Dinah and #MeToo

One of the gifts that the LGBTQ community has given me over the past few years has been an invitation to see things in scripture that before I glossed over. It was so easy to dismiss the uncomfortable, the offensive, the confusing. And yet it’s all right there in our bible.

I was invited to write a blog for The Twelve, part of the Perspectives Blog. So I wrote it on one of the many passages that has struck me afresh these days. Here is that blog.


Hardship Isn’t Always Bad

A friend of mine from church took a job five hours from here and moved his family out of the city just before City Church of Long Beach started our LGBTQ Study Team. He was so glad to get out just in time. I can relate. It was a hard two years.

Out of the blue he wrote me a long email this week. It captures so much of the process for us as a church and how good our journey has been. Not easy, but good.

I thought I’d share it with you as well, so here it is.



I was just flipping through the church website for the first time in a while and scrolled across your “letter to the church” video about the wrap up of the LGBTQ discussions you have been having.  That focus began shortly after we moved out of town and stopped attending on a weekly basis so we have largely been spared from the divisiveness that I know this conversation created.

My first reaction when I heard what City Church of Long Beach was doing was a relief that I was not going there and that I didn’t have to address that type of conflict head on with a lot of people I love.  My heart has always been torn on that issue as I was always raised very traditionally and to take the Bible at face value in many ways; but my heart has always felt that the way the LGBTQ community is treated by the church is wrong.

At the same time, I can’t say I really know or am friends or acquaintances with anyone in that community either.  I really don’t feel comfortable around openly LGBTQ people and I wish that weren’t the case.  I still don’t really know which side of the fence I find myself on with LGBTQ morality issues, but I do know I fully agree with what City Church came to –  that all ought to be welcomed and included.

“I realize that while we were spared the divisiveness, we also missed out on a great opportunity to learn and grow.”

After watching your video, I realize that while we were spared the divisiveness, we also missed out on a great opportunity to learn and grow.  When we keep ourselves protected from difficult things, we may not hurt, but we certainly don’t allow ourselves to grow.  We don’t grow by relying to on the habits or the traditions or the things that we feel we have figured out in our lives… we grow by realizing that all we have learned needs to be broken apart as God calls us to new uncomfortable places.  As God calls us alongside him in his mission, then that completely destroys the lives we want to live… even the lives that we think we are living as “good Christians.”

Bill, you are a fantastic example of what that looks like to me and to everyone around you.  While I know you are flawed and have your struggles like the rest of us, you clearly allow yourself to be molded by what God is calling you to do, even when that means embarrassment, judgement, frustration, and probably even some hate from those around you… from those who you considered friends.  I obviously don’t know all that pain that has happened in City Church over the recent years, but I can imagine there were plenty of moments where everyone in leadership questioned whether or not they were on the right path.  I am incredible thankful that the team continued on and saw these tough conversations to some form of completion (not that any potentially divisive issue is ever brought to completion.)

I just wanted to say that I truly miss you and although we have found a wonderful church home here, I still miss and long to be a part of CCLB.  Thank you for your daily devotions.  Thank you for being different than other pastors.  Thank you for your leadership.

I wish we were still close enough for an impromptu game of Dominion!

God bless you,


LGBTQ Study Team Conclusion

sacredheartI began blogging over a year ago to share why City Church of Long Beach started our Study Team regarding LGBTQ people in the church. The blog really took off as I shared some personal stories, including about when my son came out.

Our Study Team has now concluded. It’s been a long run – almost two years looking at things like how the early church handled conflict over questions of inclusion, how scholars view key passages like Romans 1, and thinking through how to understand what Paul calls ‘disputable matters’ in Romans 14 (listen to this amazing sermon about it).

On January 21, 2018 we shared our conclusions with our whole church in the context of our vision to be a radically welcoming community, on a journey towards Jesus, joining him in the renewal of all things. I want to share with you what was shared then.

First, I read the this letter to the church summarizing the key insights, tensions, and sorrows of our journey.


Then the Study Team shared our theology behind our vision, which is on the ‘About’ page of our website (just scroll to the bottom).

I am so grateful for the journey we’ve been on. Along the way, God’s clarified my call to focus my energies on pastoring City Church Long Beach so I will be posting only infrequently in the future on this blog.

Grace and peace to you in Christ,


How To Disagree and Still Be Friends

At the recent Q Commons event in Long Beach (Oct 26, 2017), my friend Eric Carpenter and I gave a 14 minute talk about how to disagree about important issues and still be friends.

The particular issues we disagree about center around the place of LGBTQ people in the church. Here’s the video in case you’d like to watch it.

Good friends, strong disagreements. Eric and me at the Q Commons event in Long Beach, CA


Sabbatical Blog Interruption

I’m taking a sabbatical this summer from June 5 to September 3, graciously granted by the Pastoral Team and Financial Oversight Team of our church.  I’m very grateful for time for rest and renewal.

In an effort to surrender my pastoral work this summer, I’m logging off Facebook, not checking email even once, and even changing my phone number during my sabbatical! And in keeping with that effort, I’ll be holding off on blogging as well. The City Church of Long Beach LGBTQ Study Team will also be on hiatus this summer, to resume in September.

I’m looking forward to extended times of silence and solitude this summer, including kicking it off my sabbatical this coming Monday with a 7 night, 8 day retreat of silence at a monastery. My hope is to ‘come to the end of myself’ as my spiritual director says – to let all of my anxious energy, all of my drive to achieve, all of my concern about what people think of me to be sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Who even knows what will be found underneath. Ultimately, I’m just hoping to meet Jesus there and to journey a little closer with him.

For those who haven’t been on my blog much, if you’re interested, these have been some of the most read posts:

When My Son Came Out
How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church
What If I’m Wrong?

Until September…

What If I’m Wrong?

false beliefDo you ever have an awkward moment in a heated conversation when the unwanted thought creeps in, “What if I’m wrong?” For me it often happens later, while showering or taking a walk. Out of nowhere, it dawns on me that there might be another way to look at what I so passionately said could only be my way.

I hate those moments.

Perhaps you are like me and you like to be right. Or perhaps you find that thinking in new ways is disorienting. Or perhaps it feels threatening to consider the ideas of someone you have disagreed with for so long. And yet, you and I both know that actually considering the perspectives of others is how we grow – whether we adopt those perspectives or not.

After all, there’s no learning apart from engaging deeply with ideas that you do not currently hold!

What’s at Stake

Having LGBTQ conversations in the church is like picking your way through a minefield. Doing it as a pastor is like picking your way through a minefield with a flock of sheep. There’s really no safe way to do it.

A pastor said to me in a shaky voice, “But if I change my stance what would I say to my church?” I’ve talked to parents whose marriage has been threatened because they see their daughter’s sexuality so differently. I have gay friends whose choice to be celibate cost them their gay community. I have many gay friends whose choice just to come out of the closet cost them their Christian community. Ouch. I deeply grieve those losses; I have had a few of my own.

In addition to the relational landmines, for us evangelicals there’s also a particular spiritual conundrum that we find ourselves in. More and more of us are asking the question, “What if I’m wrong?” For the first time, we are considering the possibility that what we’ve always thought about sexual morality is not what God thinks about it. That’s when the double whammy hits us – that we could be wrong either way.

Justin Lee, in his excellent book, Torn, goes back and forth all book long about his own personal struggle of coming out as gay and trying to reconcile that to his faith in Jesus. Towards the end, shares a profound thought:

I realized there was no “safe side” on this issue. If I supported gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by encouraging people to do something wrong, but if I opposed gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by putting myself and others back under the law and making Christ “of no value” (Gal 5:2).

Justin realized that there was a cost if he was wrong. And he knew that regardless of where he came out on the question of whether same-sex sexual activity could be moral or not, there was still a cost.

Is There a Cost of Being Too Moral?

As a parent I’ve experienced the temptation to be overly moral any number of times. I don’t want my kids to get hurt or get in trouble, so I holler “No dating till you’re 30!” or whatever the equivalent is in the situation at hand. The problem, of course, is that instead of doing the hard relational work and the give and take of ideas, I just use my authority to shut down the conversation. Later, in my right mind, I can see that “No dating till you’re 30” is probably going to have some pretty negative effects and doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

I’ve heard a number of people propose that, since there’s some question about the morality of same-sex sexual activity, we should just be more conservative to stay on the safe side. You know, just rule out anything that might be a sin.

Author and pastor David Schmelzer addresses that directly in a way that I thought was helpful (and unnerving):

Is it worth mentioning that the possibility of being wrong cuts both ways? Yes, you can be wrong by being too permissive. But you can also be wrong by being too restrictive. It seems entirely possible to me that, on Judgment Day, God will wonder why we kept so many people away from the Kingdom of Heaven. What gave us that right? Jesus even weighs in directly on this side of the discussion. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”

Both Schmelzer and Lee force me to face an uncomfortable reality – that it really matters if I’m wrong – and that I can be wrong not just by being overly permissive; I could be wrong by being overly restrictive. There are consequences to both errors. And then I struggle with the pastor thing. For me personally, as a pastor, I have to wrestle with the consequences of potentially leading people into sexual sin on one side or into religious slavery on the other.

My Personal Misgivings

Two months after my son came out to me and Katy at Starbucks (that story here), I was spending a Saturday morning holed up journalling. It had been a hard week for me personally, so I was praying through it all in writing. Timothy had finished coming out to our family and his friends and he let me know it was time for me to start telling people. That week I broke Timothy’s news to our church leadership team, my discipleship group, my best friend from high school, and three friends who are pastors. Most, but not all, of those conversations went well.

Then comes this entry:

May 30, 2015
At this point in the game, I still feel so conflicted over the issue. And I feel frustrated with you, Father. The scriptures just don’t seem all that clear anymore, and this is a big issue with huge stakes. So what are we to do in this case of a big issue with no clarity? I hear [gays on the conservative] side saying, “As best as we can tell, we’re right, and we feel invigorated by our sacrificial commitment to the Lord – but we’re really lonely, sad, and somewhat repressed and wonder whether we’re missing out on a huge part of the life that Jesus would have for us… not to mention the fact that we seem to be closing the door of the gospel on both LGBT people and the younger generation.” I hear [gays on the progressive] side saying, “As best as we can tell, we’re right, and we feel finally free from all the guilt, loneliness and repression we suffered under – but we still wonder sometimes if we’re being [sexually] immoral.” Neither side seems completely satisfied or convinced. And neither is completely convincing. And the stakes are so high.

I look back now and have a lot of empathy for myself as a dad in that situation. My son had come out to me, and I was undone by it. I started studying the scriptures at a depth that made my masters and doctorate at seminary look like kindergarten. I was reading voraciously and talking to every expert I could get my hands on. I prayed like a revivalist on steroids. And more often than not, God did not seem to be giving me the answers that I was seeking. Not an easy season.

One of the things that bothered me the most was that I couldn’t get the question out of my mind: What if I’m wrong? I mean, this is my son we’re talking about. What if my position leads him into sexual sin? What if I deface God’s image in him? What if I guide him wrong? God, what are you saying?

God the Father

In the next few weeks I’ll share more about where my journey has taken me. But for the time being, let me say this: I’ve encountered God as Father in new ways, and that’s a game changer.

Standing on the sandy cliffs above Blacks Beach in San Diego, screaming at God because I was so upset at him for making my son gay, I experienced something very profound. Overlooking those cliffs was not one crying father, but two. I’ll unpack it in a later blog, but in that moment of despair, I realized I had a Father who not only cared for my son more than I did, but who cared for me on my journey, too. 

That day I was looking for answers, but I got something more. One of my favorite authors speaks to that experience in a way that I’ve reread a hundred times:

So what if God exists?…What difference does that  make?…We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want–scientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all–would not in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all.  For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around here, knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.  It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence.  That is the miracle that we are really after.  And that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get.
– Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

That day, and so many days afterwards, I experienced the miracle of God’s presence on this very tricky journey. And that’s been enough, even when over and over I confront the question, “What if I’m wrong?”

Is God Big Enough to Handle Us Being Wrong?

Often in this process I’ve had to ask myself a different question, also: Is God big enough to handle us being wrong? There’s so much at stake, and yet God is still God. I am not. And my trust will have to rest on Christ alone.

A month or two ago our Study Team had a remarkable conversation around these questions. One of my friends on the team, Larry Dove (who said he’d be glad to have this in the blog) emailed us all later that night. Larry is a pastor up in Central Los Angeles and had done some thinking as he drove back up into the heart of the city. His response captures the kind of humility and dependence on God that I think we all need:

Driving home last night I pondered on the question – “what if we are wrong?” In summary, there is a possibility that we could/will encounter some erroneous thoughts, ideas, and premature conclusions over this issue. But our dependence on the Holy Spirit to continue to guide and drive this process in love (towards each other and the LGBTQ community) will keep us on the road of truth and reconciliation. I am not afraid of getting it wrong. I am more afraid of being convinced I have it absolutely right!

That’s what I’m counting on. As Jesus teaches us in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.”

How You Read the Bible Changes How You Approach LGBTQ Questions

13135371“Make sure you don’t listen to LGBT people’s stories until you’ve established what the Bible says about it.” That was the counsel of a pastor friend of mine when he heard that our church was going to be discussing human sexuality in the church.

We didn’t take that approach.

As our Study Team looked closely at Acts 15 in our sixth session, we realized how the early church handled disagreements about inclusion – and it was to listen to stories first. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the bible is not crucial – of course it is!  It just means that all readings of the Bible are affected by our cultural context. As a friend of mine says, “There’s no view from nowhere” – meaning, there’s no way to read the Bible without bringing your own perspectives and experiences to it.

I realize that some of the folks reading this blog don’t claim to be Christians, so I’m guessing this conversation may seem esoteric. Just to catch you up to speed, from the Christian point of view, the Bible plays a critical role in how we understand God, people, history, morality, and culture.

As we think about the Bible, I want to ponder it in three ways not necessarily connected to each other: a graphic, a theological construct, and a parable. I find these to be helpful ways to get at the connection of the Bible and questions around LGBTQ persons in the church.

A Graphic: Three Types of Beliefs

I think people hold their different beliefs with differing degrees of conviction, depending on the belief. On this idea I found the Study Team readings from Greg Boyd* particularly helpful. In terms of Christian theology, I’d paraphrase Greg Boyd here by saying that there are core beliefs, important beliefs, and opinions.Cylinder with labels

I think of core beliefs as those foundational building blocks of the faith, around which there is general agreement across the church. There are not a lot of these. The way I think about these building blocks is that they are best summarized by the historic statement of the Christian faith, the Apostles’ Creed. That statement focuses mostly on Jesus, but includes the Trinity, that God made the world, the unity of all believers, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life. Notably, it doesn’t include how God made the world, or exactly how Jesus is both God and human, or how salvation works, or anything about Hell. It’s not that those are unimportant. They just are not core beliefs.

Important beliefs, the middle category, might include all sorts of things like views on women’s ordination, baptism, and end times. Opinions, the last category, are less weighty matters, like what kind of music to have in worship or what qualifications to have for a youth pastor.

If core beliefs are indeed limited to the Apostles’ Creed or some other summary of the Christian faith (like many churches post on their websites), then it’s inherent to this whole conversation that there can be differences around important beliefs like the morality of various sexual practices. Those important beliefs about sexual morality, gender identity, and leadership qualifications are, well, important. But it’s hard to imagine that they are core beliefs. If we’re willing to admit that, wouldn’t it be realistic and helpful and even edifying to embrace people with differing views around these important beliefs… including beliefs about LGBTQ people in the church?

A Theological Construct: Is The Bible Inerrant?

The second perspective on how the Bible informs what we think about LGBTQ issues has to do with the weighty theological construct known as inerrancy. Holding to inerrancy, or not, makes a big difference in how you think about the topics at hand.

In our tenth session together, the Study Team considered The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics as well as numerous other articles and books about how to understand the Bible (see Session 10 in our Syllabus). Browse through them briefly, and you’ll get a sense for them. The Chicago statements tend towards being very clear about how clear the Bible is. One of the affirmations that stood out to me during our Study Team session was Article VII from the second statement:

We affirm that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.

After the diligent work we’d done on Genesis 1 & 2 and on the best traditional and progressive arguments on Romans 1, I really struggled with the simplicity of the Chicago Statement. Frankly, it seemed oversimplified. It’s not that the biblical texts don’t have meaning, it’s just that it’s so darn hard to figure out what that meaning is, particularly as a single text is weighed with all the other texts, each with their own emphases. But this isn’t an issue with just LGBTQ issues. Sociologist Christian Smith summarizes the breadth of the tensions Christians face on various issues:

The disagreements, to be specific, are over inerrancy (inerrantism versus infallibalist), providence (Calvinist versus Arminian), divine foreknowledge (Arminian versus Calvinist versus Open views), Genesis (the young earth, day-age, restoration, and literal views), divine image in humanity (the substantival, functional, and relational views), Christology (classical versus kenotic), atonement (penal substitution, Christus Victor, and moral government views), salvation (TULIP versus Arminian), sanctification (Lutheran, Reformed, Keswick, and Wesleyan), eternal security (eternal versus conditional), the destiny of the unevangelized (the restrictive, universal opportunity, postmortem evangelism, and inclusive views), baptism (believer’s versus infant baptism), the Lord’s Supper (spiritual presence versus memorial), charismatic gifts (continuationism versus cessationism), women in ministry (complementarian versus egalitarian), the millennium (premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism), and hell (the classical view versus annihilationism).

…On important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality.

Even very conservative scholars like D.A. Carson* recognize this wide spectrum of beliefs amongst those who hold a high view of scripture. So I struggle with how inerrancy is defined by the Chicago Statements and how it plays out in churches because it assumes a degree of certainty about what it calls the “literal, or normal, sense” of scriptures that I (and I believe most others) don’t see there.

Personally, I’m far more comfortable with how the Bible describes itself in 2 Timothy 3:16, which is that it’s inspired by God and it’s true: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” It seems that God was content to give us a Bible that doesn’t make itself starkly clear on all points, and yet is still inspired. I think that’s exactly the Bible God meant for us to have!

Practically speaking, this means that when we look at the Bible, there can be room for different perspectives on the same events and their meaning. Why else would there be four different Gospel accounts, after all? Or why include two different histories of the same kings in Israel’s history, each with very different emphases? Or why would Hebrews and Romans look at predestination so differently?

From my experience, which is limited for sure, inerrancy is more of a mindset about certainty than it is a theology. That longing for certainty prioritizes clarity, which leads to neatness and cleanness in the realm of theology. That tidy theology then tends to domineer the experiences and perspectives of sexual minorities, often attempting to smother differing ways to think about the Bible passages dealing with sexuality and gender.

I know people who are not inerrantists who fall on all sides of the spectrum of belief about LGBTQ issues, including both traditionalist and progressive. What encourages me about these people is their openness to dialogue, their curiosity, and their willingness to wrestle with the bible’s variety and nuance. I find this perspective a lot healthier in many areas, including conversations around sexuality and the Bible.

A Parable: Three Umpires

About twenty years ago, when I was trying to figure out how to think about postmodernism, I came across a parable that made a lot of sense to me. Now it helps me think about how the Bible speaks to questions surrounding inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. It goes like this:

Three baseball umpires are sitting at a bar talking about the game. ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes,’ says the first, ‘and I call ‘em the way they are.’

The second umpire protests, “There’s balls and there’s strikes. I call ‘em and that’s the way they are.”

The third umpire thinks for a minute and then speaks up. “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.”

Modernists approach truth as if it is easily and directly discernible; they believe they have direct access to meaning, therefore they say “I call ‘em the way they are.” The postmodernists leave everything up to the subject, with no connection to a separate reality that’s out there, so they say “I call ‘em and that’s the way they are.” Then there are what might be called the Critical Realists, those who recognize that there is indeed a reality out there which we’re trying to understand, but we don’t see it perfectly (it’s as though now we see through a mirror, dimly).  The Critical Realists realize that because of their own perspective and experiences, they can only do their best to get at that reality. Thus, they say “I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.”

I’ve grown tired of the easy answers on both sides, whether it’s throwing down a clobber verse out of context or it’s a pronouncement like “whatever you feel is right is right.” The clobber-er sounds like the first umpire to me, and the feel-er sounds like the second; one lays claim to the one true interpretation, and the other implies there’s no absolutes out there besides their own experience. I suppose they are similar in that they each try to define reality exclusively.

As I engage with more and more people around the Bible and LGBTQ concerns, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the best I can do is to say with the third umpire, “I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.” I’m doing my best, and it’s not easy, not neat, and not clean. And as best as I can tell that’s actually how the early church handled tricky questions about inclusion of the Gentiles, evidenced by the fact that their solution was short-lived and reversed a couple of times (see Mark 7, Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 8, 10, Romans 14-15, Revelation 2).

When it comes to sexuality and gender issues in the church, it’s not just the Bible that we’re talking about, although it is that. It’s how we view the Bible.


*D. A. Carson notes that “I speak to those with a high view of Scripture: it is very distressing to contemplate how many differences there are among us as to what Scripture actually says… The fact remains that among those who believe the canonical sixty-six books are nothing less than the Word of God written there is a disturbing array of mutually incompatible theological opinions.”

*Greg Boyd, Benefit of The Doubt. Chapter 8 – A Solid Center. Chapter 9 – The Center of Scripture.