As I was sitting at home on Monday night, I had every intention of watching some playoff hockey and then heading to bed. But a quick glance at my Twitter feed during a commercial break reminded me the ERLC Leadership Summit was happening, and that the panel on homosexuality was about to start. Intrigued, I decided to tune in. I kept my Twitter feed up to see what type of response this panel might receive from the broader internet community.
How can I describe what it was like to listen to the panel? As someone who comes from a conservative church background and counts many Southern Baptists as friends, I was both sympathetic and hopeful for the ERLC’s panel discussion. As someone who is deeply invested in LGBT issues and has seen the church fail routinely in this area, I was also nervous. They were, after all, in a sense talking about me.
In the end I felt very much caught in the in-between. On the one hand, I saw cynical ideologues on Twitter trotting out the expected trope of “hate and bigotry masked by religious language.” But anyone actually watching the panel, not just following quotes on Twitter, could see that these men were truly wrestling with how to best care for LGBT people in their churches. Even noted skeptics of the SBC’s approach like Rachel Held Evans observed this.
In addition, the panel continued the encouraging trend of folks in the SBC recognizing that this issue has been handled poorly in the past by the conservative church. Both Al Mohler and Russell Moore have at various points acknowledged the reality that for many years the church’s response has been inadequate and even harmful. For those who have experienced the weight of the church’s prejudice in the past, this is a welcome admission.
The panel also showed other encouraging signs: various panelists recognized that the church must not treat singles as second class citizens and sexual attractions may not change from gay to straight. The questions being asked were often quite perceptive, moving in the direction of considering pastoral responses, instead of simply how to defend marriage in the political sphere. The decline of marriage was frequently placed in the context of the rise of a divorce culture rather than being exclusively attributed to gays. These are good things and we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge them as such.
But I felt caught in the in-between because while I couldn’t side with Twitter cynics, neither could I find myself comfortable with the responses that panelists were offering. First, there was the issue of language, which Wes discussed yesterday. Whatever objections some Christians may have to the use of “gay Christian” language, they would be wise to seek to understand folks like those here at Spiritual Friendship who use that language on their own terms. If the concern is that “gay” necessarily means some sort of Christ-subverting identity, how much more ought it be reclaimed and placed in its proper context as one aspect of the lived reality for people, without necessarily allowing to it become all-encompassing.
As I watched some of the panelists fumble over language, it seemed as though there was a level of discomfort with how to even talk about homosexuality, and perhaps even how to talk to gay people. I wonder though if those in attendance wouldn’t have better served by hearing from an actual gay/bisexual/same-sex attracted Christian who affirms the same traditional ethic that it is under fire. Hearing from those whose stories have been shaped by the attractions in all their complexity helps the church to empathize and understand both the beautiful and challenging experiences of LGBT people. I think it especially important to hear from folks who don’t have narratives that fit nicely into conversion stories: “I was this, but then Jesus saved me, and thank goodness now everything’s wonderful.” Oftentimes the only acceptable Christian testimonies are the ones that nicely resolve themselves in a state of arrival, instead of being on the way.
Finally, I wonder what it would look like for such a panel to consider what type of pastoral strategies conservative churches might employ to care for the needs of people in their congregations who are attracted to the same sex. It is fine to say that singles shouldn’t be second-class citizens, but how do you create a church culture where that is a functional reality, especially when so many church programs are family-oriented? It is great to recognize that the church has failed in the past to care for LGBT folks, but how are we now seeking to listen, empathize, and learn from those people so that we might care for them better? It is appropriate to consider homosexuality within the same framework of discipleship that we use for all Christians, but what might that call to discipleship (or vocation) uniquely look like for those who are gay?
This is why Spiritual Friendship exists, to push into these questions and to encourage the church to do the same, so that folks like us are no longer caught in the in-between.
Kyle Keating is a M.Div. candidate at Covenant Theological Seminary and teacher of Bible and Theology at a small Christian school in St. Louis, Missouri where he lives with his wonderful wife Christy. He can be followed on Twitter: @KyleAKeating.