God Versus Gay: Reflections from an Evangelical Minister

I am a theological anomaly. I am a gay-affirming, evangelical, theologically orthodox man and pastor of God. These days, I am feeling quite lost in our Presbyterian world.

Sometimes, I worship with my gay-affirming friends and I simply cry out, “Just gimme Jesus, not some progressive social justice and politically-driven ideology.” But then I will worship with my non-affirming friends, and I cry out, “Oh, this Gospel proclamation is just so black and white and all about ‘me’, where is the spirit of discovery and the affirmation of Micah 6:8 in all of this?”

I also have to admit that when I attend a Presbytery meeting on a day when there is a LGBTQ issue on debate, I weary very easily. I sense the gay-affirming people are tempted to give the presbytery well-intentioned, sentimental experience.

I want to say, “Scripture trumps experience. Experience is not enough! Give me theological and biblical reflection to undergird your experience.”

Equally as frustrating is the defense of the non-affirming party. It really doesn’t work for me when someone forcibly recites passages from the Bible without talking about God’s love and grace.

I want more.

When I look back on my journey, it is not a surprise that I feel caught in the middle. For many years, I believed that my charge as an evangelical pastor was to convince anyone in my ministry path that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. It was a source of my identity and defined my pastoral mission. I served on the Committee on Ministry where I was an uncompromising voice against the ordination or service of gay pastors.

Then, on my fiftieth birthday, something changed.

I was walking down the boardwalk at the beach when a stranger stopped me to say that the Lord desired to reconcile my gay identity within myself. I was speechless. In the next moment, I felt filled with the Holy Spirit and all the broken and confused puzzle pieces of my life came together in a complete picture. The floodgates of all my denial opened up, and I knew the truth in the deep recesses of my soul. This catharsis was liberating and good.

That evening, I was filled with both certainty and doubt. What was I to do?

I did what I had done at many moments throughout my life when I had encountered confusion, uncertainty, or needed comfort.

I turned to God and Scripture.

I knew I needed to place my experience, my reason, my desires, and even the tradition of the Church under the scrutiny of God’s Word. It was an unbelievably frightening process for me because I had never given myself permission to question much about my faith.

My goal was to leave no stone unturned. I began to worship at churches that I once considered the bastions of Babylon, and what I discovered was the sweet spirit of Christ in those places and winsome expressions of worship, prayer, and ministry. I witnessed men and women coming to saving knowledge in Jesus Christ. Not at all what I expected!

I began to reach out to my brothers and sisters in ministry in our presbytery across the theological spectrum. In many instances, especially from the more theologically conservative perspectives, I heard testimonies of confusion as fellow pastors shared with me that they sensed congregants of the LGBTQ community were some of the most anointed and Christ-filled members of their churches. They, themselves, were wondering if God was up to a new thing. For me, this was all well and fine, but what I wanted was Scripture.

As I began to study Scripture and read other materials, I wanted to find the plain meaning of passages. Without discovering the plain meaning, I believe biblical texts can be made to read differently to any given reader. One must explore cultural context, the meaning of words in their original language, and the overall literary context of the text. Much has been written on this topic and one resource I can recommend for an in-depth analysis is God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines.

The end result is that I have a revitalized balance between truth and grace, more honest respect for the authority of God’s Word, and a deeper love of God and especially all my marginalized neighbors. I pray and care for those who are in a spiritual crisis these days. Because of the Lord’s intervention in my life, I was forced to go to places spiritually that I probably would have never traveled.

In closing, I am personally going to cast a yes vote for Amendment 14-F. However, I realize that this amendment poses a challenge for many. Recently, I received a text from a concerned friend. She wrote, “With the passing of the amendment, the butterfly has landed. It was O.K. when it was just flying around. I am struggling with the shifting sand under my PCUSA feet and I really want to understand what is right and true.” I admire her openness, honesty, and inquiry.

I encourage all who feel like the sand is shifting under your feet in our church these days because the butterfly has landed to look to Scripture prayerfully and with an open spirit. I pray my testimony will encourage you, not in a spirit of fear, but with a spirit of encouragement. And for those of us who are gay-affirming, even as we have asked for a listening and compassionate ear from those who differed with us over the years, I pray that we might extend the same sense of graciousness to our brothers and sisters who are in a difficult place these days.

Rev. Dr. Robert J. Maravalli served the Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church for 25 years as an associate pastor. Currently, he is beginning a non-profit ministry, Communitas, whose aim is to empower members of the LGBTQ community to reconcile their sexuality with their faith and to grow relational skills to maintain strong and vibrant relationships.


9 Responses
  • Mike Fazzini on April 9, 2015

    Bob, God bless your witness. I am not sure if I wish I had your faith or am content to be in a question about my faith. I can only say that the notion of the “plain meaning” of scripture seems to me to be how we got in this pickle in the PCUSA in the first place. I do not think there is anything that I read that is not colored by where I have been, where I am or where I am going, “plain meaning” included. Hence “plain meaning” is agreed upon about as much as there are opinions of the Pirates chances of winning the pennant this year. While “plain meaning” sounds pure and simple to ascertain it is anything but. Complete objectivity is a pipe dream (in my humble view) as it relates to Scripture and I am not sure that is a bad thing.

    Alternately, I love the idea of striking a balance between truth and grace but again I ask you, who among those seated at a Presbytery meeting would say that they do not strike such a balance in their lives? I think this should be THE hallmark of what it means to be a Christian and yet there are those who beat the drum for war in the Middle East, call for treatment of the poor in this country in ways that sound far from graceful and, of course, would be just as happy if the gay people of the planet just faded into the background never to be seen or heard from again. They count themselves as Christians and believe they are striking a balance between truth and grace. Who knows, maybe they are and I am all wet.

    My issue here is elevating Scripture beyond the measure of reason, requiring such faith in its adoption as to cause me to question it at every turn. Interacting with folks who hold Scripture as if it were something that I cannot see creates obvious difficulties in communication and our respective moral compasses. It is the difference between viewing the world as exclusively black or white or being able to live comfortably with black, white AND shades of gray, not just when it is convenient to do so because I have a personal attachment to an issue but always. I am all about shades of gray. For me, it is the very heart of a graceful life. It is the path to living in union with others and living productively in a multicultural world where ways of being are informed by paradigms that do not include our Scripture. Sorry to be so long here but how we hold scripture is central to so much related to our faith and how we view others that it merits being fully examined as such. Not that this response remotely does so but only to point out that it is no slam dunk to assume it has an intrinsic meaning independent of our experience.

  • Kathy on April 10, 2015

    I see a man who has turned to his sin instead of his Savior.you know exactly what the bible says about this sin, and what happens to those who PRACTICE IT. HE gave us Sodom and Gomorrah as an example. You alone will be at the judgement seat one day. Don’t let Satan deceive you. Repent.it’s not too late.

  • Mike Fazzini on April 10, 2015

    Seriously Kathy? What possible good can come from such a comment?

  • Bob Maravalli on April 11, 2015

    Mike, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, and thank you for your continued advocacy and ministry. I am grateful for your comment for it allows me to expand a little further on my thoughts. Let me go a little further with what I understand to be the “plain” meaning of a text. Perhaps plain is not the correct word. A better word choice is “original,” in that I believe a biblical text can never mean anything else than it’s original meaning. In some ways, I believe this is how we have gotten into a pickle in the PCUSA. We have allowed the Bible to say things that were never meant to be said.

    I certainly am in agreement with you that we bring our personal biases to our reading of Scripture, and that is one of the great challenges in sorting out an understanding of any biblical text. Personally, in my journey, this is what I wanted to completely avoid. I believe our hermeneutical task, so that we can truly apply God’s Word to our current lives, is to faithfully be aware of our biases to the best of our ability, and to seek the objective meaning of Scripture. As I stated in my article, this requires a diligent search for the understanding of the original social, cultural, linguistic, and the biblical context of any text. This certainly is a formidable task and perhaps this is a pipe dream as you describe on this side of eternity, but I believe it is our calling as followers of Christ. I also believe it is a dynamic process in which we do not rely only on our own limited perspective but under the guidance and agency of the Holy Spirit.

    This has been my personal approach as I have particularly studied the six “clobber’ passages that seem to condemn same-sex relationships. My goal was to give to the Holy Spirit as much information as possible so that the Spirit could impress God’s truth upon my heart. In this effort that lasted over two years, I have lived with these texts, read vigorously on both the affirming and non-affirming sides, and sought the guidance and wisdom of brothers and sisters on each side of the debate. At one point, I even went through reparative therapy to examine if there was any childhood trauma that contributed to my same-sex orientation. In short, what I believe the Lord showed me along the way is that the Bible lifts up for us many descriptions of homosexual sin as it does heterosexual sin. Examples include rape, pederasty, prostitution, and idolatry, but nowhere in Scripture is there a category or condemnation of same-sex, monogamous, Christ-centered relationships. I also know that others have made the same journey, and that they have come to different conclusions. I pray for mutual respect in our Church, but in the depths of my soul, I have a sense of deep peace of where I now stand. I have sought to leave no stone unturned as I have sought to have a honest conversation with God.

    I also agree with you that there should be a “grey-ness” in a believer’s life. James Fowler, in his landmark work on adult faith development, describes living in the grey as a sign of maturity in a Christian’s life. He suggests that when a person moves from a place of knowing all the answers in a black and white paradigm to a place of admission that he or she now sees in a mirror dimly that this person has reached a good place in his or her relationship with Jesus Christ.

    In this regard, I am grateful for the work of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwan when it comes to the topic of biblical authority. She asserts that when we come to a troublesome text, that we must realize that there are universal as well as missionary principles at work in Scripture. Missionary principles are temporary concessions made to advance the Kingdom of God; whereas universal principles are truths that are evident in all of Scripture. She cites many examples with one of them being the role of women in the Bible. The pastoral epistles give limited authority to women (missionary principle), but the overall witness of Scripture is the affirmation of women in ministry (universal principle). Thus, the universal principle overrides the missionary principle. The questions then become “Who are we to determine what is a temporal compromise for the furthering of God’s kingdom and what is a universal truth?” and “Who are we to determine that definitive line?” There certainly are shades of grey here. This question is very relevant in the gay debate. Do universal principles of justice, equality and compassion inform what many have discerned as the ambiguity of what Scripture says on the topic of being and living into a gay orientation? But perhaps the most profound question for any believer is how comfortable are anyone of us living into “life between the questions.” I think it is exactly where God would have us be. And the truth at the core of everything is that it is not up to us determine where the line is drawn, but it up to God as continues to speak to us with redemptive purposes.

    in closing, the bottom line is that I can only speak for myself. I can only say that in my walk with the Lord sometimes the directives have been so very clear, and at other times, they have been strong inclinations to move in a certain direction in life. In all honesty, there have been times when things have been pretty darn black and white and there have been times when things have been grey. I believe there is room for both in a believer’s life. I really do not want to limit how God works. Admitingly, there is now a black and whiteness in my life regarding the great gay debate. I believe that I have sought the Lord with all strength, mind ,and heart in this matter. We are called when we lack wisdom to seek the Lord who gives abundantly without finding fault. However, there are lots of places where I am living life between the questions. It is the exciting polemic of the believer’s life. Just some thoughts. Love you, dear brother in Christ.

  • Mary Ann Ostovic on April 11, 2015

    When I attended Wilson College years ago, our theology classes encompassed the entire gospels and to read the text to understand the basic scripture content written as one gospel, NOT to take one verse out of contex and apply your individual interpretation,for lack of understanding and not taking the time to thoroughly dissect each verse and how it relates to that particular gospel.

  • g smith on April 12, 2015

    Kathy
    Your comments are as valid as Mike’s.
    He would marginalize you because you have a different opinion. The gay lifestyle is unnatural and a not a simple case of sin. They have been lied to and are now deceived. God still loves them and they need to hear the good news of the gospel. Some will receive salvation and stay in bondage some may be saved and change but God is the judge of both. They confuse God’s mercy, grace, and love towards them as green light for their sexual sins. I think a truly honest reading of the word of God, shows that their behavior is not God’s plan or His desire. So my prayer for any bondage or addiction is deliverance and that all people would be truth seekers.

  • Janet Edwards on April 14, 2015

    Dear Kathy,

    What I appreciate about you comment is that you begin with an “I statement” in which you take responsibility for your position as yours. When this is combined with humble acceptance of the fact that no one person knows the mind of God and a willingness to learn from others, a conversation open to the Holy Spirit is possible. I think what Mike Fazzini is getting at in his response to you is how we test our different readings of Scripture related to LGBT people. Paul offers the test of the fruits of the Holy Spirit–what generates “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control?” I think a survey over many decades shows clearly that the judgment you express leads to pain, heartbreak and suicide. The lives of wonderful LGBT Christians I know testify to God’s complete acceptance of them as they bless those around them with the fruits of the spirit Paul speaks of. What’s your prayerful response to this perspective?

    Dear G Smith,

    Yes, Kathy’s comments are as valid as Mike’s and Mike asks a legitimate question. His tone might have been more irenic but asking the question does not marginalize her. If he had marginalized her, he would have dismissed her view altogether, I’d say. I agree with you that LGBT people, like all of us, need to hear the Good News and God is the sole judge of us all. I accept that your reading of Scripture leads you to the conclusions you share here but I do question how you can claim the only “truly honest” reading of the Bible. I just offer as witness to this the LGBT Christians who tried for years to change, as your view of God’s will directs them to do, who at some point realized that God loves them–made them–just the way they are. They saw that Scripture affirms this in many places (Psalm 139:13-14, 1 John 3:1-3, Acts 8:26-39 to name just a few). And I must add this one thing: my mother was an alcoholic who died from throat cancer related to drinking and smoking. I know what addiction is. There is no connection between sexual orientation or gender identity and addiction which is a disease (except to the extent that our cruel treatment of LGBT people drives too many to self-destructive behavior that can lead in some to addiction. That is our sin, in my experience). My prayer is also that we all be truth seekers. I trust you are, and I welcome your response to my thoughts.

    Peace be with you both, Janet

  • Mike Fazzini on April 14, 2015

    Bob, Thanks for your reply. There isn’t much about it that I cannot support. The structures we put in place for ourselves to lead good lives are as diverse as there are cultures, maybe more so. Who am I to say how you inform your values/faith is better or worse than what I may select to inform mine?

    People with good hearts don’t need to convert others to their way of thinking. They merely need to live lives that are a reflection of their deeply held values. How those values are created matters but how we chose to live them out reflected in how we behave toward others matters more. The fruits of our beliefs and our actions will speak for themselves and will either attract others or not. They will be validated or not.

    I wonder if the good we do with our lives may just boil down to what we carry in our hearts and how we choose that to be expressed in the world. I am convinced that it will not be because of how I held Scripture.

    The drive to be right about what reading of Scripture is the higher reading (or the one, true reading or even the original meaning) seems like a slippery slope to me and not a path that has a pot of gold at the end of it. My experience is that it creates tension and conflict in the Church and even between friends. It is often the elephant in the room that individuals need to tiptoe around to avoid offense to others or to protect themselves from attack.

    I am not being personally accusatory here, I am making a general statement. That drive involves us in our best impulses (to be closer to God, to lead the purest life, to behave as we feel called) and our worst impulses (the desire to use what we know as a wedge to garner power or justify our prejudices). I am just exhausted by it.

    What I cannot abide is people who know. People who have special insight as to the truth about nearly anything, especially Scripture, and are anxious to convert me to their point of view. The drive to be right is as hurtful and damaging to others as almost anything I can think of short of causing physical harm. If you are right, what is left for me? How can we be in relationship when who you are is right, especially regarding things about which I feel differently and help form my core values?

    I don’t care what someone believes or how they came to believe it. I honestly don’t care if people worship their sneakers. That is not to say I don’t believe in laws and standards. Of course I do. We need something to hang our collective hats on so that we can enjoy life together.

    What I do care about is how I and others are treated, whether you care about me and can have empathy for me, whether you will share what you have with me when I need help and so on. I don’t expect anyone to tell me it’s because they hold Scripture a certain way that they do this. It doesn’t matter to me why. I only expect that if people are on the right track they will have love in their hearts and will share it and that I have it me me to do the same. That’s it. The rest is just noise to me.

  • Website on April 15, 2015

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