In just a few days I’ll be marrying the man I love in a chapel on the grounds of a seminary run by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In a parallel universe, where social media doesn’t exist and where all my former conservative Lutheran college classmates don’t already know, through Facebook, what’s going on in my life, such an announcement would be the cause of much surprise and consternation (I like to imagine making a grand pronouncement at the class reunion, as the room erupts into a cacophony of gasps and murmurs). Surprise and consternation, not so much because I’m gay (which some college friends already knew, and others, I’m sure, suspected), but because I’ve left the comforting bosom of the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) for the theological wasteland of the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
For all you non-Lutherans out there who might not be familiar with the almost Game-of-Thrones-esque world of competing Lutheran denominations, you should know that the rivalry between the theologically conservative LCMS and the much more liberal ELCA is super intense; and I mean House Stark vs. House Lannister intense. So intense, in fact, that it made its way into pop culture in the late 80s by way of this episode of Cheers.
But in all seriousness, there does seem to be an ever widening rift in American Christianity (not just Lutheranism) between those holding to a more conservative theology and more theologically liberal Christians. And same-sex relationships are a major flashpoint in this conflict. There are a multitude of stories out there describing how LGBTQ+ Christians, and many other Christians from conservative backgrounds, made the journey from conservative to progressive Christianity. Adding mine to the pile is probably a bit redundant. But since I’m about to tie the knot, and one major impetus in my crossing over to a more liberal theology is directly related to why I look forward to being married, I think telling just a little bit of my story is appropriate. And anyway, it’s my wedding week and I can do what I want.
A lot of stories about LGBTQ+ individuals who grew up in conservative Christian households speak to how these persons felt a sort of crushing guilt because of their LGBTQ+ identity; a feeling that God didn’t love them because of who they were. These stories are heartbreaking and they need to be told. But they’re not my story. I never really questioned my faith, questioned whether God loved me, due to my attraction to members of the same sex. I think Lutheranism’s focus on grace, focus on justification by faith, not works, and the idea that Christians are always simultaneously saint and sinner, kept me from going down that dark path. I never really figured that something I had no control over would somehow jeapordize my faith. And my closest friends, the ones I told about my sexuality, were super supportive – they understood the difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t think same-sex intimacy in any form wasn’t a sin (sorry for the triple negative). I believed strongly that it was, and that any attempt to reconcile same-sex relationships with Christianity were corruptions of Scripture, and therefore corruptions of the Gospel, and ultimately far outside the bounds of true Christianity.
Thus my struggle wasn’t really whether God loved me or not, but rather what kind of life I was to lead knowing that a same-sex relationship was not an option. At first I tried to just force myself into heterosexuality. I dated women, and when that didn’t work I joined the local chapter of Exodus International, an organization that promised to lead gay men and women back into opposite-sex attraction. But alas, this too failed and my only other honest option was to resign myself to a lifetime of celibacy. Difficult to do in today’s world that is obsessed with finding “the one” and then “focusing on the family,” but not impossible. However, as I endeavored to lead a “celibate lifestyle,” I was also curious as to what same-sex relationships were really like. I mean, if the Bible was so dead-set against them, they must be pretty horrible, right?
I freely, even gladly, admit that conservative Christianity has a great many strengths, and this post isn’t in any way meant to be a condemnation of all of conservative Christendom. But I must say that conservative Christians have never really been good at addressing the nature of same-sex relationships. Of course, they are certain of what they’re not (they’re not marriage). And they are very eloquent on what these relationships are missing (there’s no male/female complementarity). They can be quite loquacious on the characteristics of the individuals in the relationship (men and women who have turned their backs on God, etc.). But in describing what same-sex relationships actually are, they typically resort to rather indefinite terms of condemnation: sin, abomination, perversion of nature, not part of God’s plan, dysfunctional, etc. Sometimes they might cite to flawed studies that contain a list of “more likely to’s”: more likely to cheat than those in heterosexual relationships, to have open relationships, to be abusive, etc. Even if one ignores the flaws in these studies and takes them at face value, “more likely to” doesn’t equal “always.” Which means that, flawed studies notwithstanding, there are still many same-sex relationships out there without all those terrible “more likely to” characteristics. What about those? What are they like? Why, specifically, are they so terrible? I’ve never really heard a good answer to these questions.
I get the feeling that a lot of Christians assume that a same-sex relationship is really just a close friendship with sex thrown in. Just bros or gal pals who happen to sleep with each other. As someone who can now speak from experience, our relationships are much, much more than that.
I’m a 40 year old man with a full-time job and other activities that keep me busy; I can tell you that there are plenty of moments when sex is the last thing on my mind. But on those occasions, where my interest in sex is absolute zero, I still experience Chris as something more than a good friend. There’s a comfort level I have with him that exceeds what I have with my closest friends, as dear as they are to me. There’s a connection between us, a sort of understanding that makes it easy for us to share with each other our joys, our failures, our worries, and our frustrations with very little filtering. We both glean comfort and strength merely from holding each other, no words necessary.
I’m not trying to contend that there’s something uniquely magical about our relationship. When we first met, there was certainly an initial physical attraction, coupled with a more-than-usual number of common interests and a shared perspective on a great many things. But the closeness we now share is the result of an intentional process of getting to know each other. In other words, our relationship progressed as any heterosexual relationship would, and led to the same outcome – a desire to commit to each other.
And commitment is another aspect of our relationship that distinguishes it from friendship. Chris and I are not the perfect couple (despite what I just wrote in the previous paragraph); we argue, we irritate each other, we’re inconsiderate sometimes. But ever since our engagement, and even before, we’ve had an understanding that we will work through the irritations, arguments, and frustrations. That we won’t just walk away. That we’ll continually endeavor to do, and be, better for each other. Sure, I do have a somewhat similar commitment to my friends, but it’s not the all-encompassing, we’re in this for good, we make our life decisions together now, commitment I have with Chris.
And in addition to our shared commitment to each other, we share a commitment to the world around us. We recognize that we both have a calling, and we are committed to helping each other fulfill that calling. I know that Chris is going to make an amazing pastor, and I plan to do all that is within my power to support him in that. And Chris also inspires me to do more to fulfill my vocation. We are united in taking seriously our call to serve and recognize that as a team we are more effective in our calling than we are as individuals.
I’m not so egotistical as to think Chris and I are unique in the nature of our same-sex relationship. In fact, I know from experience that we’re not. I’ve known many, many gay and lesbian couples whose relationship functioned in much the same way. And it was in getting to know and know about these couples that I initially began questioning the idea that there was something inherently wrong with same-sex relationships (coming full circle back to the original topic now). These relationships were not the dysfunctional abomination I had been told they were. They seemed pretty much the same as heterosexual relationships. Confronted with the realization that what I had been taught about the nature of same-sex relationships (as vague and indefinite as that was) was wrong, I began to question whether the absolute prohibition of same-sex intimacy, as taught by my church, might also be wrong. And if they were wrong about that, what else might they be wrong about?
Of course, the discovery that same-sex relationships were healthier and more stable than my church had led me to believe is not by itself a sufficient basis for changing one’s theology. But it did get me questioning, which led to a quest for understanding. I read the Bible, read books on how to read the Bible, read books on homosexuality and the Bible, talked to people, argued with people, prayed, and cried. And this quest, this journey, which certainly isn’t over, has led me where I am today.
As I mentioned earlier, the purpose of this post isn’t to complain about conservative Christianity. I realize that most people were well intentioned and sincere in what they told me about gay and lesbian relationships, even if they were mistaken. Rather, I just wanted to offer an explanation, to give some background, as to why I’ll be marrying a dude this Saturday, despite my conservative Lutheran upbringing – not because I owe anyone an explanation, but because it’s a story I really wanted to share. I approach the wedding with excitement, awe, and feeling a little bit overwhelmed by it all. But no part of me thinks this might not be right. There’s no nagging feeling in the back of my head that this sort of thing, this marrying of two people of the same gender, is somehow wrong. Saturday afternoon I will marry someone I truly love, and not only will we be the better for the union, but so will those around us. I couldn’t be happier!