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Silence, complicity and LGBTQIA inclusion

NYOJoe 002: A book on the church’s silence about and complicity with racism, challenged me to no longer remain quiet about LGBTQIA inclusion in the church.

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Transcript

Welcome to Not Your Ordinary Joe, a podcast about living a faithful, Christian life in the real world… here… now. No easy answers allowed.

Reflecting on a book I recently finished, echo chambers and a memory from my seminary days, has me thinking about speaking up, especially about LGBTQIA inclusion in the church.

My name is Joe Iovino, and I am NOT your ordinary Joe.

If you have read any of the descriptions of Not Your Ordinary Joe, you’ve learned that my primary goal is to wrestle honestly with difficult questions and topics—things I’m thinking about, learning about, struggling with. Sometimes it may be something I’ve always been taught or thought must be understood or believed in a certain way—but I’m having a hard time with it.

So while I have several easier topics ready to record, I thought I should dive in here in episode 2 and give you a sense of what I want to do. Please know that not every episode is going to be as intense, but let’s get it started.

In recent days, I have been struggling with the idea of complicity—the complicity of the church and frankly my own—by not having the courage to stand up and be counted. In my recent readings of Ibram X. Kendi, Cornel West, and a rereading of Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ I’ve been reminded how the silence of the church—our unwillingness to say what might be unpopular with some of our members, friends, colleagues—has allowed evils of oppression, like slavery, racism and sexism to continue.

In his book The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity with Racism, Jemar Tisby puts it succinctly, “Being complicit,” he writes, “only requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo.”

Then in the last few pages of that book, he continues, “Too many Christian leaders refuse to use their platforms to publicly speak against racism. Those who do tend to speak in generalities… More Christians, particularly people with large platforms, must be willing to take the criticism that comes with taking a prominent stance against bigotry.”

As a Christian with a platform, I was challenged when I read those lines. And in many ways, that section of Tisby’s book is the spark that moved this podcast from something I had been talking about for months, to becoming the reality you are listening to now.

I want to use my small platform to come out from the silence. To speak to what I believe God has placed on my heart. To share what I have been thinking about for days, weeks, months and often years regarding LGBTQIA inclusion.

So, since silence is complicity, I need to speak out. To clearly say that I am for LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. We should drop any objections that bar people from membership, leadership, marriage or in any other way limit the participation of anyone due to their sexuality.

How did I get to this place? Let me begin with a confession.

Fear

For a long time, I have been silent on this issue. I hinted, but never spoke out about where I stand. When asked about it, my default was that if an alumnus of one of my youth groups asked me to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, I would make the decision at that time. Secretly, however, I always hoped it would never come to that, and that’s embarrassing to admit.

Standing up to the church, putting my clergy credentials—my livelihood—on the line, seemed foolhardy at best. But I also knew there were ‘kids’ I wouldn’t be able to say no to. So I hedged. I stalled. I tried to be the welcoming pastor to the LGBTQIA people I knew, but I’m guessing they saw right through it to my fear.

That’s not to say I have always been in this place. Over the years, my thinking has changed. I’ve grown.

Inclusion

It started for me in seminary, from a place that might sound a bit strange, but hang with me.

As a student in the late 1980s, I was still questioning the validity of female clergy—I told you, strange place. It’s so embarrassing to admit that at 23 years old, I wasn’t sure about whether it was OK for women to be pastors. I was raised in what I have come to learn was a fairly conservative United Methodist church, or at least the youth group was.

Then, sitting in a seminary preaching class, I had a lightning bolt moment.

A young woman was sharing a sermon that moved me. Her primary illustration was the day her husband proposed to her. I don’t remember all of the details, but the sermon had to do with election—I went to a Presbyterian seminary—and I remember it being beautiful, one of those moments when you get chills because you sense something divine taking place in your presence.

She talked about what it felt like to have someone say they wanted to commit themselves to her, and to ask if she would commit to him also.

What an amazing way to think about Jesus’ invitation to follow him. It’s been more than 30 years, and I still think about that from time to time.

As a man, a single man at the time, I immediately recognized that this was an experience I was never going to have. This was a sermon I would never be able to preach. What a gift to hear and be challenged to think anew about God’s love for me and commitment to me.

Within a moment or two, I wondered what the church would be missing out on if this woman was not permitted to pursue her call to ministry. That thought challenged what I had heard (overtly or just absorbed) as an objection to female clergy.

What is it about my Y chromosome that makes me inherently more fit for clergy status than someone without it? Why wouldn’t I want to hear more from the perspective of this thoughtful, gifted preacher? And others like her?

Before long, the whole debate over female clergy was over for me. I knew that any rules prohibiting women from being ordained were not only foolish, but actually harmful to my—and many others—spiritual growth.

What would the church be missing out on? What were we missing?

Today I wonder, What are we missing when we refuse to listen to those who are different from us?

The echo chamber

In the 60s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr identified 11 o’clock on Sunday morning as one of the most segregated hours in America. Little has changed in the more than 50 years since. When we go to church, not only are we racially segregated, but we are also often economically, politically, and theologically segregated as well. That should not be.

We know, and readily admit, that many in our society live in echo chambers. We tend to fill our social media feeds—and even our selection of news and commentary sources—with people who espouse what we already believe. We friend and follow people that agree with us, and likewise unfriend and unfollow those whose opinions differ from our own. It’s a problem.

For example, I’m guessing there are those who turned off this podcast as soon as I stated my stance on LGBTQIA inclusion. If you disagree with me and are still listening, thank you.

While we readily recognize it in our podcast and social media feeds—or at least the social media feeds of others—we don’t typically talk about our churches as theological echo chambers. But for many of us, they are.

We attend churches pastored by those with whom we already agree. And when they step out of line with our thinking, there is always another church down the street or one whose worship service we can watch online in our pajamas, that will tell us we’re already correct in our thinking, reinforce our current beliefs and never really challenge us.

When I was preaching on Sunday mornings as an associate pastor, that could not have been more obvious. Whenever a controversial subject was mentioned from the pulpit—regardless of what was said about it—we were certain to receive pushback, and often threats of people leaving the church.

It was so much easier to preach about things no one could possibly object to. Though I’m guessing today there are fewer and fewer of those topics.

Two quick examples: The lead pastor in a church I was serving, once mentioned the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a sermon. He talked about his experience of meeting Palestinians in Israel who still had the keys to the house they had been removed from years before. I know we lost one family in leadership over just mentioning that, and I’m pretty sure there were others as well.

Another time, I was assigned a sermon on sexuality (seemed like I was always assigned those sermons) and I mentioned homosexuality—I just mentioned it was a discussion in the church. After the service, a mom complained to the lead pastor that her middle school son had never heard about homosexuality before and she had to explain it to him. I still have trouble believing that a middle school student didn’t know what homosexuality was, but to their credit, the family didn’t leave the church over it. People are typically more forgiving of the associate 🙂

Additionally, I was criticized for taking our youth group to <quote> too many Native American reservations on mission trips, for talking about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa during a sermon, and for suggesting during a Bible study that Jesus might have been a pacifist and didn’t expect the Kingdom of God to come to earth by force.

While it’s never fun to receive negative feedback, I recognized that disagreements are healthy. That’s what fosters conversation and growth.

Far too often, however, when people disagree they leave. But they don’t have to.

When the echo chamber stops echoing and we are being challenged to rethink something—even something we think is fundamental or core—we don’t have to leave. We can choose instead to listen and struggle with a new idea. That new idea might just contain some insight that helps to strengthen our faith, that makes us a better of disciple of Jesus Christ.

When I get to this place, I like to remember that the name Israel, Jacob is told, means ‘one who wrestles with God.’ Hmm… maybe that’s what we’re called to do.

Getting out of the echo chamber

Maybe our churches aren’t supposed to be echo chambers?

What would it be like to hear about your faith from someone whose life experience is different from your own. Maybe it’s a person from another culture or a different experience in the faith.

One of my favorites—which I don’t do near enough of—is reading Old Testament commentaries by Jewish scholars.

But it could be as simple as a sermon about Jesus’ invitation to commit to him, from a pastor who compared it to being asked to enter into a lifelong, committed relationship with her husband. A thought, a sermon, an understanding that would have never occurred to me because of my lack of that experience. Had she not pointed that out to me, I would have missed it completely.

The same can be applied to our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters.

Some of the people I know who have the deepest faith, who are most committed to the church at a time when they have every reason not to be, are LGBTQIA brothers and sisters.

So why does the church bar them from leadership? Why do they consistently hear from the church that they don’t belong? Why do we in the church think we have nothing to learn from all of our brothers and sisters? Why can’t we recognize that we’re missing out? To put it as simply as possible, why is this a division we think we need?

The Bible says so…

Of course, I know the answer to that questions. Most who disagree will say, “The Bible says so.”

If they’ve done a bit of homework, they may be able to quote Leviticus, Mark or Romans or another verse whose reference fits neatly within the 280 characters of a Tweet. Case closed, right?

Well… no. We need to look much more deeply at the Bible than that. We need to allow Spirit to speak to us through the Bible and not simply quote it and walk away—especially with no context.

I’m working on an episode on the witness of Scripture to share in the coming weeks. That’s a separate, complicated conversation, but here’s a bit of a preview.

There are times when an apparent “clear reading of Scripture” doesn’t match up with my experience of the world. What do you do when that happens?

Most people see two simple choices—deny scripture or deny their experience—and people make one of those choices every day.

Some do what seems crazy to me, and deny their reality. Their child comes out to them and they deny that reality. They choose instead, to ignore or abandon their child. My Bible says homosexuality is an abomination, so my child is an abomination. It’s ugly and extremely hurtful. Families are fractured over this.

Others choose instead to walk away from their faith, assuming the Bible isn’t relevant for the 21st century. Someone recently said to me, “I’ve never read the Bible” and then a few seconds later, “I don’t believe in the Bible.” Yeah, that’s the problem that comes from hearing how other people have read the scriptures.

Witness of Scripture

But there is a third choice. When my experience with LGBTQIA friends doesn’t match with Leviticus calling homosexuality “an abomination,” I need to take another look at the scripture, to go a little deeper, to see if there might be something there.

Because I believe the Bible is relevant for our time and our experience—as well as for the times and places in which these things were written—I want to take the time to understand ‘the witness of Scripture’—the whole of Scripture—rather than simply quoting it and walking away.

This mode of thinking automatically puts me at a disadvantage in a conversation—especially one on social media—because it doesn’t fit in a Tweet. At best I need a Twitter thread to make the point, and who has time to read all of that that 🙂

But those are the kinds of things we do, right? There was a time when people quoted 1 Corinthians 14:34, “the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk,” to say that women were not permitted to be pastors an preachers—in some circles that time continues into today (Beth Moore just experienced it recently).

Again, we can’t just quote it and walk away—God said it. I believe. That settles it. Instead, we have to do a little more work. We have to dig a little deeper.

Again, I’ll work through this more in a future episode, but for now, let me just say that I understand the tension. It feels like we’re picking and choosing what scripture passagess to listen to and which to ignore. Instead, it’s about listening to the whole of the Bible and not just parts of it.

I believe the “witness of scripture” calls me to recognize and honor the imago dei—the image of God—in everyone. That’s a biblical understanding from Genesis 1, when God says, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us.”

All people regardless of gender, skin tone, sexuality, nation of origin, or any other false division we might want to construct are created in the image of God. We are all one people, one family, each bearing the image of our Creator. Who are we to separate that? To say that others in the human family somehow do not belong because of some disqualifying trait?

Maybe you’ve seen the meme that says, “I’d rather be excluded for who I include, than included for who I exclude.” I used to put it this way: I can’t imagine standing before the pearly gates / judgment seat / choose your image, and being told that I’m not going to be admitted to paradise because I loved people too much, showed people too much grace, accepted people too easily.

Witness of the elders

One more quick thing that I hope is not an aside.

I have had the privilege of meeting and speaking with several people who were civil rights leaders in the 60s and every single one I’ve spoken with, has talked about LGBTQIA inclusion. It appears that many of our elders who have thought deeply about racial justice—who have been discriminated against because of the color of their skin—are on the side of full inclusion.

My reading about antiracism from the likes of Ibram X. Kendi, Cornell West (I recently reread Race Matters), Jemar Tisby and others, has me understanding that any exclusion of anyone does harm to the human family. And as the church, to the body of Christ.

I am finding it increasingly difficult to talk about dismantling racism without also talking about LGBTQIA inclusion.

We have to stop dividing the human family. Stop talking about who belongs and who doesn’t, about insiders and outsiders. I am convinced that as Christians, there should never be a ‘them.’ We’re all ‘us.’ We’re all one, deeply-connected family that needs each other. And that is by the design of our creator.

A couple of quick Bible images:

In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul writes about us fitting together like a body, the body of Christ. In that description, he writes, “the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you,’ or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.’” But isn’t that exactly what we do when we choose to exclude?

Or let’s look at Ephesians 6—those verses about “principalities and powers”—another passage I have wrestled with over the years. I recently heard a great sermon that reframed the verse by looking at what comes before and after it—Yes, I’m a big fan of context.

And you don’t have to go far for this one. That verse begins with these words, “We aren’t fighting against human enemies,” before it gets to the spiritualizing part, saying “but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.”

I’ve heard so many people quote the 2nd part while ignoring the first. Even while saying we need to remove some “enemy” from our midst.

Look, I get that it’s a lot easier to get elected when you convince people that the “other side” is the enemy. It may even be simpler to convert people to your faith when you convince them that the other churches, denominations, worship styles, theologies, religions, expressions of faith and the people that adhere to them, are the real problem.

It seems to me, however, that whenever we say, “If only we could get rid of them—whoever your them is (the conservatives, the liberals, whoever)—then everything would be perfect,” you are thinking in a way that is harmful and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 6 is warning us against that very thing. We cannot split humanity up into us and them. We aren’t fighting against human enemies—at least we shouldn’t be. And in the midst of an election season, that’s what we’re hearing over and over again. If you are on one side, you’re hearing Biden is the enemy. If you’re on the other, you’re being told Trump is the enemy.

The same is true in the church. Those people who believe that, are the enemy. I’m not listening to them anymore.

I wish we could focus less on the second part of that verse and more on the first, “We aren’t fighting against human enemies.”

Conclusion

So, this is my confession. This is me coming clean. This is me finally saying what I’ve wanted to say for some time but was too afraid of what the repercussions might be. LGBQTIA inclusion is long, long overdue.

Thank you for listening. Not Your Ordinary Joe is now available on your favorite podcasting site, including Spotify and Stitcher. Subscribe or follow so you don’t miss an episode. And to learn more about me and Not Your Ordinary Joe, go to joeiovino.com/NYOJoe

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