Meeting Each Other Outside the Either/Or
How does one queer the church? First of all, “queer” has several meanings today. Many older gays and lesbians find it offensive, because the word has a long history as a term of abuse and oppression. Alternatively, many younger people embrace “queer” as an authentic way to describe their sexual orientation and/ or gender identity.
In academic circles, queer theory understands that society has constructed binary identities for us: We are either male or female, either gay or straight. Limited by these binaries, we ignore people who are not “either gay or straight,” like bisexuals, and people who are not “either male or female,” like transgender people. “To queer” is to deconstruct these social either-or’s and challenge the systems that reinforce them. Though queer theory is rooted in rejecting the binaries of gender and sexuality, it can be applied to other socially constructed boundaries.
Using this broader understanding of “queer,” we can interpret Jesus’ ministry as queering the ekklesia: He challenges traditional gender divisions. For example, Jesus’ ministry brought about the replacement of the initiation ritual of circumcision with baptism. This allowed females to be ritually received into the community. Jesus broke down the gender barrier that prevented females from fully participating in the ekklesia. Jesus “queers” the ritual that initiates membership in the community; he queers the community. Jesus’ deconstruction of either-or’s is celebrated in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
If we applied queer theory to the church today, could we reform it as Luther and others did 500 years ago?
Of course, today there is no one church. A striking legacy of the Protestant Reformation was the formation of many new denominational bodies. Any 21st-century reformation will likely be made up of an even wider diversity of church movements.
Not that every church today needs reform. There are many thriving, growing churches around the world, often in unexpected places. However, in many congregations seeking renewal, “queering the church” might be a creative, liberating force of reformation.
One significant theological idea from the 16th century was the “either-or” concept of election. We are either saved or damned, elect or reprobate. Can we queer the church by deconstructing this “eitheror”? How might we challenge the ways churches have interpreted this binary doctrine of election?
To be clear, I’m not challenging the belief that God elects some for salvation and not others. A Reformed understanding of the sovereignty of God asserts that God alone determines salvation. As Paul warns in Romans: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things (as the unrighteous)” (Rom. 2:1).
I’m suggesting that we deconstruct not the divine- determined categories of elect and reprobate but the human-determined categories of “who the church says is saved” and “who the church says is damned.” For 2,000 years, churches have made these determinations on behalf of God, largely ignoring Paul’s warning. By dividing humanity into either “who the church says is saved” or “who the church says is damned,” churches have oppressed and injured many faithful followers of Christ. One way to queer the church is to challenge this boundary between “who is in” and “who is out.”
To take another example from Jesus’ ministry, Mark’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Syrophoenician woman. The woman, a Gentile, begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus initially does not honor her request, declaring the Jewish people as the “children” who should be fed first, and comparing her (and presumably all Gentiles) to “dogs.” The woman appeals to him by cleverly observing that even dogs are fed the crumbs of the children. Persuaded, Jesus expels the demon from the Gentile woman’s daughter.
And so Jesus extends his presence to the Gentiles. His ministry to the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter creates a new possibility: The kingdom of God is available not only to Jews. (The Hebrew Bible includes stories of a few Gentiles, like Ruth, who were included in Israelite society.) Jesus breaks down a predominant binary of who is in and who is out.
Note how the story begins by announcing that Jesus has gone away to the region of Tyre (Mark 7:24). He is venturing out of Galilee into a region less known to him and his disciples. As we today think about how to create new possibilities for ministry, we can start by venturing outside our sanctuaries. To reach out to LGBTQ people, for example, one could organize a small group discussion at the local LGBTQ center. We must dare to leave the comfort of our church, and go away to regions less known to our congregations and us.
In Mark’s story, the surprising exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman reveals something else as well: We can expect to be surprised by the faith of people we meet outside our church walls. Jesus’ response is changed by her appeal. We too can expect our ministries to be changed by the ideas, convictions, and needs of the people we engage outside our familiar world. We must listen and be open. The people we encounter may become partners in our reform efforts.
Traveling the Unfamiliar
This story is one of a series in Mark’s Gospel that shows Jesus’ increasing involvement with the Gentiles. In his first venture into a largely non-Jewish territory, the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus exorcises the demon whose name is “Legion” (Mark 5:1-20). Despite the successful exorcism, the people are afraid, and beg Jesus to leave. Next, in the story of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), Jesus casts the demon out of the woman’s daughter, but from afar. He is not physically near the child. In the next story (Mark 7:31-37), Jesus visits the region of the Decapolis, where he heals a deaf man by putting his fingers in the man’s ears and by spitting and touching his tongue. Jesus is intimately close to the man. Jesus’ encounters with Gentiles in Mark’s Gospel show a progression of deepening connection. So too we can expect relationships with those outside the church will develop over time. We must make long-term commitments and not be discouraged by initial setbacks.
How might we transform our churches if we broke down the boundaries between LGBTQ and straight people? Between people of different racial groups? Between English-speaking and Spanishspeaking people? Between the homeless and the housed? Between refugees and citizens? Although new ministries will require time and effort, we can expect partnerships to begin and flourish when we venture into new spaces and befriend people we find there. Queering the church can bring about a reformation for the 21st century.
The Rev. Chad Tanaka Pack ’10 M.Div. is Associate Minister at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He is also a playwright, poet, and performer.