Every “Scandal” Has Its Story

As a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple, frequently we receive caution that we should avoid inciting scandal. People have all sorts of advice: we should not refer to ourselves as a couple and instead choose the more neutral language of friend or roommate, we should avoid describing ourselves as LGBT, we should constantly stress our commitment to celibacy, etc. We take significant time to reflect on how we’re being received by other people even as we simply try to live our lives. We do not pretend for an instant that we’re above having our way of life challenged, but we often wonder if, in a number of situations, people allege scandal rather than inviting conversations about how we’ve offended their sensibilities.

Let us be perfectly clear about something from the outset: we tend to be incredibly discreet. There are certain environments where we’d never introduce ourselves as a couple. We’re not people who have LGBT pride symbols plastered all over our cars or our clothing. We like having low profiles. Even on this blog, we do take some steps to protect our comparative anonymity by not disclosing our last names, specific Christian tradition, parish, priest, location, employers, and other highly identifiable information. We don’t mind being discreet because we see this as an essential part of being safe in a world that can be all too hostile to LGBT people.

However, at the same time, we find ourselves ready to spit nails when people constantly exhort us to be even more discreet in an effort to avoid scandal. We’d like to spend some time reflecting on what people mean when they tell us we should avoid scandalizing others. We know that our presence in many church communities is challenging, and some might say that it borders on scandal. Yet, we have to wonder about the degree to which we are actually stepping near scandal’s boundary. Because of the different ways we’ve been accused, we wonder if people are quick to cry “Scandal!” every time they see something that offends their personal sensibilities or varies from how they would attempt to navigate sensitive intersections of doctrine, morality, and shifting social norms.

One basic assumption many people make is that no one knows we are LGBT unless we tell them. Unfortunately, this assumption is completely false. We’ve talked a bit about this assumption when we asked if we are protected by celibacy. For example, people nearly always assume that Lindsey is a member of the LGBT community because of Lindsey’s physical appearance. It doesn’t matter that Lindsey has perfected different versions of pronoun games, is comfortable avoiding discussing anything related to LGBT concerns in church settings, and works extremely hard to focus on growing spiritually. Lindsey knows that cultivating close friendships with people in a local church can lead to accusations of sexual misconduct, even if all Lindsey has done is talk excitedly with a fellow parishioner in a private conversation observed from a distance by other parishioners. Lindsey has gotten so accustomed to protecting information about LGBT status that we haven’t even disclosed on this blog how Lindsey prefers to identify — a trend that will be continuing for the foreseeable future.

Often, we wonder what people are thinking when they tell us that we have a propensity toward scandal. Are they really concerned that seeing a couple like us will lead others into sin? Are they worried for their own souls, the souls of other parishioners, and the souls of people who see us each day? Are they concerned that we’re a kind of “sleeper cell” that is waiting until the time is right to advocate for radical shifts in how our Christian tradition understands marriage, sexuality, gender, and other human relationships? Do they think we’ll lead other people to confusion about what our Christian tradition teaches relative to marriage and sexuality? If so, wouldn’t they have an obligation to raise these concerns with us directly or with our priest?

We can, and do, appreciate that these concerns have some merit when considered exclusively against the backdrop of a Church besieged by the culture wars. Unfortunately, the emphasis many churches place on the current political and social climate frames the conversation in terms of LGBT issues rather than LGBT people. Focusing on the culture wars places all the responsibility on LGBT people to address the fears of cisgender, heterosexual people. When a person perceives himself or herself on the “right” side, that individual can fall into a pattern of avoiding questions about his or her own discomfort. It seems to us that many cisgender, heterosexual Christians think they deserve a free pass on these questions because they aren’t actively doing anything that violates their sense of orthodoxy.

Many Christian traditions have written or unwritten sets of “standard minimum expectations” for people who are members of those specific traditions. In our own lives, we’ve found it all too easy to be judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to people who seemingly disregard these expectations. To illustrate how we’ve had to navigate our own senses of being scandalized by others, we’re going to highlight two examples. The first will likely resonate with our readers from a more generally evangelical background, and the second will likely resonate with our readers from liturgical backgrounds.

We’ve both belonged to local churches where it was the norm, presented almost as a requirement, that all members of the community participate in some midweek ministries. These midweek ministries might be anything from Bible studies to service ministries to prayer groups. Once after Lindsey had joined a community that required all members to attend a weekly small group, Lindsey learned that an administrator paid by the church who had been a long-standing member had never been involved in a small group. This person had been around the church for years and surely knew better. Lindsey was completely shocked and appalled that the church would knowingly employ such a person who made it crystal clear that one could regard small groups as optional. Other people Lindsey approached were equally flabbergasted by the situation. Later, Lindsey learned that there was much more to the story: this person was busily attending to parents who were battling some very serious illnesses. To say Lindsey was crestfallen upon realizing how quickly Lindsey had rushed to judgement is an understatement. One never knows when there’s more than meets the eye.

Switching gears to discuss an example that might be reasonably common in liturgical traditions, in Catholic and Orthodox churches a person might encounter a situation like this one that Sarah remembers: At one of Sarah’s past parishes, a family that regularly attended consisted of a single mother and her three small children. The family would leave immediately after service every Sunday so the mother could get to work. One day, a friend of Sarah’s invited this family to stay after the service to enjoy lunch. The mother declined the invitation, commenting, “Thank you, but I have to get to work. I had enough to eat at breakfast.” In liturgical traditions where there is some type of fasting requirement before receiving the Eucharist, this sort of comment might seem curious, especially if the person making the comment had communed earlier that morning. Sarah’s friend who had invited the mother to lunch wondered aloud, “Didn’t she receive the Eucharist the morning? Doesn’t she keep the fast at all?” After getting to know this mother better, Sarah and Sarah’s friend found out that on Sundays the mother had to work two shifts at two separate jobs. Sunday breakfast was the only time she had to eat a decent meal all day, which was necessary because both jobs required her to be on her feet for hours at a time. Once again, one never knows when there’s more than meets the eye.

When we consider the question of scandal in these contexts, it seems natural to reflect also on the question of gossip. Is the person caring for elderly parents obligated to disclose the gory details of her struggle to ensure her parents had what they needed? Is the person preparing to work two 8-hour shifts required to explain to everyone why she needs to eat breakfast and forgo the Eucharistic fast? To be sure, it seems reasonable that a person might discuss with a pastor or priest how he or she believes it is best to navigate these difficult situations. However, is it really up to members of the congregation to assume that they know exactly what’s happening? There are instances in which allegations of scandal are misplaced, sometimes even leading the accuser unwittingly toward gossip and other forms of uncharitable speech and action.

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10 thoughts on “Every “Scandal” Has Its Story

  1. Ooohhh, another good one Lindsey and Sarah! It seems like there’s a thin line between real scandal and how people misuse the word. Really anything could accidentally make another person think of sinning, and anything can have an appearance of evil in a certain situation. At my church an old hard of hearing nun teaches one of the kids religion classes. She is a kind old woman but the kids give her a tough time. There were some kids one day after class that were talking about how Sister told them it was ok to do all kinds of sinful things. Kids in the class said Sister told them it was ok to sneak out of the house at night and disobey their parents, and they said she told them it was ok to have sex before marriage. Some of the moms and dads got upset about this and told the priest to have the Sister fired because of the great scandal. When the priest talked to her the problem was her hard of hearing for being old and not hearing the kids questions right. In the end, Sister got a hearing aid and kept teaching.

    • Oh my! Thanks so much for sharing! We got a fantastic belly laugh when you shared your story. We could only envision students deliberately baiting the poor nun with questions she was sure to mishear. We’re still chuckling. -Lindsey and Sarah

  2. Hello, Lindsey and Sarah! Jesus anticipated all this when he said NOT to concern ourselves with others’ behavior, but to tend to our own. He totally did nothing himself to avoid the appearance of scandal. (It’s as if he went looking for it, hanging out with “sinners” as he did.) Because you two are outside the comfort box, people feel freedom to scrutinize you, but “issues” within their bubble are not so threatening. It’s about their comfort v. threat level. That’s really what it boils down to.

    • Hi Susan, thanks for your encouragement here. We try to avoid putting ourselves in Jesus’s shoes here because we know it’s all too easy for us to misunderstand and unintentionally cast judgment on another, but we certainly agree with your broader point that Jesus was constantly offending everyone’s sensibilities. 🙂

  3. For “conservative” people who are well intentioned and not “phobic,” I think the “sleeper cell” hypothesis is very close to the mark. It’s especially potent when one observes one denomination after another changing positions.
    How could you be more discreet short of wearing stereotypical costumes? Are you supposed to forsake the assembly, unlike all other Christians, and roll your own religion in private?

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. It’s difficult, perhaps even impossible, to divorce the “sleeper cell” hypothesis from a fear-based response. If every LGBT person in a particular church is simply biding time before inciting revolution, then there is nothing an LGBT person can do to become “trustworthy” in the eyes of the congregation. Any query an LGBT person makes into how the tradition understands marriage, celibacy, and sexuality could easily be read as having subversive intent. Years, even decades, of faithful participation in the life of the church are met with skepticism because the individual is merely waiting for an opportune moment.

      At the level of particular Christian traditions, it seems worth encouraging every tradition to consider how to move beyond this fear-based stance. Could you imagine a tradition telling its pastors,”Be especially wary of the ‘celibate’ ones because they are incredibly dangerous.”? How is a celibate, LGBT Christian supposed to read that attitude as anything other than, “I’m really not at all welcome here.”?

  4. Pingback: Scandal | Tipsy Teetotaler

  5. Sarah and Lindsey,

    Thanks for reflecting on this – I’ve been frustrated at times when members of my faith community have pushed back hard against the use of LGBT identifiers by Christians, even if those Christians hold orthodox views on sexual ethics, and of identity formation (i.e. we are putting on Christ and ultimately our identity in him subsume all other identities), and therefore take great pains to contextualize specific uses of identifiers within a Christian setting.

    As an LGBT person participating in an theologically conservative community, I (and other LGBT members of my community) have had to reckon with the obligations of faithfully living out our beliefs in our community and have chosen not only to stay, but to be a part of the community and to seek to know and be known. It stings when the response we get from others in the community is “thanks for sharing, but don’t describe yourself in that way because others might be confused by what you mean and might assume the worst about you…so its just not worth it.” To me, this feels less like a legitimate concern about scandal, and more, as you suggest, a desire by certain members of conservative communities to not have to deal with otherness within their community – even if the ‘others’ among them are their brothers and sisters in Christ.

    I’ve been a Christian long enough to feel comfortable pushing back, but I worry that there are younger LGBT members of my community who might be intimidated, and feel profoundly alienated when other members of the community respond this way, and that this ultimately diminishes that Church’s effective ministry in their lives.

    I struggle with knowing how to communicate my fear to members of my pastoral staff (some of whom hold these views).

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