When you hear the word “church,” what first comes to mind?
For many of us queer folk, harmful memories may reemerge — memories of people who “loved” us but wouldn’t accept us, and of places where we were “welcomed” but not affirmed, and definitely not celebrated.
While the church has always been my home, it wasn’t always a place where I felt I could be authentically me. Like many people, it wasn’t until I went off to college when I was finally able to see other realities; suddenly worlds were available to me that my small town and church had either a) ignored, or b) spoken against.
This time of growing self-understanding is something unique for us queer folk. That isn’t to say that straight people don’t undergo challenging situations that make them look in the mirror and ask: “Is this who I really am? Is this what I really believe?” But for us queer people, this questioning is inherent to our existence.
We fall outside the lines of what Christian society has defined “normal” to be, and so we’re forced to reconcile our “deviation” — our queerness — with the world around us. And this process, for many of us, includes the church. We suddenly have to figure out our own relationship with this ancient, and often homophobic, institution.
As I began to gain confidence in being gay, the church began to feel more like a battleground than a sanctuary. My faith had always been strong, but it was formed by a community that wasn’t sure whether I’d go to heaven or not if I married a man. And so, being put in tension with the community that raised me, the process of finding my own relationship with the church began.
For some of us, our home churches won’t come around, and so leaving becomes the only healthy opportunity. For others of us, and I’m fortunate to be one of these, the simultaneous questioning of both my sexuality and beliefs helped me to gain greater insight and confidence in both.
Sure, my home church wasn’t openly affirming of queer people, but they were willing to listen. For this I am privileged and thankful.
But it wasn’t only my home church that I began to question — it was the very concept of church itself (in theological studies we call this ecclesiology). If the church has been a place of harm for so many for so long, why?
If, as we discussed in the last article, the Bible wasn’t used against queer people at first (and the word homosexual didn’t appear in translations until the 20th century), then what happened?
What happened in the course of Christian tradition to place the church in tension with queer people? And all these questions led me to wonder, what were the first churches like; what did the word church mean in the first century?
As with each previous article, you can follow along in my book, Reclaiming Church, to go deeper into this conversation. In chapter four, I examine the word that the first-century Christians used for church, which was ekklesia. This Greek word simply meant assembly or gathering. Seems pretty harmless so far, right?
In the first couple centuries of the Common Era, church didn’t equate to elaborate ceremonies or wealth or homophobia. The ekklesia was the gathering of the faithful. These gatherings were inherently political — they weren’t recognized Roman cults, and they defied some of the gender norms of the day.
People of all genders gathered together, greeted each other with a kiss, and called one another sister and brother. They were redefining the recognized family structure and refusing to acknowledge the total sovereignty of the emperor. They had a unique way of life that set them apart. They gave food to the hungry, some gathered all of their wealth in a common pot and created communes.
Of course, the early churches had their share of troubles; each community was keen on calling those who believed differently than them “heretics,” and they eventually aligned with the Empire. But those first fruits, the first ekklesia, offer a powerful way of life to reclaim — something that queer people are uniquely positioned to do.
We’re already in tension with many of the current manifestations of the church. We know what it’s like to be different — dare I say, set apart. We know how to build unsanctioned communities where the “acceptable” family structures are reimagined — where we’re all siblings.
Of course, the queer community isn’t perfect either. Many queer and trans people of color aren’t affirmed in white queer spaces. Racism and transphobia within the community must continue to be addressed as the queer community continues to provide what the governments and churches of the world haven’t: affirmation and safety.
We’ve got work to do, but I believe we can get there together. We queer folk and allies can reclaim what it means to be and do church from a uniquely queer perspective. Welcome to the queer reformation. Welcome to the breaking lights of dawn.
Whether you attend a Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, or congregational church, or none at all, this is a unique moment in time for us all. If we look at the Church’s history, we see that every five hundred years the Church goes through a massive re-creation, a change in its structure and identity… We’re at our five-hundred-year mark. It’s our turn in history to transform the Church and reclaim our assemblies as political in nature and transformational in practice.
It’s time we separate ourselves from the empire again and align ourselves with the underpaid, the unhoused, the previously rejected and condemned. It’s our time in history to reclaim what it means to be the Church.
Preacher, public theologian, advocate and author J.J. Warren is currently earning his master of divinity degree at Boston University School of Theology and is a certified candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church. After making an impassioned plea for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons at the UMC’s top law-making assembly, J.J.’s speech went viral, and his advocacy has been covered by news outlets around the globe. Today, J.J. travels to churches across the country spreading a message of radical love and forward progress. In 2020, J.J. founded Young Prophets Collective, a non-profit that focuses on equipping young queer leaders and allies to speak prophetically against injustices.