“Mom, Dad, I’m gay”
I can’t imagine how scary it is to utter these four words when your father is an executive at Focus on the Family (FotF), one of conservative evangelical Christianity’s most recognizable institutions. Founded in 1977 by author and psychologist James Dobson, FotF has been a go-to resource for Christian parents, teachers, pastors and leaders on social and family issues. Dr. Dobson’s radio program was frequently turned on in my house while growing up, and just like any kid growing up in an evangelical culture, I was addicted to Adventures in Odyssey, their kids program. My sisters and I couldn’t wait to get our weekly fix of Mr. Whittaker and gang, learning valuable lessons about faith, culture, and American history.
The adult radio shows were about what you’d expect from conservative evangelical radio. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a show about how parents should deal with wayward, backsliding teenage girls who got themselves pregnant and now needed God’s grace and mercy more than anything else. You might not be surprised to learn that much of the ‘grace and mercy’ amounted to little more than victim-blaming or slut-shaming; generally speaking immodest dress is pegged as a reason for causing a man to ‘stumble’, resulting in the unwanted pregnancy. The awkward reality is that many evangelical young women find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: pregnancy while unmarried brings a family the deepest of shame, yet accessing safe abortion services is tantamount to murder.
Hand in hand with the commitment to purity culture is the view that people who are part of the LGBTQ* community are living in sin. They take the view that being gay is, itself, a sin, and that changing one’s sexuality is possible through prayer and proper biblical counselling. Lumping LGBTQ folks in with teenage girls who break the purity pledge, FotF writes in an FAQ page on their website that
“logical consistency demands that individuals and groups who want to reinterpret Scripture to sanction free sexual expression among homosexuals should extend the same concession to heterosexual singles; and, in fact, some have already taken this next step.”
The argument is that a proper view of sexual immorality extends in exactly the same way to LGBTQ people as it does to straight people — the only place for sexuality of any kind is within the hierarchical marriage of one man and one woman. The ultimate implication is that, aside from ‘deciding’ not to be gay, chastity is the only option for anyone who identifies as gay, and that this is somehow God-ordained, as revealed through scripture.
What worries me most is the damage that these views do to Christian families and to the broader Christian community. Instead of building up a cohesive and loving family unit, these views divide and plunder, leaving LGBTQ folks on the outside looking in, wondering if the love and grace their families once professed is so conditional as to exclude them from full participation in the family unit.
In the most recent episode of “That God Show”, Benjamin L Corey and Matthew Paul Turner speak with Amber Cantorna, the daughter of Focus on the Family executives who struggled deeply with her sexuality before fully accepting that she was a lesbian. She knew that by coming out to her friends and family, she would essentially be saying goodbye to the grace and love that her family had once professed for her. In a particularly candid moment, she spoke these heartbreaking words:
“..it wasn’t a good from the beginning… They [her parents] ended up walking out on me. I sat them down, told them what had happened, the journey I had been on and I just remember my dad looking at me say saying ‘I have nothing to say to you.’ And then he got up and walked out. The only thing my mom said was ‘thanks for telling me, but we’re going to have to see what this means for the future of our family’. And they left. That was it. We didn’t talk for weeks after that. The next time I did, I was compared to murderers and pedophiles, and asked for the house keys back to the home where I grew up…”
In this very special episode of That God Show, BLC and MPT sit down with Amber Cantorna to listen to her story. Amber…www.podbean.com
In the same FAQ statement on their website referenced above, FotF states,
“We must ‘speak the truth in love’. There is no place for hatred, hurtful comments, or other forms of rejection toward those who experience same-sex attraction or identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Because we humans are made in the image of God, Jesus teaches us to regard all humanity as having inherent value, worth and dignity — including those affirming or adopting labels or behaviors which we believe the Bible associates with sexual sin.”
How sharp the dagger must have been, to be faced with complete and total rejection from parents who claimed not only to love her, but were a part of an organization that says there is no place for rejection, hatred or hurtful comments when speaking to others, even if the actions are considered to be sin. In a Facebook post penned in the fall on 2015, she writes, with an air of finality,
“Unfortunately, though many of my loved ones claimed to have unconditional love, what I discovered is that their love actually came with strings attached.”
Last fall, while attending the Why Christian Conference in Minneapolis, I heard yet another rejection story, though this one has a different ending. Emily Swan, a young pastor of a Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan came to discover her own sexual orientation over a period of time. When she fell in love with a woman and decided to pursue the commitment of marriage, she was dragged through a very humiliating experience, being told that she was no longer qualified to lead in the church, whether as a pastor or as a lay leader. In a completely different approach than the one experienced by Cantorna, the lead pastor at the Vineyard Church where she served was willing to stand up for her at the denomination level. He’d had a change of heart himself, coming to the conclusion that it is ultimately not up to us as human beings to judge others — that right belongs only to God. As described in the local newspaper, Ken Wilson went out on a limb, penning a 90 page letter to his congregation, “outlining his new understanding and explaining why he could no longer in good conscience observe the national church’s strictures [on LGBT people].”
The larger denomination refused to acknowledge the document, and forced Emily to step down from leadership in her local church. Wilson writes in a blog post,
“while there was substantial support for an inclusive approach in our local church (Emily received a standing ovation when she told the church her story) our denomination, Vineyard USA, informed us that the church would be disaffiliated if we didn’t comply with the new national policy on LGBT. This meant firing Emily, something I was unwilling to do. Despite deep misgivings with the VUSA policy, our board decided to stay with VUSA and reluctantly asked for our resignations, encouraging us to plant a new church, which we are now doing”
Recognizing the opportunity to do something new and different together, they started a new church in Ann Arbor, known as Blue Ocean Faith, and opened up their doors to disaffected evangelicals and others looking for evidence of the unconditional love that was missing from the lives of so many church-goers, people like Amber Cortana’s parents.
As I consider these very different reactions, I find myself thinking about the life and ministry of Jesus. His life embodied real grace and mercy, choosing to elevate the oppressed and disadvantaged in his society. Many will point out that Jesus elevated these folks within the context of repentance from sin. But the thing that always blows me away is that Jesus’ grace and mercy doesn’t depend on repentance, no matter how much we want it to. Indeed Jesus often mentions repentance only after he has offered his healing hand, and even then the emphasis is placed on God’s grace and love and not on particular sins. Even in situations where Jesus says “Go and sin no more” he doesn’t condemn those to whom he is speaking, but instead offers his unconditional love. Looking briefly at the time Jesus said those words to the woman who washed his feet, we see that the disciples challenged him on his lack of condemnation. In response, he tells a short story of a man who owed a lot of money to a friend, and another man who owed a little. Assuming both debts were forgiven, Jesus asks, “Who would be the most grateful?” He then finishes on a high note slamming Simon with the ultimate truth-bomb: “Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said,
“Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it?” (Luke 7:43–47)
The thing that strikes me is Jesus way of throwing Peter’s condemnation right back in his face. It’s not that Jesus is saying that Simon Peter sinned in not providing him with appropriate levels of hospitality, but instead that by counting sins, Peter misses the point of forgiveness in the first place. Jesus simply isn’t in the blame game — he loves for you as you are, whether you’re one of his golfing buddies, a sex worker down the street or anyone else— nobody has more or less intrinsic value than another. He cares only that we would follow in his footsteps, footsteps of grace, mercy and love, extended without qualification; Jesus invites all people to walk his path, regardless of who they are — there is simply no place for condemnation in the message of Jesus.
We could argue all day and all night about the theology of sin. But I am no longer convinced that human sin ought to be the focal point of the Christian faith, important though it may be. Instead I’ve come to believe that the most important work of Jesus-following consists in living a life of unconditional love towards others, a life that places no weight on a persons sins, whether they’re real sins or simply just perceived sins.
When the religious establishment of the day, hoping to trap Jesus with a form of gotcha politics, asked him about the greatest commandment, Jesus was clear
— Love God with all you are and Love Others as you love yourself: for the whole law is summed up in this —
There is no other ways around it — love is what defines the life of the Jesus follower, a love that cannot abide accounting for sin. It is only once we have considered the costs of living that life of love that we can dig deep and consider the ways in which we might find forgiveness, through him, for ourselves.
When I think about the life stories of my LGBTQ friends, I find myself continually saddened that Christians are some of the worst examples of Christ they have ever seen. I think of the heartbreaking conversation that Amber Cantorna was forced to have with her parents, and I see only hypocrisy, judgement and an un-Christlike focus on sin. I know of more than one LGBTQ person who is afraid to bring a partner home to meet the family because it would result in a rejection of their intrinsic value as a human being. Indeed, much of the evangelical perspective, with its focus on following a specific set of moral commandments dictated by its great institutions, not unlike the religious establishment of Jesus’ day, is unable look beyond what they judge to be a person’s sin. It can’t give up judging others long enough to recognize that judgement isn’t the message of Christ. Ultimately evangelical Christianity has replaced Christ’s focus on love with a theological fixation on the consequences of sin, and we are all poorer for it.
I long to see church leaders stand up and say “We’re not in the sin business anymore. Instead we’re in the love business, because that is all that Jesus asks of us.” I am heartened by the experience shared by Emily Swan, who was able to move on to start a new church with the full support and participation of a straight pastor interested in a life of love. Emily’s wife, Rachel Murr, has written a book called Unnatural: Spiritual Resiliency in Queer Christian Women which shares the stories of women who have come to grips with their sexuality within the environment of non-affirming churches. Many have found themselves moving from away from oppressive versions of faith and towards a gospel of love; As Rachel said in her talk at the conference, “The Gospel is Good News for Gay People too!”
Now you might want to push back and say that sin is too important an issue to subjugate to love. Indeed, at the beginning of Hebrews 12, the author exhorts his readers not to become distracted by sin. The thing is, he tells them exactly how to do it.
“…Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed — that exhilarating finish in and with God — he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever.”
If I am called to look at the life of Jesus, if I am called to study his life and put it into practice, if Jesus really is who he says he is, then I have no choice but to put my own thoughts about sin to death and instead turn with Jesus to love, accept and affirm all people, regardless of their sexual orientation. Moreover, as Christians called to put on love as our primary clothing, we can no longer be consumed with the judgement of others. The command to love God and love others is therefore a call that causes us to enter into a life of radical and unencumbered forgiveness of self and other, a life that reflects the joy of God’s creation without the need to keep track of wrongs, whether perceived or real.
At the end of the day there is no room in Jesus’ life for the hypocrisy of the Cantorna family, just as there was no room in his life for the hypocrisy of first century Pharisees and Sadducees. There is no room in Jesus’ life for the black and white, us. vs. them mentality that pervades the theology and social policy of the broader evangelical movement, including organizations like Focus on the Family. There is no room for condemnation, no room for hated, no room for rejection, and no room for the infamous qualifier, ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. With Jesus there is only room to love, and to love unconditionally.
It is therefore my firm conviction that the love of Jesus requires that Christians not only accept our LGBTQ friends and neighbours but also affirm them in their desire to pursue a life of love for others, spouse and children included. Anything less and we’re back in the business of counting sins.
*While I have used the term ‘LGBTQ’ throughout, I have focused this piece on issues related primarily to sexual orientation. Trans issues, while sometimes similar, have not been specifically addressed here.
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