Trigger warning: For my friends in the LBGTQ+ community, this post talks about theology and ideologies that have been used for exclusion and hate. Also mention of suicide.
One of the faith issues that’s taken me the longest to dig into is the intersection of Christianity and the LBGTQ+ (Lesbian, Bi, Gay, Transgender, Queer +) community. I think the fact that it took me this long is testament to how touchy a topic it can be. LBGTQ+ siblings in faith live along one of the last and harshest lines drawn by many Christian denominations. As with so many topics, the stated rift is a difference in Biblical interpretations, the actual rift is much deeper. I’m not sure why, but this topic specifically draws a special level of hate. No matter how hard I look, I can’t find any logical or scriptural reasons behind why of all the things seen as vices in Christian faith, identifying as queer is the worst. We can agree to disagree on a plethora of theological topics and interpretations, however coming out as affirming risks being labeled a heretic (and let’s just not talk about what it takes for queer people to actually come out.) Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but somehow that doesn’t make as big of a splash. I wonder how the church would change if we examined wealthy Christians with the microscope we use for the queer community? As I’m working to live and practice faith in full integrity, I want to be honest. I am fully affirming. I don’t believe being LBGTQ+ is sinful. I don’t believe LBGTQ+ people are broken or have something wrong with them. We can chat about Biblical translation, application, and lenses that have become the battleground over whether or not we fully accept (or even celebrate) all humanity, but today I want to talk about the harmful mindsets we hold that aren’t based in the Bible, but make a big difference in the outcomes of our beliefs.
Mindset #1: There’s one obvious way to interpret scripture.
Listen, There are over 900 Christian denominations in the US alone, proof of a massive spectrum of interpretations and beliefs of scripture and faith. Most of them think they’ve discovered something about the Divine others missed, many of them think they are the only ones who know the magic words, prayer, or belief to get into heaven. This fact leads some people to discredit all of our faith because Christians can’t even agree, some to judge and look down on those who don’t practice their specific brand of faith, and some, to realize maybe we’re all just doing our best and onto something way bigger than we are. It has made me realize one thing for sure, there is no easy, obvious, “safe” option when it comes to faith beliefs. I recently learned that America makes up for 11% of the global Christian church. Eleven percent. We can gain some deep and moving perspectives when we just learn to zoom out.
Often the loudest Christian narrative (at least in the US) has stated there was an obvious, clear cut decision across the board of multiple denominations that queer folks are at worst “going to hell”, and at best “living in sin.” This is based on a handful of Bible verses scattered across Old and New Testaments that have been translated and interpreted very differently by various denominations, translations, and Christians in general. Different denominations even have different views on "hell" and "sin" which adds even more nuance. When we test this belief against greater Biblical themes, like the stunning diversity in all of creation, humanity being created in God’s image, our primary mandate of love and wholeness, and fruit of the spirit, the dots don’t connect. Our brains aren’t great with dots that don’t connect. They work to fill in the missing information with their best guess, which in day to day problem solving is helpful, but when resolving potential conflicts in theology is dangerous.
Instead of digging into the original texts and translations in the light of repeating Biblical themes, or even holding space for not knowing and holy mystery, many folks try to jam theological puzzle pieces together that were never meant to fit. Which leads me to the next problematic mindset:
Mindset #2: Our beliefs shouldn’t change based on our personal experiences.
I was discussing this topic with someone dear to me, and they shared their concern that my views were formed by several of my childhood friends coming out as gay. The implication being that if a topic is more real to us we are potentially biased. I get this, I really do, but I also think it’s dangerous to pit lived experiences against untested theories, and cling to the theories the tightest. If we experience cognitive dissonance it should be a signal for us to dig deeper, not dig out heels in to our ideology. If my experience of realizing some of my childhood friends were gay conflicted with what I was taught hypothetically about gayness, it SHOULD cause me to reconsider my beliefs. When we discount and write off our physical lived experiences, we’ve lost our way. Some folks have come to believe Christianity is mostly about a book. They seem to forget that it’s always been about so much more. Jesus is the word who became flesh, and lived with us - moved into the neighborhood. Jesus healed bodies, he fed bodies, he made wine for bodies, and in the end gave us his body in community and communion. Christianity is an embodied faith. What happens in our bodies, what we feel, what we experience, is deeply spiritual and holy. How our beliefs impact others and their bodies should be a vital concern. If our lived experience is the fulfillment of scripture, and our interpretation is directing us to beliefs that are physically harmful for ourselves and others, it should push us to rethink our interpretation and views.
Mindset #3 Mis-defining / Owning Love
Scripture and faith have a lot to say about love. I’ve heard the sermon on the four types of love discussed in the original Greek text from multiple preachers. (Yet we are so hesitant to examine the original words used in the verses that are used to condemn queer people, but I digress...) One way Christians try to resolve their cognitive dissonance is to control and define love. Now we’re all about love in name, there are even “love languages” to help us understand what is most loving to specific individuals. Sometimes it seems we like to claim love as Christian, but lack understanding of how to actually live it out. The most moving love I’ve experienced has been when another person asked or noticed how I specifically needed to be loved, not when people assumed they already knew how to love me. Love by nature is defined by the person being loved. We each get to define what feels loving and affirming and validating for us specifically. No one else can mandate how we should feel love. But somehow, when LBGTQ+ people tell us that they feel loved when friends and family fully accept who they are, it’s too far. (If you think that sexual orientation isn’t part of who someone is, just put a pin in that for me, we’ll get there.) Here’s one thing we get wrong about love.
We don’t tell others what is loving to them, they tell us. If that’s not clear enough, we don’t tell those in the queer community how we can love them, they tell us. This is how relationships and communities work, and if we don’t understand this very basic thing about love, we are missing it. Heck, God models this for us in the Bible, telling us what Love is TO GOD. “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Creation, on the other hand is an experiential love letter from God to humanity. There’s a whole lot more to love, of course. I believe that God is love, and because God is infinite, love is also infinite, and the beauty here is we can spend our lives learning more about God, and more about love. If we ever think we’re done, that we know all of God or all of love, we can be sure we’ve got it wrong. But we do know that Love (and God) are patient, kind, humble, prioritize others, rejoice in truth. (paraphrase 1st Corinthians 13) We also know that love is a fruit of the spirit which results in unity ( the whole book of John talks about this.) Loving beliefs will always result in mutually fulfilling relationships and unity. It will always be good fruit.
Mindset #4 Ignoring the “fruit” or outcomes of our beliefs
One of the other repeating themes in the Bible, especially in the new testament is the concept of “fruit”. Jesus tells us we will know false teachers by the fruit of their teachings and lives. This is probably the most striking thing that led me to dig deeper.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ+ young people are more than twice as likely to feel suicidal, and over four times as likely to attempt suicide, compared to heterosexual youth (Kann 2016); the rates may be especially high for bisexual teens (Marshal 2011). According to one study, a third of transgender youth have seriously considered suicide, and one in five has made a suicide attempt (Reisner 2015).
• In a study published in the Journal of Child and Psychiatric Nursing, Dr. Caitlin Ryan and colleagues found that LGBTQ+ youth with affirming families reported higher levels of self esteem and overall health. Youth with the least accepting families were more than three times as likely to consider and attempt suicide compared to those with highly accepting families (Ryan 2010).
These statistics also apply to gay kids growing up in Christian families and churches, often trying to love a God who they’re taught condemns who they are.
We have hard facts and statistics that tell us not accepting LBGTQ+ folks, or trying to change their orientation leads to deep trauma and very often suicide attempts. This is fruit. The fruit, and outcome, of doing what people themselves have told us is unloving in our actions, theologies, and votes is trauma and death. This is the embodied, physical fruit of our beliefs and we need to reckon with it.
It’s true that the Bible offers some dire warnings about getting faith wrong. I can tell you those warnings are one reason I am so passionate about this topic, and other topics of human rights and social justice. I don’t believe what I believe because I am looking for an easy way of interacting with life and faith. I haven’t given up (although sometimes giving up faith would have been easier than to keep seeking.) I deeply respect the warnings in scripture, of causing others to stumble, and of teaching harmful theologies. This is why I commit so much time to reading, researching, and listening to Christians from all different backgrounds and denominations with different experiences. I constantly ask myself “What happens if I’m wrong about this?” I can honestly tell you, I would rather meet Jesus, and have him tell me I was too open, too loving, too accepting, than to tell me my words and actions contributed to ANYONE harming themselves, or thinking they had the backing of their faith to harm others. I often wonder why the more rigid beliefs are the ones that are considered “safer” in Christian communities. Why do we not assume the safest option is the most loving option? Why is love not the default?
Something that has become precious to me as I explore the roots of all the theologies I grew up with, is how welcoming Jesus is of those who question and who doubt. Seeking and knocking are encouraged in this faith. Do you know who actually disparages “doubting Thomas”? Not Jesus. In fact, Jesus is incredibly patient with all of his disciples who don’t recognize him after the resurrection (even though he appeared to the women first, who told the disciples he had risen.) Instead, Jesus gives Thomas the proof he needs, without shame. I seek, knock, read, and listen because my faith, and what I believe about the Divine is an integral part of my life. It’s incredibly important to me. If I wasn’t so concerned with living the truest version of faith I can, it would be so easy to mentally assent to a denominational line of theology.
Mindset #5 Misunderstanding Identity
I’ve spent my lifetime unlearning harmful things churches and ministry leaders taught me about who I am. This has mainly been related to my identity as a woman, which I discuss in my post “God Cares About Women and Christians Should too”. Self awareness, self reflection, self love, really anything personally enriching or illuminating past a prayer life hasn’t been given airtime in Christian circles until very recently. All I was taught about myself before I started searching on my own, was that self is sinful and bad. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising then, that the idea of understanding queer identities is baffling to a lot of Christians.
If I still believed that God saw me primarily as a no good very bad pile of undeserving humanity who feels all the wrong feels and thinks all the wrong thoughts, I wouldn’t still be a Christian. Fortunately, I dug into and hung onto the scriptural poetry of Genesis and the Psalms, both picturing intimate celebration of everything I’m created to be. Created in Imago Dei - the image of God - I could learn to trust myself, and learn to trust God in new ways.
Life and faith occasionally hold up mirrors, giving us the opportunity to examine our true selves. If our true selves are similar to what others and society have told us and affirm in us, we feel less of a need to study our reflections. When the mirrors of life and faith show us something different we can either ignore it to maintain our status quo, or choose ourselves and dig deeper. Realizing I was created in the image of God showed me I didn’t have to choose between who I was and God. I haven’t met a queer person yet who has not been thrust into this journey of self inquiry. I’ve met a ton of cis-gendered, straight Christians who avoid it though. This rift isn’t faith based, but it’s definitely something people of faith participate in. If you’ve never had to question the story society told you about yourself, accepting someone who has taken ownership of their story can be uncomfortable and scary.
Gender identity and sexual orientation are only parts of who we are, but in general churches have consistently tried to push their congregants into their limited idea of who God is, instead of looking for God in the identities and experiences of their congregants.
While I don’t know that any specific denominational divide has ever come down to celebration of who we are and who we are created to be in faith vs. the theology that we are primarily very bad no good sinners, it impacts everything about our faith. Celebrating who I am as a creation of the Divine allows me to deepen my spiritual walk through discovery of myself and others. Because of this, I’m interested in how all of our identities impact our faith, and how we walk in the world. However, the only part of LBGTQ+ identity that usually comes up in conversations about the faith intersection with non affirming folks is the question of why. Why are some people gay? The intersections of LBGTQ+ folks and spirituality / faith hold vibrant and necessary lessons for all of us, but we miss them when we get stuck on “BUT WHY ARE YOU GAY THOUGH?”
If we clarify that question a bit, it often becomes Why is this person not like me and most of the people I know? I recently listened to Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X Kendi, which details the movement and development of racist ideologies from the time of Aristotle through the Obama administration. Yes, it’s massive. One of the things that struck me was the obsession of the western scientific and philosophical communities for CENTURIES trying to figure out why some people are Black, and also looking for ways to substantiate their assumption that Black people were unequal to white people. When the question of “why” comes up in relation to queer identity, this is what it reminds me of. We often ask “why” when we’re looking for justification of our own beliefs and biases. Why else does the reason someone is queer even matter?
The formation and understanding of personal identity in the queer community is downright beautiful, and yes, it contrasts harshly with how many Christians have been taught to view themselves. The very basis of queer identity is that when someone tells you who they are - you believe them and honor it. Some might call this love. While I don’t see this ideology contradicted in the essence of Christianity, it’s rarely practiced. The idea of respecting (or loving) others enough to believe what they say about themselves is foreign to many Christians. Jeremiah 17:10 says that only God can read hearts, and Matthew 7:5 that we should focus on introspection of our own personal blocks over fixing others, but that doesn’t stop Christians from trying to fill God sized shoes and make judgements we were never given license to make about other people. This concept is hard for non affirming Christians, because to be truly affirming we must give up the right we think we have to tell others who they are, and the belief that we have this right in Christian faith and colonial society runs deep.
Remember all those denominations that think they have the magical keys to the doors of heaven that no other denominations have? When we believe we know where others' souls are headed in the afterlife because they follow our specific religious protocol, it’s not surprising we make other assumptions about who they are too. We think our faith, and particularly our specific theological views, give us license to tell others who they are, instead of leaving that with God, and allowing them to tell us. Yes, I’m familiar with John 3:16. I also know Matthew 7:21, where Jesus tells us that not everyone who thinks they will enter the Kingdom of Heaven will be right, and that there will be those who didn’t even think they followed Jesus who will be there. Our Christian fixation with the afterlife boils a potentially robust and nuanced faith meant to connect us with the Divine and each other down to a spiritual guilt trip and fire insurance. So many Christians lose the heart of our faith by obsessing over magic words or verses to secure eternal bliss. This memeification of Christianity sells both humanity and God short. (But that’s a blog for another day.)
This is also a colonial structure. Colonizing peoples forced various Indigenous people to assimilate to their culture and ideologies. The colonizers didn’t value who the Indigenous peoples were, or their culture because they assumed they knew better (or just didn’t care.) Colonizers told Indigenous people who they were allowed to be.
Without inquiry around these topics and misconceptions, discussion about Biblical context and interpretations of the supposed anti-LBGTQIA verses won’t take us very far. I think those discussions are important, but we need to do this work too. In my own life, evaluating the mindsets above showed me the real reasons I didn’t think my theology could be affirming. They were the same culprits who usually hide behind division; pride, fear, and shame.
My prayer for us as we move forward is that we learn to do so in true faith, hope, and love. I pray we aren’t afraid of repentance. I pray the Holy Spirit guides and comforts us as we move into uncharted territory. I pray we learn to love radically, and live in a deeply rooted peace with each other. I pray we stop weaponizing scripture. I pray we commit to actively embody the faith we confess.