Is a church a family? Or is it a community? Sometimes I hesitate to call the church a family because I have seen families do and say extremely hurtful and damaging things to its family members. I would like to see the church function more in the Way of Christ than like some troubled families. In a community we seem to focus more on kind treatment and not taking advantage of someone else. In a community we are more likely to speak up when someone is behaving in an unhealthy way or mistreating another member of the community. It often seems that we see justice more clearly through the eyes of community than the eyes of family where ‘they have to love us’ no matter how we behave and may, perhaps, take advantage of that status.
How does our community treat people who are the minority? Do we seek justice for them or do we fear them? This is not a new issue for our society to fear those who are not like us. But, still, as Christians we are called to seek justice for all of God’s children. Even when we may not like or agree with our brothers or sisters, they are still God’s children and part of the creation which God has declared ‘good.’
How is it we deal with our brothers and sisters when they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersex or queer (GLBTIQ)? For many people of the church we hear the question, “Why are we still talking about this?” It’s a good question. But when it is asked by those who fully accept and include brothers and sisters who are GLBTIQ it is understood as “of course, we are all God’s people together and concerning ourselves with someone else’s private life is unnecessary.” When it is asked by those who are struggling with how brothers and sisters who are GLBTIQ fit into their understanding of the biblical witness it is understood as “the Bible says that this is not appropriate behavior for God’s people so how could we approve.” So…that is why we are still talking about it.
Yet, I mourn that we have spent and are spending so much time on this topic that we have forgotten the focus or have used up too much energy to focus on mission and justice. I look forward to the day when we are as passionate and excited about talking about what it means to be a church of justice and turning our focus to doing mission to be that movement of wholeness we have claimed. I am unable to determine sheep from goats and I am more than willing to leave that up to God. It is easier to live by what I know I am called to do: to love God and to love one another.
One way that I have seen injury done is when a congregation declares itself to be Open & Affirming when it really is not. When we use these descriptors we lead the GLBTIQ church into situations where they may be injured by the larger church and find themselves struggling with what it means to be a child of God. We discuss and debate what the church ought to declare or proclaim but we also need to be aware of what injury may be done if brothers and sisters are coerced into making a statement they don’t fully believe.
I was raised in the Disciples church and fondly remember having it described as being uniquely a “thinking” church. I have celebrated being part of a church that invites and encourages us to speak aloud our questions about our faith even if they trouble others. I understand the Disciples church to be a safe place to say “I don’t understand….” or “I don’t get….” or, even, “I don’t buy into…….” without judgment or shunning. I celebrate a church where those of us who don’t agree with our brothers and sisters on what it means to be a person of faith and who is also GLBTIQ can continue to be in conversation, discernment, and even to gently disagree offering and receiving grace from the other person recognizing that our church is still finding its way. Being a Disciple is recognizing that Christianity is messy and even when we do not understand someone else’s theology or biblical interpretation, we are still brothers and sisters together.
For me the church is a safe place, a place where I can disagree with those gathered without losing my place at the table where all are welcomed just as we have been welcomed. I fear that it is not as safe a place for people who identify as GLBTIQ. To be a beloved child of God is understanding that I am not greater or lesser than any other regardless of my opinion or theology. Am I ever challenged or even troubled by the theology of other Disciples? Of course, but that doesn’t mean I can’t continue to be with them at the table and, with any luck at all, actually learn something from them. In fact, it is when I disagree that I most need to stay at the table. I know I cannot make another person ‘feel’ one way or the other or even convince someone else to accept my interpretation of the Good News, but I can continue to be in conversation so that I may learn and possibly teach at the same time but always giving and receiving grace.
Our congregations continue to wrestle with the subject. At one point when I was in the process of ‘search and call’ I asked the committee if they would be accepting of my daughter and her partner. Following silence in the room, the response was, “well, we don’t know any gay people so we would probably look at them and say, ‘Oh, that’s what a gay person looks like.’” What an incredibly honest answer even though I suspect that it may not be all that accurate. I suspect that many of us know lots of people who we are unaware are gay and so think we don’t know anyone. More importantly, is the implied acceptance of seeing a gay person as outside their frame of reference while suggesting that it wouldn’t be a major issue. This same church further in the process was clear that while they were open to people of faith who were GLBTIQ they were quite sure that they did not approve of same-gender marriage. It is a sign of hope that we can agree to reach beyond our understanding and place of agreement and recognize that Christ died for all of God’s people not only those who meet our requirements. It is a challenge that often our passion for justice and reconciliation loses out to other theological concerns.
I have witnessed a church where gay members were embraced and accepted but still the congregation questioned how they interpreted scripture about their sexual behavior. I think this is a place where the church gets stuck, focusing on sexual behavior rather than the person, when, in fact, we do not know about the sexual practices of our straight brothers and sisters and would not even consider asking. The Peanuts cartoon has often been quoted as saying, “I love humanity, it’s people I hate.” I wonder if we are the reverse of the Peanuts quote. We love people, one at a time, but we fear and doubt groups of people unlike us. When we have the opportunity to be in relationship with people who are GLBTIQ I suspect we find it much easier to accept their sexuality as only one part of who they are and not as a defining characteristic. However, when we think of people in groups by their sexuality we define them by the group we have put them in. Is there fear in the church of people whom we don’t understand or who are not like us? Is it something other than sexuality that causes the discomfort?
The Disciples church has, I believe, become, for the most part, a church who is willing to stay at the table, to share in the grace offered by Jesus Christ while still struggling with what is an ongoing debate about what the Bible says on the subject or if the Bible even speaks on our postmodern understanding of sexuality. Some congregations still struggle with the idea of calling a pastor who is GLBTIQ but some congregations still struggle with the idea of calling a pastor who is female. We are a ‘church undecided’ but my hope and my prayer is that we will not become a ‘church divided.’
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a non-creedal communion, the thinking church, the church that embraces the grace God has done in Jesus Christ, is a church undecided on what it means to be a person of faith and a GLBTIQ person. This church is also a church that welcomes all as we have been welcomed and seeks wholeness in a fragmented world. God is still working with us as we each seek to be faithful followers of the Holy One of God. Together we continue to find ways to better understand God’s diverse and varied creation of which we are a part. God is still working on us and I trust that together we will receive the wisdom of how we can best live faithfully as the people of God.
May we seek God’s grace and be gentle with one another as we seek God’s wisdom on how we understand our participation as children of God living together as family or community.