The Kingdom Family
A gay man finds the family he thought he'd never have
by Tim Otto
Jesus' own life and teachings underscore that marriage and family now take a back seat to the universal proclamation of God's salvation and the formation of a new "first family"—a world-wide kingdom-building company, in which membership depends not at all on bloodlines, but on faith in the Messiah.
—Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
I've known I was gay since I was a little kid. When I turned 13 my parents bought me James Dobson's book Preparing for Adolescence. I devoured the book and found its one short paragraph on homosexuality under the heading, "Questions of Fear." Question number nine is "Wouldn't it be awful if I became a homosexual?" The brief answer includes this line: "Homosexuality is an abnormal desire that reflects deep problems, but it doesn't happen very often, and it's not likely to happen to you."(1)
After the questions the chapter concludes this way:
Your sexual development is a normal event that is being controlled inside your body. It will work out all right, so you can just relax and let it happen … If you can learn to channel your sexual impulses the way God intended, this part of your nature can be one of the most fascinating and wonderful aspects of your life, perhaps contributing to a successful and happy marriage in the years ahead.(2)
While some people have a "life verse," I adopted those last sentences as my "life paragraph." I hoped my attraction to boys would be overcome if I channeled my sexual impulses "the way God intended." I wasn't sure what that all meant, but I figured it at least meant "choosing" to be attracted to girls as much as I could.
On the back of the book, I studied a picture of Dobson with his wife, son, daughter, and their dog. It's a prototypical image I've seen used in ex-gay ministries over the years. Of all the advertising pictures that have worked on my soul, those reached me most profoundly.
I grew up living a terrific version of those pictures. My mother fixed us breakfast and dinner every day. On our weekly family night, we would have a devotional together, a "family meeting," and then watch a TV show together. Holidays were a delight—feasts filled with laughter, singing in four-part harmony, skits featuring my outrageous uncles, and often a trip to help build a Habitat house or to sing at a local convalescent home. I loved my family and wanted one of my own.
Jesus' family values
Some say they are trying to protect the traditional family—the stuff of "family values"—from gay people, while others say gay people should have access to it.
Jesus does teach some "family values." Perhaps aware that his own father had contemplated "sending away" his mother, Jesus speaks against divorce in all three synoptic gospels (3). Jesus also criticizes the Pharisees and teachers of the law for devising traditions that deprived their parents of support owed to them.(4) Jesus frequently cites the commandment to honor one's father and mother.(5) And finally, Jesus welcomes children and affirms the importance of their nurture.(6)
What is startling is how often Jesus speaks against and disrupts family.
Near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus calls the brothers James and John away from the family business of fishing. They follow Jesus, abandoning their father in the boat with the hired hands.(7) Jesus later tells a would-be disciple who wants to bury his father to "let the dead bury their own dead."(8) On the question of who can be a disciple, Jesus says a disciple must "hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters."(9) When Jesus says he has not come to "bring peace, but a sword," he relates it to the family.(10) "One's foes will be members of one's own household."(11)
Commentators and preachers often minimize the offense of these sayings, but given the importance of family within first-century culture, Jesus' words must have seemed even more offensive in their original context than they do to us today. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, "In a peasant society, where familial relations provided one's basic identity, [Jesus' teaching on family] was shocking in the extreme … It cannot but have been devastating."(12)
Why did Jesus say such inflammatory things about family? In all three synoptic gospels, Jesus' mother and brothers come looking for him. When Jesus is told about this, rather than inviting them in, he looks at the crowd and declares, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."(13) With this offensive statement, Jesus was founding a new family around doing God's will. As Wright comments, "Jesus was proposing to treat his followers as a surrogate family. This had a substantial positive result: Jesus intended his followers to inherit all the closeness and mutual obligations that belonged with family membership in that close-knit, family-based society."(14)
"JESUS WAS PROPOSING TO TREAT HIS FOLLOWERS
AS A SURROGATE FAMILY. THIS HAD A SUBSTANTIAL
POSITIVE RESULT: JESUS INTENDED HIS FOLLOWERS
TO INHERIT ALL THE CLOSENESS AND MUTUAL OBLIGATIONS
THAT BELONGED WITH FAMILY MEMBERSHIP
IN THAT CLOSE-KNIT, FAMILY-BASED SOCIETY."
– N. T. WRIGHT
While a student at a Christian college, I found extraordinary hope in these aspects of Jesus' teaching. Because I had always been on the outside of the in-crowd, I felt as if Jesus was telling me, "You're already in." It was thrilling to think that as a believer I was included in Jesus' family. I yearned for the relationships that Jesus describes in this new family of disciples, urging them to love each other with the highest love, even to the point of laying down their lives for one another. Rather than celebrating the Passover with his family, as was the custom, Jesus celebrates with his disciples, washing their feet and instructing them to do the same for each other. Before going off to be crucified, he prays to the Father that this group would be united just as the family of Father, Son, and Spirit is united.
While I loved the challenge and idealism of Jesus' vision, it was painfully clear that we weren't living this out at my college. During my sophomore year I got sick with a high fever. My roommate disappeared and slept in another room because he was afraid of catching my illness. As I recovered alone in my room, I was angry with him for deserting me, though I knew that if he had been sick, I might have fled to another room as well. I knew that if we were going to be family to one another, we would need to stick with each other, even if it meant potential harm to ourselves. I began to wonder if Jesus really intended for us to act towards one another as though we were family. And I began to ask how the rest of the New Testament authors understood Jesus' teachings about family.
My college years featured fervent prayers for God to change my sexual orientation, faithful attendance at counseling sessions with the same goal, and sincere participation in a ministry focused on helping homosexuals find "healing." My attraction to men remained undiminished, my despair grew, and my dreams of ever having a family of my own faded.
After college, I traveled around Central America for nine months, trying to learn Spanish and understand the Latin American political situation as I sifted through the implications of being gay.
Toward the end of my trip, I found myself alone on a bus, winding through the hills above Tegucigalpa, Honduras. It was a cool night, and the darkness hid the daunting poverty as the lights of the slums sparkled like gems scattered across the rolling hills. After months of listening to music with tuba bass lines, I was glad for the US pop music on the radio. Above the driver, an LED cross blinked to the beat of the music next to a Playboy bunny sticker. I had spent a lot of time traveling alone. In my isolation, one desire became achingly plain. I wanted to be with a man. The desire was clear, fierce, and unrelenting. I felt a thrill of freedom race though my body. Nobody knew where I was. I had money in my pocket. I could do anything and go anywhere.
Pleasurable as that feeling was, I knew the excitement could quickly turn into a desolate loneliness. Though I longed to be with a male partner, I had been taught that this longing was entirely corrupt. Yet everything was corrupt! I couldn't imagine a place, a way of being, a family, an economics, a politics in which any kind of life made sense. I was lost, with no place to be "found," no "home" to return to. That night, the path ahead seemed to diverge into two clear options. I could move to New York, cut off ties with my relatives and God, and pursue a gay relationship. Or I could sort out what it might mean to be both gay and Christian by moving back to San Francisco to the little church community that was being formed by my missionary friends.
I decided to take the road to San Francisco in order to give faith one last try.
So began my adventure at living in church community. Five young women from an InterVarsity chapter had helped start the community, which later came to be known as the Church of the Sojourners.(15) One night I sat down with them, and together we began looking through a pile of old yearbooks. As they reminisced they pointed out the good-looking guys and I chimed in with my opinions. For the first time, I could be honest about my sexual thoughts, and they weren't followed by my inner retort, "Tim, you are so sick." For the first time, talking about sex seemed normal and connecting and even joyful. As we sat there talking and laughing, I felt like I had found sisters.
They certainly acted like my sisters, making fun of my amateur cooking, shooting me withering looks when I greeted them cheerily in the early morning. They taught me to like good coffee and helped me grow out of being oblivious to what needed doing. One of the women in particular, Debbie, jumped in my corner like a trainer caring for a beleaguered boxer. She wrote me notes of encouragement, listened to me rant late into the night, and hugged me in a way that said, "I'm for you, keep going."
I had long talks with the older members, especially Jack, John, and Steve. I was glad to have wise elders to talk with, a welcome change from the generational ghetto of college. We ate dinners together, vacationed together, read books together, argued together, competed for bathroom time, and cleaned up after John's incontinent dog.
As good as life together was, we began to wonder, "Is this just a phase? An idealism that will pass?" We began to think about committing to each other in more costly, long-term ways. We'd been impressed by Jesus' last words to the disciples right before he went to the cross when he says, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."(16) I had realized that the phrase, "as I have loved you," meant the cross, and I imagined heroic scenarios in which I would jump into a river to save a drowning friend at the risk of my own life.
But there, living within this extended family, I noticed the placement of this verse, shortly after Jesus washes the disciples' feet. Maybe loving as Jesus loved isn't in spectacular acts such as hanging on a cross, but in serving one another by washing the pile of dishes in the sink and cleaning the toilet. Yes, Jesus asks for radical self-sacrifice, but he often expresses this in small things. Perhaps it is in the daily tasks of living with one another, bearing with one another over the long haul.
John Alexander, our pastor, frequently pointed out the verse in John, in which Jesus prays, "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one."(17) We are not only asked to love one another as Christ loved, but we are also asked to be one with each other as the Trinity is one!
Together, we began to think about the implications of this unity. If one of us moved away for the sake of more money, or a more prestigious job, what did that mean about our commitment to love one another? Were those relationships disposable? The expressive individualism of our culture told us our highest duty was to ourselves. But what did it mean to take Paul's words in his letter to the Philippians seriously when he exhorts, "Look not to your own interests but to the interests of others"?(18)
Some of the members of our community decided to commit to each other until "we discern together God has called me elsewhere." Jack was asked by the mission agency he worked for to relocate from San Francisco to Colorado Springs. As regional director for a missionary agency, he joked that his job was to drive around and visit his friends. Even though Jack loved his job, he decided to quit rather than move, and take a poorly paid teacher's aide job in a local school so that he could continue living with the rest of us.
One of the five women, Laura, knew that choosing to live in a poor, urban area with others would alienate her closely knit family. After much agonizing, Laura decided she needed to live out the life she thought would please God, even if it didn't please her family.19 The five young, single women living in our Christian "commune" in San Francisco knew such a lifestyle didn't promise much in the way of marriage prospects.20 Three of them chose to stay anyway.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky writes:
Everywhere in these days people have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they have separated themselves from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light.(21)
Being gay, I had felt that "social solidarity" and "family" were impossible for me. Yet with my brothers and sisters in the Church of the Sojourners, I felt like I was suddenly coming to the surface and encountering light after years of living in an underground cave. I was living in a New Testament family, in which I was loved and in which others needed my love. While most churches won't become "intentional live-together communities," most churches can grow in being family to one another.
My evangelical tradition had taught me that, being gay, I would need to remain single. Ironically, the traditional and affirming churches are mirror images of each other, with the traditional side worrying that same-sex marriages will erode the "traditional family" ("family values") and the affirming side demanding that gays and lesbians have access to the "traditional family." Both sides are assuming our culture's vision of family rather than inviting the conflict to help us think about Jesus' kingdom vision of family.
IF WE CAN AGREE TO TRUST THAT THE CONFLICT
OVER HOMOSEXUALITY IS NOT A BATTLE TO BE
WON BUT RATHER AN OPPORTUNITY TO GROW,
THEN OUR DEEPEST CONCEPTIONS—WHICH ARE
OFTEN PRODUCTS OF OUR CULTURE—MIGHT BE
REFORMED BY THE CHRISTIAN VISION. IF WE INVITE
GOD TO SHAPE OUR IDEAS ABOUT FAMILY,
WE MIGHT DISCOVER WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A
If we can agree to trust that the conflict over homosexuality is not a battle to be won but rather an opportunity to grow, then our deepest conceptions—which are often products of our culture—might be reformed by the Christian vision. If we invite God to shape our ideas about family, we might discover what it means to be a church.
On the far side of this struggle, we might come "home" to a surprising unity. As with any large family, Christians will never agree about everything. But at least our conflicts might assume the loving tenor of a couple fighting for a good marriage, rather than the ugly, divisive debates of a couple headed for divorce.
Tim Otto is a pastor at the Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco. He holds an MTS from Duke Divinity School and is coauthor of Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism (Wipf & Stock, 2006). As a registered nurse, Tim worked on the country's first AIDS ward for 14 years. He was also one of the first participants in ESA's Oriented to Love dialogues.
This article was adapted from Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships and appears here by kind permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers (WipfandStock.com). Tim can be followed on Twitter at Oriented To Faith and on Facebook. Read our review of Tim's book!
1. James C. Dobson, Preparing for Adolescence (Vision House, 1978), 89.
2. Ibid., 90.
3. Matt. 5:31–32, 19:8–9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18.
4. Matt. 15:1–6
5. Matt. 15:4, 19:19; Mark 7:10, 10:19; Luke 18:20.
6. Mark 9:37, 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17.
7. Mark 1:19–20
8. Luke 9:60
9. Luke 14:26
10. Matt. 10:34
11. Matt. 10:36
12. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1996), 278.
13. Luke 8:21
14. Wright, Jesus, 278.
15. We are often confused with Sojourners magazine, which is based in Washington, DC.
16. John 13:34
17. John 17:22
18. Phil. 2:4
19. For years, Laura's mom refused to visit the house. Happily, that has now changed.
20. All three eventually got married. For two, it meant waiting to marry until they were in their 30s.
21. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Translated by Constance Garnett (Dover, 2005), 276.