For churches that make the difficult decision to welcome and affirm LGBT congregants, there’s a kind of “coming out” process that is no less traumatic for the institution than it is for an individual. The church faces rejection from some of the very people who once called it family; it often finds itself emotionally isolated and financially unsupported; it endures accusations of godlessness and warped theology. It becomes the outcast. And like LGBT people themselves, sometimes the suffering becomes too heavy, and the affirming church does not survive.
This is the reality of churches that go out on a limb for the LGBT community. I’ve heard about these suffering churches time and again, but only recently have I had the opportunity to witness it firsthand, at the church Constantino and I began attending last year. Only months after we started going, it adopted a kind of third-way approach, broadening its marriage practice to include same-sex couples, but allowing space for disagreement and discourse. The move has cost them dearly.
It’s difficult for me to write about the experience without getting worked up: The words that have made it this far on my computer screen belie the fists that repeatedly clench over my keyboard. The experience of pain and suffering is so much more visceral when it happens to something you love.
I’m angry at the people who have left the church, even though I never got the chance to know them before their departure. I have some very un-Christian daydreams about them. In my fantasies, I call these people cowards to their faces. What I want to tell them is that I have spent my entire adult life attending non-affirming churches, volunteering and tithing even in the midst of being marginalized and diminished. And in spite of that, I stayed. I want to grab these people by the shoulders and shout at them: What gives you the right to leave the church the moment you don’t agree with something? I have been disagreeing with the church for years, and yet I have chosen to stay in community. And all that time I have loved Jesus enough to endure your reproach. Were we not called to do life together? Was I the only one who took that oath seriously?
I’m sad because I see the toll it has taken on our church. Although it is rebuilding, it has lost a critical mass of members. There were Sundays when so many chairs were empty it nearly brought me to tears. This church deserves better, I thought. And the correlation to empty seats, of course, is empty coffers. Our church leadership is refreshingly transparent with its finances, but recent updates have been painful, like a loved one divulging increasingly dire test results from a doctor. In my fantasies, I win the lottery and have the funds to set the church right again. I receive a massive and unexpected inheritance. I begin earning a six-figure salary for my books. I know it’s not my role to single-handedly save our church, but we dream about the things we cannot control.
And I feel guilty, so very guilty, because our church did this for people like me. Although Constantino and I had nothing to do with their decision, we are the beneficiaries of the change, and not just in a theoretical sense; we will enjoy the benefit of being married by our pastor, with much of our church family in attendance. Our church is suffering because it prayerfully made a decision that had no practical impact on the vast majority of its members. But it has stuck to that decision because it believes it to be true; it holds to the principle that it is better to err in the direction of kindness and love than in the direction of rules and righteousness. In my fantasies, love is freely given and received, and there is no cost. But we know this to be false. Christ surrounded himself with the most controversial of people, and His price for loving them was high.
Suffering love. Does that sound familiar? Never before have I felt loved by the church in the way Jesus loves me. I didn’t even think it possible. At our church, Constantino and I have been cared for with the kind of sacrificial love so many of us claim is the hallmark of the Christian faith. The people who have become our friends over the past year are literally sacrificing to be with us, bringing us “outcasts” into community at the cost of offending and losing others they care about. Is this not the kind of church Jesus hoped to build? And if it is, why is it so rare?
My former church in Los Angeles, of which I’m still fond, loved at an arm’s length. There were a few precious members of the church who loved fully and audaciously (as well as some who didn’t) but the church as an institution loved within boundaries. It was a cautious, careful kind of love. I believe God wants more for the church. Cautious love begets curated relationships. Curated relationships beget boundaries between those who are worthy of our love, and those who fall short.
Audacious love, however, knows no boundaries. It is a love that acts before it assesses, that kisses the leper and plucks wheat on the Sabbath for the hungry. The greatest commandment is not monitoring the rules, nor keeping company with the righteous; the greatest commandment, always and forever, is love.