‘Welcoming, but not affirming’: being gay and Christian

August 30, 2016 1.11pm AEST on The Conversation

Author Mark Jennings   Lecturer in Religious Studies, Murdoch University

It may seem like LGBT people and conservative Christians inhabit two different worlds. But with 40% of same sex couples in Australia identifying as Christian, LGBT people are likely to be a significant, if covert, presence in conservative Christian churches.

So, what is it like for people who are both LGBT and Christian? How do LGBT Christians see their place in conservative Christian churches? And how do pastors care for LGBT people in their congregations, and include them in the life of the church? To answer these questions I spoke to LGBT people, and pastors of LGBT people, from Pentecostal-Charismatic churches in Australia.

Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, which emphasizes a personal experience of faith, together with ecstatic phenomena such as speaking in tongues and divine healing, is a fast growing global phenomenon. While there are many different denominations, Australia’s largest Pentecostal-Charismatic denomination, the Australian Christian Churches, boasts over 280,000 followers in over 1,000 member churches, including some of the largest “mega-churches” in the country, such as Hillsong Church in Sydney (20,000 attendees) and Paradise Community Church in Adelaide (6,000 attendees).

For most of the Pentecostal-Charismatic pastors I spoke to, a conservative approach to interpreting the Bible led them to be “welcoming, but not affirming” of LGBT people in their congregations. This means that LGBT people are welcome to attend, but their sexuality cannot be “affirmed” by allowing them to volunteer or minister. As one pastor I interviewed said:

At the moment our position is that if you’re going to volunteer here that we would hold to a fairly orthodox position of scripture… So yeah, we do have a line, and that line is drawn at volunteering.

Several pastors permitted LGBT people who committed to remaining celibate to volunteer for leadership roles within the church, such as leading Bible studies or small groups, or even preaching. Nevertheless, the LGBT people I spoke to felt understandably rejected by this position. As one put it:

I couldn’t even take up the offering. I was simply looking to be actively involved and become a member of the church… Because I was gay, that was sufficient for

[them] to turn around and say no. And by then, I thought, ‘That’s just not right.’

Volunteering is not only symbolic of acceptance and inclusion by the church community, it’s also a pathway to ministry and leadership. In fact, several of the pastors I spoke to began as volunteers. Therefore, this barrier to volunteering prevents LGBT Christians from moving into more senior roles in Pentecostal-Charismatic churches, where they could promote a more inclusive position.

The injustice of this position was keenly felt by both LGBT people and some of the pastors themselves. One pastor articulated this:

Being part of a Christian community is … The body, everyone’s got a part and a role to play. But all of a sudden, ‘Oh, but now you say you’re gay, you can’t do that any more’. So people’s natural response is, ‘Well, I don’t feel like I’ve changed. I’m the same person.’

Some LGBT Christians who come out in non-affirming churches make the wrenching decision to leave their congregations. One pastor described what happened when a leader at their church who “grew up at church, went to Christian college” took a same-sex partner:

Then she had to step down … So she’s left, and rightly so. It’s so sad, because for her, it’s her space of belonging. All her formation happened there.

Faced with the moral conservatism of many Pentecostal-Charismatic congregations, LGBT Christians who stay may live closeted lives. Recent research strongly suggests that LGBT people who continue to identify as Christian experience heightened “homonegativity” – negative and shame-filled feelings about their sexuality – compared to non-religious, or even formerly Christian, LGBT people.

LGBT Christians in Pentecostal-Charismatic churches may still be confronted with services entirely geared to heteronormativity, with few concessions to the LGBT members, who are silenced in their midst.

One LGBT person said:

There really is no self respect in staying inside a community that holds up a banner saying ‘welcome home’, while simultaneously rejecting your very presence by silence. The silence was like thunder to me.

A generational shift

All of the pastors I spoke to recognised that the position they were offering LGBT Christians was less than ideal. Many had seen LGBT people have undeniable spiritual experiences. To Pentecostal-Charismatic pastors, these spiritual experiences can only have their source in God’s Holy Spirit, and they are what qualify a person for ministry, rather than ordination.

This leaves pastors of LGBT people with theological questions. Do these spiritual experiences qualify LGBT people for volunteering and ministry in the church? Or are they disqualified by their sexuality?

This theological tension led several pastors to express the view that the current exclusive positions of many Pentecostal-Charismatic churches are untenable and unjust. One pastor summed up the “welcoming but not affirming” position in this way:

It’s almost like with one hand you’re shaking them by the hand, and with the other hand you’re slapping them in the face.

Others believed that this position will be abandoned by future generations:

Anyone that’s under 30 doesn’t have an issue with [LGBT], and so we’re going to see a generational shift… It might take 10 or 20 years, but I think there’s definitely a progression in that way.

Looking back to look forward

In looking for a way towards a more inclusive future, Pentecostal-Charismatic leaders could perhaps look to their own history. When the movement began in the early 1900s, it was years ahead of its time in its inclusivity, celebrating the ministry of African Americans and women long before many of the established churches. One former pastor pointed this out:

Modern Pentecostalism by and large has lost its way a little bit… if you’re reading the history… it was very much a movement on the margins… people who were oppressed, the poor… I don’t think they value the margins anymore. I think there’s been a dramatic shift, and I find that quite sad.

Although it seems change is likely to come, it appears that in relation to LGBT inclusion – unlike their early ethnic and gender inclusiveness – Pentecostal-Charismatic churches will bring up the rear-guard of cultural and social progress, rather than taking a leading position.

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr Jennifer Carson of Ghost Media, who helped with the writing of this piece.