I Am an Ally

Pastor Ross Stackhouse

She was repulsive. Repugnant. No, she was blasphemous.

I went home and told my dad. She actually said these words, “I don’t believe the practice of homosexuality is a sin.” Can you believe that, Dad? It was the first time I’d heard anyone say this.

It was over a decade ago. I was in high school. Even at that point in my life, though I wasn’t always sure of my faith, I was in love with the Bible and read it almost every day. I remember trying to read it cover to cover and getting hung up in Chronicles (and who doesn’t?).

Looking back, I was conditioned by the church environments in which I grew up to be on the lookout—to identify, call out, and avoid sin as it was defined in the Bible. That’s what it meant to be Christian: to believe in Jesus, to call out sin and sinners, and to be sure you were going to heaven.

That’s why I knew she was a blasphemer, not just that her opinion was blasphemous. I knew Old Testament passages like those in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. I knew about Paul’s words in Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. I knew how the Bible spoke so consistently against sexual immorality.

Looking back, more than being conditioned to call out sinners, I was trained to identify threats. I thought she was a threat, and my autonomic nervous system—you know, fight or flight—said so.

A few years later, when I was in college, a friend’s sister asked if she could talk to me. Barely after I said sure, she started sobbing, you know, where the whole body cries.

I was at a loss. I had known her my whole life. What happened? Who did this?

She peeked from behind tearful hands and trembled as she said, “I’m gay. Do you think I’m going to hell?”

Long pause.

“Oh, Megan…Oh, no,” I said insecurely and genuinely. “I don’t think you’re going to hell.”

She was coming out. With hellfire as the backdrop. And my insecurity as a spotlight. She came out.

I actually didn’t know what to think. I had grown in my compassion. I was stronger in my faith. But the Bible still said what it said. I didn’t know. I knew I didn’t want her to feel this way.

I went to Purdue University. There, I took a class with Sandor Goodhar where we studied the Jewish scriptures. He said a lot of important things as we read through the first five books of the Bible with microscopic precision and attention. Here’s the one thing I still hold close to me. He said, “You don’t find God in the Bible as much you find God through the Bible.” Through the Bible, after wrestling with it like Jacob wrestling with a divine figure through the night, getting a limp, and getting a new name.

Professor Goodhart taught me another important thing. He made a fist and pointed his trigger finger toward the sky, like an orator making a point. He put a Bible on top of his finger and said: If you isolate something from the Bible and hold it out as the truth, it better be able to withstand the weight of the rest of the Bible.

After Purdue, I moved to Nashville, TN, to get a master’s degree in biblical studies. I attended a church there that was not United Methodist. I became good friends with a guy I met there. He is to this day one of the most faithful Jesus followers I know. Always searching, always asking questions, always going after the Rabbi Jesus.

He came out to me a year after I met him. Though I was less insecure, I was equally unsure about what to say. I had at least learned to listen and be present, to suspend my questions and judgment and just be a companion. I remember in the days and weeks that followed, I kept going back to the Bible and prayer, asking constantly for guidance and wisdom. I was in crisis.

I was wrestling with this tension: I still believed the Bible was authoritative, and I believed the experiences of the people who had come out to me, that they didn’t choose being gay and being gay had cost them much.

Looking back, I realize both were gauging whether it was safe to come out to me. They were paying attention to see if I would double down on the shame and trauma they had experienced. They are still trying to shake that shame, I think.

I wanted that master’s degree because I wanted to be an historian and New Testament professor. Here’s the honest truth: I wanted to figure out what the Bible really meant and fix the church. Ego is a struggle for me—did I say?

By the grace of God, I didn’t get into doctoral programs, which disturbed my false self in the best of ways. I did get a master’s degree in biblical studies. I learned Koine Greek, Old Testament history, New Testament history, history of Christianity, methods for interpretation, and so on. Lots of people have learned these things.

What I value most about my learning is how I gained a deeper awareness of how churches and people use and, in my opinion, misuse the Bible. Here are a few of my observations from the last several years:

  • Many churches say that the Bible is their “final authority.”
  • Similarly, many churches will list their belief about the Bible’s inerrancy first in their “What We Believe” section on websites and promo materials.
  • Lots of churches and people treat the Bible like it’s a reference or instruction manual, like you can look up an entry on “homosexuality” and learn all you need to know.
  • Lots of preachers, teachers, and readers are operating under the assumption that we can unearth what the authors of the Bible really meant to say, and we can do so objectively.
  • Lots of preachers and teachers and readers think they have the best/new contextual information, that is, information about what was happening before or around the time of the Bible passage in question.
  • We all have an agenda. We’re all practicing what scholars call “eisegesis” (reading our perspective/agenda into the text).
  • All of us have a hard time seeing the big picture of the Bible. We are conscious or unconscious in our selective memory. We’ll highlight passages that serve our purposes without intentionally highlighting passages that don’t.
  • We all want to explain the Bible rather than perhaps letting the Bible give us questions for a conversation with God. Jesus spoke in riddles—why? Even his disciples struggled with this. Maybe we’re still missing something about Jesus’ riddles and what they have to say about the Bible.

Without unpacking all of these, I simply wonder this: Could it be that the Bible is authoritative—God gave us these words to wrestle with above all else—and the ways we’ve been conditioned to interact with it have distorted its authoritative role in our lives?

I am a United Methodist pastor. Our teachings say, “Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.” They also say, “We are convinced that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God in our midst whom we trust in life and death.” And, “While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.” (For more, click here)

If all that was confusing, here’s a summary: Jesus Christ is the living Word of God in our midst. The Bible, and then tradition, reason, and experience, are vehicles of the Holy Spirit.

I just wonder if we’re fully acknowledging Jesus as living in our midst and the work of his indwelling Spirit in illuminating Scripture. I’m not sure we are. Instead, it feels like the Bible is, as Eugene Petersen once said, like a dead body on which we’re performing surgery.

After I became a pastor in the United Methodist Church in 2014, I sat with a young woman in a coffee shop. She couldn’t step foot into church anymore, because it was too traumatic. She had come out a few years before and wanted to know, amongst other things, why I wasn’t vocal in my support of LGBTQ folks. Her story was powerful. Like others who had kindly shared their experiences with me, she helped me to see that choosing this made no sense; instead, being gay had been the source of a lot of suffering and disconnection—disconnection from herself, from the church, from God. She was overcoming all that disconnection.

She also interpreted Romans 1:26-27 in my midst. If you don’t know what that says off the top of your head, Paul writes to upstart followers of Jesus in Rome, “That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies.”

She said, Ross, what’s unnatural is for me to be with a man.”

I still read the Bible every morning. I find myself in it like a sheep finds its way back to pasture. Neither fully aware of my wandering nor fully aware of my rescue, but homebound nonetheless. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I find God through it, and it becomes authoritative in my life.

When I read it, I imagine myself taking a seat at Jesus’ Communion Table. I sometimes picture people who are hurting with me there.

Because he is graceful, he always greets me and those I’ve brought with me.

After hundreds of these mornings, thousands of prayers, tens of thousands of moments where the Holy Spirit has used Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as vehicles to deeper wisdom, wisdom that, as James says, is full of mercy and good actions, I now know what I believe.

I believe Jesus is Lord. I believe he died for and with us and was raised from the dead. I believe he is making all things new.

I believe that being LGBTQ+ is not a “behavior” or “choice.” Reason tells me it. People’s experiences tell me it. The Spirit inside me tells me it.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus and raised him, and that the Spirit’s guidance is our only chance.

I do not believe Jesus would sit among gay brothers and sisters as if they are tax collectors or sinners. Instead, I believe he would call to them on the margins and to people like me who have saved ourselves at their expense, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children” (Mark 10:14 CEB).

I believe grace—God’s unmerited love for us—is our only hope.

I am affirming. I believe in full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church.

I don’t believe you are a bigot if you struggle with this. I just had lunch with a guy who disagrees with me. His cousin is gay. He’s wrestling with what he believes.

I believe I love you no matter what. Even if you think I’m blasphemous or a threat. You are my sister. You are my brother. We are one in Christ.

I believe my gay colleagues. They say God called them to ministry. They’re sure of it. They accepted that call into a denomination that says their queerness is incompatible with Christian teaching. I believe they are called. If I didn’t, it would offend my sense of reason.

I believe, I know, I am an ally. I don’t care as much about being wrong or right anymore. I just believe that Jesus Christ is living in our midst and His Spirit is calling us to let the oppressed go free.