My brother works at a church which is making an aggressive push to heal the wounds between the (capital C) Church and the gay community. In one of the most honest and awesome efforts I’ve seen to build a bridge with the gay community, they are pulling together a vast number of resources to promote the process of reconciliation. This church is golden.
And, with this, my brother asked for my perspective on what I think the church should do to move forward. He texted me this question, to which I told him I would need much more time and writing space to articulate a proper response than I could in a TEXT.
There is just so much that needs to be said.
So, here is the first of a few recommendations I am making to him and his church.
When conversations arise as to how to make churches more welcoming for lgbt individuals, a couple things come to mind.
First, Christian folks uncomfortable in the first place will inject definitions on the difference between “welcoming” and “affirming” which swiftly slides into rather offensive statements about “their lifestyle”.
Second, there is an apparent lack of recognition of those already within the church. The conversers put the cart before the horse in talks of making the church more magnetic to gays outside its walls instead of recognizing those already isolated inside them. If anything is to change, this where to start.
My friend, and Oddmanout blogger, Brent Bailey, put it best when he wrote:
“It is not the church’s job to make room for LGBT members; it is the church’s job to recognize the room God has already made for LGBT members (just like God carved out space for everyone else) and then to delight in the diversity of people through whom God is revealed to us.”
Retracing the steps of church history, there is a clear pattern of struggle amongst the faithful when it comes to inclusion. Early on, the people of God made a real mess of things… They adhered to old rules and rituals, like circumcision, racial classes and gender roles. This essentially left every demographic different from the disciples disqualified from admission.
But a greater truth emerged. One that was lost on those peering down from pedestals.
God isn’t a brick and mortar building. He doesn’t keep some people in and other people out. God is not religion.
Only minutes after the ascension did the disciples start selecting saints like those captains in gym class. These earthly followers, being left in a divine power vacuum, struggled to find their sea legs for church ministry.
For centuries, routine fights would break out, disputes that divided brother from brother. There was always something wrong with this group or that group for the Church. Religious rule always trumped faithful community. This often led to a divine Last Word of sorts where God would step in and say, “yes, them too.”
If there is any story in the Bible that illustrates this best, it is that of Peter and Cornelius. At this point in Church history only Jews could be saved because of their heritage and their circumcision. Racial supremacy was simply an accepted practice of God’s people.
Cornelius had a hunger for God. He was a prayer warrior, an incredibly generous man in his community, and held to squeaky clean moral values. To him, even if the first row was forbidden, he wished to just eavesdrop on the message of the Messiah. It captivated him. He was a huge fan.
So imagine his excitement when an angel appeared before him, telling him that God had heard him from the back row and had a task for him to take on. He was to send a few men out to go find the apostle Peter and invite him over for a meeting.
Meanwhile, Peter, busy running the ministry and avoiding persecution, had a vision from God of a heavenly sheet dropping down with all different kinds of delicious animals before him. Then the voice of God commanded Peter to kill and eat.
“Oh, no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.”
15 The voice came a second time: “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.” (Acts 10:14-15, MSG, emphasis mine)
Awakening from the trance, a Holy whisper spoke to him: “Three men are knocking at the door looking for you. Get down there and go with them. Don’t ask any questions. I sent them to get you.” (Acts 10:20, MSG)
Upon Peter’s arrival, Cornelius broke down and began worshipping him. It’s important that this moment not be misunderstood, as I’m sure many have. Cornelius is on the outside, a wannabe, someone not worthy of tying the rabbi down the road’s sandal. At least, that’s what the world told him. His view of himself is an example of the bruised fruit of a faith that diminishes some and elevates others based on human characteristics.
Obviously uncomfortable, Peter stops him saying, “None of that—I’m a man and only a man, no different from you.”(Acts 10:26, MSG)
Settling in and sorting out exactly what was going on, Peter first acknowledges that their meeting is unusual, after all, being in the company of men like Cornelius was a big church no-no. Then Peter curiously asks why Cornelius sent for him in the first place.
Cornelius, probably a bit puzzled, responds that God told him to extend the invitation. Nothing more than that.
Now, you have to take a break and laugh a little at this, because it sounds just like something a kid of separated parents would do to get them back together.
Like the kind where the wife meets her husband at their favorite table at their favorite restaurant, and says, “I loved the flowers you sent me!” and he says, “what flowers?” and then they sit confused, only to widen their eyes five seconds later and simultaneously sigh, “oh…”
This is what happens to Peter. Ever since his vision from the previous day, he hadn’t a clue what God was trying to tell him.
And then it all clicked.
“Peter fairly exploded with his good news: “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel—that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again—well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone.
37-38 “You know the story of what happened in Judea. It began in Galilee after John preached a total life-change. Then Jesus arrived from Nazareth, anointed by God with the Holy Spirit, ready for action. He went through the country helping people and healing everyone who was beaten down by the Devil. He was able to do all this because God was with him.
39-43 “And we saw it, saw it all, everything he did in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross. But in three days God had him up, alive, and out where he could be seen. Not everyone saw him—he wasn’t put on public display. Witnesses had been carefully handpicked by God beforehand—us! We were the ones, there to eat and drink with him after he came back from the dead. He commissioned us to announce this in public, to bear solemn witness that he is in fact the One whom God destined as Judge of the living and dead. But we’re not alone in this. Our witness that he is the means to forgiveness of sins is backed up by the witness of all the prophets.”
44-46 No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. The believing Jews who had come with Peter couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on “outsider” non-Jews, but there it was—they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God.
46-48 Then Peter said, “Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They’ve received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did.” Hearing no objections, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”(Acts 10: 34-38, MSG, emphasis mine)
Cornelius’s conversion runs parallel to the Eunuch’s. Remember how the Eunuch asked Phillip the same question about baptism? The point is the same. The exact same. Christ’s body was broken for everyone. He plays no favorites, he sees no pedestals, he could care less about whether you’re black or white, male or female, left-handed or right-handed, or, gay or straight. The God we serve comes with no pre-reqs.
What he wants is for us to love him first and foremost, and then love our neighbor as ourselves.
Can the Church say its in obedience if its debating whether or not to let gay folks in?
The fact that the church needs to accept is that lgbt population does not need its approval to be a member of God’s family. It does not need the Church to measure and weigh the pros and cons of accepting their membership. That’s not church, that’s a country club!
The church needs to accept that we all stand as equals before the Eucharist.
The gay community does not need your help in finding God.
It was Christ that first cut the temple curtain. He brought the burn outs back in. He drank of their wine. He fished with their nets. He kissed on their cheeks. He washed clean their feet.
God’s been with outcasts like us for over two thousand years.
If the church is to be the body of Jesus, it has to be more like the Olympics and less like the country club. Instead of figuring out the best approach to allowing gay folks in the door, it needs to check its back closet and notice all its gay members hiding among the flock. Hell, notice all of the diversity within its walls. Stop seeing what you’re lacking and starting seeing those you already have. Racial minorities, women, the disabled, immigrants and so on.
So, for my brother and his church- Recommendation Number One: Recognize the space God has already created for the lgbt community. Just like he did for Cornelius, Hagar, the Ethiopian Eunuch, African Americans, mentally ill, women and so on.
This is a framework to move forward on.