I was 19, and riding in a van with my friend and pastor-at-the-time Jay. We were talking about a bunch of different things, and he said something I’ll never forget: “What if we’re wrong? How do we live as if we might be wrong, and still hold on to what we think or believe. How do we live in that grey area? Because, Eric, I might be wrong.”
I know now, that I was wrong.
It might seem a little late, but over the last few years (along with many others) I have experienced a subtle shift in my own thinking and understanding of how God is at work in the world. More specifically, how God is at work in the world through people who identify as LGBT.
I think it might be time for me to repent in my participation in a system of oppression that led to people despairing so deeply of their faith and humanity that they might think suicide was the only way out. It is time for me, in my own little way, to align myself with a minority in the church, and in the history of the church, in arguing for the full inclusion of queer people in the life and work of the church.
Let me make it more clear: I believe that to be gay or lesbian or transgender is extremely difficult and complicated, yet is something that God is bringing great beauty and witness to the Gospel from in this time and place. Not in a repentance from it, but in an affirmation of it. It is not a hindrance to the Gospel, but is a witness of the radical and incredible transforming power of God, even in places we don’t expect.
While I grew up in a left-of-center family, as a young adult I really came to resonate with a moderate stream of evangelicalism. I still held on to my Lutheran identity, particularly as God intervened in my spiritual life in college. These credentials were further reinforced when I attended Winebrenner Theological Seminary, a moderate evangelical seminary in Findlay, Ohio, for my Master of Divinity. Evangelicalism is a world I feel at home in, and it’s where much of my identity as a Lutheran and as a (soon to be) pastor has been formed.
I remain convinced of what much of that world has taught me: the clarity and singularness of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus, the reconciling and saving work of God that can only be found in the Cross, the authority of Scripture, the historicity of the Resurrection, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and the need for a metanoia, a change in heart, in our relationship with God.
In that world, the question of same-sex relationships has been a non-starter, let alone discussions of bisexuality or transgender identity. And I too, thought that the issue had been settled. It seemed clear to me that God had created the world in a certain way (male and female) and that Paul’s prohibition in Romans against homosexuality was clear.
On the other hand, I had never held the sort of Biblicism, a worship of the Scriptures and their inerrancy, that others do. It seemed inconsistent to me and was not upheld by the witness of the Church and its tradition. I noted the story of Peter and his dream that led to the removal of the dietary restrictions and eventually circumcision as well. The central story of Scripture is one of God being more clearly revealed to us in the abundant grace and mercy of Jesus.
Needless to say, it has been a painful and difficult journey for me. To reconcile my own predilection to differ to the tradition of the Church and plain reading of scripture. To disagree with and to challenge the views of so many whom I love, respect, and call my friends and family. To experience that pit of being wrong is hard, but it cannot be ignored.
So what changed my mind? Three things.
Initially, it was experience. In my work in pastoral ministry and as a hospital chaplain, and in the experience of my own life, the fruits of sin are pretty plainly obvious. Lust, gluttony, infidelity, adultery, anger, are all examples of sin in which the pain and “results” are pretty clearly obvious to the Church. Even for more subtle sins like greed, addiction, jealousy, and resentment, I can usually identify the fruits of those sins in my own life and the lives of others.
And I couldn’t help but think that if God truly wanted people to repent of being gay, then reparative therapy would surely work. And at a minimum, that therapy would not lead people into greater despair of their life and humanity.
In the end, after countless nights as a trauma chaplain sitting with families whose loved ones had died in despair (for a variety of reasons), I couldn’t, in good faith or good conscience, hold on to something any longer that was leading people to suicide.
It’s pretty hard to miss the fruit of sin and evil.
What I was finding in my relationships with LGBT friends was that while those sins were present, just like they are for those of us that are heterosexual and gender conforming, there was no fruit of sin that I could identify that was unique to being gay or lesbian. It became clear to me that it had nothing to do with their orientation or relationship, but with the same sin and pain that everyone deals with.
As I remarked to a dear friend of mine who is a lesbian, it’s pretty clear the shitty stuff in your relationships have nothing to do with you being a lesbian, and everything to do with you being a broken human being in need of God’s grace.
On other hand, the gifts of ministry and the fruits of the Holy Spirit are radically obvious in my friend’s life and in others: as a preacher, as a bearer of God’s grace and forgiveness to me in our friendship, and in her own deepening faith life that bears marks of the Holy Spirit. Instead of being an unrepentant sinner, as her relationships and identity have become more healthy, and as her faith life continues to grow, she clearly bears the marks of the Spirit in Galatians: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.
Then, it was a matter of Scripture and Christian responsibility. As Ken Wilson and David Gushee have been writing about in the last couple years, the Church has been thinking through these sorts of difficult things since the early times of the Church. Instead of merely trying to dismiss Paul’s prohibitions as cultural, it seemed far more important that we claim the responsibility that Jesus gives the church: to bind and to loose. And the church has done this over history: on matters of dietary restrictions, on matters of circumcision, on the question of slavery being acceptable, on the question of racial justice, and for many Christians: the ordination of women.
Over time, the church has had to make these decisions for the sake of God’s beloved humanity and for the larger witness of the Gospel. Sometimes, we have had to admit our own “missing of the mark” in God’s revealing of his will to us, and that by doing so, the mission of the Gospel is emboldened and enlarged. Were we wrong about slavery? Yes. Were we wrong about race? Yes. Were we wrong about women? I think so; they were much better witnesses to the Resurrection than any men in the Gospels.
When these things became obvious stumbling blocks to the Gospel, then we must exercise our rights and responsibility as a Church clearly and powerfully, to bind and loose as necessary. And is there any larger stumbling block right now then this issue?
Instead of shirking from this issue, the Church should do as it has been given the responsibility to do, and loose this as a sin. And instead focus on the things that are actually destructive to human flourishing and marriage: lust, resentment, anger, jealousy, and pornography, amongst others.
The men and women I know who are gay and lesbian and married are witnessing to the Gospel and Christ’s creative and reconciling work in the world.
And the reality is that easing this stumbling block to the Gospel is relatively easy, but you know what’s hard? Getting people who don’t believe to experience God’s gift of grace in a life free from injustice, violence, greed, envy, jealousy and anger.
Finally, it was a matter of theology, and of a central aspect of the Lutheran tradition: the ex nihilo. In our theological tradition, the idea that God kills and raises up in Baptism is central, and core to that idea is this: God can create from nothing. God is radically free to create and recreate out of absolutely nothing. And in our tradition, we all need to die, so that God can create something new out of our nothingness.
So why can’t God bring beauty and grace and witness to the Gospel out of LGBT people in the same way that God can do that in my marriage, in my ministry, in my life, even when I still struggle in bondage to sin until my last breath?
The answer, of course, is that is precisely what God is doing. Is being gay and lesbian and transgender the way that God created the world? I’m not sure, but I also know that I am not the way that God created me to be either. In fact, heterosexual marriage might not even be the way that God intended the world. Jesus makes it clear that marriage won’t exist in the Resurrection. Paul does pretty well to make it sound like a last resort for those of us who can’t muster up the strength to deal with our straight sexual “urges” (to use a bludgeon word used against LGBT people): “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Not the highest view of heterosexual marriage, if I might say so myself.
In fact, instead of feeling threatened in my heterosexual marriage, or believing that this might threaten marriage as an institution, I think this can allow the church to conceive of covenant between two people in a chorus of ways, just as Scripture describes the covenant between God and God’s people in a chorus of ways. My marriage to my wife is unique and a calling from God, not a copycat simply for the continued procreation of the human race.
Indeed, it is difficult to deny that God is creating ex nihilo in LGBT relationships and identity. Not by becoming ex-gay or denying their realities, but by the same way that God works with the rest of us: by dying to ourselves and being reborn once more by the Holy Spirit into the resurrection of Jesus.
And some are procreative in this new life by adopting children or using new technologies, some are great aunts and uncles, others are procreative by creating beautiful work for peace and justice, by saving the lives of others in their vocations, and most of all, by witnessing to the Messiah who is able to do these things despite our “natural inclinations” to screw it all up. Just like heterosexual people who can have children, who can’t have children, who are single, who are celibate, who are just trying to survive another day.
This isn’t a cultural compromise for me, it’s not a surrendering to the heat of public opinion, but a further discernment of who God is and just how powerful the creative and redemptive work of God actually is in this world.
And so, I repent, and turn, and return to God and to my brothers and sisters. And we get to continue doing the work of the church: of proclaiming the good news in Christ Jesus, the way of and to God in Jesus, of bringing forth repentance and resurrection, and being witnesses to impending and emerging kingdom of God.
I once was wrong, but now I’m found.
Glory to God, it’s good to be free.