Beyond Right and Wrong

The question of LGBT people in the Church is often framed as a “culture war” issue with two definitive sides. On one side, “progressive” groups advocate for greater acceptance of gay marriage and allowing for sexually active LGBT people to serve at all levels of Church leadership. On the other side, “conservative” groups exhort LGBT people to grow in holiness by resisting all manner of sexual sin, bearing their sexual orientations (and gender dysphoria) as a cross, and struggling to conform to normative expectations of the cisgender, heterosexual majority. Both sides are quick to pronounce their side “right” and the other side “wrong.” Needless to say, we find that the “culture war” approach does little more than wound a lot of LGBT Christians (and their allies) in the crossfire.

Here at A Queer Calling, we have tried to advocate for a different approach that moves beyond right and wrong. We focus on how LGBT people likely have queer callings that need to be actively discerned in the light of Christ. For us, the dominant question is “Where do we see good fruit sprouting as God guides and directs individual LGBT Christians?” We recognize that LGBT people are people above all other descriptors. We believe that God, who is rich in mercy, always wants all people to grow in holiness but does not ask people to address each and every issue in their lives at the same time.

The culture wars have a profoundly negative effect when they dichotomize spiritual direction. Mention your LGB status to a person strongly aligned with the “progressive” camp and he or she just may offer to officiate your wedding. Oh, you’re transgender? No problem, let’s connect you with the nearest trans-friendly physician to help you get started with gender confirmation therapies. Breathe a word about your LGBT status amid “conservative” groups and you’ll likely be issued a celibacy mandate and be cautioned against identifying with your sin. We’d contend that none of these automatic responses adequately conveys the nuances found in authentic spiritual direction where spiritual directors help individuals grow towards Christ in ways that are appropriate for particular people’s unique circumstances.

When time in spiritual direction becomes engulfed by questions of rightness and wrongness, little room is left for discussing, “What is God asking of me at this time in my life? At the present moment, what is God calling me to do or change so that I might draw closer to Him?” This can create a false sense that gay people need the strictest of guidance regarding sexual morality and straight people do not. In reality, virtually every Christian will grapple with questions of sexuality at one time or another. For bisexual Christians, this approach can oversimplify experiencing attraction to both sexes: “Just marry someone of the opposite sex, because heterosexual, married sex is right and gay sex is wrong.” Concerns related to sexual orientation may be conflated with uncertainty about gender identity, and vice versa. Focusing solely on which sexual activities are right and wrong can be painfully alienating to Christians with gender identity questions. Especially in conservative Christian circles, any kind of gender identity question can be viewed as a cause of forbidden same-sex sexual desire. Beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of gay sex do little to help, guide, or comfort a person who is coping with gender dysphoria.

Regularly, we have experienced pressure to make a public declaration either that “Gay sex is a sin” or that “Gay sex is not a sin.” It has been suggested more than once by readers that because we have chosen not to make such a statement, we are, at best, unable to make up our minds about our convictions, or at worst, secretive about them for some sinister purpose. Such theories about our motives leave us wondering why reaching a theologically correct belief about the rightness or wrongness of same-sex sexual activity has become the endpoint for discussion about LGBT issues in many Christian traditions. Often in Christian communities, one’s willingness to offer an apologetic for either a liberal or conservative sexual ethic becomes the litmus test for one’s faithfulness. We find that exceptionally problematic, so we ask: what might it look like to move beyond right and wrong, and into a space where the central concern is helping our brothers and sisters to grow in Christ-likeness? How might the discussion be different if we focused on vocations rather than mandates?

At times, we have caught a glimpse of what this kind of approach might look like. We have been blessed by spiritual directors who can see and affirm our willingness to do our best to live our entire lives fully informed by Christ and our Christian tradition. They understand that we are human and entirely fallible, and when we fall in any way they are ready to give us wise counsel that takes into account our desire to live as Christ calls us. Their recognizing that Christ-likeness is a goal for all Christians has leveled the proverbial playing field and helped us see that every person who seeks Christ needs help along the journey. We find ourselves growing in compassion towards people who would otherwise easily anger, frustrate, or disappoint us. Our spiritual directors have been able to see how Christ has used our relationship to help one another grow in holiness and trust that our primary spiritual struggles are not sexual. Both of us have had spiritual directors in the past who have constantly exhorted us to focus our entire spiritual energies on reigning in our sexual appetites, a focus that is not only inappropriate for our specific circumstances but is significantly alienating. Keeping Christ at the absolute center of spiritual direction creates a space for the Holy Spirit to exhort us to holy living while also giving us time to grow towards Christ. As one prayer from our tradition reminds us, we pray for the grace to “make a good beginning” because our earthly days barely make a dent when viewed against eternity.

We find it critical to speak about the need to offer all LGBT Christians authentic spiritual direction because the vast majority of LGBT Christians have exceptionally limited access to compassionate spiritual directors. While we are absolutely grateful to be able to receive authentic spiritual direction at this time, we are all too aware that our present situation is completely contingent on our current mash-up of local church community, spiritual directors, geography, and even the political climate within our Christian tradition. As evidenced by Maria McDowell’s reflection entitled “Fragile Repentances,” many LGBT Christians find themselves dependent on pastoral whim and on a few friends willing to vouch for their faithfulness. Our vocation to celibacy does not render us immune to the effects of poor spiritual direction. Many past spiritual directors have discounted our experience by stating singleness is the only appropriate form of celibacy for LGBT Christians. From our perspective, several other demographics (teenagers, divorced, widows, single, married) present in the Church do not have to worry as much as being judged by their spiritual directors as “good” or “bad” based on their behavioral track records.

One main function of a spiritual director is to be present as a human who can prayerfully carry the burdens of another person to God. We pray constantly that spiritual directors would realize the profoundly damaging effect that constant clangs of “RIGHT” and “WRONG” can have on a person. Beyond right and wrong, we find ourselves in a place where we can appreciate one another’s humanity, where all vocations are fragile, and where everyone must be nurtured with love.

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17 thoughts on “Beyond Right and Wrong

  1. Greatly appreciate this post.

    “…what might it look like to move beyond right and wrong, and into a space where the central concern is helping our brothers and sisters to grow in Christ-likeness? How might the discussion be different if we focused on vocations rather than mandates?” <— yes.

    When I came out to one of my friends, the first thing she asked was "how do you justify that by Scripture"? Keep in mind… I am not in a relationship with anyone or even 'looking'. I am currently just trying to seek Christ in all this. The emphasis was on 'being gay' and the 'potential of relationship' rather than how I was doing spiritually. It hurts when LGBT people come out and immediately there is a heavy emphasis on the label, the assumptions, and 'what you must be doing'. It is as if Christians stop seeing people as people. Something I have had to tell certain friends is: "I am still the same person you knew yesterday. That has not changed. My love for the Lord has not changed".

    I hope we (the church) can focus on pursuing Christ, together, rather than judgment of how LGBT people should live their lives.

    • We have had many similar experiences. People often associate “gay” with sexual activity, so it is assumed that “I’m gay” means either, “I’m currently having sex with a person of the same sex,” or “I plan on having sex with a person of the same sex in the future.” It’s very difficult to talk with someone who views the discussion of sexual orientation and ethics as a black and white topic. Sorry you’ve experienced such misunderstanding from your friends. We will be praying for you.

  2. Sarah and Lindsey

    I think you mentioned it in the post but I wanted to comment that this cuts both ways. In general I have found progressive/liberal people don’t understand my conviction to be celibate and I am left pushing back at that pressure too. I am some times left to feel as if I am denying myself some basic physical need. I don’t know if well meaning people simply think they are helping me by challenging celibacy or if they think I am wrong or causing harm to myself. But you are correct the dialogue of right and wrong needs to change.

    For me choosing celibacy is well thought out and not a result of some fear I have about avoiding hell rather a commitment to my sanctification. Also misunderstood is my deep need for encouragement in the choice I have made and support through fellowship which doesn’t lead me one way or the other. Your blog is a great source of comfort for me and is helping me balance myself these days. I’m grateful for that.

    • Kathy, I am so sorry we missed this comment when you first posted it a few days ago. Yes, I would agree that it cuts both ways. Lindsey and I also experience constant pressure from Christians in liberal traditions who can’t seem to understand that we have chosen celibacy freely, not out of fear and not in response to a mandate. We’ve referenced this occasionally before, but I’m sure we’ll be writing more about it in the future as well. We’re glad to know you enjoy reading our blog. We are equally appreciative of your insightful comments. -Sarah

  3. Dear Sarah & Lindsey,

    You seem to write frequently about spiritual directors and I am amazed at the judgmentalism you report. Are these sorts of attitudes very common among spiritual directors you’ve experienced? My partner recently studied on a very well-regarded spiritual direction course in the Ignatian tradition and no one there would have dreamed of ‘directing’ people to certain behaviours or away from others. The focus was rather on listening and accompanying others as they seek God according to their vocation. I am horrified by some of the comments you report some directors as having made.

    The rather intimate nature of spiritual direction would make it incredibly painful if the very person who is supposed to assure you of God’s unconditional love would somehow make it conditional on behaving rightly or having the right doctrine.

    • Hi Tess, thanks for your comment.

      We think that many different schools of thought inform spiritual direction. Not all spiritual directors are trained in Ignatian practices, and some spiritual directors believe Ignatian principles do not jive with their understanding of living the Christian life. Many spiritual directors find themselves balancing the law and grace. We have found that there are people who do very well with spiritual directors who help them understand what God asks them to do, recommending concrete actions. In many ways, providing good spiritual direction can mirror the task of a parent where the parent needs to be aware of exactly what approach will be most effective with a particular child at a specific time. In our own lives, we’ve needed spiritual directors to offer various kinds of direction. Providing spiritual direction is a fearsome task.

      We consider that spiritual directors have responsibilities to shape individuals within particular Christian traditions. We believe that spiritual directors have an obligation to help people understand theology. Without any spiritual formation, it’s difficult for anyone to discern a vocation.

      • Hi Sarah & Lindsey, thankyou for this reply,

        I wonder if there is a cultural difference in the UK because I’m not aware of any school over here that might teach this more directive form of spiritual direction (or ‘accompanying’ as it often tends to be known these days for obvious reasons).

        I would personally be deeply concerned by any spiritual director “recommending concrete actions” whatever tradition they were from, Ignatian or otherwise – because of the high risk of (even inadvertent) spiritual abuse.

        I used to appreciate my spiritual direction having an element of actual ‘direction’ (“please just advise me what you think I should do!”), but having seen the impact on myself and others of such direction (including the very worrying examples of ‘direction’ of LGBT people you give here) I’d never be able to recommend it these days. The words of a spiritual director can often be heard as conveying the authority and will of God, even when they are trying with all their strength not to express any kind of judgement. It is, as you say, a fearsome task.

        I would be interested to hear some positive testimonies.

        Sorry for performing my usual role of ignoring the main thrust of your post and picking out a small side-issue to discuss :). I find your blog fascinating because of your attempt to find a ‘via media’ that is not Side A or Side B (expressions I had never heard until last week by the way). Speaking as a trans, bi, celibate (by obligation not by vocation) Christian I find it odd (and a shame) that I disagree with you both so much. 🙂

        • Hi Tess,

          I think we’re having a disconnect because we’ve chosen to use the term “spiritual director” broadly. We’re not talking about people who have received some sort of certification in spiritual direction to be able to advertise themselves as spiritual directors.

          Many Christians find themselves periodically in the role of a spiritual director. It’s not at all uncommon for Christians to seek advice from other Christians. An example of counsel I usually give when people are looking for a new local faith community is, “Find a place that you want to go. Go once, and if no red flags pop up, plan to stay around for a month before reassessing if it’s time to consider another community. No two communities are going to be exactly alike. Give yourself time to get know a community before making a decision.” This advice is directive. It’s borne out of my own experience in finding and adapting to various local church communities. I’m not going to force people to follow my advice. But if the same person comes back to me 6 months later after visiting 24 different church communities on a Sunday, then I’m likely going to repeat myself.

          One of the best pieces of spiritual direction I received came from an abbess who encouraged me to start putting the monastic life into practice as best as I could in my daily life. Much of spiritual direction is like that: a phrase in conversation that resonates with your spirit that comes from a person you know regularly prays for you.

          So much of my bad experience comes from people who don’t know many LGBT people. These people can rely on various autotapes when trying to provide direction. We’ve discussed these autotapes and how spiritual directors can avoid them on our post “Providing Spiritual Direction.” http://aqueercalling.com/2014/02/04/providing-spiritual-direction/ – Lindsey

          • Hi Tess,

            I’d also add one thing to what Lindsey has said. In some traditions, spiritual direction happens primarily within the context of confession. In this case, the spiritual director would be the priest/pastor, and not all priests/pastors in various Christian traditions will have been trained specifically in how to provide effective spiritual direction. In some traditions, training for the priesthood has more of a theological than pastoral emphasis, and in these traditions “spiritual direction” can sometimes be framed as, “Do this, don’t do that” rather than, “How can I help you work out a particular spiritual problem?” Lindsey and I have had some positive experiences in spiritual direction as well, and we might right about them at some point. But unfortunately, both of us have had far more negative than positive experiences. I’m glad this doesn’t seem to match your experience because I wouldn’t wish poor spiritual direction upon anyone.

            Sarah

    • We are not advocating for relativism, and we do have beliefs on right and wrong regarding sexual ethics and many other issues. But if a person focuses solely on harping, “A, B, and C are right and X, Y, and Z are wrong!” there’s no space left for discussing, “How do I live my life and honor God?” There are many places on the internet where you can debate “sides” until you’re blue in the face. But this is not the place for that. We have the freedom to frame our discussion as we wish, and framing it outside of “sides” does not mean that we are moral relativists.

  4. Hi Sarah and Lindsey,

    I recently found your blog through a friend who posted on Facebook. I love how you speak about your life, the joys and struggles. As a straight woman, married to a man who grew up in a conservative denomination I’ve had a hard time knowing what to think about Christians who identify as gay. Then my husband and I became friends with a Christian lesbian couple. We didn’t know they were gay right away, but after meeting up for the second time one of them came out to me. It was amazing to have her share something so personal with me. From that point on I have taken the view point that you’ve shared in your post. But reading other blogs on sides and theological arguments has been exhausting and discouraging. I feel like I’ll be forced to come out with my own stance and that’s not something I feel I need or want to do. I want to be a safe person who can encourage my brothers and sisters to live a faithful life, no matter what their sexual orientation is, and I want the same in return. I need help to be the person Jesus has created me to be. You’ve helped me with your posts and I am grateful. Thank you.

    Julia

    • Hi Julia! We’re glad you found us. Thanks for letting us know how this post helped you feel more at ease allowing a bit more space in thinking through LGBT issues in the Church. When a person discloses information about their sexual orientation and gender identity, he or she is opening up a sacred trust. May God be with you always. We hope to see you in the comments again.

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