As you can tell by some of my previous posts (see World Vision or Belief, for example) I’ve felt deeply hurt by the church – the evangelical church in particular. For the most part I no longer try to “reconcile” faith with identity. I can only be who I am, faith or no faith.
But I was somewhat heartened to read Dr. David Gushee’s address to The Reformation Project conference in DC last week. In his talk, he accurately characterizes what many gay people have faced throughout the history of the church:
The church’s anti-gay teaching was comprehensive. The Church taught a disdain for LGBT people as a whole and all individuals in the group. The Church taught that LGBT people are morally inferior. The Church sometimes taught that LGBT people are evil. Certainly it taught and sometimes still teaches that LGBT people are by definition excluded from heaven. The Church warned its adherents about associating with LGBT people. The Church at various times ascribed particular vices to LGBT people, including sexual degeneracy, especially against children.
The Church at times was willing to welcome individual LGBT people into its fellowship, but this welcome was equivocal. LGBT people were often relegated to second-class status, surfacing especially in relation to questions of leadership in the church. And often this half-welcome was withdrawn. (One Jewish reader of this lecture commented to me that in this sense it was easier in most eras of Christianity for Jews to find full and unequivocal welcome in the Church than it has ever been for gay and lesbian people to find such welcome. Conversion meant a Jew became a Christian, but conversion doesn’t meant a gay person becomes a straight person. Not that people haven’t tried.)
Gushee chronicles how this treatment has longstanding historical precedent in the church from its earliest days. Sounds like it should be depressing, right? But he also provides a helpful and hopeful analogy with another longstanding church tradition (I won’t spoil it for you – you’ll have to go read it yourself). He explicitly acknowledges the imperfection of the analogy he gives, and yet it serves nevertheless to show that longstanding, deeply held convictions of the church can change, and in relatively short time frames. I hope to see it in my lifetime! Among the hopeful signs of change, he catalogs the following (drawn from his recent book Changing Our Mind):
- Breaking sharply with the past, leaders of many traditionalist Christian communities or institutions now do their best to avoid verbally stigmatizing or demonizing gays and lesbians.
- Previous public policy and culture fights that traditionalist Christians once led have almost been forgotten or abandoned. The Disney boycott. The Teletubbies. The fight over gays in the military.
- Some are suggesting that the fights over gay marriage are doing the church’s mission more harm than good, and that it is time to fall back from that struggle.
- Change is happening in relation to the well-established clinical and scientific claims about sexual orientation, undoubtedly related to straight people more often getting to know lesbian and gay people. In 1993, 22% of Americans reported having a close friend or family member who was gay or lesbian. In 2013, that number had risen to 65%. It is making a big difference.
- More and more traditionalist Christians now accept that a small portion of human beings simply are of same-sex orientation. Fewer make the ungrounded claim that sexual orientation is willful perversity, chosen and changeable. Reparative or ex-gay “treatment” has collapsed in credibility.
We have a long way to go. But at least, perhaps, we are going.