Ten steps on my journey toward full LGBTQ inclusion continued:
- I came to know and love LGBTQ+ Christians – and learned about their plight as wounded, exiled, diverse, often quite wonderful people who love Jesus despite a church that has not loved them.
The biblical text that comes to mind for this point is Matthew 23:13 — “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”
Traditionalist Christianity, especially its leaders, have functioned in the destructive way Jesus describes, in relation to LGBTQ+ people in their own midst. Not knowing and not caring to know their own LGBTQ+ family members and churchgoers, they have locked the doors of the kingdom of heaven to them in their preaching, teaching and ministry.
In my own way, I once participated in this door locking. I taught a polite traditionalism for almost two decades. I did so from a position of near total ignorance of the life experiences, dignity and suffering of the people I was so blithely talking about.
In my 14 years of teaching at conservative Southern Baptist schools, I thought that I did not encounter a single gay person. But that was because in those contexts and at that time all such people were closeted.
But when I moved to Mercer University in 2007, and especially when I joined First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia, nearby, my hermetically sealed straight world was punctured by the presence of actual out gay and lesbian Christian people, and then trans Christian people, and so on.
As I got to know these sisters and brothers in Christ, it became clear to me that I had been speaking in ignorance whenever I had said anything about “the gay issue.”
I think of my friend Theron, whom I discuss in my book Changing Our Mind. He was born and raised in a hyper-fundamentalist Baptist family, and sought to live according to the script, becoming a hyper-fundamentalist Baptist pastor, marrying and having three kids.
Eventually, the lie was not sustainable, his marriage ended, he came out as gay, his ministry was of course destroyed, and his family of origin almost entirely rejected him right off the face of the earth.
Yet, here was Theron, in church every Sunday, in my Sunday School class, studying Scripture, praying fervently, sharing his faith, the most devoted church member one could hope for. Only gradually did Theron tell me his story.
From Theron, I learned so much about what it is like to grow up fundamentalist and gay; about how the internal struggle is the first and in many ways the most difficult one; about the horrible pain of family rejection, loss of job, church and friends; and about the transcendent faith that somehow manages to not give up on Jesus, or on church people, despite it all.
Once I knew Theron, and eventually his partner who became his husband, David, there was really no going back. I could not unknow this kind of journey, and it prepared me for so many more stories, both similar and different, as LGBTQ+ people became such an important part of my life.
How do minds and hearts change? Through knowing LGBTQ+ people. I quickly hasten to add that such knowledge is, as the philosophers say, necessary but not sufficient.
Necessary: I have never known of a traditionalist Christian changing his or her mind without knowing LGBTQ+ people. But not sufficient: I have known plenty of traditionalist Christians who could not overcome their theology or understanding of the Bible even despite knowing LGBTQ+ people.
Still, for me, my own change of mind is impossible to understand apart from coming to know and love LGBTQ+ people. They had been unknown to me. Now they are my sisters and brothers.
Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, Chair in Christian Social Ethics at Vrije Universiteit, and Senior Research Fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of 25 books and approximately 175 book chapters, journal articles and reviews.