More Nuances of Bridge Building

My friend NakedPastor posted a cartoon this week that has stimulated some good conversation. It was kind of fun for me because I’d commissioned NP to do a cartoon for the cover of a new DVD resource we’ll be releasing soon – and the cartoon he posted was one of the possible submissions (but we chose a different one). In the comment section, a woman wrote:

[My partner] and I, a couple of weeks ago, were checking out a ministry here in Canada whose mission is said to be “bridging the gap” between the LGBT community and the church. It wasn’t long before we discovered they were formerly a part of Exodus International and we started referring to them as “Exodus Lite” because they were doing their best to take a friendlier, non-judgmental approach to the issue but still didn’t get it. In any event, we read this one particular blog post from the lady that leads this ministry where she was defending herself as she felt she had been misrepresented by a leader in the Exodus movement. Apparently, she had mentioned two women that had entered into what they termed a “covenant friendship”, which the guy from Exodus termed a “sexless marriage” as it had all the trappings of a marriage without the sexual relationship as they accepted the view that gay sex was sinful. The post we read was basically her back-pedalling on what she had said to save face with the Exodus crowd, which was enough to convince me that she only wanted to separate from the bad image of Exodus but was still looking to run an ex-gay ministry with a pretty veneer to gloss over the harm caused by ex-gay ministries. It all seemed rather backhanded and dishonest to me, though they may in fact be very sincere.

I wanted to use this comment to again try to bring some clarity to what this blog (and New Direction) is about ….. and I don’t mean to be defensive – so I hope it doesn’t come across that way. Our history with Exodus is not something we’ve tried to hide. It is a huge part of our history – and will always be there as part of our story. We’ve tried to learn from that story in the best way we know how. And we’ve tried to keep moving forward into what we believe God is calling us to. While we do want to focus on bridge-building ….. it would be rather audacious to suggest that we are seeking to be the bridge between the gay community and the church. Rather, I think there are many smaller more relational bridges to be built. Sometimes those bridges are between gay Christians who hold differing views on the acceptability of gay relationships. Sometimes those bridges are within families where there has been fractures in relationship over the reality of a gay loved one. Sometimes those bridges are within a particular congregation where there is difference and disagreement. Sometimes those bridges are with post-Christian gay people who feel the need for some sense of being heard (or maybe closure) on their past with the church. So while we do seek to embody posture, priorities and language that will facilitate bridges being built – we encounter these opportunities situation by situation at a relational level. Part of that bridge-building is our attempts to describe spacious places where diversity can be acknowledged and where common ground can be discovered. Sometimes, there isn’t much common ground to be found – but there can still be moments of seeing, valuing and respecting one another’s humanity. I don’t think there really is that much common ground between an individual who believes that accepting the reality of a same-sex orientation or gay identity is outside of God’s best and an individual who experiences God’s love and grace in their relationship with their same-sex partner. There might not be much common ground – but there could be a humble, gracious acknowledgment that the other is deeply and unconditionally loved by God. And that would be more of a bridge than a simmering enmity, judgment and accusation toward the other. Where there can be an acknowledgment that God mysteriously works in the lives of those who express their faith and commitment in different ways, there is greater potential for common ground. And in these conversations there can be shared vision for reaching out and being partners with God in his work of reconciliation. But trying to embody the space of bridge-building means that we will care about relationships across the diverse spectrum of belief and practice around sexual identity. It means we care about relationships with those within Exodus. It means we care about relationships with those in the ex-gay survivor movement. It means we care about relationships with gay Christians who are celibate or affirming or partnered. It means we care about relationships with straight Christians who are black and white and oh so certain on this topic (with very little relational and personal experience). It means we care about relationships with straight allies/advocates. That doesn’t mean we agree with every aspect of what these different individuals believe or practice. But it does mean that we will seek to listen, extend respect, be gracious and gentle in our conversations, in the ways we may need to navigate conflict or disagreement, and in how we speak publicly about fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our rootedness as a ministry has been in a more traditional and conservative understanding of sexual ethics. Again, this is not something we’ve tried to hide. In light of this rootedness, there are individuals who hold conservative beliefs and values who connect with us seeking support. Is this “exodus-lite”? Is this a kinder, gentler pull into ex-gay ministry? I suppose it depends how you would define ex-gay ministry. If you would define supporting someone in their goal to express their faith through a commitment to singleness as ex-gay …. then I suppose we would fit that. I wouldn’t describe ex-gay in that manner. To me, ex-gay connotes the idea of trying to not be gay…. to not identify as gay, to not accept and be okay with the reality of a gay orientation, to try to diminish one’s experiences of same-gender attraction. In my experience, this emphasis has often been unfruitful and sometimes emotionally / spiritually harmful (unless perhaps the individual was actually robustly bi-sexual to begin with – while I do know exceptions to this as well). While living a celibate life can be very challenging, I don’t believe that it is inherently harmful if it is a freely chosen commitment made by the individual. The challenge is when the church tries to externally pressure an individual to live a celibate life – when they do not feel called or able to live that out faithfully. So what about gay partnered Christians? What does “building a bridge” to them look like for New Direction? Well that sounds rather paternalistic doesn’t it …. Building a bridge, in my mind, is something that is mutually owned. So we experience bridge-building with affirming gay Christians when they invite us into conversation and relationship – and it is an equally shared experience because we both value the experience of reconciliation that might result. Sometimes, the bridge is about being able to relate to someone with a past association with ex-gay ministry in a way that is respectful and gracious. Sometimes, the bridge is about creating space for people to honestly own their convictions without judging the other. Bridge-building is not about changing the other. So, in our relationships with affirming gay Christians we are not trying to change their mind about their convictions. We want to listen and hear their story, celebrate their faith in Jesus Christ, and in our love for one another more deeply experience Christ’s presence. And where our friends encounter painful reactions and responses from others in the church, we want to offer support, encouragement, prayer and love. While I think our sexual ethics as followers of Jesus are important, I believe they are secondary matters. If you want to see a multiplicity of ways to live out our sexual lives as the people of God – just look through the pages of Scripture. Today, our reality is a diverse one. How will we relate to one another? How will we love one another? How will we encourage one another to deepen in our faith in Christ? How will we share the good news of the Kingdom of Jesus with our neighbours? These are the bridges that take priority. And they are built relationally, one conversation at a time.

-WG

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