasons, stridently oppose any move toward LGBT acceptance, whether in the church or society. 

 Personally, I chose to leave TEC in 2007, but I’m quick to say that I didn’t leave TEC because of “homosexuality,” but rather because TEC had grown apart from historic and global Christianity, and, by aligning myself with the Anglicans in the Global South, I was aligning myself not only with historic Christianity, but also with our ecumenical partners in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the burgeoning evangelical and charismatic groups around the world.

 Regardless of my own reasons for leaving TEC, I find myself in an ecclesial context that is, rightly or not, often perceived through the lens of the conflict over how to engage LGBT individuals. Because of that context, I most often find myself advocating for the “welcoming” rather than the “not-affirming,” which is (again, rightly, I believe) taken as a given among my coreligionists. I encourage my parishioners to listen to the stories of LGBT people, especially those who have been raised in the church. I also urge them to consider carefully the evangelistic and pastoral consequences of engaging in defensive, reactionary, and often ignorant rhetoric on the “culture war” issues of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights (although, post-Obergefell, these discussions have changed; now we need to be careful that our understandable advocacy for religious freedom isn’t simply cover for hostility toward the LGBT community). I’ve also spent time listening to the concerns of my brothers and sisters in the Global South, agreeing with them on the importance of upholding the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, yet also sharing my concerns about legislation that might result in the imprisonment, or even death, of openly gay or lesbian people.

 Relationally and pastorally, I’ve evolved (a dangerous word, I know) in my understanding of what LGBT individuals experience. Growing up in a relatively fundamentalist church in a small town in eastern Arizona, I often heard about the “gay agenda” and that homosexuality was a choice. As an athlete, “gay” was the ultimate insult one could give a teammate or opponent. It was while I was in college at the University of Arizona I began to meet gay people, and had quite a shock when a friend from an evangelical campus ministry came out one fall, struggling to make sense of her sexual orientation and her evangelical faith. At that time, I adopted an understanding of homosexual orientation similar to that of Elizabeth Moberly, which basically assumes that those with a homosexual orientation were likely sexually abused, or had an absent parent. As such, LGBT people were not to be objects of scorn, but rather of compassion, trusting that, with the right counseling and healing prayer, change was possible.

 However, in seminary at Gordon-Conwell, a close friend of mine came out near the end of my time there. He shared with me that he had spent countless hours in therapy and prayer sessions, seeking freedom and healing from same-sex attraction, but, as I’ve heard from many others since then, his sexual orientation hadn’t budged. Since graduation, two other classmates have come out, both of whom are now married to same-sex partners. 

 So, I hit something of a crisis point. If a homosexual orientation wasn’t chosen, and generally couldn’t be “healed” through prayer and therapy (although the stories of those claiming such healing shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand), what, as a pastor and brother in Christ, might I offer? A call to repentance or an invitation to reparative therapy suddenly seemed—rather than compassionate—potentially, if not likely, cruel.

 As I’ve grappled with a way forward in engaging with LGBT people, I’ve been helped and challenged by the work of Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, and our conversation partner Tim Otto. Their lives and writing have, generally, assumed that sexual orientation is fairly fixed, and challenged the church to rethink how we conceive of loving, intimate relationships. If the church is asking gay and lesbian people to refrain from sexual intimacy, are we ready to create space for other expressions of love and intimacy? 

 I’m left in a place, then, of affirming the historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality while seeking to embrace LGBT people outside of the church and create space for creative, non-sexual, expressions of love and intimacy for those LGBT brothers and sisters within the church. This is not a comfortable position, to be sure, but one rooted in biblical, theological, and pastoral reflection that I believe is necessary “for such a time as this.”

 Now, what’s at stake? Why do I believe that it is important to be both welcoming and non-affirming?

 On one hand, not listening to LGBT people, both within and outside of the church, has had, and will continue to have, disastrous consequences for the witness and ministry of the church. Simplistic assumptions regarding the causes of same-sex attraction (i.e. “it’s a choice” or “you have father issues”), and opposition to civil rights for LGBT people will continue to alienate us unnecessarily from a community—along with their friends, families, and other allies—that is likely already (often for good reasons, unfortunately) suspicious of us. Also, if we communicate, whether implicitly or explicitly, to our congregations that same-sex attraction is somehow uniquely depraved, then LGBT people in our congregations, and children who may be wrestling with sexual identity issues, will conclude that the church is not a safe space within which to share the deepest pains and struggles in their lives. This requires a rethinking of how we teach our children and a structuring of our common life as Christian communities. We must be up for the challenge. In fact, if we refuse to create space for LGBT Christians to flourish relationally, only telling them what they can’t do, we unwittingly wind up doing more harm than good.

 Honestly, some days I’m tempted by the affirming position. After all, divorce and remarriage, with a couple of exceptions, is clearly condemned in the New Testament, but most of us permit divorced and remarried individuals to share in the life and ministry of our churches, even though, to a greater or lesser extent, their relationship with the church may be complicated at some level because of their divorce and subsequent remarriage. Is this a double standard? It might be, and this has forced many of us to do some serious reflection on the nature of Christian marriage as opposed to “marriage” as recognized by the state. When we look the other way in cases of heterosexual adultery, divorce, and pornography use while condemning same-sex relationships, we come off as the worst kind of hypocrites. 

 I had a profound experience along these lines in 2003, just after Gene Robinson was approved as bishop of New Hampshire. I was in San Francisco (of all places), and, scrolling through Yahoo News one afternoon, I saw that Britney Spears had been “married” the previous weekend in Las Vegas, but was now seeking an annulment. The question immediately struck me, “Is it OK for me to get worked up about legal recognition for same-sex couples while I just roll my eyes when celebrities get ‘married’ and divorced so cavalierly?” The answer, I believe, is, “No, it’s not OK.” If marriage is a sacred union of a man and woman, somehow reflecting both the image and likeness of God as well as Christ’s love for his church, the way we currently practice “marriage” in America is a far cry from the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. 

 In this way, the Obergefell decision is a gift, exploding the illusion that somehow maintaining the legal definition of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman keeps our society somehow in accord with God’s intentions for creation. In a world of contraception, abortion, and no-fault divorce, pre-Obergefell American civil marriage is nothing like the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. The Obergefell decision, then, is a gift to non-affirming Christians like myself, because we are now forced to think through the radical nature of uniquely Christian marriage, and call married couples, and those preparing for marriage, into the profound mystery of what it means to live in this sacred union. I no longer work hand in hand with the civil magistrate who signs marriage licenses, but instead work subversively, calling engaged and married couples into a relationship that transcends the sentimental, contractual construct currently en vogue and instead takes us into the very heart of Christian discipleship, of creation and redemption.

 I’m also resistant to the affirming position because of the potential consequences for our understanding of scripture. Again, despite their best efforts, biblical scholars who have sought to interpret the Bible in such a way that supports affirming loving, consensual, and monogamous gay or lesbian relationships have usually done two things. First, they have sought to make the biblical passages that directly address same-sex sexual intimacy irrelevant for our discussion, and then sought analogies for LGBT inclusion, whether within scripture or in church history. I want to be careful here, because, truly, passages from Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 22, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1, have been used as “texts of terror” (often known among the LGBT community as “clobber passages”) in the lives of many LGBT people. We must reject using these passages, isolated from their context (a context which is, ultimately, the whole Bible, at the heart of which is the gospel), to put guilt and shame on anyone. However, we also can’t avoid these passages, which, while possibly referring to cultic, non-consensual, or exploitative sex, simply can’t, with integrity, be reduced so narrowly, and separated from the creation narrative(s) of Genesis 1-2. We enter dangerous territory when we say things like, “Well, if Paul had only known . . .” 

 It’s also true that today, Christians nearly universally reject slavery, and a lot of us (including my Anglican brothers and sisters in Kenya and Uganda) support women in leadership positions. Yes, there are passages in the New Testament that seem to accept slavery and require male leadership. However, passages like Galatians 3:28 and Philemon 15-16 plant a time bomb within the institution of slavery, and examples of Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, and others suggest that women actually did hold positions of leadership in the New Testament. There is no indication of acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships in the New Testament, only prohibition rooted in creation and the fall. 

 Finally, I’m worried about the ecumenical consequences of the affirming position. Again, my own story illustrates the perils of embracing sexual relationships outside of marriage, as TEC has found itself increasingly marginalized in the incredibly vast world of global Christianity since 2003. The fact that this issue has generated such controversy might be an indication that it is more serious that many of us in the West believe it to be, why it can’t simply be assigned to “adiaphora.” Advocacy for LGBT rights, including legal recognition for same-sex relationships, can be done while holding to the traditional Christian sex ethic, and, strategically, might be the best way to help our brothers and sisters, both here and abroad, understand the complexities of sexual identity. Changing our understanding of marriage and sexuality, however, touches on core understandings of creation, the fall, redemption, and even the doctrine of God.

 Well, I’m over my 3000-word limit, so I’ll stop here. I’m looking forward to reading Tim’s and Weldon’s posts. I can only hope that I’ve done justice to what it might look like for a church to be welcoming but not affirming as we engage LGBT individuals.

2 replies
  1. liannesimon@yahoo.com
    liannesimon@yahoo.com says:

    You bring up the creation narrative as though the Garden were normative rather than the beginning of the wonderful diversity described in Revelation. You let others define the terms; so you lump L, G, B, and T together as though one group of clobber verses applied to all.

    But I like that you actually brought Jesus into this. The only weapon He's give us that is sure to prevail is the Gospel.

  2. Sam
    Sam says:

    I appreciate your honesty and careful thought, but what I don't think you understand is that in addition to wanting to share "deepest pains and struggles," we also want to worship in churches that are open to and acknowledging of our greatest joys and our loving relationships. This unwillingness of the church to believe that LGBTQ people are telling the truth about their own lives and happiness is core to the paternalistic stances that continue to drive them out of the church.


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