In this last installment of the series “Desegregating Worship,” we will explore the issue of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LBGT) individuals and their exclusion from many of our churches. While most churches state that they are open to all people and that they accept people as they are, their stance toward people with non-mainstream sexual and gender identities may not be included in their definition of “acceptance.” While the culture at large is moving at an unprecedented pace to affirm the LBGT community, many churches tacitly pretend that a societal shift is not occurring.
Nothing is likely more controversial in the church than the church’s stance on lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals (LGBT), and in many congregations discussion of this topic is off-limits. To raise the question of the church’s inclusion of the LGBT community among some Christians may be to risk being stereotyped and viewed with suspicion.
Societal shifts in the affirmation of lifestyle choices for LGBT individuals have quickly accelerated since Massachusetts was the first state to allow same-sex marriage in 2004. With eighteen states currently allowing same-sex marriage and more states on target either to affirm same-sex marriage or be caught in court battles over its legality, the pattern seems to be set. Even in recent days, Michael Sam of the University of Missouri Tigers made a nationally televised announcement of his gay identity, which would make him the first gay football player to be a possible early round draft pick for the National Football League. His announcement was followed days later with over 1000 fans forming a protective barrier between Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-gay protesters and Sam as he returned to the school to receive the 2014 Cotton Bowl trophy.
While many states have fallen in line to support gay marriage and University of Missouri fans have supported their gay athlete, churches have been reticent to affirm people with non-heterosexual identities and those who do not assume traditional male and female gender roles. However, to be fair toward churches who do not affirm the LGBT community, this sector of worship segregation is clearly more complex than other segregated components of the church’s life addressed in this series – race, age, gender, economic status, musical style, and political – because for many, affirming a lifestyle outside heterosexual and mainstream gender identity is clearly sinful behavior and in need of repentance. While most churches embrace the long-held adage “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” fully embracing individuals with sexual and gender identities outside the mainstream seems to embrace not just the sinner but also the sin itself.
At the core of the issue seems to be the theological issue of whether homosexuality is indeed against the Bible’s teaching. While some interpreters might question the validity of asking such a question when they believe the biblical narrative asserts straightforwardly that homosexuality is sinful, other Christians would raise questions about cultural norms. For example, do the biblical writers assume that lesbian and gay and bisexual individuals are choosing to behave sexually in ways that they know are unnatural for them?
Many gay and lesbian people assert that their sexual identity is part of who they are and is not chosen. They question how God could restrict people’s sexual activities and gender identities when they are responding authentically to the biological blueprint that they were given at birth. Likely some of these issues may remain unresolved until they are explored more fully by theologians, scientists, and sociologists.
What exactly is at stake with the question of full acceptance of LGBT individuals and families into the mainstream of the life of the church? Why is this topic so laden with emotional intensity? Why does this subject often transcend logic or rational thought? According to some who study the future of the church, the full acceptance of the gay and lesbian community within mainstream Christian faith will signal that the last bastion of modernity has collapsed — the world as many older adults have known it will have passed. Author and speaker, Phyllis Tickle, writes in The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, “Of all the fights, the gay one must be—has to be—the bitterest, because once it is lost, there are no more fights to be had. It is finished. Where now is authority?”
Tickle is referring to the specific meaning of the authority of Scripture on which many Christians depend fully for determining their private beliefs and those of their faith community. In other words, full acceptance of gays and lesbians into the life of the church will signal a departure from the literal interpretation of the Bible; hence, truth will be once and for all contextual.Among faith communities, the idea of the “slippery slope,” is extremely threatening. This is the idea that giving in to a single practice or belief will automatically launch the group into yet-to-be imagined additional forfeiture of its ideals and moorings.
The fear that the slippery slope engenders often determines the actions of the group. Risking the possibility of a quick descent down a slick path upon which they are unable to return to a previously held perception of normalcy often results in groups’ choosing not to venture into positions that they might otherwise embrace. Therefore, for some Christians to move in the direction of any acceptance of the LGBT community is to board a sled moving rapidly down an unending snow-covered mountain. While some would label such fears as unfounded, others see fully developed reality.
What can be gained through the church’s exploration and discussion of the issues introduced here? Why is it important for the church to spend time discussing the harder issues of our current cultural milieu?
1. Failing to discuss difficult issues will not make them go away. Even if we choose to remain safely out of sight and hearing distance of those who espouse a different perspective, the issues remain, and the momentum can continue to build as we retreat. Civil discussions in a timely manner always reap better benefits than overly impassioned discourse in times of crisis.
2. Hearing the stories of those who believe differently than we always offers the potential for God to speak to us in new ways. Sharing our perspective and the reasons why we believe as we believe offers the possibility of expanding our imaginations toward the God that we serve.
3. Angry and non-inclusive rhetoric has the ability to drive people away from Christ rather than toward him. Even when our beliefs are strong and long-held, stating them in loving and non-polarizing ways offers the possibility of building bridges that may transcend our human abilities to love and accept.
4. Regardless of our perspective, acknowledging our biases allows us the possibility of genuine dialogue with others. Most of us are not capable of accurately seeing our own blind spots without the assistance of others who hold views different from ours. Choosing to befriend and converse with people whose views are different from ours may be the only possibility for shining light into the dark spaces that we protect. Misunderstandings, stereotypes, and assumptions are rampant on all sides of this issue, and our best hope is in finding spaces where, through genuine understanding, the walls can start to crumble.
5. Explore models of change and reconciliation that have been successful and those that have failed in other times in which the church has been divided over major cultural issue – consider slavery and civil rights. How did the church respond as Christ might? What actions did the church take that were inappropriate and for which it had to repent? How has history treated the divisive moments of our past? Consider what it might have been like to be on the “wrong” side of a historical issue, and imagine the possibility that because we too are living in the midst of this present reality, our perspective could also be skewed.
6. Live in love. At the end of the day, actions other than those that respond out of genuine love for others will not reflect Christ.