Branches of the Same Vine: Women, LGBTQ Christians, and my Dream for the Church

After two posts on LGBTQ stories, I had planned to take my series on stories and how they can be powerful agents of transformation in our lives in a different direction. However, since the ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in Alabama, events have put my church in the news and in hot water with our local Southern Baptist association. As a result, I have a little more to say on the way I have come to see my own story mirrored in the situation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

If you click over to the “About me” page of this blog, you’ll quickly see why I no longer fit into Southern Baptist churches where I was raised. I am progressive, feminist, and pro-equality and inclusion. I am anti-legalism and pro-individual freedom and responsibility. As a Ph.D. in language and literature in I am also rather competent at reading, studying, and reaching my own conclusions about issues of belief and practice. But when you get right down to it, the main issue is that I am a woman who refuses to be treated as anything less than an equal, adult, contributing, and responsible member of a congregation.

The Southern Baptist Convention has pretty well drawn a line in the sand against people like me. Decades ago the SBC voted to limit what I believe is a central tenet of the Baptist faith, priesthood of the believer, in a move that reflected a concentration of power at the top and less freedom of conscience and belief for those below. Since then, the SBC has sought to enforce more specific scriptural interpretations on its members (like when it doubled-down on eternal conscious torment in hell–something not mentioned in the original Baptist Faith and Message–in the wake of Rob Bell’s influential and scripturally based book Love Wins).

More to the point here, in recent decades the SBC has also put forth specific statements to try to limit the participation of women in higher church leadership. Interestingly, before the year 2000, the Baptist Faith and Message did not exclude women from the pastorate, but in that year it was amended to limit the role of pastor to men. Sure, individual churches have the autonomy to decide if they will ordain women as deacons or ministers, but that doesn’t make up for the sexism of an organization where female seminary students are trained to be pastors’ wives or to minister only to other women

One of the reasons that I do not consider myself a Southern Baptist anymore is this position on women. At some point it dawned on me that I had grown up watching women do what seemed to be the majority of the work in the church, yet be denied a place in church leadership. In the churches that I grew up in, there were no female pastors, no female deacons, no women called on to pray, no female ushers. (I still wonder what could be so gender specific about handing out church bulletins and passing the offering plate?)

Women are not spiritually, morally, or intellectually inferior to men. In Christ there is neither male nor female, and that should be reflected in our churches. “Biblical” arguments to the contrary are contradicted in the Bible by Paul himself, who names one woman, Phoebe, as a deacon (Romans 16.1), and another, Junia, as an apostle (Romans 16.7). Yep, an apostle – the highest designation in the early church.

It is my firm belief that women who are called and equipped should have equal opportunity to participate in the church at all levels, and I decided about ten years ago that I would not join another church that did not ordain women as deacons and support women’s right to share the pulpit and the pastorate. Women have too often been excluded from church leadership simply on the basis of their sex, regardless of their calling or talent. I won’t put up with that anymore.

I made this decision because in churches who refuse to do these things, women are second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. I would be a second class citizen. My opinions on women, if expressed, would be devalued and rejected. Excuses would be made for unequal treatment and opportunities, and the Bible would be used to prop them up. I would have to keep my head down and pretend to be someone I’m not in order to fit in. As a result, I would be disengaged, unfulfilled, underutilized, and probably bitter and suffering in my spiritual life.

As an educated and dedicated Christian, I deserve better than that. I deserve to have spiritual role models and mentors who fully respect me, and I deserve to have some who also look like me. Most of all, I deserve a church where ALL of me fits in. Where I can work on being transformed into the image of Christ, not into an antiquated image of womanhood masquerading as Christian life.

From my own story, I know what it is like to go to a church and to have to keep my head down. I know what it feels like to have to keep part of myself hidden away to avoid causing a stir and risking a reprimand.

From there, I can extrapolate and somewhat imagine what it must be like to be in a different and darker closet–one where to open the door means to risk much more than a simple reprimand or a reminder of one’s ‘place.’ Where simply being oneself entails a very real risk of being condemned and ostracized, and perhaps not only from one’s church, but from one’s home and family. Where it may even result in physical assault in the name of Christianity.

LGBTQ people have too often been excluded from the church on the basis of their identities rather than their beliefs, intentions, and actions. They have had to choose between hiding who they are and pretending to fit in, or being honest about their identities and then having to live outside of the church and the borders it has built to separate descriptors like “gay” and “Christian” or “gay” and “moral.” Unlike women, they haven’t even been granted second-class citizenship. They are foreigners, left outside of the borders drawn against them.

Despite some efforts to separate the two categories, there are LGBTQ Christians, and they deserve better. They deserve a chance to be in community with other Christians, and they deserve to be able to be themselves, without being labeled with preconceived notions about their moral and spiritual character.

Some Christians worry that inviting LGBTQ folks into the church without trying to “reform” them necessarily means we are watering down our moral standards. It doesn’t.

Inviting LGBTQ folks–just as they are–into the church, and into the sacrament of marriage, means inviting them to share in the moral ideals of the church and of Christian life. It means that the same moral standards can apply to all of us, whether gay or straight: self control, patience, love, commitment, faithfulness, and so on. We are all made in the image of God, and despite our differences, if we seek God we all have the capacity to reflect that image in our lives, our service, and our (different-sex or same-sex) relationships. 

Having the “right” genitalia is not an indication of spiritual superiority or leadership potential, just as having the “right” sexual orientation is not a guarantee of morality. On the flip side, having the “wrong” gender or sexual orientation is not a guarantee of spiritual inferiority or immorality. It’s time to leave aside those labels and value judgments and see how we as individuals can all be branches of the same Vine, producing good fruit and loving one another.

This is my dream for the church, for it to be a place where the only identities that matter are those of Jesus-follower and beloved child of God.

A Glorified Tramp Stamp and a Seat at the Table, or, Thoughts on Christian Unity

There has been a stir in the progressive Christian community recently about the label “progressive” and what it means, since there are some on both the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum who try to police the boundaries of what is progressive and what is Christian. Bloggers who are too liberal or agnostic in certain areas are chided or even attacked as not being Christian, while other bloggers are told that they are not progressive enough because they still hold to this or that belief associated with more conservative faith traditions.

As David Henson beautifully articulated last week, the gift of progressive Christianity is that it makes room at the table for people all along the spectrum of faith and doubt. However, policing from either side threatens to turn this diverse and inclusive community into another closed system that draws hard lines about who is in or out, who is Christian or not, and who gets a place at the table and a voice in the conversation.

This is worrisome for those of us who have come to progressive Christianity precisely because we have either been excluded (often painfully) from church communities or because we have naturally evolved away from fundamentalist systems of belief.

My own journey away from conservative evangelicalism began in college, and I consider myself lucky that when I was in grad school, I accidentally stumbled into a church where my spiritual evolution and growth were encouraged and accepted, rather than being kicked out of one because of that same process.

I have met enough recovering fundamentalists and evangelical rejects–folks who carry deep spiritual wounds from being ostracized by their church communities and even their own families–to be extremely grateful for my former church, Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, and my current one, Weatherly Heights Baptist Church (WHBC). I have had  experiences of being marginalized as a woman and of being excluded or even insulted because of my theology (I wrote about one of those experiences here), but I am fortunate to have a community where I belong.

I have been planning to write something about WHBC for the blog in part because in creating “Prone to wander . . . lured by grace,” I have further co-opted WHBC’s beautiful rose window. I am going to digress a moment to talk about that before I come back and tie this thing together.

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I think of the rose window, which symbolizes the presence of God in our sanctuary, as partially mine because back in 2013, I had an interpretation of it tattooed on my lower back, where I already had a dragonfly tattoo from about a dozen years earlier. Back when I decided to get that first tattoo, lower-back designs on women weren’t extremely common (at least not in my corner of the world) and had yet to earn the disparaging nickname “tramp stamp.” If I had anticipated that, I might have made a different choice!

But regardless of that, years later, after spending many contemplative moments of worship staring up at WHBC’s lovely window and finding God’s presence in the multi-colored beams of light pouring through the stained glass, I went under the needle again (with the fabulous Caroline at Blue Rose Tattoo) and emerged with what I joked to a friend was now a “glorified” tramp stamp.

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I love the combination of the tattoos because of the way they join together the parts of who I am. The dragonfly simultaneously represents my origins (envision south Georgia summer evenings with dozens of dragonflies zipping through the dusk in the wide yard of my childhood) and my transformative journey away from those origins and into independence, into the courage that it takes to discard the expectations of others and simply and unapologetically be oneself.

The rose window, just as it does in our sanctuary, symbolizes the presence of God, but more than that, it symbolizes my openness to divine love and light and my hope that that light also shines through me and into our world. It represents the constancy of God’s grace and my aspiration to an ever more illuminated spiritual life. It also reminds me that being a Jesus-follower requires sacrifices of my time, my body, and my resources. It reminds me that this is a beautiful but costly, and sometimes painful, journey.

And that brings me back to my community, my fellow travelers.

In 2007, when I left my beloved Broadus Memorial Baptist Church to follow my career to Alabama, I worried whether I could find another church that would support me and my journey, and where my contributions would be accepted and valued. I knew that after finding a real spiritual home, I would not be able to thrive in a community where I would have to keep my head down and my thoughts to myself for fear of being reprimanded or rejected.

When I browsed churches online, I was immediately drawn in by WHBC’s tagline: “An inclusive, discovering fellowship,” by the highly visible presence of female leadership in the church, and by the language of the vision statement: “heartfelt Biblical faith,” “intellectual integrity,” “social justice,” “genuinely care for one another,” and so on.

Over the last seven years or so, WHBC has more than lived up to that original impression. It has been a place where my evolving and at times even faltering faith has been affirmed, renewed, and expanded. It has been a place where I have found essential mentors and faithful friends. It has been a place, most importantly, where I have found a true sense of belonging.

And the most beautiful thing is that I don’t belong at WHBC simply because everyone else there is as progressive, intellectual, liberal, feminist, and tattooed as I am, because they aren’t. 

I belong because the WHBC community values unity over uniformity.

Because we scoot over our chairs to make room at the table for someone who is perhaps not entirely like ourselves.

Because we respect the faith journeys of others even when they don’t follow the same path as our own.

Because our ministers respect our individuality and recognize that we all come to faith in unique ways and bring valuable perspectives and talents to the table.

Because we genuinely love and care for each other and our larger community.

WHBC is my community, a place where I fit . . . glorified tramp stamp and all.

I thank God for my church, and I pray for those who have been rejected from communities and have subsequently left the faith and for those who can only find the acceptance of fellow Christians via the internet because the churches in their area have not welcomed them (or worse, have actively rejected them) because of any number of factors–from physical appearance to sexual orientation to theological nitpicking.

Here at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, my prayer is twofold. First, I pray that every person seeking an authentic spiritual community will find one where his or her whole person is welcomed and accepted, because when we belong, and when we are able to be true to ourselves and vulnerable to those around us, that is when true community and exists and true transformation is possible.

Second, I pray that both in churches and online, all Christians–most especially those who claim the label progressive–will step up to the task of making room at the table for everyone who desires a place there.

Let us all come to the table to break bread together.

Let us fill each other’s cups.

Let us not only say grace, but give and receive it freely.

There is more than enough to go around. 


*My thanks to our guest minister for today, Rev. Christie Ashton from Hope Presbyterian Church for providing some of the inspiration for this blog post, and my thanks and love to all of my BMBC and WHBC friends who may be reading along!  

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