Why we welcome queer folk

Being an Inclusive Church

We are committed to being a church of inclusion. In November 1997, St. Matthew’s formally approved the following statement indicating our desire to be an open, inclusive, and welcoming community of faith:

“As the church of Jesus Christ, we are inspired and guided by His vision of God’s kingdom that includes all who seek to love and serve the Lord, and we welcome anyone who seeks to love and serve God, regardless of age, race, gender, economic or family status, ethnic background, mental or physical ability, or sexual orientation.”

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Sexual orientation, grace, and God
(by Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes)

The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline says that same-sex relationships are “contrary to Christian teaching.” In light of the teachings of Jesus and the grace of God that I know and trust, I find this hard to accept. I believe the condemnation of same-sex relationship is evil. It serves only to hurt people and not to help anybody, and it is based on bad science, bad morality, and bad theology.

When did you choose?
The bad science is the assumption that same-sex orientation is somehow something that we “choose.” I have yet to meet a single human being who can tell me when, how, or why they chose to be heterosexual. There is no such “choice.” It’s simply a fact of life, like being left-handed. It is morally wrong to judge or punish someone for a physical trait that they did not choose. It’s as evil and mean-spirited as racism.

Sex and the cave dwellers
The condemnation of same-sex orientation also hides some bad mental and moral health. For many of us, deep in our unexamined subconscious is a belief, from our reptilian ancestors, that women are baby factories and men are supposed to bed them. I know, that sounds pretty raw. (I could say it more bluntly, couldn’t I?) But it’s the truth. We are haunted by this myth of sexuality that defines men according to their power and women according to their attractiveness (ideally as a mating partner). Woman’s power is the power to lure, to seduce, to trap; man’s power is the power to overwhelm, to conquer, to “win.” In that view, marriage is a container for this sexual exchange. It may or may not have anything to do with love, mutual vulnerability, or emotional health. It’s just about containing the sex. And same-sex relationships mess with that belief because there’s no one-up, one-down power relationship.

The myth of “woman as baby maker” (and therefore sex object) and “man as power wielder” is pervasive. It’s the root of sexism and the notion of women as the “weaker sex.” Because of it we distrust women in power. We oppose abortion but not the death penalty. We make a big stink about same-sex marriage but not heterosexual adultery (which really does wreck families). We want health insurance to cover Viagra but not birth control. We resist women’s ordination. The military doesn’t prosecute sexual assaults. We think that rape victims “ask for” it. This myth determines what we think “sexy” is. We have reduced men and women to body parts. It’s not good moral thinking; it’s basically nothing more than sex-role stereotyping. And it’s sick. We’re not much better than the cave dwellers.

Sexual mores in ancient Israel
For some people the condemnation of same-sex relationships comes from the Bible. The abhorrence of same-sex activity comes mostly from the Old Testament, with a couple of references in the New Testament. (They knew nothing of orientation; their assumption is that all people are heterosexual, and same-sex activities are “unnatural.”) The Old Testament laws about marriage and sexuality are deeply embedded in the myth of woman as baby maker and man as power wielder. They are also deeply embedded in a social system designed for the adequate generation of children and the orderly passing on of a family’s name and wealth, especially as part of Israel’s need to multiply as a nation that believes in Yahweh. All of the Old Testament laws about sexual activity are embedded in these views of procreation, family lineage, and national and religious identity. So the spilling of semen is a serious offense. A man whose brother dies childless must marry the widow so she produces children. Two men who have sex shall be stoned to death. A young virgin can be raped as long as the attacker then marries her. The penalty for adultery is death. None of these, taken alone, makes a very good law today. But as a whole, they made sense for ancient Israel.

I don’t think it’s faithful to the Bible to excerpt any single law (or part of one) from the sexual code of the Old Testament without regard for the social and religious system of marriage, procreation, and family lineage that it’s a part of and the moral universe that it creates. It’s not that you can’t pick and choose among Old Testament laws. The New Testament does that; even modern Judaism does that. We all do that. We all honor certain Old Testament laws and ignore others. But we can’t ignore why we pick the ones we do and the religious ethos that those laws create.

The laws in the Old Testament are not random things that God makes us do, like some tyrant playing Simon Says, for God’s secret enjoyment. Israel’s laws are expressions of their covenant relationship with God and do not carry their meaning or apply in the same way outside of that covenant relationship, just as my wedding ring applies to my marriage and implies my vows, not other people’s. Hauling a sexual law, or for that matter, say, a dietary law, out of ancient Israel’s covenant relationship and applying it elsewhere is like forcing someone to keep kosher without being Jewish. It makes no sense. The Sabbath law is not about how everybody in the world should schedule their week. It’s about how Israel honors their covenant with God. Asking Buddhists to honor the Sabbath would be ridiculous. Equally groundless is asking us to honor one part of an Old Testament sexual law without participating in, or at least confirming, the religious and social matrix that makes it meaningful. And I think few people who say they uphold the Bible’s prohibition of same-sex relationships really want the rest of the sexual mores that come with it.

Individual biblical laws don’t just fit into the larger context of our relationship with God; they actually express that relationship, and even create it. So laws about dietary purity, or what seeds can be sown where, are not really about cooking or farming; they’re about being single-minded in faithfulness to God. The laws regulating the gender of partners is not about faithfulness, justice, or any other aspect of righteousness. They don’t protect anyone from actual harm. They don’t prevent cruelty to the weak, or offer freedom to the oppressed, or dignity to the rejected. They don’t regulate behavior; they just stipulate gender. What they do is create the ethos of patriarchal succession, family honor, and Israel’s religious identity. The problem is not that they’re “ancient” or “irrelevant.” The problem is that they create a world we don’t actually want, and that God doesn’t want, and that we don’t need to honor to be faithful to God or to each other.

It’s about relationships
And faithfulness was what Jesus was all about. He emphasized the role of God’s law not as a legal imperative but an invitation to deeper relationship. So he said, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” He wasn’t just fiddling with the law of God. He was reminding us that it’s not about getting it right. It’s about going deeper. And if the standard interpretation of God’s laws led people farther away from God instead of closer, he broke those laws to bring people nearer to God and to reveal an even deeper law: that God wants us all to be free. So he healed on the Sabbath, ate with sinners, touched the unclean, and offered forgiveness where the temple hadn’t. For Jesus the law was all about actual relationships. And relationship is all about love, not biology.

Jesus made it clear that we are free from “biological destiny”: our worth as persons, our calling in life, and our relationships are not determined by our physical characteristics. Relationship trumps biology. That’s why he healed people who were “born that way.” It’s why he reached out and touched people who were considered “unclean” because of diseases. And it’s why, when someone said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Lk 11.27-28). Even his own mother was not blessed because of her childbearing or her physical capacities, but in her relationship with God.

And that gets to the real point. What does God want from us? The same thing God gives to us: faithful love. God faithfully loves us regardless of our condition. God marries us. And God asks us to faithfully love others. What we promise in marriage is exactly what God asks of us all the time with everybody: love, fidelity, honor, mutual vulnerability, forgiveness, and steadfastness. What God wants is for us to have a certain kind of relationship, regardless of the gender of the person we have it with. (Some people compare same-sex love to bestiality, polygamy, or child abuse. That’s really irrational and irresponsible. When we talk about a same-sex relationship, we mean two mature, capable, free adults of equal power and agency entering into a mutual covenant together. If there were a power imbalance or a violation of fidelity, that would be a separate issue having nothing to do with gender—unless you believe the sexual myth I talked about earlier—an issue that’s at least as likely to be present in heterosexual relationships as in homosexual ones.)

Sex is an expression of a covenant and belongs in a relationship of love and faithfulness. If God judges a relationship, it will be according to those qualities, not the presence or absence of a Y chromosome. When two people pledge faithful love to each other, I really don’t think God faults them if they don’t have exactly one penis between the two of them. When a couple pledges faithful, life-long love to each other to enact God’s faithful covenant with us, isn’t that exactly what God wants? If God is love, how could God be against love? To criticize a relationship of love, fidelity, mutual tenderness, and honor as being a “lifestyle that God opposes” is bad theology because it ignores what God cares most about: our love for each other. What matters in a relationship is its capacity to bear grace to the partners and to the people around them. The religious condemnation of same-sex relationships is not actually about their behavior and their relationship—their love and fidelity—it’s about their body parts. Nothing more. That’s bad theology.

God’s relationship
And it’s really bad theology to act as if God’s attitude were one of condemnation and exclusion. Jesus never treated anybody like that—even tax collectors, prostitutes, and murderers. Even if we were to imagine that a same-sex relationship were a sin, how would God treat the sinner? The same way God treats every sinner on the planet: with grace. If there’s anything Jesus taught, it’s that God meets us in our brokenness with grace, with love and mercy, with open arms, with tender welcome, and not with rejection, condemnation, and exclusion. If Jesus died on the cross forgiving even his murderers, then we can at least be nice to people whose sexuality upsets us. And if there is any sin liable to public censure and exclusion, then Jesus died for nothing: we are not saved from our fear, violence and narcissism, from one another’s cruelty, or from God’s judgment. No, to select a sin and target it for public condemnation is utterly foreign to God’s way and “contrary to Christian teaching.”

And it’s especially bad theology to load our own sexual hang-ups, disguised as morals, into a religious judgment and condemnation of others who violate our sexual myth, while ignoring our own sins that very clearly violate the law of God. This is especially egregious since the sins that we ignore are of way more importance to God. The entire Bible speaks of same-sex relationships a grand total of only eight times. Meanwhile, it speaks of the sin of selfishness hundreds of times. God rails against how we treat the poor in pretty much every book of the Bible. Scripture makes it clear over and over that if we are judged, it’s not on how sexually good we are, but on how we treat the marginalized, the powerless, and the rejected—which would include the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) population.

Contrary to Christian teaching?
If we want to mount a campaign against behavior that’s “contrary to Christian teaching,” why don’t we begin with actual Christian teaching? The main themes of Christian ethical teaching have to do with forgiveness, reconciliation, nonviolence, economic justice, welcoming the stranger and the immigrant, reverence for God’s Creation, and healing of social divisions. The way people harp with such passion on a gender issue that is so peripheral to the Christian message indicates to me that it comes from a hang-up about sex that has nothing to do with God.

To be faithful to Christian teaching, I believe we are called to live lives of love and acceptance, to embody God’s love, to encounter all whom we meet with mercy and grace. We are called to reach out to outcasts, to stand in solidarity with those who are rejected, to bless those who are outside our circles, and to convey hope, dignity, and kindness to the oppressed.

The truth is that the heart of Jesus’ message is alive among us in the LGBTQ community and its members and allies. They are not only “acceptable” to God: they are beloved, treasured, and necessary for the whole human family. They offer us rich, abundant gifts, including the noble treasure of another perspective; the valuable voice of a persecuted people; the gift of an understanding of sexual relationships that can be free of our gender role stereotypes; the gift of their patience, perseverance, forgiveness, and faith; and a deep understanding of God’s grace that eludes us who are more privileged. This is just what Jesus taught.

The presence of people with alternative sexual identities among us invites us to examine our own sexuality more honestly, to find ourselves on a continuum of identity rather than a “side” of black-or-white, gay-or-straight duality. Their presence asks us to continually reexamine our own bondage to fears and judgments regarding our bodies, our identity, our social belonging, and our sexual myths. They remind us to challenge our assumptions that whatever is most common is therefore “normal.” And they embody the grace by which God frees us to see ourselves and love ourselves as we truly are, to accept ourselves, and to accept others, not according to any set of rules at all, but simply according to the infinite, overflowing, life-giving love of God.

In part I think reaction against homosexuality is specifically resisting an openness to this grace because it’s so challenging, overwhelming, and threatening—and so life changing. It’s a way to “tithe mint and dill and cumin, and neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Mt. 23.23). I believe it is contrary to Christian teaching to oppose marriage equality and attack anybody’s love and faithfulness, regardless of their gender, instead of attacking hatred and cruelty. Opposing kindness and faithfulness between any two people is contrary to Christian teaching. In the end, I think real Christian teaching is this: thank God for us all.

“Nothing in creation is rejected.” — St. Thomas Aquinas