During the latter decades of the twentieth century and on into the present, two monumental shifts took place in the American church, in almost entirely unrelated ecclesial bodies. Among a portion of evangelicals and some conservative mainline groups there rose an increasing awareness of the centrality of spiritual formation — the intentional apprenticeship of individual Christians to Jesus Christ, with the outcome of taking on his character in their lives. This vision, encouraged and articulated by Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, Jan Johnson, Ruth Haley Barton, among many others, had corollaries in the work of social ethicist Stanley Hauerwas and philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. But in other, mainline and liberal, wings of the church, the flash point of change has been around the increasing inclusion of LGBTQIA persons in all levels of membership and ministry. Though there are occasional points of overlap, for the most part these developments have not been in conversation — indeed, within the last year a significant controversy arose around the vacillation of formation-minded writer and pastor Eugene Peterson on the inclusion of LGBT persons, ending with his reaffirmation of “biblical” marriage.
Yet these conversations are beginning to merge, as more evangelical pastors who have been influenced by Willard, Foster and the formation movement reach fully affirming stances and seek to include LGBT person in their churches. After all, if (as Willard claims), “the greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of Heavens into every corner of human existence” — then this surely includes the need for queer persons to be formed into Christlikeness as well! But here we run into a significant tension point, and a danger: will the LGBTQIA population simply be absorbed into, formed into, conformed into, the heterosexual majority church — or do queer persons have something to offer to refine and renew the church? Could the Spirit not only be redeeming the queer, but queering the redeemed?
I believe that the presence of the LGBTQIA community in the church raises significant challenges for spiritual formation, requiring us to clarify both the aim and means of discipleship to Christ in ways that, I will argue, take us deeper into the mysterious (one could say, queerness) of the Trinitarian life. In upcoming posts I will draw voices from spiritual formation/virtue theory and from postmodern queer theory together into dialogue — a dialogue meant to model the conversational shape spiritual formation must take moving forward.
Jonathan Merritt, “Eugene Peterson backtracks on same-sex marriage,” Religion News Service, July 13, 2017, accessed August 6, 2017, http://religionnews.com/2017/07/13/eugene-peterson-backtracks-on-same-sex-marriage/.
Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), xv.