By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
It should be clear by now that “the LGBT Issue” is by no means just one issue, and that its complexity requires a sufficiently complex response.
Careful readers will see that my approach in these columns so far has been to try to identify areas of rather broad Christian agreement.
I hope that I have brought the vast majority of readers with me on the following claims, which I have generally identified as “forks in the road.” None of them are directly related to the traditionalist/revisionist normative argument, but they all impinge upon it.
1) Whether rightly or not, the LGBT issue has become the hottest of hot-button issues in our generation, so ultimately avoidism proves insufficient. Everyone will have to figure out what they will think and do about this.
2) Historic Christian understandings of sexuality are being reconsidered due to evidence offered in the lives of those who do not fit the historic heterosexual norm, together with associated research and mental health efforts. Some are open to this reconsideration, others fiercely opposed.
3) Several recent studies for the U.S. suggest a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender population ranging from 3.4 percent to 5 percent. Human sexual-orientation and sexual-identity diversity is a fact.
4) The admitted failure of the ex-gay movement has destroyed the plausibility of sexual-orientation-change efforts. Whatever pastoral approach the church takes, it should not be that discredited and damaging one.
5) Traditionalist Christians have come a long way since the 1970s in rejecting criminalization, discrimination, derogatory speech, bullying, violence, stigmatization, and dehumanization of gay people. This is good news.
6) While some traditionalist voices still dispute it, more are willing to acknowledge that the LGBT community contains a sizable population of professing Christians. Celibate gay Christians — sometimes called Side B Christians — are actually featured in much contemporary traditionalist literature.
7) Churches have at least four options for welcoming gay seekers or Christians that do not involve rejection of heterosexual-only sexual ethics: these are the “ask no questions” option, the “who are we to judge” option, the “dialogue & discernment/disputable matter” option, and the “pastoral accommodation” option. These implicate far broader questions in ecclesiology, such as what it means to be a church member, and whether churches will practice any form of what used to be called church discipline. The LGBT issue surfaces, but did not create, this broader ecclesial issue.
I am grateful for feedback from conservative Christian readers suggesting that at least many have stayed with me to this point on the journey.
There may be a large number of readers, perhaps especially traditionalists, who will want to get off the bus at this point. But if you do, I ask you to think a bit further about the implications of what you have “agreed to” so far. I think this leaves you — all of us — with a bit of homework that still needs to be done. Whether we decide to pursue this homework marks another major fork in the road.
1) Read narratives of LGBT people as well as reputable work in contemporary psychology to inform your interactions with this population and the ways you speak privately and publicly about these issues. Previous columns have linked to a considerable literature. Dive in, if only to be better informed.
2) Become aware that in any room with 20 or more people the likelihood is that at least one is LGBT in orientation and/or identity. Add to this the friends and family members and others who fiercely love LGBT people. So any time you or I make any statement about “the gays” or “those people” we are likely speaking about people who are in the room with us. Speak with consequent care. People get their backs up when their loved ones are spoken of carelessly or contemptuously.
3) Make a commitment never to accept derogatory speech or any form of bullying or mistreatment of LGBT people in your presence, no more than you would allow people to use the “n” word in your presence. If you are a parent or youth pastor, never allow kids to throw around terms like “gay” or “queer” as slurs. If you are a college student or teenager, never accept bullying or slurs without challenge. If your pastor says hurtful things from the pulpit, ask him or her to stop, and explain why. This commitment calls for courage, and a willingness to face scorn for standing up for gay people.
4) Help parents respond in constructive ways when their children come out as gay or lesbian or express questions about their sexuality. Make your church a context where parents know that the right response to their teenagers is never to reject them as human beings, never to throw them out. Did you know there are parents who tell their gay kids they wish those kids had never been born? Parents who refuse to acknowledge the existence of a child once he comes out as gay? Please: never, ever again! Read the materials available on websites like the Family Acceptance Project or others listed here. And if you know a teenager or young adult who has been rejected by their family because they are gay or lesbian, offer that child Christian love and hospitality.
5) Get to know gay Christians (or ex-Christians) if you get the chance. Listen to their stories with a teachable spirit.
6) Become an advocate for the welcome of LGBT Christians in your congregation to the maximal point theologically possible in your setting. Ask for some clarity from your church leaders. End avoidism.
7) Even if you oppose civil gay marriage, consider public policy steps you can support. Perhaps you can get behind anti-bullying curriculum in schools, or laws that classify physical attacks on gays as a hate crime. Perhaps you can support employment non-discrimination laws with appropriate exemptions for religious employers. (It remains legal in 29 states to fire an employee because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.) Perhaps you can oppose often demagogic legislation related to what the curriculum in public schools says about gay and lesbian people. (In South Carolina, for example, teachers are permitted to mention homosexuality, but only in relation to sexually transmitted disease.) Whatever you decide that you can support, do so publicly. This sets a good example for others, and helps observers see that being Christian does not equal being anti-gay.
If this is where you get off the bus, please go with a new sense of resolve to love and serve LGBT people and to make your family, friendship group, and church a safe and loving place for everyone — and to resist the easier path of silence or indifference.
If you are willing to engage the issue further, read on in future weeks as I tackle the normative dispute over same-sex relationships and the Bible.