If you’re at all engaged in the LGBTQ+ & faith conversation, you’ll be aware of the prevalence of ultimatums, boycotts, and public reactions. The latest in this sad barrage is the Jen Hatmaker story. A popular Evangelical author, Jen made some affirming statements about marriage equality and the need for the church to embrace LGBTQ+ families in a recent interview with Jonathan Merritt. Part of the fallout was that Lifeway, a major Christian bookseller, publicly indicated that they would no longer sell Jen’s books in their stories.
Bloggers began to respond to the news. Rosaria Butterfield, writing for the Gospel Coalition, said, “Today, I hear Jen’s words—words meant to encourage, not discourage, to build up, not tear down, to defend the marginalized, not broker unearned power—and a thin trickle of sweat creeps down my back. If I were still in the thick of the battle over the indwelling sin of lesbian desire, Jen’s words would have put a millstone around my neck.” Other straight Christians also had challenges to make. Matt Walsh said, “Hatmaker called gay relationships “holy,” which means divine, while the Apostle Paul called them degrading and unnatural, and promised that anyone who practices homosexuality and does not repent will be barred from the Kingdom of God. As Christians, we are left to ponder who is a greater authority here: The Apostle Paul or the lady from HGTV.”
Others stood with Jen.
Rachel Held Evans posted to FB: “Evangelicalism: Where Jen Hatmaker gets ridiculed and condemned and Donald Drumpf embraced.”
And John Pavlovitz lamented, “The knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing troll armies of the Lord quickly descended, subjecting Hatmaker to all manner of abusive, hateful social media badgering.”
The Washington Post even picked up on the story saying, “Hatmaker is the most prominent female evangelical leader to date to express support for same-sex relationships. The backlash she faces illuminates how tricky it can be for such leaders to take a stand on thorny cultural and political issues without losing followers.”
The back and forth, the name calling, the reactionary extremes can make one exhausted. And for those who follow this public exchange, this is merely one iteration of a long litany of “Evangelical makes loving comments about LGBTQ+ people, Evangelical experiences backlash, Evangelical makes affirming statements about marriage for LGBTQ+ people, Evangelical gets exiled”.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, I’ve been meeting with Evangelical denominational leaders and without fail, every single one (so far) has had an open spirit towards the idea of identifying particular leaders and congregations to become part of a generous space church network. (Coming soon: a whole blog post about the generous space church network). I also met with a couple of leaders of the mainline church that has been affirming of same-sex marriage the longest. They, too, could see wisdom in affirming churches having the humility to identify as generous spaces – places that can say, “We might not always agree, but we commit to dialogue respectfully, and follow Jesus together.”
I don’t say this to brag or compare the Canadian context with our siblings south of the border. Just like in the U.S. we have fundamentalists on all sides of the spectrum who inevitably use extreme language and seek to exclude others.
But what I could feel stirring in my spirit as I reflected on these meetings is the incredible potential that passion for justice for LGBTQ+ people has to bring about long-needed reconciliation in the Body of Christ. I’m not naïve. I don’t think this reconciliation is going to reach and draw in the most fundamental voices. But while those voices may be loud, I don’t believe those voices represent the majority of people who want to follow Jesus and impact the world with love the way he did.
As many of you know, New Direction has a notorious history as an ex-gay ministry. You would hardly think that this kind of legacy would be a conduit for reconciliation. But that is the mystery and miracle of grace. When you repent, when you apologize, when you lament the pain caused, when you forge a new path, when you make amends where you can ….. you can’t change the past but you can cultivate a new future.
We invited Michael Blair to speak at our retreat in the spring. Michael holds an influential position within the United Church in Canada. Michael used to be a Baptist pastor at the church where New Direction had its first office back in the late 80’s. At the retreat, Michael told the story of how his declining, but undiagnosable, health issues brought him to finally come out as a gay man. The impact on Michael, his wife, his children, and his church was painful and Michael lost his marriage and his job. Through much pain and loss, God has been faithful to Michael. His teaching on intersectionality at our retreat, talking about the potential for difference to be transformative, talking about oppression, privilege, and justice, was so very important, challenging, life-giving, and hopeful for our community. And I found myself close to tears throughout Michael’s talk because something was happening in the Spirit. Reconciliation was happening.
Even though I wasn’t part of New Direction at the time that Michael came out, I had heard the stories. People like Michael were vilified by ex-gay ministries. A long time board member of New Direction was part of a church that had pulled away from the United Church in the 80’s, in large part because of their openness to LGBTQ+ people forming covenant relationships and using their spiritual gifts to pastor. Most of my life, I’d heard the snide remarks that Evangelicals made about the United Church – as the easy target for progressive-bashing.
And yet, here was Michael, at a New Direction retreat, speaking with humility and grace but also with authority and power. Speaking as a black man originally from Jamaica, Michael’s talk on intersectionality challenged our community at the right time and in the right way to keep opening ourselves to ways to participate in the pursuit of justice because that is the way of Jesus.
A couple years ago, I spoke at a Progressive Youth Ministry conference in Nashville. After my workshop, I walked towards a group having lunch and the first thing I heard was someone mocking an Evangelical church in their neighbourhood for having a sign that said, “All are welcome.” Clearly, in that person’s mind, there was no way that church could possibly be genuine about their sign because of their stance on same-sex marriage.
I have talked a lot about the fact that I have been motivated to pursue and develop generous space as a posture for the Body of Christ because of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. Jesus prays for the unity of the future church and indicates that our public witness will be impacted by our ability to love one another. This drives me. It would be so much easier to just hang out with people who understand and agree with me. I wouldn’t have to risk being called a false teacher, being dis-invited from speaking gigs, or having to have hours of phone and email conversation simply to come and speak for 40 minutes. And I might not be confronted as the one trying to destroy the unity of the church by asking the dominant majority power players to acknowledge that those who interpret Scripture differently than they do on this complex question ought to also be received and treated as siblings in Christ, also seeking to be faithful in following Jesus and in their engagement with Scripture
Because the conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality has been so polarized and marked by argument, competition, and exclusion, people often have a hard time understanding that the posture of generous space isn’t about convincing people to believe a certain perspective. The idea that generous space is about how we treat one another when we disagree is assumed to be either disingenuous or wishy-washy and weak. And the fundamentalists on either end scream, “You’re throwing out the authority of the Bible” or “You’re failing to confront oppression and injustice”.
But away from the shrill voices and noisy world of social media, there are a whole lot of good and decent people who truly want to be loving and kind and fair. And they want to be those things because they see that Jesus was those things. They are sometimes smarting from assumptions made about them: “You’re a bigot if you don’t support same-sex marriage” “You don’t care about the Bible if you do support same-sex marriage”. And so many of them simply don’t say much. But even that isn’t immune from criticism: “If you are silent you are in collusion with injustice” “If you’re silent you’re not standing up for the gospel”.
In a time when public figures are shifting their views, it can feel confusing and scary. When people get lambasted for speaking, what seem to be kind and loving words, it can be paralyzing.
That’s why one of the key spiritual practices we promote in our generous space community is to be energized by love and not by fear. There is space for you to pray, study, discern, reflect. There is space for you to be uncertain. There is space for you to reaffirm deeply held convictions. There is space for you to tenderly consider a different paradigm, interpretation, or position. Regardless, you are Beloved of God. Your reconciliation with God is secured through the accomplished work of Jesus the Christ. You are safe. Turn your face toward Jesus, open your heart to hear the Spirit, bend your will towards faithfulness …. and God will be faithful to you. These are significant matters, and our beliefs and convictions carry weight. But it is our actions, the way we actually love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the way we actually love our neighbour as ourselves that ripple out as the expression of God’s love in the world.
In generous space, we might not always agree, but we commit to dialogue (to engage, to treat, to speak) respectfully with each other, and to follow Jesus together.
This is where we pursue justice in our actions towards LGBTQ+ people and any others who experience marginalization or oppression. This is where we have the opportunity to do the work of reconciliation. It will mean exposing the judgmentalism in our hearts towards other parts of the Body of Christ. It will mean relinquishing self-righteous superiority. It will mean taking the risk to open ourselves to see and be impacted by the Spirit of Christ in the one with whom I don’t have perfect theological agreement. It will mean that I have to trust the Spirit to be present, to lead, guide, correct, or redirect within our community. But it will also be a place to find rest, to find acceptance, to find understanding, to find compassion, to find freedom to love. And it will be a place where we discover the truth in Michael’s words, that when we embrace difference, we encounter transformation. Part of that transformation is reconciliation. And it is beautiful. It gives me hope.