Full LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church is Not a “Secular Victory”

I am intimately familiar with the religious arguments made against the embrace of non-heterosexual orientations because I used to make them myself.

I have two degrees in biblical studies from more conservative schools, including an M.A. from Asbury Seminary, a leading conservative institutional voice in the debate within the United Methodist Church over its current official condemnation of homosexuality. I have been taught by Asbury, and also by the more conservative churches I have belonged to along the way, that the only possible faithful Christian position on homosexuality is that it is sin.

All this to say, I’ve been there. I know very well the way of seeing things which excludes homosexuality from the realm of possibility of being blessed by God. And as I said, I know this intimately and, frankly, much more so than many of the loudest voices from which we’re hearing the more conservative point of view. Let me explain how.

I was last part of a church body largely opposed to homosexuality when I resigned from the staff of a leading conservative church body in the UMC in 2016. I did so because my mind had changed on homosexuality, and since I could then from that point and for the first time truly acknowledge my own sexuality, I had to let myself be seen as such: a gay person who happened to be a United Methodist Christian. I believed that to try to do this and to remain on staff would’ve brought more harm than good–if not to the church, then to me during what was a most vulnerable time in my life.

This aim to do more good than harm has put me in a tricky spot since then. With the way the debates have carried on in the United Methodist Church in particular and in the larger church and society in general, I have not found engaging in most of the arguments to be a fruitful or edifying way of investing my time and energy.

But I do believe, as someone who has gone from being fully-devoted to the anti-LGBT+ way of seeing things to the way which I now see is better informed by theology and experience, that we must have this discussion on valid terms and with useful concepts. That’s why I can’t resist any longer the opportunity in this vein to dispel a terribly faulty way of maintaining opposition to homosexual identities and relationships.

I have heard it and read it repeatedly: for the United Methodist Church (and presumably any Christian group) to accept homosexuality would be a “secular victory” over the church. And just to take the most recent example I’ve seen today, the anti-LGBT Confessing Movement within the UMC has just published an article in which Rev. Maxie Dunnam claims that for the United Methodist Church to accept homosexual marriage will be to have “bowed to secular forces.”

The first thing wrong with this reasoning is that it cannot do what it presupposes is possible–that is, that we can actually draw a line distinguishing what is “secular” from what is … what, authentically and exclusively Christian? To try to do so is to draw at best–but without proper authority or any real ability–an arbitrary line between those means by which and–peoples within which–God may and may not work, between those things that may and may not reflect divine goodness, truth, and beauty.

It is this, the over-stepping of our bounds in drawing this arbitrary line, that is at the heart of communal sin in the earliest Christian communities (“What Jesus’s Death Kills”). And this provides an example for the second thing wrong with this reasoning, in that it has not and does not play out in experience–for while there does lie in the Israelite prophetic tradition a theme involving the rest of the world’s people groups ultimately being destroyed by God, it is instead the vision of the God of Israel welcoming all nations which proves to be the way God is actually at work through Jesus and in the group bearing his name.

But there is no scriptural (non-secular?) word from God telling this group how people of non-Jewish ethnicities may join this Jewish messianic-Jesus movement. Do they have to practice the Jewish law, or not? Hence, the “works of the law” debate which plays out in Paul’s letters, which was not primarily centered around the question, “What religious work am I doing to ensure my own personal salvation or status with God?”, but instead, “How are my religious presuppositions being challenged by what God is doing in the world among these (secular?) people?”

And now here we stand, as a majority gentile church who have been allowed in to this Jesus community without having to go through the channels that God had so obviously (or so it seemed to many) designated as the only way of receiving and channeling the full divine blessing. Is our place in the people of God based in a “secular victory” over the early church?

And a seemingly infinite amount of examples could be given still. Do we not realize that all biblical and theological language is “secular” language? That nothing that we may say of God ever actually crosses the boundary from the humanly-conceived “secular” sphere into that which is actually reflective of the divine? (Indeed, were it not for God’s often surprising self-revealing activity in the actual components of the world in spite of our limitations, we would be in the situation of having a God we wouldn’t know or worse [or better?], a God we could control.)

And was it a “secular victory” when churches incorporated technology, other styles of music, or athletics programs? It is no good argument, as the one Dunnam makes in his article, that a sort of majority vote around the world or throughout history determines what belongs within the realm of the certifiably “non-secular.” We cannot so easily and so hastily brush over how majorities get things wrong. Need we return to the discussion of the early church and the law for an example?

To follow the logic of “secular victories” for a moment, was it not a secular victory for divorce to become acceptable in much of the church? If so, why are we not hearing anywhere near as much about it as we are LGBT+ people? Is it not a secular victory for segments of the church to become so aligned with political ideologies, to focus so exclusively on a (non-biblical) idea of the importance of the nuclear family, or to become immeshed in consumerism as we practically dispense with care for those in need?

What about when (heterosexual) marriage is made a near necessity, when Paul clearly presents strong restrictions on even entering into them? It is impossible to follow the same biblical hermeneutic which rejects homosexuality and to continue practices that uphold even heterosexual marriage as the highest ideal. Such a thing should smell of a “secular victory” upon Christian ethics, if that’s what you are really on the lookout for.

But what about the United Methodist Church in particular? On just this day Rev. Jeremy Smith posted an article about how the UMC has repeatedly said throughout its history that it had gone as far as it could go with gender, race, and marriage issues only to end up finding that it had been wrong. He explains:

Society granted women the right to vote before women could become clergy (with full voting privileges) in The UMC. Society passed the Civil Rights Act before The UMC eliminated the racist “separate but equal” Central Jurisdiction. While not everything endorsed by society is appropriate for the Church, sometimes the Spirit moves through culture faster than it moves through the Church. Even Traditionalists now benefit from an inclusive UMC that allows women and divorcees to become pastors.

In support of his point about how majorities supposedly reveal what is the will of God over against “secular forces,” Dunnam cites the growing population of United Methodists in sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of whom are anti-LGBT+. But he does so apart from showing how their anti-LGBT+ stance is a result of their Christianity. Did anti-LGBT+ ideology spring up with Christianity when it prevailed over secular forces? Moreover, is this supposedly Christian anti-LGBT+ ideology shaped and fueled by non-secular influences? Just which is it? Is it Christianity or is it secular forces that makes most of these countries, both officially and socially, as harshly, violently, and murderously against LGBT+ people as they are?*** This is an especially important question to consider when two countries that Dunnam cites explicitly as majority anti-LGBT+ are only minority-Christian: Nigeria at 40% and Senegal at 4%. It seems that despite the use of what seems like scare-tactic rhetoric about homosexual marriage representing an anti-Christian secular victory over the church, Dunnam is actually quite willing to collude with these “secular forces” when they support his position.

This raises the question, not just for Africans but for us here in North America, too: Are people really anti-LGBT+ just because they are Christians? Just because they think the Bible tells them so? And apart from any other (secular?) factors? As someone born, raised, and still living in the American South, I can go ahead and attest that there is a strong current of anti-LGBT+ feeling and emotion which does not seem closely associated with close, faithful Bible reading and Christian devotion.

I further suspect that it is largely this current which lies beneath the “Christian” anti-LGBT+ emphasis, and that the Bible is simply used as a means to elicit support for it and to maltreatment of LGBT+ people. (Tragically, however, I believe that some people make the mistake of moving the opposite direction, by assuming that to be Christian must mean entering into the cultural current of LGBT discrimination. In any case, the opinions I have presented in these last couple of paragraphs are not meant as a definitive judgment but as a way of getting us to consider the question.)

I’ll conclude with the third and perhaps primary thing which is wrong with this reasoning. It’s the shortest point because it cuts to the heart of the issue, and to the core of the disagreement. Once we disagree about this, there’s not much else to say. But here it is, anyway: This rising, blooming, and flourishing of LGBT+ human lives and relationships in the church is coming from within Christianity and the church, not merely from without. And I have no better example to give of this than my own life, and the lives of the scores of brave, self-giving witnesses who remain in a church that gives them a lot of reasons to leave.

Being gay is not just about my sexual attraction. It’s an intertwined part of my personality and I would not be who I am without it. And becoming who I really am en Christo has made the inclusive Jesus community all the more real to me. It’s as if I understand in a visceral way which I would not otherwise what it means for the church–from its formation–to be the place where the “others” are welcomed. And it primes me to hear how it’s actually good news that all those harlots and tax collectors from the “secular” world are going to the front of the line in place of all of us religious people, and that it’s my role and my joy to welcome them.

***It is also, frankly, shameful that these statistics about the percentages of anti-LGBT+ ideology in these African countries would be cited without a single word or hint of regret about the abhorrent treatment of LGBT+ people which is perpetrated, supported, and tolerated by Christians. As for the countries Dunnam explicitly cites, the official anti-LGBT+ policies extend beyond simply the denial of rights and into criminal punishment: In Nigeria homosexuality carries the death penalty, whipping, or imprisonment. It has also enacted legislation that would makes support for LGBT people illegal and worthy of a ten-year prison sentence. In Senegal, gay people risk imprisonment. In Ghana, only gay men risk imprisonment (homosexual relations between women is fully legal [is this exception Christian, or secular?]), in Uganda the risk is life imprisonment or execution, and in Kenya one risks imprisonment.

All this not to mention the non-official abuse and murder afflicted on LGBT+ people at alarming rates in countries where non-secular forces are supposedly prevailing.

Fo more information, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_Africa


*We* Are the “Least of These”

Church folks are very likely to hear members of society who are considered “the poor” (or the ones who are seen to face some other kind of oppression or large-scale difficulty) referred to as “the least of these.” And I would assume that in pretty much every case, good intentions lie behind it. The “least of these” are mentioned as such because they are the suffering members of our society that the church is called to help.

This is based in Matthew 25:31-46, where, in Jesus’s apocalyptic vision of final judgment, those who provide food, drink, and clothing and share human contact with those in need (i.e., the “least of these” [v. 45] or “the least of these my brothers” [v. 40]) are welcomed into the kingdom because when they provide these needs they ultimately are doing so for the “king” (who in this vision is taken to be Jesus and/or God). (And, also, those who do not provide these needs do not ultimately do so to the king, and so they are excluded from the kingdom.)

However, aside from the fact that this is a pretty clumsy expression when taken straight out of its context of Matthew 25:31-46 (these … what? least how?), there are two major reasons that we should drop this habit altogether:

  1. The ones referred to as “the least of these” in Matthew 25 are most likely members of the Jesus-following community, not members of the general society.
  2. For this reason and for other reasons just as valid, there is not–and should not be–a distinction between “those” who are “the least” and “we” who are not.

As for the first reason, the phrase “the least of these/these littlest ones” found in Matthew 25:31-46 is the less common superlative form (found only here in chapter 25) of an expression found only in Matthew (except for Luke 17:2) which may be translated “the little of these/these little ones.” This expression is always used to refer to those who are part of the Jesus-following community (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14).

This connection between this phrase and the Jesus-following community is made even more explicit by the presence of “brothers” in the first occurrence of the expression in v. 40. Aside from the references to literal nuclear families (e.g., 1:2, 4:21), “brothers” is most likely not applied in Matthew to humanity in general but to the Jewish community and/or siblings in the new family centered around Jesus (e.g., 5:23-24, 47; 7:3-5; 18:15-35). The most important illustration of this is in 12:49-50, where Jesus even redefines “brother” (and “sister” and “mother”) as those following him, or those doing the will of God (cf. 28:10).

So, in Matthew 25:31-46, when the king in Jesus’s vision describes the ones having their needs provided as “the least of these” and the “least of these my brothers,” it is not a reference to anybody in the broader society who is destitute or in prison or is in poor health. It is a reference to members of the Jesus-following community who happen to have specific needs that the community should meet.

This insight, admittedly, rains on the parade especially of Christians who are keenly aware of the Jesus community’s responsibility in seeking justice in the world. We know that the church doesn’t exist in the world merely for itself but for those not yet part of it. But this knowledge tends to blind us from how the New Testament emphasizes how important it is that love and justice work their way out from the Jesus community into the world (see John 13:34-35; Galatians 6:10; 1 John 3:15-18; 1 John 4:20-21). Acts 4:34-35 even features the Jesus community taking shape as its members pool their resources so that all needs of the community are met.

(Lest this become another excuse for many church bodies to become even more inwardly-focused [and selfish], it is very important to remember how strange and vulnerable and socially-powerless the primitive Christian community was. They did not have the upper hand. Just being Christian would have made getting by much more difficult than it is for those of us in my culture, where the situation is basically reversed.)

I am certainly not the first to discover we have been misusing “least of these” phrase and I’m definitely not the first to try to correct the error. Other scholars have done the same. They affirm that we can’t on the basis of this passage draw a distinction between “we” in the church and “those out there” who are “the least of these.” But I want to take us a step further and explain the second reason why we should put an end to how we’ve been using this phrase.

Not only is there no warrant from the way “the least of these” is used in Matthew 25:31-46 for taking the phrase out of this context and applying it to those in society we see as in need, but there is also no warrant in this passage to make a distinction even within the Jesus-following community about those who are “the least of these.” And there are two reasons for this.

First, as we’ve already seen, “the least of these” or “these little ones” is a chiefly Matthean way of referring to people in the community of Jesus followers that occurs apart from their particular status of food, drink, and clothing supply, health, or whether they are in prison or not. Second–and far more importantly–it is harmful, indeed even “anti-community,” to draw such a distinction between people based on need. And this goes also for committing the overall mistake of calling people in society who are seen to be in need as “the least of these.”

Drawing a distinction between people based on their perceived need commits the sin which surfaces so often in Christian “missions”: the labeling, categorizing, and ultimately limiting of people by defining their personhood by their situation and by going even further in this mistake by defining “them” by how “we” are going to fulfill our duty upon them.

And I have emphasized “seen to be in need,” or “perceived need,” because we too quickly falsely assume these things and thereby see a person based on need instead of seeing a need based on people who are in particular situations.

Beyond how we can misconstrue and misunderstand other people placed in the “them” category by making the mistake of labeling people (which “the least of these” helps us to do), we should see how by doing so we are misconstruing and misunderstanding ourselves. That is, for others to be mistakenly labeled “the least of these” has us remain in ignorance of how we ourselves are in need. And we may even miss how we may have our needs met by people we have already placed in the category of those who receive our charity, advocacy, or service.

It is we, hearers of the Gospel in need of the community given to us, who are the least of these.

And so, finally, our charitable misapplication of “the least of these” to other people reinforces (oh-so-slyly) the distinction between “us” and “them” that lies at the heart of social and communal sin (see Ephesians 2:13-16). As God seems to have been determined about from the beginning, the mission starts with us and ends with an even larger “us.” The “we” of the community is not defined by standing in contrast to “them” on the outside, but is instead defined by living into the calling of mutual, inclusive love and care. This is not ultimately “outreach” into the community; this is inclusion into a community that God sees fit to expand as all socially-enforced distinctions are considered loss.