“God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes.” —Richard Rohr
I remember sitting there across the table from our foreign exchange student. She was young, fourteen, beautiful, and full of life. She came from Spain with a nominal Christian faith and upbringing. She was in the States to study English and experience the culture, but she took our religious experience with a grain of salt. The experience was good for morality, of course, but “don’t take it too seriously,” her parents told her. We didn’t ruffle each other’s feathers much until we had that conversation: the one where she was sharing about her new friend at school who was gay. It wasn’t long before she wanted to know what we thought about gay people. I didn’t even blink before blurting out what I had been taught my whole life: “Well, of course we love your friend and all gay people, but homosexual behavior is a sin and marriage is between a man and a woman.” I’ll never forget the horrified look on her face. She couldn’t believe how narrow-minded my views were. She was appalled that I would think that I could easily persuade her with such a statement. At the time I chalked it up to her being brought up in “liberal Europe” where anything goes.
But her expression stayed with me. I began to question if what I told her was true. Did I really believe my own words or was I regurgitating something that had been passed down to me? I became uncomfortable with my flippant response and so I decided to dig deeper. I began to pray, “Lord, will you show me your truth about this? I’m not sure what I really believe, I just know what I’ve been taught.” Over the course of the next several years, God would bring new people and books, conferences and articles, debates and discussions into my life to help me sort it all out. I still don’t have it completely “sorted out,” but I am now much closer to the heart of the discussion than I was that day.
The next encounter I had with the issue came in the midst of some turmoil in our church. I was serving as an elder at that time when a young woman was asked to step down from leading in worship because of her sexual orientation and because of her religious doubts and questions. She was devastated. I began to talk with her and keep tabs on her, even though the issue led to her leaving the church. I learned that her life was much more complex than I had originally suspected. Not only gay, she was transgender and going through an identity crisis. Who was she when her body said she was female while her personality said she was male? Where was Jesus in a church that would not let her use her gifts in worship just because she was trying to figure herself out?
Around the same time that I was talking with her and asking my own questions, I visited a local pharmacy drive-through. The woman that waited on me was clearly a woman with breasts, but she was broad shouldered and wore a full beard. I found myself wondering, “Do you think she is welcomed in church? Does she have a place in the fellowship of believers? And if so, how does she find intimacy?” She clearly wasn’t fitting into my simple man/woman box. So, I did more reading and I began to think about our societal boxes.
When I fill out a form for a student loan or for my physical in the doctor’s office, it is easy for me. I can check “white” and “female.” We’ve become more sophisticated with our ethnicity boxes on forms. Now there is Caucasian, African American, Native American, Latino, Non-Latino, etc. But there still aren’t enough boxes! So, I guess the rest of the categories just go under the title “other.” How would I feel if I was categorized as “other” and didn’t fit into any specific cultural boxes? I have begun to understand that our male/female boxes are as limited as our ethnic boxes.
Human diversity does include the areas of gender and sexuality. Some babies are born with completely confused bodies, with some parts being male and others female (according to a recent survey, 1 in 100 births total the number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or female). Where do they fit in our society? How are they enfolded in the church? How do they find intimacy when they grow older? These were the questions that have rumbled through my mind.
As I was pondering all of the different categories included in LGBTQ+ and how persons were created in the image of God, made to love God and to love others, my friend from church was transitioning from a female to a male identity and discovering more about who he was. He decided to get married and to become a father to his new wife’s children from a former marriage. As I witnessed the transitions of his life unfold before me, I saw growth, life, happiness, family, and love. I was having a hard time reconciling the “sinful lifestyle” idea with the beauty that I was seeing. Meanwhile, I was reading books that were splitting exegetical hairs on either side of the debate. I knew that God called some heterosexual people to singleness and some to marriage. Was it the same for the gay Christian? Were some called to remain single while others were called to a covenant relationship? As I read stories of those that were choosing to stay single, I heard stories of peace and contentment, but also stories filled with depression, suicide, and despair. Are all transgender and gay persons really supposed to live without ever experiencing intimacy? Who of us that are married would willingly choose abstinence?
I decided that neither side of the Christian debate about gender satisfied me. Just as preachers of the past argued for and against slavery, people can now take Scripture and use it to satisfy their own agendas. Just as people would declare mixed-race marriages to be sinful and “disgusting” in the past, I have also heard people refer to transgender people as “disgusting.” Since when does “different” translate to “disgusting”?
I came to realize that we have a real problem when some Christians I knew weren’t able to see these people as made in the image of God. I began to think about how God raised up an oppressed people in the Old Testament; how He is raising up an oppressed African American people since the civil rights era; and how He is redefining the status of oppressed women across the globe. Is He doing the same with this group of marginalized, oppressed, hidden LGBTQ+ persons? Does His redemptive work include all people and does this mean that all people have the right to experience intimacy with Him and with other people in marriage?
I went back to Scripture, but this time to the grand narrative. Rather than parsing out specific texts like I have seen in many books and articles, I just thought about the story, the entire story. There’s a message that runs through the whole book from the beginning to the end: choose life, not death. Sin leads to death. Christ leads to life. Where was I seeing death? Where was I seeing life? I was seeing death in the judgments of Christians against a group of marginalized people. I was seeing death in the hiddenness of people from their own families and societies. I was seeing death in the suicide rates from people who didn’t fit any category. I was seeing death in promiscuous sexual behavior by both heterosexual and homosexual people. I was seeing death in divorce and broken relationships on both sides of the equation. I was seeing death in Christian books and conferences that professed to love people, but refused to accept them as they were. They were saying, “Yes, we love you. Yes, we accept you. But please check this box.”
But I was seeing life when a people finally gained legal rights; when individuals were accepted by their communities and families; when those who never thought they could have intimacy finally found it. I saw life when people who couldn’t have children of their own married and adopted children into a loving family. I was seeing life and love that came in a diverse array of situations, which didn’t need to fit neatly into a category, but bore the fruit of the categories of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These Holy Spirit categories convinced me that love can take on many shapes—it can look different, but can be a genuine expression of God’s love for us.
I began to ask, “Where in my own heterosexual marriage is there sexual sin?” Just because I can check the boxes male/female, does that mean my relationship is pure? Sadly, no. My relationship was fraught with its own challenges and sinful behaviors. Where did I see life and death in my own home? I hated to admit it, but at times I saw more love and acceptance in the marriages of my gay and transgender friends. I experienced less judgment and more acceptance, less disgust and more mercy. I was ashamed of the way I had flippantly responded to my exchange student years ago. My arrogance was laid bare and I realized that I had been wrong. I was wrong to speak hastily without compassion. I was wrong to jump to conclusions about a person that I had never met. I was wrong to pretend to have an answer to something I had never experienced and knew very little about. I was wrong to judge my neighbor using passed-down theology as an excuse.
If you ask me today, “Do you believe in gay marriage?” I still don’t have an answer to that question. I’m not even sure what this question means anymore. I don’t know what it’s like to wrestle with my gender identity, my faith, and my sexual identity. I don’t know what conclusion I would make if I was in someone else’s shoes. Would I choose to be single? Would I choose to marry? I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that I would want to be accepted and loved and it would be really nice if I could check a box, too. Not a male/female box, but a box that says, “Just as you are.” And I wouldn’t want to have to change or adapt myself to fit into an old box, not even if people said it was good theology. I would want to know that I could use my gifts in the leadership of the church, that I was invited to full participation in the body, and that intimacy with God and with people was available for me, too. ∞
Written by Anonymous as part of the Anonymous Issue (November-December 2017).