My name is Meagan Ruby Wagner, and I am a Christian. I grew up attending church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night, and usually a few other times throughout the week. I memorized Bible verses and went to VBS and volunteered in the nursery when I was a moody teenager and didn’t feel up to sitting through the sermon. I was baptized at the age of eleven, participated in Young Life religiously throughout high school, went to and graduated from a conservative Christian college in the Midwest. My parents are Christians. My grandparents are Christians. Christianity is in my blood, because of the sacrifice of Jesus and his atonement for my sin but also because I was raised in a rich Christian tradition. I believe that Jesus was and is a real person, fully God and fully human, who loves me and died for me and lives today. I am saved by the grace of God. I am broken and flawed and sinful and God, in God’s great goodness loves me in spite of all this; God loves me, and you, so much that in an extravagant and sacrificial display Jesus chose to die so that we can live and know his love.
I love Jesus with my whole heart and am committed to following him for the rest of my days.
Growing up deeply immersed in evangelical culture, I spent years subscribing to theology that I’ve since recognized as problematic, specifically when it comes to the church’s treatment and inclusion of LGBTQ people. Here’s what I mean.
First, let’s switch gears for a moment. Romans 13 states: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
Ephesians 6 states: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”
For thousands of years, these texts, in combination with other verses from the Old Testament, were used to support the institution of slavery. Professing Christians justified the owning and exploitation of their fellow man with Bible verses. And these were not just a few particularly scoundrelly outliers; Christianity as a whole was incredibly pro-slavery for centuries. Many Christians did not see this as an issue that was even up for debate, but referred to the text and said, “See? It’s right here. In the Bible. This is Biblical.”
In 1783, a young, conservative Evangelical man was dining with a friend when he met Rev. James Ramsey, a doctor and clergyman who had served as a medical supervisor aboard slave ships and plantations in the West Indies. Reverend Ramsey relayed the atrocities he had witnessed: mothers and children dying of suffocation in the bottoms of slave ships, men being branded, beaten, and sold like cattle, plantation owners abusing and mistreating their slaves and defending themselves by quoting scripture. The young man who sat listening to these stories was appalled, and on witnessing the immense suffering that the traditional, pro-slavery interpretation was causing, this young man, William Wilberforce, came to the conclusion that surely, we must have gotten this wrong.
Notice that he did not come to the conclusion that the Bible was wrong. He simply realized that, as Matthew 7 states, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Simply put, a good teaching will have good fruit, and a bad teaching will have bad fruit.
LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Forty-eight percent of transgender adults report having considered suicide over the past 12 months, compared to four percent of the general population. Faith plays a role in these statistics as well: for heterosexual youth, religion is a protective factor against suicidal ideation, behaviors, and attempts. The opposite is true for LGBTQ youth. LBGTQ youth from religious backgrounds are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their unchurched LGBTQ peers. This ought to be a wake up call for the church. This ought to be a siren. This ought to stop us in our tracks. This is very, very bad fruit. Rotten to its core.
That is not to say that the Bible is wrong; simply that we ought to seriously consider whether we have been wrong. When our children are coming to church and leaving with the belief that they’d be better off dead, we must confess that along the way we have gotten something horribly, horribly wrong.
We Christians have been very choosy about how we interpret different parts of the Bible. We consider context, cultural background, and intent when determining how scripture ought to be applied to our lives today.
Take, for instance, Leviticus 11, which states, “But anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you.” That means no shrimp cocktail, calamari, or crab cakes. No clam chowder (but who eats that stuff anyway?) or oysters or lobster. So pretty much New England and Florida are out.
How about a New Testament passage: 1 Timothy 2 states “Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.” I am doing at least 2/4 of those things as I write this.
Also considered an abomination in the Bible are the sins of disobeying your parents, wearing mixed fabrics (no polyester blends in the Promised Land), and sleeping with a woman when she is on her period.
In each of these examples we consider the cultural context and deeper meaning. We explain these rules as being intended for a certain people in a certain place at a certain time, and not applicable as literal law to Christians today. We search for deeper meaning, and attribute the teachings about earrings and braided hair as promoting humility, not outlawing specific types of jewelry. We consider context. We consider intent. As we should.
We owe it to our gay, trans, and nonbinary siblings and children to consider the texts traditionally interpreted as prohibiting same-sex relationships in the same way.
For years, this was an issue I could comfortably ignore. I am not gay, and while I do have some gay friends, their sexuality was not something we discussed. Frankly, my privilege was showing. Oh to be white, straight, and middle class in America. If I were a man, I could rule the world.
And then: I became a mom. Suddenly, I viewed every single story from the lens of a parent, which makes watching the news and working as a school counselor downright terrifying. Where I had previously had the privilege of not really having to think very long or hard about anything that did not directly affect me, I began to consider how I would want people to react if my child were gay. How I would want my child to see me react. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “What if this were my kid?”
I think that is how we ought to consider everything. When we see children separated from their parents and held in cages in Texas, we ought to consider our own babies and how scared they would be. Oh, how my boy would scream. When we see Syrian refugees clinging to their toddlers in makeshift rafts crossing the Mediterranean, we must consider our own wiggly, tired, little children and how terrifying that would be. When I think about how I want a gay person to be received in our church, I have to consider how I would want that person to be treated if they were my child. Here is what I would want them to know: You are fully known and deeply loved by Jesus. You are welcome and valued and wanted here. We love you and celebrate you as a glorious reflection of God’s creativity. We are so happy you are here and alive and the world is a better place because you are in it. If one of my children is gay, I do not want them to wonder for a single second how I will react. I want them to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am staunchly in their corner, cheering them on loudly and obnoxiously. I want them to think, “Mom? Oh yeah. She is all on board. Woman’s been dragging me to Pride parades for 15 years.”
There are dozens of people much smarter and well educated than I am who have done the leg work, pored over Scripture, studied the ancient Greek and Hebrew, and studied and researched the texts that refer to homosexuality in the Bible. I can point you to them and share their work with you, but I won’t try to summarize all of it here. To very briefly condense, though, here are the arguments: when the Bible was written, today’s understanding of homosexuality and other LGBTQ issues did not exist. Homosexual relationships were largely predatory, exploitative, and extramarital; monogamous, loving, respectful, committed same-sex relationships did not exist. The sexual ethics taught in the Bible are rooted in treating others with respect and abstaining from practices that exploited the vulnerable. Few in the church (that I have heard, at least) is arguing for a sexual free-for-all in which anyone can do whatever they want, whenever they want, with whoever they want. It is simply high time we consider whether our traditional interpretation of scripture is wrong. We must be humble. We must learn from people with different experiences than us. We must listen without defensiveness and consider whether we have been wrong and caused harm.
Above all, we must love as Jesus did. When people in the Bible encountered Jesus, the one thing they nearly all had in common was a renewed hope. They were left encouraged, changed, transformed, overflowing with gratitude and grace. The exception? The religious elite who thought they had a corner on Biblical truth. Let’s not be them.