It may seem like LGBT people and conservative Christians inhabit two different worlds.
But with 40 per cent of same sex couples in Australia identifying as Christian, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are likely to be a significant, if covert, presence in conservative Christian churches.
What is it like for people who are both LGBT and Christian? How do LGBT Christians see their place in conservative Christian churches? And how do pastors care for LGBT people in their congregations, and include them in the life of the church?
To answer these questions I spoke to LGBT people, and pastors of LGBT people, from Pentecostal-Charismatic churches in Australia.
Welcoming but not affirming
Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, which emphasises a personal experience of faith, together with ecstatic phenomena such as speaking in tongues and divine healing, is a fast-growing global phenomenon.
While there are many different denominations, Australia’s largest Pentecostal-Charismatic denomination, the Australian Christian Churches, boasts over 280,000 followers in over 1,000 member churches.
Some of the largest in the country are so-called “mega-churches”, such as Hillsong Church in Sydney (20,000 attendees) and Paradise Community Church in Adelaide (6,000 attendees).
For most of the Pentecostal-Charismatic pastors I spoke to, a conservative approach to interpreting the Bible led them to be “welcoming, but not affirming” of LGBT people in their congregations.
This means that LGBT people are welcome to attend, but their sexuality cannot be “affirmed” by allowing them to volunteer or minister. As one pastor I interviewed said:
At the moment our position is that if you’re going to volunteer here that we would hold to a fairly orthodox position of scripture … So yeah, we do have a line, and that line is drawn at volunteering.
Several pastors permitted LGBT people who committed to remaining celibate to volunteer for leadership roles within the church, such as leading bible studies or small groups, or even preaching.
Nevertheless, the LGBT people I spoke to felt understandably rejected by this position. As one put it:
I couldn’t even take up the offering. I was simply looking to be actively involved and become a member of the church … Because I was gay, that was sufficient for [them] to turn around and say no. And by then, I thought, ‘That’s just not right’.
Volunteering is not only symbolic of acceptance and inclusion by the church community, it’s also a pathway to ministry and leadership. In fact, several of the pastors I spoke to began as volunteers.
Therefore, this barrier to volunteering prevents LGBT Christians from moving into more senior roles in Pentecostal-Charismatic churches, where they could promote a more inclusive position.