In the wake of all the flap about the, rather specious, albeit on the surface, good and hopeful news from the now defunct Exodus International, a friend who is on this journey with us, asked me to explain the difference between welcoming and affirming. He honestly and openly is concerned about those who are drawing a line in the sand and doesn’t entirely get what the big deal is. Here are my thoughts on that very sticky wicket.
See, I grew up at southern supper tables where, in one moment I might hear an elder say something to the effect of, “I don’t hate black people, I have even invited one to my own dining room table!” uttered just hours before or after a couple of N-word jokes or other dehumanizing banter was sloshed around like a stinking pot of rancid collard greens. I have seen with my own eyes the difference between welcoming and affirming. Hell, the church I grew up in on Confederate Ave. (in downtown Atlanta of course) “welcomed” the custodian to keep our Sunday School classrooms all nice and tidy and even eat a bit of food on Wednesday nights (well, after we were all done) but had a real hard time affirming this gentle, old black man as a member when he came seeking God amongst our pasty white faces.
So to be honest, I am just a little flummoxed myself that the difference between welcoming and affirming is so hard to understand. Maybe it goes back to one question before we can move forward: can people in loving, respectful relationship have differences of opinion? As I have said many times, sure, we can be great friends (hell, even partners) and have differences of opinion about all sorts of ideas and issues, tastes and preferences. We simply can not have a difference of opinion about my full humanity before God. We can not simply have difference of opinion about whether or not my marriage to my wife is real. We can not simply agree to disagree whether or not I am my stepchild’s other mamma – these are not about simple differences of opinion, these are not theoretical issues for me, this is my very life we are talking about.
But back to the question at hand. What is the difference between welcoming and affirming?
Welcoming but not affirming feels like a lot like a cunningly set trap. “Welcoming but not affirming” tells me that it is cool to come to church and that you might not be outwardly mean to me but that you are still praying for me to change into someone contrary to who God created me to be in order to get into your idea of heaven.”Welcoming but not affirming” leaves room for people to to tell me that my “lifestyle” is contrary to the will of God (do they mean this lifestyle? - or maybe this one?), to pray that my marriage will be broken, that my children will be subjected to a broken home and for me to live into a falsehood that in fact would be exchanging my natural passions for unnatural ones. “Welcoming but not affirming” leaves dangerous room for people to abuse my children with notions that their mamma’s marriage is not real. It leaves room for saccharin-sweet folks to look my babies in the eyes and tell them to be praying real hard or their mammas to change so we don’t all go to hell… For this mamma, a’int none of that gonna fly no matter how we play our pretty marbles of semantics.
The difference between being welcoming and affirming is all about whether or one can regard me as a fully human or not. The difference is between whether or not those who merely “welcome” can go so far as to acknowledge that I am a child of God created equal to them, capable of living into my Christian faith as a lesbian with a wife and family. If someone were to invite me to a church that is “welcoming but not affirming” I simply could not worship alongside people who can only “welcome” me and not affirm my full personhood, can not truly affirm my love for my wife or affirm the reality of my shared parenthood with her. If someone truly believes I have no access to heaven, or that my wife and children are not fully worthy of the sacraments of the church (or that the sacraments are going to magically “cure” us) as long as we are living as we have been created to live then they are relegating us to a second class personhood that is not ok with me and never a place I would bring my family to worship because I would not be free to worship with my whole self. I would never consider subjecting myself to that level of degradation.
I do not want or need a person or church to magnanimously grant me their shallow welcome. Thankfully I am surrounded by Christians and a whole host of other loving, compassionate folks – family, friends, church and wider community – who already affirm what I know in my heart of hearts (through my own personal, tangible experience of God’s presence) to be real and true. I am living into God’s will for my life as faithfully and fitfully as this world and mortal coil will allow.
What’s the difference between welcoming and affirming? Equality.