An Open Letter to Jesus, Apologizing for This RFRA Mess

By Derek Penwell

Dear Jesus,

I feel like I should apologize. I mean, for all the bad press you’ve been getting lately because of us. It must drive you nuts.

We’re a fallible lot, your followers. We make mistakes. We misunderstand. We hurt one another. That’s true across the board. All of us.

But apart from the garden variety meanness in which all your followers engage, now you have to deal with a bunch of us enacting legislation that will allow us not just to behave like our ordinary screwed up selves when we hurt other people, but to commit that spitefulness in your name.

No. I’m not kidding. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) are springing up all over the place. These religious refusal ordinances allow people to ignore laws that they say are in conflict with their personal religious beliefs. The sponsors of these acts wink as they argue that this groundswell of religious legislation isn’t specifically targeting LGBTQ people. That same gender marriage is experiencing its own groundswell of support (both culturally and legislatively) is apparently only a coincidence. But everybody knows it’s about the gays. (It seems that the thought of baking LGBTQ people cakes and renting them tuxedos is more than any pious person ought to have to endure.)

“I shouldn’t have to serve anyone I don’t approve of,” is pretty much what it boils down to—which is bad enough. But then they baptize this bigotry, anoint it with oil, and send it out into the world as a herald announcing to everyone that this is what you’re all about, Jesus. So, it’s not just “I don’t approve of you,” but more importantly, “Jesus doesn’t approve of you. And if you don’t like it, too bad. You can just go buy your cake of abomination and lies from some other reprobate who doesn’t love Jesus as much as I do.”

So, I’m apologizing that some of my brothers and sisters have seen fit to act like toddlers who pout when they don’t get their way, sharing their marbles only with pre-approved playmates. Again, that kind of reaction is irritating enough. But what’s even more exasperating is the fairly common assumption that all your followers are simply waiting around trying to figure out against whom it is now permissible to discriminate.

Remember that church where the young teenage girl got pregnant? Then when she decided to keep the baby, some of us suggested that the church should throw her a baby shower, let her know that we loved her and were excited to welcome her child into our community? But there were a couple of people who grumbled, “If this church throws a party for her, it will be like I’m personally endorsing her pregnancy?” Remember that?

And then another young woman stood up and said, “Look, this isn’t about you and your endorsement. This is about a young woman who’s getting ready to face the most difficult time in her life. And we just want her to know that she doesn’t have to face it alone. She’s a follower of Jesus too. In fact, if I recall, Jesus always seemed to go out of his way to support those questionable folks all the religious people were busy not approving of.” You remember that, right?

We’re bad at this stuff sometimes, Jesus. Too often we privilege purity over faithfulness—which seems odd, since we claim to follow the guy who told the story about the Good Samaritan. Unfortunately, it seems that too many of us make a habit of passing by on the other side of the road in the name of not dirtying our consciences.

Unfortunately, we claim to invite everyone to your table, but we hang a big sign with asterisks on the front of that table, listing the kinds of people we reserve the right not to serve.

Unfortunately, too many of us are more concerned with being right than in getting it right.

And, Jesus, we’re hurting people in the process. Humiliating people. Telling folks that they’re somehow defective, somehow unloveable.

So, I apologize for those who call themselves by your name, but who commit acts of cruelty while brandishing that name like a weapon. Forgive us (myself included) when we act less lovingly than you expect. Grant us the courage to stand with those who, too often, find themselves standing alone.

Challenge us to be better than we are, to love more than we can imagine, and to seek a justice more expansive and inclusive than our wounded hearts can dream.



(A special shout out to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who have vowed not to hold its General Assembly in Indiana in 2017, because it's a state that just passed a version of RFRA!)

Obama's Announcement and What It Means for "Liberal" Christians

This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.


But, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

~Pres. Barack Obama

That President Obama’s announcement of his support of marriage equality for LGBTQI people was met with consternation by many in popular Christianity shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. That his “brand” of Christianity fails to be persuasive to a portion of the Christian world should surprise no one either. It is common to dismiss anyone who supports hospitality to those created LGBTQI by God as deluded (at best) and evil (at worst).

What I continue to find troubling, though, is the extent to which people who oppose marriage equality maintain that any support of it by those who call themselves Christian is some kind of hermeneutical dodge. The working assumption seems to be that if you fail to employ some form of traditionally conservative interpretive schema, you can’t reasonably expect to call yourself Christian. Because everybody knows that “liberals” don’t actually believe anything important about God or the Bible or following Jesus; they’re just trying to baptize their godless agenda and impose it upon the unsuspecting majority of real Christians.1 What many people apparently find too difficult to fathom, however, is that some people—among whom I take President Obama to be one—hold these “liberal” positions not in spite of but because of their commitment to following Jesus.

On a “liberal” reading of scripture, “loving one’s neighbor” isn’t a frothy placeholder for moral action nobody cares much more about than to feel it deeply in the heart; it is the very thing of which moral action is an embodiment. Put more simply, to progressive Christians “love” isn’t so much something you “feel” about God or another person, but a way of life that seeks to demonstrate its own authenticity by seeking justice and peace for those kicked to the margins by the powerful—which is to say, by seeking to love those whom God loves, but for whom love in this world is often illusory.

The greater (and more damning) criticism of “liberal” Christians is not that they don’t believe the Bible, but that they don’t live up to their claims about “justice” and “peace.” This is a real danger in progressive Christianity. Talking about justice and peace, without actually going to the trouble to see it realized rightfully leads to charges of hypocrisy—that is, failing to walk the walk.

In President Obama’s case, however, the criticism has for some time been reversed: His words about justice and peace for LGBTQI people weren’t matched by his deeds (e.g., refusing to uphold DOMA, doing away with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc.). His failure, according to his critics, was in not being willing to “talk the talk.” In other words, people from both ends of the spectrum were inveighing against him for failing to say in words what he was already doing in practice—a perhaps rarer, but no less damning criticism.

Since I don’t hear the you’ve-also-got-to-talk-the-talk line of argument very often, it got me to thinking about denominational officials, who privately will offer reassurances that they are in support of affirming the full inclusion of LGBTQI folk in the life of the church, but who publicly find it difficult to articulate that support. I understand why taking a stand publicly in support of a controversial issue presents all manner of political land mines, and it makes a certain amount of sense when politicians hesitate to do it. Even religious officials must weigh the political costs of taking, what we religious types call, a “prophetic stance.” But whereas in the case of our political leaders (to our shame, I would argue) we tend to expect political calculations to trump the integrity of personal convictions, one would hope that we haven’t yet reached that level of cynicism about our religious leaders.

Is it to be the case once again that the church can’t quite get its theology straight until the culture shows it the way? Because, let’s not fool ourselves, inclusion is the way things are inexorably headed.

The upshot of it all? If David Kinnaman is right, as Rachel Held Evans deftly points out, what our continued silence risks is the better part of a whole generation coming to the conclusion that they can find better ways to spend their time because they believe the church and its leadership to be “anti-homosexual”. And while I realize that speaking openly about support for our LGBTQI brothers and sisters carries its own risks, I think—like President Obama, it would appear—that silence is a risk no longer worth taking the.

  1. I know that description may sound like an exaggeration of a seriously held position, dear reader, but in my own defense, you haven’t read the kind of correspondence I receive. I do know that there are serious people who disagree with me about the issue of biblical interpretation, but they don’t seem to have maintained good relations with the gatekeepers of the interwebz—since their voices are routinely drowned out by that seemingly professional class of the perpetually aggrieved. ↩

Welcoming Gay People: Why It's a Conversation You Need to Have

*Since the recommendation of the General Board of the Christian

The Conversation.

Pastor of Christ’s Church, Anywhere, USA: “Hey, Derek! How’s it going? I’ve seen what you guys are doing at your church. I want you to know how much I appreciate the work y’all are doing with the LGBT community. The church needs to wake up on this issue.”

Me: “Thanks. I really appreciate that.”

Pastor: “Yeah. It’s good stuff. Of course, in the church I’m in we aren’t there yet–I mean, ‘open and affirming.’”

Me: “Why’s that?”

Pastor: “Well, we’ve got some gay and lesbian folks in the congregation–a couple of elders, actually. It’s no big deal. We already consider ourselves open and affirming; we just don’t see the need to make it official.”

Me: “Why not?”

Pastor: “Well, it’s just … we don’t see the need to be all formal about it … you know, put up a sign or anything … make a big deal out of it. We know we are.”

Me: “You don’t think it’s important to let the rest of the world know that?”

Pastor: “Like I said. We’re really not there yet. Maybe one of these days.”

Me: “Yeah, maybe one of these days.”

The Post-mortem on the Conversation

I can’t tell you how many times I have had that conversation. These are pastors who, on an individual level, believe that LGBTQ people ought to be welcomed into the life of the church without any qualification of the kinds of ministry or service in which they might engage. That is to say, these pastors are sympathetic to the idea of Open and Affirming as a move the church needs to make … some day down the road. They’re “just not there yet.” If “we’re just not there yet” describes your congregation, this post is for you.[1]

Let me preface what I’m about to say with a nod toward the difficulty of negotiating the pastoral waters. All churches are different, but they share enough in common that I know what I’m about to say is a difficult word to hear. Pastors have to take into consideration a number of factors, not least of which is their livelihoods. As someone who very nearly lost his first job out of seminary over this very issue, and who had to leave another job over some principles on which I thought it necessary to take a stand, I’m well aware of the treacherous waters in which pastors swim.

Having offered that disclaimer, let me jump in with both feet.

“We’re just not there yet.”

That can mean any number of things, from, “I have a significant constituency within the congregation who are opposed to the idea of the full inclusion of gay people, and that’s not going to change unless some people die or move on,”[2] to “We used to have a significant constituency within the congregation who were opposed to the idea of the full inclusion of gay people (we had a big blow up over it once) and we’re afraid to open that can of worms again,” to “I was a pastor of a congregation that had a big fight over this issue, and I don’t ever want to go through that again,” to “I really don’t know how my people would respond to this issue, but the thought of having it cause dissension makes my sphincter seize up.”

“We’re just not there yet” can mean different things, depending on your congregation. I don’t know what it means for you, but you better know … and with some precision. If you believe that God wants LGBTQ individuals to be welcomed and affirmed in the church as a general rule, then you need to get a handle on why they’re not welcomed and affirmed your particular congregation.

What are the obstacles that stand in the way of your congregation becoming Open and Affirming?

Write them down. Put them on a spreadsheet. Draw them up with an Etch-a-Sketch. It doesn’t really matter to me. But you need data, you need faces in your mind, if you’re going to think this through.

“We already consider ourselves ‘Open and Affirming.’ We don’t see the need to be all formal about it … put up a sign or anything … make a big deal out of it. We know we are.”

That’s great! The important question, though, isn’t, “Do you know if you’re supportive of gay people?” The really important question is: “Do gay people know you’re supportive of gay people?” It’s an important distinction.

Your church may very well feel good about its reception of LGBTQ people. But if you’re looking not to go public with that information, the question you have to ask yourself is why does at least part of your congregation care about its posture with respect to gay people?

Presumably, some part of your congregation cares about welcoming gay people because they want gay people to feel welcome in church. No big mystery there.

See, but here’s the thing: If you don’t make that fact public, how will gay people ever know they’re welcome in your congregation? If you don’t ever publicly come out and say it, why do you think gay people will ever risk walking into your congregation to find out?

The problem is that LGBTQ folks have traditionally found the church to be pretty uniformly hostile. Unless they see some extremely public sign that they’re welcome, chances are, when they come upon your church, they’re just going keep walking. If you want gay people to come to your church, you’re going to have to go out and wave some kind of rainbow colored flag to let them know it’s safe to come inside. The burden isn’t on them to do the spade work to find out if your church is a closeted Open and Affirming congregation; the burden is on you. The point, of course, is that there are no “closeted” O&A congregations.

A friend and gay colleague of mine once said to me that expecting gay people to show up at your church if you’ve failed to advertise it as safe for gay people is like expecting African-Americans to show up at a random hotel in rural areas of the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Why would anyone risk that without some assurances?

“Maybe one of these days.”

Let me go on record as saying that the acceptance of gay people into public life, and into the life of many churches (it will probably never be all churches), is inevitable at some point in the not too distant future. The demographics are pretty clear that the younger you are the more likely you are not to have a problem, theological or otherwise, with LGBTQ people. As more and more young people take on positions of leadership and authority in society and in the church (and older ones exit the other side of the stage), this issue will cease to be an issue.

So, the welcoming of gay folks in church is a matter of when, not if. If you’re already there, but your church isn’t, the question you need to ask yourself is about how a failure to act affects your LGBTQ brothers and sisters right now. Is history eventually going to vindicate them without the prophetic voice of the women and men God has called to lead the church? And if so, what kind of credibility will the church have forfeited, when it becomes clear that the church once again let society do its heavy lifting?

“Well, that’s fine for you. It’s easy for you to sound all self-righteous. You’re in a progressive church.”

I’m not going to defend myself against that–although, I think I could. Instead, for the sake of discussion, I’ll stipulate that you’re right. I’m a self-righteous jerk. It’s easy for me, and I never experience any difficulty over this issue.

Now that that’s out of the way, the question you still need to ask yourself is whether I’m telling the truth. Because if I’m telling the truth, all we’re arguing about is whether or not this is difficult.

Once again, I’ll stipulate that it’s difficult. It’s hard, potentially-lose-your-job-and-your-friends kind of hard. I know.

But you’re a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ; hard is what you do–or, at least, it’s what he did.

I didn’t make the map; I’m just telling you where I think it leads.

  1. If, however, you happen to be someone who is not convinced that LGBTQ folks should be welcomed into the life of the church, you probably ought to stop now, and go find another article to read, because the rest of this post is only going to irritate you. I don’t mean go away for ever, just for the rest of this post.  ↩
  2. If you’re the pastor of a congregation where this issue is clearly settled, either because you’ve recently had a vote on becoming Open and Affirming that failed, or because you’ve had conversations with enough people that if a vote were taken today, you are certain it would fail, then what I’ve got to say isn’t for you. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. Even God can’t drive a parked car. Well, maybe God can, but you know what I mean.  ↩