Messy Grace is one of the most important and timely books I have read in awhile. I consider it a “must-read” book for those who want to wrestle with the tough question of how Christians should relate to the LGBT community today. You may agree with author Caleb Kaltenbach, and you may disagree with him. But you and I, and the church as a whole, have a ton to learn from Caleb’s experience and wisdom.
Recently I caught up with Caleb and asked him a few questions about Messy Grace, which releases next week.
SEAN: You have a unique story and experience that provides the backdrop for your book. Would you mind briefly sharing it?
CALEB: When I was 2 my parents divorced and both came out of the closet. My dad never had a monogamous relationship, but several friends. My mom had a partner named Vera, and they were together for 22 years. My mom and dad were both professors, very involved in political activism, and wanted me to have various experiences. Growing up, I went with my mom and Vera to LGBT parties, clubs, campouts, and parades. I saw how Christians treated the LGBT people by holding signs on street corner, spraying water & urine, ignoring families, etc. I hated Christians. I joined a Bible in high school to learn to disprove the Bible, but I followed Jesus. My parents disowned me for a while. I went to Bible college and seminary to become a pastor. Years later, my parents started coming to a church I preached at and gave their lives to Christ.
There have been many books that address the topic of homosexuality. What makes your book different?
1. A different story
This is just my story. It’s also the story of my dad, mom, and her partner. It’s about hurt, anger, hope, and finally redemption. The narrative unfolds in each chapter, as does the reader’s perspective.
2. A unique perspective
Being raised by a gay dad and two lesbians in a political extremist environment, being told to dislike Christians, seeing the mistakes of Christians, following Jesus, and seeing my parents accept Christ has given me a unique outlook on this issue. There are scholars who have written academically, people who identify as LGBT in some way have published books, and parents of LGBT children have told their stories. I believe I have a perspective that most don’t have. Not only did both parents identify as LGBT, but I’ve also been an insider to both the LGBT and Christian communities.
Finally, there’s an unwavering commitment to grace while upholding the truth.
What misunderstandings do you think Christians often have about the gay community?
1. Being LGBT is mainly about attraction
Once my mom told me that she and her partner were still lesbians, but hadn’t been sexually intimate for years. For many LGBT people, sexual attraction is a part of their identity, but not the main part. They identify with the community, friends, a movement, relationships, etc. It’s deeper than just sex. Don’t reduce someone to sexual orientation.
2. The LGBT & Christian communities have nothing in common
These two groups have much in common: passion for their movement, creative, wanting others to understand, a sense of justice, etc. Maybe these could be bridges to be built?
3. Most LGBT people are political extremists
The majority of LGBT people I know don’t like politics and just want to live their life like everyone else. They aren’t attending every pride parade or event. Don’t label everyone as an extremist just like you wouldn’t want to be labeled.
Do you think it is possible for Christians to hold the historic view on sex and marriage, and yet genuinely show love to people with same-sex attraction? If so, how?
Jesus came in grace and truth (Jn. 1:14, 17). He was gracious when some thought Him firm. Sometimes, Jesus was firm when expected to show grace. While the Son of God is a perfect example of grace and truth, we humans struggle. There’s tension between grace and truth. It’s difficult when someone we love makes choices opposed to what God says. Each of us is either more grace-oriented or truth-oriented, but the tension draws all to the middle. Embracing the tension shows that we love God and people (and won’t stop loving either). Our theology is tension-filled (Trinity, sovereignty of God, free will, etc.), so shouldn’t our love and treatment of others have tension? Maybe we should follow the example of Jesus and spend time with individuals the Pharisees never would (and Jesus never compromised His beliefs)? Let’s return to modeling Jesus when it comes to this issue.
What are two or three key lessons you hope people take from your book?
1. Love is the tension of grace and truth
We see this in Jn. 8:11 when Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” I don’t condemn you (grace) but leave your sinful way (truth). The fact that Jesus was willing to teach her “both” reveals His love. When we choose to struggle in the midst of grace and truth, we live out love for God and people.
2. A theological conviction should never be a catalyst to treat people less
Many Christians rightly believe God designed sexual intimacy for a man and a woman in marriage. Even though we believe that, that is not a license to devalue people who disagree. No parent should treat their teen differently just because they “come out.” Rom. 2:4 says that God’s kindness leads to repentance. Shouldn’t we be kind too?
If you could say one thing to gay and lesbian people who do not consider themselves Christians, what would it be?
Be careful about shutting people out who love you, but may not affirm your relationship choice. People may disagree with you, but it doesn’t always impact how they treat you. Many Christians conclude that sexual intimacy is for a heterosexual marriage, but aren’t hate-filled. Don’t isolate yourself and shun loved ones. When you push those away who differ with you and/or treat them with contempt—you’re guilty of doing what judgmental Christians may have done to you. Sometimes, we separate ourselves because we might feel like they don’t love us. However, I lie to myself about myself a lot. Feelings can be deceptive. If a person loves and treats you well, keep them in your life. If you’ve just “come out” to someone who will struggle with what you’ve shared, give time for process. Don’t become disdainful by not allowing people in your life to have margin for different views.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at seanmcdowell.org.