I recently spent one day at the national convocation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which is just beginning a conversation about the hiring of non-celibate gay employees. That frustrating experience made me reflect on my own experience. I thought I would share it with you.
I was in high school the first time the word “homosexual” was spoken in my home. Those quotation marks mean it was whispered. Cousins were attending a Baptist college where a religion professor had been terminated because it had been discovered he was … “homosexual,” my mother said, pausing and looking around the breakfast table. I barely knew the word, but as a teenager growing up in small town South Carolina, I understood why my mother used her disapproving, inside voice to say it.
Amy and I recently performed a gay wedding — and like the other three ceremonies we have conducted, there was an air of “its-about-time-ness” along with the rightness and celebratory joy that mark those holy moments which signify, by our religious rituals, the presence and blessing of God.
My transformation happened too slowly, but like the rest of my education, given where I started, I’m sure it could not have happened any other way. If anyone had poured the whole truckload of biblical interpretation, cultural assimilation and biological diversification into my brain at once I would certainly have retreated into the comforting logic and norms of a “safer” theology. Thanks to good friends, wise professors, and caring church leaders, however, I’m no longer “where I started” — and, like the rest of my education, this gradual revelation has been liberating.
In the beginning, though, it was simple: It was wrong. The Bible said so. Then I heard, “God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the people go,” and for the first time in my inquisitive life a literal word from the Bible made no sense. And he would not let the people go would have to mean “so God could inflict plagues and pain.” And why would God do that? A wise college professor offered a careful instruction distinguishing reading literal words and listening to the spirit of the (whole) biblical text. That’s where it started.
The Bible remains essential to my life and faith, but decades of biblical education have convinced me it is too important to pretend to read it literally. Text and context go together, and as cultural, scientific and social advance give us new understandings, God gives us new truth — through the same, ancient word. To understand this, we only need to observe how the literal words of the Bible were once used to justify slavery.
Then one day in seminary, though I had a newfound understanding of the Bible, I was still hesitant, so my logic turned to the natural world: “You just don’t see this in nature.” A friend, however, corrected my limited vision. The literature on the biological diversity of gender identity and expression in the animal kingdom is not new, and it is growing. Sexuality existing across a fluid spectrum did not fit my world of male/female only, but I have always been humble enough to acknowledge that just because I don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not true.
And then I read the stories of and met and nurtured relationships with gay people. Being gay is all they have ever known. Empathizing with their stories, I finally understood that being gay is who you are, it is not what you do. Sitting alone, typing, I’m heterosexual. It’s not what I do. So I made a conscious decision to remove any derisive language from my vocabulary. Theirs is not my experience, but it doesn’t have to be for me to understand and accept them.
So, my understanding had changed, but, still, when Amy and I were interviewed to become the pastors of a church with openly gay members, I asked: “Do you think we would be expected to do a ‘union’ [marriage wasn’t legal 16 years ago], because I am ‘welcoming and affirming,’ but not quite sure where I stand on these ceremonies?”
A few years after becoming the pastors of Park Road, however, my hypocrisy fell heavy on me. I had the privilege of being the pastor of gay people, knowing them, celebrating their faith, and in many cases knowing the partners of the relationships I also affirmed (“How’s Sally?” “We’d love to have John come to church with you,” etc.). I was celebrating their lives and unions in every way — except publicly. Being the pastor of their church, openly affirming their worth as persons and partners and members of my congregation, what did it say about the integrity of my conviction if I could “bless” them in personal conversation, but withhold that blessing in my ecclesiastical function?
Our church now has a policy explicitly declaring: “All services of the church are available to all members of the church.” No one is a partial member. Ours is not a “gay church,” nor is it a marriage chapel, but if you want to be a part of our Christian community, you are welcome, and we will cry your tears and celebrate your joys — all of them — with you.
It took a long time for my theology to pronounce a blessing on my celebration of all of God’s children, but “where I started” four decades ago is not where the discussion begins today. Anyone just coming to the conversation should not expect to be allowed the same amount of time — just as we would not tolerate someone today saying, “You’re just going to have to give me some time on this ‘race issue.’”
God will always move us forward in time and understanding, and as we move, our language changes from whispered table conversation to celebration. As with too many other social issues, the Church is sadly proving itself the last to accept God’s continuing revelation. What a shame that we are seen, once again, as an anchor and not a sail — but the winds of change have come. It’s time.
What you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops! (Matt. 10:27)