Yet Another Evangelical Conversion

On the Washington Post Faith page, yet another evangelical pastor describes how he came to change his mind on what he calls the “sex question”. What do you suppose was the critical factor in this conversion? Right. Listening to the testimony of real people.

A New Kind of Christianity

Brian MacLaren, described as a leader in the evangelical “Emerging Church” movement, in “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith
“, tells how he no longer sides with the views of his friends and associates of a similar church background:

Most of my good friends sincerely and passionately hold the strict conservative view on homosexuality with which we all were raised. They can’t understand why I don’t stand side by side with them on this issue any more. To some, I’ve become a traitor, to others, a casualty in the culture wars, to others, frankly, a problem and an embarrassment.

These people will not easily change their minds, he says, until somebody close to them comes out to them. (This will usually be friends or family, and we know from the electoral battles that those who know gay people are substantially more supportive than those who do not.) The same process can also apply in church, whether with pastors or the friends we make among the congregations.

The real game changer, I’ve found, occurs when someone close to them – someone they already know, love, and respect – comes out to them. The issues then goes from being theoretical to personal, and it engages their emotional and social intelligence, which then gives their rational or analytic intelligence additional data to work with.

As a pastor, I walked this path. Through the years, a steady stream of church members, their children, and their guests made appointments with me, each of which began with almost the same words: “I’ve never told anyone this before, but ….” All my life I had been told that homosexuality was simply a sinful choice, a yielding to an especially evil temptation. (Back in the 1980s, this was the standard explanation in my circles.) But not one of the people I met fit that explanation.

As contrary evidence mounted, I began to wonder which was the anomaly and which was the norm – what I had been taught by authority figures I loved and respected, or what I was seeing in people I also loved and respected?

Just like Dr Mark Achtemeier, MacLaren initially began to feel that his deep, long-standing faith was being threatened, that he was somehow having to choose between being faithful to the parishioners he was talking to, and faithfulness to the Bible. He was able to come to a resolution (not described in the column), but his friends and colleagues who have not been talking as he has to lesbians and gay men, cannot understand this. But what keeps him firm in his own new understanding is his mental picture of the “tens of thousands” of personal stories:

That’s why, behind the clamor of public debates about homosexuality, I always imagine tens of thousands of stories, each overflowing with personal pain, fear, and hope. For starters, there’s the alienation felt by many gay people, but there’s also another very real kind of alienation felt by pastors, rabbis, imams, parents, and friends of gay people who are struggling between two loves: their love for the religious authority structures in their lives, and their love for someone close to them who happens to be gay.

Loud public debates will continue to rage about gays in the military, gays in the church, and gays in the courthouse, and “the issue” will continue to be used to win elections and create voting blocs and headlines. Meanwhile, I will continue to be remember that behind the clamor, private dramas are playing out in agonized prayers and secret tears behind more closed doors than most people imagine. Whatever your position on the issue, I think these personal struggles are worth keeping in mind.

(Brian MacLaren’s column for the post was based on part of his new book, “A New Lind of Christianity. Read the full article here.)

In the abstract, it sounds so obvious, but the reality is so hard. We know, or imagine, how often we will be simply rebuffed if we try to speak frankly, and how we will be answered with a lecture on our sinfulness and the need to repent. But some of those we speak to will listen with open minds, and the more of us they hear, the more they will come round. The three stories I have posted the last few days, and also that of Eugene Rogers (not yet posted, but coming later) are not from bleeding heart liberals, but from leading evangelicals in the Presbyterian and Anglican churches. I have not yet seen any comparable reports for Catholic priests: the nature of Church structure makes it far more difficult for them to go public with these kinds of views. You can be sure though, that their hearts are no different to these others. If they hear enough stories, they too will begin to change their minds – many have already done so.

If it is too much to speak to clergy directly, remember that they are not the only ones that count. Exactly the same process can also play out on a smaller, but more intimate, scale by getting to know ordinary members of a local congregation. This is a process I am currently engaged in, in my own local parish – a process I should be describing later this week.

Recommended Books:

McClaren, Brian D: A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith

McClaren, Brian D: A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey

Rogers, Eugene: Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Challenges in Contemporary Theology)

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