This is Not Actually a Blog Post About Homosexuality, Part I

This is actually a blog post about building coalitions. But first I need to talk about homosexuality.
I speak as a person who inherited the conventional conservative position about homosexuality, but who began questioning it in my teens when one of my close friends came out. When faced with the choice between a) truly listening and seeking to understand this friend and b) showing what compassion I could without endangering my status in conservative Christian circles, I chose b). I suppose my response during my “conventional phase” could have been worse, but it could have been much better.
When I became a pastor, more and more gay people came out to me and data started to accumulate that indicated problems with my inherited understanding. I went through a stage where I sought to be as personally understanding and humane to LGBTQ people as I could while still holding, however tenuously, to a theology that stigmatized them. (You might call this my “accepting but not affirming stage.”) I hurt some people deeply and inadvertently in this stage, and I wince when I think about it.
That led to a stage where I wanted to change my position – where I felt it was ethically and morally wrong to even tacitly support the conventional view. You might call this my “internally conflicted stage.” I wasn’t where I wanted to be and I didn’t know how to get from here to there.
Next I went through a stage where I felt I had found a legitimate way to interpret the “clobber Scriptures” (the 5 or 6 passages that are always brought up to clobber dissent on this issue) so that I was no longer theologically bound to stigmatize LGBTQ people. You might think this meant I was ready for a breakthrough.
But at this point I was a pastor and had to deal with the conflict between two commitments: first, one of my primary job requirements – to keep together rather than divide my congregation on the one hand, and second, to stand up with integrity and be counted as an advocate for people I had become convinced were being treated with neither justice nor compassion. I negotiated this tension by speaking up when I could and by seeking to use my influence to increase sensitivity to people whom I felt were being treated by Christians in a truly sub-Christian way.
But at every turn I felt that I couldn’t speak out too strongly too fast without dividing the church that I was called to serve. At times I probably pushed too far too fast – and got angry letters and emails about it, and at times I didn’t lead strongly enough – and got angry letters and emails about that too, just from other people.
You might ask why I didn’t go ahead and take a stand, letting the chips fall where they may. After all, I had inherited a conservative position on the role of women in church leadership, and our church crossed that boundary and never looked back. The honest answers to that question are complex and many (perhaps a subject for another time). Suffice it to say that the first few people who took a bold public stand paid the highest price, and the price, while still significant, has been going down steadily.
One essential dimension of my decision to hold back was my desire – and sense of calling – to hold together a fragile coalition. That’s why I’d call this fourth phase my “coalition phase.” In my church’s case, the coalition involved (for starters) mainstream evangelicals who had a deep distaste for all things “liberal,” seekers and new converts to the faith who had an equally deep distaste for all things “conservative,” liberal and progressive Christians who saw LGBTQ issues as front and center, and others who believed that the church should exclude neither gay people nor people who don’t believe in full inclusion of gay people, and so on.
Our coalition wasn’t for everyone. People at the far left and far right (to use problematic but as yet hard-to-replace imagery) wouldn’t be part of it. But it made space for a lot of people nonetheless.
It was my hope, by holding that coalition together, that we could pursue our mission as a church without polarizing and dividing over homosexuality. In the process, I hoped that each group could influence the other in some areas, and that greater acceptance of LGBTQ folks would become increasingly possible the longer the coalition held.
When it came time for me to leave the pastorate to be a writer/speaker/activist full-time, I knew the learning and growth process wasn’t finished for the church I had served for over twenty years. And I’ve been glad to see, from a distance, the church continue to grapple with this issue (and many others) and continue to move forward wisely and courageously. I believe the church’s current leadership has done a better job in this regard than I did, or could have done.
Church leaders know how agonizing these stages are. Whatever position you take, liberal, conservative, moderate, whatever … people you love are hurt. People you love leave. In serving people to “your left” whom you love, you alienate, hurt, and drive away those to “your right” whom you love, and vice versa. So what do you do?
You try to be led by the Holy Spirit. You make your choices and pay the price, whatever the price is. If you choose to hold your coalition together, you to some degree forfeit the right to lead boldly. People criticize you for this.
Some say that coalition-building is cowardly, and they have a grain of truth in their accusation: there is indeed fear involved. Some say coalition-building is about money, and they too have a grain of truth in their accusation: there are financial ramifications to whom you drive away, and when. But people who reduce agonizing decisions like this to fear or greed simply haven’t been there, because if they had, they would know it’s not that simple. (For example, a loss of members and donations will probably mean having to lay off employees … something you shouldn’t take lightly if you’ve never had to do it.) I’ve noticed that most leaders can only go through one or two of these traumatic passages in a lifetime. It’s not simply that they lose their nerve: it’s that they get wounded and wounded again and are damaged in the fray.
If I had stayed in the pastorate, I hope I would have continued stretching the coalition and becoming more outspoken over time. But I know that when I was no longer responsible to maintain a coalition, I felt increasingly free, and responsible, to speak my mind and heart more openly, more quickly, and to a larger group of people. (You might say that as a writer, I have the coalition of a readership. But it’s one thing for me to suffer in reduced book sales or speaking invitations the consequences of speaking out; it’s another thing to have to lay people off from their jobs, see beloved congregations split and longstanding relationships fracture, and so on.)
We might call this current phase my “out-of-the-closet straight ally” phase. Some people are happy that I finally reached this phase, wondering, “Why did it take you so long?” Some, meanwhile, have cut me off from friendship, sending their “Farewell, Brian McLaren” message either in words or by silence.
Even among continuing friends, some would have moved faster, some slower, some in different directions altogether. We all have to live before God with a clean conscience as best we can, making room for others to follow the Spirit as they felt they are being led.
That’s what I’ve sincerely sought, and seek, to do in my journey from conventional to accepting-but-not-affirming to internally-conflicted to coalition-building to out-of-the-closet straight ally. I know that every step could have been done better if I only had been a better, wiser person.
(To be continued …)