By Richard Mara
I grew up in a conservative, evangelical family. We were the typical, stereotypical church-going folks and weren’t very tolerable towards members of the LGBTQ+ community. I was raised on the belief that being gay, or anything like it, is wrong, dirty, sinful, and will buy you a fast pass to hell. In my family’s defense, they never toted a sign at an anti-gay rally or committed a hate crime, but they were certainly contributors to passive homophobia. It’s no surprise then that I believed every church and every christian family was like mine. It’s also no surprise that coming to Chapel Hill was a bit of a culture shock for me. Churches here proudly display pride flags, BLM signs, and other things I would never associate with the christian church. Even with all this outward display of acceptance, I was still skeptical on how accepting these churches truly were.
The research question I set out with was: What is the experience of people that are part of the LGBTQ+ community in the modern, progressive church?
From the getgo, research on this subject was not hard to find. The first article I found was about a study on how religion is the surprising new source of happiness for LGBT adults. This was more than surprising to me that a study actually found that Christianity is doing something positive for queer people. But this begged the question, how is this possible? What exactly changed? I don’t think I was completely out of left field when I assumed that churches weren’t really the best places for LGBTQ+ folks. In fact, my initial hypothesis was that queer people in these churches didn’t feel fully or truly accepted. But I was wrong.
The church has come a long way in recent years and no one’s really talking about it. I mean beyond not burning gay people on stakes or something. I mean there are many churches that are now accepting queer people as members and even worship leaders. Even the current Pope has said homosexuality “is not a sin.” I found a really interesting book on this topic exactly called “Reforming Sodom: Protestants and te rise of gay rights” by Heather White. Not a very politically correct term, but it’s from 2015. The book describes how gay people were viewed from the rise of Christianity, to now. Christianity, surprisingly wasn’t homophobic when it was founded. It only grew into that about a hundred years ago. Homosexuals went from being accepted in Roman times, burned in the era of the Holy Holy Roman Empire, labelled as mentally ill in the late 1800s, to now seen as sinners to some and accepted by most. White tells us that the bible has been mistranslated many times over the centuries which has created a lot of new meaning to previously harmless words. As described by her and an Evangelical gay activist I found out about, Matthew Vines, there are four key bible verses that are used to justify homophobia.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
For the sake of time, I will only discuss two of them.
Leviticus 18:22 – Do not lie with man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.
“Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law, and the New Testament teaches that Christians should live under the new covenant rather than the old one. Thus, this verse has never applied to Christians. For a man to lie with a man “as with a woman” violated the patriarchal gender norms of the ancient world, which is likely why Leviticus prohibited it. But the New Testament casts a vision of God’s kingdom in which the hierarchy between men and women is overcome in Christ. So not only is Leviticus’s prohibition inapplicable to Christians on its own, the rationale behind it doesn’t extend to Christians either.”
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
“In this text, Paul uses two Greek words—malakoi and arsenokoitai—that likely refer to some forms of male same-sex behavior, but not the modern concept of homosexuality. The predominant forms of same-sex behavior in the ancient world were sex between masters and slaves, sex between adult men and adolescent boys, and prostitution. In all those cases, men used sex to express power, dominance and lustfulness, not self-giving love and mutuality. Committed same-sex unions between social equals represent very different values than the types of same-sex behavior Paul would have had in view in 1 Corinthians 6.”
Now is this just Christians hiding their beliefs since political correctness has become more popular, or are Christians really starting to accept people from the LGBTQ+ community?
My first observation would tell me, yes. I personally attended three worship services at University United Methodist church. Due to the current pandemic of COVID-19, they have moved to a virtual format which unfortunately prevented me from experiencing the full sense of the community, but the services were still very telling. In the first service I attended, the Pastor from the very start made it very clear he was accepting of queer people. In fact, the entire service was about being kind and loving, especially to oppressed groups. He specifically highlights how their church is accepting of LGBTQ+ people and how their interpretation of the bible explains it. Previous services tell a similar story. I think it’s interesting to mention that one of the worship leaders described how the church views God not as a man, but more of an amorphous, genderless being. If anything God is genderfluid. They justify this by quoting that mankind was created in the image of God. So both Adam and Eve should look like him. (And Lilith, if you believe in her).
My second observation was an interview with my friend Max who personally attends this church. Yes, this is actually a different person than me. There are just a lot of gay Maxes. Max described to me growing up in this church and how it’s always been on the forefront of progressiveness. Although being the second largest Christian organization after Catholicism, the entire University United Methodist foundation is fairly accepting. In recent years, many splinter groups from the organization have formed because of how progressive it has grown. And this just shows how different it is, that the splinter groups are the ones stuck in the past.
In the future, should someone wish to replicate my research question. I would suggest interviewing a church leader of some sort to get a better look into the church ideology and mission. Plus, obviously an in-person service would be much more useful. Provided that it is safe.
My observations and research have led me to believe that my initial skepticism was unfounded. My hypothesis was simply wrong. These churches are not lying, they are actually accepting of queer people and are a home to many. The church I attended for my observations even has an out-and-proud lesbian minister. That is admittedly still a little mind-boggling to me. I don’t like being proved wrong, but I was.
Barringer, M. (2016) Happily religious: the surprising sources of happiness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adults. Sociological Inquiry / Volume 87, Issue 1
White H. (2015) Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the rise of gay rights The University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill
Goodstein L. (2015) Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights; Debating Bible Verse on Homosexuality The New York Times
Anderson M. (2020) United Methodist Church Announces Proposal to Split Over Gay Marriage N.P.R.
Image from free Google for fair use