Why can't Christian evangelicals and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people seem to get along? As an openly-gay theologian and minister, I've been troubled by the increasingly polarized discourse and the apparent lack of compassion and respect that each side has shown for the other. Neither side is blameless; it often seems like both evangelicals and LGBT people are more interested in winning the "culture wars" on their own terms than in understanding and recognizing the full humanity of the other.
Christian evangelicals, on the one hand, often claim that their faith and values are under attack by LGBT people and by the larger secular culture. As a result, such individuals have tried to prohibit or repeal same-sex marriage equality laws through state referendums like California Proposition 8. They have also tried to pass laws that would impose criminal penalties -- up to and including the death penalty -- upon LGBT people around the world.
LGBT people, on the other hand, often see Christianity and organized religion as the number-one "enemy" with respect to achieving full legal rights. As a result, many LGBT people seek to remove all traces of spirituality from the public realm. In fact, some of these individuals insist upon keeping the wall of separation between religion and society so high that many people of faith -- including LGBT people of faith -- find it difficult, if not impossible, to talk about their deepest passions and theological beliefs outside of their communities of worship.
Things are changing, however, with respect to the traditional evangelical hostility towards LGBT people. A growing number of Christian evangelicals, including Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and Andy Marin, are challenging the status quo with respect to LGBT people, even to the point of drawing sharp criticism from their fellow evangelicals. These courageous evangelicals believe that it is time to bracket the biblical and theological disagreements in this area and focus instead on the urgent task of repairing the broken relationships between evangelicals and LGBT people.
A few weeks ago, Tim Dalrymple, a thoughtful Kierkegaard scholar who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary -- and, yes, a self-described Christian "evangelical" -- contacted me out of the blue and asked whether I would be willing to join an online discussion on patheos.com, a website dedicated to promoting "balanced views of religion and spirituality," about reimagining the relationship between LGBT people and evangelicals.
At first, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the offer. Would I be "sleeping with the enemy"? What would my fellow queer theologians and ministers think? WWJD (what would Jesus do)? But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was critically important for me to engage Christian evangelicals on their own theological terms, and particularly in a spirit of truth, charity, and generosity.
So, in the spirit of Martin Luther, who inaugurated the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517, by nailing 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany, I have posted on the web "9.5 Theses for a New Reformation" for reimagining the relationship between Christian evangelicals and LGBT people.
To give you a flavor of what my 9.5 theses are like, I've reproduced three of them below:
1) LGBT relationships are grounded in love, which is at the very heart of our understanding of God and the Christian faith. I often wonder if anti-gay evangelicals really understand that LGBT relationships -- whether for a night or for a lifetime -- are really about love and not just sex. I personally have been together with my partner Michael for nearly 19 years, which has given me a profound understanding of what hesed and agape mean, both human and divine. If we Christians profess that God is love, that Jesus has given us a new commandment to love one another, and that the two great commandments have to do with love, why are LGBT relationships, which are grounded in love, any less holy than non-LGBT relationships?
4) Even the Reformers did not treat all biblical verses as having the same interpretive weight. To me, sola scriptura means that all things necessary for salvation are contained in Scripture, but our Reformation ancestors never intended for all verses of the Bible to carry the exact same interpretive weight as the others. For example, Luther described the Letter of James as an "epistle of straw," and even Calvin recognized that the ceremonial law has been "abrogated" in use. Thus, I do not understand why anti-gay evangelicals are so obsessed with the half-dozen or so passages in scripture that purportedly prohibit same-sex acts (e.g., Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1), when there is so much richness throughout in the Bible that affirms the goodness of the self-giving love -- including deeply loving relationships, both sexual and non-sexual -- that I have seen in a decade of ministering to the LGBT community.
9.5) Christian evangelicals and LGBT people actually have more in common than either side would care to admit. Last, but not least, I conclude with a thesis that is somewhat less scriptural and theological, but more sociological in nature. As someone who "lives" in both the LGBT world and the Christian world, I believe that both communities actually have a lot more in common that either side would care to admit. In both worlds, there is often a tight-knit sense of fellowship, community, shared experiences and mission, and shared texts and cultures. There is also a sense of being marginalized and persecuted within a larger society. Indeed, both groups often experience difficulty in terms of talking about or "coming out" about one's deepest beliefs and loves openly in many day-to-day situations. It seems to me that a more thoughtful dialogue between these two groups might uncover many of these similarities and help each group better empathize with the other.
To read the rest of my "9.5 Theses for a New Reformation," please click here. For a helpful roadmap to the broader consultation on patheos.com and for a variety of evangelical perspectives on LGBT issues (including pieces by McLaren, Jones, Martin, and Dalrymple), please see the "Guide to the Consultation on Reimagining the Relationship Between Evangelicals and Gays," which can be found by clicking here.
I don't know whether the consultation will ultimately result in metanoia (that is, a "turning of the mind") for a lot of Christian evangelicals or LGBT people. It is my hope, however, that conversations like these will -- slowly but surely -- lead to greater compassion and respect on both sides of the evangelical and LGBT divide.
Follow Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/patrickscheng