10 Questions for an LGBTQ-Considering Church
Seven years ago our college freshman surprised us with a letter home, telling us she was attracted to women. Hannah had been a model youth group kid in high school, committed to her small group, working with children, and leading worship. Unbeknownst to us all, while busy pursuing her faith and ministry, she had also been trying to “pray it away.” She was taking the approach prescribed by the church she was born into and raised by, the church that said this prescription came from the Bible.
For that and myriad other reasons, I left that church about five years ago, and have been worshiping elsewhere in town. Leaving a two-decade relationship with a church where I was a leader for adults and children, for worship and small groups – and where I started and raised my family and was generally “all in” – has not been easy; it’s been filled with deep loss, deep questions, and in many ways a reshuffling of social life in a small town.
My experience, and my daughter’s experience are different, but both have led me to ask these 10 questions of my former church and other churches willing to converse. These questions aren’t easy, nor were they easy to form – I’ve waited nearly seven years to ask them so directly.
This new perspective also disrupted my faith in ways I now see happening more broadly across Christianity today, something I like to call “unbundling,” which describes my experience better than the more widely used term, deconstruction. Before asking the questions, allow me a moment to explain:
My own faith was so rigidly built; teachings and doctrines and beliefs were like sticks tightly bundled together without room for rearrangement or disagreement. Christian faith had been presented to me as a package deal. Building a worldview this way adds the risk that when one stick falls, the whole thing wobbles like a Jenga game on the dining room table. It’s difficult and painful to choose which pieces to pick up and carry forward, but while sorting all the particulars, I rediscovered a simple truth: that the love of God is the table itself on which the pieces of the bundle rest – assembled or not. I’ve doubted God at times, yes, but mostly I’ve doubted the church, the certainty with which we approach the scriptures, and the ways in which Jesus’ earthly agenda seems to differ from our own.
I now believe the church should allow LGBTQ persons to participate in all forms of leadership, ministry, and marriage, and I use the words, full inclusion to describe that.
While I’ve been sorting that out, my home church has been going through its own process: opening up their conversation about same-sex relationships, changing their speaking tone about and toward LGBTQ people, revisiting the scriptures deeply on this issue, and yet continues to interpret scripture in such a way that precludes full participation in the church – leadership and marriage – unless a gay person chooses to be celibate.
In other words, to the question of full inclusion, the answer is still “No”.
We recently met with some leaders from that church to share our experience and they were gracious listeners. Out of that came the idea to share these questions more broadly. The first 3 questions use personal stories to clarify the experience of many families, including my own. Following are 7 more practical questions a church can consider in how they approach this issue. I suggest you find one that stirs you and discuss it with a friend.
Note: For readability I use the broad term “queer”, the specific term “gay”, and umbrella acronym, “LGBTQ” throughout, even though the first two are subsets of the third. (Here’s a great Ally’s Guide to Terminology)
1. God + Ministry + Future Family: which two would you choose?
The choice Hannah saw early on was like a choose-your-own poison pill. As she became more sure of her attractions, she faced a difficult choice because she had been on track for the God+Ministry+Future Family package. She would now have to break those apart – unlike most of her peers and church role models – by choosing only 2 of the 3:
- Future Family: Keep the romantic relationship and hope of future family, but lose the richness in her home church of kid’s ministry and worship leadership. While there are many ways to minister, these were the clearly recognized and nurtured gifts in her, and she would now need to find somewhere else to use them. Harder to quantify was the loss of the safety, warmth, and revisiting the nostalgia of her home church, which was replaced with anxiety and fear of reaction as she returned home on various college breaks.
- Ministry: Keep the church ministry, but lose the possibility of lifelong partnership, a spouse to bring home on holidays, wedding photos, the hope of all the richness of a marriage relationship (so much more than sex, but that too) that she already hoped for. Without settling into a forced inter-orientation marriage, the only other choice offered to her was being celibate and single for life. She was barely twenty, and Lord willing would have maybe 60-80 years to live that out?
- God: On top of either option – future family or ministry – she would need to figure out who God is and where she stands with God. Having been raised on a Ministry+God+Future Family equation, she now had to extract one of those and recalculate: Where does that leave her with God?
As parents, we feel our kid’s loss as our own, as we listen and cry together. Both pills above were poison to us as well. As I understand it, this is still the choice the church is offering young people today, no matter how much the tone has changed.
2. Does the church feel the full weight of partial inclusion?
This question might benefit from a little background: Hannah went to a Christian Camp every summer of her school life and loved it, learning about a Jesus who loved unconditionally. She went on to serve on summer staff after her first year of college, where she made good friends and served campers well. But word spread, and as she interviewed to return the following summer, the hiring staff asked her to clarify her stance on “homosexuality.” When she couldn’t, she was asked to step back and reconsider. Hannah did not push back on the policy, instead, with some frustration and sadness, she withdrew her second-year application. (Seems like a good approach for that time — she was too young and scared and raw to be fighting institutions.)
Her many warm memories of growing up going to camp are now colored by this bitter ending: this unspoken message that she no longer belonged in ministry there, that neither her hard work the prior summer, nor her continued belief in God, nor her character formed by God’s love, were enough to overcome this one thing. Was she no longer a good role model?
What changed in Hannah’s life in between was an acknowledgement of her long-hidden orientation – which brought a new authenticity and healthier mental state that comes from releasing the secret she kept from everyone.
Her home church played out in a similar, if more subtle way: she quietly left and has not returned. This means our long-time church never actually had to say No: the “No” that would have revoked her leadership once she got a girlfriend. We’d been conditioned over twenty years of teaching and we all just knew that her being gay meant she had a severe choice ahead of her. Though she found a few church internships in Seattle to play music and work with kids, she would never again try, or be asked, to do the same at her home church.
Of course, I’m biased (read more about the discovery of my bias), but I don’t see a change in character, or a souring of the “fruit” in her life, or a hard heart, or a loss of any number of other marks of a Christian leader. I think the only change the church might see is that the person she loves – who by the way is also great – is a woman instead of a man.
By the way, I too deferred conflict, waiting two years before rather peacefully (on the outside) walking away from the church. On the one hand, I love the body of Christ and did not want to sow disunity. I also live in a small town and most of my deepest friendships are with members of this church. Like Hannah, I was also very raw, and not in a good place to “debate” or negotiate the various places people were on this issue – from certain to questioning – and I was too vulnerable to find out which. In my memory, the church environment then did not encourage questioning or alternative views on “important” issues.
Question: if she didn’t push all the way to that decision, all the way to hearing a clear “No”, can people inside the church still say she just “chose” to leave? Can they say the same about us – should we continue to support the organization that said – or would have said – to our daughter, your services are no longer needed here?
I didn’t know how much was at stake before it was part of my family story. If those affected leave as quietly as I did, and if the church doesn’t pick up the pieces (and therapy bill) for those affected, does the church really understand what is at stake?
In this way, I fear the consequence of the bundled choice rests fully on the one who loses the most, and allows the church to continue without being challenged.
3. Who will help queer kids keep God after they’ve lost the church?
I won’t forget driving up the hill to Christmas Eve service her first year home, with her falling apart in tears and anxiety and me not understanding why; by the next year, everyone knew why and, in order to be all together, our family would be driving elsewhere on Christmas Eve to worship.
How does all this affect her memories and understanding of God? How does she overcome the messages she got about being gay from her church and camp, and still hold onto the God those messages were bundled with?
To this day, one of the questions I’m delicately asked – by people still in the church is, “Where do you think she is with God now?” To which I want to scream – Where do you think she is? This was all a big bundle, remember, everything went together: Jesus is the son of God, he died to save us, we should give our lives to him and then live for him, we should join a church and study the scriptures and recite the creeds and believe the Bible is literal and get married and have kids and guard our hearts but don’t trust our hearts and stay pure until marriage and be pro-life and not be gay.
That’s the bundle. Now that one of those Jenga pieces is out (pun intended), where is the church in helping our LGBTQ friends pick up the pieces?
If the church’s main concern is that people meet God, it should be careful what it bundles with that concern at the start. What else is baked in there?
I’ve been blessed by the many people around who share my heart for queer kids, as they reconstruct their relationship with their parents and churches – but I do find it ironic that this ministry would be unnecessary if not for the institution that taught me how to do ministry in the first place. But as long as queer kids are recovering from the way the church taught them to view themselves, there will be a need for love, hugs, and conversation.
One of my favorite moments at the church we attend now is communion. The pastor holds up the bread and cup, and looks around the congregation proclaiming, “Everyone is welcome at Christ’s table”, often repeating the word everyone three times. It moves me, as I see a queer couple receiving the eucharist alongside people old and young, couples and singles, people newly exploring and long-travelling.
The remaining 7 questions are specific challenges the church can consider as it moves forward.
4. Are we still holding onto old assumptions?
Let’s go back to the basics for a moment. Early on I began to wonder if, besides the scriptures, there were other factors at play reinforcing the church’s stance. I remembered reading how the argument for slavery was bolstered by pseudoscience claiming that certain races were inferior, or even mentally ill. On their own, these weren’t arguments for slavery but they made it much easier for Southern slavers to justify their behavior.
In the same way, I grew up exposed to all these half-truths and assumptions (both in the church and society at large) about being gay, which were quickly exposed as such when Hannah came out. I hope the church has at least moved past these?
- that it’s a choice,
- that it can be prayed away,
- that kids become gay to rebel against their parents or church,
- that it’s caused by poor parental relationships or prior abuse,
- that it’s the result of being rebellious as St. Paul describes in Romans 1,
- that it’s the result of liberal classroom agendas,
- that I could protect my kids from this,
- that all LGBTQ people live a wild “gay lifestyle” – but no straight people do? (Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix Special has a hilarious bit about her boring life at home sipping tea, reading a book – “you know, lesbian things”.)
I was wrong about all of those assumptions and have spent a lot of time, well, repenting. I had carried these assumptions and allowed them to fortify my pronouncement of how LGBTQ people should live the rest of their lives.
I was wrong.
5. But what about the scriptures?
Without looking for myself, I’d assumed the scriptures were replete with warnings against same-sex relationships, given Christian culture’s passionate stand against it. It wasn’t so. While the bible is repetitive – throughout both testaments and the teachings of Jesus – about the dangers of greed, the need for humility, and the overarching message of unexpected and generous love, there’s merely seven verses people think relate to this issue.
The oldest verses are recognized as about something else or mixed with dozens of highly specific rules most Christians no longer follow. The other half are not Jesus’ earthly words, but St. Paul’s, who adds ‘homosexuality’ to his bad-lists, then goes after it far less than he goes after women speaking or praying in church (especially without their heads covered).
Based on a few verses, I could build a scriptural argument to keep women out of ministry or support slavery, and many have. But christians must find – and long have found – a way to see the beauty and truth in its timeless message when more information comes to light.
My first encouragement is to ask God’s guidance and look at it with your own eyes. If you were to read the Bible cover to cover for the first time today, what themes would you take away? Work to separate culturally specific messages, since it was written by and for a different culture.
My second encouragement is to widen the circle of interpretive opinions you consider. If I’ve looked to others for help, then I may need to acknowledge that I’ve chosen to trust certain people from the pool of who I know and read. For years I had been protected from other Christians who saw things differently – on far more topics than this. One of my main defenses was an “us versus them” mentality which let me dismiss others who claimed to be Christians but didn’t vote the same way. Only when I came to know, and read, and listen to, and worship with others outside my insulated circles, did I see how much I had let a few people translate and curate my reading lists.
It’s been a joy to discover that the specific experience that I would have defined as “Christianity” was just one branch on a wide tree of Christians, all with quirks and strengths. Hearing others make space for uncertainty and mystery, while keeping the core message of God’s love, has been like a breath of fresh air.
I think it’s time to ask the question back. What about the scriptures? Does the overarching narrative of the Bible lean toward inclusion, or exclusion? Does the life of Jesus teach us to form and enforce rules? Which groups of people did Jesus have the harshest words for? If the guardrails for early church leadership were so focused on a person’s character and the fruit they bear, why do we exclude same-sex partners who exhibit both?
(If you’re looking for a quick overview of the biblical case for LGBTQ inclusion, try this one, but don’t stop there.)
6. Are you Sure?
There are times you want to be sure. One of those is when looking at a young woman face to face – someone who always loved kids and admired families and pictured herself in one — and then remember you’re supposed to tell her No: it seems like God intended you to be celibate.
Suddenly, it’s a person, not a policy, and that may be the reason so many people are opening themselves to rethinking their long-held assumptions.
I often come back to the courtroom idea of “beyond a reasonable doubt”. If I give my grade school kid a timeout for bad language, but it turns out I just mis-heard what he said, well, ok. He probably needed five minutes in his room anyway. But if I’m a juror on a murder trial and I’m “pretty sure the law says this”, I cannot sentence him to life in prison. I must be sure before I declare a life sentence.
Pastors used to talk about “the weight of the scriptures” to help us zoom out from particular verses that were hard to interpret. This is a great time to put them on the scale. The Bible has been used against women and divorceés, and used to uphold slavery and violence. Over time, the church eventually took a different view on each of these. Looking back, most of us wish the church had changed sooner, catching less people in its slow-to-change policies. Why not start sooner on this one?
In my view the burden of proof has shifted, now that we’ve seen the pain this stance brings to our beloved queer church members. Perhaps instead of me needing to present a case for marriage and church leadership for LGBTQ christians, the church needs to present its case as to why the answer is still No. If something is not absolutely clear, should the default be exclusion or inclusion?
This is truly a life-altering pronouncement, based on a few two-thousand-year-old Greek words intended for an ancient culture based on a completely different understanding of same-sex relationships.
7. Is being nice, enough?
Can the church adopt a softer stance toward LGBTQ people – while keeping the exclusionary leadership and marriage policy – and still think of itself as “welcoming to all”? As an analogy, would you want to work for a company that warmly welcomed women and tried to hire more women, then at your yearly review found out there was a policy preventing women’s promotion to management?
The road into a church that limits the roles for LGBTQ people might be warm but there is a trap door that will open up at some point in the journey, and that is why I cannot recommend any queer person I know to attend such a church. And that makes me sad because I experienced such rich and deep community in churches like this, places that gave me so much and has so much to offer.
But the loss goes both ways: it also means the church is missing out on the wisdom and love and journey that someone who is queer uniquely brings. What if there were parts of God’s love that could only be understood from the edges, and those in the mainstream need to hear from “others” how it works? Could a straight person ever learn something about God from a queer person?
I’ll answer my own last question: YES. This list of unsettling questions is not my whole story: there is so much beauty on the way here which was a gift from the LGBTQ community and its allies. I’ve learned a lot, and some of it has nothing to do with orientation! Lessons about God, love, community, discipleship, being misunderstood, acceptance, beliefs versus actions, what the inside looks like from the outside – and more (not to mention gardening, thank you Jeff Chu). Other pages would fill with lessons about resilience, of fighting for – and finding – one’s inherent worth apart from a tribe, of pushing the binary boundaries to live outside of society’s cookie cutter options, and more (did I mention art?)
8. How do we talk about LGBTQ people?
It wasn’t until I lost my sense of belonging by leaving a particular church, that I realized how important belonging is. We are tribal creatures by nature. Nevertheless, we talk as though we all believe the same things first, and then form community around that.
And part of being a tribe is defining those who are not in the tribe. It may be unavoidable that when we form a community of “us”, we separate ourselves from “them”. But how we talk about them says a lot about us.
Not to share secrets, but my church-self was warned about the others: the hopelessness of atheists, the depravity of “unbelievers”, and of course the “gay agenda”. (Always the “gay agenda” – because gay people have agendas and we don’t?)
When a community rehearses over and over what “those people” are like, while one of us silently is one of “those people”, that person is left to wonder, where do I belong now? The crisis of un-belonging can be destabilizing just when someone needs the most support.
In the same way that grammar guides recommend writing, “gay people” rather than “the gays”, how can we change our language to focus on the person rather than the label?
(A related question: How do we talk about anything in the church? Can congregants bring harsh questions and raw emotions, especially when challenging long-held beliefs?)
9. Where does the road of welcome lead?
When the welcome mat is laid out, what is the church’s ultimate hope for an LGBTQ unbeliever visiting the church? Has the church played it all the way through, from feeling welcome on day 1, to….what? Does the initial warm welcome lead to joining a small group, then to a membership class, then to leadership?
Would the church eventually ask a newly believing gay couple to break up? (I have it on good authority that gay breakups are as painful as straight ones) Is the hope that they would meet Jesus, “become convicted”, and then become celibate? Would God change their hearts to make them straight like the infamous Rosario Butterfield story so many sermons and well-meaning friends have told us about?
A church should consider what their – or what they perceive God’s – ultimate goal is, and be willing to state it up front, before wooing more LGBTQ people in the front door.
10. Would it be kinder to be forthright about this?
If the church is sure enough to keep the policies in place, then the least it can do is be clearer about it. I’m surprised by what I’m about to say, but I’ve come to think it would be much kinder to queer people to have forewarning – something as simple as a website mention. Welcoming more LGBTQ people into the pews only leads to disastrous “discovery days” when a newly involved queer person reads that marriage is only to be between a man and a woman.
Greg Farrand recounts the story of welcoming same-sex partners into his church, which was mid-wrestling on LGBTQ inclusion and thus not offering clarity. He got a tearful and angry call one afternoon from a beloved couple who’d just discovered the church’s association with the PCA denomination at a time when Greg was of two minds on how to answer. (listen to how that story played out here)
With many churches minimizing, rethinking, or rebranding, this is likely playing out widely. It happened recently to a new friend who’d started attending my home church and was three months into her warm welcome before being blindsided with the stance. Her anger and hurt at the aforementioned “trap door” could have been prevented with a simple mention on the church website.
I guess there’s two kinds of discovery days: My friend knew she was gay but until she was nearly invested, didn’t know where the church stood . My daughter had the opposite kind of discovery – knowing exactly where the church stood, she fought off same-sex attraction for years, praying, wishing, hiding, and ultimately acknowledging. Both were painful.
A real act of kindness from such a church, would be a list of referral churches where LGBTQ people can still hear about God’s love, while also being fully included in every gift given to a child of God.
There are many in the church working hard to figure out where they stand, and that means a lot to me. Strangely, the church loyalist in me, the pastor’s kid who values unity, still wonders if I should stay silent, even after all these years. But the church has continued preaching that entire time, why shouldn’t I also speak up? Yes, there are things we can “agree to disagree” on, but once you’ve seen the pain up close, it’s harder to sit by while another generation of kids are being told answer is No.
When you prayerfully consider what the church’s stance should be, I hope my family’s experience helps you remember what’s at stake. I understand it takes time, and honestly when all this began for me, the very first conclusion I came to was a non-conclusion: I didn’t have to perfectly parse a few scripture verses and articulate a stance on day 1 (see When You First Find Out Your Child is “Out”). I needed to first focus myself on loving, listening, accepting, and wrapping my arms around my precious one. And in one sense that’s where I still am. Many of you have expressed the same by wrestling while embracing.
But I caution to say that while we’re all grappling for understanding, there is still a policy in place, there are still kids (and adults) growing up, coming out, and trying to recover from what they’ve been taught. When it comes to humans, ambiguity may be the honest approach. But institutions, even when their humans are uncertain, are still appointing leaders and marrying people and thus will still have to answer to the question of whether LGBTQ people are included in this.
And while we’re all deciding, the answer is still “No”.
To summarize, here are my questions.
Is there one in particular you’d like to think more about?
- God+Ministry+Family: which two would you choose?
- Does the church feel the full weight of partial inclusion?
- Who will help queer kids keep God after they’ve lost the church?
- Are we still holding onto old assumptions?
- But what about the scriptures?
- Are you Sure?
- Is being nice, enough?
- Where does the road of welcome lead?
- How do we talk about LGBTQ people?
- Would it be kinder to be forthright about this?
♦ weekendswell ♦
Read another heart felt testimony from a friend who was Ready to Say Yes more than 15 years ago as she considered this question from a friend: “Do you think I would be welcome at your church?
Read a story from a student trying to think the best of their Christian College’s ambiguous stance.
Check out this Christian Conversation Guide from HRC on creating safe and inclusive spaces for people who are LGBTQ. One quote:
"It is often assumed that people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) have no interest in religion or in joining a faith community. Stereotyping perpetuates this misconception. In fact, many people who are LGBT enjoy a deep and abiding faith. Their longing for a loving and welcoming spiritual home is shared by all people of faith – and is often what draws us into communion." Read more.
For more of my personal stories, see my other writing on this topic: Parent of LGBTQ