(continued from 4.1)
(Quick note: I’m mostly concerned with only one facet of the church in this post–the church as our spiritual family, as the local fellowship of believers who we shouldn’t forsake meeting with, the Hebrews 10:25 sort of thing. I’m dwelling on the affection/camaraderie/fellowship aspect of the church here because that’s what I had trouble with. I wasn’t turned off by the sacraments, or by the Word preached, or by the other aspects of corporate worship offered to God–I was turned off by the people, by my brothers and sisters. Similarly, I’m dwelling on the local (i.e., late 20th and early 21st century American evangelical) aspect of my church experience because that’s what I had trouble with. I didn’t have issues with the church in all the richness of her global, historical, and cultural diversity–I had issues with the people sitting on my right and on my left . All that’s just to say, yes I know the church is bigger than the ragtag bunch of evangelicals who happened to be in my immediate vicinity, and yes I know that church is about more than just family and fellowship. I’m just talking about what’s relevant here.)
I’m not sure when exactly I realized that the situation I describe in the previous post was a problem that was going to have to be dealt with. I mean, I knew from the beginning that I was supposed to see Christians as my spiritual family and love them as such, and while I still could and should be friends with gay non-Christians, that I was supposed to be somehow different now, not quite as much one of them as I used to be, a little bit alienated even. But that was just a bullet point in a long list of dogmas that I theoretically accepted but had no idea how to make real in my life. Gradually, some little annoying problems in my Christian life grew bigger and bigger, until I was pushed to confront them.
1. Alienation from and hatred of the church left me vulnerable to attacks on my faith.
My alienation from the church and my dislike of straight believers was a vulnerability that Satan (and my sinful heart, for that matter) exploited time and time again. I heard lots of little whispers in my soul asking what I was doing with those stupid Christians and their Christ anyway. “Look how shallow they are! Look how naive and innocent they are, so out of touch with the real world! That one actually believes the universe is less than ten thousand years old! Look how lame they are, all the things they don’t do, all the words they can’t use, all the movies they won’t watch! Some of them don’t even kiss their boyfriends/girlfriends! Look at what passes for music and art in their sight! You don’t belong with these people. This certainly isn’t the God or the religion for you–could these pathetic people have any handle on divine truth?”
Satan never got me to flat-out doubt my faith this way, but he sure got me to waver. He got me to lose my fire and passion for God. He got me to grow lax in my spiritual disciplines, which gave him countless more opportunities to assault and weaken me. He got me to skip Sunday services and Bible studies and fellowship gatherings. If he can’t make you doubt, he will settle for making you ashamed, and I found that being ashamed of my brothers and sisters quickly spilled over into being ashamed of my Father and His Son, the firstborn among many brethren.
I just couldn’t separate Jesus from His Christians so neatly, loving Him and loathing them. After all, He is the one who is supposedly working in their lives, so whatever I think about them and their lives reflects in some way on Him. The church is what the Holy Spirit has to show for Himself. Worst of all, Christ has fixed his love on these fools and delights in them, and is commanding me to do the same! If my heart is to be conformed to His, then I must love what He loves. So hating the imperfect church and loving the perfect Jesus, while so very appealing at first glance, was not a tenable long-term policy. Either the hatred of the one breeds a hatred for the other, or the love of the one breeds a love for the other.
By love of the church, I don’t mean that I ought to pretend she’s better than she is, to ignore her faults and go on vapidly cheerleading no matter what. But I mean that I ought to look at her sin maybe a little bit like how God looks at my sin–with compassion rather than disgust, with sorrow rather than schadenfreude, with a desire to see repentance and redemption rather than final judgment. I serve a God who does not delight in the death of the wicked. And most importantly (and here the analogy to how God looks at my sin goes right out the window), I must look at her sin as my sin. There is no major sin in the straight church that doesn’t have a home in my own heart. (And yes, the reverse is true as well–but the refusal of the straight church to realize that and come to terms with it doesn’t relieve me from my obligation to stand with her in humility.)
2. I needed TO love in order to obey God and in order to grow.
The exgay literature told me that I needed the love of Christians, that I needed to be loved by them. I never found that very motivating. Let’s face it, the church wasn’t overtly gushing with love for me, so if I urgently needed love right then, the most efficient way to get it wouldn’t have involved her. I’d be better off getting my love elsewhere, or just sucking it up and doing without. The church at least initially was far more likely to provide me with relational frustration and disappointment than anything else!
What worried me more was realizing that I needed Christians in order to love THEM. You can see this even in the quote from my residential program application at the beginning of the last post. The Bible’s clear message that we ought to love and serve and bless our fellow believers was starting to weigh on me and keep me up at night. Jesus’ statement about who His brother and sister and mother are. Paul on doing good especially to those who are of the household of the faith. 1 John’s constant emphasis on the importance of loving our brothers. The very metaphor of family and household itself stresses the importance of this relationship. The Bible of course doesn’t suggest that we should love only believers…but it does give them a huge place of priority. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Of no other behavior or action does Jesus say this, to my knowledge. He doesn’t say “People will know you are Mine by how you care for the poor, or by how boldly you proclaim the gospel, or by how chastely you control your sexuality.” He says that the sign of His disciple is his love for the other disciples. (I can’t remember who brought this to my attention first, but I suspect they got it from Francis Schaeffer.) What good was it doing me to fret over my struggle for sexual obedience if I was going to blatantly ignore the love of my fellow believer that mattered so much to Christ?
Not only that, but I also needed the church to help me fulfill the general command to love those outside the church, to love my neighbor (as opposed to my brother) as myself. I believe God intends for us to minister to the world corporately, not primarily as lone-ranging do-gooders. Mt. 25:35-36 is completely overwhelming and discouraging if it’s your personal, individual to-do list, as is Mt. 28:19-20. But to get involved with the church in doing those things, while they’re still a lot of hard work, can be somehow encouraging and even energizing. You’re a part of the Body of Christ, alive and active, advancing the Kingdom–not a severed pinky toe flopping around trying to make the world a better place.
One of the staff in the residential program would always say to me “A step of obedience, a step of healing.” She meant that the two were the same thing, that it was a mistake to split them as we often do. We think (or at least I thought): “I need to get healed and grow in the faith so I can then go obey and serve and glorify God.” But really, it’s through obeying that I grow. And this was no less true in this matter of loving the church and serving with her than in anything else.
Working with the church (and I include para-church ministies here), either by ministering to those within or serving those without, did two awesome things for me. First, it forced me to stand in identification with the church. Doing service or “outreach” in partnership with the church to those outside, when people saw me they saw me as the church. At first, on the inside I felt like I didn’t belong, that I was nothing like the other Christians I was working alongside, that I would stick out like a sore thumb, an obvious impostor, but in my experience the unbelievers never noticed the difference! However I felt about myself, they identified me as one of the Christians, as one of the church people. Not only that, but when I got involved in ministry to other believers, they also saw me as the church blessing them. And how others saw me powerfully influenced how I saw myself. Furthermore, serving with the church crippled my ability to indulge myself in my old ultra-alienated stance. She was my church now, not just a group I peripherally hung out with or a building I sat in. With work came a sense of responsibility, and with a sense of responsibility came identification.
Second, it forced me into a daily realization of my emptiness and need for Christ. Nothing pressed me to seek more holiness and more of God than the sense of inadequacy that washed over me when I tried to serve others as a part of the Body of Christ. The realization that these people, whether they were neighbor or sibling, needed me to show Christ to them, to channel the love of God to them in some way, smacked me upside the head with the awareness of how feebly I reflected Christ, how little of the love God had showered upon me got passed on to anyone else. (Uh, this is all still an ongoing thing for me, FYI.) If you want to be spurred to grow in the faith, just try serving others with what little faith you have! And the natural, God-ordained place to do this is in/with the church.
3. I needed allies who shared my faith and convictions.
For me The Fellowship of the Ring breathed new life into the word “fellowship.” It’s not about coffee hour and chit-chat after the service. It’s about comrades on a dangerous and difficult shared quest. If I wanted to take the quest seriously, I had to take my comrades and my need for them seriously as well.
I have always had close non-Christian friends. Truly awesome people, in whom God’s common grace shines brilliantly. Friends of whom I most definitely have not been worthy. I get pissed off when lifelong Christians who have always been cozily ensconced in the church declare that unbelievers are basically crappy people not worth getting to know. (Until you’ve saved them, of course!) This is just ridiculous. I don’t want to deny the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of God’s special grace in the lives of believers, but at the same time I refuse to deny the love and the goodness in the unbelievers I have known. If you like having me around, sure you can thank Jesus, but you’d also better thank my heathen friends for saving my sorry ass on more occasions than I care to count.
And unbelieving friends are a special blessing on this path because they can give you a sort of “reality” check. So, for example, when I started dating Mr. DM, I was really anxious. It sure felt like love to me…perhaps with a slightly different tint or flavor than love as I’d known it before…but powerful nonetheless. But how could I know? Maybe my mind had finally cracked, maybe I had fallen to desperate self-deception and denial. It seemed unlikely, as the months and years immediately preceding had been ones of increasing peace and contentment in celibacy, but the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, so who knew? My Christian friends were so excited for me and were sure it was the real thing, but they were hardly unbiased.
Then I got together with an old friend (like, since-my-pre-conversion-days old friend) who knew me incredibly well, but who had been out of town for a while and didn’t know the whole Mr. DM thing, which had happened so fast. Over lunch, as she inquired what was new with me, I said, “Well, I kind of met somebody.” “Girl or boy?” “Uh, boy.” As I stammered out a brief description of him and what he was like, she scrutinized my face, my mouth, my eyes. And all of a sudden she squealed and interrupted me, “Oh my God, look at you!!! You’re IN LOVE!!!!!”
The point is, her random exclamation did more to reassure me than anything a fellow Christian could say. In general, when I’m doing crazy things related to my faith, I like having one of the heathen to process it with. A second opinion, an outside perspective, etc. Even if they think I’ve completely lost my mind. (Which I suspect they mostly do, although they’re very nice about it.) So yeah, hip-hip-hooray for the unwashed!
But…when unbelievers were pretty much the only friends I had, it was too easy to escape from the pressure of my convictions. I could take off my “Christian hat” around them, and they wouldn’t care. In fact, I was eager to set my faith aside, so I could feel closer to them, just like we used to be–I hated having that sliver of difference between us. I only needed to put on my “Christian hat” for church and the exgay group and possibly for campus fellowship meetings when I bothered to go. Those scant hours of superficially playing the Christian could not compete with all the rest of my time spent engaging energetically and authentically with unbelievers. The company I kept influenced me. They weren’t trying to, but it was sort of inevitable. I wasn’t growing much in the faith, I wasn’t becoming much of a Christian. It was sort of like trying to diet by eating salads for lunch and junk food the rest of the day.
As someone who felt convicted that homosex is sin, and trying to live that out in obedience to God, I needed friendship, community, and fellowship that made me stronger in living the life I felt called to, not weaker. I don’t merely mean the specific and intentional things Christians could do to help me: pray for me, offer spiritual counsel, talk about the Scriptures, etc. All they really had to do was to just be with me to have an effect, just as my non-Christian friends just had to be in order to influence me the other way. Being the sort of relational chameleon that I am, just hanging out with Christians helped enormously to strengthen my faith. It encouraged me to wear my “Christian hat” more of the time. And specifically regarding this struggle, it was great to have people who were on “my side.” I didn’t need them to be experts on homosexuality or anything. But it was a relief just to be able to look at the faces around me on certain occasions and know that each one thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe that means I’m too much of a people-pleaser, but I don’t think so. It’s just that when you’re constantly under a barrage of opinion that tells you you are making the biggest mistake of your life, it’s reassuring to know that some people think that what you are doing is sensible and right. It took the edge off the isolated lunatic feeling that haunted me. Sometimes we might have to go it alone in life, take on the world as a minority of one, but why put ourselves in that position when there are allies to be had?
And I needed to be in touch with believers who were having their own struggles, both similar to and different from my own. I needed to be reminded that I wasn’t the only one fighting a spiritual battle, the only one trying to swim upstream against a ferociously swift current. Sometimes it helped me to think of us as taking on sin as a team. I was more encouraged to make holy choices in my own life if I knew that my brother D was fighting hard in his struggle against pornography and my sister K was confronting her spiritual apathy and laziness and my brother T was making war on his own greedy lust for Stuff. Satan would have to fight us on many fronts! More importantly, I needed the constant reminder that other believers struggle to avoid sinking into a morass of self-pity, the kind that says: My own struggle is special, unlike anything recorded heretofore in the annals of Christian experience. Resistance is impossible. A cruel God has put me in this situation in order to laugh at me and finally doom me. Might as well give up now and go back to sinning, so I can at least have some fun on my way to hell. What I realized from fellowship is that other people with other struggles could often see my situation more realistically and more hopefully than I could see it myself. Similarly when I observed them overreacting and overdramatizing their own difficulties and struggles, it helped me realize that my own dark take on my struggle was distorted by despair, not an accurate perception.
4. What mattered most to me?
I didn’t just come to worry about my gay identity and the inability to connect with Christian community that it caused for these practical reasons. It also bothered me in principle. What did it say about me and what mattered to me, that I found shared sexuality such a more powerful common ground and source of connection with other people than shared faith?
I used to pay lip service to the doctrine that other Christians were my brothers and sisters. But I didn’t feel it, and I sure didn’t live it. On the other hand, while I accepted theoretically that gay people were no longer my tribe, my family, it still felt like they were, and I still lived like they were. . Homosexuality was far more important to me than Christianity in determining who counted as “kin,” who I enjoyed socializing with, what I liked chatting about. I began to worry that this was an accurate barometer of where my heart was at, of what mattered to me. (Isn’t that true in general? What kind of Patriots fan would I be if all I wanted to do was hang out with Colts fans and rhapsodize about Peyton Manning’s brains and arm???)
There was a flash of recognition and excitement when I met a gay person, but nothing comparable when I met a Christian. I was generally unimpressed by those who shared my faith, especially if they weren’t gay or exgay. It didn’t strike me as very interesting or significant that we believed the same things or worshipped the same God. I remember complaining once that I couldn’t be expected to hang out with Christians when all I had in common with them was Jesus, as if He were somehow trivial, unfit to serve as a basis for conversation, connection, family.
I’m not trying to repackage the exgay claim that people need to “grow into healthy relationships” with the hetero-attracted. I’m just saying, if someone’s sexuality is always more important when it comes to determining how close you feel to them than their faith, I think it may say something about what matters to you; namely, that your sexuality matters more to you than your faith. I understand that many people have mitigating and complicating factors—some have been abused and rejected by straight Christians, which would obviously make Christian fellowship harder for them, even if Jesus is way more important to them than their queerness. But I know for myself it was a worthwhile question to ask. I know for myself that as Christ and living a Christian life became more important to me, that my appreciation of the fellowship of believers (regardless of their sexuality) increased commensurately.
If you had asked me seven years ago (i.e., a couple years after my conversion) whether I would rather be stranded on a desert island with 20 random gay non-Christians, or with 20 random straight Christians, I would have chosen the gays in a heartbeat, without any qualms. If you asked me the question today, and if I were choosing purely based on comfort, I would ultimately choose the Christians, though probably not in a heartbeat. It’s not that the gays are less appealing to me–heaven knows they aren’t! But it’s just that the thought of living without Christians nowadays seems awful to me. No one to pray with? No one to study Scripture with, or to ask “Hey, what do you think this means?” No one to sing hymns with? No one to talk about God with, or the same God anyway? No one to share my spiritual struggles with? I’m not saying this should be a universal law or litmus test, but in my own life I think it was importantly revealing.
I think early on my attitude was, “Hey, who cares how much I grow or how great a Christian life I end up living? I’m saved by grace, aren’t I? And sanctification is a lifelong process anyway, so what’s the rush? I’ll live my Christian life as half-heartedly and half-assedly as I please!” But the problem I found is that the Christian life, lived half-heartedly, just plain sucks. It’s the worst of both worlds–you end up losing the pleasures of the flesh (oh you can try to taste them again, and yeah there’s some fun there, but they just aren’t the same anymore), and you don’t get the joys of the Spirit that only come with a relatively pure and earnest devotion to Christ either. I slowly learned the hard way that the world with its enticements had been ruined for me by my conversion, so if I was going to ever truly delight in life again, I was going to have to try the Christian way more seriously. My life as I knew it had been lost, more or less; my only hope was that perhaps by losing it completely, Christ’s promise that I would find it again might be borne out. Once I realized this, and consequently started to care more about my walk with God, I found myself naturally looking for spiritual brothers and sisters to grow with and learn from.