Increasingly, church communities are seeking new ways of living in community with countless people for whom the role “heterosexual, married with children” does not apply. Gays and lesbians are included in that broad category. The standard responses were varied but by and large focused on one question: does the bible not condemn homosexuality? If any other comment was made, the comment called for us to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” Beyond variations on these themes, there often is a deafening silence. After all, how do we talk about the pain, the struggle and the violence (physical and verbal) that has accompanied the journey of many among us?
The silence often extends to the council room. We just know that individual stories, discussions on the biblical and theological texts, and emotional pain of members will join together for not only a lengthy conversation but a potentially divisive and painful one. Avoidance seems easier. Yet for elders to lead the congregation in ministry—reaching out to neighbours and providing guidance—such avoidance will harm community life. In this article I hope to find a way that will help elders have a conversation in council and in the community.
Let me begin with a number of assumptions:
- Every conversation I have had with a person about their journey to self identifying as being gay/ lesbian reveals a great deal of personal pain and struggle. No one goes through this just for the fun of it or because this was an adventuresome life. Being honest with themselves was an important part of personal integrity.
- I assume that answering the question “Are people born with homosexual orientation?” does not change a thing. The person before me is who he or she is. It is more important to listen to the person than make assumptions about DNA. I assume than when any person struggles with self, sexual faithfulness will always be difficult no matter what their orientation.
- The denomination (CRCNA) has produced a study on the biblical theological issues around the subject of homosexuality in Scripture. At the same time, I recognize that some do not agree with these conclusions. I assume this debate will go on for some time. I also assume that the reasons we find some arguments more persuasive than others has more to do with our fears, anxieties, concerns, interests and loves. Dealing with biblical discussion will need to include discussions of what lives in our heart.
- Our sexualized environment means that all people hear a message that sexual gratification is a personal right. I assume that this creates constant tension for God’s people of all orientations. For instance, “friends with benefits” indicates a cultural understanding of sexual relationships that are contrary to our understanding and yet is part of the pressure youth face. Sexual sin is found in every segment of our society. The Christian response would certainly say that sexual gratification is never a right, always a gift. It cannot be claimed in or out of heterosexual marriage.
- When the argument is made that every person has a right to be in a loving relationship (gay marriage) is made, we need to hear the deep concern is not for legal rights but a life lived in love. Unless we address the need for loving relationships in loving community that extends to all persons (married and single) in the church community, we fail to address the central need of every individual. We are, after all, created to live in love.
- I assume more legal jurisdictions will implement some form of marriage rights for gay persons as a matter of human rights.
- I assume that the power of Word and Spirit is transformative in our life. This is important because if we are going to be guided by Jesus, we will have to pay attention to Word and Spirit not only on a denominational scale (study reports) but in small groups as we minister to each other with grace, love and the transformative power of the gospel.
- I assume that every person who God places in our fellowship has gifts to share with us.
These assumptions lead me to ask: what needs to happen in our community so that all people are partners in our common life, loved and celebrated as we seek to serve the Kingdom?
Any way of approaching this sensitive subject will require attention to at least these matters:
- The practice of hospitality: Just remember that Jesus dined with those clearly identified as sinners. This does not mean he agreed with their practices. It simply means he was willing to share meals and life with them. The Pharisees wanted to set people straight before they offered hospitality. Not Jesus. Following the pattern of Jesus, opens us up criticism but is required if we seek our neighbour’s good. If we genuinely desire to form community with those who ideas and practices differ from ours in significant ways, the practice of hospitality is a necessary first step.
- The practice of listening: Most persons who come out gay have stories to tell of abuse and discrimination. These are painful stories that have shaped their sense of self. Listening affirms the worth of a person. Listening is an act of love to people who feel unloved. More importantly, if we truly believe that this person before is a child of God placed before us by an act of God and given to us as a gift of God, it is necessary that we pay attention. The story he or she tells or the insight she or he brings may be a way for us to deepen our vision of God and his kingdom.
- The practice of listening to God together: If we are convinced that the Word is powerful and enable to convict us of the truth, we ought to have confidence that opening the scripture and listening together will be a joint act of humble submission to God. Humble listening has the power to transform. If we believe that our understanding is rooted in Scripture then this should be revealed as we explore the text tighter. When we say “let me tell you what Scripture says” our posture can quickly become arrogance which sounds more like accusation.
- The practice of pointing to the way of reconciliation: The cross of Jesus and the power of the resurrection. The journey is difficult. Whether it a journey with sexual identity, or journey of faithfulness in marriage (divorce rates are high), the journey is/can be difficult. Along the way we need both the grace of forgiveness and the renewal of the Spirit.
- The practice of defending the rights of those treated unjustly: While we may have differences about the practice of sex outside of heterosexual marriage, these differences do not allow for discrimination in the workplace, abuse on the streets, and painful words.
- The practice of inclusion: Inclusion is more than hospitality. One of the shames in the life of many congregations is the failure of single adults (and sometimes married without children) to feel included in the life of the community. Churches are often called "family- oriented." To be inclusive means that all members become part of the push and pull of our common life. So we need to wonder—as I do for myself—how does our common life honour and value the gifts and concerns of every person? All too often in these conversations we reduce a person to his/her sexual orientation. But perhaps it would be better to recognize that all people because of who they are (genetically, developmentally, family experience, etc) bring to the community gifts of grace that can make the ministry and worship of the church more vibrant.
- The practice of not winning but loving: Too many times it seems we need to win the argument. To win is to preserve my dignity and self-regard. To lose is to be diminished. But love is different. To love a neighbour does not mean that we need to win every argument.
- The practice of rooting our identity, not in our sexual identity, but in our likeness of God (neither male nor female): As we make something else more important or central to our identity, we struggle in our Christian walk. We are not to become like others, we are to become like Christ.
- The practice of faithfulness: Everyone needs to know that love does not quit when the going gets tough. If failure in life or persistent struggle means that people are abandoned, then greater harm will be done.
It is important that we do not pick and choose which practice we want to adopt and which we seek to avoid. Each one is important as part of an overall pastoral plan.
The elders care within the congregation is first and foremost the practice of being the presence of Christ. As representatives of Christ every strategy begins with an attitude that says “I am with you and for you.” This attitude is present long before any conversation takes place. There are at least two elements: unconditional love and preparing the room. Besides the fact that unconditional love is the imitation of divine love, unconditional love is the door that opens difficult conversations. The unstated question at the beginning of so many pastoral conversations is “do you love me?” Very few good and renewing conversations can take place without the ‘yes’ answer. So elders need to ask – what are the practices and words we use to demonstrate the ‘yes.' The second element is “preparing the room.” Is the place (people) safe? Can I express my doubts? Can I share my experience? Clearly the words we use that are homophobic, the fear we express, and the unjust treatment that is part of the community experience do not help. Creating a safe place requires that the elders begin to speak against all that causes so much pain among those struggling with their sexual identity.
As leaders of the church, elders need to remind all that holiness is a call of God that includes our sexual selves. I would suggest that sins of pornography are much more rampant in the church than any other sexual sin. The struggles heterosexual youth have in the church are more common than any struggle related to homosexuality. So it becomes important that the call is all embracing. If one kind of sexual struggle is highlighted over others we are in danger of failing to deal with our sexualized culture properly. This is a highly sensitive area. Very few times have pastoral elders had a good conversation on this subject. Perhaps we need to start the conversation. Otherwise our call for holiness becomes onesided and sounds like condemnation.
There is another conversation we need to engage. The path to holiness (sanctification) can be different for different people in the church. The perception can be that the way to full engagement in the life of the church requires a marriage certificate and children. In other words, there is one path that is emphasized. For many addressing issues of minority sexual identity the question is: " Where do I fit?" or "How can I belong?" And when a person has come to accept that they are persistently oriented to be attracted to the same sex, and belonging and being a fully contributing member of the church seems to mean being married to an opposite gender spouse and having children, there can be a deep sense of hopelessness. For all those who do not fit the demographic of married with children, there needs to be other paths for living a full and holy life in the community of faith.
So the question is: what is the path for living a life of love, grace and service in the kingdom as one for whom heterosexual marriage is not an option? What is the path for living a life of honesty and authenticity within the Body of Christ where one does not need to deny or suppress his/ her sexual identity? We need to wrestle with this. Some would like to say we need to help a person change their orientation. From my reading of the literature, I am not persuaded that this is a fruitful direction even if it helps some people. Often times it can be destructive for one who feels they have tried and failed. I think we need other answers. I am not sure what they are. Though there seem to be few to lead the way, we may need to look for new role models among those outside the heterosexual married mainstream that can be celebrated in our communities. Pastorally, as we sit in a safe place together we need to be able to find God’s direction for the path on which that individual is called to walk faithfully in the life of the community.
Let me add one comment here: Who we are is a gift to the church. This is not just about some particular talent a person might have and develop. Each person carries with them a way of seeing and doing that is unique to the person. Everything a person is and has experienced enters into how a person contributes to the life of a community. Being gay is not a problem to be solved but a way of seeing and being in community that can be a genuine gift for healthy community life. The journey of faith is not dictated by someone’s sexual identity but matures as one finds their deepest identity in Christ and as he or she is formed in likeness Christ.
Identity in Scripture is not limited to the very few passages that speak about homosexuality (or any passage that speaks of sex). I am convinced that Scripture will lead us together on the path of maturity in Christ when we listen together in prayer and with the Spirit. I trust God’s Word. Often times the best place to start is not with our disagreements, but the sources of deepest unity. Philippians 2 will get us there. But there are many other passages (e.g. Colossians 3). Pastorally, this listening to God and to each other puts us in the right place. I do not have any illusions that we will always agree. I simply want to create the space for listening to each other and God who calls us into our new identity in Christ and leads us in the way of obedient faithfulness.