Identity and the Church – Can a church be inclusive without compromise?

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Image credit: Pixabay

It’s no secret that one of the big debates in the Church today is how to pastorally respond to those of varying sexual orientations.

Churches the world over range from a permissive, arms-open approach to a more closed, even angry, approach. And any talk of trying to ‘strike a balance’ is futile, as there are as many opinions on this subject as there are Christians, with everyone holding a different idea of what that ‘balance’ would entail.

So – and I’m convinced of this – we need to find different solutions to working and worshiping together peacefully and lovingly. Solutions which embrace the diversity of opinion found within the Church and use it to strengthen our mission, not divide it.

It’s why I loved reading Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation earlier this year. And it’s why I was thrilled to attend Living Out’s Identity conference in London this June.

I’ve already blogged a few thoughts reflecting on this conference, firstly how culture shapes our identity (without us even realising), and secondly how affected I was by the testimony of four celibate, gay Christians. Do have a read if you haven’t already.

This is the third and final reflection, and it concerns our approach as churches.

Kathy Keller spoke wonderfully in the afternoon on the more practical issue of how we make our churches welcoming and inclusive, while holding to traditional Bible teaching about sex being for (heterosexual) marriage.

This will jar for those who don’t read the Bible this way, but one thing I found particularly strong was Kathy’s assertion that actually homosexual ‘sin’ is a lot less common/frequent than heterosexual ‘sin’ – purely by nature of there being more heterosexual than homosexual people in the world. Of course this is obvious really, isn’t it? Only I’d never thought of it this way.

In other words, where do our churches stand on teaching about sex within marriage generally? How do we address those who are living together outside marriage, those who have had affairs, those who are in the process of a divorce, those who are considering remarriage?

There are no easy answers, of course, to any of this – but the point is: sexual sin needs to be addressed as a whole. Singling out any one group of individuals is not helpful, and it certainly isn’t Biblical.

Living Out had produced a church inclusivity audit for the day, which I found incredibly helpful, not to mention challenging. If we really ask these questions of ourselves and our churches, where do we stand? I know we fall down in a number of areas.

For example:

“Church family members instinctively share meals, homes, holidays, festivals, money, children with others from different backgrounds and life situations to them.”

I’m not so sure that our church, diverse and welcoming as it is, really models this kind of sharing with those of different backgrounds. The thinking here is that if a church develops this kind of culture then it will make life easier for a person who has chosen, for whatever reason, to live a celibate lifestyle, as they will automatically feel included, and experience life-giving relationships within their church family.

Another example:

“All in your church know that we all experience sexual brokenness and all are being encouraged to confess their own sexual sins.”

I just don’t think that we talk about sex very much or very well! Are we encouraged to think about past sexual behaviour, and whether it was God-honouring? We might be in committed marital relationships, but have we ever asked God to forgive us for what we did before that, or for mixed motives even now?

Again, this general focus on sexual sin (rather than homosexual sin) is helpful, I think, as it sets high and challenging expectations for all of us.

You can download the full audit here and I really recommend taking a look – there are some stonking statements on there. In addition, there’s a great video of Ed Shaw (a same-sex attracted church leader) explaining at the conference how he went through this audit with his church leadership team.

There were some great books recommended during the conference which I wanted to mention here, as well as some of my own favourites:

Walking with Gay Friends – I found this incredibly helpful a few years ago in helping me think through this issue. The author is a Christian and a lesbian.

Space at the Table: Conversations between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son – this is on my to-read list, and looks amazing! Check out the trailer video here: it might make you cry!

The Gospel comes with a House Key – Rosaria Butterfield’s story of converting to Christianity as a gay, feminist academic is one I want to read – this is a follow-on book, where she describes the kind of radical hospitality Christians are called to give.

Mere Sexuality: rediscovering the Christian vision of sexuality

The plausibility problem – written by Ed Shaw, featured in the church audit video.

Gay girl, good God – I spotted this on Twitter, and it looks fascinating – the story of Jackie Hill Perry’s coming to faith.

Undivided – Vicky Beeching’s story, from a different perspective, has also been on my to-read list since it was released, and I know many of you have already read it.

Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation – as mentioned. Read my review here!

Happy reading!

A note on my affiliate links: this post contains them! You know the drill: click through, make a purchase, and I earn a small amount of commission.

However, I realise that many of you will Google the book titles, just to check whether there’s a cheaper price. I get it – I do that too. I always try to put the cheapest price I can find right here in the blog post, but that’s not always possible (prices change all the time, I’m UK based so some things will be cheaper/dearer in other countries, and I have an aversion to Amazon…). So by all means, go check the cheaper price – but if you find that it’s the same as what I’ve recommended, do come back here and click on my links pretty please. It’s how I keep the blog free! Thank you 🙂

 

 

Identity and Sexuality – is it possible to be celibate and fulfilled?

is it possible to be celibate and fulfilled_ (2).pngOK, so huge apologies for dropping the ball on this one. I attended Living Out’s Identity conference with Tim and Kathy Keller more than two months ago, wrote my first reflection back in July, then the summer happened and I completely lost track.

So, if you need a moment to remind yourself what the conference was about, or what my first reflection was, click here.

Also, rather excitingly, Living Out have now generously made all the talks available here so you can go straight to the horse’s mouth!

Today I wanted to tell you a little about the powerful testimonies we heard throughout the day (and there’ll be a third post coming soon, to round off this trilogy, where I’ll share some reflections on Kathy’s talk, as well as some book recommendations).

When I see the issue of sexuality debated amongst Christians and those of other faiths/no faith, there seems to be an assumption that sexual fulfilment is a fundamental human right, something impossible to live without.

I have to be careful here, knowing that I’m in a marital relationship and therefore have access to this kind of fulfilment – it’s all very well for me to say that it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all – but if I couldn’t have it, would I feel the same?

Instead, I want to turn the spotlight on those who do live a celibate lifestyle, and who face these battles every day.

During the conference, four people in this situation shared their stories, and I was struck by just how joyful and fulfilled they came across! Anne’s situation was particularly inspiring – she lives with a friend, and the two of them have an open, hospitable home, sharing time, meals and space with others who need it.

Whatever the many battles she faces, Anne obviously receives so much love and support from the many close friendships she has – she’s not lonely or isolated, in fact her life seems quite the opposite: full of people and fun, in a way that marriage doesn’t always allow.

Then there was Jeanette, older than the others who shared their stories – maybe in her 50s/60s – so she knows about stamina when it comes to celibacy. But again, her life seems very fulfilling. She’s a writer and speaker, and has close Christian friendships at her church.

A young guy whose name I can’t recall is about to start training for ordination. He kicked off the day with a challenge that knocked me for six (excuse the paraphrase): “The church needs to stop talking about sacrificial living for gay Christians, and start talking about the sacrificial living required of all of us.”

In other words, he is able to see his sacrifice of sexual fulfilment as part of a wider discipleship narrative, part of the cross he has to bear (Matthew 16:24), and acknowledges that all of us, if we are trying to listen to God, will be called to make decisions which are costly.

When I see, often on social media, people advocating for Christians to be able to act upon their sexual desires, the rhetoric is often tense, bitter, forceful and arrogant. (Note, it’s not often gay Christians themselves who converse like this, but straight Christians speaking on their behalf!)

I guess on the one hand this is unsurprising. After all, if you feel strongly that a particular community has been mistreated for a number of years, you’re likely going to express that passionately, in order to tip the balance back again.

But what struck me from the testimonies shared at this conference was the kindness, gentleness, compassion and downright joy of all four speakers! None of them had any arrogance whatsoever. None of them were arguing that all should believe or act as they do. They simply shared their stories of faith and God’s calling with a huge amount of grace and good humour.

Another important aspect of all four speakers was that they appeared totally comfortable with their sexuality. There was no sinister talk of conversion therapy or any other potentially dodgy practices. All of them confidently identified as gay – and yet they were able to feel comfortable without practising their sexuality.

This gave me much food for thought as to what it means to be a sexual being, and to what extent our sexuality needs to be acted upon.

Whether we agree with the stance of these celibate gay Christians or not, it’s impossible to argue with their stories, their lives.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if we’re happy to welcome gay people in our churches who are practising their sexuality, then we also need to make space for those who have chosen a celibate lifestyle. The world will mock them – so our churches need to be a place where such brothers and sisters and loved, supported and nurtured.

If you follow this link, you can hear their stories for yourself. I hope you enjoy them.

And don’t forget my third and final reflection here!

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Identity and Culture – some thoughts from the Living Out conference

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Image credit: Pixabay

I mentioned recently that I’d been to the Living Out conference in June.

I was so excited to hear Tim and Kathy Keller speak, because last year I read their fabulous My Rock My Refuge for my quiet times, and this year I’m going through The Way of Wisdom.

But I was also hooked by the topic. Sexual orientation and the church is something I’ve been thinking and reading about for several years now – and, let’s be honest, we all need to grapple with this, don’t we? (Click here for a highly recommended book on the subject that I read earlier this year.)

Needless to say, from the first minute that Tim Keller got up to speak, I was typing notes as fast as my little fingers could move! There really was some stellar material across the day, and over the next two or three blog posts I’m going to share a few things I found interesting.

I’m not going to plagiarize the Kellers or any of the other speakers by repeating great chunks of their work, but plan to share a few things that I’d been thinking about anyway, which the day’s teaching helped to clarify for me, plus a few of my reflections in the weeks since the conference.

This topic is highly emotive for many people, so I hope my writing will be gracious, humble and compassionate in tone – and, in turn, that you will be kind and gentle if you choose to engage with anything I’ve written. This is not about winning an argument, this is about wrestling and grappling together, as we seek Christ first.

The day was themed around the idea of ‘Identity’, and the first session of the day was on ‘Identity and Culture’. It was like an undergraduate sociology lecture, and I found it fascinating!

Have you ever thought how ‘invisible’ our culture is around us? How easy it is to take so much for granted because of the time and place we’re living? Keller (assume Tim, for this post – I’ll talk about Kathy’s input in a future post) gave the analogy of a fish being totally surrounded by water, and yet not really aware that it’s there.

Every culture throughout history and across the world has had its own way of giving its members an identity – but without asking permission! So we end up in a place where identity information is kind of being imposed upon us – what is acceptable in our culture, what is not, where we get our value, etc.

However, in every single culture, Christians have formed their identity in a radically different way. We find our identity through the revelation of God’s love in the Bible. We are children of God, we are saved by Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit living within us – these are constants, regardless of which historical period you are living in, or which continent you’re inhabiting.

In other words, our identity is going to look rather at odds with the culture around us. The good news is: it always has done. We are in good company.

At the start of the conference, a guy gave his testimony to encourage us. I won’t share it all here, but suffice to say he is a gay male who has chosen a life of celibacy. One thing he said hit me hard. He said (excuse the paraphrase): “The church needs to stop talking about sacrificial living for gay Christians, and start talking about the sacrificial living required of all of us.”

Wow. And totally true.

I acknowledge the different arguments and tricky grey areas when discussing the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. I fully understand that people will come to different conclusions regarding what is said about unmarried sexual relationships, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and homosexual practice.

But I also believe that, wherever we stand on the ‘debate’, actually the most important thing in all of this is to give ourselves to God wholeheartedly, and I worry that maybe sometimes we come to a conclusion so firmly and forcefully that we’re not open to any kind of change that God might be whispering to us – and this happens on both sides of the fence.

If a gay Christian reads the Bible, seeks the Lord for wisdom, and comes to the conclusion that he/she may enter into a monogamous sexual relationship with someone of the same sex, I’m not sure anyone is able to disagree. After all, everyone is reading the same Bible, yet coming to different conclusions. Hasn’t God given us our minds to use in this way? Reading, absorbing and turning things over in our minds until we find some kind of way forward?

But if any of us come to know Christ for ourselves, yet resolutely refuse to change a particular area of our lives – be it our jobs, our money, our family relationships, our character or our sexual practice – is that not opposed to the message of the gospel?

Isn’t the whole point of turning to Christ that we do just that – turn towards Christ, seeking to obey whatever he might ask of us? It might not mean that there’s anything inherently wrong with what we’re currently doing, but we still need to be open to God asking us to do things differently.

I can give you an example. When we had our birth children, there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with that, we weren’t being disobedient. After all, we’d read the Bible, and believed that ‘Go forth and multiply’ was to be taken literally!

And yet, shortly afterwards, God called us to adoption, and we obeyed. Would it have been right for us to say, before God, “This is our family, this is how it’s going to look, and nothing’s going to change that”? No, of course not! We needed to be open to God transforming us in every area of our lives, including what our family would look like.

So I guess my first ‘big thought’ from this conference is twofold. Firstly: if we are Christians, God calls all of us to Himself – and this will involve sacrifice. Rather than pointing out specks in others’ eyes, shouldn’t I be looking at the enormous logs in my own? (And they are enormous, and they certainly are plural.)

The second aspect is this. As Christians, our calling is simple: to give all of ourselves to God. This inevitably means that we hold onto earthly things a little more loosely than if we were not Christians. Is our sexuality also something we can hold a little looser than our culture would have us believe?

I’ll be continuing with some thoughts and questions over the next week or so. In the meantime I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

(Incidentally, the image I’ve used above – courtesy of Pixabay – is absolutely spot-on for what I learnt, and am still processing, from the conference. We are all unique – fearfully and wonderfully made, with totally unique fingerprints – and yet LOVE. Love covers all, love joins us together, love covers differences in opinion and different interpretations of Scripture. More next time!)

Now read my second reflection on this thought-provoking conference!

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