An Eye Cannot Hear

The following post is from Brent Bailey, who is currently with us in Chicago as an intern at The Marin Foundation. He is working on his Masters of Divinity at Abilene Christian University and regularly blogs at Brent will be writing a few posts for this blog over the summer, so to kick things off he has written a piece to share a small part of his story along with touching on why he has chosen to invest in building bridges between the LGBT and Christian communities.

I remember the first time I honestly began to wonder whether Christian community was a place that would ever feel like home to me. It would be inaccurate to label it a faith crisis; I was confident God loved me, I was confident God’s love mattered, and I was confident I loved God in return—none of those convictions were at stake. What was at stake was whether I would be able to maintain any kind of meaningful relationship with God among a subculture of people whose experiences and needs were so different from mine.

It happened during a season of intense searching and questioning in my life. The campus ministry in which I was participating—a group towards which I felt and still feel fondness and affection—organized an event at the church building featuring a frank, open discussion of dating and relationships, satisfying the requests of countless students with those topics on their minds. As the conversation proceeded, I became increasingly aware of how little the entire event applied to my situation. This wasn’t necessarily due to oversight on the part of the event’s planning team (considering I helped plan it); it was simply an unavoidable reality of my status as a minority gay student (and closeted, at that) among a largely straight student body. In that time in the development of my sexual identity, I didn’t know where I would land: I had some theological difficulties imagining myself in a relationship with a man, but I  was also aware a relationship with a woman would be complicated and noticeably unlike most heterosexual relationships. In either case, I struggled to discern the relevancy of a seminar on the ins and outs of the heterosexual dating scene for my own relationship with God.

I didn’t hurry home that night to distance myself immediately from everything religious and overtly Christian, but the event did somehow give me eyes to begin noticing how the Christian world in which I had always felt comfortable seemed carefully designed for a kind of person who was not me. Most of my friends seemed to assume without question they’d marry a life partner in the next few years. (I didn’t know whom I wanted to marry or whom God would permit me to marry or if I even would marry.) Gender-specific ministries often depended on cultural stereotypes of women and men for their role models and their programming. (I was still struggling mightily to determine who I was and which aspects of my personality, both traditionally masculine and feminine, best revealed Christ.) Very few people around me seemed to have given much thought to how a person who was exclusively attracted to people of the same gender fit into the Kingdom of God. (My ability to belong hinged on that very question.) From a young age, I had fit rather easily into that Christian world, but I suddenly felt like a square peg in a round hole, unable to feel and think like it seemed I was supposed to. I’ve never been one to disrupt the status quo, but the diversity of experience I was bringing seemed to make disruption inevitable.

Before I came to terms with my sexuality and started coming out to friends and family, I read I Corinthians 12 with a bit of a smirk. That’s the chapter where Paul paints the picture of a body at war within itself: Some of the parts try to remove others, and some of the parts try to remove themselves, and none of them seems to understand that each of them has an essential function. The whole concept of infighting within a church community based on different spiritual gifts read as nonsense to me because I knew I had a place and imagined everyone else functioning with as much comfort as me. It was one of the luxuries of being in a place of privilege, I suppose, to assume everyone felt as secure as I. But on the night I attended the campus ministry event about relationships—the night on which homosexuality seemed so very, very different from heterosexuality, and I so different from them—I suddenly identified with I Corinthians 12:15-7. I was a lonely ear looking at a body comprised entirely of eyeballs, and the sense of hearing I offered sounded irritating and noisy. This was no longer my world.

If you know anything about I Corinthians—or, really, if you know anything about basic human anatomy—you know the body is not comprised entirely of eyeballs. So Paul agrees: “In fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (12:18-20). When I fit comfortably in the majority, the diversity of the body was inefficient and dangerous; but when I owned my status as part of the minority, I began to recognize the vast wisdom and beauty of God’s design to form community from heterogeneity, the way the whole is much greater than the sum of its dissimilar types. All of the metaphors began making sense to me: how the magnificence of a symphony is a result of the interactions of all its different instruments, how a tasty meal requires a variety of ingredients, how the most extravagant paintings utilize all the colors of the spectrum. The diversity of experience I brought to the church was not a liability or an affliction; it was an absolutely essential contribution to the body through which “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). It is not the church’s job to make room for LGBT members; it is the church’s job to recognize the room God has already made for LGBT members (just like God carved out space for everyone else) and then to delight in the diversity of people through whom God is revealed to us.

At the same time as I was discovering how valuable I (like every individual) was to the church, I was discovering how valuable the church was to me, how I could not possibly hope to know or experience or worship God fully without engaging a body of believers. My desire “to offer [my body] as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” and to conform no longer “to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [my] mind” required the support and enculturation of others who acknowledged God’s reign (Romans 12:1-2). My experience is different from that of many of the people I encounter at church, which means we have all the more to teach each other and discover within each other. The perspective of the solitary ear who tries to discover God will be as limited and incomplete as the perspective of an eyeballs-only church who tries to discover God.

(I don’t want to ignore here that many churches are toxic environments for LGBT individuals; although I believe every believer needs to thrive in a community of faith, I’m aware certain people legitimately need to abandon certain churches for the sake of their mental and spiritual health in favor of other churches.)

This journey has brought me to a place of deep investment in forming Christian communities into bodies that cherish and value their LGBT members. I am fully convinced I have a place, and I am fully convinced others like me have places, and I don’t imagine we’ll grow any closer towards an understanding of God until we all (yes, even me) learn to live in community with people who are different from us. Obviously, this is hard work, but the best symphonies and meals and paintings rarely develop without careful, tedious, arduous labor. The end result of the work could be church communities who, in the rich interactions of their diverse parts, demonstrate a fuller expression of the nature of God than anything we’ve seen, which is surely a goal worth pursuing.

Much love.

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  • Shannon

    “It is not the church’s job to make room for LGBT members; it is the church’s job to recognize the room God has already made for LGBT members…”
    That’s the thing about God. He looks at all the people the world might label as “Not good enough” and knows that they’re already good enough. What a beautiful post.

  • Shannon

    Brent, thanks for sharing! I can relate to the sense of not quite fitting into a stereotypical gender category, and it can be difficult when these assumptions are made as the basis for discussions.

    Before continuing, I want to disclose that I’m not someone who thinks that the term “gay Christian” is an oxymoron. I’m glad that God has assured you that He has a place for you within His kingdom, and I’m glad that you have found a place within the Christian community. That being said, it seems like the 1 Corinthians 12 passage has been taken out of context here. When read in context, it is clear that this passage is referring to the diversity of spiritual gifts within the body of believers. In your application of the parts-of-the-body analogy, you have taken the concepts of diversity and inclusion and applied them to a completely different topic (sexual orientation rather than spiritual gifts). Although I do believe God’s kingdom is inclusive, I don’t think that the use of this passage to illustrate that point is appropriate.

    Also, to play devil’s advocate, I feel like a lot of people would be quick to liken LGBT individuals to the appendix. One body (physical body/church body of believers) may tolerate its presence/accept it while another cuts it off completely. In both cases, the actions are simply the result of what the person believes is best. Although this neutral sitting-on-the-fence perspective can be useful, your tangible efforts to bring the two sides together are much more beneficial. Thanks for building bridges!

    • Shannon, thanks for your comment. I’d agree with what you say about the original intent of the passage in I Corinthians 12 being about spiritual gifts. I tried to make reference to that in my post (“The whole concept of infighting within a church community based on different spiritual gifts read as nonsense to me…”), but I ultimately stretched the metaphor a bit to illustrate inclusivity and diversity. When I said I identified with the ear, I meant to say my experience of feeling excluded based on my sexual orientation in spite of wanting to offer my gifts to the community might be similar to the experience of someone who, because the gifts they bring don’t seem to fit, might feel excluded in the same way. There are certainly better passages to discuss inclusivity in the body of Christ, but I relied on I Corinthians 12 for the sake of its imagery.

      I do think 12:1-11 raises some good issues for a discussion about general diversity in the body of Christ (gender, ethnicity, etc.), even as it specifically discusses spiritual gifts. First, it makes the point that all gifts come from the Spirit, who “gives them to each one, just as [the Spirit] determines”—not using (I’m inferring here) the same qualifications people might use to determine who is most deserving or qualified for particular gifts but relying upon the Spirit’s own designs (v. 11). Spiritual gifts are, after all, gifts—given freely and not bought or deserved. Second, it emphasizes that gifts are given “for the common good,” meaning every individual who receives these gifts has a responsibility to share them with the community so that all may benefit (v. 7). (This, I think, is the main issue developed in 12:12-31). In that way, a community who excludes any particular individual who might possess gifts from the Spirit is hurting itself.

      As for the appendix metaphor, I absolutely agree some might see the LGBT community in that way, but I’d suggest it’s much more urgent. If LGBT individuals are living in unrepentant sin by the nature of their sexual orientation or the choices they make, they’d be something more like a ruptured appendix, similar to a little yeast leavening the whole batch (I Corinthians 5:1-13) and needing to be addressed directly. If, on the other hand, LGBT individuals possess legitimate spiritual gifts, they’d be something more essential than a vestigial organ, and their absence would weaken the overall effectiveness of the body (unlike an appendix, which doesn’t make much difference). In either case, the presence or lack of that group is an urgent situation.

      Anyway, this is starting to feel like a biology class. Thank you for your comment (and for your faithfulness to the text!).