In my last post about “Boundaries” I mentioned that our church plant had once discerned the issue in question – the issue Rob Bell made a clear pronouncement on last week – the issue of gay rights/gay marriage. And we discerned it from a self-consciously evangelical perspective. I want to share what we came out with, in the hopes that it may be of help to you in your context.
Note that this post is also an attempt at demonstrating the real point of my last post: that local, contextual, accountable communities are the place where issues like this should be discerned (because it’s the only place that they have real, embodied meaning), but there are times when non-local explanations of boundaries are necessary for productive conversation. Boundaries in this sense are not social as much as linguistic – how do we have an honest conversation unless we define things (which Rob was asked to do at Grace Chapel)? There simply are times when we must define things for folks outside our communities or even larger networks of accountability (e.g., on a blog, in a book, or at a conference).
The risk, of course, is that a non-local pronouncement like this might be met with nothing more than a “cool story, bro” from most people. But there’s a possibility that it may prove helpful as another local community or movement undertakes discerning the issue. And make no mistake – all of us have to discern this one, if today’s Supreme Court proceedings are any indication.
And in the very least, perhaps this will simply be an honest way to move the conversation forward.
Our church plant, Dwell Missional Church, has since closed, but early on in the process of planting we were prompted to discern questions being asked by our congregation and our gay neighbors. We were also newly networked with the New England district of the Evangelical Free Church, a conservative denomination. And our local context was a very progressive city, one that many consider to be the least religious city in the least religious state in the US: Burlington, VT.
For those that don’t know (and there are probably lots of you), Burlington is the largest city in the state of Vermont. With about 150,000 people in the Greater Burlington region and around15,000 college students in Burlington proper (the home of UVM), the city is vibrant, young, creative, and, as mentioned, progressive. Which is why I and lots of others absolutely love it.
That’s right – I love it because it’s progressive, not despite the fact that it’s progressive.
The independent, progressive spirit of Vermont in general and Burlington in particular is the driving force behind a culture that revolves around generosity, entrepreneurship, creativity, sustainability, and equality. It’s one of the safest places in the country to live, and one of the best places to raise kids, not least because of the numerous social programs that ensure every child gets wonderful healthcare and education. And, this progressive spirit is also the reason Vermont was the first state to approve full gay marriage (not just civil unions) through the legislative process (rather than the courts) in 2009. This happened, interestingly, during the first year of our church plant.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen many evangelical church plant prospectuses that emphasize this gay marriage piece in particular as the reason Vermont is so “lost.” It is cited as the ultimate sign of apostasy from orthodox evangelical faith, and it becomes the big rallying cry for both Southern missionary church planters to come here and for Southern churches to fund these missionary planters. Whenever I see or here another blog post or tweet with this statistic, my stomach turns. I think of my friends who are gay, now being used as funding tools by the fundies.
So I want to make it clear that I’m not exaggerating or trying to be cool when I say “gay friends,” nor when I mention questions they began asking us about our church plant. Dwell was a uniquely indigenous plant (as lead pastor, I’d already lived in VT for 20 years), and our friends really were intrigued by what we were doing and wanted clarity. Because gay marriage is a forgone conclusion here, the primary question we got was simply and practically, “Could my partner and I get married in your church?” There wasn’t any getting around it – it was a yes or no question. This is where discernment began.
Because of our denominational tie and our evangelical identity, the answer to this question formed our baseline: No, as an evangelical church with a traditional understanding of New Testament marriage, we could not perform gay marriages. As much of a turnoff as that might have been, though, we saw something interesting begin to happen as we discerned beyond that baseline. Namely, our leadership and key church members strongly sensed the need to stand with our gay friends in their desire for equal marriage rights under the law, as a way of truly and properly loving them, supporting them, and seeking justice for them.
At first this felt contradictory, but soon we realized it wasn’t – for to align ourselves with government (really, empire) in coercively denying equal rights to a huge community of our neighbors and friends (who, by the way, are here and are not going away) was about the most unchristian thing we could imagine. So, we began to ask – what is this about, really? Is this about our understanding of sacramental marriage taking place in a church community, or is this about visitation rights and equal housing and protecting children and fairly handling assets and just plain honoring permanent, committed, monogamous relationships? Legal marriage is the latter, and we could not love without desiring this for our gay friends.
During the last two years of our church plant, we decided to be even more consistent in making the marriages we perform purely a sacred ceremony. We stopped signing marriage licenses (and encouraged couples to simply obtain one from a JP). We decided that we should not act as an agent of the state, because legal marriage and sacramental marriage are two different things. And we were simply performing the latter, based on our best understanding of the New Testament.
I’ll never forget a Facebook message I got from a gay friend during this time. She talked about how she and her partner had been married in 2009, but went through a divorce after a year or so. She began dating someone else and was married again soon after. She suddenly found herself fulfilled and happy in this new marriage – really, for the first time in her life – and it had her thinking about the past and about the future and about wanting to raise children with faith in God. She had grown up Mormon, you see, and she had been emotionally abused and alienated by her parents and her church when she finally came out.
She asked me, “Could I be a part of your church? For some reason, I trust you.”
I honestly explained our baseline about marriage. But I went further in expressing our love for her. Our acceptance of her. That all of us at Dwell would welcome she and her partner as full participants in our community just as they are. No demand for conformity. No expectation of “lifestyle” change.
And, I expressed that we would stand with both of them, and all of our gay neighbors, in their right to marriage equality under the law.
She replied, “Thank you, and thank you so much for being honest.”
Throughout the five years of our church plant, several of our gay friends found a faith community to call home. They felt safe and welcomed. And, they understood our evangelical identity. They saw the language-boundary, and they understood. They had grace for us, too.
I’m not saying that the way we did it at Dwell is the ideal way. I don’t know that it is. I do, however, feel strongly that Christians aligning themselves with anti-gay-marriage politics and legislation is contrary to the gospel and love for our neighbors. It is coercive empire stuff, not kingdom of peace stuff. I could be wrong, but that’s how I see it.
And I also know that being evangelical means something and not other things or else it becomes nothing. Is gay marriage the lynchpin upon which evangelical identity turns? No, lest I sing the same tune as the Southern Baptist fundraising letters. But it’s a boundary that has been there that must be wrestled with honestly.
And, I would hope, missionally, locally, and in real relationships with real people.
So, during this Holy Week, the Week that Jesus stormed the empire-corrupted Temple and suffered at the hands of the evil empire itself, all to open up a way of rescue into the kingdom of God that is justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit – what do you think about this “issue”? And the way we discerned it here in Burlington?