1 John 4:15-18
15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has a commitment to inclusion. We accomplish this largely due to our simplicity of beliefs. From our movement’s earliest days, we have only had one “requirement” for joining our church. The requirement is to proclaim that Jesus is the Christ. Different congregations will add their own twist to it, but the affirmation’s core remains the same.
Nobody can be rejected from inclusion in our church for having an opinion. Nobody can be rejected from inclusion in our church for living a lifestyle that strays from mainstream society. When faithful to our mission, we celebrate diversity of opinions and lifestyles. That said, we sometimes struggle in living up to our mission of inclusiveness. In our current age we find ourselves struggling with how to fully include those who are gay, transgendered, bisexual, or simply questioning their own understanding of themselves. (From here on I’ll use the term “gay” for simplicity.)
In the scripture passage above, Saint John is teaching us that there is no fear in God’s love. The greater our love, the less our fear. In my encounters with people who oppose the full inclusion of gays in congregational life, I find it to be due to fear. By affirming homosexuality, they fear that they are disobeying God because of the ways in which they’ve been taught to understand the faith. They fear that by affirming gay people as they are that they are unintentionally hurting them. The people I’ve encountered who see things in this manner tend to have a fundamentalist understanding of scripture and the faith. They see Christianity as a way to avoid hell. Affirming a gay person, they fear, is to enable that person to go to hell. “…for fear has to do with punishment”. This is a fear-based approach to Christianity.
Before we blame these folks for having these views, I encourage us, as the Church, to take responsibility. We have not done a good job in teaching the love of God that casts out fear of punishment. Indeed, instead of painting them as haters, we can choose to paint them as victims of the sins of bad theology. What can we do to change this? We can start living like we have no fear of punishment from God.
We who confess that Jesus is the Son of God have no need to fear that we are leading people astray when we include all people, just as they are, to the table of Jesus Christ. Many of our congregations are succeeding at welcoming gays to the table for receiving communion. Where we fall short is welcoming all people to both sides of the table. By that I mean we still struggle to affirm the leadership gifts of gay people.
This is not an abstract subject or issue. This is a stumbling block for real human beings who are seeking inclusion. I’ll share the story of my stumbling block. It is not homosexuality, but it assists me in recognizing with empathy the stumbling block that others face.
I first felt the call to ordained ministry when I was 16 years old. I didn’t answer “yes” until I was 32 and entered seminary. Why? FEAR! I feared that I wasn’t smart enough. I had chosen to let fear slow down my obedience to God’s call.
When I was six or seven years old, I was labeled “slow” at school. I was taught as a slow child. I learned quickly how to make people happy as the slow-witted kid with a heart of gold, but I was scared. I was scared because I knew deep inside that I was actually pretty smart and creative. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel safe sharing my views because I was afraid of being told that I was stupid. Frankly, I still have remnants of this fear raise its head when I fear snarky comments about grammar, punctuation, and syntax on social media.
Thankfully I found support at our church. This was especially true in the youth programs. Through these relationships I found affirmation. Indeed, I found that I had a passion for being involved in church leadership, even to the point that I enjoyed attending board meetings!
The Church helped me to learn that I wasn’t “slow”. Indeed, I began to feel that I was smart. Like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, I had a brain all along. I was fine just the way I was. It was fear and misinformation that held me back.
I firmly believe that it is fear and misinformation that is holding back many congregations from fully embracing the ministry gifts of gay people. The misinformation is a rejection of contemporary scientific understandings of human sexuality. The fear is fear of judgment, be it from God or from the community.
Perfect love casts out fear. Gay people already have all the gifts they need for successful Christian ministry, ordained and lay. The Church needs to love them with perfect love. There is no need to fear judgment, for we affirm that Jesus is the Christ.