When Affirming Becomes a Devil Term

When Affirming Becomes a Devil Term

With so many states creating laws demonizing LGBTQ+ identities and conservative Christians supporting so many of them with their votes, I’ve been thinking a lot about a dimension of the ways “Christian Nice” subtly theologically demonizes LGBTQ+ people lately. And when I saw a picture of a church sign that flat out said “we are welcoming but not affirming” I knew I had to take on the topic of the way that a church becoming (LGBTQ+) affirming is seen as THE heresy in many parts of conservative Christendom in the US. Specifically, I hope to unwrap why I think abuses of the theological concept of Original Sin lay the groundwork for believing that being “affirming” of people at all, but especially LGBTQ+ people, is somehow an awful thing to do.

Thanks for giving me a few minutes to explain and define these things more. Hopefully by the end you’ll find some encouragement for (continuing to) stand up against unhealthy theology that’s currently supporting fascistic policies against LGBTQ+ folks in the US and elsewhere.

My Background and Standpoint, Quickly

As always, I’m diving into this topic as a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning “moderate” Evangelical denomination who went on to become a communication scholar. As I’ve described previously here (also in other posts), I grew up with strong cultural/theological prejudices intact against LGBTQ+ folks.

Eventually that shifted. One of my big steps forward was when a biblical scholar I trusted, around the time gay marriage was legalized, posted a piece he’d written explaining the context of each of the “clobber verses” to explain how you could see these few verses as *only* about unhealthy contexts of same-sex interaction (e.g., gang rape) as opposed to about loving and consensual same-sex relationships.

Coming from my background, this interpretation blew my mind. It took time after that for me to catch up viscerally, but eventually I stepped over the “invisible line” in the culture wars to be openly LGBTQ+ affirming.

Stepping Over the Invisible “Culture Wars” Line…

And yeah, that was a big deal where I came from. See, that culture wars invisible line is a huge-*ssed deal.

It’s the line that a whole culture sees as defining whether you have “gone progressive” or not. In short, if you’re coming from right-leaning Christianity in the US, no matter how “moderate” you think of yourselves as, whether you are (LGBTQ+) affirming IS one of the primary lines that defines whether you’ve joined the enemy in the culture wars these days.

Some Quick Reminders about God Terms and Devil Terms

Unfortunately, if you’re on the “progressive” side of the invisible line, that means you join with the moral disgust imbued to the “other side.” You become a sort of “lost soul” to be “loved back.”

Because yeah, the way things are structured in this world, to be welcoming (which includes the slightly patronizing idea of “loving the lost”) is a “god term” to be defended at all costs. The Christian moral identity, after all, is self-consciously rooted in defending the idea of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Unfortunately, this paradigm doesn’t do so well with love when it comes to the opposing “devil term” in this equation—also on the sign above. The idea to be fought at all costs is the idea that we should become fully affirming, especially of LGBTQ+ people.

Ah, The Culture Wars’ Definition of Affirming

In recent years, that word affirming is a Christian culture wars code word for whether your church allows equity in all things to LGBTQ+ folks who may find their way into that particular church or denomination’s doors.  

That is to say, welcoming means they let LGBTQ+ people in the doors to “show they love them.” But a welcoming but not affirming church would most definitely not allow LGBTQ+ people to be in leadership, to become married to someone who didn’t pass as heterosexual, etc. etc. etc.

“Welcoming But Not Affirming”? Maybe Really Just “Not Affirming”

This is the complexity that church sign reflects—people of the type I grew up with will often be outwardly supportive of people who “stepped outside the line” in various ways.

They may be outwardly welcoming to LGBTQ+ people and their allies.

They will often emphasize how much they love them as human beings.

But, say, attend or officiate at a loving, consensual gay wedding? Hmmm, suddenly if you work for a denominational institution your job is on the line.

Bad Fruit Seems Unloving to Me, Mysteriously….

How do you know these spaces are not really in defense of love? Well, if being loving of your LGBTQ+ neighbor or family member has actively harmful consequences, maybe that space isn’t really welcoming either. Not really.

Speak up quietly with family and friends for the idea that mayyyybe, just maybe, even if they don’t agree with LGBTQ+ Christians’ beliefs or behavior, that maybe they could understand that LGBTQ+ Christians just might be believing they are living as faithfully as the straight conservative Christians might be?

Well, they will love you, but they may just talk to you quite a bit less.

Suddenly you become at least a wee bit scarier than before.

Never Fear—the Far-Right Churches Are Worse! Some Get Death Threats! (Yay??? Not So Much)

Now, it could be worse—if you’re a prominent Christian author like Jen Hatmaker that “goes full affirming” of LGBTQ+ folks in their church, you get death threats. I talked about this here.

Where I Came From, Though, It Was More Death From a Thousand Quiet Paper Cuts

But yeah, anyway, that’s where I come from—the type of more low-grade “Christian nice” form of ostracism related to being “affirming.”

Where Original Sin Comes In

It’s a particularly difficult invisible line to define, but I was thinking about it, and I think how it’s been shaped has a lot to do with sin-leveling abuses of the remarkably easily abused doctrine of Original Sin.

If you don’t know what Original Sin is, well, let me tell you. It’s the idea that sure, God created the world and it was good and all, but as soon as the 3rd chapter of the first book of the Bible everything got tainted with the fall.

So yeah, because we were born into the human race after this chapter, that means, well, whoops, sorry, you’re always going to be flawed.

This was, of course, an opportunity to look for and trust in “God’s grace.”

Hmmm, Does This Mean It’s Morally Wrong to Affirm People In General?

Unfortunately, how this doctrine often got quite naturally applied was that because ALL had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, well, that meant that it felt sort of wrong to genuinely affirm people in general. At least fully.

In short, as I’ve written about before (find it here), you always had to be on the lookout for that deadly sin of pride.

We ALL Fell Short, RIGHT???? (Oh Wait, That’s Actually Sin-Leveling. Oops.)

See, if all had fallen short equally, well, that meant we were all equally guilty. RIGHT????

And that meant you couldn’t affirm yourself or others TOO much, or you’d be guilty of pride.

Quick note: this spiritual abuse tactic is called sin-leveling. I previously talked about that concept more here in the context of how innocent people are painted with guilt while egregious violators are generously “forgiven.”

Ah, the Real Sin Hierarchies Under the Surface

So yeah, pride was conceived to be a sin that ironically was one of the more important sins in the seeming hierarchy(????) of sins (you know, among all the sins that are the same thing at base because all have sinned and all).

The irony of all of this is that all of this existed alongside clear beliefs that we were all made in the image of God and were all meant to be given that level of dignity.

But, you know, also our hearts are evil if left to our own devices and all that.

Especially Sexual Thoughts or Non-Toxically Male Gender Identities of Any Kind and Such

And naturally, because purity culture (which I previously talked about here), things defined as sexual sin, ESPECIALLY “sex outside of marriage” were really the worst of the sins.

But, you know, mostly if done by those people groups further down the religious hierarchy. Those abusers at the top of the heap—mostly white males—were to be wholeheartedly “forgiven” if they “stumbled.”

Hmmm, Only Allowed to Have a Voice in Leadership If….

But if you’re a member of another group? Well, it was pretty clear if you looked at the leadership structure that those people were definitely worse Original Sinners, it seemed.

Straight women were sort of allowed in, after all, but it was hard for them to get jobs or respect as pastors.

But if you were LGBTQ+ or seeking to be fully affirming in your theology and recommendations for the church power structure? Well, that was where it was REALLY dangerous and prideful of you to claim to affirm people in that way.

Ahhh, Yess, that Crappy “Lifestyle Choice” Rhetoric!

Because yeah, part of the conservative Christian cultural viewpoint is that sexual or gender identity must be a lifestyle choice rather than a true identity.

That way the very fact of feeling feelings of attraction for a person who didn’t fit the usual  can more easily be interpreted as a sin that needs to be “loved out of people.” (Ugh ugh ugh.)

Oops, More Sexual Sin-Leveling

Because here’s the thing.

Ultimately this particular take on Original Sin that looks at anyone having sexual feelings of any sort, especially those that don’t fit the patriarchal mold, as all “equally flawed” as those who are in leadership positions and enact abuse of that power….

Well, that’s just a huge fallacy right there.

Oh Good, A Spiritual Abuse Layer There

Not only is it a fallacy, it’s flat out abusive (and, dare I say, heretical for those who say they believe the image of God is to be found in all people) to claim that “all are equally sinners” while clearly claiming that those who are made in the image of a God who IN THE BIBLE is described as female and genderless and above our categories (as well as sometimes male) ought not have access to leadership positions or a religious wedding ceremony if they want them because they fulfill the way they are diversely made in God’s image.

Especially since these social gender hierarchies are clearly described as a PART OF THE AFOREMENTIONED FALL NARRATIVE in Genesis 3.

As many reasonable biblical scholars have pointed out, they just aren’t there before that in the original use of languages in the text.

Hmmm, So Gender Hierarchies Are Part of Flawed (Original Sin) Systems We All Inherit????

And if you were wondering, yeah, that most definitely means that these hierarchies are clearly systemically flawed and touched very strongly by Original Sin, for those who hold tightly to that term.

And as the poetic language in Genesis 1 doesn’t assume that because day and night are mentioned that dusk and dawn aren’t a thing too, so why is there SUCH a rigid insistence to these gender and sexual binaries in these unhealthy theologies?

Readjusting My Idea of Original Sin

At any rate, looking back I both do and don’t get the fear that trapped me from “going progressive” to become openly affirming of LGBTQ+ folks and their interpretations of the Bible.

I mean, on one hand, I totally get that yeah, in some ways I had inherited a deeply flawed Original Sin-style moral disgust of LGBTQ+ folks. Like other Original Sin-type issues, I didn’t create this thing, and I didn’t fully choose it. It was passed on to me.

Doing Better Once I Knew Better

But once I could see how much this homophobia (and transphobia) I had inherited wasn’t healthy, along with the shame that was passed down with it… Well, I could gradually see how much my inherited unhealthy systemic beliefs about gender and sexual orientation binaries were literally harming my LGBTQ+ neighbor, whether I was overt about them or not.

And well, honestly, I had been taught too well to stay there once I could see it that well. I’d been taught the word “repent” too well not to work toward genuinely changing my ways as quickly as I could.

Shifting on the General Use of “Affirming” As Well

Same goes with my ideas about the more general “dangers” of the word “affirming.”

Because yeah, as it turns out, it’s about a thousand times less of a danger to affirm people who have been downtrodden than one might previously have thought.

That Fear of Pride=Really Lack of Empathy for People with Less Power and Privilege? (Oops!)

As I’ve written and said many times before, it’s funny how the people who are at the top of the conservative religious hierarchies, especially white males, seem to need the messaging they preach about humility more often than those they preach to who maybe have been taught to shame themselves for being less-than because of who they are.

Yeah, Not Buying The Theology That Homophobia Is Somehow God-Ordained (All the Eyerolls)

And yeah, while we all need the message of humility at times, what with those pesky unhealthy beliefs and systems we’ve inherited and internalized and need to, dare I say, repent of, it really does feel like incredibly dirty pool to say that people who are born into God’s image ought to be controlled by those systemic hierarchies that literally are recorded in Genesis 3 as coming in with the Fall.

Can’t Unsee the Damage that Non-Affirming Theology Does

And as someone who was trained to believe that Christians’ ongoing work is meant to be to help counteract the damage created by the Fall, well, now that I’ve seen the bad fruit that comes from the fruit of non-affirming theology, along with others that seem designed post-Fall to hold others from equitable treatment both in and out of the church, I can’t unsee that now.

Whether or not that means I stepped over the “invisible line,” well, I just can’t see the idea of affirming vulnerable people as a problem. Especially when the literal statistical fruits of being non-affirming is higher rates of actual deaths and trauma among LGBTQ+ folks that are made in the image of God.

And Yeah, There’s Plenty of Scholarship On Our Need for Affirmation in Life

In fact, as a scholar of communication who teaches regularly about concepts of healthy and unhealthy communication climates, I can see that the research shows we all need to be affirmed and confirmed regularly to have safe, healthy environments and relationships.

How Our Neurobiologies Were Formed and Everything (NOT A FLAW!)

In the theological language I grew up with, that means that’s how we were designed. It’s embedded in our neurobiology and everything.  

That’s one of the big reasons I no longer believe we are not designed to constantly feel like our most basic created identities are a threat just for living and surviving in the world and seeking to love ourselves and others the best we can.

Which Doesn’t Mean We Ought Not Call People Out on Harm to Others and Self!

I do believe we ought not hurt or exploit others, and that we need to work on those unhealthy beliefs and systems we inherited and internalized, and so on and so forth.

I do think we absolutely need to be able to call people out on THOSE THINGS.

But yeah, these days I in no way see LGBTQ+ people to be, from either an evidence-based or a theological/biblical or a political perspective, to be any kind of major threat in the world to be targeted in any way.

And I will continue to do my best to call that kind of damaging demonization out however I can.

Important to Keep Speaking Up Assertively As We’re Able

While, yeah, not surprisingly seeing that those who being targeted with discrimination and abuse from so many angles may indeed need the support of all the affirming words and actions I can provide to counteract that other abuse.

I’ll do the best I can at that, now that I see it. I hope that you’ll continue to do the same alongside me as well. (I know a lot of you were ahead of me on that—thanks for your help in helping me catch up! May we all have the energy and strength to keep going as we need to!)

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to stand up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Want to help keep this work going? I finally, after more than 4 years of this project, have tip jars set up at Venmo and PayPal so you can help keep the lights on and such (THANK YOU for whatever you can do!). Here’s the info:

Venmo: @assertivespirituality

PayPal: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=Q2QWKELCNATBE

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When Affirming Becom…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 12 min