“Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1
The apostle Paul often told his congregations to “stand firm” in their faith. You’ll find this phrase in several letters including Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. And it’s no wonder Paul kept having to remind his congregations to stand firm in their faith. Every congregation Paul either founded or had a relationship with came under attack at one time or another, often from other Christian Jews who believed differently on what constituted a true follower of Christ. Paul found himself having to constantly instruct his new charges on how Christians are supposed to live … how they are to stand firm in the faith and resist those who tell them they’ve got it all wrong.
Now, I must admit, up front, that there is no love lost between Paul and me. Some of the words attributed to him about the subjugation of women and his unfortunate choice of using what appears to be homosexual behavior among pagans as an example of sinful behavior in his letter to the Romans has not made me a fan of his work. But, sometimes, Paul nails it. Sometimes, Paul manages to inspire me and show me God truly at work. In his admonishments to his congregations to stand firm in their faith, Paul speaks true words of inspiration from God, especially to a beleaguered GLBT community of faith.
In Galatians we find the members of this conglomeration of churches in Galatia faced with a problem. Jewish-Christian teachers are insisting that, to be true followers of Jesus, the Galatians must submit to circumcision and follow the Torah, or Jewish law, to the letter. In particular, these Jewish-Christian teachers were urging the men to submit to circumcision to prove their faith in Christ. If they don’t, they are certainly NOT true Christians. How many times do we, as GLBT Christians, get preached to about the “rules” we must follow or the things we must do to be considered Christian? I get letters almost daily telling me that I must believe this or that doctrine or most often, renounce my sexual orientation or else I am certainly NOT a child of God or a true Christian.
Often, like the Galatians, we are asked to prove our faith in an outward way by “circumcising” our sexuality. Only if we desire to become heterosexual can we truly be saved. Only if we observe the laws of “normal” society will we earn our right to be called “Christian” by society at large. Until then we are merely sinners pretending to have the grace of God.
Paul tells us to “stand firm” and not to “submit” to this “yoke of slavery” that often well meaning Christians seek to put on us. By demanding that we first become “straight” before we can be Christians, our detractors seek to put us into slavery … a slavery that forces us to deny our innate sexuality and live under a burden, a “yoke” of lies. In this way, we cut off, or circumcise, our natural, God-given, sexuality. Indeed, Paul warns us that if we let ourselves be “circumcised,” Christ will be of no benefit to us! If we renounce our God-given sexuality we will be trying to live by the law of today’s church that tells us that only the heterosexuals are saved, and not by faith that assures us that all who believe in Christ are saved. If we try to live by the law, Paul warns us that we cut ourselves off from Christ and we fall away from grace. But, the good news is that:
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Galatians 5:6
“The only thing that counts is faith working through love!” Hear the good news, my brothers and sisters. We can stand firm in our faith, as GLBT Christians, because “the only thing that counts is faith working through love!” Our sexual orientation means nothing to Christ — like circumcision it is worthless. We do not have to change our sexual orientation because it is not what counts. What “counts is faith working through love!”
If we have faith in Christ, faith that we are saved, faith that by God’s grace our sins are forgiven, and work out that faith in a love of neighbor, self and God, then there is no other requirement upon us. We can stand firm in our faith as beloved children of the living God!
But, today, just as is in Paul’s day, there are those who are not so easily persuaded. No matter how firm we stand in our faith, there will always be detractors. There will always be those who say our faith is false, and that our love is nothing but hatred … hatred of self and hatred of God. How, then, do we defend ourselves when the inevitable attacks come? The answer comes in Ephesians 6:13-17 … we must put on “the whole armor of God.”
13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.
15 As shoes for your feet with put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace;
16 With all of these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.
17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
I’m not crazy about the militaristic image that many people have derived from this passage. Some see this passage as justification to do battle, to be “warriors” for God. I don’t read it this way. Instead, I see this as a call for us to defend ourselves, not God. God needs no defense. The author of Ephesians calls us to stand firm in our faith, not to attack the faith of others.
Let’s look then at what this armor of God consists of. We have the “belt of truth” that we are instructed to put around our waist. This belt of truth is our experience of God. We, as GLBT Christians, know the truth, that we are blessed, just as we are. We know that when we are told that we must change our sexual orientation to be acceptable to God that we are hearing lies. Our faith in God, our assurance of God’s love for us is our belt of truth. Put it on.
We are also told to put on the breastplate of righteousness. For the people who are defending themselves against an attack, a breastplate is essential, and it must be made of strong material or else we will surely be killed by the slings and arrows that our enemies will fire at us. A breastplate of righteousness is just what is needed.
The word “righteous” and “righteousness” have been abused and misunderstood in our day and age. When we hear them we think of “self-righteous” people or we feel “righteousness” is some form of arrogance or a level of spirituality that we’ll never be able to attain. Not so! The Greek word for “righteous” is dikaios and the Greek word for “righteousness” is dikaisoyne, these words also mean, “right,” “justice,” and “honest.” Our breastplate of righteousness, then, is our sense of justice, our honesty about our faith experiences as GLBT Christians and our assurance from God that we are in the “right” when we do justice.
Our breastplate of righteousness protects us from the injustices we suffer as GLBT Christians. The injustice of being excluded from the church. The injustice of being kicked out of our families. The injustice of not being able to legally marry the person that we love just because they are the same gender as we are. Whatever injustice we face, it is our breastplate of righteousness, our sense of “right,” our sense of “justice,” that keeps us standing firm under an assault of injustices.
Our breastplate of righteousness shields us from the lies we are told as GLBT Christians. The lie that we must change our sexual orientation to please God, the lie that we are condemned to hell if we don’t and the lie that the love for our partner is somehow “less” than heterosexual love. Whatever lies we face, it is our breastplate of righteousness, our honesty and integrity as GLBT Christians, that keeps us standing firm under an assault of lies. Put it on.
For our shoes we are told to put on whatever will make us ready “to proclaim the gospel of peace.” The Greek word for “peace” is eirene, which also means “reconciliation.” Proclaiming the gospel of peace, which is the reconciliation we seek with the church, with our friends, with our families and with our society will be a long journey. Whatever shoes we decide to pick for this journey need to be durable and sturdy, because we will walk in them for a long time, over rocky ground, through deep water, high mountains and low valleys. We must pick our shoes carefully with the long journey of reconciliation foremost in our minds. Put them on.
Next, we’re told to take up our shield of faith. This is one of the most important pieces of our armor as we prepare ourselves to stand firm against “the flaming arrows” that come our way. It’s appropriate that the metaphor for faith is a shield. Unlike the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness and shoes we choose to wear as we proclaim the gospel of peace, our shield of faith is not strapped securely to us. It’s entirely possible that we can lose our shield. Many soldiers lose their shields as they fight against attackers. The attacks upon GLBT Christians are sometimes so fierce, so powerful, so decimating, that we often lose our shields. In fact, it’s usually the first thing to go. When the attacks get strong, our faith can become weak. We can lose our faith. But if we stand firm — if we realize that God is our protector, our home, no matter what attacks may come, then our faith will be strong. Our shield will not be lost when we rest, with absolute dependence, in God and God’s unconditional and undying love for us.
The helmet of salvation is next in our wardrobe. Salvation is sometimes a misunderstood concept. Being raised Southern Baptist, I always thought salvation was synonymous with atonement … meaning that Jesus died to be my salvation. This is not what salvation means. Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace points out that the Oxford Companion to the Bible says, “the primary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words translated ‘salvation’ is non-religious.” The Hebrew word connotes victory over evil or rescue from danger.
“And in the gospels it is often physical healing that people seek from Jesus, relief from blindness, paralysis, leprosy. When he says to them that their faith has saved them, it is the Greek word for “made you well” that is employed.”
Thus, our helmet of salvation is there to keep our minds well, and focused on God. If we have our helmet of salvation we are “made well” in Christ, rescued from the evil and danger our enemies present to us.
The last of our accoutrements is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Again, many modern interpreters use this passage to justify a militaristic view of Christianity. With our swords, they say, we can attack the faith of others and strip them of their “false beliefs.” But we must remember that Jesus told his disciples on the night he was arrested that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matthew 26:52]. Our “sword of the Spirit” is not at our side so we can go out and attack those who oppose us. Instead, it is used only for our defense when attacks come our way. The Spirit is our protector and our guide. When we rely on the Spirit then we know “the word of God.” The “word of God” in this passage does not, as some of our fundamentalist brothers would have us think, refer to “the Bible.” When Ephesians was written in the late first century the Bible, as we know it today, was not even canonized. Most of the writings that we know as the gospels today, especially the gospel of John, were most likely still being written! There was no “Bible,” there was only sacred Hebrew scripture, consisting of much of what we know today as the Old Testament.
So what does this passage mean when it speaks of the “word of God?” The Greek word used for “word” in this passage is rhema, which also means, “message.” The “sword of the Spirit” then is the “message of God.” What is the “message” of God? Unconditional love and forgiveness. We see Jesus’ ministry shot through with these themes. Jesus loved everyone, outcast and Pharisee alike. Jesus forgave everyone, even those who nailed him to a cross. Jesus came so that we might understand that the “message of God” is one of reconciliation, love, and ultimately, forgiveness.
We are to arm ourselves with that message and tell it to the world, my brothers and sisters! As GLBT Christians we are called to stand firm in God’s message of love and forgiveness for all, no matter what! This is a message of Grace to every living creature.
So let us put on the armor of God. Let us put on our truth that we are loved Children of God even as GLBT people. Let us put on our righteousness that seeks justice for all of God’s outcast Children. Let us put on our shoes for the long journey of reconciliation that we’re embarking on. Let us put on our faith that can shield us from all attacks. Let us put on our salvation that keeps our minds well and focused on God. And let us finally put on the “message” of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness for all that we must spread to a hurting and dying world.
As we put on this armor we find it easy to stand firm when the attacks come. We find God’s grace in our lives when we refuse to take on the “yoke of slavery” that many of our Christian brothers and sisters seek to put on us. We need not look for ways to change our sexual orientation to please God. We are not called to display such misguided outward signs of faith. These are not what count to God. “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.” On that we can stand firm.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.