Why Using the Bible Against LGBTQ People is Irresponsible

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Christians will go to great lengths to get God to consent to their prejudices. It’s actually quite astounding and equally sad. 

Every day I watch and read fellow followers of Jesus attempting to use Scripture to discriminate against, marginalize, and condemn people who identify as LGBTQ. They engage in the most protracted, passionate, theological gymnastics, arrogantly and confidently tossing out chapter-and-verse grenades in an effort to make the case that God has a problem with being gay and that the Bible is proof. They do this with great authority, unwavering confidence, and very little tolerance for dissent.

This is one of the most irresponsible things Christians have ever done.

In truth, only a literal handful of the Bible’s 31,102 verses mention what could be translated as homosexuality (an English word first coined in 1946)and in even those few cases the reference is solely to a sexual act, never to anything remotely resembling what we understand as gender identity or sexual orientation. The reason for this is quite simple: such complex ideas were beyond the grasp of the writers, just as the shape of the planet or the inner workings of the human body or the nature of gravity were. This is understandable. They had no knowledge of how the brain worked and so they could only observe behavior and imagine that was the extent of sexual identity. 

This is the greatest flaw in attempting to use the Bible to address the intricacies of human sexuality—that it is woefully inadequate for that specific task. The Bible did not drop from the sky and it isn’t a product of Divine dictation where God took over the faculties of the author. It is a sprawling library of 66 books, orally preserved and then written down over hundreds of years by dozens of disparate and largely unknown, very human authors in multiple languages, during which time the concepts of gender identity or sexual orientation were formed at only the crudest levels.  

The Bible is a product of its time and culture and contains the inherent limitations of its writers. It isn’t an attack or mutiny to admit these things, it is simply being honest with our sacred text. Even fundamentalists and Conservatives understand this. We see it in the way our orthodox Christian understanding and approaches to slavery, women’s rights, mental illness, and divorce have all evolved with what we’ve learned over time. It’s the reason we no longer stone adulterers or accuse paralytics of moral failing or imagine Hell sitting below a flat earth.

This is why arguing incessantly about a handful of parsed out lines of Scripture, as if these verses answer the complex questions of sexuality is such misguided time and such a misuse of the texts themselves. Using these few bits of text to justify discrimination and bigotry is reckless and irresponsible. We don’t rely on the Bible to understand gender identity and sexual orientation for the same reason we don’t rely on a 2,000 year old medical text to understand the circulatory system, or use ancient hieroglyphics to understand the Cosmos. We know that these things are not enough because time has taught us.

When we put our bodies in the hands of surgeons, we want them to bring every bit of study and experience and historical learning to bear, because of the complexity of the task. We wouldn’t accept that what we knew in the first century was at all adequate. In fact, we’d demand that anything antiquated, technologically or intellectually be discarded. That is the only responsible decision when life is in the balance.

In this and in so many other ways, God has given us time as a gift in which to gain understanding about the world and about our bodies and our brains, that we didn’t and couldn’t know two or three thousand years ago. We gladly and wisely use this experience without giving it a second thought, without exception. In every other sphere of life, this is how we live; allowing new revelation to help us make better decisions and to override information when it proves to be incomplete or erroneous.

The damage the Church has done an continues to do to the LGBTQ community by trying to claim the writers of the Bible understood things they simply couldn’t have understood about sexuality, is one of our greatest shared sins. We need to allow all that we’ve learned to inform our faith perspective. We can go to the Scriptures for wisdom and guidance and inspiration, but we should never go to them as authoritative textbooks on biology or anatomy, and never as an excuse to ignore what we’ve discovered since they were first recorded.

If we don’t see and consider the Bible’s limitations regarding the complexities of gender identity and sexual orientation, we will continue to try to use God to reinforce our fear and sanction our prejudices, and we will continue to engage in behavior toward the LGBTQ community that makes our violence and mistreatment feel righteous, while not at all reflecting the love of Jesus.

Explaining Progressive Christianity (Otherwise Known as “Christianity”)

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This past weekend as part of a church conference, I sat on a panel discussion on “Progressive Christianity”.

The host’s first request of the panelists was to describe what Progressive Christianity meant to them. My new friend, the Reverend Vince Anderson took the mic and said, “Let’s be clear: Progressive Christianity is just Christianity. We are Christians—and we are progressing in our knowledge and understanding.”

We could have stopped there.

This is the heart of what it should mean to be a Christian of any designation; the desire to continue to move and grow and learn and change, even if those things place us in opposition to the person we once were or the beliefs we once held firmly or the testimony we once gave. As we move through space and time, our faith should be in continual evolution. We should always look back at the previous version of ourselves and realize how much we didn’t know then. We should be able to see how far we’ve come in matters of spirituality.

Progressive Christianity is about not apologizing for what we become as we live this life and openly engage the faith we grew-up with. There are no sacred cows, only the relentless, sacred search for Truth. Tradition, dogma, and doctrine are all fair game, because all pass through the hands of flawed humanity, and as such are all equally vulnerable to the prejudices, fears, and biases of those it touched.

It’s fashionable for more Conservative folk to dismiss Progressive Christianity as some cheap imitation version of the Christian faith; a watered down religion of convenience practiced by people who found “real Christianity” too difficult or demanding. 

Progressive Christians know the truth of our story, and so these lazy caricatures are of little worry.
We know the authenticity of our faith.
We know the depth of our study.
We know the sincerity of our prayers.
We know the road we’ve traveled—and we’re grateful for it and proud of it.

The truth is that Progressive Christianity is so diverse that it simply cannot be neatly defined or summarized, but here are some things that most who claim the label probably agree on:

We believe that a God who is eternal, isn’t land locked to a 6,000 year-old collection of writings, unable to speak in real-time to those who seek. Revelation can come within and independent of the Bible.

We believe that God isn’t threatened or angered by our questions, our doubts, or our vacillation born out of authentic pursuit, even when those things are labeled heretical by other people. God is more secure than they are in who God is.

We believe that Christian tradition is embedded with thousands of years of misogyny, racism, and homophobia, and that our task as Christians in these days, is to remove those cumbersome layers and uncover the very essence of what it meant to follow Jesus.

We believe that in the Scriptural command to “watch one’s life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim 4:16), the former is as important as the latter; that faith isn’t only about what you believe, it’s about whether or not your life reflects what you profess to believe.

We believe that social justice is the heart of the Gospel, that it was the central work of Jesus as evidenced in his life and teachings; the checking of power, the healing of wounds, the care for the poor, the lifting of the marginalized, the feeding of the hungry, the making of peace.

But what is as notable as what Progressive Christians agree on—is all that we do not.

We differ widely with regard to the inerrancy of Scripture, the existence of Hell, intercessory prayer, salvation by atonement, abortion, the death penalty, and gun control. 

There is no party line to tow. We don’t all identify as Democrats or pacifists or socialists. We identify simply as followers of Jesus; carefully, thoughtfully, seriously seeking to understand more today than we did yesterday, and to live lives that as best we can discern, resemble Christ’s.

Progressive Christianity is not the path of least resistance, but often the road of greatest turbulence. It places us in the decided minority in the larger Church. It creates conflict in our families and faith communities. It costs us friends and ministries and holidays with loved ones. It brings silence and shunning and separation from those we once were welcomed by. It makes us feel like strangers and orphans in the religion we used to call home.

But these things are the worthy tax on living a fully authentic faith; one where we are confident that all that is not God will fall away as we walk. We are on a continual pilgrimage toward what it looks like to perpetuate Jesus, and we don’t distinguish our road from that of Christians who may be more Conservative or more secure in orthodoxy. It is the same road.

We are all Christians moving.
We are all Christians listening.
We are all Christians learning.
We are all Christians believing.

We are all Christians progressing.

 

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Exit Interviews: What I Wish My Former Pastor Knew, Part 1

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Note from John:

I’m very fortunate that I have a venue for my voice to be heard, and realize that most people do not. As a pastor, I spend a great deal of my days listening to people’s stories and trying to speak and write in such a way that those stories are represented in the world—and particularly in the Church.

I asked my readers a simple question, and the responses have been overwhelming in number, and in the depth of faith and pain they reflect. I believe they deserve to heard be directly, and over the next couple of weeks I will share as many as I can. I hope they will minister to you, that they will bring some comfort and encouragement. I hope you’ll realize how very not-alone you are in your desire to pursue faith in the tension between God and organized religion.

And if you’re a faith leader in any capacity, I hope you’ll sift these words to find the ones that resonate and reveal to you the ways you might better do the important, life-giving work you are called to do. 

As you read, resist the temptation to refute or argue anyone’s response. Simply listen and allow each person’s experience to weigh the same.

The question was: If you’re no longer in a church or struggle with the one you’re a part of—what do you wish your pastor/priest/minister/leader knew?

I want your message from the pulpit to be the least important thing you do for the week. I want to know that you see me, not just as a body on Sunday morning. Not just as someone who has something to give. I want to know that you see me and know my story. Nothing you have to say on Sunday morning counts, If I do not feel know and supported on the journey I am on. And I want you to give me permission to be on a journey, to be seeking. I don’t want to have to follow your rule book or listen to the answers you pull out of your playbook. I want permission to find my way. I want you to listen. And maybe even be open to learning from me in the way that I want to learn from you.

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I wish my former pastor knew is that my sexuality didn’t deter my love for ministry. If anything, it made it much stronger.

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That instead of working so hard to save people’s souls for the next life, I would like to see them working just as hard to help people during this life.

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That their complete silence towards me since I’ve left had hurt more than anything they might have said while I was there.

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That mercy and grace are indispensable when building community…
That we have all sinned and fallen short….
That doubt can foster growth…
That it is not a zero-sum game…
That where ever one finds love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, the Holy Spirit is there…
That I still want lovely things for them…

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I want them to know that I can’t come back until their love feels like love; when it validates and heals rather than condemns, when they treat me like a person instead of a project.

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Eighty percent of every church’s beliefs come from the culture around it, whether they conform or define themselves by nonconformity. Their beliefs follow or fight against trends in politics, the economy, changing social norms. What we believe and how we act rarely has anything to do with God, so let’s stop acting like every bit of dogma is God’s honest truth—and make some room for people.

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I wish the pastor of my Catholic church could understand how hard it is for me to attend Mass with my Transgender son in light of Pope Francis’ recent remarks. I wish he knew how I sat there in bitterness, resentful of having to tithe to an organization so intent on rejecting people like my young child. I wish the pastor could be brave enough to outwardly love and support the LGBTQ community, and even start a group so that we didn’t have to feel so alone. I wish the pastor could preach about how although not all Catholics might agree, we still deserve the same love and respect, not condemnation

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I would like my former pastor to know how free I am. He said when our family left his church that we were headed to destruction, but in fact we have never experienced more joy and freedom than we do now. I would like him to know that he is the one in bondage. Not only is he in bondage, he is putting chains of bondage on each and every one of his members. The damage he has done (in the name of Jesus) is irreparable. I want to believe in Jesus still, but the Jesus I was taught of doesn’t look anything like the Jesus you speak of.  “I like your Jesus…”

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I wish they knew how hurtful it is to receive emails inviting me to conversion therapy classes.

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I wish he knew I am not ‘back sliding’ or lost the plot or lost my faith in Christ. I really wish after 10 years and starting a ministry that I was worth a phone call or coffee date to say, “Hey, you ok? I see you and your family have left and we miss you, and if you want to share I would love to know why you left and if you guys are okay.” I wish he knew the cost of losing my church family and I wish he knew that all those people who have left are not just the trash taking themselves out, but people worth something.

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I wish they knew how the church’s overt sexism and bi-phobia, and eventually its rape apologetics caused me to feel more pain and anguish in the community than away from the community. That after 20 years since leaving Christianity, I still do not feel safe or welcome as a human being in the church, let alone loved. I am happier keeping my distance.

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I wish my pastor knew about how vulnerable I was at the time (as a teen), and how much I needed him to be who I thought he was. I wish he knew that I had caught on to every attempt at manipulation, every subtle mention of the situation at the podium, and every condescending tone of voice he used with me. I wish he knew how damaging that behavior was to my ability to trust people in a critical age of my life. And I wish he knew that my refusal to go back to any church is due to his hunger for power, not because I was a “confused sheep” that was led astray.

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I wish you knew how hard it was for me to walk away from a ministry that I would have done for free. I wish you would remember who you are as a godly man, swallow your pride, and seek my forgiveness. I wish you knew that it was because of your ungodliness that I have a very hard time trusting male leaders. I wish you knew there are no titles in the kingdom of God that we are all equal. There is no brotherhood or sisterhood—only friendship.”

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That God works in ways beyond our own understanding.  Just because we don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have His hands on a life that desperately wants to love and worship. No one believed Paul when he first spoke of the grace that changed his heart.  We who are gay or transgender can indeed be used and used effectively. All they need to do is give us a damn chance.

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I wish my pastor knew how hurt I am by him not being the friend he advertised himself to be.

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That hate drives young people away. Fear (“You’re going to burn if you don’t do x,y, and z . . .”) is very off-putting. It may have worked in the past. Not now.

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I would like them to know that having questions, experiencing doubts and being uncertain about things the church is teaching, does not necessarily equal spiritual immaturity. No one comes right out and says that you are spiritually immature because you are struggling with things like the concepts of Heaven and Hell, or substitutionary atonement, or the inerrancy of the bible, or the sovereignty of God etc., but when they kindly offer to pray that God will make these things clear to you, what they are really saying is that they hope you settle down soon and get back to seeing things the way they do.

 I think it would help if pastors stopped saying everything from the pulpit with so much certainty, if Christians were taught fewer answers and trained more in the skill of asking good questions, if the local church would be a little more humble about what they know and hold to be true, if it would not be considered heresy to think or believe differently in their midst, and if more people in the church believed that right living is more important than right doctrine.

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Our Episcopal Church is full of former Catholics and many many gay former Catholics. I often wonder if my Catholic priests and bishops know this. Do they see the good that we do and the glory it brings? Do they realize that so many of us would have been the priests and sisters that they so sorely need? Do they see that we are living out our Catholic faith through the Episcopal church because that is where we can truly be ourselves. Do they miss us? And beyond wondering if they see or know this or miss us, I want to know if they care that we are gone? Do they wish it was different? Are they fighting to change things and make things right from the inside?

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Someone Mansplain To Me, What The Heck is Wrong With Men?)

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Last week I read news stories about two different women, both sexually assaulted and murdered while jogging on consecutive days in different American cities.

Two radiant lives snuffed out in an instant.
Two grief-stricken families preparing to bury their daughters, sisters, and friends well before their time.
Two senseless wastes of beautiful humanity.

As I read the accounts of these seemingly random, violent attacks by apparent strangers, one question rose up and refused to be ignored. It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for most of my adult life:

What the heck is wrong with men, anyway?

The truth is, you can find stories like this every single day without even trying. If your eyes are at all open, it’s a fairly noticeable reality that there are vile, sickening things that as a general rule, women rarely if ever do:

They don’t lie in wait to sexually assault or kill strangers.
They don’t snap, and shoot up movie theaters and shopping malls and churches.
They don’t murder spouses and lovers when they try to leave a relationship.
They don’t commit random violence against LGBTQ people.
They don’t subject strangers who pass them on the street to disgusting catcalls.

Men do these things—with alarming regularity and proficiency.

Obviously we can find anecdotal incidents in each of these cases, but the fact remains that men have a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for violence and inflicting terror on others—one that women simply can’t touch. In fact we’d be hard pressed to find any examples of wide-scale or systematic malevolence to point to, on behalf of our sisters on this planet.

For the past twenty years as a pastor I’ve been trying to figure out why that is, and I don’t find testosterone and penises and a couple million years of caveman DNA to be compelling answers. I also don’t think that simply blaming Sin cuts it either, otherwise we’d share the load of such atrocities with women.

And oddly enough, even in the face of this clear disparity of decency, many in the Church still insist that women are the “weaker sex”.

Conservative strains of Christianity subscribe to a view known as Complementarianism, which assigns distinct roles and responsibilities in the world to both men and women. Proponents of this theory often use the Bible to justify denying women formal positions of leadership in the Church, as well as authority in the home.

Complementarianism tends to perpetuate many of the stereotypical, historical gender roles, that women should be submissive caretakers of the children and home, while men are to be the dominant, aggressive forces out there in the world. It has also formed the bedrock of the notoriously patriarchical Christian Church, used to excuse all manner of misogyny and sexism. It’s perpetuated the subjugation, abuse, and silencing of women for a few thousand years, all in the name of God. In the words of my wife, “In Complementarianism, a husband and wife are ‘equal’ until they have a disagreement—then the man is the tie-breaker. That’s not a tie-breaker!”

Not exactly equality.

Every day I see brilliant, passionate, faithful, gifted women leaders treated with such contempt and disregard by arrogant, intolerant men who claim to be Christian. I watch these guys dismiss their contributions and heap condescension upon them while using the Bible to do it. And the whole time I’m wondering why they can’t see the world that I see. I’m wondering why they don’t notice the mess we’ve made. I wonder what Jesus they’re taking a cue from.

Because ironically, the greatest argument against this elevated religious view of men—is men. We’ve created a historical body of work reprehensible enough to make Complementarianism laughable. If the abhorrent behavior of men is trying to make an argument for moral superiority, we ain’t looking’ that good, fellas. I think we need to make room at the table and the pulpit and the office, and realize that it’s been a long time coming and it’s a really good thing. 

I believe women should be pastors. (They in fact, already are).
I believe they should teach men in the Church.
I believe they should be Presidents.
I believe they should have greater influence on our political process.
I believe they should have equal pay for doing the work they do.
I believe women fully reflect the character of God.

I believe these things for many reasons, but primarily because there is a decency and compassion and goodness that they bring to the table that men have proven for whatever reason, we aren’t as capable of. We need the balance of their presence to temper the worst in us. In a way that transcends easy caricature, women seem less prone to violence, less vulnerable to ego, and more measured in the face of dispute—and this is sorely needed on the planet. 

I’m certainly not ashamed to be a man, but I can admit that we’ve really dropped the ball with this whole patriarchal civilization thing, that we’ve terribly imbalanced and could use a reboot. I want a less angry, less frightening, less violent world for my children.

Most of all, as a pastor, I want a Church that better reflects Jesus, and having more women stewarding its direction and shaping its future and guarding its heart is the only way there. 

Check out these amazing Christian pastors, speakers, and authors who happen to be women. They inspire, educate, challenge, and encourage me daily.

Listen to them. 

Nadia Bolz-Weber
Melissa Greene
Sarah Bessey
Phyllis Tickle
Anna Register
Glennon Doyle Melton 
Jory Micah
Kimberly Knight
Jennifer Dickenson
Sarabeth Caplin
Bec Cranford
Alicia Crosby
Cindy Brandt

Cynthia Andrews-Looper
Rachel Held Evans
Allyson Robinson
Charissa Grace

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