Accept Gays? Only If They Know Their Place

Why is it that when conservative Christians talk about welcoming gays into the church they still can’t see their way to accepting lgbt folk as equal?

When Elke Kennedy’s son Sean was killed on a Greenville, South Carolina street two years ago by a man who called him a “faggot” before hitting him in the face so hard it separated his brain stem from his brain, the one place she could not go for comfort was the church.

In Crisis, a new book that features forty stories, including Elke’s, about the pain and trauma suffered by gay and lesbian people and their families, Elke writes:

“After Sean’s death we were no longer welcome at our church. Church friends stopped calling – they didn’t want to take sides! We do not belong to any church now.”David Gushee, a Christian ethics professor at Mercer University, recounts Elke’s story and some of the other heartbreaking stories of gays and lesbians crushed and torn by religious hatred in his review of the book in the latest issue of The Christian Century.

As an evangelical Christian whose career has been spent in the South, I must say I find it scandalous that the most physically and psychologically dangerous place to be (or even appear to be) gay or lesbian in America is in the most religiously conservative families, congregations and regions of this country. Most often these are Christian contexts. Many of the most disturbing stories in this volume come from the Bible Belt. This marks an appalling Christian moral failure.

Indeed it does and in the end, Gushee makes an impressive and impassioned plea for Christians to ask for forgiveness from the gay and lesbian community. While I am impressed that Gushee, who in the past has been dubious about accepting gay and lesbian people into the church, has come to this place – I can’t help but be suspicious of his new found sense of reconciliation.

After all, wrote just last year, that accepting gay and lesbian people into the full realm of the church would mark a certain cultural surrender of the church’s true beliefs:

A church that is in the process of abandoning basic tenets of Christian sexual morality has no credibility as a moral voice in culture. And, ironically, it has no credibility if it decides to abandon the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality.

In that article, he argues that if the church doesn’t give in to the culture, and instead continues to hold to its convictions of the sinfulness of homosexuality and heterosexual marriage as the norm, it can still welcome gays and lesbian into the church. But, those gays and lesbians must be chaste in singleness or in monogamous, committed relationships – and they also must not mind being seen as moral failures for being gay.

That kind of Christian community might one day be in a position to consider the pleas of homosexual believers that have formed families and seek inclusion into the community of those whose permanent, covenanted relationships receive the church’s recognition and support. This kind of church might have the capacity to reflect on the idea that even though God’s design for sexuality in creation was heterosexual, in our fallen world a tiny minority among us is, mysteriously, is just not wired that way, and needs some structure in which their relationships and families can be properly formed and sustained (if they are not called to the celibate path).

I hope you can understand my suspicion of Gushee’s call for forgiveness for Christians who have mistreated gays and lesbians. His formulation of how gays and lesbians can be accepted into the church only perpetuates the mistreatment of the community he decries in his review. To be accepted, we have to be viewed as morally “less than” our heterosexual counterparts who have achieved God’s “gold standard” of marriage.

This kind of arrangement only continues the heterosexual arrogance of believing that they’re somehow closer to God than their homosexual counterparts. While Jim and Jane Doe may have found God’s favor in their marriage, I doubt they’re any less plagued by sin than your average Janet and Jan Doe or Jeff and Joe Doe. Perhaps Jim Doe, while pleasing God with his private-part-correct marriage, cheats on his taxes or regularly kicks his dog. Perhaps Jane Doe has little too much to drink on bridge nights and gossips with the ladies. Just because they’ve hit the spiritual jackpot of heterosexual marriage does not give them the right to look upon any other human being as morally inferior. Yet, this is exactly the scenario Gushee pushes. The gays can come into the church when the heterosexuals allow it – but only if the gays realize they’re filthy sinners, the product of a fallen world.

Perhaps the stories of Crisis have moved Gushee’s heart in the right direction, however – which is editor Mitchell Gold’s purpose for the book. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before even Gushee sees the inherent heterosexual privilege of his own formulation for a “welcoming” church.

Yes, David Gushee, heterosexual Christians who have abused gays and lesbians – and those elusive gay and lesbian Christians – must repent and ask for forgiveness. I, for one, am certainly ready to forgive – but as Paul has warned us, we do not continue in sin so that grace may abound. If Christians truly want to be forgiven, they must change their ways – and put aside the belief that they hold the keys to the church or God’s kingdom. God is the only gatekeeper.

And, as Elke Kennedy concludes: “The God I know and love tells us to love one another and not judge.”