Caleb Kaltenbach on giving grace to the LGBT community
Pastor and author shares insights from his longtime ministry to the homosexual community
This year’s shortlist for the accessible theology category in our Books of the Year issue includes Messy Grace, a part-memoir about how to engage the LGBT community with both grace and truth. Author Caleb Kaltenbach is a pastor at Discovery Church in Simi Valley, Calif., who grew up as the son of three gay parents. I met him at a youth apologetics conference in Northridge, Calif., to discuss the book, his thoughts about and experiences with one of the most difficult issues the church must address today. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
There are other books out there on homosexuality. What’s different about your book? I think there are not as many books as there are about other subjects such as prayer, preaching, leadership, etc. Those are safe subjects. Homosexuality is a big, controversial, cultural subject. How many books do you know are out there dealing with a Christian perspective on gender dysphoria? Gender dysphoria is a big topic right now. I think a lot of Christians are still leery, afraid, or they have their heads in the sand. We have to deal with culture, wherever today’s culture is.
Why did you write this book? My goal and prayer was that I would write a book that would help people live in the tension between grace and truth, that it would help them understand that they don’t always have to sacrifice their relationships for their convictions, and vice versa. Jesus had very deep theological convictions and expectations on how people should live their lives, but he also had very deep relationships with people who were far from him. He had both.
I wrote my book thinking about the average Christian parent who just had a daughter “come out” to them, and they don’t know how to respond, and if they make one wrong comment, it’ll set back their relationship for years. I think most conservative Christians know what the Bible has to say on homosexuality, but I think what they don’t know is how it relates to their current relationships.
You use a lot of human stories in your book. How did your story and childhood experiences contribute to the way you wrote this book? I thought the best way to be able to help people understand God’s love for the LGBT community is to write from my own experience. I grew up seeing how my parents, especially my mom and her partner Vera, were treated by the Christian community. They were laughed at and sprayed with urine. Christians who thought they were following God’s will were instead pushing the LGBT community further away from God. I wanted to humanize the community and create an environment where it would be hard to be against the individual.
I would put it like this: I really believe that many Christians are not thinking deeply enough about the LGBT community. I think when a lot of Christians talk about the LGBT community, it’s as some kind of faceless group that is out there to attack them and take away their rights. It’s so easy to vilify these people. It’s a lot harder when there’s a face associated with the sin and community. But when we roll up our sleeves and delve deep into their lives, we’ll find out that theology is not always so black and white anymore. Of course there’s always an orthodoxy that will never change—but we need to think deeper about people.
In your book you also mention how you were discriminated against for becoming a Christian. Just imagine what it would be like for a gay teenager to come out to his conservative Christian parents. That was how it was like when I came out as a Christian teenager to my three gay parents. I was expecting tolerance, because my mom preached tolerance all her life. She always used to say, “Oh, Christians just want to label and categorize you, Caleb, so be careful.” But when I became a Christian, she did the same exact thing to me. When I looked like the people whom she could not tolerate, she labeled and categorized me.
When you were growing up with gay parents, what were your thoughts on homosexuality? It’s interesting that I’ve had a lot of people ask me about that. Some of the more fun times of my life were with the gay community. They were real fun, real people. For me the LGBT lifestyle was normalized. Yet at the same time, I didn’t want anybody to know that I had gay parents. Even though I wasn’t ashamed of them or anything, I knew that people would make fun of me for that. I didn’t want to be known as the kid with two gay moms.
How did you become a Christian? I first joined a Bible study in high school to disprove Christianity. I remember walking into this Bible study for the first time, and I’ve never been inside a conservative family’s home, much less an evangelical one. And as I walked in, I wondered, “Why are there all these pictures of sheep and lions and scriptures and a Middle Eastern kid with a staff?” And I looked at my friend and said, “Is this part of the deal if I turn Christian? I have to get a sheep picture?” It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. But as we studied the Bible, that’s when I learned that the Jesus represented by my mom, the Jesus represented by the Christian family who didn’t want to talk to their son dying with AIDS, that Jesus was very different from the Jesus I saw in the Scriptures.
After you became a Christian, did you struggle to view homosexuality as a sin? Yeah, that was an interesting journey—a journey that’s years in the making, that continued for years, and is still continuing. After I became a Christian, I knew I needed to start thinking and studying the Bible to see what it really says about homosexuality. I started reading on what it says about gender, intimacy, marriage, sex, everything.
If anybody wanted to disprove the notion that homosexuality is not part of God’s design, that was me. I kept trying to see if there is a way around it, and I haven’t found it. There are some fancy exegetical footwork and pretty creative historical context arguments affirming homosexuality, but they really don’t have any scriptural foundation. The more I studied the Bible, the more I came to the conclusion that I still hold today: God designed intimacy to be an expression between one man and one woman.
How did that affect your relationship with your parents? Well, they kicked me out. I was 16. I stayed over at my friends’ a lot. Eventually I returned back to my parents. But it was very rough and very hard. I felt very sad because I had always been so close with my mom. But at the same time, the more Jesus showed me love, the more I felt able to show that same kind of love for people like my parents. I think of Mark 10:29—“There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”—and I really hold on to that because I saw that God returned hundredfold what I ever had before.
What were some mistakes you made in the beginning with your parents? I would beat them over the head with the Bible. I would read a how-to evangelism book or an article from Christianity Today and try out my new evangelistic ninja moves on them. I would respond to every remark they made about Christianity. In doing so, I moved them further away from God, since they were not making these comments because they honestly wanted to learn about God but out of frustration. Engaging people when they are argumentative will not get you anywhere. I learned how to shut up and let my actions speak louder than my words.
I thought it was interesting that when your parents got saved, it wasn’t through you. No, it wasn’t. Originally I was hoping I would be the one to lead them to Christ, but the more I went along in my faith, the more I realized that I would not be the one to do that because there is too much emotion tied to me—way too much. It’s so easy to get hurt by people who are closest to you. Those are the people who have the most power to hurt you, because there is so much emotional baggage in it. Why is homosexuality such a deep emotional issue for so many people in our culture? People who identify as LGBT are really only 2 percent of the population. But people identifying as LGBT are connected to other people. And that multiplies exponentially. For a lot of people, when you have someone you love who identifies as LGBT, this is no longer a black and white issue.
When I look at the redemption story in the Bible, God always works through a process of changing lives. Salvation is instantaneous, but the process before and after salvation is a process. You can’t rush people. And I look at my parents’ lives, I see that God allowed them to go through horrible things. I mean, if I told you what my parents went through, you will say, “I now understand why your mom hates men.” But in God’s sovereignty, He used that to save their lives.
You’ve interacted with tons of people who identify as LGBT in your ministry. How has that shaped your understanding of homosexuality? Homosexuality in our culture has come to mean so many different things. I have a same-sex couple in my church I sat down with who have been living together for 30 years. They live in the same house, but they’ve not had sex for years, they sleep in separate bedrooms. So are they sinning? My biggest conversation with them was: Why do you still identify as lesbians first and foremost, when you follow Jesus? You were created to be identified by God, for God.
Last year, our church led a small group of 12 people who identified with homosexuality in some shape or form, and there was this one guy who said over and over again, “My biggest fear is being alone.” That was when it struck me: The biggest issue in homosexuality is not sex. It’s all about belonging.
How do you talk to people who say they follow Jesus but still identify as LGBT? There always comes a point when we have to have difficult conversations about holy living, about the whole counsel of the Holy Scripture. There are things God says we should do and shouldn’t do, and I think same-sex intimacy—or sex outside of marriage—is one of those that He says we shouldn’t do. Should you do it, we have to have a tough conversation, but those conversations are best had in the context of love, trust, and friendship.
Now, does that mean that they’re not Christian? I can’t answer that. Because even when the prodigal son temporarily left his father, he was still his son. And here’s the thing: Don’t you think you’ll always have things that you rebel against God? You’re always fighting a tough battle with sin. So when someone says homosexuality is a sin, well, what aspect are they talking about? It’s such a broad-umbrella question.
Do I believe that same-sex intimacy is a sin? Yes, I do. Do I think every person who commits same-sex intimacy is going to hell? No, I don’t. Do I believe that God brings conviction about this sin? Yes, I do. Do I know when that conviction comes? No, I don’t. Do I know the moment of salvation for them? No, I don’t. I’m just somebody who preaches truth and grace. That’s my responsibility.
How would you summarize the main points in this book? Love is the tension of love and truth. We should love people where they’re at, just as God loved us where we were at, because God pursued us, just as He wants us to pursue people.
There’s another point I wish I had made more of a point in my book: Love has no exception clause. When we choose to follow God, we give up our rights to be unforgiving, to treat people poorly, to be discriminatory.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.