Monday, August 23, 2010

Open Letter to a Concerned Evangelical

The recent Prop 8 decision has the interwebs buzzing once again with opinions both supporting and decrying gay marriage. It’s always fascinating for me to see the wide array of people that feel they are qualified to speak or write on the topic. But then again, it is the Internet and it’s an open forum! In most cases it makes for some thought-provoking, or at times just entertaining reading. What probably troubles me the most, however, is when the conversation shifts from a debate about gay marriage to a debate about gay people. Debating about a legal or religious institution is one thing, but behind this issue are very real people who often become the targets of some not-so-kind assumptions and arguments rather than the backdrop for a policy discussion. This is when it gets personal.
Since my blog is about the experiences of a gay Christian in America, it has drawn the attention of a few people within my extended social circle who have opinions -- both about Prop 8 and about gay people. For the most part, the comments and discussions have come from a genuine place and have been interesting to read and follow, yet there have been some personal e-mails I’ve received recently that have led me to, once again, marvel at the way many within the evangelical church communicate with people who do not share their interpretation of scripture or life experiences.

Among the e-mails I received recently was one from a person I knew through my church back in high school. He read one of the blogs I shared on Facebook, and also some of my own. Although starting out with the reassurance that he was not speaking from a place of “hate” or “bigotry,” he proceeded to accuse me in no uncertain terms of interpreting scripture through the lens of my own sin, with a bias toward homosexuality. Furthermore, he likened my journey toward acceptance of my sexual orientation to that of a friend of his who left his wife because he fell in love with another woman and then justified it by saying that God wouldn’t have wanted him to stay in an unhappy marriage. After explaining that my situation (having same sex attraction) was no different than his temptations to lust (also a sin), he strongly suggested that if I were to just “step away” from my struggle I would be able to see things more clearly.

Now I’ve had all of these accusations leveled at me more than once over the years, but what made this e-mail more interesting was that I had not had any communication with this person in over 15 years. Not a word. This is the struggle I have with many evangelical Christians. There seems to be a mandate within evangelical culture to confront people and wield the bible as a weapon in the process, and whatever you say is fair game as long as you tell your intended target that you’re saying it out of love.

I’m a firm believer in the principle that “Truth without love kills, and love without truth lies.” This is something I live my life by. But if you haven’t communicated with someone in 15 years, you have no platform of love from which to speak the truth. And in situations like this, it almost always feels like a sting of death rather than words of life.

So, as a favor to the evangelical church of which I am still a contentious part, I offer here my open response to the e-mail I received. I offer this openly with the hopes that other well-intentioned Christians will read this and rethink their approach to reconnecting with an LGBT person within the current, politically and emotionally charged context that exists around these sensitive issues.

"Thanks for your e-mail. I've intentionally waited a little while to respond in order to allow myself time to process what you are saying, and to respond rather than react to some of your comments. First of all, I do not assume that you are speaking from a place of hate. Although it's been over 15 years since we've had any substantive interaction, the person I remember you to be was not a person of hatred. So let's just take that off of the table. Secondly, you are right in acknowledging that we do not know one another anymore. So, in the case of your e-mail to me, you are not writing to me as a concerned "friend." Friends earn the right and the credibility to say certain things to other close friends that strangers or acquaintances do not have the right to say. Many of the things you have said in this e-mail you have absolutely no right saying to me, since we are at this point in time, acquaintances. However, regardless of the fact that I feel you've crossed a few lines here, I have taken your words to heart and I'd like to thoughtfully respond, because I believe your intentions were good...

Regarding the biblical debate, this is not a battle I will ever win with you, nor is it an argument that I want to have. The Bible is not clear about homosexuality as it is on other topics such as serving the poor, loving your neighbor as yourself, etc. Any honest theologian or Biblical scholar would likely be willing to admit that. So I'm not going to argue with you about scripture. I've found only one of the passages (Romans) to be specifically addressing same-sex relationships outside of temple prostitution or the prohibitions found in the holiness code of the Old Testament. Many Biblical scholars agree, but I'm sure you would discredit those scholars so I think it's best to leave that alone. I do, however, take issue with the comment you made about my interpretation of scripture being very biased over the years. This is simply not true. I struggled through these scriptures for decades, and the very reason it has been such a struggle for me is because I did NOT take a biased approach to scripture. I mean, after all, I was a Free Methodist pastor with a degree in religion focusing in Wesleyan theology. If anything, my bias for most of my life has been against homosexuality, not in favor of it. So I have to disagree with you on that point.

Also, regarding your assertion that I interpret the Bible in light of my own situation rather than interpreting my situation through the light of the Bible, I'm sure that, at times, I am guilty of that. I think most of us are when it comes to certain topics. But I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that this is not what I endeavor to do. I will say, however, that I choose to interpret the entirety of scripture through the words of Jesus, rather than interpreting the words of Jesus through the words of Paul or any other Biblical author. So, when I look at the Romans passage, I also take into consideration the many other writings from this same author that were contextual to the time. For instance, Paul writes in one of his letters that it would be better for a man not to marry. But you are married, and no one has a problem with that (including me). You are honoring God to the best of your ability within a marriage, even though you could possibly dedicate more of your time, attention and energy to serving God if you were single. And Paul also limits the role of women in the church. Well, you and I come from a denomination that ordains women equally with men, so we've obviously taken liberties with that one as well. In my opinion, what we’ve done with other issues raised by Paul and other biblical writers is to interpret their words through the lens of Jesus' words and ministry. And through that process we are able to more clearly identify what are the "priority" issues of God, namely loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. Marriage, women in ministry and same-sex relationships don't seem to make the top of Jesus’ list of barriers to serving God.

Your story about your friend who left his wife for another woman is a sad one. That must have been a very difficult experience for you. As devastating as this is, your friend’s story has nothing to do with mine. Your friend broke his vows, hurting many people in the process, and then distanced himself from you after you confronted him. I intentionally did not get married, and even left the pastorate so that I would not break my vows to either a spouse or my denomination. Since then, I have painstakingly walked side-by-side with other followers of Jesus during the last 10 years since coming out. Even the people who have confronted me and hurt me within the church I have remained close to. I have not left my Christian community, although that would have been much easier. I keep people very close to me who ask me the tough questions, who keep me accountable, yet who also see my heart and know my honest pursuit of a life that honors God. This seems much different to me than what happened with your friend.

The last thing you said, and perhaps the thing that stung the most, was that I should just "step back away" from my struggles. This underscores for me the depth to which your misunderstanding of sexual orientation goes. This is not something I can "step away from." Although my sexuality is not the only defining aspect of my identity, it is an integral part of who I am. I did not choose it. Nor was I abused and then ended up gay. This was part of me from the beginning. Like you, I too can choose not to give into lust, and I fight that battle just like any man. You are a married man, and are able to leave your computer after reading this and enjoy your wife and family, so you really have no idea what it means to be a gay person who has been told that this is not an option for them. The type of same sex relationship I am looking for will be just that, companionship and intimacy within the context of commitment. It is not about lust anymore than your relationship with your wife is about lust. Asking me to "step away" from my sexual orientation for a moment is an insensitive thing to say. I have tried that. I've been through entire programs to help me step away. I do not believe that process holds God's best for me, and I did not come to the conclusion easily.

I guess what I'd like from you is the same thing I'd like from many of my evangelical brothers and sisters. That is for you to sit down, be quiet, and listen. Gay Christians like myself who have grown up in the church have spent a lifetime listening to the opinions and arguments against homosexuality. We know the arguments well. We also are painstakingly aware of your commitment to a literal view of scripture. And we know from personal experience that many evangelicals have very few appropriate boundaries when it comes to forcing a specific understanding of scripture on people who may interpret it differently. So all I'm asking (and I think you are doing this, in part, by reading my blog) is for you to let go, for a while, of your need to get your point across. Try to listen with your heart. Try to listen with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But try not to be planning your next argument or attack while you do so.

I started my blog to share my story, and it is the story of tens of thousands of gay Christians much like me who fill or have filled the pews of churches across this country and the world. You can argue scripture with me all day, and I won't be able to win. But you also won't win any of us over that way. You will only win the right to be heard if you spend time listening, even when it makes you uncomfortable. You cannot argue with my story. It is just that, MY story. It is the truth of my experience, and woven throughout that story is an even more powerful story of the grace of God meeting me at times and in ways that have saved me to the core.

I recommend that you pick up Andrew Marin's book "Love is an Orientation." I think you would appreciate and benefit from it. Andrew is an evangelical Christian who would agree with you on the scriptural interpretation, but he has some valuable things to say about where to begin the conversation with gay people. I appreciate your heart, but must tell you that you have begun the conversation in the wrong place. If you begin the conversation this way with other gay people, they will not hear you.

Thanks for engaging in this dialogue with me. Some of the things you wrote did sting a bit, but I'm still willing to be part of the conversation. And part of the reason is that I am open to the possibility that I've gotten this wrong. There, I said it! I realize and accept that I could be wrong. But it is with that admission and in the spirit of that possibility that I rest in the grace of the God who created me. God knows my heart and my life-long struggle to seek God in the midst of this journey. And I'm willing to rest in the knowledge that, at the end of the day, that's all any of us really will get by on anyway."


  1. Joe, it is an honor to know you and to hear your eloquent thoughts on this subject. I hope that I can earn again the right to call you friend to the level that I did when we were in high school. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I look forward to keeping the conversation going between us as well. God bless you, brother.

  2. Wow - you gave such a calm and well thought-out response. I'm afraid I would've said something more flippant - off-the-cuff and then regretted it later.

    Thank you for sharing - I don't know you (well, not that I know of. I used to be Free Methodist so wouldn't be surprised if I know you) but I feel that I would probably be honored to call you a friend today.

  3. I found your blog through a comment you left on Andrew Marin's blog and I must say I'm so glad I did. What I've read so far sounds very much like my own struggles over the years. I appreciate your words to the friend who emailed you. It reminds me very much of a time when I had a similar experience. I must say, my response to my friend was not nearly as reasoned and calm as yours. Although that relationship has been restored, I still regret the words that were spoken. I will keep reading your blog and would like to list it on my blogroll if that is OK with you.

  4. "a gay Christian in America"

    To the point, the Bible most clearly calls the practice of same sex sexual relations, i.e. homosexuality, sin.

    While I'm also saddened that too many Christians do mistreat LGBT people, no amount of "dialogue" or twisting of Bible texts is going to change the fact that the practice of homosexuality is sinful conduct.

    And it's not unloving to tell the truth.

  5. Ken, is your M.O. just to cruise around blogs and post the same comment on all of them? You should be careful, some would consider that spam.

  6. i tend to doubt Ken actually read this post, but, regardless, he's wrong in a couple ways: interpretation of the Bible isn't as simple as he wants it to be (does he object to women speaking in church? has he ever read leviticus?), and spouting his "truth" at people he finds objectionable isn't just unloving, it's hateful.

  7. You have done an excellent job on your blog, in putting into words, such feelings as many may have but are unable to access. Well done. Will follow you with interest.

  8. Thank you soo much for penning down such a well thought out discussion. Reading this has helped me crystallize my thoughts considerably. I share a similar journey to the kind you have described as being yours and common to a myriad other people who are followers of Christ and are gay. I am still in the middle of a struggle though. With myself! - the fear that I might have got it all wrong... the thing that struck me is that - deep down i get the feeling that some of those conservative interpretations are soo deeply entrenched within me, that i often fear, when i challenge those view points - whether I am looking for ways to "justify" my sexuality. [much like how your aquaintance accused you of].... I would love to stay in touch with you, if that were possible. - Thanks