In the early 1970s, when Altadena/Pasadena was undergoing the rapid change of racial diversification, many white churches fled the African American influx by moving east of Lake Avenue. ABC decided to meet that change head-on by staying put and committing to the neighborhood. Once African Americans graciously integrated this formerly white church, ABCs DNA of open arms inclusion was baked in. For decades we were the only significantly racially diverse church in our area.
In the years since, we have met many cultural changes by opening up to others, rather than closing in on ourselves. In the 80s we affirmed the leadership of women in the church. In the 90s we affirmed young people by integrating our music style to include praise music. Each of these changes was precipitated by the culture around us. Other churches split over these cultural shifts, but ABC did not. Change is always difficult, and we worked hard to respond to change in a way that honored God and stayed true to the gospel.
In the past five years, our rapidly changing society has forced us to examine deeply how welcoming we are to the LGBTQ+ community, and we have been found wanting. For years my position has been to show love to all, but to see marriage as reserved for heterosexual couples. Unfortunately, this has not felt like love to the LGBTQ+ people, their family and loved ones who are part of the ABC community, much less to others outside our circle. The phrase, “I’ll love them but…(they’d better not hold hands, they’d better not dress funny, they’d better not marry, etc.)” has not created a safe space where they can be themselves.
Three big questions confront churches today: 1) Should openly LGBTQ+ people be accepted as members? 2) Should they be in leadership positions? 3) Should the church bless LGBTQ+ marriages? We have discovered that almost all churches around the country are grappling with their response to the LGBTQ+ community. We have found many examples of churches who say Yes to two of the three questions, but No to one of them (not always consistently the same one rejected). Many pastors are uncomfortable with their church’s traditional position and are seeking a way forward, as we are.
Christians disagree in this area. A deep division has widened between two sides: those who emphasize what they see as personal righteousness before God, and those who emphasize justice for an oppressed and persecuted minority. It’s surprising to find that those two English words are translations of the same Greek word: δικαιοσύνη. Ironically, our passion for δικαιοσύνη pushes us in two opposing directions. Churches have split over this difference. As on many other matters, ABCers find themselves all along the spectrum. Furthermore, there has been a lot of movement over the past several years, as we speak more openly about LGBTQ+ people, and as we discover friends and loved ones who have suffered in silence, but are now being more vocal and open.
It grieves my spirit that the Church (universal) is well known for persecuting and hating the LGBTQ+ community. Young LGBTQ+people who grow up in the Church are at a high risk of suicide and self-harm, because they have absorbed the message that who they are, in their very being, is wrong. The Church has done a great deal of harm to this people group. Why would anyone in the LGBTQ+ community want to turn to Jesus if his followers are so vitriolic?
So, I have been asking questions for some years:
- What side is culture on? And what side is the gospel on? Have Christians opposed same sex marriage out of deep cultural biases going back thousands of years, and is God asking us to look more carefully and critically at the culture from which we come in the light of the gospel? Or is the reverse true, that our current culture is pressuring us to give in to a way of the world that is against the gospel?
- How do we read Scripture? A few passages* are often cited, all of them traditionally interpreted negatively. This has driven a lot of the attitudes in the Church over millennia. Yet, all Bible readers import their own cultural values into Scripture. We see this even in the writers themselves, as they take for granted cultural norms that seem antiquated and even wrong to modern readers. Is it right to quote these passages literally, out of context, or are they to be read through the perspective of the entirety of Scripture? My Baptist high view of Scripture requires me to read deeply and well, and to invite God’s Holy Spirit into my study of Scripture: for “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.´ Heb. 4:12
- How do we show Christ’s love to LGBTQ+ people? How do we show unconditional love so that it truly feels like love to them? How do we create a safe space where all of us can worship? How do we welcome people into our midst as they are and celebrate who they are?
For millennia the Christian Church has thought about homosexuality in lockstep. We have been wrong. We need to repent and ask forgiveness for the ways the Christian Church persecuted and hated LGBTQ+ people for so long. We need to fully, unconditionally love every LGBTQ+ person as God’s beloved creation.
We need to follow science. God created science, so we need not fear what will be discovered about the LBGTQ+ spectrum in the future. For many years Christians believed an LGBTQ+ person ‘chose’ to be that way. Today, we know this is not true. For many years Christians believed in “gay conversion therapy,” designed to turn a gay person into a heterosexual. Today, we know this is harmful. As we discover more and more about human sexuality and gender, we should not bend science to fit our traditional theology.
Churches have come to different conclusions on the three questions raised above: membership in the church, leadership in the church, and the blessing of same sex marriage. It is clear that this is not a salvation issue. Christians should not question whether a person who disagrees with them loves and follows Jesus.
For five years I have prayed and wept over the LGBTQ+ population as a people group that Jesus loves deeply. For some time I have prayed Col. 1:9-10 over myself: “That I may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that I may lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as I bear fruit in every good work and as I grow in the knowledge of God.” I ask that you pray this passage for me, for ABC and also for yourself.
I have decided that I must end on the side of grace and love. I am ready to say ‘yes’ to all three questions: full inclusion in membership, affirmation in leadership and blessing of same-sex marriage. My position is to encourage everyone alike to a life of maximum grace and maximum discipleship. And I am calling on you, my beloved ABCers, to open your arms fully to the LGBTQ+ people in our congregation and in our neighborhood.
–Pastor Connie Larson DeVaughn
*Genesis 1-2 (Creation Account)
Genesis 19:1-9 (Sodom Account)
Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 (Holiness Code)
Romans 1:24-27 (Letter of Paul)
1 Corinthians 6:9 (Letter of Paul)
1 Timothy 1:10 (Letter of Paul)