Attention: O&A Doesn’t Just Mean “Gay Friendly”

So, let me tell you about another argument people offer up, without the apparatus of a staged conversation,[1] as a reason why their congregation doesn’t feel that declaring itself O&A is necessarily a good idea:[2]

“We don’t want to be known as a ‘one issue church.’”

Put less diplomatically, as some people have done, the reservation is expressed this way:

“We don’t want to be known as the ‘gay church.’”

I want to address this matter because it can prove to be an obstacle for churches in entertaining the radical notion of becoming Open and Affirming. (Also, I have something of a personal interest in broadly addressing this matter, since some of my critics have voiced their concern that I am also in danger of being known as a “one-issue guy,” beating only this particular theological drum—to the exclusion of other important theological questions.)[3]

This is worth talking about. The charge that focusing on LGBTQ inclusion carries with it the danger of consigning oneself or one’s congregation to a box reserved for single issue (and thus ) matters marked, “identity politics” (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, etc.), misses a very important point.

Open and Affirming is not simply code for “gay friendly.” In writing up a resolution about our denomination declaring itself Open and Affirming, I was cautioned by more than a few people that O&A is seen by many to be a euphemism for militant gay friendliness.

“Urging churches to be O&A is a sure way to turn people off, because there’s a long history behind that designation that many people hear as a call to become a ‘gay church.’”

Ok. I get that, if by “Open and Affirming” what people mean is just another sneaky way to squeeze into the life of the church the “agenda driven politics” of the LGBTQ community (perhaps a straw man argument all its own?).

But the thing is: Nobody I know is making that argument.

Open and Affirming, though it carries a specific and important association with the LGBTQ community is so much more than making churches “gay friendly”; it is a call to the church to fundamentally reorient its understanding of hospitality and justice. The full inclusion of LGBTQ people only scratches the surface of the church’s radical vocation to love those who’ve been kicked to the margins.

When a church becomes Open and Affirming, it soon finds that welcoming LGBTQ folks is just the beginning. Pretty soon, if you’re anything like serious about your faith, you begin to ask,“Who else has been left out that the church should be welcoming in? About who else has society generally said, ‘You need not worry about those folks. We’ve got much more pressing concerns. Their stuff (even if we think they have a right to it, which oftentimes we do not) can wait?’”

Immigrants (legal and otherwise)? People of races different from mine? The poor? AIDS patients? Those who can’t get health insurance? The disabled? Drug addicts? Ex-cons? Prostitutes and tax-collectors? Lepers? You know, the disposable people?

Open and Affirming, after you live with it a while, instead of narrowing your focus to one beleaguered group, broadens your vision. It is a way of beginning to take seriously what otherwise gets so casually tossed about by popular Christianity: What would Jesus do?

Indeed, what would Jesus do? Which question is another way of asking, “Who would Jesus love? Who would Jesus welcome? Who would Jesus see cast off from the rest of ‘normal’ life, drop what he’s doing with the highly accomplished and well situated, and go hang out?”

Open and Affirming congregations, I want to suggest, are much less “single issue” churches than those congregations that spend the bulk of their time in extended instances of applied ecclesiological navel-gazing.

To the extent that a church spends the bulk of its time hand-wringing about its impending demise, for instance, it’s a single issue church.

Congregations that obsess about attracting young families are much closer to being single issue churches than O&A congregations.

You might just be a single issue church … if you spend more time talking about not having enough money than about what kinds of interesting things you’re going to do with the money you’ve got.

You get the idea.

The point is that becoming O&A doesn’t limit the horizon of discipleship; in fact, it stretches it in revolutionary ways, offering a point of access to the radical hospitality and the institution-challenging justice practiced by Jesus himself.

Perhaps discipleship, when all is said and done, is a single issue: Does the faith you practice assist you or prevent you from following Jesus to the wrong side of town?

  1. I’ve written quite a bit about why churches should declare themselves Open and Affirming. These pieces have often started with reconstructed and condensed versions of conversations I’ve had with real people. However, that literary conceit upsets some—understandably, I think, because as the author, I always get to appear in control. I have an unfair advantage in such an exchange, since it’s perhaps a bit too tempting to paint people who have a different set of convictions on the issue as less than thoughtful. Let me set the record straight: I believe that many of the people who disagree with me on the issue of the full acceptance of LGBTQ people in general, and on the issue of becoming Open and Affirming in particular, are just as thoughtful and committed to their faith as I am. I just think they’re wrong. (I don’t suppose that’s going to win hearts and minds either.)  ↩
  2. This post, like other posts I’ve done on this issue is specifically written for those people who agree with me that full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the life of the church is appropriate, but who have yet to press the conversation in their congregations. If, however, you happen to be someone who is not convinced that LGBTQ folks should be welcomed into the life of the church, you probably ought to stop now, and go find another article to read, because the rest of this post is only going to irritate you. I don’€™t mean go away for ever, just for the rest of this post.  ↩
  3. Let me attend to that specific charge but briefly: I do, in fact, write and comment on a wide range of issues that extend beyond the acceptance and embrace of LGBTQ people. If you’re really that interested, you can go back through the archives of my writings here or here and check.  ↩
This entry was posted in Christianity, ethics, LGBTQ, ministry, Social Justice and tagged , , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

11 thoughts on “Attention: O&A Doesn’t Just Mean “Gay Friendly”

  1. A very, very strong argument from an angle that rarely gets discussed. Single-issue, indeed. But I’m saddened that you are so harsh about “applied ecclesiological navel-gazing.” I’m considering a D.Min. in AEN-G studies, and you make it sound like a bad thing. Next, you’ll be mocking when congregations call themselves “the friendliest church in town”!

    Have you seen the John Scalzi post on “Straight White Male: Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is”? (and check out his follow-up post linked at the bottom of the piece now).

  2. Pingback: Attention: O&A Doesn’t Just Mean “Gay Friendly” | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  3. I agree that no one is making the argument that its about one issue, rather it is about hospitality. As a parent of a child with special needs, I believe this is essential for our family, as well. It is about being Open and Affirming of ALL. Ironically, I have known of O&A church that did not do a great job with children with special needs, as referenced in an article of mine. The lesson is to understand the radical hospitality we are called to provide and be.

  4. Being open to homosexuality is easy, because white, middle class homosexuals have no problem speaking our language, singing our hymns, following our liturgical style. The real difficulty comes when we have to change what we’re doing to be open to other races, social classes or ethnic communities. To do that engages music and worship changes that are really challenging.

    By the way, I’m one of those who has not brought up the issue, because my congregation is willing to commit the time and effort required. For “Open and Affirming” to have real meaning it should come from a place of serious biblical reflection, and that’s something a lot of congregations are not willing to do. These days it seems to me that almost no one is willing to commit to serious biblical reflection about anything, much less this issue. “It’s boring, it’s too much work, it upsets me, I don’t have time.”

    • Steve: I’m with you on the difficulty we encounter in the level of commitment it takes both to have the kind of thoughtful discussion you describe, as well as to be open to the kinds of changes that will come in being welcoming to folks across the usual lines of demarcation–race, ethnicity, social class, etc.

      Thanks once again for your thoughtful comments.

  5. “Freedom means taking sides in a crisis situation, when a society is divided into oppressed and oppressors. In this situation we are not permitted the luxury of being on neither side by making a decision that only involves the self. Our decision affects the whole of society, and it cannot but be made in view of either oppressed or oppressors. There is no way to transcend this alternative” -James Cone.

  6. I appreciate your insistence that the words “open and affirming” are different from “gay church.” When I look up the words “open” and “affirming” in the dictionary, I cannot find the word “gay” in either of the definitions. Taking the words “open and affirming” at face value, I would assume that even heterosexuals would be welcomed at such a place. I would not make that assumption about a group that identified as a “gay church.”

    “Open” does not mean “agree.” To be open does not mean that one cannot have a different, or even opposing, opinion. But closed eyes cannot see at all. We close our eyes to prevent seeing, or perchance, to dream. We all “see through a glass darkly.” even with eyes wide “open.” If we “affirm” this as fact, then we all have a place at the feast of life. The table is round, there is no head of the table.

    In the context of church, and more plainly put… I’d feel welcomed at a church where members/leaders might say: ” I think that _______ is an issue for a Christian and, so far, this is why I believe that way… but I could be wrong (that’s “open”). I welcome and value you as wanting to see clearly just as much as I want to (affirmation). Come, let us reason together”

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