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HOW CAN THOSE WHO ADVOCATE FOR INCLUSION OF LGBTQ PERSONS IN FAITH COMMUNITIES BE “WRONG” WHEN SO MANY LGBTQ INDIVIDUALS ARE SUFFERING FROM THEIR EXCLUSION?

A friend posed this question to me at a recent meeting. I gave a very inadequate response. I am typically not very good at thinking quickly on-my-feet in responding to unexpected questions. I need a lot of time to think about appropriate responses. So, I hope this written response will prove to be better.

The context for this question was a presentation I made at this meeting in which I proposed that since Christians do not have a “God’s-eye view of the “truth” on human sexuality issues, those holding to a “traditional” view of marriage (reserved for a man and woman) as well as those holding to a “non-traditional” view of marriage (God will bless a monogamous, life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners) need to be open to the possibility that they are “wrong” at the same time that they present their respective positions with clarity and deep conviction.

To take my response beyond the realm of abstraction, I refer the interested reader to the electronic exchange between Justin Lee and Eve Tushnet during my eCircle on human sexuality on my website, the results of which I reported in chapter 1 (“Voices from the Gay Community”) in my recent book Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity. Justin and Eve are gay Christians who disagree about same-sex marriage. Justin holds strongly to a non-traditional view that God will bless a monogamous life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners and Eve holds just as strongly to a traditional position that Christians whose sexual orientation attracts them to members of their own gender should remain celibate for life. One of them is “wrong.”

If you read their electronic postings or my attempt to capture the highlights of their postings in the first chapter of my book, as well as the comments of some of the readers of their postings, you will find considerable heart-breaking evidence of the truth of the assertion that many Christians have caused many of their LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Christ to suffer greatly. I was particularly moved by the comment of a sixties-something reader whose church experience was so painful that he wonders why he didn’t hang himself in the rafters of an empty garage or jump from the bell tower (3).

Based on my reading of such stories of pain and suffering inflicted on my LGBT brothers an sisters in Christ by other Christians, I conclude, in the closing chapter of my book,  that there is no “Way Forward” until many Christians “confess the harm done and repent” (265).

But the suffering from exclusion that many of my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ experience continues while Christians disagree about who is “wrong,” a disagreement that will probably not be resolved in the near future. How should that problem be addressed?

Eve Tushnet has suggested that one way to address this intolerable situation is for churches to “rediscover the many forms of love, friendship and care which exist outside of marriage” (4-6). She cites “service” and “celibate partnerships” as two categories for “giving and receiving love.” Wesley Hill, a gay Christian biblical scholar who shares Eve’s belief that gay Christians ought to remain celibate, elaborates on the “gift of friendship” in his thoughtful book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. 

But Eve’s proposal does not address the prior question as to what stance a church congregation as-a-whole can take that will ameliorate the “suffering from exclusion” that many LGBT Christians experience. Three distinct stances have been taken.

Some churches have declared themselves as “affirming” churches that have taken a church-wide position that God will bless a monogamous life-long marriage commitment on the part of same-sex partners. Many LGBT Christians who share that position will find Christian fellowship within such “affirming” churches without suffering the pain of exclusion.

Other churches have declared themselves as “welcoming but not affirming.” An LGBT Christian who believes that same-sex marriage is sin and, therefore, gay Christians should remain celibate, may well find Christian fellowship within such churches without suffering the pain of exclusion; especially if the church implements Eve Tushnet’s proposal (which proposal, I would add, also makes sense for “affirming” churches). But an LGBT Christian who believes that God will bless a monogamous life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners will likely suffer the “pain of exclusion,” or, at least the pain of being considered a “second-class church member,” despite the “welcoming” sign.

But there is a “3rd way” that some churches, including my home church, have taken, a way that draws heavily on Ken Wilson’s book A Letter to my Congregation. For this 3rd way, the church congregation does not take a church-wide position that supports either a traditional or non-traditional view of same-sex marriage. Rather, the church congregation opts for a church-wide commitment to love and care for one another, whatever view a given member takes on same-sex marriage; embracing one another because we are all “beloved by God” (282-285). As James Dunn has put it, “the other is received as one who is beloved.” 

I am personally attracted to this 3rd way because, during this time of considerable disagreement among Christians as to who is “right” and who is “wrong” regarding human sexuality issues, it promotes “unity” within the Body of Christ that is based on our shared aspirations to be faithful followers of Jesus despite our lack of “uniformity” regarding our beliefs about human sexuality. But, will an LGBT member of such a 3rd way church still suffer some pain, knowing that there are church members who strongly disagree with his/her position on human sexuality? They will have to respond for themselves. So far, members of my home church on differing sides of human sexuality issues are committed to loving one another because we realize that we are all “beloved by God.”

As I re-read the above reflections, I am struck by the tensions between three values that I embrace, as hinted at in the sub-title of my book. I have an insatiable desire to better understand the “truth,” as God fully understands it, about human sexuality and everything else, and I am painfully aware of the limitations on my grasp of that truth due to my fallibility, finitude, and, yes, sinfulness. At the same time, my claim to be a follower of Jesus is authentic only if I “give love to others,” especially the marginalized and those who suffer, like many of my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. And as I seek after “truth” and attempt to “give love,” I yearn to contribute to the “unity” of the Body of Christ that Jesus prayed for, which appears to be an impossible dream.

It is my deep conviction that these three Christian values are compatible. I must seek to foster all three of these values, not just one or two, and figuring out how to live well when these values are in tension is a constant challenge for me. I am in dire need of a special measure of wisdom and grace.

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