A comment in the Canadian gathering, however, was that this congress felt old. I agree. There seemed to be more looking backwards than looking forwards. Now even as I say this, I am acutely aware of the reality of the tremendous diversity in this global village of evangelicals. I would dare to say that for many participants, this was not their experience. The tone, trajectory and temper of the congress may well have been absolutely on target for their context. And many, I’m sure, leave the congress feeling greatly encouraged to move into the next season of mission in their context.
There is a paradoxical dilemma that I see. On one hand, there was the murmuring that the west had too much dominance and power at this gathering. In particular, there was a very American feel at times both in male voices on the platform and in the production of the event – especially aspects of the opening and closing ceremonies. This lingers as a question for me. It seemed clear that there was a lot of intentional attention given to try to diversify the voices that were heard. And yet, a western overtone seemed to shine through. Part of this seemed to be connected to time. If 5,000 people are going to proceed through not only the program but also the ever critical meal times, then time must be stewarded in what inevitably feels like a very western management style. Yet, the longing to linger, to not feel rushed through times of sharing and prayer was palatable. And for speakers who normally have great freedom, time constraints cramped their style so-to-speak. It was interesting to me that some of these sentiments also emerged in the Canadian gathering. Seems that outside of our schedule-driven lives, we too long to experience the unforced rhythms of grace over time-dominated strictures.
On the other hand, there seemed to be in the overall tone a reticence to make application to western contexts. There were some happy exceptions. But in terms of engaging the postmodern, post-Christian context, there seemed to be very little and the ongoing perception that these realities were negative, to be avoided, eradicated etc. For many of us functioning within these paradigms, we see opportunities. And it seemed that this was not acknowledged, addressed or invested in.
For this reason, I think my fellow Canadian made the comment that the congress seemed old. And I felt this in the multiplex and dialogue sessions pertaining to sexuality. When all the presenters are from one paradigm of ministry that is a clear clue that there will be a deficit in addressing the diversity of context that the participants will be navigating. Having speakers from various nations will itself not fully address this need if all they all come from a similar perspective. This was true of the sexuality conversation. Because all the presenters came from Exodus, this was not only the dominant paradigm – it was the only paradigm presented – and the only ministry promoted. Of course, I am biased, but I think this was not only disappointing but a disservice to participants – particularly those from North America, the U.K, and western Europe where the contexts are gay-positive and post-Christian.
Even as I say this, however, I am very aware of the tremendous challenge of the organizers and those who did speak and offer their presentations. Because the level of readiness is so different across the spectrum, and because the level of sensitivity is so high, it became almost necessary to present to the lower levels of readiness. I don’t mean for that to sound judgmental or paternalistic. But if you have a participant in whose cultural context homosexuality is not discussed at all and you have a presenter talking about generous spaciousness, the result may be less than edifying for that participant as they try to process many levels of complexity all at once. It may well sow confusion, fear and division. And while part of me wished we could have met together as westerners to have a robust conversation, in a congress such as this, you cannot separate groups / contexts. This is an opportunity to be together. To serve one another. To listen to one another. To begin to separate groups would only perpetuate a sense of segregation.
Having said this, there are some observations that I would make. Exodus’ continuing reluctance to recognize the word gay as descriptive rather than definitive perpetuates an unhelpful divide between the church and the cultures we are called to engage. It is the Exodus paradigm that perpetuates the idea that when one describes themselves as gay they are making definitive statements about their identity. This idea has quickly lost ground in the cultures in which we live – particularly in the west. If you ask a young person what their friend means when they say they’re gay – you will most often get the reply that it means they are attracted to their own gender. The assumption that this description dominates their identity and life is one that is perpetuated by the church, not the gay individual. It is an assumption that has not kept up with society-at-large. At the congress in the opening days, several presenters referred to the text that speaks of the men of Issachar who knew the times and what they should do. I think it is unfortunate that old understandings were presented as the norm rather than acknowledging that these may be enclaves of the Christian community that no longer mean the same things to those beyond the church. The same could be said of the notion of labels. The presenters spoke of not wanting to be labeled – yet if you ask a gay young person if they view that as a label – they would likely say no. To them it is an honest description of what they feel that is open to the definition they place on it. I guess my bottom line question is why there is so much fear about the word gay. The Exodus paradigm perpetuates this aversion to the term as though it held some terrible, evil power in and of itself. I just don’t see that in my context. This is a reality that people experience. If we cannot acknowledge it, in the common language of the people around us, how do we ever expect to meet them where they are at?
Interestingly enough, the Exodus presenters did use the terms gay and lesbian. But they only used them when referring to people outside of the church with the presumption that they were sexually active. This creates a very distinct “us vs. them” posture. “We” are not gay, maybe same-sex attracted ….but most definitely not gay…… “they” are gay. An “us vs. them” mentality feeds right into some of the worst assumptions and mindsets of those in other contexts, perhaps most significantly the global south and Africa in particular.
There was one speaker from Africa in the multiplex on sexuality. Thankfully he only had seven minutes – which he seemed to insinuate was a slight. He claimed that the only homosexual persons in Africa were those who came from the west, had gone to the west, or who travelled a lot. Now it may be true to suggest that those who dare to describe themselves as gay in the African context are those who have had experiences outside of their cultural context to understand language and experience differently. But to suggest that no one else in Africa experiences same-sex attraction as a dominant and persistent orientation is simply ridiculous. He finished his talk by suggesting that Africa should take the leading role in bringing morality in this area back to the world. My natural response would be to choke and make some sarcastic and cynical response about the ignorance such a statement reveals. But that would be too easy and it would perpetuate division, segregation, a different type of apartheid. Rather, this raised much greater complexity in navigating the landscape of post-colonial Africa that is fiercely seeking to protect their culture which inevitably means protecting social understandings that I, as a westerner, see as oppressive, unjust, dehumanizing. To bring my understandings to their context seems just another extension of colonialism. To suggest the need for humility for my African brothers only seems to indicate that I see myself elevated in my embrace of humility. My only hope, in this challenging arena is to return to the person and ministry of Jesus. Jesus did not protect and perpetuate the culture of his day. He superseded culture in his radical inclusiveness. He broke social stigma wherever he went. He embodied a more radical humility than I could ever hope to model. My only hope is to connect with my African brothers around the person of Jesus.
My Exodus brothers did this in some ways as they pled with the audience to reach out with love and grace to gay people. As they shared their stories, they broke certain levels of social stigma. But when it came to the reality of enduring same-sex attraction they did some tip-toeing. It was acknowledged – but if you weren’t really listening you might have missed it. In my personal opinion, one of the most important social stigmas to break was not addressed …. the reality of gay Christians. Because Exodus folks will not describe themselves as gay – which is completely their prerogative – the reality of gay Christians was not addressed. I think in this context the reality of our partnered gay Christian brothers and sisters would have raised such angst, anger, division and confusion that it would have been unhelpful to try to have conversation. But simply the reality of same-sex attracted Christians who are working out their faith and sexuality in different ways was an element that was significantly missing in the presentation. Of the three men who shared parts of their story, two were married to women. The one who was not married made the statement that you don’t need to have sex to live – which was met with rousing applause – including from Africans despite that fact that singleness seems barely viable in their contexts. I wish I had unequivocally heard from each of the three that they continued to experience same-sex attraction. They obliquely referred to this – but did not clearly state it. I think this would have been really helpful in this context where people are dealing with English as a second language and might miss some of the nuances. Because if same-sex attraction does remain, then the church needs to acknowledge and relate to people in light of this reality. Sexual minorities do exist. They are decidedly not just heterosexuals with a homosexual problem. (Can I tell you just how much I hate that line?!)
The other reality that was not stated was the reality of diversity in the church. I wish that something had been said that acknowledged that we have brothers and sisters in Christ who come to different conclusions on this matter. It was clear that the dominant position in this congress was a traditional interpretation of Scripture to understand that sexual intimacy is reserved for monogamous male / female marriage. Fair enough – it was a global gathering of evangelicals afterall. But, an opportunity to view those who hold an affirming view as fellow Christians with whom there is disagreement was missed. This would have been a clearly controversial statement to make. But, a hugely significant one to risk making.
Rather, when gay affirming theology was referred to, it was referred to in a manner that seemed like a sneer, that was belittling and dismissive. I think this was not only unnecessary but deeply unfortunate. At the congress we studied the book of Ephesians. This letter reminds us not to make enemies of flesh and blood – because there are spiritual powers which are the issue. When a sneering attitude is relayed towards those who hold a gay affirming theological perspective, the “us vs. them” paradigm is perpetuated in stark contrast with Jesus words to extend the most love to those we differ with, those we may perceive to be enemies. In fact, Jesus asks what it profits us when we love those we agree with – but that the world will truly see him through us when we love those we disagree with. This love was not evidenced in the presentations. And a tremendous opportunity was missed.
Grace was talked about a lot in the presentations. 100% grace and 100% truth. Although usually it was stated, 100% truth and 100% grace. The emphasis on grace was wonderful. One African pastor got up to comment on how this moved him and he called the church to repentance. This was beautiful. But the truth and grace again hit a certain line. Because the conversation did not include how we live in mutual grace with Christians, both gay or not, who come to different perspectives, the sense was that grace was for those who would adopt the traditional teaching that excludes gay relationships.
The challenge here is that this was a congress on mission. And many of the stories of practitioners in varied contexts talked about unconditional love, patience, building friendships, living among ….. It was clear for these practitioners that they were not agenda driven but love driven. They were in their contexts to serve, to bring shalom, to see the lives of those around them blessed and improved regardless of their response to the gospel. How would this translate in a gay-positive context? What does it really mean to live incarnationally among sexual minorities? What does it mean to see their lives flourish? And what does it mean to partner with gay Christians in this mission? We heard amazing stories of contextualized Muslim churches in which the pastor was called an Imam. This really stretched some people, and likely not everyone agreed with such contextualized approach to serving Muslims (personally I thought it was beautiful). But no one stormed out of the congress. No one started a protest or petition. The practitioners on the ground were speaking to the future – to innovative and creative ways of reaching a people in their own context, embracing diversity, living in generous space.
In none of the other stories was there an emphasis on the sin of those they were living among. Not so much that they thought the people were sinless – but it was not the primary point of reference or the primary issue. As mission-motivated people, they wanted to live among the people as a living representation of the love of Christ. They wanted to be a living letter. I wish with all my heart that we would have heard some courageous conversation around what it truly means to live incarnationally in a gay-positive context. I wish the conversation had actually considered cross-cultural integral mission as it intersects with this people group. I wish we’d explored together what it means to lay down agendas and to move into the neighbourhood, to serve, and to bring shalom. I wish we’d really thought about what it means to lay down control and to simply live as a living expression of the love of Christ. I wish there would have been an acknowledgement of the place of gay Christians in this calling – other than those who now flee the contextualization of this people group (i.e. “I would be really offended if someone called me gay” was what one Exodus leader told me. ) In my opinion some of these additions into the conversation would have equipped us to move into the future – regardless of whether we live in Canada, England, Hong Kong or Brazil. The diversity in the church is not going away – even if it could be ignored and dismissed in an evangelical congress of 5,000. Gay Christians are not going away – even if they are not acknowledged by evangelicals. And somewhere in the mysterious economy of God, I believe that these realities are part of his plan for the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world. Even the apostle Paul in response to the reality that some people were preaching Christ with wrong motives simply said that what mattered was that Christ was being preached. To eradicate diversity as it manifests itself in this subject area is the wrong focus, I believe. Rather, the question in front of us is how we find common ground in the person of Christ, how we grow in entrusting one another to the leading of the Holy Spirit, how we learn deeper humility and generosity in relating across differences, how we enlarge our capacity for hospitality …. For as we do these things, we live out the unconditional and uncompromising love of God.