By Tim Otto
One evening, sitting at a restaurant with friends, I found myself on the receiving end of an angry lecture by a young woman whose goal was to help students at her seminary become more sensitive to gays and lesbians. I admitted to her that I, a gay man, after years of diligently studying the issue, was sympathetic to both sides.
But that wasn’t acceptable to her. She declared that those who held the traditional view of homosexuality were God-damned oppressors, on the wrong side of the defining civil rights struggle of our time. And on she went, passionately insisting that we must be sensitive to gay people.
I began to wonder whether I should say something rude to get her to stop.
In a seminary class called “Church and Ministry in the New Testament, ” I heard a pastor speak about how he split a church over the issue of homosexuality. When the question came up, he “preached the Scripture, ” and divided his congregation down the middle. After some drama he resigned and started a new church just blocks away. As he told it, 300 members of his former congregation just showed up.
“That is the cost you must sometimes pay when you preach the gospel, ” he said in summary.
I wondered where was the call to love all of God’s children as Christ loves them, including those of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community. I struggled to put together a response in my head, but before I got my hand up, the professor thanked the pastor and changed the subject.
Such extreme reactions are nothing extraordinary these days. Many Christians no longer believe it’s possible to speak about homosexuality without drawing battle lines.
Yet there is a better way. I’ve seen it.
In 1988, when I was twenty-three and on the verge of giving up my faith, I made my way to San Francisco with knots in my stomach, anticipating a talk with my mentor, Jack Bernard. For me, the controversy over homosexuality in the church was not an abstract debate, but a live question about how I was going to live my life. I’d told a few people that I was gay, but Jack was not among them.
Jack was the area director for the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society in the Northwest United States, and I wondered if he might give me a canned, party-line answer to my questions. But because I knew something of Jack’s history, I had a slender hope that he would do better.
Jack was the ace of all trades. He had been a pilot, a race car driver, an accomplished climber, skier, biker, and woodworker. When he became a Christian he set out to “ace” Christianity as well: he went to seminary and then became a missionary. But he quickly realized that in spite of his discipline and talents, he wasn’t acing Christianity. He repeatedly set out with great resolve to “be a good Christian, ” but then would stall due to distractions with small things. This happened so often that he began to despair, not so much of God, but of himself.
Jack began to see his frantic efforts at achievement as an attempt to be God and create his own salvation. He realized that God was going to have to save him. Because I knew this about Jack, I trusted him.
Since I had last seen Jack, he and his wife had moved into a little Christian community among Salvadoran refugees in the Mission District of San Francisco. I had arranged to live in the community for a time in order to sort out my life.
At one of the first community meetings, I gathered my courage and said, “I’m a Christian, and I’m gay, and I have no idea how those two things might go together. If possible I’d like to try to figure that out with you all.” Though I felt suddenly naked, I also felt relief. Though people were surprised, they were also grateful for my openness. What Jack said in response saved me—and continues to give me hope that another way is possible in debates about sexuality within the church.
“I don’t know what to think about homosexuality, but by faith I suspect it is God’s gift to you—and I know you are God’s gift to us.”
This post is adapted from Tim Otto’s new book Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships.