I may be opening up a can of worms that I shouldn’t here. But I knew this day would come. Small towns in the South are sometimes thrust into the spotlight when a resident becomes a celebrity. Eventually, people begin to wonder where these people stand on various equality issues, especially since the South doesn’t have the best track record in that area. And eventually those concerns will turn to equality for those that are LGBTQA
I’m from a small Southern town with some celebrities that go to a church that I used to go to (even though I never met them). That church has come under scrutiny for their stance on LGBTQA issues. Since I used to be a very involved insider at that church (before moving to a different city and leaving the “evangelical” tag behind), I thought would comment on some of the issues that happens in almost all of these situations.
Usually these situations come about after an expose article looks at an online blog post or sermon video or what have you and brings certain views on LGBTQA issues to light. Then there is a confusing tornadic swirl of responses from all sides. Often it becomes difficult to figure out what the real problem is. But have you ever noticed that no matter what is said and done, every single article that looks into the issue in a way that might harm a church is automatically labeled as “bad journalism”, “a hit job”, “a witch hunt”, etc by members of the church, no matter what the article says? Every single bit of criticism is bad journalism, regardless of whether it really is bad or not. In general, the original pieces are pretty middle of the road explanations that present the church’s views in context with little commentary. Then many of the follow-up reaction pieces attack the original article for saying things it didn’t say, or even go as far as taking quotes out of contexts. Leaders and members of the church in questions echo that sentiment.
There are also accusations of “major liberal hateful backlash” that are hard to substantiate. Of course, there are usually a few fringe left-leaning websites that call for extreme responses, but they typically were doing that before any controversy breaks out. It is important to note that when ever any Christian becomes famous, there are also extreme right-leaning sources that attack them for not being “bold” enough with their faith. Attacks against Christian celebrities are usually always there from both sides, but people just latch onto the extreme ones from one side and use them as “proof” that there is a wave of new persecution when there really isn’t.
Of course, it is also somewhat unfair to hold the views of a church against the celebrities that go there. Yes, churches in the South do tend towards “believe one way or else” mentalities, and they tend to vet political attitudes before letting anyone on their stage (including celebrities in their midst). It is possible, although probably unlikely, that they hold a different view from their church. But until they say anything specific it is unfair to hold their churches stance against them.
At the same time, those that feel it is unwarranted to look into the beliefs of these churches are also misunderstanding the power and influence of the nondenominational evangelical movement, which holds millions of Americans under its sway. As a former insider at one of these churches (at least that is what some of the church leadership referred to me as once), I did want to shine a light on some of the problematic issues at play here.
First of all, most expose articles will characterize these churches as being “hard line” and “unmoving” around these issues. This might seem harsh, but is usually true. You will even find these churches boasting about their unwavering stances in their sermons. So I am not sure how something they once bragged about suddenly becomes an “attack,” but what can you do?
I used to bang my head against this unmovable wall when discussing creationism, evangelism, or the role of women in a marriage. I generally find that you either parrot what they want to hear from you and get accepted, or question things and get ostracized. This is nothing new – such is the case in many churches both conservative and liberal, as well as businesses and organizations of all kinds. I just bring this up in case anyone wants to say “why don’t you try talking to them about all this?” Believe me – myself and others have tried. We have even formed an unofficial support group on Facebook to process what we went through. Others have started blogs to chronicle their problems. I don’t want to dig into that any more as there is plenty online about that at many churches already.
Many will say that these expose articles are taking words out of context, even when they provide links to videos and articles to show they aren’t. But I can verify that these stances typically have been preached over and over again at these churches, with tens of thousands of people being influenced by them. So even if one specific article had taken words out of context (which they rarely do in these cases), I have sat through enough of these sermons to know what has been said. Then there are countless leadership development classes, missionary training programs, and other secondary outlets that I have also attended that dig deeper. What emerges once you have become enough of any insider is a deep layer of problematic issues that need to be brought to the Light. I will touch on these issues next.
Biblical Clarity on Marriage and Gender Definitions
First issue: the concept of the Bible being clear that marriage is only between a man and a woman, based on Genesis. The problem is, its not really that clear. If you take an honest look at Genesis 2:24, its not really a command from God as much as a commentary on a reason why people get married: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Even more problematic is that in Bibles that mark the words of God in red, this passage is rarely in red. That is because it is not a direct quote of God, again, but commentary from the writer of Genesis. Therefore, it is not necessarily true that “God defined marriage” as many preachers say, even if you believe that the Scriptures were literally written by God. Why? Because none of the scriptures used to back that statement up are in any way written as “definitions.” To say that they are “definitions” is for us to re-write the Bible based on our own feelings. Commentary is commentary, not a definition.
Additionally, pastors often talk about God clearly defining masculinity and femininity, which is another extreme oversimplification of what the Bible actually says. What it really says is “male and female he created them.” Well, of course: there were only two of them. So there were only two options for anything. Which also means that God could have only created, at max, two hair colors, two eye colors, two skin colors, and so on. Those details were irrelevant to the story of creation, so they weren’t mentioned, but it doesn’t mean that this wasn’t true (and if you don’t believe that Genesis is literal history, I understand – I am just writing this to those that do). Of course, now we have more that two hair colors, two eye colors, two skin colors, etc. The same DNA that produces hair color also produces our sex. Yes, that is a major oversimplification, but what I am trying to get at is that we should not confuse the way things were created with the way they have to be forever. God created (at most) two eye colors. We now have more. Same can be said for any other genetic trait, such as our sex.
Then, of course, there is the whole problem of saying anything in the Bible is “clear” at all.
Homosexuality as a Sin
On to the next issue: Stating that “homosexuality is a sin” is the truth while “homosexuality is not a sin” is a lie. The problem with statements like this one is that the word “homosexuality” does not appear in the Bible in the original languages. This is because the word was coined around 1869. It probably didn’t get used in English Bible translations until the 1950s. The history of what many incorrectly refer to as “homosexuality” now is problematic and confusing. While historically a few individuals saw it as a way they were born, most people saw it as deviant actions of heterosexuals or a temporary condition. In fact, the places where we tend to see “homosexual” now in our Bibles are all words based on this assumption in relation to sexual slavery of young boys, or rebellious heterosexual women that were performing in some weird religious sexual ritual. This is important because it means that there is no commentary in the Bible about committed, loving marriage between two normal, non-cultish people of the same gender. To say that the Bible is clear on modern “homosexuality” issues is not historically or Biblically honest. If you want more commentary on this issue, or to look at the difficulties of specific scriptures, I highly recommend looking into this series of blog posts by my friend Michelle.
Part of the problem here is the constant strategy of hiding real stances on these issues behind the ambiguous veil of “homosexuality.” Its a vague word that takes away any responsibility of really saying what one believes. Instead of saying things like “I don’t want to let gay people legally marry” or “we don’t let those that are openly LGBTQA attend our church” or “I want to be free to not bake cakes for lesbian weddings” or “I want to cause transgender people to use the bathroom that matches with their birth sex” you just say “sure we believe that homosexuality is sin, but we still accept all people at our church.” Typically churches mean all of what I spelled out in that sentence and more with that last vague sentence, but I will get to that more later.
A lot of these issues are often coupled with some weird picking and choosing of statistics to support these positions: 90% of “homosexuals” are abused and that caused their “homosexuality,” many people are lured into “homosexuality” through pornography, etc. There are many problems with this line of thinking, including how it ignores a lot of research, but I will just point to this article as a good summary into the problems with assuming that abuse causes people to change their sexual attractions. Additionally, the idea that people can be “lured” into “homosexuality” through pornography is a major misunderstanding of the roots of sexual addiction (as well as the shady attempts that criminals make to exploit those addictions to make money online). This article is a good source to start looking into that.
If you are seeing a pattern here of oversimplification and glossing over unclear realities in a manner that ignores the complexities of life, welcome to life in the evangelical nondenominational movement. Questions are only encouraged as long as you are moving in the direction of the leadership on the answers. You are only allowed to come to the conclusion that the leaders already have. Only one answer is allowed in the end for the whole church, no matter how unclear the scriptures are. And then a few token “unclear” issues such as “whether missionaries can drink a beer in countries with different views of alcohol” are touted as “proof” of their “theological diversity.”
Oversimplification of What Change Means
Now for the next issue: saying that someone is a homosexual in thought and action and cannot change is a lie. Of course, we all know we can change many things about ourselves. Others we can not. Even others are not so black and white. To be honest, sexuality is not as black and white as many would like it to be. Just look at this list of Seven Myths about Sexual Orientation. Its not very clear or straight forward for many. But ambiguity is a tough sell from the pulpit, so any gray areas that exist in reality are painted over in black and white “Biblical Clarity.” Additionally, churches love to take one or two stories of people that exist in this ambiguity (in other words, they had their sexual attractions change for reasons they don’t even understand) and lift them up as examples of everyone else to follow. They completely have no idea what really happened, but take a few random weird examples out of this person’s life as “steps” to “overcoming homosexuality.”
I know that at this points pastors always have their stories of hundreds of people that they have helped. They always do. All of heir beliefs are backed up by their stories as much as scripture. Some that can be corroborated, others that can’t. Its always hard to figure out which are which, but many people have spoken up through the years when they have veered off the verifiable path. Regardless, when pastors say “I have seen hundreds of people personally change their direction of same-sex attraction from a homosexual lifestyle to a heterosexual lifestyle”… I don’t buy it. First of all, statistically there are probably not that many people in any one city that would claim to have been gay and then changed their sexual orientation. Are we to believe that every single one of them ended up at any one church? Just look into the numbers of people that are or were LGBTQA and then how many of those claim they have changed it. Doubtful once you convert that to the population of most cities. But how does a pastor of a church of hundreds or thousands have time to “personally” work with hundreds of people with any one issue? My experience has been that these pastors are one busy dude and it takes a lot to get a little of their time.
Also, I know some of these people that pastors have “helped.” Many of them are currently not a member of any church and are openly LGBTQA. So, sorry, not quite all “success” stories (by the church in question’s standards or conversion). Others have privately disagreed with their church about being able to change and have told me horror stories about the “conversion” therapy they went through after being pressured by their church. Not to mention that they have also told me and others that they doubt there are “hundreds” of ex-gays helped by any one church. At best, I think pastors can say they know a couple of people that have had their sexual attractions change for unknown reasons and then have forced a good number of people that are LGBTQA to live celibate lifestyles based on this idea that people can change their attractions.
Public Response to Personal Beliefs
Two more issues rolled into one: when pastors talk about how educators in public schools should not accept same-sex marriage as normal, or how business owners should be willing to stand to lose business or even various deals or contracts over this issue. Which is weird, considering our job as Christians is to be in the world but not of the world. Treat every student you teach as weird unless they believe like you? Cause your business to go under unless everyone you deal with has the same religious beliefs as you? That is all just silly. People every where are not going to believe like you, but you can still do business with them or treat them like they are normal. That is the whole point of “be in the world but not of it.”
Of course, this stance often does does not apply to other issues, like the many people at church that are currently on their third marriage, or who had sex before marriage but still got married, or who are obviously not treating their bodies as a temple of God by the way they eat. You see, at many churches like these, it is okay to do business with people that violate some scriptures, just not others. They can even become leaders in the church (yep, I have personally known some leaders at various churches that are on their third marriage, or had sex before marriage, or committed a wide range of the “acceptable” evangelical sins).
Look, as I often say, I am not trying to convince anyone that they need to change their belief on what is sin. My concern is that many very complex and difficult issues are being glossed over and made to seem clear when they are not. People are going around saying that the Bible clearly says things that it does not. People are saying that most Christians believe something that they sometimes don’t (even though Christianity is not supposed to be about popularity anyways, but interesting how many will automatically turn “what we should believe” into a popularity contest if it helps their point). Many are going around saying that Christians at these churches are nice, caring people… which they are, as long as you agree with them. Try to take a different position and have a productive conversation about it? Not so much. I have had many in person and online conversations to prove it. I have been defriended by many former close friends over just raising questions. Then once the arguments start, I have had to block more than I can count once they go off the deep end of hate. People I used to be good friends with, pray with, walk with, eat with, etc. Once the hateful insults come out about how I want to kill babies (it always goes there for some reason) just because I want to acknowledge the difficulties on this issue, its time to block. Before someone wants to talk about the compassion of evangelicals, let me pull out some statements towards me that are not very compassionate: I’m worse than a pagan because I am too liberal (even though I never expressed that), hopeful God will strike me down in explicit graphic ways, how gay men will attack my wife and kid, etc.
You have to ask yourself: why does such extreme hatred come out of the mouths of people once they are confronted by one of their former insiders that now walks a different path? Maybe we can look back to the words of their pastors to see why: claims that if one is not clear, they will have no leg to stand on at some point in the future, or if they think they are going to get away with their beliefs in the short run, then they won’t in the long run, because the “spirit demands submission.” Skipping over the problematic idea that is “spirit demands submission,” just looking at the whole tone there is very telling: you either agree with me or God is gonna get you in the end. Its not grace, its beliefs. You have to get every point right or else there will be divine trouble.
It is the ultimate in works-based religion played out to its logical conclusion. Faith that God is still God even in the gray areas is not enough. You have to know for sure what you know, and get it correct right now or the big army boot of the Spirit in the sky is going to squash you. Of course, this is all because they care for you, even if that caring is wrapped up in a big ball of “God is abusive” theology.
Do They Really Hate Gays?
Finally, I would also like to address people saying that these Christians “hate gays” because of their beliefs. Look, the concept of “truth being more complex than easy, quick sound bites” goes both ways. Yes, conversion therapy is very hateful towards those that are LGBTQA. But many people, especially at these churches, just don’t understand that. Their pastors seems to refuse to understand that side of the issue. But they don’t hate gays in the ways they are accused of hating them. Or at least, in the ways that many conservative outlets say they are being attacked for (its always hard to know if that is true when conservative media won’t actually point to any real attacks or claim that certain articles are an attack when they really aren’t). Do these churches have abusive parts to their theology? Yes. Does that mean they are intentionally trying to be abusive? Not necessarily. They are just misguided in these areas. Part of that is the pastor’s fault, part of it is the evangelical leaders that they listens to, and part of it is the fault of the thousands that enable them by accepting what they preaches without critically analyzing it.
And I know what the typical response is: they aren’t anti-gay – they love all people and want them to be everything that God has for them. This sounds wonderful, but there is one big problem: when saying this they conveniently leave out the parenthetical statement after that: “be everything that God has for them (as long as it is not a gay Christian).” They like to selectively edit their response to seem like a loving, accepting church, specifically leaving out the part where you will be expected to not be LGBTQA if you want to stay there a long time, or that you will at best have to live a celibate lifestyle and never serve anywhere on the church leadership. Yes, it is dishonest and deceiving. Technically they are still anti-gay even after claiming not to be. That is because they are trying to take a “bold stand” in a way that will get them attacked the least.
Take Time to Listen
The biggest problem here is an evangelical movement that refuses to listen. You can go find many other sermons by these pastors on a wide range of topics where they speak so emphatically of things they clearly do not understand. I say this not because they have a different stance than I think they should, but because they can not accurately describe the side they are railing against. Such is the case when they speak about “homosexuality.” Just using that word demonstrates they are not listening or understanding or both. They do this because they follow the lead of many other problematic evangelical leaders like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Francis Chan. To these pastors and those that follow them I would say: try to listen more and rebuke less. Those of us that have left the evangelical tradition but still cling to Jesus are not any more ignorant or misled than anyone else is. Please try to understand our position before preaching more misguided sermons about us. I highly recommend the work of Justin Lee and the Gay Christian Network. They have many members who believe that “homosexuality is a sin” but are willing to be honest about the uncertainties about what the Bible actually says in this area.
And I know the response that many evangelicals give: I have lots of gay/liberal/homosexual friends/family/co-workers, so I have listened to and know their side well. Leaders and members at these churches do technically listen, but then respond in ways that reveal they didn’t listen to understand as much as correct. Look, you can disagree with someone all you want – its a free country. But if your words do not display an understanding of the side you are railing against, then it doesn’t matter how many people you talked to: you didn’t listen to understand. There is a difference.
Then there is the response that I am saying all of this because I want to be “popular with the world.” Look, I’m not a famous person. I won’t gain popularity taking this stance in Texas. I will probably get defriended by at least 10 people for posting this. I will probably get a handful of likes and then a massive amount of argument and accusations from many others. And all of that is nothing compared to what people who are LGBTQA will face once all of those articles about “hit jobs” against popular celebrities circulate more and more. Yes, something for you to consider: someone you know that is LGBTQA could possibly get harassed and verbally attacked each time you post those articles “in support of This Famous Person.” Any negative feedback you or I face is nothing compared to the horrors that the LGBTQA community has to face every time they get accused of “overstepping their bounds” in response to some celebrity’s beliefs.