This post is by Jeff Cook and describes what he has learned about the church and about the Christian faith from two lesbians in his church community in Colorado. My discussions with pastors around the USA have revealed to me that at the local level the presence (and the non-presence by exclusion) of persons who are gay or lesbian in local churches often creates ambiguity — include, reject, in what ways? That is, here is what happens by way of questions: Can homosexual persons attend? be members? participate in Eucharist? teach Sunday School? participate in mission trips? Do you draw lines? Where?
What I’ve Learned from the Lesbians in My Church by Jeff Cook
Often those who live and work in church-world have one ambition for those in our communities who are gay—and it’s changing them.
How do I move this person out of their relationships, out of their culture? How do I encourage them toward abstinence and a different perception of themselves? How do I speak to them about the strong words of the Bible in a way that may be transformative and not insulting? How do I tame their sexual preferences through my insightful words and display of biblical truth?
Recently, many have begun to question whether this is the best approach to engaging our gay brothers and sisters, and the topic itself has gone nuclear. Churches across the country have split or fired staff because of their opinions or their confessions of sexual struggle. Recently, the church I planted lost a third of its support because of its approach to homosexuals in our community, and here is where the American Church sits: in a place of pain and tension, with both sides now solidifying.
Disunity and stagnation are unhealthy, and perhaps we have hit this stalemate because we need new ways of approaching the topic of homosexuality. Perhaps we are not asking the right kinds of questions. In this vain I’d like to offer a different vantage point and confess that some of the most instructive experiences I have had this year came from a set of lesbian women in my church.
These women have been some of the true treasures given to me this year by the Spirit of God. I have never experienced Christians loving other Christians who routinely assaulted them the way I have with these girls. It’s one thing to get hurt by another person in a church. It is quite another to be the object of dispute, to have every conversation filtered, to be told by the staff that your church is losing people (and their tithe money) because you choose to attend.
Watching these women has helped me to see how to love other Christians who are antagonistic toward me. Who mock my church in my city and post cutting remarks on their Facebook page about us. These women routinely extend grace and understanding to those trying to change them. They are not foolish. They have clearly established boundaries, but they have also chosen to return love for condemnation—and it’s an amazing thing to watch.
I have learned other lessons that are more personal from these women as well.
I have no sisters, I have no daughters, and I left my mom’s home to live with my dad when I was 14. In retrospect, I was never taught how to relate to other females in non-sexually charged ways. My experience with women up to my marriage 12 years ago was always about attraction and potential courtship. My wife is both brilliant and beautiful, but that mindset toward other females hasn’t gone away because I now have a ring. Such habits were pressed into my psyche and given fuel by my nature, my culture, and the reckless whispers of sin itself. But my experience with the lesbians in my church has become the most important tool for changing how I relate to other women.
From early on in our friendship, I routinely got large hugs from these women
and realized there wasn’t a sexual undercurrent. I know they are not attracted to me, and I know I’m not attracted to them, and so all the base emotions that too often cloud my relationships with other females were simply gone. Because of these women I began to experience—perhaps for the first time—what a “sister in Christ” is, what that relationship feels like, and what my disposition toward other females ought to entail.
This has been an absolute treasure. Once that door was opened—once I saw how things could be—it became far easier to choose to take that mindset and apply it to the other women in my life. I find I’m now able to turn off the voice moving me to pursue and replace it with the far healthier “this is your daughter, this is your sister” picture I learned from my gay friends. Apparently the lesbians in my church have sanctifying power.
A final lesson has been about God’s priorities. One of the lesbian women who now serves in our church had a dramatic conversion experience and life change that was unlike anything I have seen before. I cannot think of anyone else who, after encountering Christ, changed so many of her habits, pursuits, and priorities. She is a radically different person and her transformation was unmistakably the work of God’s Spirit. But apparently the Holy Spirit is not interested in transforming her sexuality yet, and I find that worthy of note.
Why would God refrain? According to most of Christian culture her sexuality ought to have been the Spirit’s first target for conviction and repair, but her experience was not unique. I hear from those in other churches that gay men and women coming to faith and clearly stepping into a life of discipleship and sanctification are likewise not experiencing God transforming their sexual preferences. So how should we read this?
In the early church, the Jewish Christians became convinced that God desired to save Gentiles through faith in Christ alone, because they saw the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of the Gentiles. The common understanding of conversion in the first century was that one needed to physically change—to be circumcised and give up certain foods in order to be acceptable to God. But the early church shifted its perception of this entire group of people, not because of the Bible (the Bible was clear that all males needed to be circumcised and eating shellfish was a no-no), but because they saw the work of the Holy Spirit bursting forth from the lives of these Gentile believers.
After seeing the Spirit’s work, they changed the rules of inclusion.
I do not have a clear conviction from Christ on this point, but I wonder if that same lesson is being offered to the American Church, who so clearly sees the Holy Spirit alive and awake in some of our gay friends. I wonder if empirically we might make the same move as the first Christians who disregarded the many verses on circumcision and food laws, disregarded traditional mores, and embraced the present activity of God’s Spirit in their midst as authoritative.
I think if we did, we would not only begin to see God in new ways, we might gain many new sisters, many new brothers—just as the early church did.
Jeff Cook teaches philosophy at UNC. He is the Author of Seven: the Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes and the recently released Everything New: One Philosophers Search for a God Worth Believing In. You can find him at: www.everythingnew.org and @jeffvcook