Over the course of my life, I have observed and participated in the ongoing fight for inclusion of people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer in the church. In recent years, significant strides have been made in several denominations, including the eradication of official barriers that have previously kept LGBTQ Christians from being ordained to ministry. These steps toward building a more inclusive church are laudable and inspiring, but they are not enough.
The church is not simply called to be inclusive. It is called to enact justice in the world – to participate in the reconciling work of God. As I look toward my own future in ministry, and with it the future of the church as a whole, it is clear to me that in order for to enact God’s justice in the world, the church must first become a more just institution itself. The church needs a new paradigm—one founded on a full understanding that the future of social witness in the church is not just about what we advocate for, but how we advocate for it.
This is a daunting task, but the church is in luck! The LGBTQ community is not just a group of warm bodies to populate the pews and pulpits. We are particularly equipped by virtue of our LGBTQ identities and experiences to help the church live into God’s intention as a just and justice-seeking body.
I have composed the following list based on my own experience as a queer Christian woman and the experiences friends have shared. I cannot and would not speak for the whole LGBTQ community. Rather, based on my own insights and observations, these are 10 particular things I think the LGBTQ community can teach the church:
1.) How to Handle an Identity Crisis – We hear it all the time: “The church is changing.” It can be terrifying to face a significant change in the way one understands one’s identity. People who identify as LGBTQ understand this fear. Many of us have had to confront a life that looks different than the life we had once anticipated and even hoped for. There is fear and grief wrapped up in that departure. But letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be also allows us to finally live fully into who God created us to be. This perspective, so personal to the LGBTQ community, offers a hopeful vision for the church as it learns to embrace its identity in a new paradigm.
The church needs a new paradigm—one founded on a full understanding that the future of social witness in the church is not just about what we advocate for, but how we advocate for it.
2.) The Importance of Intersectionality – Intersectionality is the concept that that various aspects of one’s identity (race, class, sexuality, gender, etc) are integrated and inform one another. Within this perspective, all movements for justice are intrinsically linked. LGBTQ people—particularly those of color or other minority status—learn quickly how the various elements of their social location interact. This understanding is essential to a church that genuinely seeks to promote justice and to speak a relevant word to diverse individuals and communities of faith. Moreover, this concept reinforces the idea that our faith identities are in dialogue with other aspects of our identity.
3.) How to Name Injustice – Many Christians believe that calling out injustice is important. However, my own experience has been that people often resist naming moments of injustice for fear of causing conflict or discomfort. LGBTQ individuals face moments of injustice everyday, and we have learned that progress only comes when these moments—small and large—are called out again and again until they are fully recognized as barriers to equality and authentic relationship. The discomfort that comes with naming injustice cannot compare to the oppressive and divisive weight of silence. The church claims to root itself in community, relationship, and the presence of the divine in the human. If it seeks to embody these convictions, it must learn how to embrace discomfort in the name of justice – and to do so at every opportunity.
4.) How to Deal With Rejection – Even with all the strides toward equality made in recent history, the LGBTQ community still encounters a largely hostile world. By contrast, the church has enjoyed centuries of privilege and power and is only just beginning to re-encounter a popular culture of skepticism and critique. It is a rude awakening to face a world that seeks to reject you on the basis of misinformed or narrow understandings of who you are. The LGBTQ community knows this, but we also know that a deeper peace comes from grasping firmly onto your authentic self and living with integrity. Solidarity offers comfort, and the LGBTQ community can extend empathy to the church as it struggles for new acceptance.
The discomfort that comes with naming injustice cannot compare to the oppressive and divisive weight of silence.
5.) The Importance of Being Vulnerable – If there has been one theme common to both my seminary experience and my process of coming out, it is the essentiality of vulnerability to authentic relationship. To be in true relationship with ourselves, God, and one another, we must being willing and open to being impacted by others, and we must be confident enough in our own worth to let others be impacted by us. The church must embrace vulnerability as well. Every time an LGBTQ person comes out to someone, we make ourselves vulnerable. We know the risk, but we also know the hope of growth—theirs and ours.
6.) The Importance of Prophetic Risk – A straight friend from seminary recently confided in me his fear that he will at some point have to compromise on what he believes God is calling him to do in order to keep his job in ministry. I realized in that moment that risk has been a much more present and accepted reality in my own faith journey as an out queer woman. LGBTQ Christian leaders know intimately that the only way to move toward a better world than the one we inhabit is to risk our hold on the world we have. The very work of being the church calls all people of faith to engage in such prophetic risk in order to create a more just world.
7.) How to Live with Uncertainty – In the most immediate sense, the church exists in a powerful state of uncertainty: about its future, its relevance, even some of its ideologies. More abstractly, the church is called to stand in the uncertain tension of the world already promised through Christ but not yet realized. The LGBTQ community also inhabits a world of uncertainty. Individually, many of us wait and hope to be reconciled to our families and communities of origin. Corporately, we wonder if we’ll see a world where our full humanity is recognized legally, culturally, and religiously. In the meantime, we have learned how to hold onto one another and our own sense of value to sustain us.
8.) The Importance of Being Thoughtfully Suspicious – Learning to constantly examine and question the systems and assumptions that inform our lives is integral to queer thought and experience. After all, traditional structures would suggest that LGBTQ people do not and cannot exist, and yet here we are. So often tradition and structures subconsciously (or consciously) perpetuate oppression and marginalization because these systems are built on assumptions of privilege. The church—an institution that clings to tradition—must learn to be suspicious of the ways its language, practices, and priorities may be inherently exclusive of people who are not straight, white, educated, or otherwise privileged. True inclusivity requires building structures and practices that reflect diverse human experience and break down privileged hierarchies, and this requires thoughtful suspicion and proactive questioning.
To be in true relationship with ourselves, God, and one another, we must being willing and open to being impacted by others, and we must be confident enough in our own worth to let others be impacted by us. The church must embrace vulnerability as well.
9.) How Our Presence Impacts Space – For people of privilege, it is easy to be unaware of who else is in the room or conversation because we can be certain that there are others like us. In the church, LGBTQ people do not have that privilege, and so we become particularly aware of who else is present, whose voices are and aren’t being heard, and what we and others uniquely have to offer to the conversation. If we are to build a church that reflects the justice it seeks in the world, such an awareness of who is present and what they have to contribute is essential.
10.) How to Forgive – Forgiveness is a central component of Christian faith. And in the church of today, characterized by both internal and external division and conflict, learning how to forgive is the only way to reclaim relationship and move forward. LGBTQ people often face painful and destructive encounters with loved ones over our identity, and we learn how to forgive and work toward restored relationship without diminishing our truth or ourselves. It is this commitment to forgiveness with honesty and integrity that compels us to work with and within the church.
For the LGBTQ community, our lives become our education about why justice and advocacy matter and about how to engage in social witness. We have this and much more to teach about what it means to be church in the world today. We want to help create a more just church for a more just world. We are not just present; we are a gift. So embrace us, listen to us, utilize us as leaders, and let us show the way.
AUTHOR BIO: Layton E. Williams as a senior, M.Div. student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She is interested in writing, theology, advocacy for the LGBTQ community, women, and youth. She is also particularly passionate about the work of reconciling the Church to those it has long neglected.
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