By Charles Park
Our sermon series “Faith Misunderstood” has generated a lot of conversations and interest because we are challenging several misguided common assumptions about faith. We began with a message titled “God Wants You to Be You.” Elmie shared her powerful story about her experience of churches that made her feel like she had to choose between being false to herself or being alone, and neither is a good option.
This happened because some churches teach that women can't and shouldn’t lead in a church which contributes to the mindset that women are inferior to men. And subconsciously (or consciously) this policy makes women feel as though they can't speak, that they don’t have a voice. Elmie didn’t want to go along with that view, and that was very hard for her.
I want to be very clear about this: here at the River we believe that women can lead, and that if an individual woman can do a job she should not be stopped. I don’t think the Bible teaches that women can’t lead or teach, despite certain Biblical texts.
We need to go deeper into the principles of the Bible, rather than simplistically following the letter of the law.
Then Caroline preached an insightful sermon called Faith is NOT belief. It’s a message about how, in the Old Testament, Jacob had to leave his safe, faith-filled home to find God. Isn’t that an interesting point? Sometimes, safe, Christian culture can make God someone else’s God and reduce him to just stories you hear as opposed to something you experience. Jacob had to have his own experience of God, and he had to leave a faith-filled environment to do it.
Today, I’m going to address one particularly misguided approach to the Bible that can cause harm and make people mean. I want to address the oppressive behavior towards the LGBTQ community from large sections of Christian churches.
A Lack of Communication
Unfortunately, this oppression is common. For example, I remember talking with a pastor friend who has started multiple successful, hip, Evangelical churches in New York. He shared with me a dilemma he was facing. He said that his church caters to the younger generation of New Yorkers and he wanted to communicate a welcoming, inclusive, and loving stance towards the LGBTQ community.
His church didn’t want to be like one of the openly hateful churches in other parts of the country. After all, we’re in New York City and this is the 21st century! At the same time, being an Evangelical, he was loyal to the Bible and its teachings. So the church’s external policy was that everyone would be welcome — they would not preach about that they believe the “gay lifestyle” is a sin, and they will not openly cut LGBTQ people off. However, the church’s internal policy was not to perform gay weddings or let LGBTQ people become leaders.
Although this was the church’s understood internal policy, they kept it under wraps because they didn’t want to come across as hateful.
This is a very common tension for many churches in New York and around the country. My friend said that the problem is that his church’s internal policy was not clear and upfront. There were LGBTQ people coming into the church, and as they became more involved in the church, some wanted to become leaders or to get married in the church. That’s when they discovered it was not allowed.
Of course that would hurt — by this time, they had opened their hearts, made friends and had made this their church home, only to find out that they weren’t accepted for who they really were. The LGBTQ people in the church were left in this tough position of having to decide whether to leave in order to be true to who they were. This would hurt even more because they had built up relationships within the church. They didn’t want to lose all of the friendships they cherish, but they also didn’t want to stay with the church and live with the tension of knowing that the congregation didn’t really accept them.
You can imagine the psychological tension, hurt and trouble they were in. My friend was aware of this problem and he felt like it would be better to just be upfront about their policy. His church recently made the choice to be clear from the beginning about their position. They welcome anyone, with love, as a person. But they will also never marry you and you can never be a leader there if you are a homosexual because they believe the Bible says it’s a sin. They have to stay true to that teaching — those are their convictions.
I agree with him that it is better to be upfront, because otherwise people get hurt. It’s not honest to appear welcoming if that is not reality. It’s like inviting people to your home and saying, “You’re welcome here, but not in the dining room. You can stay here in the living room, we want you to sit here, but not over there,” or “You can come on the bus, but not in this section.” It doesn’t help people to feel good about themselves. So I agreed with him. And more recently others have taken up this approach. For example, the website ChurchClarity.org is designed to help people discover a church’s internal policy before they go — so they can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to get involved.
Hurt Within: How the Issue Has Wounded Our Church
That conversation made a big impression on me, because back then, confusion on this issue was hurting people in this church, too. There were incidents happening, not from the pastors, but from some leaders who just assumed that our church’s policy would be a standard, conservative, Evangelical position. We have those roots — we built this church as part of the Vineyard movement, which is a standard Evangelical institution. There are many people here from that kind of mindset, so the leaders assumed it was true of everyone.
For example, seven or eight years ago there was a lovely gentleman from the South who became a member of this church. He grew up in the Bible Belt, loved God and loved church all his life. However, as he grew up, he realized that he was gay. This was horrifying to him because all his life he had been taught that being gay was “an abomination before God.” He tried everything he could think of to change his orientation because he was so horrified and ashamed to think that he might be gay.
Nothing worked, and he ended up filled with self-loathing, asking questions like “Why can’t I change? I’m doing everything right,” and “What’s wrong with me?”
This despair drove him to attempt suicide three times. By the way, did you know that the suicide rates among LGBTQ people in Christian church — people who were taught that homosexuality was an abomination —- are so much higher than normal. Especially for teenage boys and girls. This is a horrible situation to endure.
Finally, this man decided to move to New York to start a new life as a gay man. He found this church and liked it. It kind of reminded him of home. At The River, we are fully Jesus-centered — we are passionate about Jesus! The man really loved our passion and our Biblical insights, and he went to weekly Bible study groups and made friends. His opened his heart again to church.
One day, the Bible study leader took him aside and talked to him about being gay. The leader told the man that, although everyone in the group liked him and considered him a friend, as a leader he had to be clear: the Bible takes precedence over everything else. He told the man that, when push comes to shove, he would have to stay loyal to the Bible. This meant that if the man ever wanted to get married to the same sex or wanted to become a leader in the church, this leader could not support him because he had to stay loyal to what he believes the Bible says.
Of course, this broke the man’s heart. After all he had been through, after all the psychological trauma, suicide attempts and wariness of church, he had the courage to try again. Because he loved God, he tried to open his heart again and make new friends. The man had entrusted this leader to be a spiritual mentor. To experience this kind of rejection again — it was crushing. It risked pushing this brother into a really dark place once again, into a place of self-loathing and self-hatred.
Normally, a kind person would not dream of putting another human being into that kind of space. The tragedy of it all is that this was done in the name of God. If this leader was in any other church, he would be considered an outstanding, servant-hearted leader who follows the Bible well. What he said to this gay brother would be applauded — because he’s standing up for the Bible against the “corrupt secular culture.” Many conservative Christians would think this leader is courageously speaking up and taking a stand, even though he is hurting and harming an actual person.
We see that there are tons of people who are being pushed into very dark spaces in the name of God, and the people pushing them are being applauded for their courage! This misguided approach to faith made the leader behave horribly against another human being, but he was blind to it — he thought he was being faithful to God!
A Misguided Interpretation of Scripture
This very incident forced us as pastors to address this issue carefully, because obviously, we have to be very clear about this. Are we going to stand with the Bible, even if it hurts people? Is that what Jesus taught?
No! Let’s be very clear. We stand for loving people at all times over blindly following the Bible. Actually, we believe that staying loyal to the Bible is to choose love over every other objective! We believe there is a misguided sense of righteousness that comes from following the letter of the law and, in the end, it makes you mean.
This conviction cost us. Our church is now a lot smaller than it used to be. We are less than half what we used to be because many people felt very uncomfortable with this position and policy. They said, “The Bible says it’s sin. Why don’t you just follow the Bible?”
This is a very common misunderstanding across the history of faith. Do we just follow what the Bible says? This simplistic and narrow-minded approach to faith is actually opposed by Jesus. We see that consistently and clearly. But many people don’t understand what Jesus really taught us about faith.
Jesus and the Sabbath
Let’s look at a famous passage about this.
“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28, ESV)
Keeping the Sabbath was a VERY big deal back then — it was the touchstone issue of the day — like the LGBTQ question is a touchstone issue of today. This is not the first time that this type of situation has come up in the history of the church. In this passage, Jesus and his disciples exhibit fairly little regard about the instructions of the Bible regarding honoring the Sabbath. The Pharisees were the “Bible people” of the day and they asked why the disciples were not doing what was lawful for the Sabbath. (By “lawful,” the Pharisees are referring to the laws in the Bible.)
So what they are really asking is: “Why are they breaking the laws of the Bible? Why are they not following what the Bible says?”
Jesus’ answer is so interesting. He does not argue back. He doesn’t tell them that they are reading the Bible wrong. He doesn’t get technical and say, “let’s look at the Hebrew original meaning”. He doesn’t try to make any or theological arguments from either the left or the right.
Instead, he talks about King David, who was a great hero of the faith. He reminds them of the story — When David was hungry, he broke the Bible’s law and he ate the “bread of the presence” in the house of God, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat. And he gave some to his companions. There are very strong Biblical laws about who can enter God’s presence and eat this ceremonial bread, but what Jesus is saying is that David breaks them because he was hungry. He needed it, and it was okay. Jesus affirms that if you have a legitimate need, you can break the Bible’s laws.
Then Jesus punctuates that point by saying that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. This is such an important distinction! The Bible was made for you and me — we were not made for the Bible. The Bible is here to help you love your neighbor and yourself and to love God. Jesus teaching here (and elsewhere) is that people’s needs take precedence over blindly following the Bible.
Of course, our choice to stay faithful and loyal to what we believed Jesus was teaching us has cost us. We had to leave the Vineyard network of churches because they would not allow our position of full LGBTQ inclusion. We have lost many people in this church who were not comfortable with fully welcoming our gay brothers and sisters.
But some chose to stay, and I’m so grateful for their choice to be a part of this church. By staying and helping us build the River we are creating a space where people can come and experience the unconditional grace of God that transforms people. It’s so healing, and it’s making a tremendous impact on real people’s lives today.
From Shame to Acceptance: Brent’s Testimony
I invited Brent some space to share his experience, and what it meant for him to find a church like this:
I was blessed to be born into a wonderful family with a loving mother and father who both had a strong faith. My father and grandfather were pastors in a conservative denomination where I learned love for the Bible and love for God. I married young, we had children and we had a wonderful family of our own. We were very active in a church where we lived in Texas. I was fortunate to have a childhood and a young adulthood where I was taught the love of God.
But I hid a secret, something I felt deep shame about and was terrified that it would ever be known: I’m gay. To say those words today in New York City barely registers as even interesting let alone scandalous! But, for a boy forty years ago in the south, there was no more shameful an identity than that one. Effectively all of society and all religious traditions rejected same sex gender relationships as deviant, perverse and bad. Every message about it in society, school, church and media was negative, and there were no positive models. These positions, held by basically everyone, seemed to be supported by certain statements in the Bible.
As I grew up and began to understand that this abnormality applied to me, it was terrifying and wounding. A literal reading of the Bible says that I’m an abomination in the Old Testament, and the New Testament says I “...will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). I don’t want to be dramatic, but it is hard to overstate the harmful impact of hearing relentlessly that something about your core person that you cannot change is unacceptable and disgraceful, and it’s even more frightening to be told that if you accept that part of yourself you’ll be rejected by God forever.
In adulthood it became harder and harder to ignore who I was, so I did everything I could to find, to heal or to change my orientation, including reorientation therapy, reading, prayer and fasting, repeatedly. Nothing fixed it, of course.
I was married with a family that I love very much, and so I fell into despair and severe depression. For a brief time, I wasn’t able to work. I had thoughts of suicide, so for several weeks I was in an outpatient treatment clinic for depression. Medication and therapy helped some, but they did not address the root issues that were for me the major causes of my depression — anger and fear.
Anger that I had to carry this burden, anger at God for creating me this way, anger at a world I perceived would hate me if they knew. And fear that I might at any moment lose everything that was dear to me.
All of this was too much for any relationship to bear, of course, so my wife and I eventually divorced. I was still keeping my secret, but now having felt like I already lost everything, I could now take what was first a quick peek at myself honestly. Then some longer looks, and then finally start the work of getting to know myself which, for me, took years.
During this time, I had no relationship with God, at least on my end. It’s hard to have a conversation with somebody you’re bitter towards.
I heard a quote recently which I will paraphrase: we all experience pain from the circumstances of life and from others, but perhaps the greatest violence is the violence we do to ourselves when we don’t accept ourselves for who we truly are.
My road to self-acceptance as a gay man was a long one, and my journey to believing that I’m accepted by God as a gay man was even longer. A couple of years ago, I found myself still in Texas, my children now young adults, and I was still trying to figure out my life, too. And while relationship with God was non-existent, I was starting to process, asking questions about God but avoiding him directly. I found some books and authors that gave me hope that maybe God didn’t reject me after all, and then in this search to just follow my heart, I uprooted my life, moved to New York City by myself and started a new career in my 50s.
I’d been in New York City for just a few months when I first visited River. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I immediately felt at home here, which was surprising because I had been visiting churches for years, and I had come to a place where I had accepted I would always be a spiritual wanderer.
The second Sunday I came, I found somebody who looked “official” and she confirmed that the River was indeed an affirming place for LGBTQ people. She said the pastor had recently spoken about it, and she hoped I would come back.
The third Sunday I came back, I sat through both services weeping because of the healing that God was doing in my heart. It’s hard to believe, but that was over two years ago when that happened. Over the past two years, God has continued that healing here at the River, rooting deep in me an assurance that he wants a connection with me — just as I am. And as we hear here at the River often, that’s actually what Jesus taught was the most important thing — loving God and following that to love others as I love myself.
When I came to the River, I found it a healthy, loving, and alive place. It wasn’t until about a year later when I learned that, just prior to my arrival, the church had gone through a really, really difficult time of many people leaving the church, in part because of its decision to be an open, affirming place for LGBTQ people. That was a difficult time for all those who stayed.
Some who have stayed have since reconciled the issue Biblically and theologically — I’m in that place. Some are still unsure or conflicted with it — it’s a complicated issue. But they committed to stay and live with the tension of not knowing, because they believed it was a loving thing to do.
I salute those who stayed at the church because they embraced a difficult but important change. Because they did that, I get to be here. So to Charles and Caroline, John and Sara and this beautiful body that is the River, I’m so happy today to publicly say a big “Thank You!”
It’s stories like Brent’s that allow me to feel God’s love and presence. I’m so sad to know that folks like him are subjected to such a destructive, oppressive environment for so long because of misguided understandings of the Bible.
The Underlying Principle
I want to be very clear: The whole principle behind the Bible, behind everything God wants from you and me, is love. Love! It’s very clear. Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39, NLT).
Jesus is making it very clear that with everything you read in the Bible you must use the filter of love and be willing to disregard certain things if they do not pass the test. As we saw, keeping the Sabbath is one example. Another is slavery. Do you know that there’s a command in the New Testament that “slaves should obey their masters”? That passage was followed blindly until just a couple of centuries ago. But does any church now preach that slaves must obey their masters? It’s in the Bible. It’s what the Bible says — but we’re not doing that! It’s simple. To paraphrase Jesus, the Bible was made for humankind, not humankind for the Bible. It must pass the love test or be disregarded. Slavery does not pass the love test, so we disregard the Bible and what it says in that regard.
In fact, in his teachings on divorce in Matthew 19, Jesus says that there are laws given by God in the Bible that are actually against God’s will. Think about that! This is a very important thing to understand. He said that this law about divorce was given because of “the hardness of your heart”. That means he recognized there was a certain cultural context at the time and God accommodated to meet them where they were. And the truth is that people back then were barbaric. I think God looked at that and said, “If I don’t allow slavery, everyone will get massacred.” So God gave that law, but that doesn’t mean it’s God’s will for all time. Slavery is not God’s will, even though we find it in the Bible.
Why do we believe that? Because God is love! And God works within our context. To just blindly follow the Bible across time and culture is heartless, and it actually goes against God’s will and it goes against Jesus. That’s what other religions do like Islam or Judaism — they will look at some Holy Scripture and say, “This is the will of God.” Christians follow Jesus, and we say Jesus is the face of God on Earth. He is our risen savior and he is alive to guide us! And he says clearly that he is “the Lord of the Sabbath”, meaning, “Follow me over these things in the Bible.”
Practical Suggestion 1: Don’t Let the Bible Make You Mean
So here is my first practical suggestion for today: don’t let the Bible make you mean. That’s the title for this sermon. Actually, I really wanted the title to be “Don’t Let the Bible Make You a Dick” but I was voted down by everyone on staff who was thinking straight! But can we just agree on this? Whatever else is happening, if you are ever faced with a choice, choose people over the Bible. Ironically, THAT is what the Bible teaches! That is what staying loyal to the Bible actually means, to choose love. Choose people over some doctrine — any theology in your head cannot compare to the image of God in that person right in front of you. No deeply-held conviction can compare with the value of the person for whom Jesus died and rose again!
We must love, because we don’t see the whole reality. The truth is, whatever convictions we may have, we don’t know for sure. So we follow Jesus, not the letter of the law. And Jesus was a lovely human being.
Practical Suggestion 2: Be a Lovely Human Being
This is my second practical suggestion: make your central goal in faith and in life to become a lovely human being. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Those are qualities that describe a lovely human being. That is the end goal of all our effort and faith.
So think carefully and strategically about how you are going to become a lovely human being. As you become older, it’s not easy — it’s much easier to become grumpy and gloomy. Your joints hurt, you have back problems and you become more and more convinced that you are right and everyone else is wrong. This places you at great risk of becoming “a dick.”
But look at Brent. I don’t understand how he has not become a bitter, ugly person with all that he’s experienced. It’s the fruit of the spirit in his life. It’s miraculous given all that he’s suffered. Be like Brent!
Practical Suggestion 3: Lean on God
My final suggestion is to lean on God to become a lovely human being. We need a living God in order to become more and more lovely. This will not come to you just because you want it — we need God. The original sin is described as “eating from the Tree of Knowledge” — in other words, judging Right & Wrong. It’s just human nature — we judge. We think we see reality, but we become mean and blind to how we are hurting people in the name of God. It happened back in Jesus’ day with the Pharisees, and it’s happening now. And if it’s not the Bible, it’s something else — some political conviction or belief that will make you think you are in the right and everyone else is in the wrong.
It happens at home when we are in a fight and we are possessed with self-righteousness, and we don’t see how we hurt each other. We lose sight of the ultimate objective of our faith and instead focus on little things to justify our behavior.
A Saving Humility
So we need God. This is the beauty and power of faith — when you turn to God, it’s an act of humility. When you turn to God in prayer or for help or in any way, you are acknowledging that there is a higher Being who sees reality — and it’s not you! You’re not the one who sees the ultimate reality, you only see your reality.
When I turn to God, it is an implicit act of faith — to say that there is a bigger being who sees a lot more than I do,. I acknowledge that there’s a mystery to all this. That is humility, to turn to God and not try to do everything by yourself and by your convictions — to say, “I turn to You, God. Help me, God, to see better. I need to see from different perspectives, I need to see people. I can’t just move from my convictions, I need you, God. I can’t just fight with my spouse or my family from my convictions, I need your help.”
That humility will save us and lead us to becoming lovely human beings. It’s a prerequisite — without the humility, you cannot become lovely and gracious. So have faith. Trust in God because God is love — and that is the good news of the Gospel!
God wants to connect with every single one of us, no matter how messed up we think we are. Wherever we are, God is loving us and pulling us to him, and when we turn to him He will transform us and begin making us into lovely human beings.
Let’s make this our central goal as people and as a church, and God will move in our midst and we will experience fruits of the spirit. This is salvation. Heaven is full of lovely people — if you want to go to heaven, become a lovely human being. God is here to help you right now.
Reading Tips . . .
Start by asking God to interact with you
Ask for a fresh perspective
Expect to be challenged in your assumptions
Try imagining yourself in the story
Slow down and pay attention to your feelings, thoughts and reactions
When something bothers you, talk to God about it
Want to dig deeper? Check out this podcast from "the Bible for Normal People"