Tell the Truth, Suspend Church Weddings

If you’re one of a growing number of clergy troubled by the policies of your church, here are two steps you can take to stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people.

First, tell the truth on your church website. Make sure it clearly spells out any policies affecting LGBTQ people. If you were a sexual minority wouldn’t you want to know up front? It’s just common decency. This recommendation is based on hearing from many who have gotten involved in churches under false pretenses—thinking the “warm welcome” expressed on the church website or from personal interactions with pastors, only to later discover that even sympathetic clergy are forced by their church polity to discriminate against them (in matters of marriage and ordination, for example.)

Second, have you considered simply not performing any weddings until your tradition changes its policies? Yes, it would be an inconvenience, maybe a heartache, for those straight congregants who want you to perform their weddings. But it’s time for more of us to carry the pain that LGBTQ people have been carrying alone, lo these many years. (For that matter, if you are engaged and you support the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church, consider giving up your privilege to be married in/by the church so long as this privilege is denied to your sisters and brothers.)

Believe me, I’m aware of the trouble this might cause. But standing with the disinherited always causes trouble for us. Always. You could take a small share of the trouble on yourself so that those who carry the full weight of it don’t have to do so alone.

Some Thoughts For my Fellow Third Way Allies

An answer to a perennial question

“It is the work of the oppressed to resist oppression, it is the work of the oppressor to dismantle oppression”

This is a paraphrase of a comment I ran into the other day at a local SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) meeting. For context, we were (and are) a group of white folk working to support social justice organizations and movements led by people of color, and at the time we were talking about why we exist the way we do because, lets face it, it is weird to be an anti-racism organization with overwhelmingly white membership. Now the fact of the matter is that SURJ emerged as a result of a lot of white folk who had become aware of racial injustice in this country asking people of color what they could do to help. One of the most common answers was (and is) that we could help to educate other privileged folks. Hence SURJ, an organization dedicated to “organizing White people for racial justice”.

This gets at the heart of a perennial question for would-be allies: “how can I be responsible with the privilege I have?” I have written in another post about some of the answers I think the Bible provides to that question, but this comment I ran into at our meeting the other day has me thinking about it again. It isn’t a simple question after all, and as someone who considers myself an ally – a feminist ally, an LGBTQ+ ally, a ally to people of color, among other things – and an imperfect ally at that, I hope that I will be forever thinking about and refining my thoughts and actions on this question.  So here’s the quote again:

“It is the work of the oppressed to resist oppression, it is the work of the oppressor to dismantle oppression”

My job as Mr. Privilege

I am a middle class, college educated, straight, white, cisgender, American, Protestant male. I am practically oozing with privilege. I live in a society and civilization which was literally built to serve people who are like me. I know this. It means, among other things, that my voice will automatically be amplified in most contexts, that my opinion is far less likely to be questioned on the basis of who I am, that I am able to glide through my daily life without worrying about whether I will be safe when engaging in normal, healthy human behavior like holding my spouse’s hand in public, shopping, walking down the street, or worshiping with my religious community. It means that I have the option to ignore just about every oppressive system and prejudiced person in my society without any fear of personal consequences. And as a Third Way follower of Jesus, it means that I cannot give in to the temptation to do just that.

Where does the Third Way come into it?

Probably the most recognizable difference between a Third Way approach and the more typical “Open and Affirming” approach to sexuality and the Church is the Third Way’s openness to the presence of non-affirming Christians within the community. This is both a tremendous strength and serious challenge for Third Way communities. It means that Third Way communities, while demanding full participation for LGBTQ+ individuals in the full life of the church, risk the possibility of having their spaces (physical churches, small group homes, community gatherings, online and social media spaces etc…) become places where non-affirming Christians (in Romans 14 parlance “the weak”) engage in conversation and behavior which is less than perfectly safe for the LGBTQ+ folk who have already been attacked, harmed, and marginalized by the greater Western church. At the end of the day, for all of its value, diversity is less safe than homogeneity.

In this context, it is the special responsibility of Allies to stand up for our LGBTQ+ members and, when called upon, to engage positively, lovingly, educationally, and firmly with our non-affirming members when they (intentionally sure, but also and more frequently unintentionally) engage in speech or behavior which threatens the inclusion and welcome of LGBTQ+ folk. This does not mean that LGBTQ+ folk should not engage with non-affirming members around contentious and debatable topics, that is up to them. They are living in the environment that a historically homophobic, transphobic church has created and their work in this environment is varied, diverse, and subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit. What they do in that context is a conversation that they get to have among themselves, with the other gifted and brilliant LGBTQ+ leaders in the church, with those they trust within strong community, and, most critically, with the Holy Spirit. Our work as privileged members of the Body of Christ is to engage in the messy, complicated, process of dismantling the systems (whether structural, mental, or theological) which have been used for oppression.

My intention is not to say that LGBTQ+ folk cannot, or should not, engage in whatever way seems best to the Spirit and to themselves, it is to suggest that, as privileged people it is our responsibility to engage in the task of dismantling the systems and structures which give us that privilege.

This is especially vital in Third Way communities because it is in Third Way communities that these situations are most likely to arise. We will all get it wrong sometimes, and a community dedicated to following Jesus and to the unity of His Body along a Romans 14 model must be a community of grace, truth, and humility for the times we get it wrong. We who are allies must be engaged in the work of dismantling the systems which keep us apart. Remember that the divisions of the church in Rome were eventually dissolved, they are not the specific issues that the modern church wrestles with. So there is every reason to hope that this will not always be an issue which divides the church, but that will only happen if those of us who could ignore oppression choose instead to stand on the side of the marginalized.

A call for input

All of this is a statement of how I see myself as an ally. And as such I want to own the fact that my privilege numbs me to jagged edges of this work. So I would be incredibly grateful for input from other allies and from the LGBTQ+ members of the Third Way community. What have I missed? What message do you think the Third Way ought to have for allies as we move forward together?

Time for InterVarsity Staffers to Speak Up for Vulnerable LGBTQ Students

The largest evangelical campus organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, is now ready to terminate any staff members who support gay marriage. In the everyday work of campus ministry, this means that  staff members cannot bless and support the desire of gay students who believe they are called to faithfulness in a same-gender marriage relationship. Scratch beneath the faux warmth of some phrasing in the IV position, and you will find that it is rooted in the traditional view that all same-gender sexual relationships are indisputably covered by the language of abhorrence used in a handful of biblical texts, including Romans 1. All the important cultural-historical work done to interpret the divorce texts ignored in the work of interpreting the handful of texts that have been used by the church to forbid all same-gender sexual relationships. (The IV policy allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of the ill defined and “wide-open-to-interpretation” phrase, “psychological abuse.”)

But this exclusionary LGBTQ policy is carefully stated to discourage (mostly young) IV staffers from openly expressing their disagreement with their supervisors. Because these supervisors, we now know, will be required to terminate those employees with 2 weeks notice as soon as this disagreement is stated. The IV campus ministers will not be asked their views on the policy, but if they share their views, they will be fired. The wink and the nod here is clear: “If you disagree and want to continue your ministry with IV, don’t reveal your disagreement to us. Keep it to yourself.” Continue reading

Dr. Paul McHugh and Christian Integrity

Over the last few weeks (basically since the passage of North Carolina’s HB2) I have seen a particular 2015 Public Discourse Article by Dr. Paul McHugh passed around social media by folks who take the position that we as a society ought not recognized the gender identities of transgender individuals. While that is a position I ultimately disagree with and believe to be deeply harmful to a vulnerable population, I do recognize that there are scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments which can be marshaled in its defense–I think those arguments ultimately fail (I have put forward my own counter-argument to the theological in this series), but some of them are, at least, worth discussion in the abstract. However I think it is important to note that, regardless of your position on the topic, Dr. McHugh’s articles are not useful sources of information for the following reasons.

Credentials

I suspect that McHugh’s popularity on this subject comes from the fact that, on paper, his credentials are excellent on the subject of transgender psychology. Dr. McHugh is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who holds his MD from Harvard Medical School, has published significantly in his field, and has a robust history of teaching and practice. So on the basis of his credentials, Dr. McHugh really does merit attention. However the fact is that Dr. McHugh stands practically alone on this topic against other credentialed experts and organizations in this field. Notably, as Mari Brighe points out in her comprehensive article critiquing McHugh, Dr. McHugh’s positions are in opposition to the findings of (among others) the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. In terms of constructive debate and conversation, this means that while it is valid to cite Dr. McHugh as an expert or authority on the subject, it is completely unwarranted to present him as some sort of final word (when dealing with science it is usually problematic to assume that there is a total consensus), and anyone who decides to reference Dr. McHugh in support of an argument or position they are defending should be aware that there are many well credentialed vices which oppose him. While he has a degree of authority on the subject, his expertise must be situated in the context of overwhelming dissent from the medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment. So don’t use Dr. McHugh in an appeal to authority, tactically it will backfire, and more importantly is it a misrepresentation of the overall “voice” of the collective experts in this field. Dr. McHugh is a single, albeit credentialed voice who is considered discredited on this subject by many other experts in the field, so long as he is presented that way, you will avoid misinformation on that count.

Argumentation

Because Dr. McHugh won’t work as a final authority on the subject, any use of his work depends on an analysis of the quality of the arguments Dr. McHugh actually makes. But it is this analysis which makes any use of his work deeply troubling. When writing on the subject, Dr. McHugh routinely cites two specific studies in defense of his conclusions and systematically ignores the many studies which undermine his statements. First, it needs to be said that Dr. McHugh’s failure to even acknowledge the growing body of medical and psychological literature which challenges his thesis causes his case to appear stronger than it actually is and calls his integrity into some question.

More troubling though is the fact that Dr. McHugh fundamentally misrepresents the conclusions of the study he primarily cites (a 2011 Swedish study) and refers to as “the most thorough follow-up of sex reassigned people”. He cites their findings that post-op transsexual people have significantly heightened suicide risks when compared to the general population, and uses that as support for his belief that sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is bad for transgender people. The problem with this use is that the study itself claims the exact opposite. Quoting from the study’s conclusion (emphasis mine):

Our findings suggest that sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism, and should inspire improved psychiatric and somatic care after sex reassignment for this patient group.

In fact, the study concludes that sex reassignment surgery does indeed help transgender folk and is saying that after surgery, treatment providers should be careful to recognize that there are ongoing traumas and stresses that trans people will face and that SRS should be accompanied by ongoing care afterwards. This must be stated as clearly as possible The study Dr. McHugh cites as his primary evidence says exactly the opposite of what he claims it implies. Dr. McHugh is a sufficiently thorough and intelligent scientist that it is hard to see his misrepresentation of this study as anything but disingenuous, particularly given the fact that the study’s primary author, Dr. Cecilia Dhejne, stated in the paper itself that the study would not work as an analysis of the efficacy of SRS (here is an interview with Dr Dhejne where she expresses significant frustration at McHugh’s, as well as other people’s, misuse of her study).

The other study Dr. McHugh routinely references in his popular writing is a 1979 study which he encouraged, based on his already existing distrust of SRS. The problem here is that this study, by Dr. JK Meyer, predates many of the surgical techniques and refinements available today, the study consisted of only 50 individuals (all male-to-female transgender persons), and was seen as controversial and problematic from the outset. Even it its problems were overlooked though (and they shouldn’t be), this leaves Dr. McHugh with a single study in contrast with the conclusions of the collective medical and psychological/psychiatric establishment and a much larger body of work which has been thoroughly examined in a number of comprehensive literature reviews on the subject.

Conclusion

People who take a “conservative” position on questions relating to the gender identities of transgender persons need to stop citing the writing of Dr. Paul McHugh. He is not representative of the contemporary medical or psychological/psychiatric consensus and the support he provides for his argumentation ranges from misrepresentation, to disingenuous, to outright misinformation. In citing him you will only convince those who are not willing to research his claim and those who already agree with you and are merely looking for an “authority” to support what they have already decided to believe. This undermines your own credibility and, to the extent that you speak/write “as a Christian” harms your witness. Please take the time to build your arguments on well researched data, presented with appropriate caveats, limiting the degree of certainty you express to the quality and quantity of the data. And when you do, please be prepared to change you mind as well.

 

P.S. While I have your attention, please stop referring to trans people as “the transgendered” or “a transgender”. Transgender is an adjective (its counterpart is cisgender) used to specify something about an individual person. People aren’t adjectives and, in my experience, transgender people don’t like to be spoken about as though they were. So “Bob is a tall, transgender athlete.”

Too Often, the Welcome Mat is Bad News for Sexual Minorities

In an effort to be seen as loving, friendly, and welcoming, religious organizations put out the welcome mat for LGBT people. But once in the house, the reality of donor-distress-driven policies emerge. A kinder and more honest approach would be to say, “You’re not really welcome as you are. Enter at your own risk.” Read the latest example in Time’s piece by Julie Rodgers.    

The Daunting Costs of Implementing Third Way

It’s been nearly two years since I proposed Third Way as a new approach to the full inclusion of LGBTQ people with the release of A Letter to My Congregation. Many existing churches have transitioned to Third Way, including congregations in a new church network called Blue Ocean Faith. Several other church plants have launched with Third Way as part of their foundation—a much easier task than transitioning an existing congregation. From the collective experience of many churches, transition to Third Way is challenging. It requires, so far as I can tell, five things. Continue reading

The Chorus is Swelling: This is a Disputable Matter

In A Letter to My Congregation, I offered criteria to suggest when a matter might legitimately be regarded as a “disputable matter” in the church, invoking the gospel demands of Romans 14-15. But there is one criterion which is fairly simple: a matter is disputable when it is actually disputed in the church—when we find that faithful Christians who love Jesus, seek to be guided by the Spirit, and take the Bible seriously, find themselves disagreeing. Continue reading

Scot McKnight on Natural law and LGBT persons in the Church

In his recent book A Fellowship of Differents, Dr. Scot McKnight seems to be committing himself to an ethical and exegetical position which, while increasingly common among evangelical leaders today, is decidedly problematic. Specifically, Dr. McKnight builds a doctrine of sexuality, which he specifically applies to Lesbian and Gay people, on Paul’s use of the terms “natural” and “unnatural” in the Bible. Continue reading

An Appeal to Those Who Issued the Gordon College LGBT Statement

More LGBT students on Christian college campuses are coming out of hiding–cautiously supported, one imagines, by sympathetic faculty and staff. What’s an institution to do?

Often the response seems to be, “Write a position paper” to clarify–for its faculty, staff, students, and funders–where the institution stands on same-gender intimate relationships. Gordon College is the latest to do so, stating that homosexual relationships, along with a range of other sexual practices, are “an affront to the holiness of God”Continue reading