Avoiding Hypocrisy as the Church

Hey! Long time no me-doing-anything-remotely-related-to-maintaining-this-blog. Hope you’ve been well. I recently contributed to a series on sexuality and the church over at OnFaith, focusing on ways his current church community is modeling a traditional sexual ethic that avoids much of the hypocrisy found in more conservative churches. Some excerpts:

When I joined, I simply became a part of that redemptive movement. This is an enormous blessing, because — believe it or not — I really want to proclaim the gospel through ministry and advocacy. (And, as a white dude brimming with privilege, learning how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce inequality can be a challenge!) I want to be a Christian, and I want my church to urge the congregants on in our shared vocation of pursuing justice for the marginalized (which includes a sizable portion of the church population itself).

Often lgbt+ Christians are treated as if we have one job this side of Jesus’ return: don’t have gay sex. But, as Eve Tushnet so quotably stated, “You can’t have a vocation of no,” of only avoiding something. We need something to live for, and let me say that Christianity never makes more sense to me than when I am witnessing or participating in a Christian community that is unified toward imitating and proclaiming Jesus’ liberative gospel.

And:

It continues to amaze me how hard celibate lgbt+ people have to work to find space in churches that claim a more traditional sexual ethic. The social burdens experienced by sexual minorities in these communities vary widely, but usually include increased scrutiny and suspicion, painful comments from congregants who may or may not know about one’s sexuality, reduced ministry possibilities (e.g. I was once stripped of an internship and prevented from helping with a youth group because I was attracted to men), insanely exhausting language policing,**** and at times, the general ache of being single in a culture that over-valorizes marriage and romance to the detriment of the church’s calling to be family.

I’m not sure how churches decided that the best ‘defense’ of the traditional sexual ethic is to place excessive burdens on those trying to abide by it and then fail to provide the support structures that would make such an ethic intelligible and healthy . . . but, well, here we are.

I believe the traditional sexual ethic is beautiful and good — I try to live according to it for a reason! — but I also believe that the way churches have approached the topic of human sexuality has largely failed to do any justice to the scope and nuance of the doctrine and has, in fact, done injustice to countless people who should have found a home and family within the church, and this requires sincere repentance.

Read the Whole Article at FaithStreet.

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Label Makers

Well, three months of pretending I had better things to do than blog have come to an end. I have a new post over at Spiritual Friendship on labels and social identity and why the energy some Christians are putting into fighting words is preventing them from truly serving others. Check it out here.

An excerpt:

‘In high school, before I ever used the word ‘gay,’ before I had even admitted to myself that I wasn’t attracted to women, I was being psychologically torn to pieces by other Christians’ (and my own) manner of talking about gay people. Even as I trumpeted things like, “There’s no such thing as a gay Christian,” “They chose to be that way,” and other homophobic aphorisms, I knew that something about me was a lot like something about them and that I could never, ever be open about it.

 

By trying to clearly maintain a linguistic boundary between gay people and people in the church, Christians not only make Church teaching unnecessarily unintelligible to non-Christian gay people (and, really, non-Christians in general) but run the risk of inflicting harm on young people in the church. Whether people want it or not, some youth in the church will see aspects of their experience reflected in the broader culture under the social category of ‘gay’ and not be able to simply divorce their self-understanding from it. Nor should they have to.

 

I choose at times to use the label ‘gay’ both to remind church communities that they cannot talk about LGBT+ people as if they aren’t sitting in their congregations or aren’t beloved friends and family and to provide a visible example that might help other sexual minorities who are wrestling with their self-understanding to avoid some of the trauma I experienced. I didn’t have any role models for this while I was growing up and I desperately needed one. Out of fear of compromising its sexual ethic the Church has inadvertently compromised its more foundational witness of God’s reconciling movement toward humanity.’

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Tense

(This post is a slightly edited version of something I wrote on December 7, 2012.)*

***

Real talk, everyone: I can’t see into the future.

I know, it’s embarrassing, but I’ve got to be honest with myself, and the truth is that, for all my effort, all my reading, all my thinking, all my praying, I simply don’t know what my life will look like five, ten, or fifty years from now. Heck, I can’t even guarantee that in the next three seconds a mystical vortex isn’t going to open up and transport me to a land of magic and adventure in need of a hero.

Sigh. Anyway…

Whenever I see friends and family after spending time away, it’s not uncommon to touch on topics such as who I am nowhow I’ve changed, and how I am still growing. That’s all fine and good, and I appreciate being able to process through things with people and share what God has been doing in my life. But since I began the ever-ongoing process of “coming out” a new question has started to dominate certain conversations: who will I be in the future?

People who love and care about me (and sometimes people who don’t know me at all but have been given The Unassailable Right To Say Things by the internet) want assurance that I will always be staunchly conservative and celibate. I mean, I guess that would be nice. It would make life so simple to be able to say, “I will always and forever believe all the things I think to be true right now. I will never doubt, never question, never reconsider, never ‘switch sides.’ So don’t worry.”

Simple and, I think, totally miserable. It would be miserable because I know I’m not right about everything. In fact, I count it as one of God’s greatest gifts that we can learn and grow and be challenged and changed. I am thrilled I am not now who I was five years ago, and I suspect, five years from now,** I will be similarly amazed at what God has done to draw me closer to him in, I’m sure, surprising and unforeseen ways.

So I can’t promise I’ll always be convinced that celibacy is my requisite (though not unhappy) path. I just can’t. I know myself too well, and I don’t know the future well enough.

What I can promise, though, is that I will live each day pursuing the glory of God, seeking to rest in his love and display it relentlessly to others. I can promise that I will place myself under the authority of scripture and Christian community, and that I will ask hard questions and, I hope, obey hard answers.

As it is, if I continue to live that kind of life, I feel confident the convictions toward sexuality that I have now will remain, though enriched, nuanced, and deepened. I hope they do.

I hope they do, because there are moments I’m scared they won’t.

I hope they do, because, when I lay in bed some nights, I hope they don’t.

I’m not some invincible dogmatic war-machine, impervious to any and all pain or insecurity. There are enough people telling me exactly who I need to be right now because of my sexuality that I’ve found the added demand to simultaneously guarantee and justify who I will be in the future both beyond my capacity and deeply, deeply exhausting.

For so long I felt the need to put up some kind of iron-clad front to earn people’s approval, to dispel any doubt that I will always believe what I believe now. That I will be strong enough. That I will be wise enough.

Ridiculous. I’m a Christian. I should be the first to admit that I am both weak and hilariously limited on my own. I am, as all humans are, an ever-changing work in progress.

No, I need God desperately, and trying to come across as sufficiently immutable was just smoke and mirrors to deter people from piercing me with that uncertain stare that says, You aren’t going to make it past forty, little more than a small rebellion against my utter dependence on Christ and the Church.

Because I am weak, I need to cling to the God whose strong embrace surrounds me and lifts me up. Because I can be frighteningly inconsistent, I need to draw near to the God who will lead me in righteousness all the days of my life. Because I can’t rely on my own feeble promises, I need to trust solely in the God whose promises never fail, who will guide me and teach me and nurture me and place before me a joyful path of discipleship that will lead me ever further into his marvelous light. Because I don’t know who exactly I will be as I grow, I need a church community to continually remind me who I am and who I serve.

Precisely because the future is hidden from me, I need to seek God in the present. I can’t win an argument against The Future; fear-fueled visions of what may be can easily overwhelm me because I don’t yet have the experiences necessary to combat them. And, of course, I won’t until that future becomes the present and God, as he always does, meets me in a way that is more astounding, more good than I could conceive of right now.

I’m 24. I still struggle with child-proof Advil bottles and sometimes daydream about being a Pokémon master. I have a lot of maturing to do. As I have recently engaged in the conversation surrounding faith and sexuality, I have realized that no matter how much research I may do, no matter how many blog posts I may write, I simply cannot change the fact that there is much I am unable to learn about myself and my sexuality except through the passing of time. There are fears and trials I cannot fully address until they actually materialize. Now, I’m in no rush – the future can hold on to its crow’s feet and baldness*** – but, well, patience doesn’t come naturally.

So, I’d rather not have to pretend that I have all or even most of the answers right now. What I do have is Jesus, transcendently imminent, and his assurance that he will be with me as the seconds pass like gravel or grass beneath my uncalloused feet. And, as I’ve learned in the past, I shouldn’t worry so much about the future because it distracts me from the present moment in which he is working miracles.

My goal in life is to glorify God in all that I do, not to merely be successfully chaste. Just because I’m confident the former leads to the latter in my life, and just because I am committed to working hard to develop as someone who flourishes in singleness, doesn’t make the distinction any less important.

As Eve Tushnet recently noted, an obsession with “safety first,” with expending all of one’s energy just to “not mess up,” is actually not safe at all: it misses the heart of the gospel and can ultimately undermine the very goals toward which one is striving.****

This strikes me as profoundly true. Ascesis is a risky path sometimes, and I am grateful for the reminder of where my priorities must stand, where my eyes must be fixed, in order to move forward with purpose and joy even as the future continues to stubbornly resist the desired clarity.

_______________

* It is worth noting that when I first wrote this two years ago I was primarily dealing with suspicion and anger from more conservative Christians who thought my refusal to try and become straight spelled doom for my future (eternity counted as part of said future, of course). Over the last year, however, burning condescension from more progressive types has definitely entered itself into the “things-that make-me-most-tired” competition, even as I understand where it’s coming from and am less upset by it than the utterly damaging beliefs of some conservative Christians.

** Assuming the mystical vortex doesn’t show up and I die while gloriously sacrificing myself to save the world from the sinister Arch-Mage.

*** The future is coming way too quickly, guys.

**** Pre-order her book! It’s going to be AMAZING.

[The block print at the top is by Yoshida Hiroshi]

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The New Ex-Gay

While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)

I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…

It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”

“These words” range from banal prejudices that cast all gay people as exceptionally promiscuous or obsessed with any number of threatening agendas to more contextually specific comments like “Shouldn’t we, as Christians, not have to talk about this so much? Can’t they just keep it between them and a few friends or a counselor? We all have problems; can’t they just find their identity in Christ and stop whining?”

And they’re being heard.

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of articles “introducing” the internet to celibate gay Christians. The responses have been, unsurprisingly, mixed. The most common reaction I’ve seen has been a reflexive categorization of “side-B”* beliefs as “the new ex-gay,” as nothing more than the next tool of homophobic fundamentalists to marginalize gay people.

These “response” articles – and particularly the subsequent comments – are often uninspiring, caustic, and full of caricature. I also don’t think they are entirely wrong.

Rant with me, please?

"I can admire your rampage against the hegemony much better from here, thank you."

“I can admire your rampage against hypocrisy much better from here, thank you.” “Ugh, whatever Darcy.”

As I’ve engaged the conversation surrounding faith and sexuality, one of the main sources of frustration has been the persistent sense that most conservative straight Christians are more passionate about gay people not having sex than they are about gay people flourishing in church communities and in society at large. Put more witheringly, I get the sense that when people say things like “Why do they even have to ‘come out’ at all?” what they mean is that it would be better if gay people simply didn’t exist.

This is why the ex-gay narrative was (is) so attractive – it literally removed the “problem” of gay people. As that narrative continues to unravel some people are searching for a new way to pursue their unchanged desire to pray the gays away.**

Some may balk at that claim, and maybe it’s ungracious – there are some important differences in rhetoric, and I get that. But here’s what I see: one way or another, championing ex-gay ideology or appropriating a ravaged shade of the “traditional sexual ethic,” these particular people are looking for a belief that demands nothing from them and everything from sexual minorities.

Given that the ex-gay narrative placed all the weight of “faithful response” on the gay people themselves, it makes sense that prior supporters of that ideology would continue to focus exclusively on what the gay person needs to do, just in different language. Unless the switch from the ex-gay narrative to the “side-B” narrative of celibacy/chastity coincides with a shift in one’s understanding of church community and personal responsibility, then the “traditional sexual ethic” becomes a rather cruel farce, a perpetuation of unequal power structures and shame.

Those highly critical articles are responding in part, I think, to this ultra-lame permutation of a conservative ethic. So, I understand the hate; ex-gay ideologies have left so many scars on beloved people, and to see the phantoms of those ideologies take on new skins merits unequivocal response.

I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone, or even most people, will accept the differentiation of what we are trying to do at Spiritual Friendship from the ex-gay narrative in all of its forms. Or, even if they do see the difference, that it will matter at all.

But, well, here we are.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the “traditional sexual ethic” as I see it expressed by people who have thought through it extensively is how it is about so much more than just what certain people do or don’t do with certain parts of their bodies.

Rather, it is a sweeping yet grounded reimagining of what it means to be embodied beings in mutual communion with each other for the sake of human flourishing and the demonstration of the gospel in our particular contexts.

In other words, it is just as much about churches and communities addressing their trenchant sins of inhospitality and marginalization as it is about an individual’s stewardship of her mind and body.

For me, such a reframing provides motion and purpose and is far more true to the reality of the gospel than the one-sided and apodictic platitudes that characterize the rhetoric of those interested primarily in maintaining the status-quo and keeping this “problem” at a distance.

What kills me is how these Christians think they are preserving the witness of the church, but because many of them are blind to the actual lives of gay people they are unaware of the destructive character of their words and actions, how they are so profoundly corroding the beauty of the gospel*** and, in a very real way, making all expressions of a “traditional sexual ethic” culturally equivalent to ex-gay ideology and homophobia.

And I hate how I can’t escape saying “these people,” as if “they” aren’t often friends and family who I know and respect, or how, even still, my brain gets so caught up in the distressing tension of it all and becomes paralyzed by weariness and the most boring kind of despair.

But then, when I’m tempted toward total apathy, I encounter beautiful moments of community done well and am reminded how much there is to be gained from pursuing, together, a better way forward.

So I guess I want to end with this: would you, whoever you are, just examine the underlying character of your beliefs about sexuality, whether or not they have been formed in relationship with gay people, whether or not they are also concerned with whole church communities becoming more tightly knit and hospitable and responsibly sexual beings, and whether or not they manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their expression?

Because, honestly, it often feels as if the church is asking gay people to walk through a minefield as everyone else just stands back and yells instructions, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has grown a bit tired of being one of its human minesweepers.

_________________________

* I will give my holographic Charizard to anyone who can institute a better-yet-still-pithy phrase to communicate “side-B” beliefs without having to actually use that arcane label.

** High-five!

*** I’m not unaware that most affirming Christians feel the exact same about me.

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A Church of Pure Imagination

I’ve been asked multiple times in the past month why I am still side-B, why I am still pursuing celibacy as a gay 23 year-old in these United States of America. What is interesting to me is how, with each inquiring friend, it was implied that we weren’t discussing theology or the interpretation of certain notorious texts. The “why” was really more of a “how.”

It’s a refreshing change.

One of the more frustrating things about the current conversation is how it so easily gets sucked into the myopic quicksand of “what the Bible says.” Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the authority of scripture and the importance of right interpretation, and I probably wouldn’t be celibate if I didn’t think the Bible taught it, but there is a dangerous attitude of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.

The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so not because they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.

I think what this is revealing about conservative American churches, and perhaps churches in general, is that they are deeply mired in a failure of imagination.

When churches neglect to preach and model the good of singleness and celibacy, when they glut themselves on the opium of romance or oversell marriage to the detriment of both married and single people, they aren’t just straying from the truth of the Bible – they are corroding and constricting the imaginations of those in the congregation. What the men and women and children sitting in the pews can or cannot imagine as possible or good is greatly affected by what the church speaks of as possible or good.

At its redemptive best, this imaginative proclamation allows aching and isolated people to believe that there is a God who loves and desires them and that they can know his transformative grace and be welcomed into a community of hospitality and passion. But, tragically, that proclamation is often drowned in a flood of toxic sentiment, leaving many unsure of their worth and unable to form healthy relationships with other people or even God. The callousness I have seen some church-goers display in response to this pain is incomprehensible.

So I am no longer surprised when a friend of mine “switches sides,” and I am beyond tired of the way some Christians demonize them as simply weak or selfish or histrionic.* Do I find my friends’ reasons for switching entirely satisfactory? Rarely. But I also don’t find most churches’ reasons for not switching satisfactory, either. Unless a community is seriously modeling a commitment to hospitality and grace for all stages of life, its sexual ethic, no matter how “orthodox” it may sound, will never seem viable or good in any meaningful way. This imaginative failure is also a moral failure, with churches leaving their gay members with little to no ability to actually live – or god forbid thrive – within the rich tradition of church teaching.

So when I am asked why I’m side-B, my first thought has little to do with how I interpret Romans 1. Instead, I think about how I was surrounded by a loving group of friends who gave me the space and freedom to process through the initial fear and confusion of realizing I wasn’t just “temporarily-not-straight;”

I think about how I was blessed with mentors and counselors who were constantly feeding me and challenging me and supporting me and blowing my mind with the truth of the gospel, who called out the lies that had been choking me for most of my life;

I think about the months I spent working in a drug rehab center in South Africa or an orphanage in Guatemala and how unbearably full and alive I felt, how enmeshed I became in those vibrant communities that taught me so much about hospitality and service.

I think about how all these experiences enabled me to imagine a future of abundant life as a celibate person.

For most of my college career I was haunted by a singular image that I thought would define the entirety of my existence: When I closed my eyes I saw, I felt, myself closing the door to a cold and dark apartment, entirely empty, devoid of anyone who would witness my life and show me that I was known and loved. The frozen silence of it all was terrifying.

That I thought this was my inescapable future after a lifetime of sermons and biblical education is unequivocally depressing. That this vision is hardly unique to me is even more so.

But then two years ago, while coming out to some of my closest friends as we prepared for graduation and all that lay beyond, that image of despair was finally replaced. As I finished up my story one of my friends looked at me and said, “You know, Matt, as you were talking I just had this picture in my head of you surrounded by laughing children, and you were so happy. Maybe that means something.”

That was a gift of imagination, my brothers and sisters joining with me to envision a better future, an abundant future, one that has empowered me to live more joyfully and passionately in the present.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. The number of stories where loneliness and isolation remain the dominant themes, where the message of the church is bound up with shame and hopelessness, is staggering. More truthfully, it is infuriating.

So I’m praying that churches would rediscover their blessed ecclesial witness. I’m praying that, in my own journey, I can do justice to the vision of abundant life the gospel and my community have helped me believe is possible. I’m praying that we would really listen to the numerous testimonies of pain, that we would repent, that we would learn to love better, and that together – because we can only do this together – we would become the kind of people that Jesus imagined we could be when he lived and died and rose again for all.**

Matt

* If you have come to find your capacity to feel hope and joy oppressive, take a peek at the comments section of any number of Christian publications about homosexuality and let the sweet, sweet darkness sweep over you.

** I am not saying that if everyone had my experiences they would have come to the same conclusions I did, nor am I saying that my anecdotal evidence can be applied even close to uniformly for every LGB Christian. But this imaginative chasm between “celibate” and “happy” is incredibly prevalent – evident in the number of times people say to me, “You’re celibate? But… you seem so happy…”

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What Is Love?

Let’s just get this out of the way.

Now, on to business.

A sentiment I often hear within the evangelical church is, “If we want to love people, we must be willing to speak the truth about their sins. To ignore or sugarcoat them would be the most unloving thing we could do, even if other people don’t see it that way.” The basic idea is that sin, separation from God, is the greatest tragedy, and if you really do care about someone then you will want them to be free from that blinding, oppressive weight even if they refuse to acknowledge it – you will want them to know God. So we must preach the Gospel.

This is all true. But I’m beginning to wonder if the way that sentiment is commonly played out misses the mark of true love, especially when it comes to the church’s interactions with the LGTBQ community.

When someone raises a concern like the one above, my first thought is usually, The LGBTQ community probably doesn’t need to be reminded, again, of what the evangelical church generally thinks about about homosexuality. I’m pretty sure, actually, that the first thing that comes into most LGBTQ people’s mind when they hear the word “evangelical” is the anti-gay rhetoric that seems definitive of conservative Christians’ public discourse.

What strikes me as odd, and dangerous, is that somehow the message of “We don’t think you should be having sex” is considered more essential to the Gospel than “God loves you and so do we.” How the heck did that happen?

Why is it that any message to an LGBTQ person is not considered to be true, or truly loving, unless it contains a litany of his/her/their sins, and yet a message that is only about sin, devoid of any mention of God’s grace or a commitment to fight injustice on their behalf, somehow passes as an acceptable proclamation of the Gospel? As if, from the start, we don’t think LGBTQ people deserve anything better than judgment.

It’s like the church is chasing after them, hurling spears of condemnation and prejudice, all while shouting, “We love you! God loves you! No, seriously! Come back!” And when they keep running we just shake our heads and attribute their retreat away from us as a sign of their gross sinfulness, a refusal to accept the “Gospel-centered” kind of love we’ve offered them.

What the hell is wrong with us?! We treat them like crap throughout history and expect a different outcome? Maybe they reject us because we’ve never really loved them in the first place. Maybe they reject us because we are continually rejecting them.

Where were we when they became victims of abuse, hate crimes, disease, stigma, and bullying? We were either perpetuating their pain or apathetic toward it. And for those brave few who dared to stand beside them and model a different kind of love? We yelled across the chasm of our fear, “While you’re over there, make sure you tell them they’re sinful, otherwise whatever you’re doing doesn’t count!” Then we patted ourselves on the back for being “missional.” It’s maddening!

Ok, wow, deep breaths. The whole thing is just very frustrating for me. I once asked a gay man I was sitting next to on a plane what it would take for him to know he was loved by the evangelical church even if it never became “affirming.” It’s a question I had been dying to ask someone, and after I had so intently listened to his impassioned monologue about his spiritual connection to Diana Ross (who he’d seen over two-hundred times in concert), I figured he owed me. His short answer has stuck with me for the past two years: “I might believe it,” he said, “if you would at least fight the stigma that claims so many lives. But you don’t.”

If the only examples we have of showing the LGBTQ community “love” are the sermons where we preach the “truth” about the sinfulness of that community, then I would humbly propose that we repent of our anemic understanding of love, our exceptional failure to be consistent with how we live out the Gospel, and then to actually do something – not because we need a new conversion tactic but because we are Christians, and it’s simply how we have been called to live.

Read this article. Please, please read it. I’ve posted it so many times on Facebook and Twitter because it stands as a soul-crushing indictment of the loveless rhetoric so common in conservative evangelicalism. We cannot pretend we are blameless anymore, we cannot go on as we always have.

This is not an “easy solution” to a complex problem; it’s a reminder of what we have forgotten, what we have forsaken. How this will manifest in individual lives and church communities will vary, but it must be made manifest. Otherwise, honestly, I don’t think we have anything more to say.

Matt

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