Back at home in Wausau, WI, my family is a part of a medium-sized Presbyterian…
The first draft of this article was prepared as a handout for Queer Theology 101, a Nov. 21, 2019 event co-sponsored by Pres House and The Crossing. Developed by Benjamin Coakley (leader of Queer Students of Faith at The Crossing; they / them) and Rebecca Bedell (leader of Queerly Beloved at Pres House; she / her). Adapted for the website by Rebecca Bedell. These are our own deeply held beliefs.
Why Queer Theology?
We believe it is crucial to affirm and learn from LGBTQ people of faith as we live an inclusive doctrine worthy of Jesus Christ. Let’s start with a set of grounding principles. Each of these points could take up an entire workshop, but debating them is not our main focus.
We acknowledge and agree:
- Being queer (LGBTQ+) is not a choice. We see queer people across all eras and cultures.
- Read the American Psychological Association’s research summary and statement on queer identity, opposing ineffective, harmful conversion therapy
- We live in a majority Christian society. Many LGBTQ people grow up in Christian environments (and many stay closeted for safety).
- Spiritual violence towards queer people causes immense harm: to individuals, families, communities, congregations, and across our (inter)national political landscape.
- Queer people should not have to choose between faith and living an authentic life
- Many of us feel called to relationship with God. So “what can prevent me?” (Acts 8:36)
Therefore, we affirm:
- LGBTQ+ Christians need and deserve a fully uplifting spiritual life and community.
- This means we need allies to advocate for full inclusion of all genders and sexual orientations, grounded in a loving interpretation of our faith.
How Do We Read the Bible? Away from Clobber Passages…
Many of us are familiar with the so-called “clobber passages” used to target queer people in the church:
- The sin of Sodom was not primarily homosexuality but rape, xenophobia, and inhospitality (Ezekiel 16:49)
- Romans 1: Paul may primarily be criticizing pagan rituals and orgies. His phrase para physin (translated “contrary to nature” or “outside nature”) is used later in Romans 11:24 to positively describe God’s power to unite Jews and Gentiles.
But these clobber passages are not the point, nor the conversation we should spend our time on. It doesn’t do justice to the Bible’s complexity to apply millennia-old words out of context, nor is it helpful to our faith.
The Bible is full of issues where Christians have learned, gradually with God’s help, to grow in our interpretations. It is full of passages that Christian slaveholders rigidly interpreted to uphold American slavery, perpetuating profound violence against human life and dignity. Not to mention we happily wear clothes of mixed fabrics, no longer fear to touch menstruating women… Mosaic law, as seen in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, was meant to self-identify and self-separate Jews from Gentiles, and is largely assumed no longer to apply to Christians.
The Bible was written by fallible humans navigating incredibly different social norms from today, and many issues unique to the early church. The Bible is not an “owner’s manual” (see Pete Enns, Rachel Held Evans…). It is often self-contradictory, confusing, or seemingly irrelevant to today’s society. So then what do we do with it?
The point is: our collective understanding of God is ever-evolving. Jesus is the epitome of evolving theology: “you have heard it said […] but I say to you […]” (Matthew 5). Jesus challenged traditional ideas and showed that God’s word was on the move, beyond his contemporary Jewish context, to a newer world. As Jesus did, we interpret by bringing forth new as well as old treasures (Matthew 13:52).
It is time we shift the entire conversation: away from the clobber passages…
…Towards a Holistic, Affirming Reading
If we can’t apply the entire Bible literally to the present, then how do we determine faithful theology? We believe in recognizing faithful and harmful beliefs by their fruit.
- Luke 6:43-45: Good trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit. “Fruit” is the external consequences of our beliefs.
- Galatians 5:19-20: Bad fruit (or “desires of the flesh”) is self-centeredness and a lack of concern for others, which leads to harm, strife, envy, anger, etc.
- Galatians 5:21-26: Good fruit (or “life by the spirit”) is concern for the other: love, peace, kindness, goodness, gentleness, etc.
Rejection of LGBTQ+ people brings harm, strife, and pain: bad fruits. Christian homophobia often claims to be motivated by a regard for the other (saving us from “sin”), but the dignity of queer people is assaulted when we are cast out, when millions of queer youth learn to equate “God” with hostility and alienation. This bad fruit bears poor witness to how God’s spirit is moving in queer people.
A counterargument would claim that queer people’s existence is what causes harm, strife, and pain among families and communities. And while these ills are too often present, we again know that queerness is not a choice. We cannot sever our innermost understanding of ourselves, but our communities can choose (and strive) to cast aside judgment and practice love. Therefore, it is the failure to embrace difference that causes harm, strife, and pain.
Another counterargument is that queer people are obsessed with “desires of the flesh,” that queerness is sexually immoral. But we know homosexuality has always existed, but vilified as an efficient way of criminalizing a minority and establishing power hierarchy. Rather, we believe that the drive to impose heterosexuality on queer people – the will to control others’ bodies, to impose the Self on the Other even to the Other’s despair and self-harm – constitutes a deadly obsession with matters of the flesh, not a life of spirit-filled grace.
See Rev. Elizabeth Edman’s Queer Virtue for an excellent analysis of why queer life represents a deeply healthy relationship of Self-and-Other. Queer people generally value interdependence and community, and in coming to know our identities, we must delineate and respect the fine differences among ourselves and others.
Queer and Trans People are Holy
“God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
Queer people are vital members of the Body of Christ, made in the image of God.
- 1 Corinthians 12:24: God especially honors the parts of the body we tend to deem unworthy. “If one member suffers, all suffer together.”
Queer people reflect the infinite diversity of God’s image – a God who surpasses all human attempts to summarize and encapsulate.
In Genesis 1, God transcends binaries even as God creates them: day/night, land/sea, heaven/earth. God is in all things. We know Creation is not limited to a black-and-white binary of day/night and land/sea: we see infinite (and beautiful!) variation in sunrises and dusks, beaches and rivers, etc. We instinctively celebrate these gifts, but have clung to a rigid understanding of sex and gender, ignoring that the male/female binary is also an abbreviation of a vaster and more beautiful spectrum in the same way. Queer and trans people are the holy sunrise beaches of humankind.
If humans are made “male and female” in God’s image, we understand that God transcends male and female, is beyond and above gender. Dare we say, God themself is queer.
Jesus continued to transcend (or “queer”) the binaries of human/divine, life/death, clean/unclean (etc.) in his being as well as actions.
The Church Needs Queer Christians
Instead of arguing over whether LGBTQ people should be allowed in the church, we need to listen to queer experience to discover more of the image of God. We believe that queer people exemplify God’s transformative, boundary-breaking spirit.
Rev. Liz Edman in Queer Virtue explains that “authentic Christianity is and must be queer.” Ours is a God who works among the marginalized, the outcasts, to uplift them while casting down oppressors. God queers binaries and disrupts established hierarchies.
Edman argues that queer life mirrors an authentic Christian path:
- We discern something deep and true in ourselves
- We prepare and share this truth with the world, enduring risk and scandal as we go
- We find and form community with others who share this identity
Thus, queer experience can be a lesson or mirror for fellow Christians to better follow Jesus’ teachings, as he calls us to cross divisions of self and other, insider and outsider. Christians can learn from queer community about holding to one’s truth, embracing risk, and living with integrity.
The Church is incomplete without its LGBTQ members being welcomed, our voices heard and responded to with love.
We must do the work of moving the conversation: beyond defending queer survival, to a richly affirming spirituality. We do this work grounded in scripture, faith, and a loving hope.
We bear witness to God’s transcendent image. We bear witness to God’s transformative love. Amen.
On reading the bible holistically:
Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So (2014); The Sin of Certainty (2016)
Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (2005); What Is the Bible? (2017)
Rachel Held Evans, Inspired (2018)
Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation (2019)
Emmy Kegler, One Coin Found: How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins (2019)
On LGBTQ acceptance in the church:
James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality (2013)
David Gushee, Changing Our Mind (2014)
Kathy Baldock, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon (2014)
On queer theology and the queerness of God:
Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology (2002); The Queer God (2004)
Patrick Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (2011); Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit (2013)
Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian (2014)
Pamela R. Lightsey, Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology (2015)
Elizabeth Edman, Queer Virtue (2016)
Mihee Kim-Kort, Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness will Transform your Faith (2018)
Austen Hartke, Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians (2018)
For an even longer list, visit: queergrace.com/books
We acknowledge the debt that Queer Theology owes to feminist theologians and liberation theology among Latin America and African-Americans, theologians of color especially, as well as to the field of Queer Theory.