Identity and the Church – Can a church be inclusive without compromise?

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It’s no secret that one of the big debates in the Church today is how to pastorally respond to those of varying sexual orientations.

Churches the world over range from a permissive, arms-open approach to a more closed, even angry, approach. And any talk of trying to ‘strike a balance’ is futile, as there are as many opinions on this subject as there are Christians, with everyone holding a different idea of what that ‘balance’ would entail.

So – and I’m convinced of this – we need to find different solutions to working and worshiping together peacefully and lovingly. Solutions which embrace the diversity of opinion found within the Church and use it to strengthen our mission, not divide it.

It’s why I loved reading Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation earlier this year. And it’s why I was thrilled to attend Living Out’s Identity conference in London this June.

I’ve already blogged a few thoughts reflecting on this conference, firstly how culture shapes our identity (without us even realising), and secondly how affected I was by the testimony of four celibate, gay Christians. Do have a read if you haven’t already.

This is the third and final reflection, and it concerns our approach as churches.

Kathy Keller spoke wonderfully in the afternoon on the more practical issue of how we make our churches welcoming and inclusive, while holding to traditional Bible teaching about sex being for (heterosexual) marriage.

This will jar for those who don’t read the Bible this way, but one thing I found particularly strong was Kathy’s assertion that actually homosexual ‘sin’ is a lot less common/frequent than heterosexual ‘sin’ – purely by nature of there being more heterosexual than homosexual people in the world. Of course this is obvious really, isn’t it? Only I’d never thought of it this way.

In other words, where do our churches stand on teaching about sex within marriage generally? How do we address those who are living together outside marriage, those who have had affairs, those who are in the process of a divorce, those who are considering remarriage?

There are no easy answers, of course, to any of this – but the point is: sexual sin needs to be addressed as a whole. Singling out any one group of individuals is not helpful, and it certainly isn’t Biblical.

Living Out had produced a church inclusivity audit for the day, which I found incredibly helpful, not to mention challenging. If we really ask these questions of ourselves and our churches, where do we stand? I know we fall down in a number of areas.

For example:

“Church family members instinctively share meals, homes, holidays, festivals, money, children with others from different backgrounds and life situations to them.”

I’m not so sure that our church, diverse and welcoming as it is, really models this kind of sharing with those of different backgrounds. The thinking here is that if a church develops this kind of culture then it will make life easier for a person who has chosen, for whatever reason, to live a celibate lifestyle, as they will automatically feel included, and experience life-giving relationships within their church family.

Another example:

“All in your church know that we all experience sexual brokenness and all are being encouraged to confess their own sexual sins.”

I just don’t think that we talk about sex very much or very well! Are we encouraged to think about past sexual behaviour, and whether it was God-honouring? We might be in committed marital relationships, but have we ever asked God to forgive us for what we did before that, or for mixed motives even now?

Again, this general focus on sexual sin (rather than homosexual sin) is helpful, I think, as it sets high and challenging expectations for all of us.

You can download the full audit here and I really recommend taking a look – there are some stonking statements on there. In addition, there’s a great video of Ed Shaw (a same-sex attracted church leader) explaining at the conference how he went through this audit with his church leadership team.

There were some great books recommended during the conference which I wanted to mention here, as well as some of my own favourites:

Walking with Gay Friends – I found this incredibly helpful a few years ago in helping me think through this issue. The author is a Christian and a lesbian.

Space at the Table: Conversations between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son – this is on my to-read list, and looks amazing! Check out the trailer video here: it might make you cry!

The Gospel comes with a House Key – Rosaria Butterfield’s story of converting to Christianity as a gay, feminist academic is one I want to read – this is a follow-on book, where she describes the kind of radical hospitality Christians are called to give.

Mere Sexuality: rediscovering the Christian vision of sexuality

The plausibility problem – written by Ed Shaw, featured in the church audit video.

Gay girl, good God – I spotted this on Twitter, and it looks fascinating – the story of Jackie Hill Perry’s coming to faith.

Undivided – Vicky Beeching’s story, from a different perspective, has also been on my to-read list since it was released, and I know many of you have already read it.

Sexuality, Faith and the Art of Conversation – as mentioned. Read my review here!

Happy reading!

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5 Comments

  1. I found that audit so helpful, and later looked through it with a friend from my church. We both love our church and there is so much good fruit coming into bloom here – I’m honoured to be a part of it. However – as with many churches I’m sure – we both agreed we could be doing better in several of the areas highlighted by this audit, including the two you mention actually. So – we hope to be part of the change we want to see! I have also mentioned it to leadership, who suggested that Ed Shaw be invited to come and speak to us as a church, which I think would be so helpful. Perhaps we could share him with you!

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