How Christians Chased Me from the Church
"Could it be...SATAN?" Nope; it's all on you, well-meaning church lady.
I knew it was just a matter of days. In fact, it was more like hours: I put the Facebook "rainbow filter" on my profile picture (as did at least two-thirds of my Facebook friends), and then a non-rainbowed friend from Oklahoma posted a link to this post by conservative blogger Kevin DeYoung : "40 Questions for Christians Who Made Their Profile Pictures into a Rainbow." I don't advise clicking the link; chances are good that, if you're reading this, what you find there will make your blood boil (though it's not as if I can stop you--and I did embed the link, didn't I?). I did take a look at the 40 questions, thought seriously about responding to the damned thing by answering everyone of them (including the loaded and redundant ones), but then thought better of it. A few days later, I saw the link again on Facebook, this time with a helpful comment linking to a different blog post: "40 Answers for Kevin DeYoung." I do recommend clicking the second link. Ben Irwin has sincerely answered all of Kevin DeYoung's questions, taking him at his word, writing from within the scope of evangelicalism, and doing it with grace and generosity. If I ever meet Ben Irwin, I will buy him a beer (or, if he's teetotal--unlikely, as he's an Episcopalian--a coffee); he's a credit to his faith, and he's doing something I no longer can: advocate for the opening of evangelical minds from within evangelicalism.
To be clear, even when I was fully immersed in preaching the gospel, up to and including the occasional altar call, I never completely considered myself an evangelical. I am, it's true, the product of a Baptist/Methodist parsonage, trained at a seminary located deep within the Bible Belt, and for all the years I was a pastor, I was steadfast in my belief that all sermons had to be grounded in solid exegesis of the Bible. But when it came to the "inerrancy" question--the belief that every word of the Bible is literally the word of God and, thus, a mandate on human behavior--I just couldn't go there.
Even so, I spent most of my relatively brief ministerial career working with evangelicals both within and outside the congregations I served. I found them to be, for the most part, good people, compassionate, caring, pious, and sincere in their dedication to carry out God's will in their daily lives. For the most part, we got along well: I admired them for their good works, and they seemed to respect me for my devotion to exegeting the texts I preached from.
Except when they didn't.
There was the man in Cheadle, the British parish I served, who left the church because I pointed out, during a Bible study, that there were two parallel versions of the Flood story in Genesis that sometimes contradicted each other.
There was also a woman--a lay preacher--in that Methodist Circuit who insisted homosexuality was a sin because of a single verse in Romans, even as she conveniently ignored the single verse in 1 Timothy that forbids women from speaking in church.
And there was the man in Talent, Oregon, who harangued me passionately about how the Bible "says what it means and means what it says." And the pastor of an evangelical church in Talent who got my church excluded from participation in the community hymn sing because he'd read that some Methodists were getting soft on homosexuality.
Then there was the ministerial association in Estacada that was disbanded by the evangelical pastors who were most of its members, then reconstituted with a membership requirement that effectively kept the Presbyterian and Methodist pastors out: signing a doctrinal statement that included Biblical inerrancy. The reason was, again, homosexuality: the Methodist church had declared itself a "Reconciling Congregation," that is, welcoming of gay and lesbian persons, and the Presbyterian pastor was backing us up.
I left the ministry in 2000, acknowledging that my heart was no longer in it, but I remained a Methodist for many years to come, thanks, almost entirely, to the existence of a community of radical Methodists that took me in and affirmed all my inclusive ideals. As time passed, though, I found more and more wedges driving me from Christianity. I've written extensively about them in this space, and if you're interested, I encourage you to look them up, especially a series entitled "Losing My Religion." What I'm doing here today is discussing the role well-meaning evangelicals played in chasing me not just from ministry, but from Christianity altogether.
Kevin DeYoung's questions make many insinuations: that homosexuality is inherently promiscuous; that children must be raised by both a mother and a father; that there is an equivalency between homosexuality and bestiality, pedophilia, and polygamy. The message I heard loudest as I read the questions was "I've never taken the time to get to know someone gay, and if one ever tries to talk to me, I'll let him or her have it with a judgmental tirade that will chase the poor sap away before I have to consider he or she might just be a fellow human being." The best thing in Ben Irwin's response is the acknowledgment that, while he once shared Kevin DeYoung's low opinion of gayness, he evolved thanks almost entirely to taking the time to listen to gay people.
There was a time when I was ignorant about what it meant to be gay, simply because I'd never known a gay person--at least, so I thought, as it turns out I had gay friends who were closeted at the time I knew them. Even so, arriving at seminary in 1985, I already believed it was wrong to discriminate against them in either the sacred or the secular world. Everything I learned in seminary confirmed that opinion. Still, it was not until 1993 that I was to establish my first friendship with an openly gay person, an ordained lesbian who gently ushered me into a world that was far bigger and more variegated than I'd ever imagined. Knowing her and her partner, and all the other gay men and women who came out to me once they realized it was safe, I grew more and more convinced that sexual orientation, like race, gender, ethnicity, or physical ability, was just another strand in the tapestry of humanity, and that barring these people from full participation in any aspect of society--including the institutions of religion--was not just wrong, but evil.
More than twenty years later, my friends can finally get married--though not, in most cases, in church. Civil society has finally opened this door to them, but there are still only a few denominations in which they can celebrate their relationships in their home churches. The number of clergy who can perform a same-gender wedding without facing the wrath of their denominations is still so small that most of these weddings will have to be presided over by judges or family friends ordained by an online "church." And the number of Christians welcoming this moment is still so small that the presence of church groups in Pride parades brings as much incredulous applause as it did when I marched in them, wearing my clergy collar, in the early 1990s. In some ways, it's worse: none of the church groups I marched with ever felt the need to carry signs like this:
Marchers in London's 2013 Pride Parade.
Maybe it's the fading relevancy of the church. Maybe it's the polarization of Western society. Probably it's a complicated melange of factors. Whatever the cause, "Christian" is becoming, increasingly, an epithet in progressive circles. I have many friends now who speak the word with an involuntary curl of the lip, and I know exactly why they're doing it, and what they mean: "Christian" has come to signify the stubbornest of evangelicals, those whose hands are clamped firmly over their ears whenever anyone tries to engage their brains with reasoned discourse on what the Bible really says about homosexuality (and also evolution, diversity, climate change...), or their hearts with entering into a heart-felt encounter with a gay person, lest they be shifted even a little from their rigid belief that those who are gay are going to hell, as are those who advocate for them, because God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it. I've stopped correcting these friends with the qualifier "SOME Christians," even though I know so many who are open-minded, progressive, even radically to the left.
Why? Because, unlike Ben Irwin, I just don't belong in that particular cloud of witnesses anymore. The naysayers have chased me out. Thirty years of futilely struggling to respectfully, but passionately, get them to open their minds to the possibility that there's another valid way of seeing the world has worn me down until I just can't associate myself with that theology, that philosophy, with any kind of integrity.
I've read recently that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was pushed out of the conservative camp by the meanness of Justice Antonin Scalia, to the point that she became a solid moderate just to avoid associating with his virulent opinions. I think that's what happened to me: thanks to the never-ending stridency of closed-minded evangelical Christians, I'm embarrassed to say they are my kin. I've disowned myself from the family, and hope the residue of evangelicalism doesn't cling to me. It's a sad thing because, as I've said, they're good people at heart, just misguided.
There's a possibility--remote, I expect--that someone arriving at this final paragraph may be an evangelical who's rethinking his or her attachment to exclusionary doctrines, and would appreciate some compassionate help opening his or her mind to the world. If that's you, and you sincerely want to have some genuine dialogue, I'll be happy to talk with you. But if you're hoping to convert me in any way, to convince me I'm wrong and Your God is right, please don't bother. In case the preceding hasn't made it clear, I'll spell it out for you: we have nothing more to say to each other;.