Five Books That Changed How I Think about LGBTQIA+ People and the Church

I recently read Dianna Anderson’s new book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, which outlines a Christian sexual ethics that, among other things, is equally applicable to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Reading Damaged Goods reminded me of other books that have influenced my thinking on the evangelical church’s approach to LGBTQIA+ people, so I thought I would share some of those here. These are five books that I would suggest for someone who is interested in this topic:

James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality (2013)
As with many other debates in the history of the Christian church, the conversation about sexual orientation and same-sex relationships has frequently been framed in terms of concerns about biblical authority. Many Christians who argue against allowing same-sex couples to marry worry that the sort of Biblical reinterpretation that would be necessary for the church to perform and accept such marriages would lead to the wholesale discarding of the Bible as inspired and authoritative. Yet, while Christians who support marriage equality don’t all share a uniform opinion on the nature of the Bible (as is the case with any other large, diverse group of Christians), there are many who do take a high view of Biblical inspiration and authority. Brownson’s book, with its careful research, well-reasoned arguments, and clear, sustained respect for Biblical authority, is valuable in demonstrating how this can be so.

This is the best book I’ve read yet that focuses on the Biblical support for affirming marriages between two members of the same sex, and it’s the one book I’d recommend over any other for someone concerned with the biblical interpretation aspect of the conversation on LGBTQIA+ inclusion. If you don’t want to wade through 300+ pages of dense Biblical scholarship, though, then try Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian (2014), which presents many of the same arguments in a more condensed, accessible form, and which takes the same high view of scriptural authority.

Justin Lee, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate (2013)
Like James V. Brownson, Justin Lee attempts to prove that supporting same-sex relationships—or even just being an LGBT person—doesn’t automatically mean that a person isn’t a Christian or “doesn’t believe the Bible.” But Torn isn’t aimed solely at discussing Biblical interpretation, though it provides a substantial section on that. Rather, the importance and appeal of the book comes from its description of Justin Lee’s own life and of the decisions he made based on his experiences as a gay Christian. Lee provides an autobiographical account of the difficulty of growing up gay in the church, the devastation caused by attempts at reparative therapy, the decision to accept his sexual orientation, and the internal debate he had with himself over whether or not he could affirm same-sex relationships (in the chapter on biblical interpretation, he decides that he can). Lee also talks about the reasons behind his founding the Gay Christian Network, an organization that makes an effort to reframe the “Gays-vs.-Christians debate” as more of a gay Christians vs. gay Christians debate (using the network’s Side A/Side B terminology), and, ultimately, to focus on community over and above debate.

Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (2010)
Since this book is what would be called “Side B” in Gay Christian Network terminology, or “non-affirming” by others, some might object to my inclusion of it here. But despite the fact that the book doesn’t even raise the possibility of affirming same-sex relationships, it’s still an autobiographical account that presents a different view of sexual orientation than the one that had long been the evangelical norm. For one thing, Wesley Hill’s story shows his sexual orientation to be unchosen, unchanging and, like Justin Lee’s, unaltered by damaging “ex-gay” therapies. Hill presents a positive view of coming out as a potentially liberating expression of the truth about oneself, and he definitely argues that a person can be gay and be a Christian. For Hill, this means that he must choose to be celibate. Hill’s description of the difficulty and loneliness of this choice points both to the need for the very marriage-driven evangelical church to be more intentional in including single people in church community, and to something that Justin Lee also emphasizes near the end of his book: the need for “Side A” LGBT Christians to respect the decisions of those who choose celibacy, rather than attempting to ridicule or isolate them.

This is also the most lyrical and literary of the books on this list, and it’s worth reading for the reflective interludes alone.

Ken Wilson, A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing People Who Are Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender in the Company of Jesus Christ (2014)
Ken Wilson writes from the other side of the pulpit, as a straight pastor concerned with how to welcome gay, lesbian, and transgender people into his church without then seeing that church fracture and dissolve. His personal account of how he came to his current affirming position is valuable in providing that pastoral viewpoint. He draws an extended parallel to the process through which his views on divorce had changed earlier on in his career, based largely on how he saw his original theological position negatively affecting his congregation. His book also provides a model for a “third-way” church that attempts to accept and affirm lesbian, gay, and transgender people and their marriages without then rejecting and excluding those members of the congregation who are opposed to that affirmation. That’s a difficult model to follow, and one that may prove untenable in some cases in the long term, but it seems necessary for the period of upheaval and transition that we’re seeing now.

The absence of “bisexual” from the title and from the paragraph above is no mistake, though: Wilson’s book, beyond a single appearance of the acronym “LGBT,” seems to intentionally avoid any inclusion of bisexual people in its language. Whether this is because Wilson isn’t convinced that bisexual people exist (which would be odd in someone who has done as much reading on LGBTQIA+ topics as his footnotes indicate), because he thinks there’s no need to emphasize the inclusion of bisexual people in the church (since we often either blend in if single or in an opposite-sex relationship, or are mislabeled as gay or lesbian if in a same-sex relationship), because he believes that bisexual people have the moral obligation to choose to appear to be straight (and so aren’t included in the affirmation he discusses), or for some other reason, is hard to tell.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (2013)
Like Justin Lee’s and Wesley Hill’s books, Pastrix belongs to the burgeoning genre of the contemporary Christian memoir. But unlike those two, it doesn’t present the story of an LGBT Christian. Like Ken Wilson, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes from a pastoral perspective, though how to best welcome LGBTQIA+ people into the church isn’t the central concern of the book (though it is certainly a concern). But I’m including the book here because when I read it, I was particularly struck by the chapter “Eunuchs and Hermaphrodites.” I liked the way that the chapter’s discussion of the Ethopian eunuch argued for the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities through the application of a trajectory hermeneutic (the same sort that Scot McKnight uses in support of women in ministry in The Blue Parakeet). (In a brief section of his second chapter, Ken Wilson also takes this approach to biblical eunuchs, applying it to transgender people specifically.)

But I also liked how the chapter actually makes the phrase “argued for the inclusion of” inaccurate, because Bolz-Weber questions the concept of “inclusion” in the church as something that we possess and have control over extending to people we think of as “others”:

Actually, inclusion isn’t the right word at all, because it sounds like in our niceness and virtue we are allowing “them” to join “us”—like we are judging another group of people to be worthy of inclusion in a tent that we don’t own. […] It’s God’s tent. The wideness of the tent of the Lord is my concern only insofar as it points to the gracious nature of a loving God who became flesh and entered into our humanity.1

That’s a good thing to remember.

These are just a few of the ever-growing number of books dealing with LGBTQIA+ people and Christianity. I only chose five for this post, but I could also have talked about David G. Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (2006), Andrew Marin’s Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community (2009), and John Shore’s UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question (2011), as well as the book by Matthew Vines that I mentioned above. (And Damaged Goods, but I already wrote about that.)

If you support the recognition that LGBTQIA+ people are already a part of the church, what books on the subject have you particularly appreciated? Do you have any reading recommendations?

[Photo credit: Horia Varlan via Flickr, cc, cropped and resized]

  1. p.94 

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