Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church, Bridget Eileen Rivera. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.
Summary: Rather than an argument about what the Bible says about LGBTQ persons, a discussion of the ways LGBTQ Christians, regardless of their beliefs, have suffered under heavy, and the author would argue, needless burdens.
This is not one more book arguing about what the Bible says about LGBTQ issues. Bridget Eileen Rivera, a celibate, lesbian Christian committed to the church’s traditional teaching about sexuality and marriage (often labeled Side B in this discussion) offers a much needed account of how the church often wounds young men and women struggling both with their faith and sexuality, often driving them away from faith, and sometimes to the point of suicide. One of the sobering truths this book talks about is that, unlike any other demographic group, religious involvement of LGBTQ persons actually increases their likelihood to commit suicide. Equally troubling, these burdens have nothing to do with what we believe the Bible says about sexuality.
The first of these is the double standard around celibacy. On the one hand, much of the church glorifies sex within marriage and has little to say about celibacy–except for gay persons–even though the Bible commends both celibacy and marriage.
The second is that no matter what an LGBTQ person does (or doesn’t) do, they are often treated as pathological sinners. Actually, in doing so, the church follows Freud and not scripture, which only speaks about acts rather than orientation. Freud helped construct the idea of “homosexual identity.” Many in the church brand members who simply admit attractions or struggles with gender identification as “perverted,” sometimes banning them from working with children (even though they usually pose no danger to children) or expelling them from families or congregations. We define them as sinners beyond grace.
Third, the church has often branded all LGBTQ people as folk devils and moral enemies when our real enemies are not flesh and blood and we are called always to embody the grace and truth of the gospel. Even more troubling is that many of those so branded and consigned to hell are still teenagers and may not have even acted upon their inclinations. Remember trying to figure out your sexuality in middle and high school? And sometimes we made poor decisions. What if on top of this we were branded enemies of the church and consigned to hell?
Fourth, Rivera shares the complexities in the texts applied to LGBTQ persons that are often described as clear, even while passages referring to adultery, divorce, and the church’s case for or against contraception are often described as complicated. She points to figures like John Piper, who speak of allowing others grace, even though he would disagree with them on matters like divorce. But no grace for LGBTQ persons.
Rather than go into the other burdens in detail, I will note that Rivera discusses issues of how masculinity and femininity are defined, sometimes expressed toward gay men as bullying to get them to “man up,” and the gender essentialism that galvanizes opposition to transexuality, which she argues is rooted in Aristotelianism rather than scripture. Finally, she pleads for as much grace for LGBTQ Christians as is extended to cisgendered straight Christians in all their sexual sins.
I do wonder if there is a tendency toward making the Side A/Side B discussion merely adiaphora–a matter of personal conviction over which Christians disagree and extend grace toward each other. But this does not take away from her powerful witness to the destructive burdens laid upon LGBTQ persons that are not a necessary corollary of the church’s historic beliefs around sexuality and contrary to the gospel.
Rivera and I would agree on our understanding of scripture’s teaching about sexuality, though I suspect her arrival at her convictions was probably harder won than mine. Furthermore, she gives language to my dis-ease about what has seemed an obsession of the church’s focus on the sins of LGBTQ persons, a minority, while blithely ignoring or covering up sexual abuse, pre- and extra-marital sex among Christians, pornography addiction and domestic violence in marriages. She also raises important questions about the extra-biblical material we have imported into Christianity concerning orientation and gender roles. She reminds us that there is much more to the identity and personhood and sexuality of all of us than sex. She touches on something I’ve wondered–what would happen if we began to ask how LGBTQ people may be gifts rather than problems for the church? She leaves me hoping for the day LGBTQ people will not feel they need to leave the church to preserve and find their lives.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.