Caleb Kaltenbach (M.A. ’07) is an alumnus of Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, lead pastor of a large church in Simi Valley, Calif., and a married father of two. He’s also an emerging voice in the discussion of how Christians should engage the LGBT community. That’s because Kaltenbach has an insider perspective, having been raised by a dad and mom who divorced and independently came out of the closet as a gay man and a lesbian. Raised in the midst of LGBT parties and pride parades, Kaltenbach became a Christian and a pastor as a young adult. Today, he manages the tension of holding to the traditional biblical teaching on sexuality while loving his gay parents.

Kaltenbach’s unique story is detailed in his new book Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction and landed him on the front page of the New York Times in June. Biola Magazine reached out to him to talk about his book and his perspective on how Christians can better navigate the complexities of this issue with truth and grace.

a book titled Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction by Caleb Kaltenbach

In your book you say that it’s time for Christians to own the issue of homosexuality. What do you mean by this? How would you like to see this play out?

Christians can own this issue by caring enough to get to know the whole person. If you think that identifying as LGBT is mainly about sex — that’s shallow. The theology of “whom we have sex with” might be black and white, but the person and related experiences aren’t. Once my mom told me that she and her partner hadn’t been intimate in years. I asked why she still called herself a lesbian. Her response was that she had a community filled with friends, acceptance, a cause and deep feelings. It reminded me that people have depth. Care enough about a person not to reduce them to their sexual orientation. If someone who is LGBT says that it’s not mainly about sex, why immediately throw the “homosexuality verses” their way? Talk about holy living down the road. Perhaps Christians can own this issue by being kind and making a new friend.

You challenge Christians to stop avoiding or merely “tolerating” LGBT people, but to engage in meaningful relationships with them. What should that look like?

The more Christians stop treating people in the LGBT community as “evangelistic projects” or “those people,” the more meaningful relationships will develop. Here’s the secret to engage in meaningful relationships with anyone: Treat people like actual people. Embrace the tension by developing friendships over meals, coffee and more. Engage in conversations. Try to understand who they are as a person (experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.). Don’t seek to “fix” anyone, but point to Christ. Here’s a hard truth I came to learn over the years: It’s never been my job to change someone’s sexual attraction. God didn’t call me to “restore” LGBT people to a straight orientation. It’s not even my job to change lives. It’s God’s job. He has great experience in the “life change department.” My responsibility is to love people, make friends and journey with them.

You write that one definition of love is holding the tension of grace and truth. What do you mean by this and who do you think models this sort of love well?

The uncomfortable feeling in the tension of grace and truth is love. and God as well. However, love never harms. A theological conviction should never be a catalyst to treat someone poorly. We can accept the person without approving of their choice to be in (or pursue) a same-sex relationship. Love people, but remember what the Bible teaches. Deepen your relationships, but hold firm to conviction. Never give up on the person or Scripture. Love never takes sides. Love has no exception clause. I see this love lived out by some parents of gay teenagers. These parents love their kids no matter what and nothing about their relationship changes. They thank the teen for trusting them with this part of their life. At the same time, they hold true to what Scripture says not only about sexuality, but also about loving others.

What happens if our “love” is not accepted at all because we still hold to truth? What would you say to an LGBT person who argues that “acceptance but not approval” is not actually love? Isn’t that the direction society is moving, that anything short of full approval is actually bigotry?

To the LGBT person: Be careful taking a hardline stance on something that isn’t your foundational identity. Your main identity shouldn’t be defined by your sexual orientation; rather God should define it. People are entitled to their beliefs. Many examined Scripture, believe that sexual intimacy is for a man and woman in marriage, and aren’t homophobic or hateful. If these people are loved ones (being loving towards you) why shut them out? Don’t distance yourself because they don’t agree with you or the kind of relationship you might have. Don’t treat others who disagree with you the way you wouldn’t like to be treated. They might be intolerant in your mind for not agreeing with you. However, are they treating you poorly? Do they love you less? Do they not value you anymore? Don’t become intolerant by not giving them margin to have different views.

How should and how shouldn’t Christians respond if someone in their life or church community confides in them about same sex attraction?

Christians make too many mistakes when someone comes out to them. They try to advise counseling. At some point, they will throw out Bible verses concerning homosexuality or marriage. Some Christians try to “relate” and often compare same-sex attraction to other sins like murder, theft, etc. Emotions like depression and anger will usually set in. Unfortunately, these are all the wrong things to do. Everyone needs counseling, the person coming out probably knows how you interpret the Bible regarding sexuality, and they don’t want to be compared to Hannibal Lecter or Gordon Gekko. This is a moment to listen and affirm your love for them. Think of it this way: The people coming out to you have chosen to share a very intimate and personal part of their life because you are someone they value. You can never get this moment back, and responding the wrong way is devastating.

How should a Christian respond if invited to a same-sex marriage ceremony? Is attending a gay wedding a tacit affirmation of the sacredness of the vows being exchanged?

Attending may put you in a difficult position as one who believes marriage is for a man and woman. However, you’ll have influence in your relationship with the married person. Fear shouldn’t keep you from a situation where others disagree with you. There might be a chance to share your faith with others at the wedding. Later, when the newlywed has a season of doubt or turmoil, you might be the person they turn to (giving you the chance to share Jesus). But there are also reasons why you may not want to attend. Hurt feelings may result, but God created marriage for him and the couple. You need to stand for truth, and this might be one of those times. In the end, the couple might recognize and remember your integrity. Either option could carry relational difficulty, doctrinal tension or emotional baggage. My advice: Pray about it and represent Jesus well with your decision.

If celibacy is the only option for a same-sex-attracted Christian who wants to remain biblically faithful (you argue this in the book), what can the church do to better minister to these people? Can we just casually tell them “no sex for you!” and leave it at that?

Some argue the Bible doesn’t address same-sex loving monogamous relationships, so it’s fine. However, all passages dealing with homosexuality agree that same-sex intimacy isn’t God’s design — monogamous or not. Sexual intimacy is from God for a man and woman in the covenant of marriage. Outside of marriage, there shouldn’t be any expression of sexuality. Our sex-obsessed culture makes celibacy out to be cruel, when it’s a blessing. There’s more focus on God, freedom in life, acknowledgement of attraction while still holding to biblical convictions. Intimacy isn’t only sexual; it is also experienced through lifelong friendships, supporting causes and family. The church must create an atmosphere of relational opportunities for single people. For example, if a single person is sick, hospitalized, or needs help — the church should support them through small groups, funds and other ways. Celibacy is a sacrifice for Jesus, and the church needs to prepare for that sacrifice.

What are some ways local churches can better minister to the LGBT community?

Allow people to “belong before they believe.” If you’re going to ask people not to identify with the LGBT community, you’d better have another community ready for them! Give people margin for God to work in their lives. Healing and spiritual heart surgery takes time. Help people to feel safe about admitting struggle without fear of backlash. Create an environment where it’s OK for teenagers to ask questions and be authentic. Train youth leaders to listen and ask the right questions. Create support for parents of gay teenagers. Spend time with LGBT people outside and inside your church (they are there). Listen, ask questions and learn. Don’t allow church policies to hinder needed conversations.

Caleb Kaltenbach (M.A. ’07) is the lead pastor at Discovery Church in Simi Valley, Calif., and the author of Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction.