A Queer Ecclesiology

The most striking aspect of Christ’s ministry is his own queer relationships. From adulterers to tax-collectors, fishermen and roman soldiers, it has been Christ’s ministry to bring the queerest folk into the community of a queer God. Theology then is queer because “it answers to the queerness of God, who is not other than strange and at odds with our “fallen” world. God’s “kingdom” is not ours. When God appeared amongst us he was marginalized and destroyed; and yet he was the one who let his killers be. They would have had no power —no life— if it had not been given to them. It is only natural to love one’s friends and family; to love one’s enemies is perverse.”1 This queer theology not only recognizes, but embraces Christ’s example of queer relationships and therefore, allows one to understand Christ, ourselves and others more fully.

In this post I will argue that the Church—the body and bride of Christ—most fully understands herself when she affirms LGBT people as full members of her body, incorporating them into the sacraments. I begin by examining the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the church as analogous to the engrafting of the Gentiles into the Jewish religion. I then look at three sacraments in order to better understand the role of LGBT people in the church.

Elizabeth Stuart writes that “Queer Theology derives its origins not from the fictitious construction of human sexual “experience” as so much modern sexual theology has done with ultimately disappointing . . . results, but from the very life of God incarnate in the body of Christ and particularly in the sacraments.”2 I look at baptism as a means of entrance into the church and therefore as a means of challenging much of the rhetoric about identity. I then look at Christian marriage as challenging certain assumptions about family values and as a means of sacramental union with another and with God rather than simply as a tool for procreation. Finally, I look at the sacrament of the Eucharist and posit that the Church most fully understands herself when she acts hospitably. Ultimately, I will argue for a queer ecclesiology that is a liberation theology, in that it liberates the person from a stark biological or natural identity in baptism, it liberates the person from loneliness by means of marriage, and it liberates the family from the strictures placed on it by modern bourgeois thought.

The Unnaturalness (para phusin) of the Church

In order for the church to have meaningful conversations about sex, “it must lose a sense of entitlement and recover a sense of grace.”3   Many biblical commentators use Romans 1 and the use of the word unnatural as a condemnation of whatever Paul was writing about in Romans 1, but they seem to overlook the fact that just a few chapters later, Paul also calls God’s actions unnatural or against nature. The church seems to so quickly forget that it is made up of mostly unnatural Gentiles.4  According to Paul, it is the Gentiles who are first and foremost against nature, or para phusin (Rom. 11:24). The Gentile Church must remember that it was they who were once unclean, who were idolaters5 , it was the Gentiles that had to be grafted para phusin into the community of God. It may very well be6  the case that homosexual acts are para phusin (Rom. 1:26-27), but it was God who first acted para phusin (Rom. 11:24) by incorporating the Gentiles into the people of God.7

Therefore, it is no longer circumcision or natural kinship which is the sign of the people of God; it is now baptism. Our identity is found no longer in our nature or in the law, but it is found in the queer community of the Church in relation to the Trinity. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28).

Richard Cleaver also reads the story of LGBT people in the church as analogous to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church, free of Jewish law. He writes, “The main question for the early church became: Do you have to ‘keep kosher’ to be a Christian? This kind of question still bedevils us in the age of bourgeois religion: Do you have to be respectable to receive the sacraments?”8   He notes that this was the struggle in the early church, “Whereas, the people of God called Israel were defined . . . by regulations of cleanliness and pollution, the people of God called Christian included polluted foreigners.”9  This incorporation of Gentiles into the kingdom of God as Gentiles, those who do not know nor follow the law is a work of the Spirit.

The inclusion of gay and lesbian people can be seen as analogous to the way the Gentiles were incorporated into the Church by means of a new way of reading the Spirit.10 We must learn to interpret scripture in light of the way the Spirit is working in the present. Stephen Fowl examines the ways in which Paul and the early church had to reinterpret their scriptures paying close attention to what the Spirit was telling them. Just as Peter, in Acts 15:8-9, recognizes that God bore witness to the Gentiles and gave them the Holy Spirit, so also the Church must “become practised at testifying about what the spirit is doing in the lives of others.”11   In order to do this, however, Christians must “begin by opening themselves to the sorts of friendships with homosexuals that would enable them to testify about [this] work of the Spirit”.

A careful study of God’s consistently unnatural acts throughout history, coupled with an acknowledgement of the Spirit’s continued work in the world, which includes the sanctifying of those things deemed unnatural, must determine the direction in which the Church continues her journey. It is through the sacraments that the Church becomes holy, becomes sanctified. It is also in the sacraments that the Church recognizes each person as a new being, as someone who is no longer an other, but as someone who is now united in love to the others in the church. In the sacraments there is no room for us and them; we must simply see us.

Baptismal Identity

Just as the sign of Gentile acceptance into the Church was baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit, so also it must be the sign of all Christians. Baptism “changes people in the depths of their very being, . . . at baptism the ontology of the baptized person is radically changed, they become . . . ecclesial persons.”12  This view of baptism as a change of personhood and identity at the ontological level subverts those categories such as homo-sexual and hetero-sexual that we use to exclude the other from our communities. The theological posturing about identity, sexual or otherwise, has missed the point. Baptism “demands something even more radical from Christian theologians, a questioning of the very categories of identity themselves.”13

One then needs to define sexual identity in theological terms rather than simply biological terms. Graham Ward takes as his starting point our relation to God, and our relation to one another. He writes, “there is no pure difference. Difference qua difference is an abstraction no one could recognize. Difference is relative, and distance spatializes that relativity and also suggests the possibility of a temporal dynamic.”14   Ward sees sexual difference as relative and temporal. Difference is sexed only in relation to the “bodies of other responsive beings. . . . It is somewhere in the engagement between sight and touch that bodies become sexualized, somewhere in the junction between reception and response within the body’s own knowing. Such that desire for knowing or being with the other is simultaneously an attraction to the other.”15 Sexual difference and sexual attraction are not positivistic, but transcend purely empirical categories. As David McCarthy Matzko notes, “one’s body and the body of the other communicate a reciprocal discovery of self. . . . A person comes to awareness of his or her own embodiment through the bodily presence of the other.”16

Ward also notes the work of feminist Mary McClintock Fulkerson, who argues that there is no “essence of woman, no experience of being a woman, that is universal.”17 Likewise, there are as many ways to be male as there are men. Therefore, in Ward’s theology of gender and sexual difference he does not start from what it is to be a man or a woman. This would be based on a Cartesian ontology that posits that maleness lies in some sort of “masculine individuality” Rather he begins from a view of what it means to be a person through difference and relation to the Trinity. Human beings are sexed creatures; they are not androgynous, but their personhood, not to mention their sexuality, is not defined by their genitalia, but by their relation to God and the part they play in God’s salvific work. Ward closes this second article by noting that this type of theology would require

an account of the Church as an erotic community–where each sexed person fulfills one’s vocation in Christ by certain liturgical performances that will produce and be produced by other gendered performances within the ecclesia; And an account of an analogy of relation–divine and human–in which desire (eros) makes possible participation and co-operation: but an eros that exceeds sexuality, an eros within which sexuality is situated as a good within creation.18

Part of this project would include the return from the “collapse of eros into sexuality” and a mending of the bifurcation of agape and eros.

Sanctifying Marriage

The Church is meant to be a family where each person is loved and taken care of. This Church was started by Christ who was perhaps the most insidious threat to traditional family values. There is not and never really has been such thing as traditional family values. Family values have been very different in each epoch and society in history. Family values in the Roman context that the church grew out of were very different from that of family values in the twenty-first century. For one, the familia consisted of all of the things that the male head of the household owned. This included slaves, animals, houses, and unmarried daughters.19  For the Romans, the family was the means of maintaining the male lineage that owned this property. Female children in this family would spend most of their childhood being made ready for marriage, which was usually to a friend or political alliance of the father twice the age of the woman.20 In this context religion was familial rather than personal or individual.21 Leaving this family religion would have meant exclusion.

The prevailing “family values” espoused by many “pro-family” groups is a construction that “ignores three fourths of actual Christian history.”22  Christ sought to undo the prevailing family values. Christ told his disciples to forsake their father, mother, children, brothers and sisters (Luke 14:26). Jesus showed “a shocking disregard for traditional family responsibilities to the dead father in Jewish culture” when he told the disciple to let the dead bury their own dead.23 When Jesus called his disciples they dropped everything, including their families. Peter left his wife24  and James and John leave their father. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension a more radical family is formed. The believers lived together and had all things in common, they sold their possessions and redistributed their wealth among all the believers (Acts 3:44-5). This type of Christian community “would have appeared deeply subversive of family life as that was understood by both Jews and Romans.”25

Engels argues that the nuclear family arrives only as capitalist commodity production increases. “Monogamy arose out of the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of one person—and that a man—and out of the desire to bequeath this wealth to this man’s children and to no one else’s.”26  As the nuclear family becomes a minor corporation, the head, that is “the male” in traditional family values, does what is best for him and his family. He sees other men as competition to his “family” and his wellbeing. “We have made the bourgeois family into an idol because it, unlike the living God, gives us permission to confine our concern only to our own kin and kind.”27   Men have forgotten how to love other men. In today’s politically charged society the idea of caring for others in the way that the first Christians cared for others is written off as socialism. To share one’s home and possessions with anyone other than a wife and kids is seen as a perversion or social deviation. The Church needs to recover a theology of family that mirrors the relationship of the Trinity and therefore, naturally28 includes the whole community of marginalized persons into her family.

In addition to facilitating an understanding of family values in a broader and more biblical way, welcoming LGBT persons into the church expands our understanding of the sacrament of marriage by opening marital relationships beyond the purely utilitarian. Marriage is best served when it is seen not simply as either a means to procreation, or a reigning in of sexual passions, but when it is seen as an icon of the Trinity. Paul Evdokimov argues this very point in The Sacrament of Love. He argues that viewing the other as a means to procreation or as a means for sexual pleasure reduces the other to a “mere tool” which “destroy[s their] dignity.”29  Procreation should be seen as a joy and a virtue, but it should not determine the value or sacramentality of the marriage.30

“Marriage in Christianity is best understood as an ascetic practice of and for the community by which God takes sexuality up into God’s triune life, graciously transforming it so as to allow the couple partially to model the love between Christ and the Church.”31 In once sense, the Church should see the sacrament of marriage as analogous to monasticism. It is through prolonged vulnerability to the object of desire that grace works to sanctify each partner through the other. Eugene Rogers notes that if marriage is about mutual sanctification, “gay and lesbian Christians who desire it can hardly be accused of self-centeredness.” Rather, it is through the mutual self-giving of the body’s grace that allows marriage to be sacramental. Sex is for the discovery of desire in another person. The whole business of the church is to order our relations so that “human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.” One’s desire for another must be recognized and “perceived as desirable by the other.”

Perversions such as rape, pedophilia, and bestiality are sinful and violent, not because they are anti-biblical or because they do not inherently create offspring, but because they do not take the other’s desire into account. It is an impatient and therefore, perverse sexuality. Rowan Williams notes provocatively the possibility that “in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a ‘perversion.’”  Desire, then, must be allowed to be vulnerable, must be given time to be returned. One can “only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time.” The goal of marriage then is to allow the time it takes to become holy. Marriage is a bodily means “that God can use to catch human beings up into less and less conditioned acts of self-donation, finally into that unconditional response to God’s self-donation that God’s self gives in the Trinity.”

This view of marriage from a Trinitarian vantage also opens up the conversation to talk about procreation. Procreation is assuredly, an important aspect of a sacramental marriage. However, when procreation becomes the telos of marriage, the grace of children is distorted. Love must not be compulsion.  The view of procreation as mandatory neglects the real  experience of those born infertile, or those who adopt. In a world where so many are orphans, it seems wrong-headed to condemn a gay or lesbian couple who want to adopt, a couple who want to bring a third person into the trinitarian ideal of love.  Gay and lesbian families procreate socially through adoption, or through the inclusion of the church family or wider extra-church family into their families.

Eucharistic Hospitality

In the Eucharist the Church becomes the body of Christ. The body of Christ is present in the elements and in the Church.32 It is in the Eucharist that reconciliation happens. Those who were once different become one body because they share one bread. “The lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world in His sacrifice. The task of a Christian is to live now as if that is in fact the case, to embody redemption by living a reconciled life, and thereby bring the Kingdom, however incompletely, into the present.”33

The Holy Spirit comes upon the elements and sanctifies them to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit also comes upon the body of Christ and sanctifies the people that comprise it. Just as the Spirit reveals the presence of the body of Christ in the elements, the Spirit also reveals the body of Christ in the Church. It is by means of the Eucharist that those who were once estranged become companions. Those who have been kicked out of their biological families, become a part of the family of God.

The Church is a communion of people called to act contrary to “sodomites”—those whose sin was that they were inhospitable—by acting hospitably. The Church shares a common meal with all people, regardless of class, social status, race, gender, or any other identity which humans use to differentiate themselves from others. It is a queer group of marginalized people that come together in table fellowship. They share all they have and no one leaves hungry.

Just as the sign of acceptance of the Gentiles was table fellowship, so also the sign of acceptance of gays and lesbians must be table fellowship. Each person is brought into the Trinitarian perichoresis, where each has gifts to give and receive. We did not naturally belong to God, we were Gentiles and we were sinners, but God did what was contrary to nature and brought us in to God’s community. Therefore we ought to remember that we are not God’s natural children, but adopted. This being the case, we must take great care to be, likewise, inclusive.34

This then is how the queer community of the Church must view her sacraments. The human person comes into the life of the Church as an individual whose identity is wrapped up in many things, however when this person comes into the life of the Church through baptism he or she becomes identified with Christ. That is, his or her body becomes the body of Christ. Therefore, there is now nothing with which to keep those in the church apart. Through baptism the person is brought into the perichoresis, into the Church. It is by entering into prolonged relationships with one another that the Church mirrors the life of the Trinity. These relationships bring Christ near, bring the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, where each person is loved and accepted as one of God’s adopted children. This queer procession through the life of the Church is the sign of new and unending life in Christ.

  1. Gerard Loughlin, “Introduction,” in Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, ed. Gerard Loughlin [Oxford: Blackwell, 2007], 9. []
  2. Elizabeth Stuart, “Sacramental Flesh” in Queer Theology, 65. []
  3. Eugene F. Rogers Jr., Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God [Oxford: Blackwell, 1999], 64. []
  4. Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body, 50. []
  5. Which is, or course, the real point of the list in the beginning of Romans []
  6. Though, it may very well not be []
  7. Rogers, Sexuality and the Christian Body. 64. []
  8. Richard Cleaver, Know My Name: A Gay Liberation Theology [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995], 104. []
  9. Cleaver, Know My Name, 104. []
  10. Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 97-127. []
  11. Fowl, Engaging Scripture, 116. []
  12. Elizabeth Stuart, “Sacramental Flesh” in Queer Theology, 67-8. []
  13. Stuart, “Sacramental Flesh,” 69. []
  14. Graham Ward, “There is No Sexual Difference” in Queer Theology, 81. []
  15. Ward, “There is No Sexual Difference,” in Queer Theology, 82. []
  16. David McCarthy Matzko, “The Relationship of Bodies: A Nuptial Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Unions,” Theology & Sexuality 8 (1998): 110. []
  17. Graham Ward, “Theology and Masculinity.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 7.2 (Wntr 1999) []
  18. Ward, Theology and Masculinity. []
  19. Rosemary Radford Reuther, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family: Ruling Ideologies, Diverse Realities (Boston: Beacon, 2000), 14. []
  20. Reuther, Christianity,15. []
  21. Reuther, Christianity, 19-21, 32. []
  22. Reuther, Christianity, 4. []
  23. Reuther, Christianity, 26. []
  24. “We know (because Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law) that Peter is married. There is no mention here of Peter arranging to take care of his family.” Carter, Know my Name, 76. []
  25. Reuther, Christianity, 31. []
  26. Frederick Engels, “Origin of Family, Private Property, and State,” in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels: Selected Works (New York: International, 1986): 524. []
  27. Carter, Know My Name, 78. []
  28. or unnaturally []
  29. Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985), 43. []
  30. Rogers, Sexuality, 78; Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love, 45. []
  31. Rogers, Sexuality, 73. []
  32. William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 205. []
  33. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 238-9. []
  34. Rogers, Sexuality, 260. []

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