Evangelicalism is navigating an identity crisis at the expense of its LGBTQ siblings. It is a diverse and amorphous movement. Evangelicals are an active force in virtually every Protestant denomination, including the “liberal” ones like United Churches of Christ. The Evangelical-Catholic alliance called “The Religious Right” has even blurred the boundaries between these two once-warring camps. So what makes an Evangelical an Evangelical, and what gets you expelled from this far-flung faith? Turns out I found out. As our national moment reveals, societies and groups that feel threatened by change, seek to resolve the tension by cracking down at the border.
First, a quick review of how that tension has been building in the Evangelical camp. For decades its Big Tent has been expanding. Prohibitions against inter-racial marriage have eroded, while being covertly maintained in some quarters. Gender equality has gained a small toehold in a patriarchal landscape. In recent years, Evangelicals who supported evolution and climate science were allowed to remain at the edges of the Big Tent. All of this boundary-pressing, this hybridization of previous incompatibilities, has created a great deal of distress within Evangelicalism.
My former denomination, Vineyard USA, was an excellent test case for this problem of Evangelical identity. Vineyard started on the margins of Evangelicalism — introducing Pentecostal practices where they had been anathema before. Until 2014, Vineyard adopted no national policies on contested moral issues like divorce-remarriage, reproductive rights, or LGBTQ equality (though it leaned conservative in practice on the latter two). More than any organization recognized as “Evangelical” — it had a seat on the Executive Committee of the National Association of Evangelicals — Vineyard demonstrated a high tolerance for diversity of thought and practice.
As a national Vineyard board member for seven years, I gave my denomination plenty of occasion to exercise its tolerance muscles. As the co-author of one of the Vineyard’s theological primers, these moves did not go unnoticed. I openly advocated for women’s ordination and an end to the Evangelical war with evolution and climate change; I openly criticized, on faith grounds, the work of the Religious Right. I promoted spiritual practices like fixed-hour prayer and meditation, which many Evangelicals viewed as suspect owing to guilt -by-association with Catholics and (worse) “liberal Protestants.” All of that envelope-pushing (mild as it may seem to the secular observer) was allowed, even applauded in some quarters. (Though, come to think, one colleague produced a dossier on my work and sent it to headquarters in hopes I’d be stopped. But the heresy charges were ignored.)
Somehow these were treated as boundary expansions not border violations. My efforts to establish LGBTQ equality in the church met with a different fate: the Border Guards were put on high alert and the dogs unleashed. When I use the term “Border Guards” don’t picture ravenous fundamentalists looking for red meat. Picture conflicted insiders who love their denomination and feel the pressures bearing down on their organizational structures. Picture people who may have gay family members attending their church, who know that “pray away the gay” doesn’t work, and worry that support for the traditional LGBTQ policies places them “on the wrong side of history.” Each describes members of the team that lowered the boom on me and my newly-outed gay colleague, Emily Swan. My friend, Danny Cortez, was put on trial at Southern Baptist Headquarters when he refused to execute what he knew to be harmful policies against his gay members. Seventy pastors (all men, of course) served as his jury. Several confided in him privately during breaks in the proceedings that they were sympathetic to his situation, and some even urged him to “hold firm” to his convictions. But they all voted to expel his congregation.
My proposal — which Danny Cortex adopted in his case — was modest: let local pastors stop the discriminatory policies against LGBTQ in their local churches, if they are conscience-bound to do so. Regard this as one of many “disputable matters” — in the same category as whether killing in war is murder or when or whether remarriage after divorce is adultery. Remember, at the time I made this proposal (see A Letter to My Congregation) my denomination did not have a national policy on LGBTQ. But the official response to what might seem an irenic approach (“let’s agree to disagree and allow local to congregations practice full inclusion in the meantime”) was punishing when it came late in 2014— as though Evangelical identity itself were at stake. Apparently, it was.
Here’s what happened in short order: My gay colleague was outed by Vineyard headquarters (with no personal outreach to her to confirm rumors of a new relationship), a national policy against LGBTQ was finally adopted, and I was charged with things like cozying up to gnosticism (an early heresy) and, laughably, taking the easy road of cultural popularity. The severity of the response can be measured by the silence of virtually all my pastor colleagues, many of whom had expressed sympathy toward my position, even outright agreement. But when the Border Patrol sets its dogs on a border-crosser, it sends a powerful message to bystanders, who slink away into the shadows. And I should add that within a year or two, the Evangelical Border Patrol made similar moves in other sectors. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s crack down, the banishment of top Evangelical ethicist, David Gushee, and the punishing response to author Eugene Peterson come to mind.
So why did the LGBTQ controversy elicit this response while so many other “boundary expansion” moves did not? After five years to reflect, I think the answer can be boiled down to three important factors that applied in the case of LGBTQ. The border patrol cracked down on sexual minorities because they could get away with it, and because the “issue” (note the abstraction) fulfilled three essential criteria.
- Stigmatizing sexual minorities could be framed as a battle to defend the Bible, adherence to which is the heart of Evangelical identity.
In the case of all the other issues mentioned — inter-racial marriage, gender equality, allowing evolution and climate science — Scriptural arguments for and against were inarguably mixed. But the question of how to respond to the desires of LGBTQ people for full equality in the church is a bit different. Yes, the cultural and historical context of the handful of LGBTQ “clobber texts” suggest the writers had something other than modern, loving, same-gender relationships in view. But little evidence can be mustered to demonstrate explicit approval of such relationships (just as there is little explicit approval for modern notions of egalitarian marriage roles.) This Scriptural silence on same-gender intimate relationships violates the Evangelical view that Scripture is always clear about important questions of faith and practice. Forget the maxim, “What Scripture doesn’t forbid, allow.” Forget the manifold examples of Scriptural ambiguity on many moral issues (like when remarriage after divorce is allowed) … this one felt to the Border Guards like a great “Defend the Bible” issue.
But that alone wasn’t enough. Two other criteria needed to be fulfilled …
2. Sexual minorities engendered enough unacknowledged homophobia and transphobia to fuel a collective disgust response— providing the expulsive power of moral outrage.
We know that the human disgust response is a primitive part of the brain that does its moral reasoning. In particular, it’s the part of the brain that fuels expulsive moral outrage: Get that filthy thing out of here! The disgust response is standard fare in appeals to White Supremacy, misogyny … and perhaps even more acutely, in appeals to homophobia and transphobia. Without the disgust response, people don’t generally get riled up enough to generate the energy needed to expel others, especially in a religious tradition that claims to be as “welcoming” as Evangelicalism does.
I think in the case of transphobia and homophobia (like so many other diseases of the soul that are widely denied within Evangelicalism) the Border Patrol sensed this was changing, and changing fast. As more LGBTQ lived their lives openly, younger generations were noticing and questioning their disgust response. But in Evangelicalism (certainly this was true of Vineyard) Baby Boomers are still in power, even as Gen-Xers and Millennials are softening fast on this question. Which made swift action the more necessary.
But again, these two criteria alone were insufficient to energize the Border Guards of Evangelicalism. A third was necessary ...
3. Treating sexual minorities humanely by rescinding policies that harm them, posed an existential threat to Evangelicalism’s financial base.
The guardians of Evangelicalism understood (or were made to understand by conservative givers) that the financial viability of their beloved institutions and networks was threatened by lifting the stigmatizing LGBTQ policies. And this threat crossed the boundaries of local churches. Let me describe this because I witnessed it first hand from the inside. Remember, it was 2014 and LGBTQ issues were gaining intense national attention with the Supreme Court hearing arguments on marriage equality, the trans-bathroom hysteria, and evangelical bakers suffering “persecution” (please!) to defend their “right” to discriminate against gay customers. At this time in my denomination, when a pastor crossed the line on women’s equality in church leadership, or supported the legitimacy of climate science or evolution, he (no need for gender inclusive nouns here) could be punished by his local congregation (lose his job, lose contributors, etc.) But his progressive local actions on these fronts didn’t pose an existential threat to the financial base of his entire evangelical denomination. He was taking a local risk with local consequences. But with the LGBTQ controversy in full swing nationally, big givers threatened to stop giving to their local church, if the local church so much as remained in a denomination or network that allowed any church to practice full inclusion. Evangelicalism was in full “build the bulwark against the rising tide of evil” mode.
I knew my goose was cooked when a mega-church pastor friend who was traditional on LGBTQ, told me that large donors (six figures annually) had threatened to stop giving to his local church if I were allowed to practice full inclusion in my church several states away. He told me that if the denomination let me “get away with it” it could lose a fifth of its congregations. What this meant in raw power terms was chilling: in order to allow me to remain in good standing with the denomination, local pastors in the denomination had to be willing to suffer a local cost with personal consequences, and the denomination itself would take a big hit (at a time when it wasn’t growing.)
John Wimber, founder of Vineyard, was fond of saying “Faith is spelled r-i-s-k.” He once told pastors, “In order to follow Jesus, you have to be willing to bet the farm, over an over again.” Vineyard was not willing to bet the farm.
I’m sympathetic to the plight of these (former) pastor colleagues. The withdrawal of enough conservative could mean staff layoffs, painful program cuts, and failure to make mortgage payments. In the calculus of many institutionalists, “It is better for a few LGBTQ people to suffer, than for the church to implode.” The church I founded in Ann Arbor, a church whose board once voted unanimously to support full inclusion, balked at the financial cost when a portion of our church staff saw how punishing some big givers would be, how unwilling to cross the rubicon of full LGBTQ inclusion. They were willing to throw the small group of LGBTQ members and a newly- outed gay pastor, and their founding pastor under the bus — to keep the organization financially viable. Of course, when we are making a calculus like this we couch it in different terms, even to ourselves. We toss out phrases like “preserving the unity of the church” or the pragmatic trope used to resist all progress, “we’re just not ready yet.”
As I look back on my Quixotic attempt to nudge my former evangelical denomination into a full embrace of its LGBTQ siblings — dear, suffering, children of God — I realize that I suffered from a naive and idealistic view of my beloved denomination. I got onto the Jesus train in the anti-institutional days of the Jesus movement when the teenage Baby Boomers were thumbing their noses at institutions and religious organizations. My denomination, Vineyard, was filled with people like me. A still-young Bob Dylan enjoyed his brief born again phase in a Vineyard church. It was the Age of Aquarius, after all, and Jesus Christ was a Superstar. Even today, one can see the vestige of this in the reluctance of so many of my former colleagues to even use the word “institution” or “denomination” to describe what they prefer to call simply, “Vineyard,” or, anachronistically, “the movement.”
So it was hard for me to come to grips — and still is — with the amoral risk-aversion that characterizes institutions when their financial well being is threatened. I thought losing one’s soul is the only existential threat. Lesson resisted, lesson learned, lesson mourned.