David* and Ann* were two of the first gay people I met after my brother came out to me in the early 1990s. In moments of great vulnerability, each of them shared with me that they were attracted to people of the same sex. My memory is a bit hazy (I’m almost 50, after all) but I think I was the first person either of them had told about being gay. They both immediately shared that they wanted God to change their desires, and I was on board with that. I prayed that they would become straight, and I processed with them as they went through counseling, what was called ‘reparative therapy’ at the time.
But neither of their desires changed. What did change, however, was my theology.
I’ve known these two Christians for over twenty years. I’ve seen them wrestle with God, almost lose faith, and come through to the other side of some dark times. David is now married to another Christian man, and Ann is a committed single. Both are still attracted to people of the same sex. So do you think those friendships might have affected my theology? You bet.
My understanding of how prayer works, when God heals, and what it means to be made in God’s image were all pretty simple twenty five years ago. All three of those theological constructs have changed because of knowing David and Ann. I’ve had to allow a bit more mystery into my theology, a bit more flexibility, and a lot more grace. Before, everything was neat and tidy for me. And that’s not even to mention having to do a lot of rethinking about human sexuality.
Shifting Away From Tradition
At a pastors’ conference, Joe* approached me and asked to talk away from everyone else. On a long walk through the hills, he shared that he’d never thought much about his traditional views on sexuality until the day he came home early from church and walked in on his teenage son watching TV in a dress. That was the beginning of Joe’s journey of rethinking his theology.
I often talk with Christians who once held a traditional perspective about LGBTQ morality but have since become ‘affirming’ because a close friend or family member came out to them. For example, progressive New Testament scholar James Brownson shares in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality that his son coming out was a major motivator for him to re-evaluate his thinking.
As I wrote in my last post about How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church, there’s something powerfully motivating about shifting your thoughts from abstract theology to real people, especially people you love. Having LGBTQ people in your life whom you love deeply typically changes you. Here are two of the big ways:
- Your attitude becomes less judgmental. Unfortunately, this often comes only after a lot of tears or a few shouting matches. Crushing the spirit of a friend or loved one has a way of making you reconsider how you see them. Whether or not your perspective on morality shifts, this is still a theological shift because it means that Jesus is breaking open your heart for others in new and good ways.
- Your theology becomes ‘affirming’ – either because you re-evaluate your reading of the bible (for those who value scripture highly), or you simply allow your experience to dictate your morals and don’t want to condemn the sexual activity of your friend or loved one.
The one instance where I often see a lack of theological shift is when a parent finds out that a child is LGBTQ and, instead of processing that in a healthy way, clamps down on that information, turning it into a family secret. Often these families can feel like fortresses, where vulnerability and intimacy cower in the corners. If you’re part of a family like this, I’d be glad to be a safe place to process or help you find one. (contact me here).
Shifting in Other Ways
Last month, Ernie* invited me over to his house and shared with me that he’s gay. He told me of the struggles he’s had in different churches, the loneliness he’s felt, and the deep connection he has to Jesus that has come from his costly commitment to celibacy. Even though we were the only two in the house, he mostly whispered all of this to me, which seemed appropriate since it seemed we were on holy ground. I felt so honored, so privileged to be there with him, to listen to him, and to be able to be with him on his journey.
Having friends like Ernie changes you. Through conversations with my friends who are not embracing their same-sex attraction, my theology has changed. In particular,
- I’m realizing that I (and the church) idolize marriage – we view it as the highest form of relationship. We’re strangely uncomfortable with those who are single, always trying to set them up with someone – which is ironic since our founder was single. Celibate author Wes Hill has done the church a tremendous service in his website promoting spiritual friendship – which historically has been viewed as a higher form of relationship than marriage. Talk about being counter-cultural!
- I’m seeing how I (and the culture) obsess over sex – we view it as paramount in our personal identity. Those who are celibate in our midst stand as a stark contrast to the way our culture glorifies and commodifies sexuality, and we’re forced to rethink what it means to be made in the image of God.
- I’m realizing that my theology of discipleship has gone soft. Jesus says, “Let any who would come after me take up their cross daily and follow me,” but I want to negotiate with Jesus, haggling down the cost of following him. My friends who are choosing not to act on their same-sex attraction remind me of what it means to follow Jesus at all costs.
David, whom I mentioned earlier, came to see me recently. I met his husband, we walked through the neighborhood, we caught up. Just before we parted, he started to cry as he talked about how he’s met God on his journey since coming out to me twenty-five years ago. David caught me by surprise when he said, “Amidst all of the pain of this process, I wonder if God brought me into your life all those years ago so that you’d be better prepared to welcome your son when he came out.”
I think David is on to something.
*Most of the names and identifying details in this blog have been changed.