taking the words of Jesus seriously

Last week I flew to Kansas City to meet with 50 other Christians who want to reform the church. The first reformer I met was Matthew Jones. Sitting in the airport gate, I looked through his Facebook while scanning the faces sitting around me. He wasn’t there yet. After waiting 15 minutes, feeling weirdly like I was getting stood up for a date, I got a message on my phone.

“Just got to gate. Look for black hipster.”

When he showed up, I greeted him like I would a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, not like the stranger he actually was. He didn’t feel like a stranger because I’d been talking to him, and the other 49 participants of The Reformation Project, every day for the past three months. The summer was our pre-conference prep period, and it was grueling. Before each of us applied, we had to commit to “at least” 8-12 hours of reading a week, along with postings on a communal message board, where we’d share our thoughts and questions on the assigned scholarly articles. The subject? The Bible and homosexuality. The goal of the conference? To educate and train 50 Christian “reformers” who would then go out and teach the church how to properly treat gay Christians.

I’ll be the first to admit it–many of us were gay, and we had an agenda.

Prior to learning about The Reformation Project, started by Matthew Vines, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Bible and homosexuality. I’d been raised a Christian, and attended church almost every Sunday since birth. In 2009, when my childhood best friend came out, I spent two years praying, researching, and learning all that I could about the Bible and homosexuality. As a vocal ally, I went into the prep-period somewhat cocky, thinking there wasn’t much new to learn.

Boy was I wrong.

Did you know, for example, that the term “homosexuality” was first coined in English in 1892? And that it did not move outside of elite psychological circles, and into the public collective, until the mid-20th century? That until then, no concept of sexual orientation existed? That prior to the concept of sexual orientation, ancient Jewish and Greek writers thought that same-sex acts were the result of an “excess” of heterosexuality? That it was what lustful men bored with women turned to? Maybe you knew that. But I bet you didn’t know that for the first 300 years of the church, the Romans 1 verse that refers to “their women exchanging what is natural for unnatural” was not understood as a reference to lesbianism, but non-procreative forms of heterosexual intercourse. Did you know that there is no place in Scripture where infertility is used as a justification for divorce? This calls into serious question whether procreative, and not unitive sexuality should be the basis for marriage. Is your head spinning yet?

Related: Sexual Orientation, It’s Not A Sin – by Kathy Vestal

I learned this, and much, much more, over the four days I spent in Kansas City. We spent time listening to lectures from Dr. James Brownson, talks from African and Asian sexual minorities, a moving speech from a transgender student, and a Q&A session with the director of an incredible documentary about the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda. We spent hours and hours in scripture.

We didn’t just learn though. We also worshipped. This is significant because the worship team was made up of mostly gay and lesbian Christians. Many of these Christians had been told by their churches that they could not lead worship, either because of their sexuality, or because they were not committed to life-long celibacy. Years had passed since they were last up on a stage.

Hearing Christian, who spent years in Exodus trying to pray away his sexuality, finally being able to corporately sing to God, was a moment I will never forget. Neither is the way I felt the Holy Spirit stir within and around me, as the straight and gay singers and musicians onstage swayed and lifted their arms to the sky in praise. God was there when we worshipped. He was there when we gathered to study his word. And he was there the last night of the conference, when a drunk college student was arrested in the hotel lobby for refusing to stop screaming homophobic slurs, and trying to physically attack, some of our attendees.

There were powerful lessons that came from the mountains of academic and theological material, that I obviously can’t sum up in one article. But hermeneutics and exegesis were only part of the education I received. The rest came from watching, and experiencing, what it was like to spend four days with Christians who still believe despite being told for years that they were not welcome in the church. These were not people who were lazy or complacent in their faith. These were Christians willing to face abuse for the sake of the Kingdom.

The second-to-last night of the conference, prior to a worship service,  Jane Clementi spoke. She was with us all week, and many of us talked to her to thank her for everything she’s done in the years since her son Tyler’s suicide. Many were in tears after her talk, about her regrets as the mother of a gay teen. When she opened it for questions, Jes, one of the reformers, stood up.

“My question is about how to reach parents who still have gay kids that are alive, who they don’t support.” His voice wavered and his eyes teared up as he spoke. “I’m getting married and my parents will not be attending, and I don’t know what to say to them.”

Jane didn’t say anything for a moment, just shook her head.

“Maybe I should call your parents.”

That moment was a powerful reminder of what is at stake for the 50 reformers who were in attendance. If we can take what we learned and bring it to a church that is teaching harmful untruths about homosexuality, we might be able to save the life of the gay kid sitting in the congregation contemplating suicide. Maybe we can stop another church from sending missionaries with messages of hate to a poor country that will take their words, and turn them into death sentences.

Also by Emily: An Open Letter to Tim Tebow

This isn’t about debating an issue for us. It’s about reforming the decades of bad teaching on Biblical homosexuality that has taken lives.

Like Dr. Brownson said in his explanation of moral logic, “The question should not just be what the Bible says, but why does it say it?” What is clear to me, after months of academic study and four days of spiritual revival, is that what the Bible says about homosexuality is not what the church has taught. I know that because of my studies and experiences, and because of that all important question, “why?” The answer to “why?” for any question pertaining to the Bible, eventually comes down to, “because God created us, loves us, and wants us to love him.”

The verses about homosexuality, and themes of creation and procreation throughout the Bible, all point to that. What they don’t point to though, is a justification for what has been carried out by Christians against the LGBT community. The gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and yes, even queer reformers at the Reformation Project Conference all recognize that God created us, loves us, and wants us to love him.

It’s time the church lets them do that.

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