Review: What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming?

What does it mean to be welcoming

Travis Collins’ new book What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming: Navigating LGBT Questions in Your Church (IVP Press, 2018) starts with fairly basic points:

  • We are speaking about people, not mere issues. “This conversation, however, is not about dispassionate topics, academic subjects, and isolated matters.” He declares, “This is a conversation about people — people created in the image of God. People who love and are loved.”
  • The conversations are complex, our motives are complex, our denominations and congregations, which can be complex in their diversity, are all things pastors and all those in the life of Christ’s church must contend.

Sadly, such simple reminders are necessary. On a Facebook post I saw advertising the book, the commenters offered a “greatest hits” of many of the lazy—yet far too common—talking points regarding the church’s response to gay people:

  • “What does GOD say about this? …. why not hold firmly to His word?”
  • “Spiritual abuse disguised as moderation and compassion.”
  • “[I]t’s one straight dude mandating celibacy for a sexuality they do not have or understand and never will.”
  • “It means not to be bigoted towards them”
  • “Welcoming or compromising?”
  • A link to a John Macarthur video titled “No such thing as Gay”
  • “Read the Bible, God is very clear on this.”

Reading the comments on this post, it would be easy to think there is very little complexity in pastoral issues regarding LGBT persons. The answers are obvious, and only an ignoramus could disagree. (Of course, who those ignoramuses are, and what clear way forward they are missing, differs depending on what position the commenter has on blessing same-sex unions in the church.)

For those of us who, like me, hold to a traditional view on human sexuality and Christian marriage, it may be obvious that the Bible does not permit same-sex marriage. But that doesn’t mean that our churches can pretend gay people do not exist, or that the only message they need to hear is, “gay sex is a sin.” For those who also care about the pastoral complexities inherent to ministry with gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians, or who want to guide those unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, in conversations about sexuality, Travis Collins, pastor of First Baptist Church, Huntsville, Alabama, has given a succinct and perspicuous guidebook. It is a fitting “square one,” for pastors, Christian friends, and church leaders who are not yet initiated into the conversation.

Seeking a better approach

If there is any section our proverbial internet commenters should read, it is the first one: “The Complexity.” Collins is adamant that those on both sides of this divide on human sexuality issues are often motivated by admirable motives. Fostering meaningful, non-hostile conversations represents a major aim of the book. For this reason, Pastor Travis particularly challenges bad assumptions traditional Christians may have about gay people.

He does this as someone who is clear about his traditional stance: that the Bible does not affirm, and the church cannot faithfully bless as God-ordained, same sex marital unions.

He reminds Christians that gay couples “are not inevitably unhappy.” He encourages his readers to move past arguments about the “cause” of same-sex attraction [Location 167]. And he affirms that “insistence on a new sexual orientation [for gay people] has … been deeply hurtful for many Christians…” [Location 213]. Pastor Travis spreads a message many conservative Christians—even after the dissolution of Exodus— need to hear.

Collins pushes against culture war campaigns. He does not gloss over the pain empty talking points create, noting the parents of gay people are not immune to raw insensitivity of some traditionalists: “Traditional churches often lose wonderful members because of insensitive ones” [Location 416].

Idle assumptions, or one’s “gag reflex,” cannot be the source of sound reasoning for a traditional church’s stance. “[L]et’s not confuse preferences, opinions, assumptions, and presuppositions with convictions. Convictions are those deeply held, firm, grounded, defensible beliefs that define us,” he says. [Location 651] Collins aims to explain biblically, and explore pastorally, what it means to be welcoming with a traditional Christian sexual ethic.

Letting Others Speak, Even When They Are Upset with You.

Imagine you’re a church leader and there is someone very upset with a decision you made. They’re so upset that they left the church. Now imagine asking them to write several pages in the book you’re writing for churches dealing with that pastoral issue.

That’s exactly what Pastor Travis did.

The second section is The Topic: this covers the affirming position, the traditional position, and puts forward a biblical argument for Collins’ traditional stance. From Brownson to Vines, Pastor Travis covers many of the most popular affirming arguments and then responds with a traditional position. While this represents a significant portion of the book, I won’t dwell on it. He does the job carefully, but it is not the most arresting section.

Notably, at the end of the affirming section, he allowed a friend to respond to his pastoring. She was a married, lesbian woman whom had inquired about joining Pastor Collins’ church. Pastor Travis said she would be welcomed to join and participate as a member. But she would be barred representative leadership positions in the church. Her actions were contrary to the requirements for fidelity in singleness and marriage the church had adopted for its leaders.

She writes:

In other words, he was identifying me as someone who is a sinner on the same level as someone who has defied the Ten Commandments and therefore unworthy of representing his church. I cannot believe that God would think my whole life is a sin when my life is mostly the same as anyone else’s. I am in a committed and monogamous relationship, I do not cheat on my wife, I go to work, I am a good person for my family and friends—this is not the life of a constant sinner. This is the same life as any other Christian member of a church, but because of one small part of who I am, the church finds me unworthy to represent it. [Location 850].

Collins allows us to see the impact, and even anger, caused by our pastoral decisions–including the ones he is convinced have solid theological backing.

There is also a complement to this first reflection. After the traditional perspective, Greg Coles penned his own testimony.[1] He recalls being rejected from ministry, not because of his actions, but because of his mere orientation. Coles reminds us:

There’s not much use claiming to be a welcoming church for LGBTQ folks if your church considers us all, even the celibate ones, to be a liability; if our orientation is too much of a distraction for us to serve your local church body; if you wish we were tempted toward nice, ‘normal,’ straight sins because the temptations we’re choosing to say no to gross you out. If your church wishes that I had just stayed in the closet, gritting my teeth as the years passed in silent loneliness, I’m not really welcome there. I never was. My effigy was welcome, my straight alter ego welcome, but not me. [Location 1167].

Coles contrasts his rejection with the warm welcome he feels leading worship at his current, traditional, church. He is not barred from leadership there. LGB+ Christians’ use of language has been the source of much debate. Coles reveals the horrible effects of shunning all who merely describe themselves as gay. And the church should heed the warning lest we ignore the blessing God has for the church in the gifts and persons of gay Christians.

The Limits of an Introductory Text

This is a 144 page book which:

  • Lays out traditional and affirming arguments regarding the blessing of same-sex relationships,
  • argues for a traditional position,
  • provides a roadmap for churches having conversations about human sexuality and same-sex relationships,
  • Considers factors which may motivate a church to stay in (or leave) their denomination in response to policies on sexuality,
  • Provides a road map toward, and an example of, a position statement on sexuality
  • and considers the church’s responsibilities in supporting and pastoring gay people.

The book is most valuable when it models better discussion and considers pastoral realities, which it does well in several places.

The book is most disappointing in that it is an introduction that, inevitably, cannot go into extensive detail on every topic.

For example, Pastor Travis spends two paragraphs about his experience as a missionary in Nigeria. He related the difficulty in the church’s pastoral response to polygamy there to concerns about same-sex marriage in the West. I would have read a whole book from him on this topic! [Location 2011].

Additionally, he does not discuss the theology of marriage, what marriage is and is for, in detail. Collins recognizes singleness as a valuable option. Still, positive definitions of what marriage and singleness are for would serve the book well. I am thinking specifically of his suggestions on how to model a Christian vision of marriage to youth (in the final section: “And the way forward”).

Many objections to traditional Christian ideas of marriage hold that to deny marriage is to deny the opportunity for the greatest in human love. Conservative evangelical Christian culture has often lauded marriage as the highest of human love, too. Little of evangelical Christian discussion of marriage has emphasized singleness also serves as a school of love. Any Christian discussion on marriage and sexuality would do well to grapple with the claim that much of the evangelical church has made marriage into an idol. Our varied Christian vocations, in singleness and in marriage, should be valued. I am not currently entreating Collins to take a particular detailed position on the topic, but the conversation is necessary [2]. The absence of such discussions on what Christian marriage, and singleness, are and what they are oriented toward represent the greatest omission in the book [3].

A Good Starting Point

Ultimately, though, Collins writes as a genuine pastor, committed to his love of Christ, the scriptures, and the church. He wants people to know and love Christ wherever, and whoever, they are. He is receptive, irenic, and full of reflective conviction.

I consider myself part of the same camp as Collins, a “moderate” or “centrist” Baptist. Because we often are part of theologically diverse congregations, we can fear being open about our convictions on “divisive issues.” I am glad that fear did not prevent him from writing this book.

His voice urging better conversation, more intentional ministry, and humble conviction, will serve churches who hear what he has to say well.

Endnotes

[1] Greg Coles is the author of Single, Gay Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (IVP Press, 2017).

[2] What the “goods” of marriage are is a big concern of Baptist Theologian Stephen R. Holmes’ essay in Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016). It is from this book Collins quotes Holmes’ claim that “To prove that sexual activity is not necessary to a well-lived life, we need to say only one word, ‘Jesus.’” [qtd. p. 160, Location 1492]. Collins is, of course, not obligated to take Holmes’ view on the “goods of marriage,” but some discussion on the topic would be welcome.

[3] The statement Pastor Travis’ church, First Baptist Huntsville, released does situate its statement on same-sex relationship within broader statements on marriage. Still, a more substantive look at the theology of marriage would have benefitted the book and our understanding of such statements.

Jonathan Balmer 1

Jonathan Balmer is a current seminarian at Truett seminary at Baylor University, a youth minister, and an aspiring pastor. He is a former English teacher, teaching high school English in Kentucky, and working as an English teaching assistant in South Korea via the Fulbright program. He enjoys travel, and also spent time studying at Regents Park College, Oxford and in Brazil. Having grown up in the Cincinnati area, he misses Skyline chili but has come to appreciate the abundance of taco trucks in Texas. You can find him on Twitter @JonathanCBalmer.

8 thoughts on “Review: What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming?

  1. The book seems to miss the elephant in the room when it comes to these discussions. Unless churches have a willingness to reconsider and free themselves from the godless “family values” theology that has afflicted much of white evangelicalism for the past 70 years, then there’s not going to be much of a place for gay people in the church. This became especially apparent to me as I read through the various criticisms of the Revoice conference. For the most part, the critics were maligning the conference due to its implicit questioning of “family values” Christianity.

    • Family values are great, I have no problem with family values – but to the Christian, ‘family’ isn’t (or shouldn’t be) mom, dad, and 2.4 kids, it’s the whole rest of the church. The values are fine, it’s the definition of ‘family’ that is way too narrow.
      Would be interesting to talk to some single parents, grandparents raising grandchildren, close friends living communally, and other non-‘typical’ families to get their take on whether the Western church’s ‘family values’ feel exclusionary to them too.

      • That’s why I placed the phrase in quotes. The inwardly focused nuclear model of the family, which white evangelicals often promote as the only acceptable model of social arrangement, is an invention of the late 19th century.

  2. Greg Coles: “There’s not much use claiming to be a welcoming church for LGBTQ folks…”

    There it is again. Why the (generally understood to be affirming) acronym + Q? Explain it’s appeal. Is it just ordinary usage for people under 30? Do younger people view it as “neutral” in the same way as gay? The Q stands for Queer, right? How is that term neutral if you take it seriously in the way that it is used by the people who self-identify as Queer?

    • Perhaps you can explain your objection to it. I see it as fairly benign. For most of us who use it, I think it’s just a stand-in for “non-heterosexual.” In that sense, it simply functions as a catch-all for all of us whose phenomenological experiences of human attraction depart from those that constitute heterosexuality.

      • Only that from observation the acronym tends to be used by the affirming “side” (at least the LGBTQ variant). But I’m willing to accept that some sideB folks consider it neutral.

      • I think it depends whether one is merely describing people’s phenomenological experiences of human attraction, or whether one is seeking to impose a normative social script onto those who have such phenomenological experiences.

        My main critique of the Side A folks is that their social vision is too narrow, if not suffocating. I’m rather skeptical of the notion that the neo-Freudian concept of the nuclear family is a healthy social construct for opposite-sex couples. So, I’m especially skeptical of the notion that some same-sex analogue of that ridiculous social construct is what I should desire as one who experiences various forms of same-sex attraction.

        Also, I think that cultural context makes a big difference. I have a job that involves working from France from time to time. I find that the “normal” social interactions of French men are typically enough to sate my same-sex attractions. Also, French women seem to have an affinity for lithe, androgynous-looking men like me. So, I generally feel fairly “heterosexual” while I’m in France. And my appearance is pretty stereotypical of men from northeast France, so people treat me as “normal” there. Although I have a perceptible non-French accent when I speak French, few French people switch to English when they speak to me. So, I can easily see myself functioning well in a relationship with a French women in a way that I never could in a relationship with a typical American woman who’s looking for a guy who conforms more consistently to notions of hegemonic masculinity.

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