I managed to make it through college, seminary, and grad school with most of my prejudices intact. I won’t overstate my bigotry: “I had gay friends,” but I was the kind of person who would use that phrase when defending my prejudices.
What changed me was being a pastor. I was entrusted with the spiritual care of real live human beings. My first appointment was to a small church in rural, red-state, Bible-belt Alabama, which was the last place, in my naiveté, I would have expected to face questions of gender identity and sexuality. (Now, I realize I should have known better—but I should have known better about a lot of things.)
Nor did I expect that God was going to do heart surgery on me through the people God introduced to me. Within the span of a few months I met several persons who walked into my office and told me either that they were gay or had struggled with their gender identity. One described the way a former church had tried to exorcise him of the demons of homosexuality. He said it was terrifying. Another talked about the way he had finally just given up trying and decided to be promiscuous, which ended badly. Another, taking the Bible literally, cut off his offending member rather than have his whole body cast into hell.
In spite of the pain they brought into the room, they also brought faith of a caliber that shamed my own. I was not worthy to be pastor to these wounded faith giants. I felt both the weight of the moment and an almost giddy sensation that the Holy Spirit was coordinating this whole thing. Sometimes I felt nudged to speak, and other times I felt prompted to hush. Each story was uniquely painful and grace-filled. After describing the burdens they had carried for years and decades, I was astonished that any of these people decided to stick with church. We cried and prayed together.
After one such conversation, my visitor left. As soon as the door clicked behind him I got on my knees, not because I’m a particularly holy person who kneels to pray, but because my legs couldn’t hold me up. I remember saying, “God, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. How am I supposed to think about this stuff? What am I supposed to say? How am I supposed to be this person’s pastor?”
Feeling compelled to read the Bible, I dragged myself to my table and sat down to look at the text I was studying. And I read these words:
“…[the Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:4)
I couldn’t catch my breath.
Several things clicked at once: These guys had burdens placed upon them by others (people like me) that had nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus said his interpretation of religious Law, his yoke, was easy and his burden light (11:38). His opponents, the religious leaders, accused him of abolishing the Law (5:17) and ignoring their pet scriptures about holiness and who was “in” and who was “out.” The fundamentalists of Jesus’ day were threatened by his message of an easy yoke, and they made his followers out to be “abolishers of the law.” In response, Jesus commanded his followers to out-love, out-pray, and out-give his detractors (5:21-7:27).
I suddenly had a new focus for my ministry. I was supposed to be a burden-lifter, one who removes the barriers that religious leaders often put in the way of folks who need Jesus. I read more.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13-15)
Locked out of the kingdom. An evangelical program of hate. There are no better words to describe anti-gay Christianity.
Although I’ve never preached an anti-gay sermon, I had listened to them with a sense of smug approval. Like Paul, I had held the cloaks of people who had been throwing rocks at others. This was my own Damascus-road moment, when I knew that God was not finished bringing people into the kingdom, and God wanted to change my heart and mind. I went back and devoured the story of the early church in Acts and the letters of Paul, and I read with new eyes the stories about the hot-button issues of their day: circumcision and meat sacrificed to idols.
So many things changed for me in the following weeks and months: the meaning of the word evangelize, to spread good news; the meaning of the word salvation, healing; all the words in the New Testament related to yokes and burdens and Jesus’ conflicts with religious leaders, and why they couldn’t recognize Jesus’ divine mission because of who his friends were. Like Paul, I felt that I had been blind, but that God was restoring my sight. As I think about my past, I’m still learning that God was working on me decades before I imagined writing about God’s impartiality.
I’m writing this not to be self-congratulatory. I live with white, male, heterosexual privilege in a world that is oriented toward my success, and I am a relative latecomer to this worldview. I’m writing this because it was being a servant-leader in the church that really changed me—not social pressure, not my academic education. It was being given responsibility for leading others.
Being a pastor is more about being willing to be led by God and changed by the people I meet than issuing infallible decrees from a pulpit, more about admitting I’m wrong and sharing my frailty than pretending I know God’s will on a given subject. One friend describes preaching as a “homiletical wager,” and I’ve come to believe that pastoring, presuming to be a spiritual leader, is bit like gambling with God, where the stakes are very high but I’m betting the game is rigged toward grace.
I also know that plenty of folks have turned their backs permanently on the church, on religion, on Jesus, because they have struggled with heavy yokes and been locked out of the kingdom of God. I’ve had the privilege of helping a few hear the good news in the Good News, and seen them stand up straighter when the yoke is lifted off their shoulders. The church is still a place where prisoners are released and slaves are set free.
There are other pastors out there who keep on tying up heavy burdens that they will never have to lift. They give me plenty of work to do as a burden-lifter. If any of you pastors are reading this, please hear me: the easy yoke is a lot better. Letting prisoners go is a joy. Don’t be afraid of the people who tell you you’re abolishing the law by doing so. Don’t let them make you ashamed of the gospel. Out-give, out-pray, and out-love them. That knot of fear inside you will finally relax, and you may find freedom, too.
Dave, you have some good things to say here. My question to ask is what specifically would you be referring to as “heavy burdens” that are put onto homosexuals? I am not saying there aren’t any but I would like to hear what you have in mind by that.
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Thank you so much, Dave.
For all who are interested I’d also like to recommend the following reflection on the paradigmatic change that finally seems to take place in some evangelical churches:
Hey Dave –
I appreciate the thoughts here, but at the same time, we have to be careful of what constitues “lifting a burden” from someone.
Getting rid of the purely man-made traditions of the Pharisees (hand-washing, etc.) like Jesus did was a great example. I’m sure there are many similar things that pastors deal with today.
Of course, on the other extreme, it is not “lifting a burden” to tell a murderer it is okay to go on murdering (it might ease his conscience, but that’s actually dulling it!). In fact, it is utter hatred to tell him that.
So you see how this works — if something is not wrong to do, then we should not make up new laws (like the Pharisees did). But if it is indeed wrong, then we cannot endorse it (though we can empathize and be graceful in how we approach it).
At this point, then, which is homosexuality? I’ll leave it to your conscience in interpretation, but I’m convinced that it is biblically wrong (Romans, etc.). In which case, you can see that it is not lifting a burden to allow it but rather leaving on the crushing burden of sin!
That being said, there is great room for humility and gentleness. We’re all sinners, so I’m not saying to condemn them on site and kick them out of church. I’m just saying that, like with all sins (of which homosexuality is certainly not the worst), we do a grave disservice to our people to encourage them to stop fighting their sin and to accept it instead.
All the best,
While I hear you making a distinction between homosexuality and Pharisaic traditions that you consider unimportant (like hand-washing), I see far less of a distinction when I compare homosexuality to circumcision. Why not use instead the example of sabbath-breaking, which Gentiles do today with impunity, considering it to be under the “Old Covenant?” Why not use the example of eating meat sacrificed to idols, which the author of Revelation also condemns (though it is excused by Paul)? I think any of these matters of ritual purity is a better comparison than murder, adultery, false witness, and other matters of justice.
My claim in this post is that homosexuality is more like circumcision, female head-coverings, food sacrificed to idols, working on the sabbath, hand-washing, and observing particular feast days, than it is a sin like murder. As in Jesus day, people are more concerned with ritual purity (what goes in other people’s mouths) than with ethics (what comes out of them).
If you want to contest the substance of my argument, you will need to describe to me how homosexuality is more like murder than like circumcision. I do not believe you can do it.
I think homosexuality is more like murder than circumcision because the Bible calls murder a sin. So, comparing murder to homosexuality is comparing one act the Bible calls a sin to another act, many believe, the Bible also calls a sin. The Bible doesn’t call the act of circumcision a sin, but Peter does make it clear to the Judaizers in Acts 15 that circumcision isn’t a requirement of salvation (or any other work of the law). However, in that same text:
Act 15:28 – 29 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
So the author of Acts tells us the burden to abstain from sexual immorality is indeed necessary! Furthermore, Paul did circumcise Timothy so that Timothy’s Greek heritage would not be a stumbling block to the Jews whom they would be ministering to. I believe the Bible does call homosexuality a sin, but the Bible doesn’t call circumcision a sin; I don’t believe you can lump homosexuality in the same moral category as circumcision.
As a heterosexual, my natural tendency is to have sex outside of marriage with as many people as it takes to satisfy my sexual desires. The Bible states this is sin and that if I’m a follower of Jesus Christ I need to leave those practices in the past (1 Corinthians 6:11 “And such were some of you…” Were – past tense, meaning a follower of Jesus has repented of those sins in the previous verses). I believe the Bible gives the same standard for homosexual sin as heterosexual sin – you can’t continue in it.
I certainly believe the Church has done an exceedingly poor job of extending the love of Christ into the homosexual community. I agree with Alex above and with you, there is a great need for humility and for each of us to examine ourselves and see how we may be keeping others from the Kingdom of God by our own prejudices. But we also must be careful not to allow ourselves to ignore sin issues that would keep people from the Kingdom of God.
Just to clarify – it would “uncircumcision” that would be a sin, not circumcision. And the Bible is indeed very clear: Gen 17:14 says that one who is uncircumcised should be ostracized from his people. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant, and any who were not circumcised could not be included in the covenant (they were “abominations” until they changed — the same anti-gay rhetoric that is prevalent today). Moreover, a) it was a choice made for native Jews before they were born, b) it was painful to change, c) some chose to change anyway. These were all factors considered in the early church. I can find no better parallel for the modern issue of inclusion of homosexual persons in the life of the church. The biggest difference is that while you can get over the simple physical pain of circumcision, many people can’t get over the emotional pain of giving up the person they love. So yes, I still would argue that circumcision is a better comparison than murder.
As for the rest of your comment, I think you are begging the question. If homosexuality does not fall under the category of “sexual immorality,” then the reference in Acts 15 is irrelevant (except to those tying up needless burdens – as, I argue, people who argue against homosexuals are doing).
You are free to disagree.
Hello Alex and Dave
I would add to Daves examples the ritual purity of women attending church while menstruating and after giving birth to a son or a daughter (longer to be clean after a daughter!) as you can not alter womanhood any more than you can sexuality. Women have experienced such trials in lifting these burdens as those who condemn homosexuality experience. Alex, with what you say about homosexuals you say the same to all women too.
(I am a woman by the way and always have been)
edit _ “as those who have been condemned for homosexuality”. I really should check more carefully sorry :¬)
Thank you so much posting in regards to homosexuality. Being in Seminary has created a heart of the Pharises in me. Once where grace and acceptance abounded was soon replaced by intolerance and legalism.. Ironically, because of God’s great compassion, he left me spiritually torn with these thoughts. Me becoming Anti-gay was probably funny to Him. Especially since I used to br a greater sinner than any Christian gay man in his eyes. Such hubris on my part to not recognize my legalism after God fought so hard for my soul, freeing me of the heavy yoke of my old life.
Thank you so much for being a light as darkness continues to threaten God’s Kingdom. Your words should bring a well needed conviction by the Holy Spirit in readers hearts…and a healthy fear of God. It has to me and I am the better for it!
Peace and Harmony,
I find it interesting how people always like to jump to the extremes when someone is opposed a homosexual lifestyle. Immediately they jump to such things as mixed clothing, or circumcision, or some other Old Testament practice and deride the person for not keeping those. The Apostles dealt with this nicely in Acts 15 and made it clear that those older regulations no longer were to apply (please read it).
In the Leviticus 18 passage dealing with homosexuality, it also deals with incest and adultery–it doesn’t deal with clothing or circumcision or anything else. So keeping the context of the passage with what those who see the issues of a homosexual lifestyle as acceptable today, are these same people saying that incest and adultery are also ok (as long as I keep it with my one daughter or only one neighbor’s wife so that is a monogamous relationship). I doubt that very much. In fact I would imagine they would be totally opposed. However, if you pull out one sexual relationship from that passage, how can you not pull out the others? We are not given the luxury of picking and choosing parts of Scripture that fit me while ignoring the rest.
In fact Leviticus 19 makes it clear why these are in place and it is because God is holy. We too are called to be holy.
The fact is that Paul does speak out about homosexual behaviour in Romans and again in 1 Timothy 1:9-11. However, where the church has failed is that it too has honed in on only one of the behaviours that Paul is addressing while ignoring many of others (Romans 1): they have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents. It seems to me that we have more of these type of individuals in the church today that we don’t address than homosexuals. We always like to go at those items that don’t affect me directly.
My opposition to a homosexual lifestyle is that it is one that God has spoken out against in both the New and Old Testament because of His holiness. We all have tendencies in our lives that if we let take control will harm us. Each day I have temptations that I need to battle. I have temptations to lust. The easiest thing for me to do is to say that culture accepts pornography, divorce, living together before marriage, and whatever else I choose to participate in and that the Bible passages that speak against such behaviour were written for another time and culture. Therefore I can freely practice what I want. In fact that is exactly what Paul was opposing in Romans 6.
My challenge is to learn to love and accept people regardless of their lifestyle. It is my job to love them into the kingdom of God and allow His Holy Spirit to convict them of sin in their lives. it is not my role to do that. However, I also have to speak the truth in love.
If I see my child doing something that will ultimately harm him (e.g. reaching out for a hot stove) it is my duty to stop him and warn him. I can do it in a loving way, but it would be wrong for me to let him continue.
We need the truth and we need to speak it in love.
1) I do not consider it “jumping to extremes” to compare homosexuality with circumcision, because I believe it is similarly a) overly concerned with genitals and b) irrelevant to the doctrine of salvation by grace — both of what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans and to the Galatians.
2) Related to the first point, I DO consider it “jumping to extremes” to compare it to murder, bestiality, pedophilia, incest, adultery, or many of the other forms of anti-gay rhetoric, especially when even you don’t actually think of it that way. Do you actually believe it is a sin and opposed to God’s holiness to have sex with a woman who is menstruating (which occurs just one verse before)? Do you think this comparable to pedophilia, as you say, or eating shrimp, which is also described as an abomination? You do pick and choose, and you interpret — just as Jesus did.
3) I disagree with your whole interpretation of Romans 1. I believe Romans 1 is hyperbolic and sarcastic, parodying a fundamentalist view of an angry God, culminating in the abrupt reversal in Romans 2 (“therefore YOU have no excuse…”). It would be a bit like me going into a fundamentalist anti-gay church and sarcastically talking about my liberal Christian friends as “God-hating, baby-killing, pansexual, tree-hugging, communist-sympathizing liberals,” only to turn around and say to the fundamentalists, “therefore you have no excuse.” Paul is talking about Gentiles (Greeks) to those who wanted to exclude them. The fact that he uses their own arguments to argue for inclusion is exactly what I’m doing. You just don’t like it when it’s directed toward you, because you don’t want to be the one “tying up heavy burdens for others” — any more than a gay person wants to be told they are an abomination.
4) I also disagree with your interpretation of Romans 6. Paul’s theme in Romans 6 (and Galatians, and 1 Corinthians) is that acceptance of circumcised people and Gentiles does not mean we are saying “anything goes.” Unfortunately, that is your argument. Your anti-gay rhetoric continues to mischaracterize arguments for full inclusion as a slippery slope into moral license and biblical disregard. You are doing the very things Paul argues against, and you are trying to make me, and others who argue for inclusion “ashamed of the gospel.” I am not. Grace saves. Works of the flesh (like heterosexism) do not.
5) Your scriptural citations are all begging the question: you are assuming homosexuality is opposed to the holiness of God, which is exactly what Paul’s opponents in Acts 15, Romans, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians assumed about circumcision and unclean foods, for which there was far, far, far more biblical support and tradition. Paul’s response is that we are all in need of grace.
I don’t bear you any ill-will, any more than (you claim) you bear for gays and lesbians. I just want you to hear how the argument works, and I want you to feel what it’s like to be on the other side of someone claiming to let the Holy Spirit convict you of your sin in your life.
I am a 47 year old woman with a gay 21 year old daughter. I have never ever felt the inclination to turn her out of our home, and neither does her father or her stepfather, my husband. My heart breaks when I hear of CHILDREN as young sometimes as 14 years old being kicked out of their homes because they wouldn’t change who they were and “live like the Bible says”. I sat in PFLAG meetings and wept because of the gay folks who were “leaving” God because God didn’t want them. They have asked me time and again, why the Christians are the cruelest to them and then they’d ask me why I’m so different. I don’t have an answer for that, except that I have a deep love for people.
My ex-husband and I worked as Children’s Pastors for 20+ years and I know that the gifts of God are always there, waiting to be used. You see, my ex-husband is gay and after over 20 years of “trying to be straight”, it was time for him to be who he was and let me go. After being divorced for many years he called me. I’ll never forget that day that he called me with tears asking my forgiveness for “keeping me away from a man that could truly love me”. I had forgiven him many years before.
After all those years working with kids and teens, I realized that the gift in me had not left. So back to school I went (I had graduated from Bible College, in what seems like 100 years ago, which is where I met my first husband). I am studying to be a Psychologist with an emphasis of working with kids and teens who are at risk of dropping out of school. I want to write and implement an anti-bullying program that works with not only the kids, but the staff and even the parents. I told my husband, to be prepared to go with me to Washington DC, because if I have to go before Congress to get things changed I will. My heart especially goes out to all the gay kids I’ve met in my life. I so want them to feel God’s love and acceptance and acceptance by those around them. I’ m going to do it. I’m going to make a change and people like you only fan the fire greater in me. Thank you for your words! I purchased your book tonight for my Kindle, because I’m working on a collection of information for when I get out there. Thank you again; there is a whole community who appreciate you and they don’t even know you.