Fruit & Roots

I’ll get right to the point: we’ve got to talk about LGBTQ inclusion in the church. I know there is a lot of emotion swirling around this conversation. People and churches are afraid to “have the talk” for many reasons – fear of conflict, change, loss, the unknown. Churches and denominations split over this. It is not an easy task. Some churches prefer to ignore the conversation altogether for as long as they possibly can. If we don’t talk about it, we don’t have to deal with it. Some churches proclaim their position (affirming or non-affirming) without any conversation. This isn’t up for debate – homosexuality is sinful. Or, This isn’t up for debate – God loves everyone and everyone is welcome here. Some churches draw the conversation out over years, trying to find a way forward that pleases everyone. If we keep talking about it, we’ll eventually reach a consensus. Some churches look for a third way. Isn’t there some way to compromise to keep both sides happy?

There’s no doubt about it – this is a difficult issue. We cannot, however, allow difficulty to prevent us from pressing into this conversation, because lives are at risk. For those of you who have theological skin in the game, please recognize that those of us who also have physical and emotional skin in the game bear the weight of this issue in ways you do not. Whatever you feel and however uncomfortable or scary it may be for you, it is exponentially more for us. This “issue” is our lives, our futures, our relationships, our wellbeing.

“I know that many pastors are afraid of losing members, money or their very jobs by having this conversation. It happens. These are very real concerns. But do they outweigh the need for all people to have a place to worship? You need to buckle up, count the cost, and do the right thing… You will save more lives than you will lose church members.” – Pastor Mark Wingfield, 2019 Reconcile & Reform Conference

If you can agree that we need to engage in conversation about LGBTQ inclusion, I hope you can also agree that how we shape this conversation is equally as important. Matthew Vines, in his book God and the Gay Christian, offers a lens through which we might evaluate our teachings regarding sexuality and same-sex relationships. Drawing from Jesus’ fruit metaphor in Matthew 7, Vines points to the bad fruit of non-affirming biblical interpretations: “Sadly, negative attitudes toward gay relationships have led to crippling depression, torment, suicide, and alienation from God and the church… If for no other reason, those destructive consequences should compel Christians to take a closer look at the relevant Scripture passages.”

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Vines’ “test the fruit hermeneutic” has been criticized as a “gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ words,” that “removes the authority from the word of God and gives the reader the authority to scrutinize the Bible’s truthfulness based on whether or not it hurts people’s feelings” (see Denny Burk’s blog post, “Beware a ‘Test the Fruit’ Hermeneutic”). Setting aside the gross erasure of LGBTQ people’s suffering by rephrasing it as “hurt feelings,” let’s address what seems to be the heart of the matter: biblical authority. Many who hold to non-affirming readings of scripture fear that questioning and/or reinterpreting passages that seem to clearly condemn homosexuality would require rejecting the Bible as “God-breathed” (NIV) or “inspired by God” (NASB). For example, if Paul says that “homosexuals” won’t “inherit the kingdom of God” (NKJV/NASB, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), how would it be possible to affirm same-sex relationships and not spurn God’s word? A post dedicated to ideas of biblical authority and the way we read certain passages is necessary to unpack some of the dynamics in play here. For now, let me ask this: Would you be willing to”take a closer look” at scripture, asking questions and considering different interpretations of passages that seem clear right now if you could do so while affirming that “[e]very part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way” (MSG, 2 Timothy 3:16)?

In the workshop I presented earlier this month at The Reformation Project’s Reconcile & Reform Conference, I root Vines’ “test the fruit” approach in scripture by “reframing the gospel” according to “Jesus’ kingdom vision.” I have never been satisfied by affirming interpretations that seem to minimize the Bible’s ability to guide my sexual identity and expression in faithfulness to God. For years I forced myself to keep holding on to an ex-gay or side-b (mandated celibacy) position because I was unconvinced when reading “revisionist interpretations” (see James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality). I am a person of the text. I am most energized and passionate when studying scripture and discerning how to shape my life according to its revelation of God’s vision for humanity. This is why I consider deeply rooting LGBTQ inclusion in the Bible, and specifically in light of Jesus’ life and teaching, as essential.

Later this week I will dig into what I mean by “Jesus’ kingdom vision” and how that “reframes the gospel.” As we enter the season of Advent, reflecting on the longing for salvation that is promised in God’s delivering presence, let us open our hearts in longing for a faithful way forward that produces the fruit of healing, reconciliation, freedom from oppression, and love.

Moving the Conversation Forward

Conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in the church, if they are had at all, often devolve into “lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades” meant to “end discussions” rather than find a way forward (listen to Pete Enns tackle this in Episode 70 of The Bible for Normal People). Many times “agreeing to disagree” is a euphemism for dismissing the person we disagree with, checking out and retreating to our respective sides. The problem with that retreat, however, is that we are saying to members of the body of Christ, “I have no need of you,” severing our connection. LGBTQ lives are at stake here. As long as our identity and relationships are up for debate, the very communities meant to be a source of life in Christ are instead bringing suffering and death. The church has to find a way forward.

Hundreds of people recently gathered at The Reformation Project’s Reconcile and Reform Conference in Seattle, WA to explore that way forward. I was honored to present the workshop, Reframing the Gospel: How LGBTQ Inclusion is Central to Jesus’ Kingdom Vision. My aim was to contribute to what James Brownson in his book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, calls “a new chapter in the church’s debate over same-sex relationships.” He critiques both the “abstract and ill-defined conceptions such as gender complementarity” of traditionalist interpretations and the “overly general notions such as justice and love” of revisionist interpretations and identifies the need for “a more specific and nuanced cross-cultural biblical vision for gender and sexuality, with particular attention to the implications of that vision for gay and lesbian people in the church.” I’ve spent most of my life studying the Bible seeking such a vision, and a few months ago I read a book that inspired the idea for my workshop.

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Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh inspired a connection that became clear to me between Brownson’s call and the “test the fruit hermeneutic” that Matthew Vines offers in his book, God and the Gay Christian. Drawing from Jesus’ teaching about false prophets in Matthew 7:15-18, Vines concludes, “Jesus’ test is simple: If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.” Noting that “negative attitudes toward gay relationships have led to crippling depression, torment, suicide, and alienation from God and the church,” he urges “Christians to take a closer look at the relevant Scripture passages.” Some non-affirming Christians such as Denny Burk, however, argue that Vines’ approach “twists Jesus’ teaching… into a tool for suppressing biblical texts that clearly condemn homosexuality.” Burk is concerned about the lack of objectivity and subsequent “ethical anarchy” he sees in Vine’s hermeneutic. Burk insists that the “good or bad quality of the fruit [of non-affirming teaching] is determined solely by its conformity to God’s revelation in Christ,” not “any particular sinner’s subjective impression of it.” Specifically, the “personal distress” or “hurt feelings” of gay people should not cause Christians to conclude that non-affirming biblical interpretations are problematic or need revision. Burk echoes the traditionalist concern that the Bible remain authoritative, its meaning anchored in God rather than easily manipulated by the human potential for self-deception. If this discussion is going to move forward, affirming biblical interpretations have to convincingly address this important concern. This is what Brownson is getting at when he insists on a “cross-cultural biblical vision.” While reading Romans Disarmed, a light came on for me that illuminated a possibility for reframing the conversation: “the good news of the kingdom” proclaimed and embodied by Jesus that Paul, in Romans 1, sets up as a radical counter to the Roman Empire’s gospel of Pax Romana, is the root from which the tree of LGBTQ inclusion is nourished and allowed to bear the good fruit of life in Christ.

The workshop I presented at the conference was my first attempt at communicating how I connect the dots between a test the fruit hermeneutic, a need for affirming teaching to be deeply rooted in scripture as an authority for faith and life, and the biblical narrative arc of God working to establish his reign among humanity, especially as it is revealed in “the good news of Jesus Christ.” From now through Advent, I’ll share a series of posts unpacking the workshop presentation with additions as I continue to develop and clarify my idea. Then I plan to release a series exploring real-life stories and experiences of the good fruit of affirming biblical interpretation. As we in the LGBTQ community long for the church to offer “good news of great joy” for us, we wait expectantly for Jesus’ liberating presence to be manifested in our midst in new and deeper ways.

 

Note: For those interested in the list of resources I cited during my workshop, click here.

National Coming Out Day

I hid from myself for 20 years. The first time I put language to my feelings, scribbling the words, “I like her, like that,” in my journal, I knew I had a secret I had to keep locked away from everyone. When my parents found out, we started going to church. In the pews week after week, I heard that the path away from hell began with acknowledging I am a sinner without hope of salvation. That part was easy. The intense shame I felt about my “homosexual temptations” was evidence of a corrupted, sinful nature. Throughout my teenage years, guided by my Christian community, I constructed a reality I wanted to believe was real. I amputated part of myself and prayed I’d find healing.

Journal Entry, August 1, 1997

Lord, I want to experience complete healing. I haven’t really been struggling right now, but I want some security. If this struggle keeps me away from you, Lord – that’s enough reason to want that door closed.

I felt tortured by games like Never Have I Ever and Skeletons in the Closet. The entire point of these “party games” was to embarrass each other by revealing “dark secrets.” One girl stole a candy bar from the gas station market. Another snuck into her dad’s liquor cabinet and took a gulp of whiskey. Someone else cheated on last week’s math test. These were the things that humiliated my friends, and it seemed that disclosing them provided a bit of comfort in not being the only one to do something bad. But I didn’t just have a skeleton in my closet; I was the skeleton in the closet. Instead of doing a dark deed, I lived with darkness inside of me. It is no wonder that “closeted” resonates with so many LGBTQ people who have spent any amount of time hiding their sexuality or gender identity. Closets are dark, cramped spaces filled with cobwebs, monsters, and skeletons. To “live” in the closet is often a matter of survival, but it is also death-dealing, both metaphorically and literally.

I tried as hard as I could over the years to hold my closet door closed. My intense desire to authentically connect with others, to be known and loved, sometimes cracked open the door. I was desperate for someone to peek in and tell me I wasn’t a horrible person. Yet during my first year of college, as I was clumsily trying to figure out how to build friendships while being so guarded, I “fell.” After sharing my struggle with one of my roommates, we began a relationship.

Journal Entry, November 19, 1998

I have this sick feeling inside of me. Why can’t I focus on God? Why can’t I do the right thing? I really thought I could do this. Where does this leave me? Can I possibly be forgiven? I feel so alone. I deserve hell. I’m exhausted from all of this. I feel sin-soaked. I can’t hold this anymore. God, please don’t turn away. All I have left is to believe you’ll forgive me and change me. Lord, I feel so bad I want to die. This struggle is so hard.

I spent that year in terrible inner conflict. What could have been an experience of young love and self-discovery was instead a cycle of giving in, drowning in shame and recommitting myself to obey God.  When I transferred to another Christian college, I was determined to get right with God, and that meant overcoming homosexuality. For the next several years I threw myself into being ex-gay. That identity was another closet, one I constructed around the other to hide that deeper secret. Being ex-gay held out hope that I would not be rejected or alone. It promised belonging and offered a narrative to make sense of my struggle.

I followed up my undergraduate biblical studies degree with seminary. Through my theological studies, I began deconstructing parts of my faith that seemed problematic; however, I did not allow myself to apply my critical thinking skills and theological tools to the issue of homosexuality. Instead, I spent much of the next decade shoring up each piece of the structure that held up my non-affirming position, even when it meant only keeping one step ahead of the cracks and weakness that kept appearing. I consistently suffered from depression and anxiety during this time.

Journal Entry, October 22, 2003

I’m really afraid of God right now. I keep feeling like he is mad at me or is disappointed in me – that he’s going to leave me or punish me by taking everything away from me. I don’t know him right now as my loving Savior and I don’t know how to lean on him and run to him and trust him when I am afraid of his judgment, condemnation or rejection. But I need him. I need his love. I need his guidance. I need his peace. I’m scared of how broken I am. I’m scared that will mean great loss. I’m scared that will mean a lot of pain. I’m scared that will mean rejection from God.

Hiding from the reality of my sexual orientation required I repress or numb my deepest desire for connection and partnership. I convinced myself that the ache and longing I felt would be made bearable within meaningful friendships. A dream of intentional community fueled my hope for belonging and love. When I could no longer deny that I was gay, I still tried following the path I had been on by submitting to a life of celibacy. Terrified of losing the little sense of belonging I had within my non-affirming church, professional and family relationships, I could not risk coming out of the closet. Yet, staying in was killing me.

A dear friend and mentor encouraged me to revisit my understanding of my sexuality and the theology surrounding it. She saw that my depression was linked to the part of me I refused to honestly examine. Her encouragement turned a key to what I had locked away. Over two years I was able to open the door, step out, adjust my eyes to the light, see the truth and walk forward in peace as a gay Christian. In 2013, I came out as a lesbian who had reconciled her faith and sexuality.

Reading through my old journals to figure out what I wanted to share today for National Coming Out Day, I felt a lot of compassion for the me pouring her heart out in those pages. I was trapped within an existence where I was barely surviving. Even though my theology long rejected the image of God I learned from my first years as a Christian, I was still haunted by the feeling in my gut that I was a “sinner in the hands of an angry God.” Year after year I expressed so much fear and shame. Year after year I fought a losing battle against despair. Reading the words, “I want to die,” in my handwriting so many times reminds me of the oppressiveness of living in the closet.

I came out six years ago, and for six years I’ve been living life more at peace and with more hope and joy than ever before. Life has been full. I fell in love and married my amazing wife. I’ve met so many beautiful LGBTQ Christians living and loving courageously. I have preached, taught and served with more honesty and energy. As I’ve shown up more fully in my life and let myself be seen, I’ve opened myself to a quality of connection for which I only previously longed. Of course there has been deep pain and loss. Life is not without struggle. However, the last six years have been such a gift. No longer burdened by hopelessness, I intend to live fully as a practice of gratitude.

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Enjoying a wine tasting day in Napa with my wife, Kim.

When I was ex-gay

I spent much of my life clinging onto an “ex-gay” narrative. The story went like this: Being Christian and being gay are incompatible because the bible “clearly” teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Since we all know that sin separates us from God, ultimately sending us to hell, those of us with “same-sex attractions” have one option if we want to be accepted by God. We have to reject being gay. We have to interpret every “homosexual temptation” as having the potential to destroy us and our relationship with God. We have to pursue true healing of our sexuality – meaning, we have to become straight. Straightness is the evidence of a right relationship with God. Anything less sets us up to backslide into damnation.

I first became aware of my attraction toward women when I was 14. I wrestled with shame and tried to hide my feelings. I deeply feared being found out. (I’m an enneagram one, and my basic fear has been “of being corrupt/evil, defective”.) I finally admitted my feelings to myself in my journal. Shortly after, my mother went through my journal and confronted me. “Satan has a hold of you.” Her anger and disgust confirmed my fear. She turned to the church to save me. Sitting in those wooden pews week after week, I heard one message loud and clear: You are totally depraved. You are a sinner. God cannot stand to even look at you. He will throw you into a burning lake of eternal punishment if you do not repent. I spent the next 17 years trying to be “good enough” for God’s love and my parents’ love by not being gay.

In 2011, I reached a point of desperation. I was trying to date men because I realized how deeply I wanted a lifelong partner (a desire I hadn’t allowed myself to feel for most of my life). I was so depressed that most days I wished I wouldn’t wake up to see another morning. Life had become mere survival, and I did not have much hope that things would get better. In a conversation that probably saved my life, a wise friend said, “Maybe you should spend some time honestly examining your sexuality and theology.” She saw the connection between my depression and conflicted sexuality and encouraged me to do some soul searching. I did. I spent the next two years digging into scripture, reexamining my theology, considering diverse scholarship, working with my therapist and meeting with a pastor-friend. In 2013, I emerged into a place of peace I had never known before. I reconciled my faith and sexuality and hope flooded back into my life. I saw a future with potential for thriving open up before me.

Bethel instagram post.001Since Bethel Church’s (Redding, CA) recent social media support of CHANGED and use of #oncegay, conversations about sexual orientation change have exploded. Matthias Roberts of Queerology and Kevin Garcia of A Tiny Revolution are teaming up for a joint podcast episode called, “90 Seconds of Truth: Stories from the Rest of Us” to be released this Tuesday. They issued a call for submissions, but I missed the deadline (moving and settling into a new city and space has kept me quite busy). Instead I’m sharing here and encourage you to listen to this episode when it releases.

90 seconds.001When I was “ex-gay,” I could not engage with my deepest feelings and beliefs authentically. I was blocked from God’s vision for human flourishing. I was not satisfied or full of life. Since reconciling my faith and sexuality, I have experienced freedom in my life and have encountered the love of Jesus in ways I have yearned for since I first learned of Jesus as a teenager. It is as a queer Christian that I have looked deeper and gone beyond the labels and expectations of non-affirming Christianity and have found lasting fulfillment.

If you or anyone you know needs support on this complicated yet beautiful journey of sorting out faith and sexuality, please reach out. I am happy to listen and connect you with stories and resources that are life-giving.

Lord, may you guide your LGBTQ children into safe and affirming faith spaces that will embrace, nurture and celebrate them as your image-bearers. May you protect them from the physical, emotional and spiritual violence perpetuated by non-affirming theology. May you bring your church out of its exclusionary beliefs, attitudes and practices. May you awaken us all to the invitation to your table where love nourishes us and produces abundant life. Hear our prayer.