In the eyes of many, the idea that churches can take a ‘welcoming but not affirming’ attitude towards LGBT people is absurd. It inevitably leads to treating people as second class Christians, tolerated but not fully integrated into the life of the church.
The perceived absurdity is compounded by the myth that only two possibilities exist: either that of full and unconditional acceptance and affirmation, or that of rejection. Any kind of middle ground is rarely explored.
I found this article by Father Chris Schutte to be helpful in setting out a basis for a ‘welcoming but not affirming’ approach.
What follows draws heavily on that article.
When we read the Gospels, we find that Jesus ‘seemed to delight in pursuing, loving, and restoring the outcast, the marginalized, and the excluded.’ We think of the woman at the well, with her five husbands plus the man she was not living with; of the woman caught in adultery; and of Zacchaeus, who had become rich through dishonest means. Jesus not only welcomed then: he actively pursued them
It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that he would have the same attitude towards the LGBT people of today. And, if we claim to have the mind of Christ, so too should we.
This practice of not only welcoming but actively pursuing those broken-hearted, beat-up, and vulnerable divine-image bearers for whom Christ was pleased to die seems thoroughly biblical, and the implications for how the church engages with the LGBT community are profound.
However, alongside this radical welcome we must place scriptural teaching on sexual intimacy. The Bible’s affirmation of marriage as being between one man and one woman, and also its prohibition of alternatives, seem inescapable.
So, the question is how we can integrate the radical welcome of Jesus with the biblical stance with regard to heterosexual and homosexual relations.
Returning to the three examples from the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus felt if perfectly possible to affirm the person, while refusing to affirm the behaviour (serial marriage, adultery, and financial malpractice respectively).
In other words, Jesus models how to ‘welcome but not affirm’
But as a result of their encounter with Jesus, these people were changed. The Samaritan woman became an evangelist, the woman caught in adultery went on her way with an instruction to ‘sin no more’, and Zacchaeus made restitution by giving away half his wealth.
Jesus issues two calls to discipleship. One is a call to self-denial (Matthew 16:24), and the other a call to ‘rest’ (Matthew 11:28-29).
Discipleship as a life of both freedom and self-denial is a paradox at heart of Christian life. Living in this tension has implications for each of us—gay and straight—as we seek to give and receive love in Jesus’ new community called the church, full of broken, yet redeemed, people longing for the new creation.
We have a lot to learn about how this all works out in the life of the church. At the very least, we can say that
- It’s probably wise to assume that sexual orientation is relatively fixed. We are unlikely, therefore to be expecting people to change their orientation. But ‘if the church is asking gay and lesbian people to refrain from sexual intimacy, are we ready to create space for other expressions of love and intimacy?’
- We should make the time and effort to get to know LGBT people, and listen to their stories. Let’s not jump to any conclusions about why they are ‘that way’. Let’s not define anyone solely by his or her sexuality. Let’s humbly confess that ‘straight’ people have temptations of our own (although the extent to which they give in to them may not be widely known). Let’s make church a safe space for getting to know people, so that we can come together in repentance and faith before the God ‘to whom all hearts are open, all desires known.’
- Let’s advocate, as far as we are able, for the civil rights of LGBT people. They have a right to be free from oppression and unlawful discrimination.
- Let’s let it be known what we are for, in this matter of sexuality and relationships, and not simply what we are against. God’s plan for men and women is a good plan, whether it is always perceived as such or not. Let us not be forever in the so-called ‘clobber passages’ (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 22, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1), but also witness to the beauty and goodness of marriage, especially as modelled by the relationship between Christ and his church.
- Let’s, on the other hand, refuse dilute the Bible’s teaching on sexual purity by spurious analogies with slavery and the status of women. (Truth is, the Bible itself plants a time-bomb under prevailing practices in these areas, whereas there is no hint of any change in attitude towards same-sex relations, where the prohibitions go right back to creation and the Fall).
- Let’s beware of double standards. After all, divorce and remarriage is, with a couple of exceptions, discountenanced in the New Testament. And yet how many churches would permit a divorced and remarried person, but not an LGBT person, to share fully in the life of the church?
To be sure, ‘welcoming but not affirming’ is not an easy option. But we were not called to an easy life, but to a faithful life.