Imagine it: The Evangelical Christian church in America is a place of extravagant welcome for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians.
Not the kind of welcome that we have right now. You know, the one where we’re welcome to sit in the pew, sing songs and put our money in the plate as it passes by, but we are not allowed to lead Sunday School, youth groups, or, heaven forbid, be church leaders such as deacons or preachers.
No, really. Take a moment to imagine the Evangelical church welcoming LGBT Christians with no conditions — with the unconditional love of Christ — just as they are. And while you’re lost in that fantastical fantasy, imagine those church leaders embracing you in your same-sex marriage and celebrating your relationship.
This is the vision of a new organization called Evangelicals for Marriage Equality.
Founded about a year ago by Josh Dickson, the former Deputy Director of Faith Outreach for the Democratic National Convention and Michael Saltsman, vice president of a Washington, D.C., research firm, the fledgling organization has big plans for the future of the Evangelical church.
“As Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, we believe you can be a devout, Bible-believing evangelical and support the right of same-sex couples to be recognized by the government as married,” reads the opening line from the statement posted at their Web site. “Our commitment to following Christ leads us to speak out for equal treatment under the law for others — whether or not they share our religious convictions.”
Those are fighting words to leaders of the right-wing evangelical church. The statement was found so revolutionary that three Christian magazines — Christianity Today, Relevant and World Magazine — turned down a full-page advertisement for the launch of the new group in September.
The organization has also been attacked by other evangelical leaders such as Andrew T. Walker, director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who accused the group of not making its case for marriage equality.
“I saw a lot of emotion. I saw appeals to injustice and craven caricatures of Christianity, but I didn’t see any real arguments,” writes Walker.
Brandan Robertson, the spokesman for EME is not surprised by the backlash.
“We expected that because the sad history of Evangelicalism shows we have become bogged down with a political agenda,” Robertson told Whosoever in a recent interview. “Everyone who has responded to us has missed the point saying things like we’re trying to redefine marriage or water down theology. But, our statement explicitly says we’re not asking anyone to change their theology but rather we are saying, ‘you have a right to hold that theology but are you called by Christ to work to Christianize our government or are we called to love our neighbor?'”
EME has some heavy-hitters among on their advisory board ready to help make that case including well-known author and theologian Brian McLaren and Richard Cizik, the former vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. Cizik resigned that post in 2008 after saying during an interview on NPR that his views on same-sex marriage were “shifting,” and that he believed civil unions should be available for gays and lesbians.
In a post on the EME site he now writes: “While I haven’t come to a conclusion on gay marriage within the Church, believing sincere people will reach different answers on that question, I am convinced that we cannot deny basic societal and constitutional rights — equal protection and due process under the law — to people based on their sexual orientation or practice.”
This is the fine line the organization is walking — urging evangelicals to leave marriage to the political arena and reclaim the gospel of Jesus for the religious arena.
“We hope that as we change the hearts and minds of evangelicals through these conversations that our posture toward the LGBT community will improve because for far too long the church has been on the wrong side of history,” Robertson explained. “Once again, with this issue we have put aside the call of Jesus and picked up political agendas. It’s really harmful and oppressive to the LGBT community and we don’t believe that should continue.”
In October, Robertson and others from the organization will try to begin that heart-changing dialogue with Southern Baptist leaders at Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Robertson hopes to sit down with some of the leaders speaking at the convention to make his case for evangelical support of marriage equality.
Robertson hopes to make it clear to those leaders that their anti-gay message is not resonating with millennial members of the congregation. A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that 45% of young evangelicals support same-sex marriage, while only 19% of their elders over 50 do.
“We’re trying to show the older evangelicals that this is a generational issue and instead of pushing us out of the church because we support same-sex marriage, we want to show that we are people of integrity with biblical values, but this is where we’ve come to on this issue,” Robertson said.
He is going to Nashville optimistic that he can made a difference.
“If I can, as a millennial, sit in a room with evangelical leaders and have this discussion and show that dialogue is possible, that witness to evangelical millennials will be powerful and will allow them to come out in support of these issues,” he said. “As long as people of power don’t talk with millennials, there will be fear mongering language used and young evangelicals will shy away from speaking out on things they actually believe in and we’ll stay in our theological box. We want to be an example that these conversations can happen and you don’t have to give up your evangelical credentials to do it.”
Robertson does not approach his task with rose-colored glasses, however. He realizes that those evangelicals with political power, especially, will not move easily on a message that has served them well and kept organizational coffers full. In addition, he knows there are fences to mend with the LGBT population hurt by the evangelical crusade against the community.
“If you say the word ‘evangelical’ to the LGBT community, one of the first things that pops into their minds is “anti-gay” or homophobic and we’d like to correct that,” Robertson said.”I’d like them to see that there is a different kind of evangelical that is not working to deny them rights but there are actually people that look like Jesus.”
In the end, Robertson’s vision for the church is one of welcome for LGBT people, without strings or a hidden agenda to change LGBT people or champion legislation against them.
“If we can figure out how we can rediscover the root of the Good News and really center ourselves back around Jesus, the church is going to become a place that has tremendous potential for good,” he said. “It’s going to become a safe haven for LGBT men and women. It will become a place of safety and dialogue as well as a place for doubt. That’s a church I really envision and want to cultivate.”
Rev. Candace Chellew is the founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever. She earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.