Emily Timbol

Fiction Author. Good at making stuff up.

The Dysfunctional Family That is The Church


Last Thursday my husband Ryan and I attended a panel discussion entitled, “Faith Perspectives That Embrace LGBT Youth and Families.” It was put on by the university we both graduated from, and was centered on understanding the implications of faith communities on LGBT youth and family, society, and the church itself.

The small theater the event was being held in was about 1/2 full, mostly with students and a few white haired older folks. We sat next to Susan, the pastor of the church we’ve been visiting for the past few weeks. On the stage sat four speakers; Jane Clementi, the mother of Tyler Clementi and co-founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Dr. Carolyn Stone, Ed. D, professor and counselor educator who serves as chair of the American School Counselor Association’s Ethics Committee, Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, a preacher who serves as the director of Faith Partnerships and Mobilization for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and Dr. David Gushee, a clergy member and Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology at Mercer University.

Each person on the panel spoke about their own story and how their background led them to where they were today; most as believers who fully embrace the Bible as the Word of God, but who reject the current church’s teachings on homosexuality.

At one point during the panel, when Rev. MacArthur was speaking – in the booming, engaging voice one would expect of a preacher – I leaned over to Ryan. With a big smile on my face, I whispered, “this feels like church.”

It was a weird thing to say, as, by the end of the night, there was at least one thing every speaker and audience member agreed on; it was the church we were fighting against. Even though most of the “we” were also church members themselves. We were all believers. People who not only worshiped the same God and read the same Bible, but wanted the very same thing as the people we were working against.

The dichotomy was almost overwhelming. Here we were, Christians, talking about other Christians and how we needed to save LGBT youth from them (and their incorrect and dangerous teachings.) It was like being at an intervention familyfor a family member who is abusing their children; the immediate need is to save and protect the kids, but you don’t necessarily want to do that in a way that harms the parent. Everyone involved – abuser and victim- are family.

As someone who was  ridiculously blessed with loving parents, it’s taken me a long time to process what it’s like to live in this dysfunctional relationship with my Christian family – I’m honestly still processing it.

I have to deal with this painful dichotomy every time I randomly peruse the Facebook pages of friends from the church I grew up in. There I see jokes made at LGBT people’s expense, attacks on poor people, defenses of violence, and of course, praises to God. This is just par for the course on social media – you’d think I’d be used to it by now. But I’m not. Every time I see a Christian use the Bible to make a remark filled with ignorance or hate, there’s a part of me that wants to just throw my hands up and say, “I quit. I want no more part of this family.”

There’s a certain kind of pain and frustration that can only come from knowing that the people who hurt you the most, are supposed to be the ones that protect and love you.

After the panel discussion ended, we walked back to our car. I was stewing in a mixture of incongruous emotions; anger, hope, frustration, disappointment, and as usual, hunger.  It wasn’t until we reached the parking garage that I realized something.

No matter how dysfunctional the church family gets, we have a father and mother (God) who loves us. All of us. God is not the one carrying out the abuse or causing the dysfunction. God is the one who is bringing truth to light, and opening enough people’s hearts and minds, that events like the one we attended could even take place.

I can’t throw my hands up in the air and say, “I quit”, because I have a father who has always been there for me. My siblings might often be terrible (what siblings aren’t?) but my mother God is in control.

Towards the end of the panel, Dr. Gushee opened a Bible that was sitting on his lap and said, “The thing about holding this up and saying, ‘the Bible says’ is that in certain places, people actually believe you.” For years, I’ve been secretly wincing every time someone utters that phrase, “The Bible says” because what follows has almost always been void of the Gospel. Last night though, I was reminded of the power that comes when the person holding that Bible is using it not as a weapon, but as a welcome.

It’s OK for me to separate myself from the dysfunctional parts of my church family that have caused me and my LGBT friends pain. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for dysfunctional relationships is draw boundaries. The great news though is that the church family has many members. Much to my joy and relief, I’ve found that there are many in the church family who want to embrace LGBT youth and families. Fully. Which means that even though my faith family is dysfunctional, there are people within it who I can turn to for strength, support, and guidance.

When it comes down to it, no family is perfect. I’m just grateful that the family I am a part of has members who are willing to point out the dysfunction within.


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