For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29)
The church is in turmoil. Those with more conservative beliefs are in an uproar that the church is now including those with new ideas, those with ways they deem sinful and unnatural. The church is appealing to its higher authorities to do something about these unorthodox believers that have invaded their churches. They are disrupting services, demanding inclusion and causing divisions among the churches.
Sounds like a familiar story, but it’s not the story of any modern day church – not the Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Presbyterians or the Catholics. In fact, the church in an uproar was the church in Rome which was having a hard time accepting the Gentiles in their midst. The church members were all Jews who had converted to Christianity. They believed that Christianity was only for them. The Gentiles were, in their tradition, sick and sinful people who deserved God’s wrath. They wanted nothing to do with them and they definitely did not want them in their churches.
They complained to the Apostle Paul about the filthy, sinful Gentiles in their midst. They weren’t keeping the law. They were acting like they could have a place at the table without following all the rules. How dare they!
Paul soundly rebukes the Romans for their treatment of the Gentiles. In Romans 10:11-12 he reminds them that no one who believes will be put to shame. Why? Because God makes no distinction between people – to God there is no Greek or Jew. God bestows riches on “all who call upon God.” There is no exception in Paul’s words – all who call upon God and believe are included in God’s grace and mercy. All. No exceptions. No exclusions. No matter how much we want to exclude them. All are included in God’s realm.
Paul is clear that God has not called just the Jew to love God with all their heart, mind and strength, but God has called even those vile, sinful Gentiles. Paul sharply reminds the Jews that they must honor the call the Gentiles have received because “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” No one has the right to say another person is not called simply because they may not like that person, or agree with that person, or approve of that person.
Then is Now
Fast forward a few thousand years and we can see that the lesson of inclusion is completely lost on modern day Christians. Those who are “in” are always looking for ways to make others the ones who are “out.” In our modern time, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender believers are the Gentiles. The mainstream churches are filled with Roman Christians who are certain that God has not, in any way, given his (and it’s always “his”) acceptance to “those” kinds of people. These are people who are not keeping the law. These are people who insist that God loves them, too, even though it’s clear to these modern day Roman Christians that God could not possibly make room for “those people,” so why should they?
If “those people” insist on coming into the church, then they’ve got to change. They’ve got to give up that filthy “lifestyle” and accept the law. They’ve got to keep kosher, believe all the doctrines and give assent to all the dogma. Until they do, they’ll forever be kept out of the pew, and above all, out of church leadership.
Paul’s words to the Jewish Christians in Rome are still fresh for the ears of today’s modern church.
The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him shall be put to shame,’ For there is no distinction between gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight; the same Lord is the Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon her. For, ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Romans 10:11-13, slightly revised)
All One in Christ
It’s interesting to see where Paul takes this argument about how everyone is the same as far as God is concerned. In Romans 12, he admonishes the Roman Christians to not think more highly of themselves than they ought, because everyone has been given gifts from God. Everyone has something to offer and no one is better than anyone else. We each are blessed with gifts like prophecy, teaching, contributing, or serving. We are all part of Christ’s body in the world and if we cut off any part of the body, Christ’s ability to work in the world is hobbled.
The Roman Christians hobbled the early church just as their modern day counterparts hobble Christ now by denying GLBT Christians full entry into the church. Our orthodox gatekeepers are appealing to their higher governing bodies to keep us out of the pews and the pulpit. Thankfully there are some modern day Apostle Paul’s out there reminding the orthodox that there is no distinction between them and GLBT Christians.
There are courageous leaders like John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ who has made it a point to welcome GLBT believers – and not just welcome them, but ordain them and give them access to all levels of power in the church. He led his denomination to become the first mainline body to approve of same-gender marriage. He faced the wrath of some of his congregations who either pulled out of UCC completely or continue to protest by withholding their tithe from the denomination.
Thomas spoke out after the denomination’s vote to support same-gender marriage in July 2005 sparked protest from some churches attended by those modern Roman Christians:
What this vote does do is say we are a church seeking to extend an extravagant welcome, a church that is willing to follow its forebears in acts of evangelical courage. It does say that today the issue of equality is important to this church, that today those in our community who often feel most excluded and sometimes most vilified, particularly those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, are welcome here.
There are courageous leaders like Bishop Gene Robinson who continues to serve at the pleasure of his New Hampshire diocese which supported him and ordained him despite opposition from around the world. The wider Episcopalian Church has other courageous priests and bishops standing in solidarity with Bishop Robinson, teaching that we are one body with many gifts. Other courageous leaders are emerging in many other denominations including the Methodists and Presbyterians. The orthodox in all these denominations and others are threatening to tear the body of Christ apart over this issue, refusing to believe that God makes no distinction between themselves and GLBT believers.
Hear the Good News
There is good news in this ongoing saga – GLBT believers will one day be fully integrated into the church. We will be in the pews, in the pulpits, on the boards, in denominational leadership and in ecclesiastical leadership. History bears this out. Eventually, acceptance of the Gentiles into the church was a ho-hum event. No one could remember why they didn’t accept them right up front. No one could understand what the fuss had all been about. One day, our saga will have the same ending – full acceptance and a reaction of, “Well, duh, of course GLBT people should be fully accepted in the church.” Churches who continue to exclude GLBT believers, like the Southern Baptists or other ultra-orthodox denominations, will become curious oddities.
We must, however, take another lesson from Gentile struggle for acceptance. When the day comes when we are safely ensconced in the church in all levels, we must be vigilant so that we do not fall into the trap of becoming the modern day Roman Christians. We must never become so comfortable with our position as insiders that we seek to create outsiders or stand at the door to bar the entrance of anyone else into the body of Christ. We must never forget how it felt to be on the outside looking in. We must continually look for ways to make the stranger welcome and never turn from the oppressed to the oppressor.
The call and gifts of God are irrevocable – whether we like the package it comes in or not.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.