I should begin by explaining why I am writing this piece anonymously. It is not because I wish to protect myself from the inevitable criticism that comes with any position on the topic of sexuality in the church, but rather to protect those in my community. As the pastor of a church where gay and straight Christians worship together, by identifying myself, I would expose them needlessly to the public scrutiny that would ensue. Our community is a safe place for people to worship and serve Christ together. Such exposure would threaten that.
Already the first paragraph is loaded with questions and concerns. Some might immediately conclude that we are an “affirming” community, as there are gay members of our church. This might be further reinforced by the fact that I refer to them as “gay Christians”, affirming not only their welcomed presence in the community, but also their full and authentic membership in the Body of Christ. However, it isn’t that simple. Our church is not, in fact, affirming. However, neither are we “not affirming”. How does that work?
First, in our church, community is the primary context in which Scripture is engaged, understand and embodied. That process (which is on going) surfaces a diversity of beliefs on many issues. We are committed, whenever possible, to arrive at a consensus (not merely a majority). For example, in our community, we collectively believe that Scripture and the Spirit affirm that a person can be called to the pastoral vocation regardless of gender. That was not a belief handed to us, enforced from above or assumed. It was the result of our collective pursuit of God’s wisdom from His word through His Spirit in community.
However, consensus is not always arrived at. For example, we did not arrive at a consensus with respect to God’s response to same-sex relationships, namely those who identify as LGBTQ. (As an aside, different communities approve and disapproved of certain labels and language with respect to same-sex relationships. If I offend or frustrate anyone with my usage, I apologize, but I am using what our community has decided we are comfortable with). However, in the process of engaging these dynamics, we did find that we could find consensus on other aspects of the conversation, namely a commitment to chastity, monogamy, etc. In other words, whether gay or straight, we agreed that sex is reserved for the covenant relationship of marriage (not as the state defines it, but that’s another topic altogether).
So, we were left with a question: How do move forward as a community when consensus could not be reached? We recognized that, while each of us held strong beliefs, we also acknowledged that the issues in question were not as clear cut as we had originally considered. There was ambiguity in our understanding, even where there was a degree of confident certainty- a chastened certainty, you might say. We also realized that there are many other significant aspects of theological and moral beliefs where different members of the community believed very differently. Those issues, however, did not divide us. We were willing to live with those differences- never denying or ignoring them, but never allowing them the power to divide us. Could we do the same with this reality? In the end, this is what we decided to do.
This is not all that uncommon. I have worshipped- even taught- in churches that strongly forbade women from being pastors. They knew my position and, as long as I did not use their pulpit to “convert” people on the topic, that difference did not disqualify me as a brother who could participate and even minister in their communities. Admitted or not, every church is filled with members who have deeply held, yet widely diverse beliefs, many of which are not reconcilable with that of other members. However, we still continue to worship and serve together.
Let me be very clear at this point: We did NOT accept a position of moral relativism on this point. We believe that God has absolute wisdom and expectations for His people with respect to sexuality. However, we could not, with full confidence, say that we knew what that was without a fair amount of uncertainty. Further, we have, as a community, taken positions on other issues where others have chosen to leave our community as a result. In other words, this response is not simply an easy way to avoid uncomfortable confrontations. There are people in our community, even on our core leadership, who believe differently about this. While we are respectful (given that this is primarily a pastoral issue, not simply a theological one), we are also open and honest about our differing perspectives.
Further, we are not blind to the complications that this raises. What if I, as the pastor, do not believe it is right? While I may be willing to worship with my gay brothers and sisters (and I should note here that we unanimously affirm they are Christians), would I be willing to perform a wedding for two members of the same sex? What about teaching on sexuality? Can we truly teach both perspectives without being hurtful and/or alienating? We face these challenges daily. However, we do not allow the difficult of a challenge determine our willingness to engage with it.
Finally, we are also not done exploring these questions. We are all committed to continue to study God’s word and to seek the wisdom of His Spirit together. We are all open to having our minds changed. However, we have also decided that, in that process, we can continue to worship Christ together as sisters and brothers, as His community. As a result, women and men who have all too often felt nothing by rejection from the church encounter a humble, yet passionate community of Christ where they are welcomed. Interestingly, it is the very fact that we have differing perspectives on the topic that has made our community a safe place for some of our gay members. Why? Because they know that we do not hold our position(s) out of ideology.
Could this be a third way? Are we able to allow for a difference of belief on this topic without dividing us?