A current example of this is the response churches are giving to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. or the granting of same-sex blessings in Canada, where gay marriage is already legal.
Take my church, for example.
At its recent meeting, our diocese held a vote to allow the bishop to give permission to priests who want to provide a blessing to same-sex couples who are in civil marriages. To say it another way, if a legally married same-sex couple asks the priest to give them a blessing, the priest must first ask for the bishop’s permission. Note that this resolution does not oblige any priests to provide such blessings; it simply gives the bishop permission to say “yes” if a priest asks. Now, the church we attend officially has a conservative view on marriage and was not pleased that the vote passed, in fact by a significant margin. In response to this, the leadership discussed the matter at the church’s semi-annual meeting, and will have a task group consider what response to make.
They also discussed it with the youth. And when our children came home from a youth day, one of them expressed that they didn’t know why the church was making such a big deal about blessing people who love each other when there’s more important things like KONY2012 happening in the world.
Some people might suggest that the leadership needs to do a better job of explaining how this really is a significant issue, and that the church should have been proactive in teaching its beliefs more clearly before a resolution like this one came up.
I would suggest that there’s a bigger picture that’s being missed here. And while it involves being proactive, it’s not about clarifying “what’s right and what’s wrong” before it becomes critical. It’s about perspective, respect for others, and God’s heart for people.
Here are four things that I wish pastors and others in church leadership were teaching, with some recommendations for each point:
1. The reality that God loves gay and lesbian people
Of course we are told in church that God loves everyone. When said generally like this, it is easier to forget this reality when we encounter people we don’t like or who are different from us. But when it is said with a specific people group in mind, it has more impact and is harder to ignore.
- State clearly that God loves lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Repeat on a regular basis.
- Affirm that Jesus gave his life for gay people and straight people and transgender people and everyone else.
- Emphasize that loving our neighbours includes loving LGBT neighbours, relatives, and colleagues. Give a similar emphasis to other particular neighbours depending on current events, your city or neighbourhood, etc. For example, emphasizing God’s love for Muslim neighbours would be particularly helpful after 9/11. The goal is not to single out a people group, but to emphasize God’s love for people whom we might find it easier to ignore or hate.
2. Humility when interacting with people who understand Scripture differently
Christians who love Jesus and believe in the authority of the Bible do not always agree on everything. This idea is a no-brainer when it comes to many things. For example, we do not typically question a person’s faith and salvation because they do not share our beliefs about infant baptism or the afterlife or because they have been divorced or believe that eating meat is sinful.
So why is it so difficult for us to believe that someone who supports gay marriage or same-sex blessings might actually love Jesus as much (or more!) than we do, and might also believe in the authority of Scripture? And why is it easy to write off those who have different views on difficult questions by suggesting that they do not value the Bible as much as we do?
In the recounting of what happened at the synod meeting, it was oft-repeated that our delegates were upholding the authority of Scripture and didn’t compromise the Gospel. While it was never stated that all those in opposition had given up the Bible, the message communicated to me was that those with different views were not holding to the authority of Scripture. (In this particular case, a few had obviously jettisoned the Bible. It is not clear where the rest of those who voted in favour of the resolution stand.)
- As human interpretations are not infallible, be humble in approaching Scripture and in talking about your Biblical beliefs.
- Affirm that people who love Jesus and believe in the authority of Scripture can have different interpretations of Scripture – including on the matter of same-sex relationships.
- Acknowledge that Christians and churches all “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible they follow— even those that believe in the inerrant infallible word of God. They may even have good reasons for what parts are followed and what parts are not. But in any case, people who love Jesus and believe in the authority of the Bible will differ as to how they understand and treat different passages.
- Do not use “We uphold the Bible” as a trump card in discussions.
3. LGBT ‘r’ us
Before the synod meeting, someone shared a link for a video about “How Christians should treat homosexuals.” Aside from its content, the title in and of itself is a red flag, as it sets up these two groups as mutually exclusive. There are Christians over here, and there are homosexuals over there. Us and them. And this video is about how we should treat them.
The reality is that Christians come in the complete range of sexual orientations, just as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are found in the complete range of faith in Jesus from none to (as close to) 100% (as is humanly possible). So yes, a person can be gay1 and Christian. And yes, LGBT people are present in most churches, even if they are not open about their sexuality.
- Do not talk as if Christians and LGBT people are two mutually exclusive groups.
- Avoid using language and talking about same-sex-related topics in ways that other LGBT people.
- Acknowledge that the body of Christ includes people of all sexual orientations. For example, one of the pastors referenced this at a public discussion when he spoke about our church having a few gay people and a transgender woman in the past. More such acknowledgements are needed, and also for the youth, one of whom recently indicated surprise when someone else said that there are gay people in our church.
4. People are more important than ideas (even theological ones)
To many people, matters of same-sex sexuality are abstract: they deal with them at theoretical, theological, and philosophical levels. For example, they lobby against same-sex marriage for religious reasons or for philosophical reasons do not believe that same-sex couples should get health benefits. Sometimes their objections are purely out of fear and prejudice. In any case, regardless of whether same-sex marriage is legal or couples get health benefits, there is no direct impact on them or their family, because they are not looking to be in a same-sex marriage and they already have health benefits.
What is easy to forget is that there are people in our churches and neighbourhoods for whom this is personal and part of their everyday life and being, people whom our attitudes impact and who feel the effects of legislation passing or not passing. Is “being right” worth hurting people for? Or, as an acquaintance put it, "is it so important to be right that alienation is an acceptable price?" I don’t think so.
- Recognize that there are people “with skin in the game” for whom this is deeply personal and not just a topic of discussion or debate.
- Be aware that the views which you express and the ways in which you express and discuss them have an impact on others, both gay and straight.
- Keep in mind the family members of LGBT people – they also hear what you say and how you say it, and are sometimes in a difficult spot between their loved ones on one hand and conservative church people on the other.
- Listen to the stories and experiences of LGBT people to help move yourself from theory to reality. If possible, do this by getting to know some LGBT people rather than just reading books or articles. This will help you to understand the impact of things you say and do, as well as revealing the stereotypes and assumptions from which you are approaching this.
Implementing principles such as these, moves the focus from intellectual ideas back to real people and from arguing about theology to loving one another. That’s what we are called to do, isn’t it? Love God, love our neighbours and love our enemies. That’s everyone. And trust that God’s Spirit is calling people to Himself, comforting and convicting as needed, and leading all of us into all truth.
What do you think? How is your church equipping you and your family to live and think in our complex world? How would letting these four ideas inform our lives and our words make a difference? What can you do as an individual or family to implement them?
1. It is mostly straight conservative christians who assume that if a person says they are gay, that this refers to behaviour and that the person must be sexually active. For most people, gay and lesbian are descriptive terms -- they simply describe the direction of a person's attractions and tell you nothing about what that person thinks in general or believes about the Bible, whether they are sexually active, etc.