Beyond the Culture War: Managing Sexual Relationships Inside a Congregation of Gay Evangelicals
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- Cite this article as:
- Thomas, J.N. & Olson, D.V.A. Rev Relig Res (2012) 54: 349. doi:10.1007/s13644-012-0051-8
America’s popular culture war narrative has often portrayed the evangelical community and the gay community as fundamentally oppositional groups whose range of disagreements center around arguments over the morality and nature of homosexuality. Against the backdrop of these arguments, we undertake a qualitative study of a congregation of gay evangelicals, specifically investigating how pastoral leadership attempts to manage sexual relationships amid a congregation that is firmly and self-consciously rooted in both its gay and evangelical identities. We look at the particular goals and ideals that pastoral leadership espouses for sexual relationships, and we explore how these goals and ideals represent, draw from, and potentially help integrate the congregation’s competing cultural identities. We find that pastoral leadership strives for what we are calling a “blended approach” to managing sexual relationships—an approach that simultaneously emphasizes traditional evangelical sexual norms (such as commitment, stability, monogamy, and longevity), while allowing these norms to be significantly tempered by a strong recognition of the private and public contexts that have shaped the gay community’s understanding of sexual and relational life. We speculate that this blended approach to managing sexual relationships may be pointing the way toward future developments within some predominantly-heterosexual evangelical congregations.
In most ways, Grace Church1 is a typical example of contemporary evangelicalism. Located in a major metropolitan area of the Midwest United States, Grace Church and its 400 or so members readily effuse both middle-class evangelical sensibilities as well as mainstream evangelical beliefs. Exemplifying the former, Grace Church’s building, once a film studio, is clean, modern, pragmatic, and comfortable; its worship services utilize professional musicians and the latest audio and video technologies; its congregational activities include Bible studies, children’s programs, small groups, service projects, discipleship ministries, and outreach initiatives. Exemplifying the latter, Grace Church’s sermons frequently discuss the importance of taking the authority of the Bible seriously,2 of accepting Jesus into one’s heart, of being saved from sin, and of being transformed through a personal relationship with Christ. Additionally, Grace Church’s Senior Pastor graduated from Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist institution often noted for its traditional and sectarian values.
By most measures, then, Grace Church is thoroughly evangelical. Not only do its members generally think, believe, and behave like evangelicals, they also regularly refer to themselves as such.3 Yet, perplexing to some, Grace Church is not only thoroughly evangelical, it also thoroughly gay. In fact, over 90 percent of its adult parishioners are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered—as well as the Senior Pastor and the other ministerial staff.4 Moreover, Grace Church is part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, an explicitly gay denomination that encompasses a wide range of theological perspectives, from the very liberal to, like Grace Church, the comparatively conservative (Enroth 1974; Lukenbill 1998; Perry and Swicegood 1990; Warner 2005).
Gay-Evangelical Tension and the Culture War Narrative
Because of this confluence of identities, Grace Church finds itself positioned at the cultural intersection of what are often popularly considered two fundamentally oppositional groups: namely, the evangelical community and the gay community. Tension between the two is well documented from the beginning of the gay rights movement in the late 1960s (e.g., Fetner 2008), and with a now long history of mutual antagonism, interlocking rhetorics of condemnation, and seemingly-endless political and legal fights, such tension has come to exemplify what James Hunter (1991) has described as America’s culture war narrative.
At the heart of this narrative is the idea that Americans, and especially their political and religious leadership, have become increasingly polarized into the warring camps of conservatism and liberalism—what Hunter called the “impulse toward orthodoxy” and the “impulse toward progressivism” (1991, p. 43). More specifically, as Hunter and others have suggested (e.g., Davis and Robinson 1996; McConkey 2001), this “war” has often raged most virulently around issues of family life including abortion, birth control, sex education, premarital sex, pornography, and—perhaps most contemporarily debated—homosexuality and related policy concerns about gay rights and gay marriage.
Before exploring this narrative further, though, we want to be clear here that we recognize that the idea of the culture war, and especially Hunter’s theorizing about it, has been subject to substantial academic critique, especially regarding its supposed scope and salience (e.g., Demerath 2005; DiMaggio et al. 1996; Williams 1997). However, granting this, our investigation of Grace Church leads us to think that the culture war narrative still provides an appropriate and helpful framework for interpreting how this particular congregation conceptualizes and self-consciously responds to the cultural tensions that it surely perceives itself as facing. Because of this, and in order to provide a backdrop for our study, we begin by considering some of the ways that the culture war narrative has contributed to popular arguments about homosexuality.
Specifically, we suggest that a key ramification of this narrative for homosexuality has been that while both social conservatives and social liberals have regularly made arguments that narrowly appeal to their own constituents in support of their, respectively, anti-gay and pro-gay positions—nonetheless—their mutual desire to “win the middle” of American culture has actually led both groups to rely heavily on public arguments that have broad cultural appeal. Thus, for instance, whereas in evangelical contexts, evangelicals have often made anti-gay arguments largely based on appeals to scriptural prohibitions and warnings (e.g., the story of Sodom and Gomorrah), and whereas in gay contexts, gay persons have often made pro-gay arguments based on appeals to individual freedom of choice, when it comes to overtly public contexts, both sides have frequently made arguments based on appeals to more widely agreed upon values.
Chief among these have been the values of family and societal stability, and it is not surprising, therefore, that much of the popular debate about homosexuality has been framed in terms of how homosexuality supposedly affects the stability of both personal family life and of public society at large. Along these lines, many social liberals have argued that the cultural and legal legitimation of gay relationships and gay families is good and necessary because it leads to personal and public stability through encouraging gay persons toward committed, monogamous, and long-term relationships (e.g., Olson 2010; Sullivan 1995, 2003).5 Alternatively, many social conservatives have challenged this, arguing instead that any cultural and legal legitimation of gay relationships and gay families is dangerous and destructive because not only is homosexuality inherently selfish, but it is inimical to the natural order and will thus inevitably lead to the destabilization of traditional families and society as a whole (e.g., Dobson 2007; Kennedy and Newcombe 2004; Mohler 2008).
Variations on this latter argument have been extensively developed by anti-gay, evangelical political action groups such as Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and the Family Research Council. For example, a quasi-academic document from the Family Research Council’s website boldly alleges the dire domestic consequences of homosexual relationships (Dailey and Sprigg 2010). Supporting their main claim that “ ‘committed’ homosexual relationships are radically different from married couples,” the authors systematically argue that: (1) gay relationships last only a “fraction of the length of most marriages”; (2) gay persons are far more promiscuous than straight persons; (3) the combination of such promiscuity coupled with the fundamentally “unsafe” and “unhealthy” nature of gay sex acts leads gay persons to have much higher incidences of a range of physiological diseases and psychological pathologies; (4) perhaps because of such pathologies, gay relationships and gay families have very high rates of domestic violence; all of which (5) leads to the general assertion that homosexuality fundamentally undermines the health and stability of both individual families as well as society at large.
In contrast, pro-gay political actions groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, and the Human Rights Campaign have all made starkly opposing arguments about the nature of gay relationships and the implications of these relationships for both gay families and for society as a whole. For instance, when considering the family dynamics of same-sex adoption, the website of the Human Rights Campaign states that “the qualities that help children grow into good and responsible adults… do not depend on the sexual orientation of their parents but on their parents’ ability to provide a loving, stable and happy home, something no class of Americans has an exclusive hold on” (2011). The implication here is that in order to maximize the likelihood of such a stable and happy home, gay relationships and gay families need cultural and legal legitimation. Along these same lines, the Lambda Legal website strongly asserts that “[gay] marriage helps couples keep their commitments,” (2011a) and without this legal option, gay relationships face “unequal treatment” that causes them “concrete and devastating harm” (2011b).
Research Questions and Theoretical Framing
It is against the backdrop of these antithetical portrayals of the nature of gay sexuality and the stability of gay relationships that we return to our consideration of Grace Church. Specifically, we wonder: How does a congregation like Grace Church, a congregation that is both gay and evangelical, attempt to manage sexual relationships and attempt to respond to the oppositional norms and arguments that it undoubtedly inherits from both of its cultural identities? In other words, given that many in the evangelical community suggest that the long-term stability of most gay relationships is intrinsically impossible, and given that many in the gay community suggest that the long-term stability of most gay relationships is seriously undermined by a lack of cultural and legal legitimation, we ask: How does a congregation of gay evangelicals actually deal with sexual relationships? More narrowly, in this article, we specifically focus on how pastoral leadership responds to this and related questions. We want to know: What goals and ideals might Grace Church’s pastoral leadership have regarding relational commitment and stability? Are Grace Church parishioners expected to meet the kinds of goals and ideals that many evangelical churches have often required of heterosexual relationships? Or are Grace Church parishioners told that such goals and ideals are either partially or fully inapplicable because of the unique cultural challenges that homosexual relationships face? Perhaps most importantly, what explains the selection and creation of Grace Church’s particular goals and ideals, and how might they represent, draw from, and potentially help integrate Grace Church’s competing cultural identities?
While previous research has considered a number of aspects of gay-religious identity formation (e.g., Barton 2010; Lukenbill 1998; Mahaffy 1996; Moon 2004; Rodriguez 2010; Rodriguez and Ouellette 2000a, b; Rostosky et al. 2008; Thumma and Gray 2005; Wagner et al. 1994; Wilcox 2002, 2003; Wolkomir 2001, 2006; Yip 1997a, b, 2002), including a handful of studies that have specifically considered gay persons who are either evangelical, fundamentalist, or charismatic (e.g., McQueeney 2009; Pitt 2010a, b; Thumma 1991; Walton 2006), much if not most of this literature has focused on identity formation at the individual level. Our study thus proceeds in a somewhat new direction by not only considering the under-studied phenomenon of gay evangelicals but also by considering the dynamics of gay-religious identity formation, as this formation takes place at the congregational level. Along these lines, our investigation focuses on how a particular domain of Grace Church’s theology and practice (that pertaining to sexual relationships) demonstrates the broader negotiation and potential integration of Grace Church’s distinct cultural identities (gay and evangelical).
To assist us in our investigation as well as to help clarify the value of our study, we draw on the notions of Georg Simmel’s “stranger” (1950) and Robert Park’s “marginal man” (1928). Although largely framed at the individual level, we think that Simmel and Park’s theorizing about persons who simultaneously live both within and between cultures provides valuable insight into the congregational identity work going on at Grace Church. In particular, just as the stranger and the marginal man are ideal types of persons who have important aspects of their identities firmly rooted in distinct and competing social worlds, so we judge that Grace Church similarly sits at the cultural intersection of two very different communities. As Simmel and Park’s descriptors imply, then, one of the critical implications of this intersection is that even though Grace Church is clearly a part of both the gay community and the evangelical community, it nonetheless finds itself perceived as somewhat strange and marginal by both groups.
Such community perceptions are important because as Simmel and Park argued, stress about being perceived as strange or marginal is one of the key motivations that drives persons to find creative ways to build cultural bridges between disparate communities and to develop innovative solutions to long-standing cultural tensions. Thus, one of the reasons that we are especially interested in studying Grace Church is that it is a congregation that is ideally positioned to build and develop the kinds of bridges and solutions that might help mitigate the various cultural conflicts that have been so publicly manifested in the competing rhetorics of the gay and evangelical communities.
More specifically, we think that Grace Church’s cultural positioning is driving it to develop an innovative approach to managing sexual relationships, an approach that, as we will see, intentionally strives to bring together both gay and evangelical understandings of sexual and relational life. At the same time, though, we speculate that while certainly innovative, such an approach may not be exclusive to Grace Church but may actually illustrate a type of broader cultural solution that other gay evangelicals are becoming increasingly likely to follow, perhaps, as we discuss later, even gay persons who are parishioners in evangelical congregations that are predominantly heterosexual. Along these lines, we suspect that although the development of Grace Church’s approach to managing sexual relationships is being driven by the collective dynamics of a congregation full of persons concurrently experiencing the same cultural cross-pressures about homosexuality, nonetheless, these cultural cross-pressures may also be starting to push others congregations and other parishioners toward developing and following similar kinds of solutions. In other words, while Grace Church’s congregational dynamics make these developments more visible and therefore easier to identify and study, Grace Church may not be the only place where they are occurring. Accordingly, we suggest that our study of Grace Church is valuable not only because it provides an ideal context for investigating the negotiation and integration of a collective identity, but also and especially because such negotiation and integration may, in fact, illustrate broader cultural developments that are beginning to emerge at the oft-contested intersection of the gay and evangelical communities.
In order then to explore these questions and possibilities, we have studied Grace Church using a variety of qualitative methods including observing worship services, conversing with parishioners, and analyzing congregational documents such as bulletins, newsletters, and the church’s website. Yet while these methods have certainly informed our general understanding of Grace Church, our findings and conclusions regarding how pastoral leadership6 attempts to manage sexual relationships are primarily derived, first, from an investigation of a ten-week course that Grace Church regularly offers to its parishioners called Spiritual Principles for Successful Dating (SPSD) and, second, from a follow-up interview with Grace Church’s Senior Pastor.
We were initially made aware of the Spiritual Principles for Successful Dating course through an informal conversation with the Senior Pastor, who asserted that the SPSD course represents the culmination of several years of theological and pragmatic refinement as Grace Church has continued to wrestle with the sexual and relational implications of being both gay and evangelical. The Senior Pastor explained that the course is designed to encourage parishioners to be intentional in thinking about their personal responses to these implications and, perhaps more importantly, to provide a structured space where pastoral leadership can guide and direct such thinking within the specific framework of the norms and practices of Grace Church. The Senior Pastor added that the SPSD course is part of an ongoing series of courses that comprise an extensive and cohesive discipleship ministry, which has been carefully developed to train, educate, and form parishioners for holistic Christian living.
The SPSD course is offered to Grace Church parishioners on a rotating basis approximately every 18 months, and as part of this regular rotation, the course was offered during the winter of 2010. After securing permission from the Senior Pastor, the first author was allowed to observe and participate in the ten weekly sessions occurring at this time. Although the SPSD course is sometimes taught by other members of the ministerial staff, these particular sessions were taught by the Senior Pastor and took place at the church building from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Thursday nights. In addition to the first author and the Senior Pastor, other participants included approximately fifteen individuals, roughly half of whom were lesbians and half of whom were gay men.7 These persons varied in age from their mid-thirties to mid-fifties and were predominantly Caucasian with some African American and Latino representation.8 At the first weekly session and at a couple of later points, the Senior Pastor introduced the first author to these participants and made them aware that the first author was there to observe as part of a research project investigating how Grace Church attempts to manage sexual relationships. During each session, the first author took a limited amount of written notes, which he subsequently developed and enhanced from memory. Before and after each session, the first author also engaged in casual conversations with course participants, and observations from these conversations were later added to the notes as well. No audio or video recording took place.
In addition then to observing these course sessions, it proved quite valuable that we were also allowed access to a set of instructor manuals that guided the weekly teaching of the SPSD course and that corresponded to a set of handouts that were distributed to participants at each session. Both written by the Senior Pastor, the latter were usually one page, front and back, in a fill-in-the-blank format, while the former were quite detailed, not only listing answers to the questions on the handouts, but also offering extensive commentary and instruction, all of which typically accumulated to five to seven pages of single-spaced type per course session. For each of these sessions, the two sets of documents were similarly named, and titles included: “The Foundation: Trust” (S1); “Drunk on Love (Managing Our Hormones)” (S2); “How to Pick a Winner” (S3); “Key Dating Mistakes” (S4); “Sex—How Soon?” (S5 and S6); “Safer Sex” (S7); “Is Marriage the Goal?” (S8); and “Getting Myself Ready for a Spouse” (S9 and S10). The first author analyzed these documents using a systematic process of thematic coding and recoding in order to identify and categorize those sections of text that specifically addressed our research questions and theoretical framing. In subsequent sections of this article, we cite quotations drawn from these documents by using the parenthetical abbreviations just indicated.
After completion of this initial fieldwork, both authors worked together to investigate the data that had been collected and to begin to craft an understanding of how Grace Church attempts to manage sexual relationships. However, as we describe later, it became clear to us that this initial fieldwork had left us with some unanswered questions as well as introduced some new possibilities that we felt deserved further clarification. Accordingly, in an attempt to gather answers and obtain clarity, the first author returned to Grace Church a few months after the completion of the initial fieldwork and conducted a formal interview of the Senior Pastor. This 90 minute, audio-recorded interview was transcribed and subsequently coded and analyzed by the first author in a fashion similar to that done with the manuals and handouts from the SPSD course. Based then on the combined data collection of the first author and the conceptual development of both authors, we present the following findings.
You could talk to some of your gay friends, but they would look at you like you’re from another planet and say, “Wait? What for? Why?” You could ask some of your straight Christian friends, but they have no understanding of the culture we live in. Where do you turn? In this session, we are going to tackle this question: Once I start dating someone, should I wait to have sex? If so, how long? For many of us this is an unnerving question. As people who have grown up gay in a hostile culture, we were told for years that same-sex relationships were wrong—that God condemns them. As a result, we’ve become gun shy about talking about God in sexual matters. It’s best to keep our spiritual life and our sexual life separate—right? Not so. (S5).
As was alluded to here as well as throughout many of the other sessions, the main purpose of the SPSD course was to manage this basic dilemma by carefully considering how one might live a God-pleasing sexual and relational life while being both gay and evangelical. Interestingly, though, the SPSD course did not provide a singular answer to this quandary, but rather revealed a nuanced response comprised of two interacting approaches. First, drawing on aspects of Grace Church’s evangelical identity, the course presented an ideal approach to managing sexual relationships that seemed to largely derive from a fairly traditional set of moral values all having to do with commitment and stability. Yet, second, drawing on aspects of Grace Church’s gay identity, the course simultaneously presented a pragmatic approach to managing sexual relationships that vigorously encouraged participants to develop their own understandings of how they as individuals were going to live out their sexual and relational lives. We will explore potential conflicts and resolutions between these two approaches shortly, but we begin by mapping them out.
An Ideal Approach to Managing Sexual Relationships
The SPSD course strongly emphasized the moral values of commitment and stability as the ideal for all sexual relationships. Four aspects of these values received particular attention.
The course began by asserting and repeatedly reminding students that sexual relationships are serious business and should not be taken lightly. This axiom seemed to follow from the basic logic that relationships are very important because people are very important. For instance, when considering a sexual relationship, participants were encouraged to recite this mantra: “I will not settle. I am too valuable, and other people are too valuable to be careless about this. I trust God to bring the right person into my life” (S4). Likewise, participants were admonished to remember “that my body is sacred and therefore should be opened up only to someone who treasures all of me and is deeply committed to my care and wellbeing—otherwise, I devalue myself” (S6).
Because of both the importance of self and of others, the course earnestly called its participants to only engage in sexual relationships in a prudent and patient manner, one that places a high value on good decision making and on delaying gratification in the interest of clear and thoughtful assessments of potential relationship partners. In order to impress these values upon participants, the manual for the first session advised the instructor to share some appropriate relationship “disaster stories” that would demonstrate how “impatience and desperation can make for some painful experiences.” Such a perspective seemed to derive from the idea that God has a particular life plan for each person that typically includes a specific life partner, which one should be patient to discover. In contrast to this ideal, the course also noted the ever-present risk of desire and infatuation: “When people first fall in love, there is a cocktail of hormones that affects the brain, which in turn impacts behavior. This cocktail includes dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and testosterone. The main chemical involved is dopamine—a chemical that is present when people desire or anticipate a reward” (S2). The problem, of course, was that “during that time, we can become obsessed with the object of our desire. Therefore, for that period of time, there are things about that person that I don’t see clearly. I need to take it slowly, listen to friends/family who may see things more clearly, and ask God for wisdom” (S2).
The idea is that each time we are sexually intimate with another person, we become one for that time. And a part of their inner being sticks to us [like chewing gum] and a part of our inner being sticks to them. So, when we become sexually intimate with a person, we are never the same. So, we need to ask ourselves if we really want to lose a part of ourselves to this person—and if we really want to carry a part of this person—to have that influence—with us the rest of our lives. (S5).
Lastly, the SPSD course focused on longevity. Seriousness, prudence, and monogamy were all essential, but it was clearly life-long longevity that was the ultimate, if elusive, goal of the course’s ideal approach to managing sexual relationships. Drawing on the biblical theme of God’s enduring love for humankind, the Senior Pastor and the instructor manual regularly referred to the goals of “loyalty, love, steadfastness,” of “solemn, lifetime commitment” (S8), of “unconditional love,” and of “covenantal relationship” (S9).
A Pragmatic Approach to Managing Sexual Relationships
Yet, at the exact same time as the SPSD course was presenting this ideal approach to managing sexual relationships, it was also emphasizing that individuals have both the freedom and the responsibility to come to their own pragmatic conclusions regarding how their sexual relationships should be structured and specifically as to what role these various aspects of commitment and stability might play. For instance, the instructor manual for Session 1 made this very clear: “We do not tell the students what they should believe. They need to figure that out for themselves through the information offered and the discussions.” Likewise, in Session 5 participants were told: “No one can dictate your sexual ethics—that’s between you and God. It’s not our job to tell you what to do. It’s not our job to judge you. Our job is to encourage you to approach this subject carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.” Then in Session 6: “Once again, what we are discussing here is not infallible. We are just wanting to think through these issues…. Obviously this is a matter each one of us must decide for ourselves—each of us will answer to God for how we use the gift of sexuality in our lives, and none of us has been appointed to judge each other.”
Conflicting Approaches to Managing Sexual Relationships?
Thus, at least in the beginning stages of our study, there appeared to us to be some significant conflict between these two approaches. On the one hand, it seemed to us that, drawing on aspects of its evangelical identity, Grace Church was presenting an ideal set of moral values that quite clearly described what sexual relationships should look like. On the other hand, it seemed to us that, drawing on aspects of its gay identity, Grace Church was simultaneously presenting a steady stream of encouragement to not just accept these moral values in an unconsidered fashion, but rather to carefully evaluate their various supporting arguments in order to come to a personal, pragmatic, and well-reasoned conclusion.9
This led us to wonder: How do these two approaches fit together? Does the pastoral leadership of Grace Church really think that relational commitment and stability is optional, one acceptable choice among many? We were (and are) inclined to think not. Instead, we observed that the previous quotation that “none of us has been appointed to judge” continued by asserting “but as we make our personal decisions, we can benefit greatly from hearing each other’s perspectives” (S6). Then, almost immediately following, the manual directed the instructor to “lead a general discussion on this, using follow-up questions to draw people out and challenge their positions and deepen their thought” (S6). Additionally, it appeared that while the SPSD course certainly approved of individual thinking, it typically assumed that such thinking, if done thoroughly and honestly, would necessarily lead participants to accept the moral values that the course espoused. Indeed, the very format of fill-in-the-blank handouts paired with answer-completed instructor manuals obviously presumed the existence of right and wrong answers, which then seemed likely to comport to right and wrong actions. Thus, this evidence, in combination both with the frequent pedagogical use of repetition and recitation as well as with the course’s regular admonitions for students to pray and seek God’s answers, led us to conclude that Grace Church was certainly not promoting a laissez-faire sexuality as gay congregations have sometimes been accused of doing (e.g., Enroth 1974; see Primiano 2005). Instead, it was quite obvious to us that the pastoral leadership of Grace Church was seriously desiring to impart a particular set of sexual moral values that were primarily structured around the central role of relational commitment and stability. All of this, however, raised more questions for us. Particularly: Why not just come out and say this? Why bother at all with a pragmatic approach? Why not simply present an ideal approach and be done with it? Why not be clear?
Potential Explanations for the Simultaneous Presence of Both Approaches
As we progressed with our study, though, potential explanations began to emerge. Based then on further observations and particularly on the first author’s later interview of the Senior Pastor, we have now come to think that there are three main reasons that the pastoral leadership of Grace Church presents a pragmatic approach to managing sexual relationships alongside its ideal approach.
To begin with, we suspect that at least for much of his tenure, the Senior Pastor has had a more conservative theological view of sexuality than most of his parishioners, and as such, his moral authority and the efficacy of his moral persuasiveness has largely been rooted in his ability to offer rational, evidential arguments for his moral claims. In other words, instead of demanding moral allegiance based on appeals to external authority (e.g., “God told me so”) or to unquestionable scriptural interpretations (e.g., “This is what the Bible says—end of story”), rather, the Senior Pastor has had to systematically convince parishioners of the wisdom of his perspective. This is one of the factors that has contributed to the current situation where the moral values of commitment and stability are upheld as ideal, even as the presentation of these values is decidedly pragmatic.
That’s a little bit of an over description, [but] it’s not entirely untrue…. I’ve had any number of people tell me about either this church or other MCCs [Metropolitan Community Churches]: “I went there, and it felt like a meat market….” I was certainly clear with [this congregation] and clear with myself when I came here that this type of criticism is one of the Achilles heels of the MCC and that it wasn’t going to be our Achilles heel if I was going to be the pastor…. One of the more heated congregational discussions we had early in my tenure was whether we were going to do a fundraiser for the church that would feature female impersonators well known in the [local bars]. And we weren’t going to do that. We didn’t do that not because we wanted to judge those people, but because we wanted to be clear that bars are bars—we’re a church.
I think that before I came here this church did things the old MCC way, and I would call the old MCC way a laissez-faire approach to sexuality…. If you were to ask people questions of sexual ethics or lifestyle questions, they would have been more liberal than me. In other words, there was not an internal alignment between theology and some social practices, and that’s very common in gay communities that have not reconciled their spirituality with their sexuality.
I preach about sexual morality and… before I came that would have been the third rail: “Don’t talk about that, you’ll make too many people mad.” So, we dare to do sermons now. We dare to teach classes on it. So, we’re addressing it now. We weren’t addressing it before…. The unmentionable subject is now very much talked about…. People who don’t want their spirituality to impact their sexuality aren’t going to be very comfortable in our church. I know there are people who have come here and said, “You guys talk about sexual ethics too much. I’m going to go somewhere else where I don’t have to deal with that.”
A key result of all this is that Grace Church has experienced a slow but steady transformation toward both a more conservative theological view of sexuality and a consequently more conservative (ideal) approach to managing sexual relationships. Coinciding with this, many of the parishioners who were at Grace Church prior to the current Senior Pastor have since left the congregation, and in their place, a steady influx of new persons has now increased the congregation’s average weekly attendance from around 50 persons at the time of the Senior Pastor’s arrival to over 400 persons at present. Thus, while it is true that most present-day parishioners are only familiar with the current Senior Pastor and with his preaching and teaching, we nonetheless suspect that a history of systematically transitioning the congregation’s theological view of sexuality has produced a leadership and a pedagogical style that partially accounts for the simultaneous presence of both an ideal and a pragmatic approach to managing sexual relationships.
More critically, however, we think that the presence of both of these approaches is largely explained by the life course histories of the many Grace Church parishioners who were raised in evangelical congregations that, quite unlike Grace Church, were far from being gay affirming. Indeed, consistent with studies that have detailed the painful experiences that gay persons often have growing up in conservative religious settings (e.g., Barton 2010; McQueeney 2009), the Senior Pastor similarly summarized the personal difficulties that many Grace Church parishioners had to endure as they came of age in traditional and non-affirming congregations. In particular, the Senior Pastor suggested that the life course histories of many Grace Church parishioners could be understood according to either of two fairly typical narratives.
On the one hand, the Senior Pastor explained that during their late teens or early twenties, many current Grace Church parishioners had reticently disclosed their gay sexual orientation to their home churches, often hoping that with a sufficiently efficacious spiritual experience or perhaps with the right psychotherapy, the power of God would return them to their supposedly-innate heterosexuality (see Wolkomir 2001). By and large, though, these attempts were futile. Instead, once congregational leaders inevitably came to the conclusion that such persons were either unwilling to repent or unable to change, these gay parishioners were typically rejected by their congregations and occasionally by their families as well.
On the other hand, the Senior Pastor explained that many other current Grace Church parishioners had previously resorted to a closeted existence, sometimes marrying an opposite sex spouse in the hope that their homosexual inclinations would go away. Yet, as the Senior Pastor suggested is often the case, although “they try and try, really try,” their gay sexual orientation remains unchanged with the result that “sometimes they’re suicidal and that’s the break point, or sometimes they just finally figure out, this is not working.” Hence, like their counterparts who came out at earlier ages, these persons eventually came to accept and affirm their identities as gay persons, which ultimately led them to likewise leave their home congregations.
According to the Senior Pastor, then, many current Grace Church parishioners responded to the acute pain of these kinds of experiences by simply dropping out of religion (see Pitt 2010b; Rodriguez and Ouellette 2000a), frequently rejecting the conservative sexual values of their home churches, and sometimes opting for lifestyles of promiscuous and/or casual sex. As the Senior Pastor forthrightly described it, “Some of them went nuts!” Only later, typically when these persons moved into their thirties and forties, did they rediscover a longing for God and for religion, which eventually led to them coming to Grace Church—a decision, it seems, that was often rooted in Grace Church’s fairly unique identity of being thoroughly gay and yet relatively similar to the kinds of evangelical churches that many of these persons grew up in.
We note here that we have not systematically sampled and formally interviewed parishioners in order to establish the generalizability of these kinds of personal histories. However, given that the various life stories told by the SPSD participants generally validated the Senior Pastor’s perspective on these matters, we think it is fair to say that these types of standardized accounts provide Grace Church with a powerful set of collective narratives of what it was like to grow up gay and evangelical. In line with this, we think that a central reason that Grace Church simultaneously presents both an ideal and a pragmatic approach to managing sexual relationships is that many of its parishioners have very strong personal discomfort with the idea of moral judgment and its typical complements of religious condemnation and social rejection. Hence, instead of taking the risk of triggering the emotional and psychological pain of people’s pasts, the pastoral leadership of Grace Church wants the congregation to be clearly known as a place where all people are welcome—without question. Although pastoral leadership does uphold the legitimacy of having sexual and relational ideals to strive for, it has become imperative that such ideals must never be used to hurt, reject, or condemn.
The lack of recognition [for gay marriage] affects sexual ethics dramatically even though it shouldn’t. Ideally, [the] typical person would be strong enough about who he or she is that you… live the way you want to live whether the government sanctions it or not, but…. what society says about your relationship and how it categorizes your relationship dramatically affects the typical person…. So, if me… and my partner are [in a] relationship [that] is not legally recognized in any way… if my relationship is not going so well, or if I’m tempted, and I cheat: “Ahh, well, it’s not like I was cheating on my wife.” [But] when you legally recognize it, define it as a marriage, then you bring to that relationship all of the cultural learning you’ve had around what faithfulness means, life commitment means, and so you suddenly start to see it differently and therefore react to it differently.
The Senior Pastor went on to add that even though the ideals of heterosexual marital commitment are frequently unachieved by those who attempt them—as he suggested was evidenced by the prevalence of heterosexual divorce and infidelity—nonetheless, and especially within evangelical circles, such ideals provide a solid understanding of what should be. Moreover, the Senior Pastor suggested that the inability to legally legitimate committed gay relationships causes persons, both straight and gay, to envision homosexuality as something intrinsically other than heterosexuality—not as an alternative form of potentially coupled relationship but as an unmanageable aberration.
Thus, we think that in addition to the explanations offered by Grace Church’s congregational history and by its parishioner histories, the simultaneous presence of both approaches to managing sexual relationships is also the result of a general lack of institutionalized support for gay relationships within American society. Without sufficient structures available to legally and formally recognize and legitimate gay relationships, persons in those relationships are less likely to see commitment and stability as either normative, necessary, or valuable. An inevitable result of this is that although the pastoral leadership of Grace Church upholds commitment and stability as ideal, doing so is clearly counter-cultural—and we think this further explains why Grace Church’s ideal approach to managing sexual relationships is necessarily balanced by its pragmatic approach.
A Blended Approach to Managing Sexual Relationships
I don’t think they’re contradictory…. I personally, and the institution that is our church, sees long-term monogamous relationships as the ideal; but we recognize, and we take the liberty to emphasize and urge people toward that ideal without feeling the need to ostracize, judge, or label people that don’t [agree]…. These aren’t easy questions because we’re sort of inventing this on the fly, this is why MCC has never… wanted to tackle these issues, because they’re uncomfortable, and they’re a blend of pragmatism and ideals, so it’s a lot easier to look the other way.
Hence, while as outside researchers, we still wonder whether some level of conflict between the ideal approach and the pragmatic approach may be inherent, we recognize that the pastoral leadership of Grace Church does not perceive these approaches as being in conflict with one another, but rather envisions them coming together to form a blended approach that includes both ideal and pragmatic themes. We note too that this dialectical thinking is actually one of the hallmarks of Grace Church, and although we do not have the space to offer a detailed analysis of this type of thinking, it is worth mentioning that we regularly observed Grace Church’s widespread tendency of intentionally “holding opposites together.” This was evident in Grace Church’s worship style as well as in the congregation’s multiculturalism and even in the congregation’s overall understanding of the Christian faith—the latter being particularly exemplified on the congregation’s website, which states that Grace Church is a congregation that is “passionate about following Jesus” but “that also welcomes diversity and independent thought,” and acknowledges, “that’s a rare combination.”
Managing Sexual Relationships in Real Life
Thus, given Grace Church’s vision of a blended approach to managing sexual relationships, one last question intrigues us: What do sexual relationships look like at this congregation—in real life? Although considering sexual relationships in the abstract—both ideally and pragmatically—gives some hint as to what might actually be occurring, we surely wonder: What is really going on at Grace Church?
While our methodology was not explicitly designed to answer this question, we judge that we do have sufficient evidence to at least offer a few speculations. First, we suspect that many Grace Church parishioners are engaged in serial monogamy. While we know less about Grace Church parishioners as a whole, we do know that participants in the SPSD course regularly alluded to and sometime explicitly reported on (occasionally long) lists of previous sexual partners and relationships. Apparently, some of the corresponding encounters were quite casual if not anonymous, yet most participants indicated that in recent years they had been through a series of monogamous relationships that often lasted anywhere from a few weeks to several months and occasionally up to a year or two. Within these relationships, the SPSD participants generally agreed that by the end of two months, any blossoming romance would almost certainly include sexual activity, although some of the gay men (in contrast to the lesbians) did indicate that some sex acts, particularly anal sex, might necessitate higher levels of emotional intimacy, which might take longer to develop. Interesting too, in teaching the SPSD course, the Senior Pastor attempted to suggest that waiting six to twelve months before having sex with a new romantic partner might be a good idea. Participants, however, were quick to unanimously reject this suggestion as absurd—implying that not only was such waiting unnecessary but, moreover, simply not possible.
Second, in contrast to the SPSD participants, the Senior Pastor reported that Grace Church does have many well-established, long-term couples and that such relationships are regularly affirmed and celebrated through “commitment ceremonies.” These ceremonies, of which twenty to thirty are typically performed each year, are reserved for couples who have been together at least one year, who have attended Grace Church at least six times, who have completed a number of relational counseling sessions, and who are willing to publicly pledge monogamy and life-long commitment. When asked about the number of Grace Church parishioners who had participated in such ceremonies, the Senior Pastor estimated that one-third of adult parishioners were currently in relationships that had been recognized by a commitment ceremony,10 another third were in relationships that had not been recognized by a commitment ceremony, and a final third were either single or only casually dating (assumedly including the SPSD participants).
Third, we note that while there are no explicit requirements or regulations regarding sexual relationship for either parishioners or even for more formal membership in the church—just the kinds of “suggestions” that have already been discussed—in contrast, congregational leaders (e.g., board members, small group leaders, children’s teachers, etc.) are required to abide by the terms of a Leadership Guidelines document.11 In this document, expectations are delineated for a variety of topics including “Financial Matters,” the “Use of Language,” the use of “Drugs and Alcohol,” and most thoroughly “Sexual and Relational Matters.” For this last topic, the document indicates that leaders are expected to avoid “dating multiple people in… a short period of time.” Likewise, leaders are told to not “cycle through relationships” and instead to observe a “three-month waiting period” between the end of one relationship and the beginning of another. Moreover, when leaders are involved in a relationship, they are supposed to “model stability and monogamy,” to “be faithful to relationship promises,” and to avoid “sexual indiscretions.” Finally, all leaders are asked to “refrain from going to bathhouses or locations notorious for casual sex.”12
Discussion and Conclusions
While we think that our study of Grace Church provides significant value in a descriptive and ethnographic sense, we also think that our study lends itself to several insights that illuminate both broader theoretical issues as well as potential empirical outcomes.
First, consistent with the propositions of Simmel (1950) and Park (1928), it seems clear to us that the parishioners and pastoral leadership of Grace Church often experience being both gay and evangelical as quite stressful, especially so when it comes to considering how best to manage sexual relationships. This stress, however, is not just an individual-level phenomenon but rather extends to Grace Church as a whole. As Simmel and Park might have expected, then, this stress has led Grace Church to develop an innovative approach to managing sexual relationships, an approach that simultaneously draws on the norms and arguments of both of Grace Church’s cultural identities.
As background, we note that Protestant congregations in America have often responded to gay persons in their midst through one of two strategies. On the one hand, most evangelical congregations have asserted that if gay persons are unable to change their sexual orientation, they must at least remain celibate. On the other hand, some mainline Protestant congregations have retreated to a more privatized approach to gay sexuality that has been hesitant to promote much in the way of specific expectations for how gay persons should manage their sexual relationships. Instead, these congregations have tended to suggest that gay persons should come to their own conclusions about such matters as long as these conclusions are consistent with a general ethic of Christian love and personal responsibility (e.g., Ellingson et al. 2001; see Petersen and Donnenwerth 1997).
However, in contrast to and seemingly mediating between these two strategies, Grace Church appears to offer a middle way that promotes much of the evangelical community’s traditional understanding of sexual relationships (e.g., emphasizing commitment, stability, monogamy, and longevity), while simultaneously rejecting that such norms and values can only apply to and can only legitimate heterosexual relationships. What is more, though, Grace Church does not just take a traditional evangelical understanding and simply reconfigure it for homosexuality. Rather, Grace Church purposefully attempts to strike a blended approach to managing sexual relationships that balances these traditional norms and values with a strong recognition of the private and public contexts that have shaped the gay community’s understanding of sexual and relational life. The outcome of this attempt is a careful negotiation of and—even if not complete—a substantial integration of the ideal and pragmatic themes that have characterized Grace Church’s management of sexual relationships.
Second, we think that this negotiation and integration illustrates some of the broader congregational identity work going on at Grace Church. In particular, we suggest that Grace Church’s attempt at producing a blended approach to managing sexual relationships mirrors the congregation’s broader attempt at negotiating and integrating the full expressions of its gay and evangelical identities. Although we do not explore other aspects of this broader negotiation and integration within this article, we think that Grace Church’s choice to intentionally engage the obviously contentious topic of sexuality reveals the congregation’s strong resolve to pursue a holistic identity with both determination and integrity. Accordingly, as we allude to in the title of this article, we think that although Grace Church finds itself seemingly positioned at the center of the “culture war,” it has, nonetheless, quite clearly moved “beyond the culture war,” demonstrating that real life persons and organizations are more able to bring together diverse and competing norms and values than culture war imagery typically suggests.
Third, along these lines, we think that Grace Church provides a partial counterexample to some of the competing arguments that have animated both sides of the culture war narrative. In contrast to many in the evangelical community who suggest that the long-term stability of most gay relationships is intrinsically impossible, and in contrast to many in the gay community who suggest that the long-term stability of most gay relationships is seriously undermined by a lack of cultural and legal legitimation, Grace Church provides a model of a community of gay persons who are actively striving to foster and enact such long-term stability even without cultural and legal support. Moreover, our findings suggest that Grace Church’s efforts are at least partially effectual in that they are clearly attracting a growing number of local persons who assumedly find Grace Church’s approach to managing sexual relationships to be more satisfactory than other religious and secular alternatives.
Finally, we speculate that Grace Church’s attempt at producing a blended approach to managing sexual relationships may be pointing the way toward future developments within some predominantly-heterosexual evangelical congregations. Particularly in view of America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality (Andersen and Fetner 2008; Avery et al. 2007; Loftus 2001), it seems likely to us that more and more evangelical individuals will be willing to risk openly declaring a gay sexual orientation. Because many of these persons may not be willing to subsequently “sell their evangelical souls” in order to affirm this orientation, we consequently expect that an increasing number of predominantly-heterosexual evangelical congregations will soon be facing the same kinds of cultural cross-pressures about homosexuality that Grace Church has long endured. Accordingly, we speculate that Grace Church could prove to be a quite telling exemplar of how some of these evangelical congregations may end up responding to these pressures. In this sense, we suggest that Grace Church’s ability to move “beyond the culture war” is—in the final analysis—perhaps not all that unique or idiosyncratic. Rather, Grace Church may actually be demonstrating the kinds of cultural solutions and resolutions that are potentially latent or embryonic within other congregations. Of course, we expect that most predominantly-heterosexual evangelical congregations will continue in their traditional approaches to managing sexual relationships. Yet, we also expect that some—perhaps even a significant minority of these congregations—will ultimately develop approaches to managing sexual relationships that will bear striking resemblances to the blended approach that we have seen here at Grace Church.
Grace Church is a pseudonym.
We note that in spite of the fact that the Senior Pastor graduated from Bob Jones University, Grace Church does not interpret the Bible in a fundamentalist-style, literalistic fashion, but instead utilizes a more mainstream evangelical approach that draws significantly on historical–critical methods. This approach, often described in terms of the quest for “authorial intent,” is essentially the idea that the meaning and authority of the Bible does not rest in specific words (of either an English translation or of an original language) but rather in what a particular author was trying to communicate at the particular time that a particular text was written.
While recognizing that the label evangelical can be used in a number of distinct but interacting ways (e.g., variously referring to theological positions, ecclesiastic emphases, denominational traditions, political agendas, etc.), we follow the approach of Christian Smith (1998, p. 19) when we describe Grace Church as evangelical not only because we as researchers judge such a characterization to be quite valid but especially because it is a label that Grace Church uses to describe itself. At the same time, we recognize that evangelicalism is a fairly broad religious category, which encompasses a wide range of persons and organizations. In an attempt, then, to be somewhat more specific, we suggest that Grace Church could be further categorized as being on the more progressive side of evangelicalism, certainly exhibiting mainstream evangelical beliefs such as acknowledging the reality of hell and emphasizing the physical death and resurrection of Jesus, but in comparison to the more conservative side of evangelicalism, showing a greater degree of flexibility in regard to some theological fine points and especially in regard to various social and political issues, most obviously those related to homosexuality.
Information concerning congregational characteristics and demographics was obtained through participant observation as well as through interviewing the Senior Pastor. See the “Methods” section of this article for more detail. Also, see note 6 for information specifically about the ministerial staff.
We note that while virtually all pro-gay arguments are associated with persons who can rightly be called social liberals, some of these arguments, such as the ones voiced by Andrew Sullivan, are legitimately described as being arguments that are simultaneously socially liberal and politically conservative—hence, Sullivan’s “Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” (2003).
We note that in addition to the Senior Pastor, Grace Church’s ministerial staff has increased in recent years to include a Minister of Congregational Care, a Minister of Worship Arts, and a Minister of Outreach and Development. In this article, however, we focus on the leadership of the Senior Pastor. This is due in part to space limitations, but also reflects our judgment that the personality, tenure, and role of the Senior Pastor have clearly made him the dominant and authoritative voice of Grace Church’s pastoral leadership. For more information about the Senior Pastor, see the Findings section of this article.
We note that the roughly equal proportions of lesbians and gay men who participated in the SPSD course generally mirror corresponding proportions within the congregation as a whole. We note too that except where we specifically use the phrase gay men, all other use of the adjective gay should be understood as referring to both men and women. This usage is consistent with that of the SPSD course participants as well as that of the Senior Pastor and other parishioners.
We note that the ages and ethnicities of the SPSD course participants are also fairly representative of the congregation as a whole. Although the congregation does include children, young adults, and senior adults, most Grace Church parishioners are in their thirties, forties, and fifties. Likewise, while a majority of the congregation are Caucasian, a significant minority are African American or Latino. We note as well that the Senior Pastor is a Caucasian male, approximately 50 years of age.
Although the sexual individualism that we here associate with aspects of Grace Church’s gay identity did not originate in the gay community and is not defined there, we judge that in the minds of most Grace Church parishioners, such individualism is perceived as a key aspect of their gay identity that stands in fairly stark opposition to contrasting aspects of their evangelical identity.
We note that the partners of these persons who have participated in commitment ceremonies may or may not also be parishioners at Grace Church.
This document was initially written by the Senior Pastor and has since been developed and modified through a largely consensus-based process involving both the ministerial staff as well as long-tenure lay leaders.
When asked what might happen if a leader did not keep these commitments, the Senior Pastor referred back to the Leadership Guidelines documents, which states that if “a leader falls short, our goal will be to respond with the right combination of mercy and accountability…. When lapses occur, we will prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to guide us to a response that reflects the right balance.”
An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, GA. We thank Rachel Einwohner, Becka Alper, Nick Vargas, Stephen Warner, and seven anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. Correspondence should be addressed to: Jeremy N. Thomas, Department of Sociology, Purdue University, 700 W. State St., West Lafayette, IN 47907. Email: email@example.com.