Heavy Burdens

Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church

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Pub Date 26 Oct 2021 | Archive Date 05 Nov 2021

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Religious faith reduces the risk of suicide for virtually every American demographic except one: LGBTQ people. Generations of LGBTQ people have been alienated or condemned by Christian communities. It's past time that Christians confronted the ongoing and devastating effects of this legacy.

Many LGBTQ people face overwhelming challenges in navigating faith, gender, and sexuality. Christian communities that uphold the traditional sexual ethic often unwittingly make the path more difficult through unexamined attitudes and practices. Drawing on her sociological training and her leadership in the Side B/Revoice conversation, Bridget Eileen Rivera, who founded the popular website Meditations of a Traveling Nun, speaks to the pain of LGBTQ Christians and helps churches develop a better pastoral approach.

Rivera calls to mind Jesus's woe to religious leaders: "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them" (Matt. 23:4). Heavy Burdens provides an honest account of seven ways LGBTQ people experience discrimination in the church, helping Christians grapple with hard realities and empowering churches across the theological spectrum to navigate better paths forward.

Religious faith reduces the risk of suicide for virtually every American demographic except one: LGBTQ people. Generations of LGBTQ people have been alienated or condemned by Christian communities...

Advance Praise

“We’ve needed a book like Heavy Burdens for a long time. Bridget Eileen Rivera shares the stories our churches urgently need to hear. She shows us exactly how Christians ourselves have wounded the LGBTQ children of our churches. This is a book that can begin to bind up some of those wounds and guide us, in humble love, to build churches in which the next generation of queer Christians can truly flourish. To use Rivera’s terms, this book will help Christian leaders stop ‘obsessing about the sins’ of gay people, and start ‘obsessing about the grace’ God is pouring out through their lives. And it will help LGBTQ people who have been harmed by Christians realize that they are not alone—not only because others have experienced what they’ve been through but because Jesus has always been by their side, always faithful, always cherishing them.”—Eve Tushnet, author of Gay and Catholic

“Rivera’s dauntless and nuanced voice fills a significant void in the Christian debate over sexual identity. Combining tender storytelling with a keen analytic eye, she deconstructs our current status quo to reveal both its fault lines and its mutability. This book challenged me to think more deeply about the logics that underlie my own convictions—and I have a hunch that, no matter where you fall along the spectrum of belief, these provocative pages will challenge you too.”—Gregory Coles, author of Single, Gay, Christian and No Longer Strangers
“This is an essential book, one I wish we’d had forty years ago, as I believe it would have greatly reduced much unnecessary spiritual and physical destruction. It eloquently and convincingly argues not that we hold any particular theological position on sexuality and gender but rather that we open our hearts to recognize both the humanity of queer people and our need for queer people. It opens doors not to threatening theological changes but to the church’s own history—doors many would rather keep shut because they reveal our hypocrisy and our shallow, nearsighted obsession with sex as well as our slavery to secular norms. Rivera is a clear thinker, a scholarly but accessible writer, and a gentle but firm guide who simultaneously educates, challenges, and cares for her readers. She invites us to imagine a world in which God’s LGBTQ+ children are given the space and the safety they need to ask questions, seek God’s will for their lives, and flourish, no matter where the Spirit and their consciences lead them. What a gift this book is to the body of Christ. I suspect—and I pray that my instincts are good here—that it will be a game changer for the church.”—Kristyn Komarnicki, director of Oriented to Love dialogue program, Christians for Social Action
“In spite of—or just as often because of—my position as a ‘conservative’ on marriage and sexuality, I have seen firsthand the ways the evangelical Christian movement has devastated the faith of many of its own LGBTQ members. Not everyone will agree with every argument in this account of that devastation (I don’t), but every Christian who reads this book will no longer be able to ignore the real harm that has been done in the name of the gospel—or to avoid grappling afresh with the repentance and justice-seeking that the gospel continues to ask of us all.”—Wesley Hill, associate professor of New Testament, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan; author of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian
“Many if not most Christians think that the gospel is something that ‘those other people over there’ need to hear and respond to. In truth though, it’s people of Christian faith who are the ones in most desperate need of hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, and this is nowhere more so the case than in the church’s treatment of LGBTQ persons. Bridget Eileen Rivera’s Heavy Burdens is the gospel the church needs to hear. As such, I don’t just recommend that you read it; I dare you to. Personally, I thank God for her wit and winsomeness, and I pray that we all have the courage to heed the wisdom of her words.”—Kutter Callaway, associate professor of theology and culture, Fuller Theological Seminary
“For too long, what should have been a collective rush to compassion and care for the LGBTQ community instead became a screaming match over theological fine points. Heavy Burdens cuts through the noise so that we can truly see. This manifesto rings out in the key of love, the kind that lives in our actions and disrupts our narratives of judgment, fear, and oppression. Bridget Eileen Rivera is a prophet for the ages, calling us to the clear-eyed way of Jesus and igniting our shared imagination for the lightness of Christ, alive and at work in all of us.”—Shannan Martin, author of The Ministry of Ordinary Places and Falling Free

“We’ve needed a book like Heavy Burdens for a long time. Bridget Eileen Rivera shares the stories our churches urgently need to hear. She shows us exactly how Christians ourselves have wounded the...

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Featured Reviews

An Instagram influencer that I follow recommended this book, and I had to check it out. "Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church", by Bridget Eilleen Rivera, is a well-written and thought-provoking esposé into the ways churches harm those in the LGBTQ community. While this is an important read, it's obviously not very easy to read. I didn't agree with everything I read in the book, but I do agree that the church needs to do a better job of ministering to those who are struggling with their sexual identity. Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC. All opinions are my own.

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I'm going to be pondering over this book for quite a while. The vast majority of it is well reasoned and convincingly argued. The stories of the devastation caused to LGBTQIA+ people by Christians and the Church are completely heartbreaking. It infuriates me that so many of my fellow Christians are proud of the despicable, inhumane ways they treat queer people. I found Rivera's approach to the book - largely declining to engage in the major debates that church positions on LGBTQIA+ people tend to circle around, but focusing instead on the grievous harm done by traditional conservative teaching and the consequent behaviour - helpful and clarifying.

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I want every straight person in ministry to read this book. I want every straight person to read this book! I want everyone to read this book!! Heavy Burdens is somehow both accessible and well-researched, highly readable while still taking its subject seriously. Bridget Eileen Rivera has managed to thread the needle of keeping her book approachable while keeping her readers accountable. Anecdotes set the stage for each chapter, highlighting different issues LGBTQ Christians face in the church. Rivera draws on history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and theology throughout the book, in addition to offering tangible ways to support LGBTQ Christians and resources for further reading. This book is not an argument for or against same-sex marriage, so don't expect that theology debated here. Instead, prepare to be drawn in by the stories shared, shedding light on the real harm done at the hands of the church.

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I have often struggled to find LGBTQ resources that are deeply rooted in scripture and church history, but also help me grow in love and compassion. This book hit the mark! Rivera doesn’t try to solve every theological issue, but she dives in deeply enough that you realize things might not be as clear cut as some present. Heavy Burdens connects the dots from a hyper-focus on sex that has produced LGBTQ discrimination within the church to other current issues including sexual abuse and toxic masculinity. This book is a gift to the church at such a critical time. The church needs to develop a more nuanced approach to gay christians that is loving, welcoming, and allows the Holy Spirit to lead. As a pastor I highly recommend.

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With a combination of individual stories and scholarly research, Rivera paints a vivid picture of the harm conservative churches have been doing to their own LGBTQ members. She outlines 7 “burdens” laid on LGBTQ folks by religious communities, illustrating each with stories taken from her own experience and formal interviews, and providing her own “TLDR” summary at the end of each chapter. This structure keeps even readers who might bog down in her deep scholarship engaged and tracking with her main goal - to inform well-meaning church folks of where they’ve gone wrong, and how they can do better. Rather than simply condemning these churches, or advising all LGBTQ folks to flee them, her penultimate chapter lays out concrete steps forward. Both hard-hitting and touching, academic and practical, this book can be a gift to move the conversation forward toward justice and full inclusion for LGBTQ folks in a wide range of churches.

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I think this book was well researched and well written and, above all, does an excellent job of making the case that the harm done to LGBT people by the Church is not merely from the abusive or harsh language of a few Christians but is rooted in basic assumptions about sex, marriage and LGBT people held in general by most, if not all, Churches; especially in the manner in which the Church itself identifies people by their sexuality. I really hope many pastors will read this and be able to empathize with the damage that has been done over the last century to faithful and believing Christians by the Church at large, not just a handful of mean homophobes. I do have to admit, however, that I am uncomfortable with the solution proposed and I would like a bit more clarity here. The author suggests we treat questions of sexuality much like we do baptism, as a disputable matter. But few denominations actually see baptism as a disputable matter. Yes, they do believe Christians may hold different interpretations of baptism and still be Christians. But most denominations also see those who hold a different view of baptism as being of a differing confession of faith. In my own denomination we would acknowledge a person who held to believers baptism as being Christian but would not allow a pastor who believed so to lead a worship service or preach in our congregations. A lay person who was vocal about their disagreement on baptism would probably also be asked to find a denomination closer to their confession. Yet we would not threaten them with hell and would certainly work with them on community projects such as food banks. And many of the pastors from varying denominations become close friends, as do the lay people. So if the author intends to convey that treating disagreements over sexuality as "disputable" means each side can see the other as wrong yet still be friends and see one another as Christian, I would give that a whole hearted "amen." But if treating sexuality as "disputable" means seeing differing interpretations of the texts as being equally valid - that would be a problem and probably a huge barrier to how this book with be received by most conservative, denominational pastors. So I would like to see a bit more clarity there.

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I am a straight white cis-gendered pastor who holds to Side B/ the traditional sexual ethic. You will probably want to filter my review with that understanding. I am weirdly the target audience for the book and also the audience that might be the least receptive. The book tries hard to straddle the line between affirming and non-affirming. Rivera is Side B(non-affirming) and is celibate herself. She tries hard to avoid the discussion and several times emphasizes that the book is not about that particular debate. However, by the end of the book she places the entire discussion as a non-essential one. She compares it to baptism as something that believers can disagree about and still follow Jesus. That will be a difficult pill to swallow for many. I'm not convinced on that point, but she makes her argument well. Most of the book focuses on the seven ways LGBTQ people have been harmed in the church. She lays out the arguments with two chapters each explaining how the church has gone beyond the bounds of Scripture in various ways. It is hard to debate, and shouldn't be, that Christians have been ungodly towards LGBTQ people. This needs to be confronted and repented of. The book does a good job of laying out various ways that this has happened. Some of the burdens were better explained than others. As the book went on I found myself disagreeing more and more in places. I agree with her overall point, but found myself nitpicking here and there. Most Christians should be able to agree with a lot of these burdens even if they disagree with others. I find myself conflicted on the book. I am uncomfortable with framing the discussion as a completely non-essential issue. But there is a lot of wisdom to be found here. Those who are non-affirming and not apart of the LGBTQ community may struggle more with the book. But I think it is still worth reading and wrestling with. If nothing else to listen to the perspective of someone who agrees with you largely, but is trying to point out what you got wrong. I imagine those who are more affirming will be really enjoy this book and find it healing. In the end people should read it. It effectively makes the case that Christians have harmed LGBTQ people even if you disagree with some of the particulars. It is especially strong for a debut in a difficult topic. Introduction Burden 1: Sex . . . err . . . Celibacy Is Great! 1. The Protestant Sexual Revolution 2. The New Sexual Order Burden 2: Sinners Saved by Grace 3. Perverted Identity 4. Freud's Lasting Influence Burden 3: Folk Devils 5. Political Christianity 6. Hellfire and Judgment Burden 4: The Bible Is "Clear" 7. Culture and Context 8. Double Standards Burden 5: "Real" Men, "Good" Ladies 9. Effeminacy 10. Emasculation Burden 6: Made in the Image of God Sex 11. Gender Essentialism 12. More Than Just Monkeys? Burden 7: Jesus Saves Damns 13. Vessels of Wrath 14. Grace for Me but Not for Thee A Better Way 15. Recentering the Gospel 16. Setting Down the Burdens 17. Weights of Glory I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for a review.

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Heavy Burdens, by Bridget Eileen Rivera, is an amazingly informative book. A combination of case studies for what it’s like to find yourself out of the inner circle of stereotypical, heterosexual believers. It’s condemning. It’s excluding. It’s rejecting…. It’s a recipe for disaster. Here’s a quote from the Introduction (p. 16): “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth contemplate suicide three times more often than heterosexual youth and are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide if they experience family rejection. Forty percent of transgender adults have attempted suicide at least once in their lifetime, and of that number, 92 percent attempted suicide before the age of twenty-five. Of all teen suicides from 2013 to 2015, nearly 25 percent were LGBTQ. Of all homeless youth in the United States, 40 percent are LGBTQ. In the span of a year, an estimated 1.8 million LGBTQ youth between the ages of thirteen and twenty-four will seriously contemplate suicide. LGBTQ people are also more likely to be the target of hate crimes than any other minority group in the United States today, surpassing Jewish, Muslim, and Black people. For most people, religious involvement reduces the risk of suicide. But when gay and lesbian college students engage more heavily in their faith communities, their risk of suicide only goes up. Gay and lesbian students are 38 percent more likely to contemplate suicide if they are heavily involved in faith communities. Lesbian students, counted separately from gay male students, are 52 percent more likely to contemplate suicide if they are heavily involved in faith communities. 8 How can that be? How is it that going to church would be a factor in keeping straight people alive but pushing gay people toward death?” If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will. So read on… Rivera presents a collection of case studies of believers who are LGBTQ and their struggles to find acceptance (at any level!) and fellowship in the church (nearly any church). She combines over a dozen of these real-life examples with great historical, exegetical, and sociological studies discussing sexuality and the church. It’s absolutely remarkable the level of hypocrisy that the church has displayed toward those outside of its definition of “acceptable norm,” even to the point of incorporating Freudian categories into Bible translations. How can it be that those who were rejected by the religious elite but were drawn to Jesus in life changing ways are being both rejected and condemned by those who claim to follow him? To be clear, though, this book is NOT an attempt to push an LGBTQ affirming agenda. This book is a demonstration of where and how the Church is getting it wrong – not necessarily theologically but in practice. What I mean is that Rivera is NOT pushing any particular interpretive agenda (whether affirming or “side B,” progressive or traditional). She is exposing and redirecting the Church to be the Church – the body of Christ. After 14 chapters of easy to read, highly informative descriptions of 7 “burdens,” she concludes with a 3-chapter section called “A Better Way.” Here, Rivera lays out some steps to take, directions to go, for the Church in embracing LGBTQ believers. She does not claim to have “all the answers.” She is just wanting to do what she can to help the Church live out the love of Jesus to all who need him, which simply means everybody. So my recommendation is to buy this book, read it, reread it, pray about it – that God would help you understand and to love without feeling compelled to compromise your conscience. Then share it. Get the word out. Do what you can to help make the Church a true representation of the body of Christ.

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Bridget Eileen Rivera is a prominent figure in the LGBTQ+ conversations happening in the Christian church of the West. I first encountered her work through her blog, Meditations of a Traveling Nun, while I was working through that "reconciliation" stage for followers of Christ engaging with the LGBTQ+ communities/issues/identities. Her writing was refreshing and thoughtful, balancing personal accounts with academic and theological reflection. While in so many other Christian spaces that I, coming from a conservative Protestant background, have run into (and continue to encounter) posit that a Christian cannot be LGBTQ+ or think favorably of LGBTQ+ individuals, Bridget provided a different perspective that acknowledged her personal convictions and extended grace in interpretation and practice toward others. After months combing through the archives of her blog, I was delighted to find out that Bridget would be publishing a book - this book, Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church - that brought the many thoughts expressed or alluded to in her blog and in her social media accounts into one unified whole. After months of waiting for the release date, I received a copy of Heavy Burdens at the beginning of October and, in less than two days, had read all of it. Heavy Burdens did not disappoint! Bridget writes with compassion for both LGBTQ+ Christians in the Church and non-LGBTQ+ Christians navigating this conversation. It is known that Bridget is "Side B," meaning that she, as a gay woman, ascribes to the "traditional sexual ethic" of Christianity that sexual intimacy is reserved to be between one man and one woman. She explains at a couple of points in the book, as in other writings online, that she came to this conclusion by taking Scripture holistically, rather than by proof texts. However, the focus of Heavy Burdens is not on proselytizing any side of the LGBTQ/Christian debate. Bridget's focus in Heavy Burdens is the treatment of LGBTQ+ Christians, regardless of "side," in the local Christian church. To this end, she describes seven burdens placed on LGBTQ+ Christians, this terminology drawn from Matthew 23:4 on religious leaders of Jesus's day tying heavy burdens on people that they do not impose on themselves, and spends two chapters on each of them. The burdens include the celibacy mandate imposed, implicitly or explicitly, on LGBTQ+ Christians (and the fact that even celibacy isn't enough sometimes), the insistence that what is biblically complex for straight Christians is biblically simple or clear for LGBTQ+ Christians, and the reduction of LGBTQ+ Christians to nothing more than their sex (despite the human beings exaltation as images of God). Bridget draws from ancient and Christian history and from Christian theological traditions to build her arguments around these seven burdens. She also considers the influence of political power and psychological theories, especially in the 20th century, in considering the current treatment of LGBTQ+ Christians in the Church today. A semi-academic book in its engagement with these various fields, Heavy Burdens is intended for a general audience, so citations and additional notes appear as endnotes. (My preference is footnotes, as it is faster to check sources when the information is right at the bottom of the page in question, but I understand why endnotes were used instead.) Heavy Burdens combines serious reflection with anecdotes that humanize the issues being discussed; a common shortcoming of conversations in the Christian church regarding LGBTQ+ issues is the removal of the person and a focus on "the issue," which often ends up treating people as issues instead of, well, people. Bridget avoids this by placing the stories of the people harmed by these burdens at the front of each chapter. The people featured come from a range of backgrounds in general demographics (gender, race, etc.), in the LGBTQ+/Church conversations (different sides), and in the LGBTQ+ communities (gay, bisexual, asexual, etc.). I appreciated the way Bridget presented these individuals and weaved them through the rest of the chapters, linking the people to the burdens she argues that LGBTQ+ Christians face in the Church. Even after digging into these issues for years, there were points that Bridget covered that I hadn't known about. For example, she spends a chapter on 1 Corinthians 6:9, which has been translated to read "Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites...will inherit the kingdom of God" in the 1982 New King James Version of the Bible. She notes how the word "homosexual" hadn't replaced the previously used word "effeminate" until the 1946 RSV, which I knew about. What I didn't know was the historical background of ancient Roman social relations as they related to that word "effeminate." Bridget pokes at the arsenokoitai/malakoi debate among biblical scholars to show that - look - it being a debate implies that the supposed clarity of Scripture on this issue doesn't exist. I liked Bridget's conclusion on this point: "In my own experience, the Bible was only 'clear' about homosexuality for as long as I was willing to never go beyond the surface. The minute I set aside my own worldview and studied the text in the context of its time, things got a lot more complicated." Bridget doesn't leave readers under the weight of burdens' reality. In her final three chapters, she considers what the Church can do moving forward to create at atmosphere in which LGBTQ+ Christians can flourish. While reading Heavy Burdens, a semi-conversation I had with someone about LGBTQ+ individuals in the Church kept coming back to me. In response to my suppositions, my interlocutor opened Google, searched for Bible verses related to homosexuality, read a couple to me, and called it clear. Heavy Burdens is a book that I think would be a great benefit to Christians like that peer. It would be a great benefit, moreover, to any Christian in the West in the 21st century. I echo the endorsement of Wesley Hill that "every Christian who reads this book will no longer be able to ignore the real harm that has been done in the name of the gospel--or to avoid grappling afresh with the repentance and justice-seeking that the gospel continues to ask of us all."

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Heavy Burdens is both hard to read and very inspirational. I can't even say whether I "agree" with everything Bridget wrote because the goal of her book is not to argue that God supports gay marriage or that the very existence of gay people is a sin. Rather, using both personal anecdotes and objective data, Bridget illustrates how very wrong the Christian church has been in how they treat LGBTQ folks. There must be a better way. Spoiler alert, "hating the sin and loving the sinner" is not it. My heart ached at the stories of folks who sought fellowship and comfort in the church only to be turned away or driven to suicidal ideations at the hate they encountered. This is not the way of Jesus. Bridget's mic drop point is 100% how inconsistent the American church is regarding sexual ethics. On the one hand, you have churches unwilling to come down on whether divorce is ok or birth control or any number of other "matters of conscience," yet say without blinking that the Bible is clear on other matters of sexuality that doesn't affect heterosexual relationships, namely how it applies to LGBTQ folks. I was inspired by the stories of gay Christians who pour over Scripture to seek truth in a way most heterosexual Christians would never to address their own questions of sexuality. I also think Bridget makes a great point about how heterosexual Christians gate-keep the Gospel and act like the grace and love of God cannot extend to those "they" determine to be unforgivable. How very unacceptable. Anyway, I went into this book pretty much already agreeing with the premise, but I have come away with renewed conviction. I think all Christians, especially those in leadership and ministry, ought to read this book. Full disclosure, the author Bridget was a college classmate of mine and we have stayed connected over social media in the years after graduation. That definitely affected my review because I think she is just a wonderful and wise human. Thank you to Netgalley, Brazos, and the author for the eARC in exchange for my review.

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This is an important book. It is also heavy and difficult to read at times, especially if you are part of the LGBTQ community and you have experienced religious trauma firsthand. But Rivera does a great job at laying out the facts and statistics that don't lie when it comes to how LGBTQ people have been so badly treated by the church for so long. I certainly don't agree with her about everything. She describes herself as a "side B" celibate, gay, Christian, committed to the "traditional" view of biblical sexual ethics. I firmly landed on "side A', or fully affirming theology when it comes to LGBTQ people and their relationships. But her book isn't really about that debate. Her book is about trying to get non-affirming Christians to treat LGBTQ people as beloved children of God, made in the image of God, and stop putting heavy burdens on their backs that God never wanted them to put there in the first place.

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