Called to an Inclusive & Affirming Church

God’s Holy Spirit is calling our family to join a Christian church congregation which is both inclusive and affirming. The past four months have been a time of transition for us, as I have continued to teach our adult Sunday School class at First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, where I am an ordained elder and deacon. While I have continued to teach our Sunday School class, we only attended. worship at FPC a couple times this fall. In August we started visiting other Oklahoma City church congregations, and through the guidance and mentorship of friends, found our way to St Augustine of Canterbury, a wonderful Episcopal congregation just about 5 minutes from our house in northwest Oklahoma City. We’ve been attending the early services at Saint A’s since September, and then attending / leading Sunday School at FPC in Edmond. This has, at times, felt awkward, but it has been both necessary and good. This year members of our family “stopped feeling safe” attending worship and church groups at FPC Edmond, and worshipping together as a family is a very important value for us. Those sentiments by other family members were independent of some difficulties I faced personally as a member of the leadership team for our Friday Morning Men’s Group at FPC. Those situations and. issues, and the ways they were handled / mishandled, and additional interactions with men’s group members led me to resign my position of leadership with FPC men’s group on September 23, 2021. That decision followed private meetings with members of the men’s group’s leadership team, and included a later meeting and multiple communications with our senior pastor. This decision to leave FPC Edmond as a family is something my wife and I have taken very seriously, and prayed over for many weeks. We have prayed for discernment, and God has answered that prayer. God is calling us to an affirming and inclusive church congregation.

I was initially ordained as a deacon and then an elder at FPC Edmond when our congregation was part of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) denomination. On January 27, 2013, our congregation voted “for gracious dismissal from PCUSA to join the ECO denomination, the “Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.” With the rest of our elected elders at the time, I accepted ordination following that vote into ECO as an elder. At that time, I had not and did not personally grapple deeply with the question of whether or not we, as followers of Jesus Christ, and leaders of His church, are called to be inclusive and affirming. When I say “grapple deeply” I mean that I did not seriously question the leadership and direction of our senior pastor at the time and our other elders. My only Christian blog post at that time addressing these issues was from January 26, 2013, “Commenting Publicly About Our Church’s Congregational Vote.”

This failure to grapple deeply with the beliefs about and treatment of LGBTQ people at that time may strike some as odd, since the question of how the church addresses homosexuality was a significant and common issue for churches (like ours) choosing to leave PCUSA for another Presbyterian denomination. Around the same time as our congregation joined ECO, the church where Shelly and I met in 1995 (Westminster Presbyterian Church of Lubbock, Texas) also chose to leave PCUSA, but they joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). EPC is even more conservative than ECO as a denomination in some ways, as they state in their “distinctives” the following:

“the decision to elect women as pastors, ruling elders, and deacons is left to the discretion of the presbytery and congregation, respectively.”

Distinctives of EPC

The ECO denomination, as well as our FPC church home of the past 15 years, is not inclusive or affirming. This is not a secret. On page 30 of the 2020 ECO Confessional Standards we read:

Q. 87. Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved?

A. Certainly not! Scripture says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit

the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters,

nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor

drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians

6:9–10).

2020 ECO Confessional Standards

Following our congregation’s decision to leave PCUSA and join ECO, one of our assistant pastors (Matt Jones) along with one of our church members and small group leaders (Curt Gruel) led a wonderful Wednesday night class focused on the book “Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community” by Andrew Marin. In all my life up to that point and since, that class was the ONLY time I’ve had an opportunity in church to discuss issues and theology relating to LGBTQ people. At that time, I setup a website titled, “Faith Discussions,” and shared resources there related to the class. That site is now offline, but you can view information about the class as well as Curt’s welcome and class overview via the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive. I posted notes from that class twice to this blog, “Love is an Orientation: Session 1” from January 9, 2013, and “Session 2: Love is an Orientation” from January 17th. As a related and significant aside, Curt Gruel has generously served (on a volunteer basis, I will point out) as my “Spiritual Director” in the Heartpaths OKC program for at least the past 7 years. Curt’s mentorship and discernment skills have been HUGE parts of my own spiritual development in the past decade, and I am incredibly thankful for his leadership, guidance and loving service to me and others through this amazing program.

Today I am sharing with our Sunday School class our decision to leave FPC Edmond so we can both worship Christ and serve others with an affirming and inclusive Christian congregation. Shelly and I no longer feel we can worship God in spirit and in truth at FPC Edmond. FPC Edmond is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” church when it comes to homosexuality and LGBTQ people, and we want to worship and serve in a Christian church congregation which is both inclusive and affirming to everyone, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

I have not wanted to share this decision privately or publicly with any emotions of anger, hurt, frustration, or pain. This is an ongoing journey which is not over. Shelly and I are both confident, however, that God is leading us and our family in a new direction.

We have been active members and leaders at FPC Edmond for the past fifteen years. Shelly served on the staff of FPC for seven years, leading our church nursery staff. Her leadership and ministry work through Children’s Ministries at FPC eventually brought her into relationship with many people both experiencing homelessness and serving the homeless in Oklahoma City. Our church’s “Rolling Green Outreach Ministry” at that time was a significant catalyst which eventually brought Shelly to serve as a teacher at Positive Tomorrows in OKC for four years. We have raised our children at FPC in Edmond, it has been our church home and our family. Contemplating leaving has been difficult and sad.

Yet we know God is calling us to a new chapter in our lives, and we are ready to answer. As I continue to apply for assistant professor positions to start a new professional role in summer 2022, we are not sure if we’ll be staying here in Oklahoma City or moving to a new place. It’s a time of waiting and praying. We are confident God is answering and has already answered our prayers.

Commenting Publicly About Our Church’s Congregational Vote

This afternoon I left the following comment on the January 25th NewsOK article, “First Presbyterian Church of Edmond set to take historic vote.” This comment went on the NewsOK article comment thread and also cross-posted to my Facebook page. These are contentious but important issues. Please keep our congregation in your prayers tomorrow as we take this historic vote, and the deliberations of our Presbytery in the week to come on whether or not they will “graciously dismiss” us.

As highlighted in this NEWSOK article, our congregational vote tomorrow at FPCE has to do with the authority of scripture, the central tenets of our Christian faith, and church discipline. Members of our church have been working for over a decade to reform our denomination from within, and after long study (and work) determined that is not going to be possible. Our vote tomorrow is the culmination of YEARS of work and study.

One of the core beliefs of our congregation which we are standing firm on, for example, is that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the unique path to salvation. We are not universalists or Unitarians. This is one of several core faith issues about which there is dissension in the PCUSA denomination. The Evangelical Order of Presbyterians (ECO) denomination is a new Presbyterian denomination founded in 2012 which will offer many opportunities for our congregation to focus more on evangelism, mission and discipleship rather than denominational differences.

As to the issue of “being afraid of gays and lesbians” or “hating” the LGBT community, I can assure you we are not a congregation of fear or hate. I deeply regret and mourn the hateful behavior and words of some people using the title of “Christian” who have made the term “evangelical” regrettably associated with “anti-gay” in many contexts. As Tim Keller has pointed out, “Being a heterosexual doesn’t get you into heaven.” Being gay certainly does NOT condemn someone to hell either. As individuals and churches, these are issues we need to understand better as well as communicate more clearly… and with love.

First Presbyterian Church of Edmond has a wonderful Wednesday night class this semester, in fact, discussing Andrew Marin’s excellent book, “Love Is An Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community.” This class is providing a challenging and needed opportunity for us to grapple with the complex and difficult questions which surround the LGBT community and Christian churches. Anyone is welcome to attend, as well as chime in our online discussions about the book (and DVD series by Andrew) on http://faithdiscussions.org.

ECO - A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians

Session 2: Love is an Orientation

These are my notes from session 2 of our Wednesday night study at church based on Andrew Marin‘s book, “Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community” on January 16, 2013.

Andrew sees himself as “a regular guy trying to love and love in real time”

Billy Graham’s response when challenged about why he was associating with Billy Graham: “the Holy Spirit’s job is to convict, God’s job is to judge, my job is to love”

affirmation: the dignifying and
– very different from the cultural definition of affirming

Marin Foundation seeks to VALIDATE everyone
– validation is our goal: we must validate and dignify and legitimize everybody’s story…

People seem to be bent on “invalidating” the stories of others
– agreement and disagreement must be secondary issues to what is being presenting

What does reconciliation look like?
2 types in our culture
1- cultural version: similar to affirmation (when you drop what you believe and come over to my side, so we agree on everything political and social)
2- Biblical version: Jesus reconciled as the hinge: humans to God, and humans to humans
– we should be seeking reconciliation to people most different from us
– story of the Roman centurion shows this

The definition of reconciliation for Andrew is “fidelity and the intentional pursuit of others”
– what is an ‘enemy’ (one that is antagonistic to another)

It’s easy to say “love your enemies”
– that preaches well on Sunday, but it’s VERY hard to do today

Proverbs 16:7

When the Lord takes pleasure in anyone’s way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them.

1 Timothy 4:15

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.

Progress is relative to what you’re comparing to

Progress is a pioneer advancing into new territory

-Warren Wiersbe

God brings order to chaos
– it’s our job to be those pioneers, to have love as an orientation, so people remember us because of our LOVE

Key we need: To start releasing self-imposed burdens so we can be free to love, to learn, to build bridges

Other notes:

Practicing gays and lesbians can’t separate their sexual behavior from their identity

Later we will hear from some a physician who has worked with LGBT AIDS patients
– don’t lie to me, and don’t leave me

Heidelberg Catechism question 52: The one who will sit on judgement for me is the one who went to the cross to justify me for my sins
– there is no sin beyond the G

Recommended reading from Curt: Go to gaychristian.net and read:
Justin: What I Believe
Ron: Love that Does Not Count the Cost

These are the discussion questions we addressed at different tables, when we divided up / moved around the room:

Questions for Discussion: Love is an Orientation

homosexual is ok to use as an ADJECTIVE but not as a noun
– it’s best to use LGBT or GLBT as a noun

Love is an Orientation: Session 1

These are my notes from the first evening of our new Wednesday evening adult study class at church, “Love is an Orientation.” We are principally using the book the book “Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community” by Andrew Marin as our discussion text. We are using the videos and discussion guide which is also available for this book. We’ve setup a website, FaithDiscussions.org, to use as a space for conversations and discussions about the book and the issues it raises.

Tonight we started with a video interview of Tim Keller, evangelical pastor in NYC

What do Christians have against Homosexuality? Tim Keller at Veritas

Some Christian churches are ignoring what the Bible says about homosexuality to engage with homosexuals, others

Some Christians will love and befriend their Hindu and Muslim neighbors, but hate their homosexual neighbors

Heterosexuality doesn’t get you to heaven, so how could homosexuality send you to hell?
– Jesus talks about greed 10 times more than adultery
– you know when you’re committing adultery, but almost no one thinks they are greedy because they are comparing themselves to others

Will greed send you to hell? No. Self-righteousness will, believing you don’t need God.
– what does get you to heaven is a personal relationship with Christ and confessing your sins / your need for him

Of course homosexuality is a sin, greed is a sin too
– unfortunately many Christians hear this and think “if you’re a homosexual you’re going to hell” and that’s wrong

What sends you to heaven or hell is not just “I’m a homosexual” or “I’m a heterosexual”
– you can’t be your own savior through your own actions and good works
– sin underneath the sin which is “I am my own savior” will send people to hell

Thoughts from John on where he’s been with these issues:
– finally started reading the Bible in his late 20s, looking for how he can justify himself in those pages
– my wife pointed out I was reading the Bible as a medical journal and trying to get it to conform to me
– when I started letting the scriptures shape me, looking for the meaning life
– it was a challenge for what the kingdom of God looks like
– what justice looks like is not fighting just for your own way, it’s submitting to others

1991 in General Assembly had a report on human sexuality
– was a culmination of the first phase of this battle in PCUSA
– all about “justice love” (anything is ok as long as it’s between two consenting adults and justice is involved)
– I remember thinking that this has nothing correlated to what I’ve been reading in the Bible

When I was called to Austin Seminary the pastors said, “Why?”
– my answer was I wanted to read the theology that was stimulating the other side of this conversation
– I tried to approach the issue with an open mind in seminary

Entire time I was in professional ministry these issues kept coming up and distracting both sides of the church from doing anything productive, in my view
– so I lost interest in the conversation
– I never heard anything new
– I am always open to hear new ideas, read a new book
– I came to this class hoping maybe there is a way to elevate the conversation, to be more Christian and converse on a better level

Matt’s perspective
– I’ve had gay friends all my life
– my first best friend was gay, he didn’t know until he turned 30 but I knew it when he was 6
– something wrong with me? I always seem to attract gay people!

I am about introducing God’s big plan for people
– that is often about restrictions
– that’s about all I learned

Curt’s perspectives
– John went to a liberal seminary and came back
– I was one of the token liberals at my evangelical seminary because I was middle of the road
– I find myself drawn to the liberal-progressive arguments because they have heart, but when I examine them closely they don’t stand up to rational analysis

Robert Gagne’s book, very scholarly and authoritative
– his book doesn’t have heart

I am really tired of all the factionalism

Keep thinking of Gamaliel, Acts 5
– sitting on Sanhedrian, reminds others we’ve seen uprisings before
– if it is not of God, it will fail
– I wish our big church could wait and see what unfolds: 50 years, 100 years
– it may be a long time

I would like to live in the tension
– I see liberal / progressives cutting all kinds of corners in their interpretation of scripture
– on the conservative side, we see very rigid interpretations that is all ‘head stuff’ where they are not thinking with their hearts

I’d like to encourage for people to live in the tension until we can discern together what is God’s will in this matter
– that’s where I am and why I put this class together

Andrew Marin is a very interesting guy
– very conservative, evangelical Christian
– was shaken to the core when 3 of his closest friends came out as homosexual within 3 months of each other
– moved with his wife to Chicago, has lived for 10 years in Boys Town living with LGBT community learning what things are like for them, and what the church has been like for them

Watching these videos makes me realize I’m a homophobe
– this is like discovering I’m a racist environmental

We have many stereotypes that are wrong
– not all LGBT are out, loud and proud, and want to have nothing to do with Christians

Laura teaches human anatomy and physiology, and is the sponsor of the “Equality Club” at her school which is the LGBT club
– I asked her to come as a resource to this class

Now sharing our names and 1 thing related to these issues that we’ve wanted to hear addressed. Here are the questions we shared together:

– Why is it hard to be honest and open about these issues?
– Why is this such a big deal?
– What’s the church’s response to homosexual actions?
– Are people born with their sexuality defined?
– What happens to unrepentant homosexuals?
– Why as a society are we singling out this one issue?
– What are heteros so afraid of?
– Are there any gray issues here?
– Can we explore the complexity of sexuality and sexual identity?
– hOw can we be on the compassionate side and act against hate?
– What does ‘living in the tension’ about this issue look like?
– How does God want ME to address this?
– Could we welcome people into our church community who are gay and support gay lifestyles?
– Why do we spend so much time talking about the gospel of Jesus determining if you go to heaven or hell, rather than what it looks like to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ / in his kingdom?
– How can we reclaim our brothers and sisters who we (in many cases) have pushed aside our out (even of our churches)?

I mentioned Google’s project “It Gets Better” and in my question asked how we can be on the compassionate side of this project, which is (I think) an outstanding project. It’s seeking to give hope to kids to not give up and commit suicide in their teen years if they are gay and struggling in their school / family / community. As Christians we (I think) need to be on the COMPASSIONATE side of this discussion, NOT on the (or a) HATEFUL side.

It Gets Better Project - YouTube

John’s point: We should keep all issues of sexuality in our minds
– all the colleagues I’ve known who have lost their positions in the church, and in 1 case even their ordination, have been over heterosexual behavior

money, sex, power: all of these things have a lot of control and influence over us