Clear as mud: LGBTQ+ affirming churches in the internet age

November 30th, 2018

Discussions around what makes a church or pastor LGBTQ+ affirming sparked online when progressive pastor and author Brian Zahnd was asked if his church was LGBTQ+ affirming. He stated that it was but qualified that by saying they did not perform same-sex marriages. When challenged on this policy, Zahnd doubled-down and refused to discuss his theological viewpoint on social media despite many valid questions.

With the rise of non-denominational churches with slick branding and a hip, contemporary aesthetic, it isn’t always clear what churches believe, especially on issues of gender and sexuality. Far too many LGBTQ+ people have become involved in churches only to discover months or years later that they were forbidden from being in leadership or that their pastor would not perform a same-sex wedding. Even seemingly progressive churches that explicitly differentiate themselves from more evangelical churches may not be affirming. For these reasons, the group behind Church Clarity has sought to get churches to clarify their actively enforced policies around gender and sexuality.

When it first launched in the wake of the Nashville Statement that was published in August of 2017, Church Clarity faced accusations that it was just as judgmental and fundamentalist as those who had declared queerness a sin. Many churches had relied on ambiguity for years, and before marriage equality came to the whole country in the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision, they could get away with it. Clergy who tend to be more liberal than their congregations could be quietly affirming without angering more conservative members or driving them away, and those who were not affirming did not have to be public about it. Those behind Church Clarity have stated that their intention is not to change churches’ theological commitments but simply to ask that they be upfront about their positions to avoid misleading people.

For those of us who are beholden to denominational structures, clarity is not always so clear. Depending on a denomination’s formal position or judicatory leaders, even affirming congregations and clergy might not be able to be as affirming as they would like. I currently serve a parish in the Episcopal Church that would describe itself as LGBTQ+ affirming. As a community we march at PRIDE, and LGBTQ+ members are involved in all areas of leadership. But until the most recent resolutions passed at our General Convention go into effect, I have not been permitted to bless or celebrate marriages under the pastoral direction of my bishop. Even in dioceses that have access to the rites, the assumption that every Episcopal church is progressive on issues of gender and sexuality is misguided.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus implores those listening, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” There are congregations, clergy, and other public Christian figures that are still in the process of study, prayer, and discernment around being LGBTQ+ affirming, but there are others who deliberately hide and obfuscate their position, on both sides. Public figures like Shane Claiborne and Brian Zahnd who appear progressive and focus on issues of social justice should be honest about where they stand on the LGBTQ+ community. And while author and pastor Eugene Peterson has since died, he created a stir in the summer of 2017 when he commented that he supported same-sex marriage and subsequently retracted his statement. The backlash from both sides was immense.

With the advancement of LGBTQ+ civil rights and broader cultural acceptance, transparency from churches, clergy, and public Christian figures is critical. Our current moment calls for boldness, and it feels disingenuous for some to continue to try and play both sides. No matter what our positions are, we should let our yes be yes or our no be no, and let the chips fall where they may.

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