Decoding Discrimination (or: How to Discover What Your Church Really Believes)

I’ve spent my life in church.

I’m a bit of a church nerd, actually. I love business meetings and conferences; ecclesiastical conversations are my FAVORITE conversations; and, well, I use words like “ecclesiastical” on a regular basis (ecclesiastical = churchy stuff). 

I care deeply about church — and I care deeply about churches being honest. Which is why the very-public nature of the Chris Pratt/ Ellen Page/ Hillsong Church conversation lately has deeply disturbed me, though not at all surprised me.

arco + KEVINSee, I often read websites of churches and other Christian organizations, and am keyed in to the coded language that clouds reality. Some churches are very upfront about what they believe – and I really appreciate that, even when I disagree with their conclusions.

But I have a huge problem with churches who hide their theology in the fine print, apparently so those who disagree still fill their pews — and their offering plates. 

If people would leave your church if they read the fine print, then you probably need to rethink your theology, your congregation, or both. 

I’ve heard people say that they think their church doesn’t discriminate because “all are welcome!” — but there is a huge difference between not turning people away at the door, and inviting people into all aspects of church life (from membership to ordination, and everything in between) regardless of their gender, orientation, or identity.  

A friend of mine once served a church that welcomed a lesbian couple with open arms – and because they were so welcoming, that couple invited their friends. Within a few months, there were several queer couples attending worship there, and the congregation was kind and loving to them, never mean or judgmental. Some of the visitors had been hurt at previous churches and were so glad to find a place where they could worship, without being shamed every time they entered the doors. 

Until, of course, that first couple wanted to join the church and teach Sunday School, at which point they were notified by the pastor that the church actually believed they were living in sin because of their unrepentant same-sex relationship, and they were not welcome into membership. All of these queer people then realized that the church that had been “welcoming” to them saw their identity as a sin to overcome, not a part of their wholly, perfectly, created selves. Their straight friends who attended with them never had any idea that the church wasn’t affirming, because, well, they never needed to ask and just assumed, because again, they were all really nice. 

And this reveals the privilege of people who are cisgender and heterosexual. There’s never a *need* to find out, to seek clarity. When the system works for us, we have no need to question it.

I’ve known so many people who are personally affirming — they advocate equal rights and equal protections for everyone… and yet, they go to churches that are not. But what’s sad to me — and what the Hillsong conversation reveals — is that often, churches who hold that leadership is reserved for men, and deny equality to people who are LGBTQ+ — do so with a veneer of acceptance, without really being honest. 

Thankfully, Church Clarity is helpful in discerning where churches stand, but according to their own website, they are backlogged right now – and even then, not every church in the country is on their list. 

So, if you attend a church and you aren’t sure what they really think, let my years of church nerdiness and ability to speak coded church language help. 

First, a caveat. I am not saying that what follows is a test that a church “passes” or “does not pass.” There are reasons why faithful pastors and congregations do not have written policies on inclusion — but since discrimination often masquerades as silence, we cannot let silence be interpreted as affirmation. And, really, that’s the whole point of this list: Because so few churches say explicitly what they believe and practice, we must be more diligent to seek out answers. Maybe you’ll discover that, while your church has never made a statement of inclusion, they are working toward it and actively seeking justice; maybe you’ll discover that while your church seems like they treat everyone equally, no woman has ever stood behind a pulpit. Maybe you’ll discover you’re exactly where you need to be; maybe you won’t. 

Also, I have never known of any church that welcomes gay men into leadership, but not straight women. If you know of one, I’d love to hear about it. And often trendy churches are just as avoidant of their discrimination against women as they are their discrimination against people who are LGBTQ+, so I’m including women into this discernment list. 

Go to your church’s website. Don’t rely on what you think you know about the church, because as we’ve seen time and time again, often the people in the pews have no idea how discriminatory actual policies and theology are. If you can’t find the information on the website, ask the pastor for clarification; don’t assume that because you have a gay couple in the pews, or the pastor just seems really cool, that they treat LGBTQ+ people – and women – equal to straight cis men. 

~ Who are the pastors? Are there any women? Any LGBTQ+ people? Have there been in the past? 

~ Who makes decisions? In many churches, these are elders, deacons, trustees, board members, session members, or something similar. Are there any women? Any LGBTQ+ people? If no, why not? 

~ Do they use heavy masculine language for God? (He/Him/His, Father, etc) I hesitated including this question; there are a lot of reasons faithful Christians use masculine language. However, in my experience, often churches that rely exclusively on masculine language about God and humanity tend to be less inclusive in other ways as well. 

~ Look at the statement of faith/ “What We Believe” (often found in the “About Us” section of a website), policy papers, and the church’s constitution. Does it include anything about gender, orientation, gender identity, or marriage? (Look for words like “biology,” “God-given gender,” “natural,” and “biblical marriage.”)

~ Where the constitution speaks to leadership (pastoral or lay), does it specify that those positions are reserved for men? 

~ Will the church ordain women and/or people who are openly LGBTQ+ (without requiring celibacy)? 

~ Will the church marry people who are LGBTQ+? 

~ Will the church preclude people who are women and/or LGBTQ+ from any ministry role? 

~ Will this church celebrate the identity of people of all genders and gender identities? Some churches are open to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, but not people who are trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer.

These questions aren’t exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start, and should, at the very least, invite some honest conversation about why your church believes and practices what it does.

Now for church leaders who want to be fully affirming:

~ Would people who are seeking a safe place to worship (without being viewed as sinners due to their identity) be able to find confirmation of that on your website? 

~ If you see yourself as egalitarian but don’t have any women in decision-making leadership, what is one next step you can take toward inclusion of women?

~ If you see yourself as affirming people who are LGBTQ+, but the congregation has not done the work to make that explicit, what is one next step you can take toward inclusion of all orientations and gender identities? 

I’m not saying you should immediately leave churches that aren’t fully affirming. Each of us has different things we’re comfortable with, different things that are dealbreakers, different experiences and convictions. But what I am saying is that, if equality is important to you personally, don’t give your church a pass just because they say “all are welcome.” 

Because until “all” really does mean all, it’s up to us to press toward the goal.