the Empathy List #108: Gay & Excommunicated
Steve Slagg tells the story of how he was excommunicated from his evangelical church.
Hello friend, Liz here.
I had a different plan for this newsletter this week, and then a dear friend, Steve Slagg, sent me an essay he’d written for an organization called ACNAtoo1 about a church we’d both attended.
Turns out, this church where I’d skimmed over the top during my college years, only minimally involved, had spiritually abused him. His story affected me so much that I couldn’t not share it.
Steve went through (thinly-veiled) gay conversion therapy, survived, and still believes.
He was also excommunicated from his evangelical church for dating a man.
Though the church had never before taught “reparative therapy” (“gay fixing”) from the pulpit—the idea having fallen out of vogue decades before—behind the scenes, its teachings rang the same bells. Especially in their intensive discipleship program, called Redeemed Lives. The nine-month program billed itself as a sort of recovery program for all church members. However, the curriculum fixated on “healing” its members from same-sex attraction.
By the program’s end, it was clear to Steve that church leadership intended to shuttle its closely-monitored LGBTQ+ congregants toward outcomes that suited the clergy's desired image and goals. Queer congregants could become (externally, at least) “straight” by joining up with an opposite sex partner. Or they could practice a version of celibacy that carefully policed its language around self-identification. (“Don’t say gay” would have been a fitting mantra.) Failing to toe these lines led to discipline and excommunication from the denomination.
Because, according to this program’s theology, being gay was a character flaw that had developed due to a formative wound. Being gay happened because of “the Fall” in early Genesis. Being gay, actually, was a form of narcissism (loving someone who reminds you of yourself) that must be uprooted and destroyed.
As the leaders of the program would have put it, “The opposite of homosexuality isn't heterosexuality, it's holiness." As in, holiness and homosexuality cannot co-exist. As in, no queerness in heaven.
However, Steve never fully bought in to the theology the church was teaching. His aim in committing to the discipleship program, in fact, had been to discern whether an “affirming” theology could be part of genuine Christian faith.
What did God really think of his sexuality? And was there a place for Steve in the church as a gay man?
In fact, Steve was so humble and open during this process of discernment that he welcomed the clergy’s feedback—which arrived no holds barred, especially when Steve started dating a man.
(Sigh. You can see where this is going…)
Though he and his boyfriend continued to maintain a strict commitment to celibacy, that did not matter, apparently. These church leaders did not see Steve’s experimental concoction of “celibate and gay and dating” to be acceptable. In fact, the only option offered to him was excommunication if he continued down his current path. (Other possible options: “don’t say gay” and probably marry a female friend? I guess? Or stay single and virginal?) So, excommunicated he was.
Though Steve did end up leaving the church (being kicked out?), he never left Christianity.
He did, however, walk through ten agonizing years of recovery, alongside caring clergy, friends, and therapists. During that time, he kept his distance from church in order to heal from the spiritual abuse he’d experienced from its members.
Now, a decade+ from the most painful church experience, he’s found his way back to church. He’s currently attending a progressive church in Chicago with his brand new husband who is an associate pastor there. All of which amazes me.
Steve’s experience is not unique. Queer folks within evangelicalism suffer mightily for not falling in line with the sexual norms. They are perhaps the most marginal group in our season of history, and so how we treat them, I believe, shows us how we believe God treats the marginal, too.
For those unsure about affirming theology, I understand! Really!
I recognize the great challenge in interpreting the Bible, a several thousands-year-old book that evangelicalism has deemed inextricable with Godself. It’s deeply confusing.
I took years to wrestle through the seeming inconsistency between what the church taught about homosexuality and how God treats the most vulnerable and suffering among us. I see the LGBTQ+ experience in this latter category because queer folks have been especially targeted and harmed throughout humanity’s history. Even now, when we’ve finally entered a historical season in which queer identities are the most openly accepted, LGBTQ+ folks still face tremendous prejudice outside of the church, to say nothing of within the church.
Read along, wouldja?
There are many wonderful resources that can walk you through individual passages of Scripture, if you like, so you can clarify the sides of the debate. For myself, I don’t think that way, so exegetical texts generally did not appeal to me.
You know what did pique my interest? Learning about progressive theology, as in, the progress toward justice that seems to happen within the story of Scripture itself. Classical examples of this are the dignifying of women and the abolition of slavery… and, many scholars believe, how we think about homosexuality as well.
To be clear, I still believe the sexual ethic of Scripture applies, no matter which direction your sexual attraction points. Partners must be monogamous and only sexually active within marriage, maintaining respect at all times toward the other’s body and selfhood.
But I now also believe that self-sacrificing love within same-sex relationships can also mirror the relationship between Christ and his church, as the Church has always believed a cis-marriage does.
This is a matter of imago dei. Does a gay person image God or not? Or is a queer Christian a dysfunction which will be mended only when Christ returns?
Since human marriage has only ever been a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and Christ’s people, not the real thing, I believe we can extend the metaphor a bit to include those who have been kept out.
What is most essential? Love. And deep love spent on another human is the most fundamental mirror of God in the world, period.
Anyway, back to Steve: what makes Steve’s story unique—and worthy of sharing, in my opinion—is Steve’s approach to these conflicts between himself and his church leaders as they arose.
Part of this comes down to Steve himself. Steve is a musician, a damn fine writer, an Enneagram 5 (IYKYK), devoutly Christian and gay. He calls himself “God haunted and gay-of-center.” (I recommend you explore Steve’s music!)
Steve approaches faith with a seriousness that is exceedingly rare and that shows in his actions throughout this challenging season of his life. His generosity toward his former church and former pastors surprised me. Also surprising was his persistence in accepting discipline and in genuinely seeking to discern God’s will surrounding the expression of his sexual identity.
Below, I’ve linked to parts 1 and 2 of Steve’s story, originally published by ACNAtoo. ACNAtoo is a survivor advocacy organization run by volunteers who share stories and resources with victims of this particular church denomination (The Anglican Church of North America2). Here’s how his editors summarized what happened:
Steve was a Wheaton College student when he started attending Church of the Resurrection in 2006. He alleges spiritually abusive behavior and pastoral malpractice by Resurrection leaders, including being targeted for excommunication despite adhering to church requirements that, as a gay person, he remain celibate.
One last thought: Steve and I talked this week and I asked him to elaborate on a few things.
For one, why he chose to share his story in so much detail. Because he’d finally moved on, and dredging it up must have pained him. He also must have realized that laying out every detail so baldly would be vulnerable and could open him up to be hurt again by the same dysfunctional people and systems.
So, then, why open up now?
Steve said, “If you have a lot of gay Christian friends, our goal posts are all wrong for what’s appropriate and manipulative. So, certain kinds of behavior… [I understood,] this is just what pastors are like. Things normal people would never put up with, I was like, eh, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt here.
“Even my conservative friends who are celibate gay people often have this understanding that, when I join a new church, I have to manage the clergy a little bit. I need to have coffee with them, I need to make sure they’re not weirdly triggered by some innocuous thing I say because they haven’t dealt with it before, I need to hand-hold them through discipling me. That’s just what it’s like. I think [I wanted to take] the chance to illustrate for people [that] this kind of stuff happens all the time in churches… I thought that might be helpful for some people.”
He wants you to see, to understand, to empathize so that you, cis Christian Church, can truly see, understand and empathize with the queer Christians in your midst.
I also asked, how does he think about this experience now? And how did he recover so that today, he can attend a new church with his husband and feel safe within that community?
He said, “The temptation for a while was to ‘binary it’—to say, well, either one of two things is true: either what I perceived to be true about my sexuality being good and God seemingly blessing it is false, in which case, I’m misled. Or what was false was me experiencing spiritual life and wholeness at Rez (Church of the Resurrection)…
“Really, both things were true. [I experienced] tremendous goodness and growth there. And the part of me that sought out [that community] was smart and spiritually sensitive. It was other people who made wrong choices, and I had to deal with the consequences of that.
“It just took forever to figure out that none of this [had been] about me at all. I got sucked up in some other people’s [problems], I guess. And that could totally happen again, which is part of why it took me [a decade] to get involved in spiritual communities again. But now I understand… more. I feel much stronger. There just came a point where [attending church] started to fell good again and safe.
“It’s like working out—if you feel pain, stop. But [you need to] check in every once in a while, asking, do I feel pain? Eventually, after a lot of work, [you feel] less and less.”
Like many of us who carry church hurt, Steve found the process of healing slow. But he did heal. Eventually the pain abated and church felt safe again.
Listen, friends, I know that hearing truths like these are hard. Yet any truth-telling, even when it reveals, embarrasses, or causes temporary pain, is ultimately a gift to the big C Church. The truth will set us free—if only we’ll attend to its voice.
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
Pssst can I recommend a resource? Something really clicked for me when I listened to this conversation between Dan Koch and theologian J. R. Daniel Kirk about gay affirming theology on the You Have Permission Podcast (episode #10).
Tell me what you think! I’d genuinely love to hear from you on this. And leave an encouraging note for Steve in the comments. ;-)
ACNAtoo takes inspiration from the #ChurchToo movement, which in turn took inspiration from the wider #MeToo movement. Their tagline: “Abuse in the church is everyone’s problem.” (Yes and amen!)
Initially, the Anglican church I attended during college joined up with AMiA, the Anglican Mission in America. AMiA disowned the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury (in England) and instead pledged loyalty to the Archbishop of Rwanda. Naturally, the rifts were over the same old things (though they felt new at the time): the ordination of LGBTQ+ and/or female priests… though they framed the whole thing in terms of the supremacy of the Scriptures.
Back then, I found the topsy turvy mission of Africans to the Americas fascinating in light of the colonialist mission of Anglicanism in Africa, a fitting reversal. I still see a lovely irony in the swapping of authority. However, I now have more complex feelings about the whole ordeal of church rifts, American Anglicanism vs. Episcopalianism, and the complexity of understanding the Bible in general. Which is to say, I completely disagree with the Anglicans and side with the Episcopalians now, another total reversal.