A while back I had an internet argument with a pastor. I had written something about how hard it is for me to believe God loves me, that I often can not believe God cares for me, that, in fact, most of the time I believe God is pretty disgusted with me. His response was the typical, “your identity should be in Christ, not your sin.” I answered “but you are demanding I do something I can not do.” He took exception to my use of the word “demand” and responded, “I am not demanding you do anything. I am inviting you to see yourself as a loved child of God.” He did not get it. My problem was not with the verb he used, demand or invite, but with the subject of the sentence. He kept making me the subject, the doer, the active principle. Whatever verb he chose, he was still asking me to do something I could not and can not do.
In 2009 I myself was actually somewhat surprised by my own inability to place my identity in Christ.
I had always been a pretty independent person I think, at least in terms of personal relationships. As a teen it was tough to form friendships anyway. The boys were always talking about girls or sports, neither of which interested me. And the boys I might have wanted to be friends with were also the ones that were sexually attractive to me – that made friendships of any kind rather hard to figure out. It was easier just to forgo close relationships. Besides, would it really be fair to make friends? I mean, I was a fag. If I made a friend and never told him, wouldn't that be rather dishonest and mean of me? It would be like one of those movie scenes where the cooks spits on the customer's steak – something that seemed good but was really nasty. I could not do that to another kid. It would not be fair to let someone be friends with someone like myself. Frankly, I lived most of my life terrified that I am going to let down those who depend on me or like me. So, for me, being alone was a choice. Not perhaps a good choice as I tend to experience extreme depression when I am by myself, but it seemed the easier choice. I decided I was the lone wolf – or perhaps Coyote since “wolf” never really fit my personality. I didn't need people. I could love them and admire them and serve them. And I do admire people. I have never met a person I thought was ugly or worthless. I am constantly amazed by the beauty and glory of human beings. But I did not need them. I could handle myself and decide for myself what my life would be like. I was fine all alone, I told myself.
And I got alone tolerably well until 2009.
In 2009 when gay marriage became legal in Iowa and the ELCA moved in a gay affirming direction by accepting committed same sex relationships as marriage, the discussion of homosexuality in the LCMS really took off. Suddenly, it was the only thing talked about in conferences and conventions. People asked questions in Bible classes and pastors expressed opinions on blogs and through news letters and in conversations. And I fell apart.
I never really figured God particularly loved me and I was certain He did not like me very much. If I was afraid of letting people down, it was even worse with God – after all, He knew what I was really like. But I held on, figuring someday I would die and God would fix me and change me into something he could tolerate. And that kind of faith got me through most things. But it just could not stand against the constant barrage of complaints and attacks on homosexuals by people that I really admired, ie Christians. I could not bring myself to be angry at people I admired so much. At least not for very long. So I became angry at myself instead. Of course pastors and Christians were saying these things – after all, what else could they do? People like me, in my mind, were awful and deserved to be called perverts and queers and joked about and hated. It really came to a head one day as I was walking – I used to love to walk as a kid and a teen. It was nice to be away from people, away from the constant struggle to “act normal” and to just relax and enjoy nature. Then one day I was walking and enjoying the breeze and the sunshine when it hit me, “I am stealing from God! God did not invent this world and its wonders for a piece of crap like me. He made it for people, human beings whom He loves. He did not make it for a pervert like me. By enjoying it I was taking what was not mine – I was stealing from God Himself. How fucked up do you have to be to do that? To steal from God?”
Sound weird? Granted. But when we speak of despairing sinners created by all Law and little or no Gospel, is this not exactly what we are talking about? Those who have come to the point where they believe God can not love them, can not like them and certainly does not want them. Theological truths have a foundation in reality – they are not merely philosophical speculation. They are real living, breathing people, people who can be hurt and who often die in despair and hopelessness.
It is amazing how the opinions of others affects our identity, even when we think we have built ourselves a strong little fortress with walls thick enough to keep out human affection and criticism. For all my defenses I simply could not stand against the sheer volume of anger and venom that poured out of the Church at that time. Or perhaps, “poured out” is the wrong image. After all, very little of it had any impact at all beyond the walls of the congregations and institutions of Synod. So perhaps “poured in” would be better as the only people impacted by it were those of us who had remained, who were there in the congregations, the churches and the conferences to hear.
The fact is that in the end, none of us really forms our own identity any more than any of us engenders faith in ourselves or can “decide” to follow Jesus. Identity, at least identity in Christ, flows from faith. And that we have power to create or decide to have faith is the great lie of the modern American semi-pelagian theology that infects so many churches around us and has crept even in to the LCMS.
So also is the lie that, having faith, we can force ourselves into an identity in Christ.
In the New Testament there are two people Jesus Himself complimented for their great faith. It is unlikely either one recognized their own faith for what it was. It is certain that neither had, at least until that moment, put their identity in Christ or in faith.
The first was the Roman centurion who asked Christ to heal his servant. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof...” (Luke 7:6) Can we truly say this man had “put his identity in Christ?” The second was the Canaanite woman whose daughter had a demon, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” Was her “identity in Christ?” By the way, please notice that she does not claim the position even of a dog receiving crumbs from the table. It is her daughter she is pleading for, not herself. For herself she asks nothing.
Any identity these two had in Christ came AFTER he listened to them and helped them, after His love was demonstrated, not before. Apparently, an identity in Christ, then, is not something which is automatically granted with faith. It would seem that it is something which grows over time or is granted as Christ Himself helps us understand our relationship to Him through Word and Sacrament.
If two people of such great faith in the Bible did not have “an identity in Christ” until Christ Himself spoke it, can we find it strange, then, that anyone who has grown up from the age of 11 or 12 without the Gospel may find it hard to have such an identity in Christ?
The reality is that we need to understand how identity forms if we are to connect faith and identity, Christ and the LGBT kid. So let's talk a moment about some, though certainly not all, the factors that form our view of ourselves. Nate Collins, in his book “All But Invisible” has done a great job of laying out the formation of identity. So I am only going to deal with a couple of the more important factors. But I would recommend pastors read his book. It is quite good.
As with all practical theology, we have to begin with people where they are, not where we wish they were. We can not do an end run around reality. So we need to start with those factors which form our identity in this world. The Gospel does not erase these things but it can transform them.
Human beings are a physical creation, with physical bodies. And this is very good. How many of us, even adults, have watched Harry Potter or similar movies and thought “wouldn't it be cool if magic were real?” Well, no it would not, actually. The abilities of our incarnate selves expressed in bodies and brains are amazing. But the limitations are every bit as important as the abilities. Simple physical restrictions like friction and gravity are vital to life. Without friction we could not move. Without gravity we could not interact with other physical things. These are limitations but they are limitations which enable life and relationships. The simple reality of the body means there is a place in space and time that is “me” and one that is “you.” You can convey the thoughts and feelings from your mind to mine – but only through the medium of the physical world we inhabit. You can not do so without the use of the physical manipulation of sound and light and matter. You can not, therefore, force me to think what you think or feel what you feel. And this is a good thing. But you can express how you feel and what you think. Together, the abilities and limitations enable humans, as spiritual/physical beings to maintain an independent self and life while allowing us to communicate and share with one another. Hurts, pains, joys, happiness are all physical experiences. We can reach out and touch others in anger or in love. We can create homes and art and song using the raw materials God has provided. Magic is the desire to do what we wish without the limitations of the physical world – it is, in essence, a rebellion against the very good limitations God has places on our reality. It would allow one self to utterly dominate and overwhelm other selves. Magic would make this a miserable world in which to live – even more miserable than it already is. The physical body is a very good creation.
The reality is that we are physical beings, not just souls inhabiting a body for a little while. We were built to be a unified whole of body and spirit and aside from the unnatural state in which we will exist between death and the resurrection, we can not fully separate our body from our mind, nor should we. And that means we endure pain when the body does not function as it should and conflict and distress when body and mind do not correspond.
I work with those who have handicaps. Every day they deal with obstacles most of us never even have to consider. When they go somewhere, even to the grocery store, they have to worry whether there will be someone to open the door, help them put groceries on the conveyor belt, whether there will be cut-outs in the sidewalks and where those cut-outs are, and whether the restroom will be accessible to them. Some have developmental disabilities. They struggle everyday to fit in to a society where, if you are not productive you are seen as worthless. They try to understand a world that it often out of their reach. Because they are scared, they often react emotionally in anger or aggression and wind up labeled as “stubborn” or “violent” when they are just afraid. Their physical reality governs their lives.
People are born with different shades of skin, different colors of hair, different colors of eyes, different shapes of body and face, different abilities and different personalities. Some are considered beautiful and have more opportunities in career, family life and society. Yet they are left wondering if they are valued for their abilities or just their looks. Others are not seen as beautiful and find themselves more limited in opportunities others extend to them. Yet when they earn a position or a lover, they know they are valued for who they are and not how they look. Some are born with darker skin and, as Nate Collins reminds us, for all the talk today denying “racial privilege” my father never had to sit me down and tell me how to respond to a police officer who might pull me over for fear I might get shot if I responded incorrectly. I have been stopped occasionally for speeding yet never had my car searched. Yet these are realities many African American kids face.
The physical world is real and confronts us daily, both good and bad. We can not escape it.
And I think we are at the point where we have to admit that one's sexual orientation and sense of gender is, at least partly, perhaps mostly, a result of a physical reality. We could argue endlessly whether homosexuality and gender dysphoria are result of the corruption of sin, handicaps or conditions, blessing or curse. But what we really can not deny is that there is something physical that contributes significantly to one's view of self and to one's reaction and attraction to others.
Unless the Church is willing to take seriously the reality of this physicality and its contribution to one's view of self, to identity, Christianity will become more and more irrelevant on such issues.
For example, these days I often hear pastors compare transgender-ism to Gnosticism, that those who seek to transition from one sex to another are denying the reality and the importance of the body, that they see the body as alterable to fit one's desires or wishes. I think, in fact, what is happening in the current treatment of transgender-ism in society is actually diametrically opposed to Gnosticism. The search to match body and mind acknowledges that the mind is intimately tied to the physical. It acknowledges that in conditions like gender dysphoria people are experiencing two opposing physical realities. For years counselors and psychologist tried to alter the mind to accept and adjust to the sex of the body or to change who one is sexually attracted to. It didn't work for many. It may have worked for some. But not for all. So now the focus is to change the shape, appearance and feel of the body to match the mind or the brain.
I can't say I am comfortable with altering the body, especially with removing functioning reproductive organs that can not be replaced. Nor do I think doing so can truly give anyone the experience they seek. A person who is female in outlook but male in body may be given the appearance and many of the experiences of being female. But they will never experience some of the most important aspects of the female body and life – there will be no menstrual cycle, no fear or joy of pregnancy. Is it worth it to give up these fundamental realities of the human experience in order to match body and brain? I don't know. Thank God I do not have to make that choice.
But what is not happening is a denial of the importance of the body. If anything, treatments of gender dysphoria by transitioning acknowledges the overwhelming importance of the body and the excruciating experience for many of those whose sense of self does not match their physical form.
If I was shocked at how much my identity was influenced by the attitudes of others when I thought I had shielded myself from such dependence, it would seem Melinda Selmys, who is gender dysphic was equally shocked by how her view of herself was influenced by the simple physicality of hormones. She wrote on her blog:
“There are two really major fluctuations that I’ve experienced. One was about two years ago, when my dysphoria really intensified. I’d always felt some alienation from my femininity, but this was relentless. It wasn’t just a sense of not fitting in with other women, or of not being able to conform to gender stereotypes, it was a feeling of not being a woman at all. The conspicuously female parts of my body felt like they didn’t belong to me, and I felt really uncomfortable and fake when I had to go out and behave like a woman in public.
Then one morning, in early April, I woke up and the feeling of dysphoria was gone. Well, not completely gone but diminished to the point where it just felt like background radiation rather than like one of the central defining elements of my experience. I felt like I belonged again in my female body, and I wanted to do traditionally feminine things. I called my daughter down and sewed some dolls clothes and started thinking about how I might like to redecorate my bathroom. It was really weird and I didn’t have an explanation for it, but at the time I was really just too busy to get my knickers in a knot worrying about why I was no longer suffering with a constant sense of my body being wrong.
Two weeks later, I realized that I’d missed my period and the pregnancy test came back with two cute little pink lines. I wasn’t planning to get pregnant. I didn’t think that I was pregnant. I actually thought that I’d carefully avoided my fertile days and was guaranteed to NOT be pregnant. Yet in spite of the fact that there was no way that I could have known about my pregnancy, my body and my psyche were responding to a surge of hormones. In fact, from the dating ultrasound and my own records, I happen to know that the sudden drop in my feelings of dysphoria coincided more or less exactly with the hormonal changes that accompany implantation.
As soon as I realized this I also realized that the sudden increase in dysphoria two years ago probably had the same cause: when I lost my previous pregnancy to miscarriage suddenly, for the first time in my adult life, I was not pregnant or breastfeeding. In both cases, the changes in the intensity of my gender dysphoria were obviously linked directly to biological events.”
For many, at least, the experience of gender dysphoria seems linked to the physical body, including hormones, over which one has little or no control.
As with gender dysphoria, homosexuality seems to have some kind of physical link. Or, at least, it has not been successfully or consistently reversible or preventable using any of the socializing methods tried so far. Counseling does not seem to do it. Behavioral modification can influence actions but seems to have little power to form an attraction to the opposite sex. Reparative therapy can do some good things – especially in those cases where there is a serious disconnect between parent and child. But it seems to be fairly useless at changing orientation. And the good things it does, by the way, can be done by other forms of counseling. Further, we know that the condition of inter-sexism exists in which a child is born with genitalia that do not match either the male nor the female norm. Generally this is caused by a failure at some point in the hormonal system during fetal development. It is reasonable to assume that a similar condition can exist, perhaps also because of hormonal imbalance, in which the brain does not quite match the norm for attractions or gender identity. In fact, this is a reality we really ought to expect in a world in which the physical has been corrupted as a result of primeval sin. The body is no longer as God designed it, in anyone. Surely it is not unreasonable to assume that this physical deviation from the original blue print of the body can impact sexuality and the experience of gender.
That being said, the question, at least at this time in history, is not how do we fix homosexuality or gender dysphoria (which is the question asked by most orientation change therapy) but what do we do for those who experience these things? This is the question that should be, and is not, asked and answered by the Church. The physical reality of LGBT-ism is the first factor in self identity for those of us who experience these issues. And it can not be overcome by merely scolding the individual that “your identity should be in Christ.” That identity, rather, must be formed just as faith is formed, by the ministerial application of the means of grace.
The second factor in identity is how these physical differences are treated, especially by those we most care about.
I mentioned before the situation of African American families who have to teach their sons how to respond to being stopped by police for fear of them being shot or injured in situations where a white kid would not have to be afraid. Similarly, a few years ago, I saw a youtube video of an experiment in which a white guy, a black guy and a white girl took turns trying to saw a chain off a bicycle locked to a pole. All were careful not to actually identify the bike as theirs nor to make an excuse like “I lost the key.” When the young white man was working with the chain, people stopped and talked and showed some suspicion but generally moved on. When it was the white young woman, men actually stopped and helped her get the chain off. But when it was the young black man, people threatened to call the police. Now, obviously, there could have been a lot of selective editing going on. But a video like that does ring true because it coincides with a general prejudice in America that a young black man is more likely to be a bicycle thief than a young, attractive, white woman. Differences in skin color are a physical reality. The distress/stress experienced by those of one skin color or another, however, results from the way that difference is seen and treated by society. Like it or not, social experiences in regard to physical differences results in the creation of our identities and how we view ourselves.
We have an example of such treatment of a physical abnormality in the Bible.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2 ESV) It is interesting that the question is not “did someone sin?” That sin, not the primal sin of Adam and Eve, but either some pre-natal sin on the part of the man or some sin by his parents is simply assumed to be the cause of this man's physical condition. This man himself, in the disciples' eyes, is either a grave sinner or a punishment. One can only imagine what I must have been like for him growing up with guilt for a sin he himself could not even identify or with guilt for making his parents ashamed of some sin they never even committed. Or a combination of both.
Unfortunately, if you grew up gay or gender dysphoric, you don't have to imagine. It is your everyday experience. The kids at school let you know as soon as they sensed you were different (often before you even realized what exactly made you different). You heard from the pulpit and read in respected Christian magazines that LGBT people were ruining your nation and leading this world down the destructive path of Rome. You were told by the Church that you were an abomination. The Boy Scouts and the Armed Forces let you know you were perverted and not welcome to camp with your peers or die for your country. And then, if you sought help, there was a sort of relief in therapy that told you it was not you who sinned but your parents. Your father did not bond with you like he should have. Your mother smothered you. It was there fault. And many families were torn apart by this accusation and the shame it brought.
It is not the physical differences alone that create our view of self but how those differences are treated by society and those we love and respect.
In her article “Do No Harm” in the book “Living the Truth in Love,” Dr Janelle Hallman does an excellent job of conveying how we form our identity and sense of worth as we see ourselves reflected in the mirrors of our parents, our teachers, our friends and our pastors. Infants respond to facial expressions of mom with either joy or distress depending on what they see in her face. For her face reveals to them whether they are loved and, therefore, secure and cared for or whether they are a burden and an irritation. The actions of Mom and Dad in responding to and fulfilling the child's needs reflect to that child his or her worth. The words and experiences of relationship with friends, teachers and pastors tell us our worth in their eyes. These mirrors help form our identity as we are either accepted or rejected by those whose love we find important, as we are told we are worthwhile and wanted or a source of shame for our loved ones.
But for those of us who are LGBT and for whom religion is very important, the mirrors in our childhood and youth reflected a very distorted image, an image which became our identity. Without realizing someone in the congregation was experiencing attraction to their own sex, pastors and religious leaders condemn and judge “homosexuals.” This is reflected at home as mom and dad discuss various issues of the day and, without realizing their son or daughter is experiencing same sex attraction or gender confusion, express, at best, pity for homosexuals or, worse, disdain and anger. The attitude at church translates into bullying and cruelty by kids on the playground. These words and actions become very distorted mirrors for the adolescent LGBT kid's sense of self and worth. The message is conveyed and absorbed by the child or teen, “you are worthless, you are a source of shame, you are an abomination to the God you love.” Our sense of self is, in fact, the mirror of the law translated through the lens of those we love. And it can be a very cloudy and distorted mirror indeed.
Now, it is obvious how crude jokes and comments can make a LGBT youth feel worthless and unwanted, or even worse. But what I want to deal with is more subtle and foundational, I want to deal with some of the attitudes pastors have and express that clearly put the identity of the same sex attracted or gender dysphoric kid outside of Christ, that specifically separate the gay kid from the Body of Jesus. These underlying attitudes not only fail to help a same sex attracted kid build an identity in Christ, the actually prevent him or her from being able to do so.
1: Homosexuality and LGBT people are spoken of as if they were automatically OUTSIDE the Church, that they are separate from the Body of Christ. This is most clear in the article from the LCMS task force on sexuality “My Heart Overflows.” (you can find these documents on LCMS.org under "social issues/sexuality")Firstly the only people the author mentions her heart overflowing for are not same sex attracted people but their family members. As a same sex attracted person reading this, what it said to me is that my existence is a cause for pain for my family. Had I read this article as a teen that would have been especially devastating to me. Secondly, as often happens when Christians speak of same sex attracted people, the author sets up the categories of “us” as believers and “them” as “same sex attracted people.” For instance, at the end of the 3rd paragraph and beginning of the 4th, she says: “Undoubtedly, you have friends and family struggling with same-sex attraction as well. We don’t often know what to say to them......” Now, of course, "us" and "them" language is natural for the first part of the letter as she is addressing family and friends of gay people rather than LGBT people themselves. But, this separation of categories is unfortunately carried over into the one paragraph with strong Gospel which begins with “We are sinners too” (“we” and “too” emphasizing the distinction) and then continues the use of “we” and “us” throughout the paragraph.” When she does address the issue of those who are same sex attracted, she say “We can encourage them to repent and then let the Holy Spirit do His work.” There is no following application of Gospel except for the forgiveness offered to Christians who fail to speak when they should. Given that she has consistently used the label “struggles with same sex attraction” throughout, a label that is specific for someone who is repentant and does not desire to be gay, what she has just advocated is that already repentant sinners need to be brought to even further repentance. Except for one brief mention that same sex attracted people need to be given both Law and Gospel, there is no other referenced to the Gospel given to those who are attracted to their own sex.
This treatment of homosexuality as if it occurred outside the Church is clearly seen in the results of the task force in that the majority of the documents dealt with social stands and social issues rather than ministry. Obviously the members of the task force simply could keep their work focused on ministry and kept falling into the assumption that the majority of work the Church must do in relation to homosexuality is external to the Body of Christ.
This failing is exacerbated when homosexuality is spoken of not only as outside the Church but as a special and different, even worse, category of sin than that experienced by straight people. I already covered some examples of this earlier but, seriously, have you ever heard heterosexuals referred to as “struggling with opposite sex attraction” or “burdened by heterosexuality.” Such phrase would make one think of a sexual addict, someone hooked on pornography or serial adultery. Yet these appellations are ubiquitous for gay people in the Church. What view of self do you think that reflects to the gay kid?
All this is further emphasized and exacerbated when stands the LCMS has taken in response to various issues have been stands against persons rather than behavior. As an example, in 2013 the Boy Scouts of America voted to allow gay kids to join the organization. They were clear that the same rules would apply that apply to straight kids – they were not to be sexually active. In other words, the boys BSA allowed to join were boys like I had been, boys who knew they were attracted to their own sex but chose not to act on that attraction or, at least, had not made up their mind to do so. Yet the LCMS was so disturbed by this action that we actually insisted on a letter of understanding with BSA that would allow our groups to continue to exclude sexually inactive same sex attracted kids (Yes, the document said that kids would be excluded only on the basis of promoting a political view or sinful lifestyle. But in a Church culture that is fond of saying to anyone "your identity should be in Christ, not your sexuality," even saying "I am gay" could easily be feared by kids as grounds for exclusion). This was clearly and blatantly a stand against people, against teens, not against immorality or behavior, emphasizing that same sex attracted kids are not really seen as part of Christ's Body and should be kept apart from the straight sons of Church members.
Frankly, stands like this, stands that attack people instead of behavior, scare me to death because, as a kid, I absorbed these reflections of myself from the people around me very deeply. As a teen I completely agreed with the Boy Scouts' stand against gay kids. It made sense to me. I knew myself to be utterly perverted and completely accepted that I could not and should not be allowed to join BSA. Ironically, when I grew to be an adult I heard others talk about their experiences in Boy Scouts and realized there was actually a lot of sexual experimentation going on among the straight boys on those comping trips. Apparently, keeping me and other gay kids out didn't reduce the amount of male to male sexual behavior of the Boy Scouts at all. It was, as I stated before, a policy directed against persons, not behavior.
I could go on with multiple examples, some crude like the pastor in Wyoming who joked that we should wait on courthouse steps to lovingly shoot gay couple coming to get married, others more subtle like attending a conference on homosexuality in which I was assured there would be “lots of Gospel” only to find that, similarly to the task force, the majority of the subjects were social stands and the Gospel was, well, there but not much. All of these things, especially the lack of Gospel directed toward those who are same sex attracted or gender dysphoric, convey an underlying sense that LGBT people are not part of the Church, are not actually loved by God. The message is quite clear – Remember what I said earlier that is not about how LGBT identify themselves. It is how they suspect YOU identify them that gives your words such power to sting and causes so much damage – when pastors and task forces and synodical officials speak as if homosexual or transgender people are in a separate category from Christians, the image that is reflected to the same sex attracted kid or the kid struggling with the concept of gender is “you are not part of the Church. Christ does not love you!”
2: No actual ministry is offered to LGBT people. Once again, turning to the documents from the task force on sexuality; the Means of Grace, Communion, preaching, the Word, Baptism are all neglected. Baptism is mentioned once or twice in passing but hardly as an offering of mercy. There are no examples of how to apply the liturgy, how to address homosexuality in a sermon, only one brief example of a Bible study – and that is focused mostly on the Law and only a small amount on the Gospel. There is nothing about what to say to a confirmation class so that any same sex attracted teens will be ministered to. There is not one thing that is uniquely Lutheran about all except maybe one article. Thankfully, the task force did avoid some of the more egregious forms of natural law arguments. But very little of what the Church could offer or how the Church could really minister in a uniquely Lutheran manner was addressed. Ministry was most notable mostly by its absence. Thus, even if a gay person were to be brought to repentance through these articles, he would still be left to search for “ministry” outside of Law/Gospel ministry of the congregation. Basically, “ministry” as it appears in these documents boils down to “keep people from having sex.” The absence of any real indication of “ministry” only reinforces the categorical concept that same sex attracted people are outside of Christ's Body.
Beyond such documents purportedly aimed at “ministry to those who struggle with same sex attraction” the absence of any real discussion of ministry in the Church at large is even more striking. Of course, there was the Church's reaction during the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s. People were sick and dying – a situation the Church is uniquely equipped for with the means to reach out, show compassion and give love. And Christians did nothing. Some Christians even appeared to rejoice in the death of LGBT people. That sends a tremendous message of hate not only to those who are dying but to friends and family members who care for them.
Then, there has been the Church's reaction to bullying. I have heard and read multiple times in christian discussions and blogs that, while Christians decry bullying, to enact legislation or encourage school anti-bullying programs would be to create a “protected class of people” ie – gay kids. Again, the Church is uniquely equipped to address bullying by reminding people of the inherent dignity of all individuals created in the image of God. Yet, once again, I have seen the Church do virtually nothing except whine about how school efforts to end bullying promote the “gay agenda.” I have yet to see a single practical suggestion put forth by any pastor about what to do to end bullying of gay/transgender kids.
Further, a couple of years ago McHugh and Mayer released a study that purported to show that gay people face more mental health issues than straight and that not all of those mental health issues can be directly tied to the treatment of gay people. There are some major problems with that study but, pretending for a moment that it was accurate, the Church was presented with a group of people who face depression and suicidality on scale much higher than the norm. Yet, instead of asking what could be done to help, the only use I saw of that study by conservative Christians was to gloat that “we are right and the 'gay agenda' is wrong.” Is there any other group of people facing such distress that Christians would not at least begin to ask “what can we do to help?”
Sometimes the absence of compassion creates a message of absence of humanity and worthlessness as strong as actual abuse and mistreatment. It creates a Church culture in which the message to the LGBT kid is that the Gospel and ministry is for everyone but people like you.
3: What little ministry is offered is aimed primarily at a change of behavior or orientation rather than Gospel: Referencing, once again, the resources produced by the task force on sexuality which, recall, was commissioned to help those struggling with same sex attractions, we come to the article “Is There Any Hope For Me.” In answering the question posed by the gay believer, “can God love me?” the author gave five points. The first one was fine and the article should have ended at that point. Unfortunately the author continued with points 2-4 which compared same sex attraction to an addiction. Now let's be clear, an addiction requires behavior. By definition one is an addict if one continues to engage in a behavior even when it is detrimental to one's health or well being. A person may have a propensity to alcoholism encoded into their genes. But, if he never gets drunk or has only done so on very rare occasions, he is not an alcoholic. The person whose question this author was answering says he is already celibate. He will certainly have moments when attraction leads him to sins of the mind – which does, indeed, call for the repeated application of forgiveness. But to answer a person who is already doing his best to obey God and who is asking, “does God love me?” with what amounts to “God will fix you” creates an insidious kind of works righteousness. “Does God love me?” “Good news, He will fix you someday!” This sends the clear message, “No God does not really love you but maybe He will someday when you are no longer attracted to guys.” In most cases this so-called “freedom” will not come in this life. The vast majority of those attracted to their own sex will remain so attracted their entire lives regardless of what efforts they make to change.
Such an answer given to a teen who has tried and failed to make himself straight, who has come to the Church searching for some sense of relief from the constant guilt of fighting his orientation and failing, leads to despair. What little hope it offers is not in Christ's love now but in the promise that maybe, after death, that love will be available. It produces a teen like I was on at least one occasion, sitting in the bathroom with an Exacto knife trying to find the courage to either castrate himself or slit his wrists because he needed God's love but was convinced he could not have it until he had first become straight or dead.
This is even worse in the article, “Princeton Prof to LCMS: Support Biblical Marriage” in which Dr Beverly Yahnke is quoted as saying “The church is not anti-homosexual; it is anti-homosexual behavior. We have the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and for the people in our churches who are living celibate homosexual lives, we want to wrap the Gospel of Jesus Christ around them.” Although, I suspect the quote was taken out of context, that it was included in this manner in an official document from an LCMS task force is especially troubling as it sets neither repentance nor the desire to be celibate as the requirement for the Gospel but actual achievement of celibacy as the qualifier to be wrapped in the Gospel of Christ. In other words, sanctification is placed before the Gospel. One must change one's behavior before being loved by God, forgiven by Him or offered His mercy.
Stepping away from the task force's documents for a moment, I want to take a look at the essay, “From Taboo to Delight: The body, Sex, and Love in View of Creation and Eschatology” in the book “The Ethics of Sex, from Taboo to Delight” from CPH. When ministry to homosexuals is addressed here, the author, Dr Grobien, references the work of Lisa Diamond who proposes that sexuality is fluid. According to Dr Diamond, a straight person may experience sexual attraction to an individual of the same sex with whom he or she has formed a strong emotional attraction. So also, a gay individual may form a sexual attraction to a person of the opposite sex under the same circumstance. After discussing the work of Dr Diamond, the author says, “This opens up possibilities for the Church to serve those who will hear her call to sexual fulfillment by inviting them into habits, lifestyles, and relationships that will serve true sexual fulfillment and thwart sexual behavior based on desire and physical pleasure.” There is, by the way, no gospel offered at all to same sex attracted people in this particular essay – only the attempt to help the gay believer live a morally approved live.
(As an aside, I would really caution against using Dr Diamond's findings to try and change a young member's orientation or to influence sexual behavior. To do so would mean encouraging opposite sex relationships for gay kids. Of course opposite sex friendships happen naturally and and are good when they do. Friendship must even be part of the Church's ministry. But to push such relationship with an ulterior motive, that of changing orientation or influencing sexual behavior, would be dangerous. Gay boys already face a lot of pressure to “try it with a girl and see if you like it.” And lesbian teen girls could be put in very vulnerable spot among teen boys who could easily take their relationship “too far” in an attempt to make her straight, especially if they believe doing so is sanctioned by their church. Too many LGBT kids have faced this kind of behavior without the Church pushing it even further. So, while I think Dr Diamond's work is valuable for learning about sexuality, I would be extremely cautious about basing any ministry on it.)
These are only a few examples of the attitude that “ministry” to gay people means either helping them change or pointing them to someday when they will be made miraculously “normal” rather than applying the Gospel. And this is in the LCMS where the Gospel is at least given a mention now and then. It is even worse if you read the stuff coming from evangelical and other conservative sourced.
When the Gospel is assumed rather than applied, sanctification become works righteousness.
When ministry is almost entirely focused on a change of behavior or orientation or when the Gospel is mentioned only briefly and chiefly as a means by which to achieve changes, what is being taught is blatant works righteousness. I am not saying that a same sex attracted believer should not consider their behavior and strive to bring their sexual thought and deeds into line with God's Word. But when the Church skips the Gospel and jumps to how we should live, when sanctification is placed prior to justification in either time or importance, the reflection of identity to the LGBT teen is that he or she is not, and can not be, part of the Church, Christian and loved by God without first achieving a righteousness outside of faith.
Altogether, when LGBT people are spoken of as separated from the Church, Gospel centered ministry is lacking, and the focus of what ministry is given is upon changed orientation or changed behavior, the same sex attracted teen or the gender dysphoric young person receives a clear message that he or she is not a member of the Body of Christ, that in the eyes of their pastor and their Church, they are not loved by God. So when we talk about LGBT people not having an identity in Christ, it is a clear result of the reflection of themselves in the eyes, attitudes and actions of the pastors and religious leaders they love and admire. It is the Church, not society, that has prevented the LGBT young person from having an identity in Christ.
In 2009 a study was conducted by Wood, Perunovic, & Lee assessing the affects of positive self talk, that ubiquitous tool used by therapist to boost the self esteem of patients, especially those experiencing depression. Interestingly, the study demonstrated that positive self talk did have positive effects on those who already had a fairly high self esteem. However, for those who had a low self esteem, exactly the people positive self help is supposed to benefit the most, the effects of positive self talk were essentially negative. They actually felt worse about themselves. What it seems to have come down to was the fact that in telling themselves “I am a lovable person” they were saying something they believed to be untrue. And because they believed it to be untrue, it hurt rather than helped.
Unfortunately, the current trend in ministry, which is to chastise gay Christians with the canard “your identity should be in Christ rather than your sexuality (or sin), is little more than a self help tool similar to positive self talk and just as ineffective.
Firstly, I have often heard that little canard use in a truly diabolical manner. A pastor says something that hits a LGBT Christian really hard. That Christian complains about how it hurt him or shamed him. And the response is “but your identity should be in Christ.” Rather than apologizing for having said something obnoxious or presenting law without Gospel, the pastor or Christian leader puts the burden of sin on the individual who was hurt. Basically it says “if you were really Christians, if you had put your identity in Christ, you would not have been hurt – it is your fault that what I said upset you.” It gives Christians carte blanche to say whatever they want, no matter how Christless or how rude, about gay people without bearing any guilt for doing so. The guilt is placed on the gay teen or adult who is upset by the statement or action. It is actually a pretty common tactic in any abuse situation in which the abuser blames the victim. We see similar behaviors in abusive spouses and parents. But we should not be seeing such behavior in the ministry.
Secondly, however, it reflects neither the biblical nor Lutheran doctrine but a modern American version of Christianity which sees “ministry” as primarily educational and “faith” as making a decision for Christ. Much of popular Christianity today seems to consist mostly of educating people about who Christ is and what He did, some about the Bible and a lot about what we should do and how we should behave. The listener, then, is expected to make a decisions for Christ, having been adequately educated in the truth of Christianity, and to apply the Gospel to him or herself. This is not the Lutheran way, although it is quickly making inroads into Lutheranism. In Lutheranism, the pastor does not merely speak about the Gospel but actually applies the Gospel. He is not called to tell the sheep where to go to find food – he feeds them. Through the means of grace, baptism and communion, the pastor does much more than offer symbol of God's love or our commitment. He gives them the physical touch of Christ in communion and establishes a relationship by bringing them into God's own family in Baptism. We follow a lectionary because we are not primarily concerned about educating (if that were the case, mentioning a Bible passage once or twice ever five years or so would be enough). We follow the lectionary because our lives ebb and flow by the life of Christ. So every year we follow His life and ministry from birth to ascension to return – again and again and again. We do this less to learn and more to live in the truth “this is who Jesus is and who we are.” We celebrate a liturgy every week. It is boring if we think of Christianity educationally, “I already know this, why don't we do something new?” But we do it because we are not educating, we are abiding. We do this because on Sunday morning we are with the Saints in heaven singing “worthy is the Lamb,” the crowds and the angels on Palm Sunday shouting “Hosanna in the Highest” and with the people of Israel receiving the name of God “The Lord bless you and keep you....”
If we want people to have an identity in Christ then telling them to respond to information given to them is not the way to go. Rather, the way is to say to them “this is who you are.” We have to give them that identity. We need to reflect it to them in real ministry, real Gospel actually applied and not just talked about. And this means being pro-active with the Gospel. We need to start thinking in a Gospel centered manner so that the identity the LGBT teen reflected to him by the Church is truly and identity in Christ.
The Gospel is the key. So, now, finally, let's jump into that Gospel.
Continue to Part 4: The Doctrine of Justification, why just saying “God forgives sins” is not adequate Gospel and a couple of illustrations of the Doctrine of Justification.