Local Churches and Less Common Orientations (LGBT 17)

In the previous blog I have listed seven levels of deepening engagement any person can have with a local church:
1) Attendance
2) Participation
3) Membership
4) Local Leadership (unordained)
5) Local Leadership (ordained)
6) Teaching in the Church School
7) Ordained Minister

Let me lay out three of many possible scenarios that might confront a local church. I will not be offering opinions of what a local church should do, those decisions are best made at the local level. I will use these scenarios to illustrate some of the challenges churches and LGBT people face in engaging each other. These are the kinds of scenarios that churches will face more and more as LGBTIQ people “come out of the closet” and confess both their faith and their difficult circumstances in life. The first scenario is a situation where a person in the local church has a homosexual orientation, but whose identity is clearly in Christ and whose behavior and beliefs are in harmony with the church. Most churches I know would be completely comfortable with such a person attending and participating in church life. The challenge comes at levels three to seven. If most members believe that a homosexual orientation is, in itself, sin and rebellion, they would not be comfortable offering membership or any deeper level of engagement. But if orientation is not a choice in most cases and the person’s life and beliefs are in harmony with the church, why should that person be treated any differently than a heterosexual person with the same beliefs and behaviors? To do so could open the church to charges of discrimination, like churches that would deny membership to Blacks, Hispanics or Asians, who likewise have not chosen the characteristics that make them a target. So the crucial issue here is how people of faith understand orientation. Traditionally it was thought to be a choice, but if that belief is wrong, it can be grounds to justify abuse and discrimination, not things the church wants to be known for.

A second scenario is similar yet somewhat different. How should a church respond to a person who has a gay or lesbian identity, but it not “practicing” that identity in a sexual way at that point in time? As noted earlier, a Christian who embraces a genuinely gay identity is in a state of conflict between two masters. While many members of the church followers of Christ have a similar conflict, because of addiction, unwise choices or Laodicean lukewarmness, their struggles will usually not be in the open in quite that way they are in a person of gay or lesbian identity. While such a person may believe and behave in harmony with the church otherwise, many in the church may choose to draw the line on membership or even participation. But a church that does so had better be prepared to draw some lines on heterosexual identity issues as well (a person addicted to pornography in secret is just as conflicted in their identity, yet may continue to function at any of the seven levels of church engagement). To make an issue out of gay or lesbian identity and not address the issue of pornography seems like pure discrimination to me. The latter is just as much a spiritual identity crisis as the second scenario is.

The third scenario is a same-sex couple that is married according to the laws of the state. There is no hiding in the closet or secret relationship. How should the church relate to that? In the past, churches would not have faced this kind of issue, but now it is increasingly with us in many parts of the world. Should churches allow such couples to attend? To participate? If the same-sex marriage is the only issue in their relationship with the church, should a church consider membership or even leadership? Christians are law-abiding citizens. Does the approval of the state in this case, therefore, change anything? In other words, does state approval in such things matter? How much does it matter? Is it not better for people to be in a committed relationship than to be promiscuous? You may have a strong opinion on this from a distance. But when the issue has a face, it is the people with strong opinions (they would call them convictions) that often make things more difficult for all concerned.

Regardless of one’s view on these matters, churches that attract LGBT people have difficult questions to answer and the type of person they are dealing with is a crucial part of that. There are so many possible scenarios and nuances of scenarios that engagement in the local church is a matter best decided by the local church. Higher levels of the church can wrestle with theology and larger principles (which I have tried to address in this blog series), but the real challenge is how to wisely navigate the tension between doctrine and compassion with real people in a local church. When it is clear that a person knows and loves Christ, it affects how the church makes decisions regarding that person, and it should. But such decisions should never let go of the divine ideals. Those are the primary reasons to have a church in the first place.

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