The other day we had friends over for lunch after church. These are good folks coming from a strong background in a Chinese American church.
Since they are new around City Church of Long Beach and have a lot of Christian experience, it struck me as the respectful thing to do to fill them in our our LGBTQ Study Team process. Typically, that’s not the sort of thing that evangelical Christians want to be surprised by after six months of connecting, serving and tithing – so I figured I would let them know up front. Thus, the lunch.
As their adorable boys were running around the sofa I said, “As I mentioned last week, I wanted to make sure you knew about our LGBTQ Study Team process. You guys are well grounded in the bible and theology and it seems wise to give you space to assess who we are as a church early on. I want to give you permission to ask whatever you want.”
Jeff jumped in first. “What’s your church governance structure?” Good question, but I’ll be honest, that’s not where I thought we’d start (or end, for that matter). Though not a sexy question, it made sense as that one unfolded into so many more – are there checks and balances for the pastor, is there shared leadership, what’s the vision of the church, etc. They wanted to know who we are as a church; governance, leadership and vision matter.
Then it was on to theology. “You guys don’t use the word ‘sin’ a lot when you preach,” Jon pointed out. “Why is that?” We unpacked what sin is and how to convey it to our unchurched context. Madeline breathed a sigh of relief when I mentioned I believe in total depravity, and there was really good conversation around total depravity not meaning that everyone is secretly an axe murder but that all of our actions and motives are tainted by selfishness.
From there it was questions about the Bible – is it trustworthy, inerrant, or what? And what is God truly like and how do we know God best? What’s the relationship between gospel and law, truth and grace, Jesus and God? And on and on and on. A great conversation. There was only one question that they didn’t ask.
They never asked about LGBTQ issues.
And it’s not because they were avoiding it. I just don’t think they needed to.
I could be wrong, but judging by the fact that they still worship with us, I think that they got enough of the answers they needed and are willing to go on the journey with us as we sort out the rest. A definitive stance on LGBTQ issues was not one of the answers required to determine if we are a faithful church who loves Jesus and lives on mission.
So how did the first century church handle disagreements about who was allowed in?
For us, people of the book, that seems like a good question to ask in order to get a framework for how to handle the tricky questions around sexuality today. In fact, the book of Acts in the New Testament has a whole chapter dedicated to handling questions of inclusion(Acts 15). Our LGBTQ Team studied it, and I was shocked by what we discovered.
The disagreement in Acts 15 arose because all the people in the early church were Jewish, and a bunch of non-Jews (including people of European descent like me) wanted in on following Jesus. The nice church people weren’t having it, so those who wanted to open things up got mad and caused a ruckus. Thus the first church council. At this big powwow, they studied the bible for an answer and then gave a nice clear decision that resolved things. I mean, it was the Apostles after all, so bible study and binding decisions should be in their wheelhouse, right?
Nope. That’s not how they went about the decision at all. And, to make things worse, their decision didn’t resolve things. Darn, it would have been a lot easier if they had done what we’d expected.
The Process of Deciding
If the Jerusalem Council had wanted to start with what the bible has to say about including non-Jewish people, there are a zillion places in the Old Testament that they could have referenced on the front end of their conversation (e.g., Genesis 17:1-14, Deuteronomy 9:3-5, Joshua 23:6-8 on the non-inclusion side and Genesis 12:1-3, Psalm 67, Isaiah 66:19-23 on the pro-inclusion side). But that’s not what they did.
Instead, the assembly heard from those on the pro-inclusion side of the debate “who reported everything God had done through them” to connect non-Jewish people to God (Acts 15:4). Then, they invited up the big dog, Peter, to tell his story of seeing non-Jewish people connect to God (Acts 15:6-11). In typical Peter fashion, he jumps in passionately, driving home his point that “God did not discriminate between us and them” (Acts 15:9). Then, just to make sure we don’t miss how this process worked, the council brought in the two ringleaders of the pro-inclusion party (Paul and Barnabas) to tell their stories “about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles [non-Jews]” (Acts 15:12).
So did you notice the process? It started with telling stories, then there was more telling of stories, and then they told more stories. Makes me wonder if, when discussing things like the place of LGBTQ people in the church, we should start with stories.
My point here is not that the pro-inclusion party won the day (in fact, they didn’t, at least not totally) or that inclusion for all is what we should do now. My point here is that their first priority was to listen to what God was up to. How much listening have you done around the place of LGBTQ persons in the church? For example, if we haven’t listened to Wesley Hill and Justin Lee, Julie Rogers and Eve Tushnet, and to the spectrum of stories of those in our own context – especially those who are LGBTQ themselves – then we’ve got work to do.
Interestingly, I had a friend and pastor counsel me at the beginning of this journey not to listen to people’s stories first or it might color how I saw the bible. I respect this leader, and I think he’s right about one thing – knowing people’s stories does change how you read the bible. I wish I had been insightful enough to share with him then what I now see in Acts 15, namely that listening to stories is a very biblical way to start the process of looking at the bible.
What happened on the heels of hearing those stories was a pronouncement from the head of the assembly:
When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me.Simon [Peter] has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.The words of the prophets are in agreement with this…” Acts 15:13-14
James did the mental math and lined up the stories he’d heard with the words of scripture and essentially said, “Let’s do this inclusion thing!” It’s interesting to me that he said that the scriptures agreed with the stories, not that the stories agreed with the scriptures (side note: that’s not the way my college bible study taught that things should be).
Then, to seal the deal, James quoted from the Old Testament prophet Amos (see Acts 15:16-18). But when I read that quotation in it’s original context, what stands out is how this passage specifically did not answer the question that had been asked. The question to the Council wasn’t whether non-Jewish people were going to seek God (which is what the quoted passage addressed) but, rather, for the non-Jewish people who did seek God, to what extent would they need to become Jewish on their spiritual journey. Would they need to be circumcised? Would they need to obey the Law? Those questions were not answered by James’s reference to the bible – which is the only passage of the bible quoted in our entire record of the Jerusalem Council!
From the best that I can tell, the assembly worked hard at listening to stories and then connected them to some of the general trajectories of the scriptures, rendering a decision as best as they could. Ironically, here we have the bible laying out that the “bible study method of making decisions” was not the first or even dominant form of decision making in the early church.
That first church council then nailed down the four things that were going to be required for inclusion of non-Jewish people. “You are to abstain from:
food sacrificed to idols,
the meat of strangled animals
sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29)
Maybe your church is more biblical than mine, but that’s not the list we use for our church membership class. I get #4, but those other three just don’t do it for me.
We can all agree that there is some cultural context going on with at least the first three on that list. But if we grant that the first three are culturally contextual, don’t we also have to ask if #4 is also culturally contextual?” (more to come in future blogs about various approaches to the tricky ‘when is a passage culturally conditioned?’ question).
What interests me most, however, is not the strangeness of the list but the lack of resolve that it gave the early church. This was the decision of the original apostles after extensive discussion; God was in on the decision (“it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us” Acts 15:28); it was written down and delivered to churches everywhere as authoritative. But it was emphatically NOT the end of the debate.
Within a decade, the apostle Paul would write to the churches in Corinth and Rome claiming that it was fine to eat food sacrificed to idols (#1 on the no-no list). In dealing specifically with food sacrificed to idols he says “eat whatever is put before you” (1 Corinthians 10:27) and he writes extensively about how we are free in Christ to eat whatever we want (see 1 Corinthians 8, 10, & Romans 14). In fact, it’s not that Paul was reversing the decision of that first council (which he participated in), but it was more that he was going back to Jesus himself who “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). So what in the world do we do with that?
Then, to increase the level of crazy-making, we have the book of Revelation. In that book, which is at the end of the New Testament and written several decades after Paul died, the apostle John wrote to the churches in Thyatira and Pergamum that Jesus condemned those who “ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14).
Here’s the Cliff Notes version (dates are approximate):
Jesus declares all food clean (Galilean countryside, AD 32)
Jerusalem Council declares some food unclean (Jerusalem, AD 49)
Paul declares all food clean (Greece and Rome, AD 57)
Jesus declares some food unclean (central Turkey, AD 90)
In case all of this talk of food is lost on you (since we’re talking about sex after all!), I want to point out that we see the same sort of shifts going on with moral issues related to sexuality in the bible. Whether it’s the place of eunuchs in the community or the permissibility of divorce or the role of procreation in marriage, the bible shifts over time and location in how it answers how those issues impact inclusion in the community of the people of God.
The way we manage the theological whiplash from these different perspectives within the bible is to look at the cultural context in each of those situations. Over the decades and distance, the church had to figure out what its boundaries were for inclusion – and that’s exactly what we’re up against.
On one hand it’s encouraging because we’re having to do the same work the early church had to do. On the other hand, it’s discouraging because the Bible doesn’t have a ready-made answer for us. It’s not like you can just dial up Acts 15, copy and paste the membership guidelines, and be done with the question of who is included or not in the church.
Acts 15 was such a great passage for our Study Team because it gave a template for how to talk about issues around inclusion.
First, do a lot of listening to stories. Second, take scripture seriously, which includes understanding its cultural context. Third, figure out which scripture applies, and in what way it applies, in our current cultural context.
What was most unnerving for me when studying Acts 15 was how it’s so clear that when it comes to disagreements about inclusion, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. In other words, it’s going to be a process and it’s not going to be easy.
The last question we asked Timothy on the day he came out to us (you can read about that day HERE) was, “So how would you like to process this going forward, and how can we come along side you?”
He thought about that a bit and said that he really wanted to be out – to be congruent in his life, to have his personal world and his public world aligned. So that meant telling people. “So who do you want to tell first?” was the natural follow up question.
Without hesitation, he said, “I want to tell my sister.” I admit, I teared up a bit at that. “Let’s have a family meeting and I can tell her there. Then I’ll start telling my friends one on one.” Somewhere in there it struck me as so odd that someone gay would tell his parents first, then his sister, and then his friends. In all my encounters with gay people, the order had always been reversed.
The next weekend we called a family meeting and Timothy shared with his sister – who was completely unfazed. There just wasn’t much to debrief after that conversation, or after the coffee dates he had with friends. We’d do a little prep beforehand each time to think through how a particular friend might respond and what might be helpful ways to approach them, but those conversations universally ended up positive (save one one problematic letter from a friend’s family member). We did a bit more prep work ahead of telling the grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles, but again, those conversations were low drama, with tons of love and support forthcoming.
From my perspective the most significant of those conversations was with my brother Porter – who had completely befuddled me when came out to me in 1990 (HERE is that story). On his journey away from faith, Porter had some pretty poor experiences with evangelical Christians. He’d always been kind and generous to me, but I suspected that being an evangelical pastor didn’t score me any bonus points over the years.
I talked to Porter a day or two after Timothy had called him to share his news. Porter could not have been more gracious to me. Of course he was delighted to have another gay person in the family – just to not feel so alone in some ways, I suppose. And he said kind words to me about our parenting of Timothy. But mostly I was struck by these words:
When I hung up the phone with Timothy, I cried and cried because I can hardly believe that someone’s coming out experience could go so well. It was such a different experience he was having – and would continue to have – than me. It was one of those moments in life, few and far between, where there is a clean, clear marker of the triumph of what is right, and in this case a very personal one.”
Something told me that wasn’t exactly how all of my evangelical friends would respond, but I was grateful for it and for such a good connection with my brother, whom I love.
At the end of our phone call, Porter said that as he’d been processing how stunning Timothy’s coming out process was, his friend Cary made an astute observation: “Porter, knowing you and your family, I can’t imagine a single other thing that could simultaneously both push you closer to God and your brother Bill farther away.” There’s a Greek word used in the Gospels to describe Jesus a couple of times – esplagesthai – whose meaning and sound capture that mix of happy and sad, anger and compassion, all intensely churning on the inside. When Porter shared that, I was esplagesthai.
Telling the Church
One of the groups of people Timothy told was his discipleship group, which went really well. We were debriefing later over coffee when he said, “So Dad, now that my friends are starting to know, it won’t be long before people in church start to hear that I’m gay. That’s going to be hard for you, isn’t it?” At times like that it was hard to remember he was just 15 years old.
So we did some strategizing about timing and who from church he wanted to tell face to face and who I would tell. His list wasn’t too long, but I ended up making a spreadsheet with 115 names on it, grouping them in concentric circles starting with who I would tell first. In the Christian world where homosexuality is such a hot topic, I figured that while most people would prefer not to have a pastor with a gay son, they would at least appreciate finding out that information first hand.
Besides being ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, City Church of Long Beach is also politically and ideologically diverse – people were and still are all over the map in terms of their thoughts and feelings about homosexuality. I had no idea how some of those conversations would go, but from conservatives to liberals, people really embraced me and our family as we shared that news. Mostly people expressed feeling privileged to be let in on our family life more deeply and honored to go on the journey with us.
There were a few bumps, of course. A few families left, and it was hard not to make the connection to Timothy being gay. Over teriyaki chicken, one family told me directly that they were leaving because they didn’t want Timothy to make their sons gay. Another family left because they didn’t want to be part of a church that was going to have conversations about homosexuality – they felt like the immorality of it was so evident that even engaging in dialogue about it was a break from following Christ. And I suspect a number of families felt/feel a bit anxious about our church because of Timothy being gay. Shoot, I get it – it wasn’t so long ago that I would have been very upset if my pastor’s son came out.
Looking through my journal from that season, I came across this line about how mentally draining it was to go into each conversation without knowing how people would react:
Tuesday, June 9, 2015 Last week, when I had dozens of conversations with people, I had one long massive headache for six days straight. Definitely a picture of the strain on me.
But I also received some shockingly gracious words, like those from our friends Vlad and Flor. I will close with their kindness.
Monday, June 8, 2015
Flor and I both appreciate you telling us. We want to make sure you know that we love Timothy very much. The fact that he is gay doesn’t change that. It never will.
We are encouraged to see his continued desire to follow Jesus. I know the church can be a very hurtful place for gay people but it sounds like the people surrounding your family are responding well to this news.
I know God wants to say something to us (Vlad, Flor, His Church, Timothy’s Mom and Dad, and Timothy) and I’m really curious about what that might be.
As you continue to process and hear God’s voice please feel free to bring us with you into those places as there might be a learning in this for all of us.
Flor and I will be processing some of the questions and thoughts we have with our pastor and community but at some point we would love to sit, talk and pray with you.
Also, let us know what we can do to serve and love your family well.
Please send our love to Timothy.
Vlad and Flor
The other parts of Timothy’s coming out story are here:
That’s what happens when you’re the speaker at a junior high retreat in the mountains, talking about God’s design for sexuality. It was a lot easier (though plenty awkward) doing Q & A with teenagers about oral sex and masturbation than it is to weigh in on the nuances of sexual and gender identity and the bible. But here we go anyway.
Bear with me because I obviously have so, so much to learn still. For this blog, there are just two things I want to say.
1. Labels Are Often Unhelpful
The first is that sexual identity is a social construct. In other words, we made up the labels we use, like ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’ And actually, it’s not just that we invented the labels, but that we also invented the categories of sexual identity (gay, straight, queer, transgendered) as a way of explaining and exploring things that we saw and experienced in the world. Jenell Williams Paris, a professor of anthropology at Messiah College writes:
Of all humans who have ever lived, very few have had sexual identities. Defined in a wide variety of ways, social identities related to sex (such as male and female) and gender (such as boy and girl) are common across world cultures. Identity categories based in sexuality (such as heterosexual and homosexual) are much less common. Most cultures that have ever been present on the earth, including biblical ones, didn’t have heterosexuals. They didn’t have homosexuals either, because heterosexuality requires homosexuality; each makes sense only with reference to the other. (1)
The reason this is important is that sexual identities like ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ are not very good social constructs. They tie one’s identity to the object of their desire. Our labels are only useful in so far as they help to express something about a particular sexual attraction. When we start to use them to define the entirety of who a person is, we lose something. Theologically speaking, that’s defining the imago dei more strictly than is warranted by the bible, especially since desire is so fickle. Our imago dei does not stem from the social constructs applied to our lives. It resides in the fact that we reflect the person of God.
The Kinsey Scale, though problematic in many ways, was helpful in introducing modern science to concept of a continuum of desire; namely, that there is variation in sexual attraction amongst a significant minority of people. Basically, not every human being can be defined as either homosexual or heterosexual. The ancients understood this, and though it may make us uncomfortable, a spectrum of sexual desire was assumed as normal. Plutarch wrote in the 1st century A.D. that:
the noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail. The lover of human beauty will be fairly and equably disposed towards both sexes. (Moralia, 767)
As if that sort of attractional variety weren’t enough to set our preconceived notions of sexuality on fire, the bible itself fans the flames. It uses the subversive category of eunuch to undermine the binary sexual identity we commonly assume today. For example, in the same breath as he talks about marriage and quotes the creation account of ‘male and female,’ Jesus references three types of eunuch (including those who were “born this way” – which suggests that Lady Gaga plagiarized Jesus! – see Matthew 19:12). Eunuchs in the ancient world were considered neither male nor female. They occupied a space somewhere in between, bending both sexual and gender norms, often criticized and marginalized. But as theologian Megan DeFranza points out:
[Jesus] did not ridicule them, as did Jews, Romans, and Greeks; nor did he speak of them as “proof of the Fall.” …Jesus heals the blind, the paralyzed, the possessed, the fevered, the leprous, the hemorrhaging, even the dead, in every case restoring them to full societal membership. In the case of the eunuch, however, there is no implication whatsoever of ‘illness’ or social ‘deformity’ in need of restoration. Instead, the eunuch is held up as the model to follow. (2)
All this is to say that the way we understand sexual identity today is distinct from the way that sexual identity has been understood throughout most of history. We have created categories and labels for discussing sexual identity that are specific to our place and time in history, and it is helpful for us in the midst of these conversations to remember that fact.
2. Some Distinctions that Bring Clarity
The second thing I want to say is that attraction is not the same as orientation, and that orientation is not the same as identity. The reason I want to say this is because our culture often confuses these three, and clarity here can really help people.
Mark Yarhouse, a research psychologist, does a nice job unpacking these distinctions. Building off of some of the ideas of the Kinsey Scale, he points out study after study that show there are a far more people who experience some attraction to the same sex than who have a same-sex orientation. He defines orientation as desires that are “strong,” “durable,” and “persistent” – meaning that the sexual desires last, are regular, and are powerful. Yarhouse then clarifies a third category, identity, which he defines as “a socio-cultural label that people use to describe themselves… imbued with meaning in our culture” (3). His point is that having a sexual identity comes with a whole lot of baggage. When you say you are gay or straight or bi or whatever label, you lump yourself in with the cultural understanding of those terms, which often includes a sort of ‘script’ (a term Yarhouse uses) that tells you who you should be – and inevitably that cultural script differs from the biblical script. Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack in this argument, and he gives it a good shot in his book (referenced below) – and there are plenty of sides to that discussion. I find his three circles helpful in describing realities I come across as I engage in more and more of these conversations.
I think of a young woman who told me a while back she was asexual. I didn’t doubt her experiences that led her to that conclusion, and I was genuinely curious about her story. However, since I knew her and her family well, I couldn’t help but think to myself, There’s so much cultural freight that comes along with such an identity. You’re not even twenty years old yet – are you certain you’re asexual? And numerous studies actually show that younger people often have even more varied sexual attractions and experiences than older people (and that by the age of 25 the typical person has generally stabilized in their orientation). All of that to say, I wasn’t surprised last week when I found out that she was indeed no longer identifying as asexual, had broken up with her girlfriend, and was about to start dating a male. Needless to say, she’s moved away from defining her experience as an identity (‘asexual’) to now just describing who she’s attracted to.
I share these thoughts about the attraction-orientation-identity distinctions because I find them helpful in framing questions when I talk with people about their sexual feelings, thoughts, and experiences. I’m far more inclined to ask questions about attraction and experience and far less hasty in drawing conclusions by saying things like, “Oh, so you’re gay.”
The first is that I’ve got a lot of work to do in thinking about what it means to be made in the image of God. I’m going to have to explore that in a future blog because it runs deep, and it’s connected not only to God’s original design in creation but God’s ultimate design for the new creation.
The second is that these conversations work best in relationship. Recently I applied to Evangelicals for Social Action for a spot at their Dialogue about Sexual and Gender Diversity in the Church roundtable. I was plowing through the questionnaire and hit this question: How do you view people who are transgender? Because I was up against a deadline, I hurriedly wrote down what came first to mind: As my friends. Hmm. That thought had never occurred to me before. That question tapped into the reality that I now have a friend with whom I go out to coffee regularly, and we’ve had some fascinating conversations, not just about their experiences as a transgender person but about their experiences of life in general.
There’s so much to learn and so much to unlearn.
I’d highly recommend the three books I quoted from in this piece. They are:
Jason Brown was my co-founder and co-pastor at City Church of Long Beach for 3 1/2 years and is a dear friend. He now lives in Iowa and works in the financial services sector.
I was a senior in college when I first wondered what the Bible and Christian faith had to say about homosexuality. It was 1993 and I was one of the leaders of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Central College. One of our worship leaders, a freshman I didn’t know, came out of the closet. We were wondering what, if anything, we needed to do.
Honestly, I hadn’t given the subject of homosexuality much thought. Mostly this was because I didn’t have to. The broader cultural debate was just beginning. I didn’t have any gay friends . . . at least none that had ever opened up to me. There was no presenting issue that forced me to consider this subject theologically or biblically. Until now.
As I entered the conversation about homosexuality, I quickly discovered that a lot of people had thought a lot more about this than I had. And the people who had thought about it had strong opinions. I was admittedly naïve and new to the conversation, but it seemed like there were two groups of people in my relational sphere who actually cared about the issue.
Group 1 said, “Jesus is Lord and the Bible is God’s word.” This group made a Biblical case for why homosexual practice is sinful. Most – no, make that all – of my evangelical Christian friends were in this group.
Group 2 didn’t think Jesus was Lord and didn’t view the Bible as authoritative. This group didn’t see anything wrong with homosexual orientation and relationships.
I had lots of conversations with people in both groups. Both were passionate, surprisingly so, about the issue. Each wanted to convince me they were right. Both groups had decent points to make. I found out the stakes were high. For folks in Group 1, the discussion was actually about the authority of Jesus and the Bible. For folks in Group 2 it was about liberty and justice for all.
Honestly, I didn’t meet anyone in Group 1 who thought homosexual relationships were a legitimate expression of human sexuality. Similarly, I didn’t meet anyone in Group 2 who thought that marriage should be restricted to a man and woman.
One group, though, identified with Jesus and the Bible. And this fact, despite some of the reasonable arguments on the other side, made the decision easy. I was definitely with Group 1. They were the Group who wanted to follow Jesus and took the Bible seriously. And, by corollary, I accepted Group 1’s approach to the issue. It seemed the only option.
Fast forward ten years. It’s 2003 and I’m an Area Director for InterVarsity. Another leader of the InterVarsity chapter came out the closet. In addition to being a leader in InterVarsity, he was the student body president – and someone I had developed a friendship with. I helped the students and staff of InterVarsity figure out what, if anything, we needed to do about this.
We decided we needed to ask him to vacate his leadership position – not because he declared he was gay, but because he declared his sexual identity a gift from God, was openly seeking a same-sex relationship, and was proactively working to change InterVarsity’s position on the issue. He didn’t vacate his leadership position, so we told him that while we would welcome his involvement in InterVarsity, he was no longer allowed to lead.
For several reasons this incident was a bigger, more complicated deal than the one a decade earlier. That particular InterVarsity chapter was one of the largest in the country at the time (over 500 students). Homosexuality had moved from the margins of society to something that was considered normal on college campuses – more normal than being Christian. The person in question was a friend who, it seemed to me, had charted this course deliberately to try to create a very public debate. Plus, the conversation between “conservatives” and “liberals” on this issue had grown increasingly heated. Our decision received national attention. People on both sides of the issue hated and loved us and let us know it.
In the ten years between the first and second incident, I had done a good deal of reading, thinking and talking about the subject of homosexuality. I was much more familiar with the relevant Biblical texts, and there was a growing appreciation for the fact that the church had spoken with near unanimity on this issue for 2,000 years.
I had also read about some of the social science and had come to the conclusion that sexual orientation wasn’t a choice – something I did think in 1993 – but something we were more or less born with. And here’s another thing. I had several conversations with college students who were wrestling, often through tears, with their gender identity. This wasn’t my experience as a college student, but was definitely my experience in working with college students.
And one other thing. On several occasions, I saw someone in Group 1 move to Group 2 as his/her view on homosexuality changed. Moving towards greater acceptance of homosexual practice coincided with moving away from belief in Jesus as God and the Bible as authoritative. If I had a conversation with a Group 1 person who said, “I’m rethinking homosexuality,” I could expect that by the end of the conversation he/she would have also said, “I’m beginning to wonder about Jesus.” This was my experience, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
So, even though there had been a great deal of cultural ferment in the decade since my first encounter with this issue, the Group 1/ Group 2 paradigm seemed largely intact. There were those who denied the Lordship of Jesus, viewed the Bible as interesting but not particularly trustworthy, and had completely accepted homosexual orientation and practice as normal. Then there were those who maintained an “orthodox” view of Jesus and the Bible and believed homosexual practice was sinful.
I was still firmly in Group 1 because I obviously wasn’t in Group 2. And, as hard as it is to believe, I didn’t know anyone, directly or indirectly, in Group 1 who had the same view of homosexuality as those in Group 2. (I now know these people existed, but I didn’t come across them in conversation or in the books I was reading at the time.)
Well, it’s 2017 and the 1993/2003 Group 1/Group 2 paradigm has evolved. It’s not that Group 2 has changed. I suppose they’ve changed numerically. There’s lots more Group 2 folks. But, the doctrine (can I call it that?) of Group 2 has remained mostly the same: they don’t think Jesus is Lord and don’t view the Bible as authoritative and don’t see anything wrong with homosexual orientation and relationships.
However, Group 1 has changed.
Now, there are people in Group 1 who believe Jesus is Lord, the Bible is authoritative, AND the practice of monogamous, life-long homosexual relationships is to be accepted if not celebrated. Group 1 folks – those who follow Jesus and the Bible – believe different things about homosexuality. Group 1 people aren’t moving to Group 2 as their view on homosexuality changes. I’m sure I’m mixing metaphors, but this is a sea change and it has been a tough pill for me to swallow.
Admittedly, I’ve questioned the faithfulness of the people in Group 1 who believe something different from me on the issue of homosexuality. But these people sit across the table from me (sometimes literally) and assure me they love Jesus and the Bible. They’ve even told me they’re seeing things differently because of their fidelity to Jesus and the Bible. I had none of these conversations in 1993 or 2003, but they are a regular occurrence these days.
When I first started having these “across-the-table” conversations – somewhere in the neighborhood of three years ago – I thought, “You’re crazy.”
There’s a problem, though. I know them. They have faces. I know they aren’t crazy. I know they love Jesus. I know they’re reading their Bible (sometimes more than me). And they are as passionate in wanting to remain in Group 1 as I am. Both of us are absolutely certain we’re not in Group 2.
I’ve been wondering what it would mean to let these folks, my friends who share the same core beliefs but think differently about homosexuality, be in Group 1. I know the wondering is in some ways silly. It assumes I can deny them entrance, which is above my pay grade. So, maybe a better way of putting it is that I feel like I have no choice in the matter. We’re both in Group 1. We’re both on the same team, so to speak.
Which makes me anxious.
I’ve got no problem sitting across the table from someone who shares that he doesn’t think Jesus is God or that the Bible is no longer authoritative (I realize there’s a big range of opinions on exactly what the authority of the Bible means with Group 1 folks) and saying, “God bless you. I’m glad you’re my friend. I hope we keep eating together. But we’re not on the same team.” I actually think it’s healthy to acknowledge we’re in different groups.
For whatever reason, I’m nervous about doing this with someone who agrees on the core stuff – Apostle’s Creed type stuff – but differs with me on another issue, even a really important issue. I’m definitely not a church historian (or theologian, as you can tell), but it seems like we’ve done this for 600 years. Our view or their view on something changes, so I create a new group or they create a new group. And the process of creating these new groups is rarely pleasant. Is it a violation of Jesus’ prayer that we be one – so that the world might know Jesus? Maybe.
Staying together is incredibly messy and painful. It will require an excruciating level of trust. I have no idea what it looks like to operate as a church or denomination that allows the different views on homosexuality a voice. It’s a possibility I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. My practical side says, “Let’s just get into different groups.” But, I’m not sure this is the right thing to do.
This the backstory to when my son, Timothy, came out as gay (here is Part 1).
Timothy and I have always spent a lot of time together. I stayed home with him full time the year after he was born while Katy finished up her medical residency. As he grew up I took Thursdays off so we could have what we called ‘big adventures’ (even though they were more like feeding the ducks at the pond). As time went on, that morphed into ‘hot chocolate walks’ where I’d make him hot chocolate early in the morning and we’d walk around the neighborhood and talk.
One of the things we talked about was sex. On one ‘hot chocolate walk’ in 6th grade we went through the whole sex ed curriculum that his school was about to do with his class. On another we talked through pornography and what it is and what to do about it. By the time he was thirteen I would occasionally ask on a walk about how much skin he was seeing on screens and how it made him feel and which girls he thought were cute.
Gradually I realized the things he was sharing didn’t line up with my experience as a teenager. He was a lot more pure than I was by far, but that wasn’t what gave me pause. It was the direction of his impulses, the questions that he was asking, and his persistent lack of interest in girls. Katy and I would debrief those conversations at night when the kids were in bed, and I started to wonder. And to dread.
Then the day came. We’d gone to the Apple Store at the mall and on the way out passed two huge posters of models not wearing much clothing. I dragged my eyes away from the scantily clad girl in the one in time to notice Timothy absorbed in the scantily clad man in the other. It hit me like a ton of bricks. My son is attracted to men.
The story for me splits in two at that point. One piece of the story is about me and God; the other’s about me and Timothy.
What Happened in my Relationship with Timothy
I realized that Timothy didn’t know how to articulate his sexual development and that it was my job as his father to walk with him on that journey. That meant asking a lot of questions, creating space for him to ask his, and doing a whole lot of listening. As I prayed about it and as Katy and I talked it through, I realized that I did not want to ‘out’ my son to himself. He needed to go on his own journey and figure out his own attractions. I didn’t push him to make conclusions about himself; instead, over the course of the next 18 months or so I continued to be a conversation partner and I tried to resource him in a number of ways.
One of those ways was to provide some reading material. I started to become aware of some thoughtful authors on Christianity and LGBTQ issues, so I left books around the house and he’d pick them up and we’d talk about them (Love is an Orientation by Marin; Homosexuality and the Christian by Yarhouse, Torn by Lee, Washed and Waiting by Hill). One night he was processing about how his friends were expressing their sexuality, and he was curious if there were other ways to think about attraction, so we talked through the Kinsey Scale (though imperfect, it’s a helpful analytic way to look at sexual attraction on a continuum instead of the usual binary). Since I led the youth discipleship group he was in and they wanted to talk about hot topics, we covered the six main Christian views on the morality of homosexuality.
By this time, our ‘hot chocolate walks’ had transitioned into coffee dates, and the conversations continued to deepen. Those were rich times, leading up to the conversation at Starbucks I wrote about HERE when he came out to me and Katy.
What Happened in my Relationship with God
The second side of my story was with God. It wasn’t a very pretty season for me spiritually.
I just about lost my faith.
As I think back now, there were three main things going on for me: guilt, fear, and sadness. Like any good American male, I expressed them primarily as anger.
The guilt came from worrying that I had caused Timothy to be gay. In the 1990s I read all of the Christian reparative therapy material and followed Exodus International closely. It was the company line that a distant father was the primary cause of homosexuality. Today, even good conservative researchers like Mark Yarhouse have debunked that theory, but I hadn’t read Yarhouse yet. I was wracked with guilt that I was a terrible father – that I had ruined my beloved son.
The fear came from my experiences with other Christians who had come out as gay – they had all given up their faith. Nothing is more important to me than knowing and loving Jesus, and so I couldn’t imagine anything worse than my son turning away from him. I would lie in my bed at night staring at the ceiling thinking about this – it just about ruined me.
The sadness came from the loss of my dreams. So many of my dreams for Timothy were dreams that included him being straight. When he was born I’d written a letter to his future wife. When he turned 13 we climbed Cloud’s Rest Peak in Yosemite to talk through how to find and court a godly woman. I was all geared up for the dating talks. Not to mention dreams of having the ‘traditional’ family. All those dreams evaporated and I was left with wet cheeks and a snotty nose from crying so hard.
Jesus and I had some very direct conversations those months. Early on I was not above bargaining, begging, screaming, blaming, cursing and threatening. I said some things to him that I never dreamed of saying to anyone, much less to the living God. I suppose that might come across as childish or theologically immature or perhaps dangerous. So be it. I don’t regret it.
For me, there was and is real loss in my son being gay. It’s not the way I wanted it to be. Facing that reality has been perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and, strangely, I would say that it’s been the very thing that has brought me closer to Timothy and closer to God.
There’s more to this journey that I hope to post in the next week or so.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Fred said, “I believe every sin listed in Romans 1 remains a sin today. I just don’t think one of them is being in a committed same-sex relationship.” What?
That was a comment Fred Harrell made to a group of pastors and seminary students in March of 2015 at a denominational training in San Francisco. I had never heard anything like it. By this point, I had heard plenty of people say they didn’t think that gay relationships were wrong, but Romans 1 was never part of that conversation – it was avoided awkwardly or dismissed as irrelevant, or perhaps the whole idea of sin was said to be obsolete. But to pair a clear affirmation of sin’s relevance while approaching Romans 1 unflinchingly from the progressive side, well, that was a new approach.
Fred Harrell and Ken Korver are the lead pastors of the two largest churches (City Church San Francisco and Emmanuel Reformed, respectively) in our part of the denomination, and they differ on how they think the church should relate to LGBTQ persons. Ken stood up the day following Fred’s comments and shared passionately about how he saw Fred’s perspective as flawed. In Ken’s words, “the perspective that Fred is taking is not a biblical perspective.”
I was familiar with Ken’s approach (I had worked for Ken for fifteen years, and we’d had some conversations about his perspective), but I’d never seen Ken in a dialogue like this. For me, it was a gift to be able to listen to the two of them together – rarely have I seen civil conversation between people with such different perspectives. That was the first of three conversations I’ve been a part of with Ken and Fred.
The second conversation I witnessed was also in San Francisco, where, in October 2016, they were on a panel of denominational leaders addressing different ways of looking at LGBTQ issues. Again, they were not in agreement. But they were sitting about 10 inches from each other, and there was an obvious rapport and respect between the two. After that conversation, I wasn’t sure if the two of them could stay in the same denomination (although I hope they can). But I never doubted that they both loved Jesus and submitted to God’s word and that they both believed the other to be a true Christian.
The third conversation with Fred and Ken took place in Long Beach as part of our Study Team. Because of the distance and schedules, we couldn’t get the two of them here on the same day, but we hosted each of them for an afternoon with the Study Team to hear their personal stories of connecting with LGBTQ people, their theological journeys, and what they perceive God saying about these issues.
There are certain assumptions that Christians often make about those who disagree with them on these matters, and having Ken and Fred here was so helpful to clear the air of those judgments.
Often, progressives dismiss traditionalists by saying, “Well, they don’t know anyone who is gay so of course they think that. They are just homophobes.” Ken put that idea to rest. He’s got tons of friends who are gay and has led groups with gay men for decades, caring for them, and journeying with them spiritually. In fact, I just spent some time recently with a man who was in a group led by Ken way back in the 1990s, and although he sees the scriptures differently than Ken, he has nothing but positive things to say about how gracious, supportive and kind Ken was to him and the rest of the men in that group.
Often the traditionalists judge the progressives as not dealing with scripture honestly or deeply. Fred couldn’t have been better at addressing that issue. He easily can jump between the Greek construction of arsenokoitai to the New Testament context for eunuchs to the strengths of Webb’s ‘redemptive movement hermeneutic.’ Fred knows his stuff, and he’s clearly not avoiding the Bible. In fact, he holds his progressive perspective on LGBTQ issues because of the Bible.
I’m grateful for Ken and Fred taking time out of their schedules to help our Study Team discern the leading of the Holy Spirit. I’m grateful for those who have gone before me in thinking about these things and are willing to share their perspectives.