Saturday Symposium: Accountability and LGBT Christians

Good morning everyone! This week has been an exceptionally busy week on the blog with an unexpected bonus post from Sarah on Thursday. We’ve had some great conversations with readers. Talking with you all makes our blogging project here so much more rewarding. Thanks for being awesome.

Now let’s discuss our new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: Yesterday, we saw discussion erupt on Facebook after we shared our reflections on a podcast by Frederica Mathewes-Green. In the podcast, she asserts that it’s not the place of a newcomer to a parish to ask prying questions into an LGBT person’s sex life because “it’s none of your business.” She is speaking expressly in the context of the Orthodox Church where priests regularly hear people’s confessions and provide spiritual direction. However, some of our readers from other Christian traditions found her advice problematic because many communities typically do not have the same clergy/laity distinction. We’d love to hear your thoughts on how LGBT Christians might be able to seek spiritual counsel, direction, and accountability when it comes to living into their sexual ethics. What obligations do Christians have to one another regarding sexual ethics? How does your Christian community help members discern celibate and marital vocations? Who might people talk to if they are concerned about how someone else appears to be living out his or her vocation? What should a person do if he or she is concerned about another person’s sexual conduct?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!


Sarah and Lindsey

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9 thoughts on “Saturday Symposium: Accountability and LGBT Christians

  1. Seth here. I have no profound or deep thoughts to offer here. I feel I’m accountable foremost to God, then my spiritual father, and then my friends who have taken on accountability roles and sincerely care about the salvation of my soul. I don’t feel I’m accountable to the laity whatsoever. If they have questions, I refer them to my priest. Their concerns aren’t my problem, imo.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective. It’s great when priests can shepherd their communities. You make an important distinction between “the laity” and friends who provide accountability roles. Relationships are often absolutely essential.

  2. My thoughts are foreshadowed by a comment I made directly to yesterday’s blog, not on Facebook. Although I may not be able to dialog much (take this comment away if you wish in light of that), the questions were too good for me not to respond, at least “one and done,” considering my personal history.

    (I beg your forgiveness in advance for any terms I use that are politically incorrect. You have acknowledged in your blogs that Lindsey’s appearance is something of a tip-off, but I have not mastered your vocabulary and won’t try to use it. The terms I use are not meant to be judgmental; they are simply meant to summarize in understood shorthand. Further, my position on celibacy for people who experience same-sex attraction is not neutral; I believe that same-sex erotic activity is contrary to God’s will and will, in some measure, alienate practitioners from God – not because it angers Him, but because it is a passion that needs to be strictly bridled, not given free rein. Finally, I have never held out a great deal of hope for any kind of reorientation of one’s sexuality, and the suspicion that such efforts are futile has only grown over time.)

    In my former Reformed tradition, in which I eventually became an Elder before becoming Orthodox, my church had a daughter of the congregation who was stereotypically Butch in appearance and was employed in a stereotypically Butch job. She was not extremely faithful in attendance, but when she did attend it usually was with a particular Femme female.

    I am enough of a sinner that I wondered about their sexuality and about whether they lived together. But even 30 years ago, before things got really heated up and everybody was on pins and needles feeling threatened by “the other side,” I thought the appropriate response to assume that the Pastor and the Elders were dealing with the matter appropriately (if there was any “matter” to deal with) and that was not my position to gossip or pry. I think I had begun to appreciate how people need close friendships regardless of sexual orientation.

    Had they publicly announced that they were lesbians, my attitude probably would have changed since I would’ve understood that to mean that they were sexually active. I would have wanted to protect the reputation of the church from suspicions of laxity on that or any other notorious misbehavior. Had I not then been an Elder, I would have approached the Pastor quietly.

    Once I became an Elder, the topic of this couple never came up. I assumed that those who had spent their whole lives in that congregation, watching the woman grow up, would raise the topic as needed.

    I learned in meetings of the Elders, for instance, that a man in the congregation had been privately excommunicated because his friends became aware and reported that he was in an ongoing adulterous relationship of which his wife was unaware. Admonishing him to refrain from communion without blowing the whistle and thus threatening his marriage was the way the Elders dealt with that. I don’t know that I ever made the connection until writing this response, but I think I assumed that some analogous response would be implemented in the case of a lesbian or gay male couple; encourage attendance in hopes of repentance, but deny communion until there is was repentance of any inappropriate sexual activity.

    Summarizing in the Reformed tradition, Elders as well as Pastors have some obligation to oversee Congregational ethics of all sorts, including sexual. A person who is concerned should approach a Pastor or Elder; any other discussion is gossip, which every serious church understands as a violation of the commandment against bearing false witness.

    I realize that all this is a mostly-elliptical response to just two of your questions:”What obligations do Christians have to one another regarding sexual ethics?” and “What should a person do if he or she is concerned about another person’s sexual conduct?”

    For your other questions, in the Reformed tradition as I experienced it, few Elders had any “qualifications” to deal with anything about sexuality except the behavioral aspects. A Christian who wanted to discern celibate and marital vocations within the Reformed tradition would probably need to see the Pastor and seek prayers and dialogue from close friends and confidants within the tradition. I believe (as firmly as I can believe in light of the apostle Paul’s comments about sexual sins being “against one’s own body,” and thus, in some sense I have never been able to figure out, sui generis) that sexual sins are not a category apart.

    Within any church that holds to traditional sexual ethics, I question the value of “coming out” publicly — and believe that coming out should be accompanied by clarification that one is celibate or striving for celibacy.

    If one is confronted by a busybody who asks point-blank, a dishonest denial, or exaggerated femininity by a lesbian or masculinity by a gay man, lack integrity and should be avoided as toxic. My preferred response would be either quiet acknowledgment or a requested that the questioner mind his or her own business.

    I don’t think this treats sexual sin or temptation as a separate category; I see no reason why someone like me should announce publicly that I struggle with gluttony (as if it were a secret) or any other sin. I’m skeptical about the value of transparency and constant yammering about one’s temptations. Our society has lost respect for “privacy” in too many ways.

    I make a guarded exception for a thoughtful blog like this, particularly at this “pins and needles” juncture of the same-sex portion of the sexual revolution, but even then, I’m really uneasy at times about how helpful talk is.

    Forgive me, a sinner.

    • We appreciate your input. We’ve heard a number of people cite “the priesthood of all believers” as a reason for the laity to be concerned about sins in a Reformed congregation. Thanks for sharing your experience on the Elder board. Sometimes the people who seem to be “identifiable” morally are not the people being discussed. Growing up with a congregation can go a long way to help a person be known and loved, but in no ways does it provide a guarantee.

  3. I tend to think there is too much emphasis on people trying to tell other people how to live rather than sharing their lives with them. So many churches I attended were all about how you behave and appearances. Yet if we are looking over at people from a distance and trying to figure them out based on their appearance, who they hang out with, who they live with, who they sit with, what they wear …and this informs us on whether or not we should associate with them… we are missing out on the most important part which is fellowship and mixing with everyone learning from each other growing, caring encouraging ect… eventually we will learn what Jesus requires of us …as we go along… people need room to breathe and space to grow and each of us has a different starting point and journey to make. I think we have to give each other grace and the benefit of doubt perhaps more often than we do.

    • Kathy, thanks for your comment highlighting the difference between sharing life and telling other people what to do. Building an authentic relationship can make a world of difference.

  4. I’ll perhaps share the ideal if it were me, if I were out, from a low church, congregational, Baptistic perspective. While authority is decentralized, there is still a very clear authority structure within self-governing local churches, best executed by a group of elders (from which administrative roles are assigned and the preaching elder/lead pastor is drawn) and deacons (not a governing board but rather ministers who meet the needs of the body and are devoted to prayer). While governing decisions are made by the church members, either deacons or elders would be the source of spiritual guidance for LGBT people in the church. I would hope that an LGBT person would feel safe confiding in a deacon or elder to promote greater honesty and context for that guidance.

    As far as accountability, I think that should come from the body, but from the portion of the body that knows me the best. Usually, this is a small group who gathers for the purpose of discipleship. That group will know more about me than other parishioners; my interactions with this group will also be more intimate than general church settings (worship services, prayer services, etc.). Ideally, each small group would contain an elder or deacon, so that collectively, the leadership can adequately gauge the pulse of those they shepherd. In churches where size makes that unfeasible, the small group leaders would be in close, regular contact with a deacon or elder to communicate areas needing their attention. Otherwise, the small groups would be largely self-policing and self-sustaining.

    For example, if I didn’t show up for my small group meeting several weeks in a row, the other members would reach out to see why I hadn’t been attending (out of concern, not conviction). During our meetings, if I mention areas where I struggle, the group would work together to tangibly minister to me and walk with me in those struggles. If they noticed a sin issue or potential sin issue, they would address it/ask me about in love and respect, usually in a one-to-one setting, not as a group (intervention-style).

    Now, that’s the ideal. Does it always work like that? You pray it would, but we’re not perfect people, so probably not.

    When it comes to obligations Christians have about the sexual ethics of others, I still see this through a relational lens. I think that the body of Christ is just that, so if one part of the body isn’t functioning the way it should, the whole body will suffer over time. In my tradition, the covenant of church membership is important in that it requires commitment of a believer to be a part of a community; however, it also requires commitment of the community to invest in the believer. There is mutual accountability and interdependence. When one member falls, we all fall, in a sense.

    However, church members do not seem to routinely investigate the sexual behaviors of all of their members. Average (straight) members aren’t asked about possible porn habits, married couples without children aren’t asked whether they are having sex or if they’re using birth control, married couples with children aren’t asked if they’re sexually faithful, unmarried single individuals aren’t asked whether they’re sexually active. Engaged couples aren’t asked about it either, nor are they asked if they’re ready for a sexually intimate relationship…as long as they both shall live. So why the double standard for an LGBT couple? At least in my tradition, the idea still prevails that same sex couples are by default sexually active because, according to some, lust and sexual activity are fundamental to what it means to be an LGBT person. We’re fighting an uphill battle in that area. It’s why identifying as LGBT will often draw condemnation and closer examination because if you’re not sexually active, you desire to be, and down the slippery slope you go.

    Personally, if I were to enter into a celibate, same sex partnership, I would hope that my fellow church members would trust A). that the elders and deacons know about my relationship and of my desired obedience to church leadership and the church covenant; B). that I would be open, by God’s grace, to correction if it were needed; C). that those in my close relational circles would know and accept the nature of my relationship (because it was in line with Scriptural teaching, the beliefs of leadership, and church teaching); and D) that if my relationship were not aligned with the church’s teaching on sexual ethics, my partner and I would not be qualified to fellowship or minister on various levels.

    There has to be trust extended. I hold very highly the principle of living at peace with each other as much as possible. To me, “as much as possible” means that unless you have a supremely good reason to think otherwise, assume other members are walking in obedience to God and the church. And if you have concerns, if a close relationship with an individual isn’t present, seek the counsel of church leadership. It’s what they’re there for.

    Sorry to have prattled on for so long.

    • Becky, please feel free to prattle on at any time. We appreciate you sharing your especially well-developed thoughts on these questions!

  5. I should also add that with congregational polity, the church members approve individuals for membership. The process is started by the elders/pastoral staff. The person interested in membership will share his or her testimony with the pastors and a few deacons and if there are any concerns, they’re typically addressed at this point. However, if the pastors and deacons think the person’s testimony qualifies them for membership, the request for membership is passed to the church body as a formal motion. The church then hears the testimony of the interested person and, ideally, has a few weeks to get to know the person and ask any questions of the person that they believe need to be asked. After the set waiting period, the church votes to approve the membership of that individual. So there are several places in the process where concerns could be addressed, and if membership is granted, there is a commitment by the new member to be accountable to the leadership, church teaching, Scripture, and the other members of the church. Hopefully that’s helpful.

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