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.