Church Culture

Imagine a minority people group that was deeply physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually harmed by genuine, religiously motivated Christians who were taught and encouraged by the teachings of The Bible presented by the institution of the universal Christian Church to be biased and prejudiced toward them for thousands of years.  Generations of Christian tradition built on conclusions drawn from a handful of verses throughout scripture became one of the few unifying points of agreement between Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant strands of Christianity.  The majority of followers in almost every Christian sect just simply knew that this minority group was worthy of rejection, exclusion, and disdain, to the point that it became part of Christian identity, even a badge of Christian piety.  The Church taught that this minority group, as a whole, and as individuals, were morally inferior, evil and associated with Satan.  The worship practices of this group were worthless, because they were eternally separated from God.  Christians were warned against associating with people in this group because they ascribed vices that were specific to this group, including sexual immorality and violence, especially aimed toward children.  If an individual from this group converted to Christianity, their welcome into The Church and Christian community was limited; their association with their minority people group continued to prohibit them from church leadership or ordination.  Social separation was regularly enforced through preaching of contempt for this group and its members.  Kids in this people group were teased and bullied on playgrounds, and adults were viewed and treated as second class citizens with limited civil rights.  As a result of endless persecution at the hands of Christians who taught, “love your neighbor as yourself,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “as you did for the least of these, you did it to me,” this people group viewed Christianity and Christians as dangerous, harmful to their culture and to them individually and collectively.

If you think you know what people group I’m talking about, imagine this: Within a period of roughly twenty years, most branches of the Christian Church began to change their views, attitudes toward, and teaching about this minority group, eventually becoming ashamed of, and sorry for, how they had mistreated them.  Biblical passages that everyone just simply knew meant a certain thing about this group were interpreted in new ways, contextualized more academically, and treated as secondary to more central texts and theological themes within The Bible and the Christian faith. People who advocated for this change of heart toward this minority people group didn’t rewrite The Bible or submit to secular culture; they simply sought to be more Christlike in the way they viewed and treated these marginalized people.

If you think I’m talking about the LGBTQ community, you’re wrong.  I’m talking about the Jews.  Few people alive today remember the persecution that Jews faced, not just at the hands of the Nazis, but from Christians all over the world.  Even during WWII, American Christians were largely antisemitic and did little to intervene on behalf of the Jews.  Between 1935-1955, the attitude toward, views of, and teaching about Jews began to shift dramatically, starting with the influence of The Church, which began to change the way it taught about this people group and the way The Bible suggested they should be treated, especially by Christians. Today, generations that weren’t alive during that time period are widely unaware of the history of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination toward this people group by American Christians and the universal Christian Church.

If you thought I was talking about the LGBTQ community, you’re right, too.  Unfortunately, only the first paragraph of that description applies to this minority people group at this point in history.  The second paragraph is on its way.

Should The Church change its position on LGBTQ inclusion because secular culture widely embraces it?  No.  Should The Church cave to the pressures of non-Christians on beliefs that it finds central to its faith out of the fear that it might lose power, influence, authority, money or relevancy?  Absolutely not. The “everyone’s doing it” mentality should never apply to The Church or Christian faith.  I wholeheartedly agree that Christians as individuals and as a whole are called to be in the world and not of the world, to not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but transformed by the renewing of their mind toward Christ.

When it comes to the idea of culture, I think The Church is polarizing itself over generations of its own culture rather than secular American culture, which in the big picture of history is extremely new.  There is no doubt that American culture is becoming increasingly secular- that’s no surprise.  There are few who uphold traditional values taught by The Church.  Sexual immorality extends far beyond the LGBTQ community; it is increasingly rare to find Christians who abstain from sexual activity until marriage, or who don’t get drunk or experiment with recreational drugs.  That’s just reality, whether Biblical or not.  After losing its influence over its members in these areas, The Church has grown to see homosexuality as a kind of final straw in its attempts to control the inevitable advance of secular culture.  Having to give in and be more accepting of members who disobey God’s commands regarding other issues of morality has hardened The Church’s heart toward the LGBTQ community, which it sees as completely contrary to God’s will for many reasons.  It’s easy to understand The Church’s positioning and even its reasoning regarding this issue.  Whether one agrees with the way scripture is interpreted or not, it is understandable how many draw their conclusion, just how one could understand how they drew conclusions about Jews, however outdated that position seems today.  It’s even easier to understand how tens of millions of people would accept at face value the teaching of The Church on this issue, just as they did the teachings about the Jews.  It’s easy to understand why they can’t make that connection, however frustrating it may be.

For reference, Pew Research shows that 36% of Evangelical Protestants said in 2014 that homosexuality should be accepted by society, up from 26% in 2007.  It would be interested to see where that number is now.  54% of Christians in a compilation of all traditions believed the same in 2014, so evangelicals are significantly “behind.”

The Church has changed its position on several other issues created by the limitations of cultural understanding throughout its history, admitting fault, repenting and changing its attitude and teaching.  The Church killed the first people who taught that the world was round instead of flat, it used The Bible to justify slavery and white supremacy, and to prohibit interracial marriage and limit women’s rights inside and outside of The Church.  Today we can look back and think, “Whoah, what were they thinking?”  But it’s hard to find the introspection to ask ourselves the same question.  Someday, there will be generations who don’t even remember a time when The Church discriminated against the LGBTQ community, just like I didn’t know until recently that it discriminated against the Jews.  When Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Catholic Church and began the Protestant Reformation, The Church was sick, and splitting allowed all parties to restructure in ways that better reflected the love of Christ for the world.  Reevaluating the culture of The Church as an institution brought about many positive changes but also reinforced some aspects that remain negative to this day.  If you ever read Luther’s writings regarding the Jews, it may help you understand why the Protestant Church maintained a culture of hatred and exclusion toward that people group for as long as it did.

When The Church began to change toward the Jewish community in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, overcoming its own culture was more difficult than overcoming the surrounding secular culture.  The hardest part of anyone’s faith journey is repentance; no one likes to say sorry or admit that they were wrong.  Imagine being a worldwide institution, thousands of years old, that prides itself on interpreting and teaching the Word and will of God for the world, having to admit that it had been doing it incorrectly for thousands of years.  That would require a lot of humility.  Pride is often seen as one of the longest-lasting and most devastating of sins.  Ultimately, it’s God’s love that leads us to repentance.  The Church recognized that the way it had interpreted God’s Word, will and heart toward this people group was not Christlike, and it slowly repented and changed because it came to a deeper understanding of God’s love for The Church, for the Jews, and for the world.  Twenty years in the life of the world’s largest institution with thousands of years of history is like the blink of an eye.

How did it change?  The love of God led it to repentance.  The love of God for His Church and for all people enabled The Church to overcome the pride of thousands of years of established and reputable church culture with the effort of becoming more Christlike in their attitude and treatment toward a people group they had long despised and mistreated.  Many people would argue that the issues of the Jewish community, slavery, and women’s rights are completely different than the issue of homosexual inclusion within The Church. After all, those are actual people groups, with no inherent sin that distinguishes them from any other people group.  They are made up of individuals with individual lifestyles that may or may not fulfill the negative stereotypes ascribed to them.  People can’t control if they’re born Jewish, or black, or female, so how could we mistreat them for those uncontrollable aspects of life?  Exactly.

There has been a recent shift in Church culture regarding the LGBTQ community.  Many members and some institutions are beginning to recognize the fact that human sexuality is not chosen and is unchangeable.  It’s not secular culture that tells us that- it’s science, psychology, logic and reasoning, all of which are valued differently among different sects of Christianity, and unfortunately widely undervalued in many evangelical communities.  Those who accept that gay people don’t choose their orientation and can’t change it still practice LGBTQ exclusion because the ACT of homosexual sex is a sin- according to The Bible, not Christian tradition, of course…right?

It’s easy to make the argument that the LGBTQ community is not a people group, because it is comprised of a hodgepodge of races and genders.  Being gay is not the same as being Jewish, black or female because it’s not natural, right? For as long as we say so, sure.  We can say and believe whatever we want, but that doesn’t mean it’s reality.  If we want to stick our fingers in our ears and close our eyes to avoid the reality of everything modern science, biology, psychology and psychiatry tells us, we are more than welcome to do that.  Any psychologist will tell you that the root of unhappiness is failure to align oneself with reality.  Jesus Himself tells us that He is the way, the truth and the life, so ultimately the root of unhappiness is failure to align ourselves with Jesus, His character and His heart.   Many gay people spend large portions of their lives avoiding the reality that they are gay and that they can’t do anything about it.  I see The Church’s struggle to accept the reality of its unbiblical mistreatment and exclusion of the LGBTQ community similar to the way I wrestled with myself over my sexuality. When you spend your whole life wanting desperately to hold onto something that’s not reality, the idea of aligning yourself with a contradictory reality is devastatingly stressful.  I almost didn’t make it through alive, but I know The Church will.  For now, it is unfortunately tearing itself apart the same way I tore myself up inside.  It’s not secular culture that’s threatening The Church; its Church culture itself.  It’s The Church’s consistent refusal to accept the reality that its pride might be blinding it from reality- and not the reality of “the world,” but the reality of Christ’s heart of love, acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

The majority of American Evangelical Church culture looks different in regards to the LGBTQ issue than it did about twenty years ago.  I recently met with a student who told me about someone he had seen at Hoopfest in Spokane, holding a sign that said, “All Fags Go To Hell” and spewing all sorts of ungodly hate through a megaphone.  Fortunately, that’s actually a rare sight for people in his generation, and he talked about how crazy people like that are.   Yes, even most evangelicals view those kinds of Christians as crazy, because even the Church’s culture is changing.  Today, it is more common to see well-known pastors condemning that kind of behavior than participating in it.  That’s a good step in the right direction. However, I asked the kid to consider the message and the delivery.  Even though the delivery is much different than the approach most evangelicals would take today, the message isn’t much different.  All gay people are different, in an inherently sinful way; they’re dangerous, threatening to our children and our churches, and unquestionably separated from God for all of eternity because of something they never chose and can never change.  The approach has evolved, but the message is still the same. The exclusion is still every bit as real, and the mindset is still every bit as damaging and contrary to the heart of God.  It’s pretty crazy, if you allow yourself to think about it.  We can love a lot of sinners and hate a lot of sins without excluding people from ministry, but this is the one issue that causes even the most loving, well-meaning, genuine Christians to lose their minds and compromise their larger theological values, to damage their witness by being unchristlike- all in efforts to obey what they’ve always been taught.  And they don’t even see it. In most cases, it’s literally impossible for them to consider what they believe and how they carry out those beliefs as anything other than Christlike.  It’s a psychological phenomenon that’s only consistent with every other example of one people group turning another people group into “the others.” When we teach that people are inferior and less than us, we can justify and rationalize treating them as such.

So is it about secular culture? No, not really.  It’s about church culture, Christian culture.  If it’s difficult for one culture to change another, imagine how much harder it is for a culture to change itself.

Here are some recent examples of popular secular culture accepting and “normalizing” the LGBTQ community:

  • Gay marriage legalized in all states
  • The Superbowl Half-Time Show promoting a clear message of LGBTQ acceptance
  • Nike cutting Manny Pacquiao’s contract over anti-gay statements
  • Adidas running an ad featuring a lesbian couple on Valentine’s Day
  • Campbell’s Soup running ads featuring a gay couple and their adopted son
  • Gay characters in popular TV shows such as Modern Family, Glee and True Blood
  • Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner, and the shows documenting it
  • Washington State’s new law that gives transgender people access to public restrooms
  • Ellen DeGeneres becoming one of America’s most loved talk show hosts
  • Several professional athletes coming out as gay
  • Movies geared toward teen audiences promoting LGBTQ acceptance and making homophobia taboo
  • Large corporations creating policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation

Here’s how much of that should matter to The Church:

That’s right, none of it.

Who cares what “the world” is telling us?  The Church should never compromise its beliefs based on popular secular culture.  The only catalyst for change with The Church should be God’s love, which leads us to repentance, and the grace to change that is unconditionally offered by Jesus.

I think when LGBTQ people rejoice in the examples of acceptance within popular culture, it’s because for so long they have been so unaccepted.  Imagine belonging to a people group that has been marginalized and rejected for all of history, all of a sudden over the course of twenty years or so being valued differently.  Think about what it means to see people like yourself on TV and in movies, demonstrating that you’re not as different as everyone has always thought, including yourself.  Imagine what it means to have the right to marry- an aspect of life that actually reflects the heart of God more than almost any other theological concept- so that you don’t have to live out the stereotypes of the “gay lifestyle” by engaging in premarital or extramarital sex.  All of that is cause for celebration, and I think that’s why the gay community rejoices in these examples.  There is definitely a sense of, “Come on, Church, everyone else is getting it , why aren’t you?” involved, I can’t deny that.  But that’s not the core of the argument.  Many gay Christians too quickly and easily forget that they spent much of their lives believing exactly what those who reject them believe, causing them to lose patience and compassion.  Too many people get caught up in the science, biology, psychology, basic human rights, blah, blah, blah arguments and forget that relationship with God often defies all those things anyway.  There are simply aspects of following God and living a Christian life that don’t comply with all those things, and that’s OK.  It’s more like just a hope that as the rest of the country accepts the LGBTQ community and changes its mind, attitude and treatment towards it, maybe The Church will actually start to take notice and work more on its own introspection.  As “the world” comes to understand that sexuality doesn’t have to be anyone’s “identity” as many Christians often argue, there is hope that The Church’s introspection will enable it to recognize how a large part of its own identity is currently the culture of rejection and exclusion of people who literally can’t stop being gay any more than a Jew could stop being Jewish.

Another thing that is often missed is that the LGBTQ community in general just wants to viewed and treated as equal.  Before same-sex unions and gay marriage started to become legal state by state, even many gay individuals predicted that gay people would not often exercise that right.  Every time a state approved it, gay people lined up around the corner at their local courthouses to get married.  Gay people don’t want to live immoral lifestyles anymore than any other people group.  How can we miss the idea that we blame them for having promiscuous sex outside of marriage if we have purposely prohibited them from getting married and having the option not to? (A couple days after writing this, I had an interesting conversation with a gay man on Capitol Hill, who shared a different perspective. He appreciates the legalization of gay marriage, but does not want to get married because he views gay marriage as trying to force gay couple to conform with heterosexual standards, and he doesn’t see the point.  He wants to be in a loving, committed monogamous relationship and raise kids with a lifelong partner, but he doesn’t see the value in a piece of paper legitimizing that relationship as a legal marriage. So excuse my blanket statement, I really don’t speak for everyone on any issue).  The reason LGBTQ communities like Capitola Hill and San Francisco exist is because we created them.  By rejecting LGBTQ people and pushing them away, making them feel unwelcome and different, we have forced them into their own communities just as the Jews were forced into ghettos. How can we blame them for those communities if we created them and literally don’t even know what we’re talking about when we talk about their culture and the “gay lifestyle?”

Keep going, Church.  The somewhat different approach is a welcome shift, but there’s still a long way to go.  Don’t let your pride hinder your repentance.  God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness extends to the “most of these” just as much as it does to the “least of these.”  Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was just as much for the hands that drove those nails as it was for the tax collectors and prostitutes with whom He ate.  This is not about secular culture, this is about Church culture.  You’ll get there, and everyone can’t wait to forgive you.

Much of the research for this blog was obtained from David Gushee’s Changing Our Mind.  Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist and a well-respected Christian author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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