Series Introduction: Last year a large number of former students and professors of Asbury Theological Seminary signed a letter urging Asbury leadership to repent of their treatment of LGBTQ+ students and the ways in which Asbury has supported the discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the United Methodist Church.
Alongside that effort, a group of former students/professors are now sharing their stories of how they have individually journeyed to the affirmation of LGBTQ+ people. Each week during the next couple of months, one person will share their story as part of the project, Journeys to Affirmation.
These are their stories, shared each Tuesday.
Who are we to stand in God’s way?
Paul R. Purdue
Does faith require that we “go to a land” that God only shows us after we start the journey? (Genesis 12) In 1988, I stood on the steps of the only church I knew. A growing sense of dream-like disquiet rubbed the official teachings of my denomination against the loving community that held me tight. That night, two members of my youth group lingered after Bible Study waiting to ask a question, “Will Jewish people go to heaven, or must they convert to Christ?” The question came from their love for a Jewish friend, not some speculative theology. I lacked tools to share my doubts. As I lingered unsure on the steps, I saw a path that honored what we called “the priesthood of all believers.” I shared the church’s teachings tempered with verses that perhaps challenged those official stands and invited these youth into deeper conversations.
Back in the eighth grade, I answered my Youth Directors challenge to begin reading my Bible an hour each morning. By college my questions piled up: Do the Jews go to Hell? Can God deselect a Chosen People? How could a loving God allow demon possession? Why should my mother be silent in church? What is happening in Numbers 5?
I struggled to make the verses fit together. My childhood tradition taught: “The Bible says it! I believe it! That settles it!” I sat re-reading Psalm 137: “Blessed is the one who dashes your babies against the rocks.” I could no longer gloss over such passages. How do you reconcile infanticide with God? I closed my Bible, bowed my head, and flung my Bible across the room. Weeping bitter tears I cried out: “God, I can’t believe this!” I was pleading for answers. No answers came. Instead, something like a wall of love just hit me. I knew I had no answers. Somehow I knew that was alright. Was it “the peace that surpasses understanding” or “the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge”? (Phillipians 4:7 & Ephesians 3:19)
As a dyslexic child, who endured playground taunts, church was always safe. Kind and committed people taught us of a God who loved us. I came alive hearing about Jacob’s wrestling, Moses arguing, Esther’s resistance, Mary’s courage, Jesus’ healing, and Peter’s sinking. We heard how God worked in our world! We spoke an easy evangelical language of personal holiness, saying “God told me to” and “The Lord laid it on my heart.”
My church honored spiritual experience and demanded theological consistency. “Love God with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). “The Truth will set you free” (John 8:32). “Study to show yourself approved” ( 2 Timothy 2:15). My dad completed Bible college simply to be a better Sunday School teacher. An authentic faith requires internal consistency. The truth need not gloss over tricky passages in fear. Honest preaching does not use one lens to exclude homosexuals and another lens to include divorced pastors. If anyone uses 1 Timothy 1:10 to exclude, then let them also mention how 1 Timothy 2:15 tells of childbirth saving women. If the church ignores scientific reasoning about creation or homosexuality then let us still call Galileo a heretic. I had to stop ignoring the harder passages. I needed some new theological tools.
Leaving my home church, I Iaid aside a thriving youth ministry and paused my sense of call. When my wife, who grew up Methodist, suggested we visit a Methodist church, I refused. She guilted me into visiting the UMC with a story of how Centenary UMC found her housing right out of college. I declared, “I will go. I will hate it. And that will be that!” I got married at 21 in part on Paul’s advice: “it is better to marry than burn”(1 Corinthians 7:9). God was with us despite my proof texting. Connie’s tender heart and keen mind have given me courage to follow my questions and convictions. Leaving literalism and its many Bible quoting cousins was scary. I was told “You will lose your faith.” Instead, I have found a wider faith and that “Faith is not an end in itself but a process to love” (John Wesley: The Law Established by Faith).
I believed Connie’s infant low-flow baptism was not Scriptural. I was unsure about women clergy, sacraments, or divorced pastors. On my first Sunday, I fell in love with the UMC! I found in the UMC a theology rooted in the love of God that honors my thinking, calls me to justice, expects my service, weighs tradition, and affirms our spiritual experiences. Two years after college, a sermon on “spiritual drifting” reawakened my call. I had no idea what to do with the Bible, but I could not let go of God’s Love that held onto me. In 1992, when I enrolled at Asbury, I could not imagine ever advocating for gay marriage or clergy.
I fell in love with John Wesley at Asbury Theological Seminary. Wesley opened up a theology and practice rooted in God’s love. I wrote eight pages of quotes inside Wesley’s 52 Sermons. “The great question… Is the Love of God shed abroad in your heart?.” (17) Asbury equipped me with the theological tools to open and proclaim the Good News. Asbury rejected a mushy faith centered in feelings or impressions. I loved that it expected theological consistency.
Asbury grounded me in a deep Wesleyan understanding of divine grace, wherein, Christ woos us, saves us, sanctifies us, and perfects us in love. Such incarnational grace liberated me from the vestiges of transactional theology, wherein we give our hearts to Jesus, who pays our debts and delivers us from the hands of an angry God. Asbury converted me to infant baptism, women in ministry, justice, Christ above culture, sanctification, covenantal itinerary, the quadrilateral, the sacraments, and global Christianity. At Asbury I learned that my salvation, baptism, profession of faith, communion, marriage, ordination, and very life are all “God’s gift, offered to us without price” (UMC Baptismal Covenant).
In each appointment I have tried to offer that grace through honest Biblical preaching. In 1996, leading youth in a small Tennessee town, I nervously shared with parents the Disciplinary language declaring homosexuals as “persons of sacred worth.” I was surprised that the parents got upset about my affirmation of interrracial dating. During my first solo pastorate Westboro Baptist visited our state. My rural methodists amened and I proclaimed “God most certainly does not hate gay people. God is Love.” In my first urban pastorate, a closeted gay man found me trustworthy enough to risk sharing his story and join our church. While serving a county-seat church, the Sunday newspaper interviewed me about marriage equality. Monday night, the principal of the high school called and with tears told how queer teenagers came into her office quoting me and sharing how they had some hope “that maybe God could love me”. At Belmont, I am learning about the wideness of God’s love. On the Sunday after General Conference 2019, I declared “Hear, this all of us, LGBTQI or cis, we are all beautifully made in the very image of God.” I wept seeing streams of tears flowing down our queer members’ faces, as they shared how they had never heard a pastor directly proclaim their sacred worth.
I now know many queer christians whose Bible quoting parents have never meet thier spouse. I have heartbreaking stories of vicious Christian-based conversion therapy. A queer friend shared how his mother gathered the Elders who spent hours annointing him with oil and screaming Bible verses as they tried to cast out the demons of homosexuality. Days later, swallowed a bottle of pills hoping to slip into heaven while in a state of repentance. After all the Elders screamed he “was deserving of death” (Romans 1:27).
Like most of us, our queer Christian siblings do not want to be defined by who they love. They long to invite friends to a safe and affirming space, where they can meet and serve Jesus. And what is that they want of the church? They ask for God’s blessing on their most significant relationships and the chance to answer God’s call into ministry.
My wrestling with the Biblical has convinced me of the sufficiency of God’s grace to bless queer marriages and pastors. Jesus even gives us some wiggle room. (Matthew 16:18 & 18:18) Once upon a time, I could not envision women as pastors or God blessing a second marriage, much less a divorced pastor. I have come to know a more humble hermeneutic rooted in Christ’s radical Love, that admits “we know in part” and teaches that only “faith, hope, and love” really matter. ( 1 Corinthians 13) I know some of you might be amazed that God could bless and use a same sex couple. In Acts 10 some christians were shocked to include law-breaking gentiles. Today, I say with Peter: “Can I stand in God’s way?”(Acts 11) and with Paul: “Nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”…not even “nakedness” (Romans 8:38 & 35). My wrestling with the Bible, has led me back to Paul who tells us in 2 Corinthians 3 that the letter kills and the Spirit gives life. Who are we to stand in God’s way?
Paul R. Purdue is the Senior Pastor of Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
About this series: Journeys to Affirmation is a group of people affiliated with Asbury Theological Seminary who are sharing their stories of how God’s grace moved them from non-affirming to affirming of LGBTQ+ people. New stories weekly, click here for all entries in the series.
Thank you to these Asbury Theological Seminary students, alums, and staff who share their stories. Inspired to write your own? Contact the curator Bill Mefford @ Fig Tree Revolution.
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