Getting past the sexuality issue

Picture of a stuck truck

freeimages.com Nico van Diem

The evangelical and LGBT communities have lived separately for hundreds of years, each regarding the other as truly ‘other’, a group defined by not being ‘us’. Theologically, there is no reason that this should be so. We all started out as one family of human beings created in God’s image and recipients of his love. When the world turned away from God, God called Abraham to be a blessing to the whole world, his descendants (the nation of Israel) to be a beacon to the whole world, his Son Jesus Christ to redeem the whole world, and Christians to share the Good News with the whole world.

And yet today we have a community that we do not consider ‘us’, but ‘other.’ Is separation and otherness God’s heart for our two communities? Jesus provides the answer.

Jesus and the ‘others’

And a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him, and said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.”
Mat 8:2-3

Jesus did something with the leper that no religious person of his day would voluntarily do; he deliberately touched him. He also took a dead girl by the hand and gave her back her life. Both the leper and the dead girl’s body were ritually unclean, making them ‘others’ to the Jewish community, and touching them made Jesus ritually unclean as well. But he touched them anyway.

Jesus welcomed close association with the ‘others’ of his day, the sinners and the ritually unclean. For example, he allowed a known prostitute to wash his feet with her tears, and he was so pleased with her actions that Matthew and Mark both record Jesus as saying that “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

The contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding how they treated the ‘other’ is stark:

  • The Pharisees wouldn’t associate with people until they were ‘cleaned up.’
  • Jesus associated with people to get them ‘cleaned up.’

Jesus knew that to fulfill his mission, he had to be among the people who needed him. Here is his explanation for why he associated with people whom the religious elite avoided:

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” 1

What would it look like for the church to touch today’s equivalent of the ‘other’?

The elephant in the room

The most serious issue facing the Canadian church today is human sexuality. We are like a car stuck in the mud until we work this one through.

I have convictions about sexuality and sin, yet without compromising those convictions, I believe we can, and should, improve relations with the LGBT community. Churches must wrestle with how their attitudes towards the gay community square with the close encounters Jesus welcomed with ‘others.’ Jesus held firm to calling sin a sin, so he told the adultress to “Go and sin no more,” but the fact that he was speaking with her at all was extraordinary for his day.

  • Would the woman at the well and her whole town have come to faith in Jesus if he had avoided Samaria and its despised Samaritans, as other Jews of his day would have done? Yet Jesus broke all social conventions by speaking to her first! A Jewish male addressing a Samaritan woman!
  • Would the royal official and his household have believed in Jesus if Jesus had refused to associate with representatives of the hated Roman oppressors?
  • We have to ask, what opportunities for mission advancement are we missing out on today because the evangelical church has not yet come to terms with how to engage a significant minority of people?

In a previous post, I wrote that dialogue was one of the ways forward. In this post I want to apply that idea to the LGBT community in particular. But first, an overview of what I perceive to be the current evangelical stance towards the LGBT community.

Current evangelical view of the LGBT community

Most Christian charities that are not local churches are either evangelism ministries or compassion ministries. I can’t think of any of these ministries that would refuse to serve anyone for any reason other than safety issues or misuse of the ministry’s programs. They serve members of the LGBT community just as they do members of any other community. If a program contains a component that may require special accommodation for members of the LGBT community, my sense is that those ministries have already developed appropriate policies or are actively developing them. There is a very serious intent by evangelical ministries to accommodate the LGBT community’s needs.

Likewise, I am not aware of any evangelical churches which would exclude members of the LGBT community from using their externally-focused programs and services.

The difficulty for churches, however, is when members of the LGBT community want to worship at the church, participate in internal programs such as Sunday School, or take membership in the church.

There is a range of options for how churches respond to the gay community in terms of attendance and membership:

  1. The most radical option would be to agree that homosexual sex is either no longer a sin or to consider it a disputable matter (which would open the door to church membership and leadership). This option  exists, however remote its adoption may be. The language around this option is “Welcoming and affirming.”
  2. I think I can safely say that most denominations and many individual churches are sincerely trying to define how welcoming they can be, while holding to the orthodox position on sin. This option can be called “Welcoming but not affirming.” Members of the LGBT community are welcome to attend churches, be adherents, and participate in the life of the church, and those who are celibate may also be members and eligible for leadership.
  3. Some churches are avoiding the issue, hoping they won’t have to deal with it. This is not a realistic long term option.
  4. Some individual churches do not want to welcome the LGBT community into their midst, but they will, with great respect, help such people find an affirming church.
  5. And I’m sure that there are some places that would simply be unwelcoming and leave it at that.

Conflict

We do have conflict with the LGBT community, or more accurately, with those activists promoting the community’s interests. That conflict, however, is no longer about gay rights, because for life outside our churches, we accept that the law is what it is, and that members of the LGBT community have rights that must be respected. Evangelicals are okay with that.

The point of conflict today is actually about religious rights, and specifically the repeated attempt by gay activists to impose a hierarchy of rights in which gay rights trump religious rights. Both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Supreme Court of Canada have said a hierarchy of rights does not exist.

The conflict may, from their perspective, be about limitations on religious rights, yet their behaviour indicates that the hierarchy of rights is what they are de facto trying to impose. This strategy is most clearly seen in a case involving Trinity Western University, where the Law Society of British Columbia simply cast religious rights aside without even considering them. A recent judgment of the BC Supreme Court found that the Law Society was entirely offside in making a decision that flagrantly disregarded religious rights. There was no acknowledgement whatsoever by them that such rights even existed, and the judge noted that they suppressed an informed, balanced discussion by not allowing TWU to present its case the same way the gay activist lawyers presented theirs.

In the evangelical community there are, just as there are within the LGBT community, some individuals on the radical fringe who are not helpful to evangelical-LGBT relations. But after asking around and reflecting on all the organizations I know, I can’t come up with any Canadian organizations that would be comparable to Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. (I would provide a link to their website except that the URL is so offensive I don’t even want it on my blog!)

Evangelical organizations disagree with the LGBT community on one point, sin, but our disagreement does not at all mean that we hate that community. And we certainly don’t promote hatred or violence toward them at all. No authentic Christian could do such a thing!

Moving forward

The current conflict resolution model being used by evangelicals and gay activists is rights-based and power-based. The model is both adversarial and coercive in nature, given that it depends on the power of the state to impose a resolution. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this isn’t the best way to find lasting peace that is satisfying for both parties. Assuming that there are two parties which are both willing to let the other co-exist in peace, even if not in full agreement, there is a better way. Certainly from the evangelical point of view, peaceful coexistence is possible, but the rights-power approach is not conducive to such peaceful relationships.

A better way forward is an interest-based model, which tries to meet the interests of both parties in terms of their wants, needs, hopes, and fears. It uses processes such as negotiation, joint problem solving, and brainstorming, among others.  As with all models, it has its strengths and weaknesses, which are:2

  • Strengths
    • Collaborative
    • Creative, unique solutions
    • Problem-solving approach
    • Durable agreements
    • Builds and strengthens relationships
    • Maximizes outcomes for all parties
  • Weaknesses
    • Time-consuming
    • More creative but less consistent solutions
    • Doesn’t always achieve a resolution
    • Can be (incorrectly) seen as a ‘soft’ or ‘touchy-feely’ approach

This is the model I would like to see representatives of the evangelical and LGBT communities use. Of course, both communities consist of autonomous organizations, and so no solution can be imposed on the entire group. But if a respected group from each side could agree with representatives from the other side on what is agreed by both sides, what the irreconcilable differences are, and the spirit and attitude in which we will peacefully co-exist, the individual organizations would have something to work with.

Such a process would require both sides to do some serious prep work and reflection before actually coming together for talks. I’ve just been given an excellent statement prepared by The Meeting House, an evangelical church in Mississauga ON, that speaks to the issues in a very loving way, addressing both evangelicals and members of the LGBT community. I highly recommend it as preliminary reading for everyone.

The rest of this post has some suggestions specific to the LGBT and evangelical communities for how they can prepare for talks.

For the LGBT community:

I want to assure the LGBT community that Christians have some understanding of what it is like to be labelled as ‘other’ and to receive the treatment you have endured over the centuries. Although Christians in North America have probably not personally suffered violent persecution, our brothers and sisters around the world have, and continue to suffer to this day.

Testimony given to the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included this assessment of how Christians are persecuted around the world: 

A recent report of a 6-year study from the Pew Research Center found that Christians were harassed in 151 countries, the largest number of any group surveyed, and in many of these countries the conditions for religious freedom are awful… To a disproportionate extent, Christians in many of these nations signify the ‘other.'”3 

The report goes on to list many countries where outright violence against Christians is routine and committed with impunity. There are places today where Christians really are dying for their faith. My own experience as an evangelical includes being told that evangelicals “are evil” and on several occasions enduring very hurtful things being said about my faith from radio hosts, speakers, authors, columnists, and people I have been sitting with at meetings who may or may not have known my religious affiliation.

My suggestions are therefore given with some understanding of what your community has suffered. The download below includes discussion questions and a list of helpful resources.

Download discussion guide

Download discussion guide

For the evangelical community

The download includes both discussion questions and a list of helpful resources.

Download discussion guide

Download discussion guide

Key thought: The only way to a lasting resolution of the conflict between the evangelical and LGBT communities is to adopt an interest-based conflict resolution model.

  1. Mark 2:15-17
  2. The Conflict Resolution Toolbox by Gary Furlong
  3.  Testimony from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, p.3
Series Navigation<< What is our goal, really?Watch your language! >>
Play

Thoughts on Getting past the sexuality issue

  1. Michael Packer

    John, thank you for tackling this issue so wisely and compassionately. I hope there are not too many negative reactions to your thoughtful series, which papers should be read by every church board member. May God continue to guide you in speaking prophetically to the Church in Canada. The CCCC is serving us well. Continuing in daily prayer for you and your fine staff. Michael Packer

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *