Recently, my wife Kat and I went to Columbia to network and share at the GLBT Black Pride event at University of South Carolina. All in all, except for me getting a little lost – ok , a lot lost – on the way back it was a good event. I met a number of people to work together with on civil rights issues, found some information to help a person Kat and I are ministering to, and had some wonderful ice cream with my wife in a city I rarely go to. And I had some wonderful conversations which I think may help people in their walks of faith.
Perhaps the best conversation came in response to a question I received from a vendor who said, “Wait a second! You have a wife? So you are straight. What are you doing affirming gays in your ministry?”
It is amazing how often I am asked this and it took a lot of effort not to start laughing at the irony of a lesbian at a gay rights event being flabbergasted that straight people would think that their cause was worthwhile. The tone the lady used was a mixture of disbelief and mockery – as if somehow the cause of equality was so hard to support that you would have to be gay yourself to see its value. Well, needless to say, that question led to a really good conversation which began with what it means to be gay, what Scripture does and doesn’t say, who God is the Gospel, and then ultimately what it means to live a Christian life?
By the end think the lady, who apparently had been very hurt at the hands of the church, sounded as though she might be re-thinking her relationship with Jesus Christ and realizing that Christianity is not so much the abusive thing she experienced but its distortion.
I have this conversation a lot as I reach out everywhere I can with the little ministry God has given us here in the Carolinas. I thought, in light of this, I ought to share with you what my answer is when asked, “Why would a straight Bible-believing Christian pastor like you support gay rights and marriage equality?”
Well, I am glad you asked.
1. I believe what Dr. Martin Luther King said, when he told people “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Another lady this weekend who was surprised to find a heterosexual Christian pastor supporting gay rights told me it reminded her of the old story about the holocaust.
At the end of the war, a holocaust survivor explains how ended up in a concentration camp: “When they came for the Jews and the blacks, I turned away. When they came for the writers and the thinkers and the radicals and the protesters, I turned away. When they came for the gays, and the minorities, and the utopians, and the dancers, I turned away. And when they came for me, I turned around and around … and there was nobody left.”
The point of that story which we have all heard is the truth Dr. King lived and spoke — that we are all interconnected. Speaking up for gay rights has cost me a lot – a lot of things which it seems obvious to many people that as a straight man I could have avoided. But the truth is morally I could not help but stand up. We each have to stand up for each other because we need each other to stand up for each other’s right to be who God made them to be.
The funny thing is I have a few friends who are straight Christian ministers who tell me privately that they agree with what I am doing and saying about gay rights but it is too unpopular with their church for them to speak up. They say they know they would lose the church’s support (and the financial comfort it brings) if they spoke out and, after all … for them ministry is about saving souls, anyway.
I understand where these people are coming from. I remember when God laid on my heart the need to stand up for all God’s children and how I saw the same fears they do lying ahead of me as something I would have to experience for real if I followed God. Truthfully, I have had to live out some of those fears. But, thought it may not pay the bills, I can rest easy at night in spite of it. The reason? I know that I have done my part to keep the story told above from being lived out again in my generation in America.
2. I believe the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say anything negative about gay marriage; how can I if I say I believe it?
I remember when God first led some gay and lesbian Christians along my path, seeking counsel. I felt a little insecure when they told me their situation, then told them the “sage advice” I had always heard, and proceeded to mentally plan to go and grab as many resources as I can to make sure what I shared was right. The surprising thing was that, though most sermons and Bible studies I could find on the topic quoted about 6 different verses that they said “clearly condemned gay marriage,” when I actually looked up those texts in Greek and Hebrew with the tools at my disposal in a seminary library, I was shocked at what I found. The actual words being used in those texts didn’t describe loving relationships at all but were descriptions of acts of rape and prostitution. The commentaries on the Greek and Hebrew would then say these descriptions of same-sex rape or same-sex prostitution were rightly translated “homosexuality” in English because they described same-sex prostitution and same-sex rape.
A light bulb immediately went off in my head. “Wait a second,” I remember saying to myself. “So they are saying homosexuality carte blanch a sin because in Greek and Hebrew we read a man sins if he rapes a man or a man sins if he frequents a male prostitute. But doesn’t the Bible also say it is a sin if a man rapes a woman…or if a man frequents a female prostitute..? Why aren’t we picketing outside wedding chapels when a man marries a woman, or doing ex-straight therapy then?”
Well you could see the dilemma I was in. We would say it was ludicrous to compare a loving marriage between a man and a woman to a man raping a young girl. But for some reason these Biblical commentators would say that we needed to treat a 30-year loving relationship between two men as the same as a man raping a stranger.
What I discovered was that in its original languages the Bible does not describe gay marriage at all, let alone condemn it. The only things the Bible condemns are exploitive acts which are condemned also between a man and a woman – acts like rape frequenting prostitutes and child molestation. How can I say I am Bible-believing if I condemn something the Bible does not condemn and while I say I am preaching it?
3. I say I let the Bible be my guide. Since the Bible clearly affirms that God does not see gender, how can I let the gender of one’s life partner determine how I view them? One verse I kept returning to again and again during this time of study was Galatians 3. This chapter tells us that in Christ there is neither male nor female.
The message of this verse was so simple I had to do verbal gymnastics if I wanted to explain it away. It clearly says that God does not care what is or is not hanging between your legs. God cares what is going on in your heart. That is the organ God is worried about. Romans 10 tells us there is no difference in God’s eyes between one type or person or another but instead that all who call on the Lord and believe in their heart in Him are saved. Whoever means whoever, no matter what your externals look like.
The question of what is hanging between your legs and what is hanging between the legs of whomever is your life partner (which, let’s be honest, is really all the question of “are you a man or a woman?” comes down to) is a question about your outward appearance and doesn’t matter any more to God than you (or your significant other’s skin color) if we are to believe these clear verses in the Bible. That has nothing to do with your relationship with God. God does not view you based on such a shallow perspective. What does God cares about? If there is faith, hope, and love in your relationship with Him and with each other.
When you realize how God views us according to the Bible, you begin to realize how silly it is to be worried about the race or the gender of someone or what race or gender the person they share their life with is. These verses remind me of a young lady I worked with. She had dated many men who treated her very badly who were of her own race. She complained one day that she had a good friend who was a different race than her who really treated her right. I said, half-joking, “Well, there you go … that seems to be a solution. If you love him” To my surprise, she got a little teary eyed and said, “I do love him, but my daddy would disown me.” It seems that many people think God is like this lady’s father – that he would rather people be mistreated by someone who has the right outward feature – whether that is the right genitalia (because that is, after all, all we are talking about here), the right skin color, or something else than be with someone who truly treats them right and loves them for who they are but who might not fit society’s “conventional” image of who they ought to be with. Again the Bible makes it clear that it is how we are in our heart and in our relationships God looks at – not our outward appearance. The question I have found myself needing to ask is, regardless of my sexuality, how can I say I am a Bible believer and preach any differently than the clear message that God does not look at outward appearance but at the heart and that in Christ, there is neither male nor female.
4. To make discrimination a part of my message is to distort the Gospel. I have a friend of mine who is fairly secular and agnostic about religion who has from time to time interviewed me to have a minister’s perspective on social issues. I said something once to him that seemed to make his jaw drop.
When he asked how I described my religious tradition, I had called myself an evangelical Christian. He then began to describe some of the popular far-right preachers who spend all their time shouting against gays, shouting against working women, shouting against abortion, and generally getting air time by raising a stink about issues like those. He says to me “Now those guys call themselves evangelicals. They are what I thought that word meant. Are you are telling me you are one of those guys?” I turn to my friend and I say, “The thing is, they have forgotten what it means to be evangelical or they wouldn’t be doing that.”
Well, at this point my friend looks at my cross-eyed and makes me promise to tell him what I mean later on, which I did. I call myself an evangelical, I tell him, in part because I have a pretty conservative view of the faith. Yes, you quote me the Christian creeds and I’d sign off on just about all of them. If it is in the Bible, I think I ought to believe it.
But that’s not all. I say I am an evangelical because originally what the word “Christian evangelical” meant was a bit more than that. The word “evangelical,” I tell him, means “Good News” or “Gospel”. That’s the term for the Christian message, the message Jesus preached. Originally the term “evangelical” referred to Christians of all sorts of denominational backgrounds who didn’t let church tradition guide their practices and beliefs but let the Gospel be their focus. Being an evangelical means letting the Gospel, or message of Jesus, be my guide not society, culture, or religious tradition. Those guys you are talking about have forgotten what it really means to be an evangelical, I tell him. Most of them are preaching cultural taboos and church traditions which have nothing to do with Jesus, but calling them the Gospel.
Then I give my friend a little history lesson. In history, I tell him, you have three kinds of evangelicals really. You have the guys like the late brother Jerry Falwell and like Pat Robertson. These people identify Christianity with historic conservative Western values like a man being the head of the household (which of course means a woman being subservient to the man — thus no gay marriage and no women running businesses, churches, or for president), no drinking alcohol, and many other things. They fight for a very rigid conservative view of the world while proclaiming Jesus died for your sins, which happen to be actions like the ones listed above. Sadly a lot of these guys (they are mainly men, after all) end up looking less like the Jesus of the Gospels and more like the religious leaders who fight to have Jesus hanged in the Gospels. How can your life can resemble the men who tried to crucify Jesus and you can say you are being true to the Gospel? Well that is a real question these leaders have got to deal with. Needless to say, these are not my idea of heroes.
Then you have “no politics evangelicals.” For most of American history, this is how most evangelicals identified themselves. No politics evangelicals were folks kind of like my straight preacher friends who agree with me but won’t speak out. They view the Gospel as merely being about saving souls. Christ died so that people’s sins can be forgiven so they can go to heaven. So, they say, let’s get people to accept that forgiveness so they can live forever with God someday but not worry so much about what life is like here on Earth in the meantime. Why rock the boat, after all, if it is sinking anyway?
I don’t know about you but that seems to miss a lot. In American history the no-politics preachers never promoted much injustice. On the face of it, that sounds pretty good. I have even heard some affirming preachers praise them for this. I’m not so sure, though. Let’s think about this for a minute. These preachers didn’t tell people to lynch blacks in Dr. King’s day, certainly. But as a whole they also kept their mouths shut when they knew church members were lynching blacks. They let that slide. Instead they preached “all of you need to accept Jesus as Savior so you can know you won’t be going to a hell worse than this.”
Finally you have what I call the “injustice is sin” evangelicals. They look at Jesus’ teachings and see that what Jesus got angry about was how people who didn’t fit in were pushed to the fringes, how poor people were trampled on, how religion got turned into the business of making money off others. And they shared the message that Jesus died for your sins but said that really isn’t so much cursing or drinking, though those can be bad too but more like the slave trade and treating women like dirt, racism and allowing folks to terrorize minorities, corruption and exploiting others.
The preachers from this tradition looked to Jesus’ example for their definition of sin and holiness and end up being the evangelicals who were really unpopular for leading marches to end slavery in the South and North, being some of the first people to support women’s right to vote and own property in the United States, being the folks fighting in the last century for fair wages for workers, fighting for children to be protected from mistreatment. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was this type of evangelical, as were Sojourner Truth & Sarah Grimke (who both fought for women’s rights and against slavery) and in our current time, Rev. Jim Wallis is one of these evangelicals.
This last type of evangelical, I tell my friend, is a lot older than the Pat Robertsons of TV pop culture and in my mind is a lot truer to the Gospel. It is with this sort of “justice evangelical” which I identify myself. If you look at Jesus’ teachings you won’t find word one about abortion, about how bad it is for women to leave the house, about homosexuality at all (let alone gay marriage). It is not that these aren’t important issues but they aren’t Jesus’ point nor the focus of Christianity. What Jesus talks about again and again is God’s limitless love for the worst of us how far God is willing to go for the one most rejected by society so that they can be accepted into His family forever, how much we need to quit looking at each other with society’s prejudice but with the eyes of God’s limitless compassion.
Then Jesus goes and lives it out by dying on the cross for our sins — even for the sins of the Roman centurion whose people are crushing Jesus’ relatives under foot and of the religious establishment who despise him, but especially for the sins of people like Mary Magdalene, Simon the Zealot, and others who have such a risque background scholars can’ t decide which ones were prostitutes, which were terrorists, and which were washed-out has-beens.
Jesus’ life models reaching out to the outcast. His words teach a radical welcome and inclusion – and a focus on social justice (“how we treat each other” as I heard one person put it). Jesus’ Gospel is my guide – not how we have always done things here in North Carolina, or in the United States, or in the world at large. With the variety of people welcomed in his life while proclaiming his Gospel – Samaritans (who were of a different race and religion than Jesus’ relatives), prostitutes, swindlers, tax collectors, terrorists (ever wonder why Simon was called a “Zealot”? History books tell us the Zealots were basically a series of Jewish terror cells), the disabled, the mentally ill – don’t we distort the Gospel a great deal if we turn it into a message of “if you don’t fit into my little mold you are damned to hell.” After all John 3 tells us Jesus came into the world not to condemn it but that it might be saved through him.
5. People flower and grow when they encounter love; they wither and die in the face of judgment. My wife does a dog rescue. One of the really amazing things for me to witness is dogs who have been horribly abused – so much so that they will growl at us as we feed them, that they crawl across the ground for fear of being touched (and apparently in their minds, thus beaten) – and how they respond to a little love.
Many of them are beaten because their owners believe if you beat an animal it will become mean and thus a better hunting dog. Then when the animal becomes useless at hunting and unable to even feed itself due to the abuse, the owners dump it off somewhere to die. When Kat finds them, she showers them with love. She bathes them, pets them, feeds them the best food we can find, and though they usually don’t like it, helps them get rid of all their fleas, ticks, and worms. Usually in a week the animal is no longer crawling fearful on its belly but standing tall, wagging its tail, and soon cuddling with her.
Strangely, though many of them were dumped off after being abused due to being “useless,” they have been the most focused and useful guard animals we could have when they were with us afterwards. Twice we had to chase one of them down for running off an intruder (once a thief and once a fox) and chasing it miles away from our house, because they wanted to protect our house. These dogs that were considered to be so useless when abused flower and grow as they experience real love.
I am becoming convinced more and more that the same is true with ministry. People wither and want nothing to do with God the more they hear and experience rejection, judgment, and condemnation. This withering is what I witnessed happening to gay and lesbian people in the ministry I was ordained in, which shunned gays and lesbians. Even from the most well-meaning ex-gay advocates the rejection of the one who is different at the heart of that form of Christianity gets communicated loud and clear to those in the gay community. I have seen firsthand how that rejection and the religious abuse that comes with it lead many to wither up spiritually and decide if all God is about is abuse and judgment, I have enough of that already. Why seek him out and get more?
But it is amazing — when you begin to tell people that they are fearfully and wonderfully made as Psalm 139 tells us, and that who they are in all of their uniqueness is a gift of God, something wonderful happens. When people really begin to sense that they are loved by God unconditionally, that there is nothing they have done or can do for God to quit loving them, and that nothing about them is a mistake, it is amazing to see how people open up.
Just like flowers open up to the sun, when I share with people how much God loves them I can see their whole demeanor change and them begin to open up to God. My experience is that the greatest way to drive people away from God is to tell them that God has no room for the likes of them and then to try force people to fit your mold of how they ought to be. But the greatest way to point people toward God is to let them know that they are no mistake but precious in the eyes of God.
After all, isn’t ministry all about seeing that change, that spiritual move from withering death to blooming life? Why would my sexuality – the mere fact of me being straight – keep me from wanting to be a part of that?
Rev. Micah Royal serves as Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C. Having earned his Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School, he has served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern NC Association of the United Church of Christ.