For many of us who are LGBTQ+ and Christian, there comes a time when we are forced to choose between who God created us to be and the communities that we called home for most of our lives. When this time came for me- when the church that had been my home for most of my life severed their ties with us- it was a crushing blow. It is bad enough to have one’s very personhood condemned as degenerate, but to be cut off from the deepest relationship of one’s life is like acid in the wound.
It would be easy for me to cast this church is the role of villain. After all, they betrayed the very Christian love they had raised me to believe was central to the faith. And yet I cannot deny how significant a role they played in shaping for the good the man I have become. Not only was this the place I came to understand who Jesus is and embrace Him, but it was also where I learned what it meant to serve others, the give where there was need, and to love as much with deeds as with words (modelled most clearly by the women in the church, including my own mother). I say this, not to excuse their mistreatment of us but to avoid the all-too-easy impulse to demonize and dismiss churches like these. We don’t always see these things coming.
I became away of rumours that the leadership of the church had received complaints about me with respect to things I was saying online about sexuality. In fact, the complaint apparently stretched back to a time when I still held the “traditional view” on sexuality. It was heightened now that I was moving away from such a position. It was bad enough, so the rumour went, that I was not overtly condemning homosexuality but I was also openly opposed to efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. And yet, given how many years these complaints were being considered, only one person had ever addressed them to me directly.
Not wanting any unspoken conflict to exist, we reached out to the church leadership, asking if there were any concerns. Despite the fact the rumours had been leaked by someone within the church leadership, they denied there were any concerns, so we let it go. I could only hope that this meant that the complaints were not a concern to them.
However, sometime later we received a letter from leadership suggesting that, since we seemed to have adequate financial support from elsewhere, their support was no longer necessary. This surprised us, as the financial support for our work with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) had always been meager and our need for their support remained. Further, we valued the connection to my childhood church. So the support continued, as did the rumours of our “drift” away from godliness.
In truth, as our theology on sexuality continued to change, we knew it was likely that this would become an issue for many of our donors. It was inevitable that some would withdraw their donations out of concern. As sad and painful as that reality was, we also respected people’s right to give (or not) according to their conscience. All we could hope for was a willingness to be honest and direct with us in the process.
Eventually, the church was unable to remain silent and finally took more direct action. The pastor of the church contacted us, informing us that they had real concerns after receiving continued pressure for members of the church. Given this was my home church and the congregation that had commissioned me into full-time ministry, I asked if the pastor or the elders, in the face of the complaints, encouraged them to talk to me directly. After all, I had always been taught in that church to follow Jesus’s teaching on conflict and sin (Matthew 18).“That would be the right way to handle this, I understand,” he replied, “But I just don’t feel comfortable asking people to speak directly to a missionary about such issues.” I was stunned by his answer, which not only contradicted their own teaching but also ignored the fact that these very members were dear, life-long friends. It was made clear that no one was going to be asked to speak with me directly.
For our family, what was critically important was to maintain the relationship we had with my childhood church, even if the financial support was cut off. They felt any continued financial support would be viewed as a tacit endorsement of our dangerous beliefs. While it would make supporting our family more difficult, we reassured them that we understood and simply wanted to put an end to rumours and gossip, directly addressing the concerns. These people were like family (and some were literally family). That is what was important to us. Yet, time and again, they returned the focus to the money, explicitly avoiding our attempts at understanding.
I had a glimmer of hope at one point when the pastor reached out and asked if I would be willing to come and sit with the elders and respond to some questions about the topic. Perhaps they genuinely wanted to understand rather than make assumptions. However, something in me was hesitant and I felt the need to ask a question:
“Would I be coming so that you could better understand my position and consider it? Or would it be to simply see if my views were consistent with the church’s views?”
The answer was unequivocally clear: They were, in no way, interested in understanding my beliefs on the topic but rather wanted to have it explicitly clear how my beliefs violated theirs. My heart broke and I politely declined the invitation, assuring them that, as we had already established, my beliefs were not consistent with theirs and we understood if they felt the need to discontinue their support. While I had hoped there was a willingness to at least understand our perspective, it was clear that it would not be safe for me to make myself vulnerable before a group of men whose expressed purpose was to prove that I was wrong.
That’s when they used a tactic I would become all too familiar with in the years to come, a means to exclude others by requiring them to exclude themselves. They sent a letter to us (one that we were told was being sent to all supported missionaries). The letter’s stated purpose was to determine how the church could better pray for and support their missionaries. However, in the middle of this letter that was written as though its primary purpose was to care for their missionaries was the following text:
“Also, in light of today’s changing culture, we feel it is imperative that we address & clearly state our stand on the following two issues. We ask the missionaries we support to take a definite stand with us. In the future, there may be other issues that we feel need to be addressed as well.
1. We believe that God created the heavens and the earth [Genesis 1 & 2], including all life [Colossians 1:16-17 & John 1:3] each after its own kind, by direct act and not by the process of evolution [Psalm 33:6].
2. We affirm that marriage is the union between one man and one woman intended for life as ordained by God [Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5]. We also want to affirm the Covenant position: “Faithfulness in heterosexual marriage, celibacy in singleness – these constitute the Christian standard. When we fall short, we are invited to repent, receive the forgiveness of God, and amend our life.””
It is critical to note that these two provisions that they included are not required beliefs for membership in the denomination. I later learned that even the denomination's superintendent had informed them that such a requirement was not necessary. Yet it was a calculated move to force us to opt-out. Obviously, we could not and would not sign the document. Again, we thanked the church for their years of support and reiterated our desire to address the broken relationship between us. Yet, we received no reply.
Three months later we received an email from one of the church leaders. It is important to note that this man is one of our family’s dearest friends, a man we considered like family throughout my life. In a very businesslike letter, almost clinical in nature, he informed us that our support would be discontinued at the end of that month, despite their promise for a later end date. When we inquired about the change, again we were ignored.
It has been years since this happened and we have not attended the church since, despite it being my parent’s home church. There are some who would hear this story and say, “Good riddance to them!”. I can understand this, as why would someone want to remain connected to people who would so callously cut people off despite their claims of following Jesus. And yet, it’s not that simple for me. Again, this church is made up of family and friends, the relationships where my life was first rooted. To suddenly be cut off, even if ultimately for the best, is still painful and a deeply felt loss.
So many LGBTQ+ Christians have had to learn to accept loss and alienation as par for the course. I am grateful that I did not lose my family in that process, something far too many others have had to live with. Regardless of claims that these churches “love the sinner but hate the sin”, they functionally and actively still harm LGBTQ+ people in the way they treat them. It is one thing to claim that your beliefs are “orthodox” around sexuality, but it is quite another to use that to justify such mistreatment.
At the time, while the loss was extremely painful, I assured myself and my family that at least we knew that other relationships and communities we were a part of would not reject us in this way. Little did I know how far such alienation goes. But that is a story for another time.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci is Director of Community, Central Canada for Generous Space Ministries.