There is often great fear, mistrust, and tension between the church and the LGBTQ community. How can Christians posture themselves in a biblical manner? In this episode, Sean McDowell and Scott Rae talk with pastor and author Caleb Kaltenbach about his book Messy Grace. As the son of two gay parents, Caleb has a unique voice on this issue today.
More About Our Guest
Caleb Kaltenbach is the Lead Pastor of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA. He’s the author of Messy Grace and God of Tomorrow. In Messy Grace, Caleb writes about growing up in the LGBT community, finding Jesus, and learning that love doesn’t require a shift in theology. He holds an MDiv from Talbot.
Scott Rae: You're listening to the podcast, "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture." I'm your host, Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics here at the Talbot School of Theology.
Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, an author, speaker and apologetics professor at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Thanks so much for joining us.
Scott Rae: Our guest today is Caleb Kaltenbach, long-time pastor, author of two terrific books, one called Messy Grace, which we highly recommend, and a new one that will be out in a few months called a God of Tomorrow. Caleb, we're delighted to have you with us. Thank you for taking the time to join us for our podcast.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Thanks for having me. I love Biola. I love being here. It's great.
Scott Rae: You had a most unusual upbringing. Maybe not as much today, but 30 to 40 years ago, it would have been considered a very unusual upbringing. Tell us a little bit about that.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. My parents were both professors at the University of Missouri. They taught English, philosophy, rhetoric, which is why I'm a Tigers fan and Chiefs fan. When I was two years old, they got a divorce. Both of them pursued same-sex relationships, and they ended up obviously really going forward into that lifestyle. My mom was with her partner for 22 years. They moved to Kansas City and became activists, while my dad was in several different relationships, but never had one monogamous one. I found out about my dad later on in life, but I knew about my mom from day one. It was just really my reality, and grew up going with her to gay bars and clubs and activist events, pride parades. You name it, we were there.
Scott Rae: You describe in your book Messy Grace that you came to faith in Christ when you were a high school student. What happened when you told your mom and her partner that you had come to faith?
Caleb Kaltenbach: My mother and her partner, and even my dad, had taught me the importance of tolerance, of loving other people and accepting them, and that Christians were the enemy and that they had been oppressed by Christians. Yet when I came to a belief in Jesus and became a Christian, and I, as a 16-year-old had to come out as a Christian to my three gay parents, they ended up kicking me out of the house for a while. It's interesting that the so-called victim imitated the actions of the oppressor, and they did to me what they feared Christians doing to them. I think we still see that happening today, left and right. That's pretty much what happened. I grabbed a Bible and I just started to read after school and during lunches and wanted to know more about Jesus. I found out that a relationship with Jesus gives us margin to love those who are unlovable and forgive that which is unforgivable, if we lean into him. Eventually I was able to move back in and go back into a relationship with my parents.
Scott Rae: Where are your, we'll call them your bio mom and dad, today, spiritually?
Caleb Kaltenbach: They came to Christ. We, our family, ended up moving to Dallas for a while, preached at a church, and two weeks before we left to come back to Southern California, my parents gave their lives to the Lord. They had been attending the church I was preaching at to be closer to our family. Even though they knew what I believed about sexual identity and sexual relationships, when they came, people treated them well. People treated them like people, not like projects. We didn't withhold the truth, but I think that people there loved them so much that it became easier for them to be able to hear the gospel and really experience it. I think that was a lesson to me that I think we underestimate how much, as Christians, how we treat other people impacts their view of God.
Scott Rae: They came and started attending your church even before they had any interest in coming to faith?
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. Absolutely, because they wanted to be closer to our family. I said, "You know what we believe about relationships and marriage?" They said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, come on over. Water's nice and warm." They kept on coming, and they were treated well. I was proud of my church. Not everybody treated them well. Some people were just kind of like, "What is going on? The world is coming into the church." I'm like, "That's kind of what we wanted." That's just me.
Scott Rae: I'd say that's the objective.
Caleb Kaltenbach: That's the objective. Yeah.
Sean McDowell: Caleb, the narrative is that there's something unique about the Christian worldview that causes Christian parents to be intolerant towards kids who come out that are gay. Sometimes I'll say, "What about, say, Muslim parents whose kids become Christians?", or, Christians who have kids who become, say secular or Mormon? There's changes all over. I’ll often share your story, and I say, "Here's an example where this narrative is flipped." It makes me wonder, is it uniquely Christianity, or do you think there's just something about human nature that when our kids adopt a different view, we just don't handle it well?
Caleb Kaltenbach: It has nothing to do with Christianity. It has everything to do with fear and human nature. To quote Yoda, Yoda told little Anakin and [Panaminus, 00:05:33], "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." I think that my parents, when they kicked me out, they were leading from fear. When we hear Muslim families kicking out their kids who convert to Christianity, they're leading from fear. I think that when we do lead from fear, I think fear allows us to do horrible things to people. I'm reading this book right now just for fun that I love called Star Wars and Philosophy. They have this whole section on fear and vices and how eventually it begins to control us when we think we control it.
Sean McDowell: It says in 1 John, chapter 4 that perfect love casts out fear. Is that a solution for Christians? What is it if fear so drives human beings, including many Christians, that we begin to counter that and have a better response?
Caleb Kaltenbach: I think the response to fear is love. I think the only way that we can truly love someone is to lean into the person of God, to believe that God is in control, that he is sovereign, that he does have a plan, to believe that things are not just random, that he is working all things out for the good of those who love him. I've found that when I am really in tune with my relationship with God, and when I am really trusting in him and I know that he's in control ... I know it's cliché. I know we've all gone through rough times where somebody's like, "Don't worry. God's got this." Those are the times when I'm just like, "I know that." But when we really experience it in our heart, I think that's what really frees us to love people. I think love is the answer to fear, the answer to evil. I think it's the highest moral ethic.
Sean McDowell: Caleb, I often hear Christians speaking about the LGBT community kind of in an "us-versus-them," fear-based mentality. When I read Messy Grace, and you talked about it, and you said, "Look, these people loved me. They cared for me." It really just touched my heart to hear you speaking that way. I'm wondering if you could just talk about how growing up in that community has just shaped the way you think about this issue and also how you pastor.
Caleb Kaltenbach: It has really shaped the way I think about people too. I see every person as somebody who has had different experiences in life, pains and hurts and joys and crushed dreams and fulfilled dreams and accomplishments and failures, and we bring all that to the table. I think that most people, they have reasons for what they believe. Most of the time our convictions are driven by emotion. I think our emotion is driven by our experiences and so on and so forth. I saw that in my mom's community. I saw a lot of women who had been hurt by men in the past. If I could tell you some of the stories, you would probably say, "I would hate men too." Unfortunately, that hurt just kept pushing them away, pushing them away, until they got to the place where they are now. It's really shaped the way that I think about people. I think when we do have an "us-versus-them" mentality, it allows us to think too shallowly about people, if that's a word. I'm not sure. I just made it one.
Sean McDowell: It is now.
Caleb Kaltenbach: It is now.
Sean McDowell: Anyone who quotes Yoda can use shallowly as a word.
Caleb Kaltenbach: There you are. Shallowly. We think too shallow about people. When that happens, it allows us to categorize them, label them, and then we just glance right over them because we've already got them figured out, instead of really thinking deeper about people. I think that's one of the main messages in Messy Grace that I wanted people to understand. When it comes to somebody engaging in a life choice that you may not agree with, you don't have to shift your theology to come on board with them. You don't need to think differently about what you believe. You do need to think deeper about the individual, and I think that's the biggest thing.
Scott Rae: In your new book, a God of Tomorrow, you make, I think, a really helpful distinction between disagreement and oppression. The thing that I think would be relevant here, how do we get to a place where disagreeing with someone about their life choices constitutes oppression?
Caleb Kaltenbach: I think two things. One, I think entitlement gets us there in a heartbeat, where we believe that we're owed things. I remember, and I believe I talked about it in that specific chapter, I was getting together with a young man who felt oppressed because his parents disagreed with his choice to be in a same-sex relationship. Yet, they were still allowing him to live in their house, they were paying for his clothes, they were paying for his college, they were paying for his car insurance. I'm like, "Wow, that sounds like oppression to me. That's deep oppression."
Scott Rae: Sign me up.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. I'll be oppressed. That's not oppression. I mean, come on. When you look at North Korea, you know, you hear Dennis Rodman say, "It's okay. It's not that bad." Come on, dude. That comes from entitlement. I think that people feel like they get some kind of sense of belonging and specialness and their voices are heard when they take on or they have the stolen valor of an oppressed person. I think that's a huge, huge mistake. I think entitlement is huge when it comes to people feeling like they can use that.
Also, I think that people are so tied to other identities other than that in Christ. If you disagreed, even to this day, with my mom politically, there is a part of her that writes you off as an individual because she finds her identity in her politics. There are people I know, who they love the Yankees, and if you talk bad about the Yankees, it will impact your relationship with that person. I think any time we tie our identities so much to something other than Christ, we're going to fall. It's going to wear us out. It's going to alienate us. That's what I think.
Scott Rae: Okay. Good. That's helpful. You know, in your ministry as a pastor, I take it you walk a pretty fine line between being inclusive with people, regardless of what they wrestle with, and yet I know from reading your book Messy Grace and just from being your friend that you also have been very biblically faithful to the scriptural teaching on marriage and sexuality. Tell us about how you walk that fine line well.
Caleb Kaltenbach: First of all, I would say that we have to teach people that there's a difference between acceptance and approval. Acceptance is more about empathy and loving the individual for who they are within the moment, knowing you can't change them. It's more about Matthew 5:46: If you only love those who love you, what reward? It's more about Romans 12:18: As much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Approval is more about agreeing with a person's life choice. I think that we're called to accept people, but that doesn't mean that we have to agree or approve of every life choice that somebody makes. That's the first thing that I think we've got to help people to understand when it comes to walking that fine line.
The other thing is that I think that spiritual heart surgery takes time and the Holy Spirit really starts convicting us and working on us. It takes time. Too often, somebody who may look differently than us, be in a different relationship than us, vote differently, whatever you want to say, comes to our church. We give them, maybe, about a good 21 days, because that's seven times three. That sounds biblical, right? If they're not pretty much where we are after three weeks, there are some people that begin to put the pressure on them saying, "Hey, you're here now. You need to change." Yet, my whole process of getting to believe in Jesus was a process. While my salvation was instantaneous, there's a process, and it took time, and it took people allowing me to be with them even though I disagreed. Now my sanctification is a process until I die, right? Everything's a process, except our salvation is instantaneous. I think when we try to take something that God meant as a process and make it quick, I think we're sabotaging what God can do in someone else's life.
Scott Rae: That's a great point. I think we often forget that we've been working on these patterns for a really long time prior to coming to faith or hearing what the Bible teaches on some of these things. To expect that patterns that we've been working on for a long time be overcome in a relatively short time period I think is setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Sean McDowell: Caleb, we sat down, maybe, I don't know, two and a half or three years ago at Starbucks, and you were beginning to write your book Messy Grace, kind of under the radar, so to speak, publicly. Now you've written this book. It's done unbelievably well. You have another one coming out. You've done some speaking. You probably have a different perspective of the church now that you, not only in your church, but have kind of a meta-perspective, so to speak. How have people pushed back in the sense you think the church is still motivated by fear? Do you think the church is ready to move forward and get it right? What's your bigger sense of where the church is at?
Caleb Kaltenbach: I think that there are many churches who are wanting to get it right, but they are concerned that they're going to surrender their biblical beliefs or convictions, or that if they don't hold on to some of the lines that they have within their church, that somehow somebody else will come in and they'll push the line back. I think that's one thing I've seen. A lot of churches do want to change, but churches are afraid of changing. When I say change, I don't mean change their theology, but I mean change the way they engage society.
Sean McDowell: Not their theology, but just their relationship.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Their relationship and their engagement of society. I've seen that. I've seen a lot of churches still stick their feet in the mud and not want to move at all and not think about society differently. They still think we can go backwards in time, back to the ’80s, back to the ’60s, or whatever. That's not going to happen. Yet I've seen something else. I've seen other churches that, you guys have too, that have changed their theology on things like same-sex relationships. Yet whenever these churches do that, notice that they take a big hit in their attendance, in their finances, and stakeholders and those engaging the church, to where a lot of those churches are nowhere near the size nor do they have the influence within the community that they used to. That, to me, has been surprising. It tells me that there is still something very, very powerful about holding on to truth. But we have to continue to think about our engagement of society when it comes to helping our church members and our stakeholders to invest in people around them no matter who they are.
Sean McDowell: Caleb, I speak to a lot of students, a lot of millennials, say 22–35, and then this new younger generation, Gen Z, are those, say, 7–22. My perception is that very few Christians know how to affirm a biblical view of marriage and know why God's view of marriage is actually good for individuals and good for society. What's your sense of where this younger generation is at, and how do we make a compelling case for marriage that it's actually God's view of marriage biblically speaking that sets people free?
Caleb Kaltenbach: I would first say this. I would first say that I think the younger generation, Gen Y, or Gen Z, millennials, I think that they have a lot of spirit. I think that they have a lot of sense of wanting to make a difference in the world and seeing injustice and wanting to work on it. I know that they get the brand of being entitled. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with that, but whenever somebody's like, "Oh, this generation is so entitled," I'm like, "Really? Who raised them? Who is that?" I think that every generation is entitled. I just think the entitlement lurks somewhere else. I think this one is more upfront than ever before, but I think it's a result of how they've been raised. That's the first thing I'd say.
The second thing I think about is I think about how society shifts and moves, goes up and down, and their interests change. I think that wherever society is right now, I think that there is always a point in which it can connect with the gospel, and it can show how a relationship with Jesus can make your life better and can make the world around you better as well. For instance, I said that with the millennial generation and the generation coming up after them, I think that injustice is huge with them. Sex trafficking. Huge. People who are thrown into slavery. Huge. These are huge issues and we've got to deal with these issues. But I do think that there's a way to direct that back to the gospel, and I think there's a way to direct that back to God's view of marriage.
Think about it real quick. God's view of marriage is not only the fact that it is a living picture of Christ and the church. God's view of marriage is for protection as well. If we have a society where sex is just something that you can do whenever or that you can manipulate or that you can just go out and have your way with, that which God designed to protect us, to lead to procreation, and to communicate something very beautiful, is now used to control people. It's used to hurt people. It's used to break people down, if we don't have a foundational viewpoint of what marriage is and how sexual intimacy functions within that marriage. If you look at all these instances of slavery, trafficking, whatever you want to call it, I guarantee you there is the misuse of sex somewhere, and we have got to come back down to a moral foundation of it. I think that's in God's view of marriage.
Sean McDowell: So interacting with the broader culture, what do you think is more important?: to make a case for the goodness of the biblical view of marriage and sex, or to bring people to Jesus first, and then, from within the authority of Christ and the Holy Spirit, then they'll understand his view of marriage? Or is it both?
Caleb Kaltenbach: I think it could be both, but if I'm dealing with a broader culture, and I know there's been a ton of interaction with this and different viewpoints, it's tough for me to think, when I'm dealing with somebody that doesn't accept the authority of Scripture, doesn't look at it as inspired in any way, they just think maybe it has some good moral teachings but that's about it, if I'm just reasoning "thus saith the Lord" or "this is what the Bible says" in that viewpoint, I might as well be quoting the Koran or Shakespeare to them, because they're kind of like, "So what?". I would rather help them understand logically how that viewpoint actually works. Then I would also rather lead them to the person of Jesus and to help them understand that the resurrection is true. If the resurrection happened, that that is the center point, that is the foundational aspect of our faith. If I can get a person there, then I do believe that all of a sudden that they will grow and that Jesus will start to infiltrate the different parts of their identity.
Scott Rae: Let's say that somebody comes to your church. They're same-sex attracted and they're really committed to being faithful to Jesus. What are the options, biblically, for them sexually?
Caleb Kaltenbach: I think the only option is celibacy. If we're going strictly by what the Bible says, by what I believe, I believe that God designed sexual intimacy for the expression of marriage between one man and one woman. Anything outside of that is a sin. That means whether you're heterosexual and single or whether you're same-sex attracted and single, celibacy is the answer. Celibacy is the thing that honors God, and it might be painful and you might feel alone, but it gives you an opportunity to walk with God in a way that other people don't. That's what I think when it comes to the answer of celibacy within the church.
Scott Rae: Okay. How do you answer people who will push back on that and say, "But my sexual drive is something that's God-ordained?” Now the satisfaction of our desires is a different matter, “But our sexuality is God-ordained, and I didn't choose to be gay. You're condemning me to being without sex for the rest of my life as a condition of being faithful to Jesus.”
Caleb Kaltenbach: Right.
Scott Rae: The pushback. That sounds harsh. How would you respond to that?
Sean McDowell: How does that mesh with Jesus saying, "My yoke is easy"?
Caleb Kaltenbach: Right. First of all, I think that when Jesus said that, "My yoke is easy," he was comparing himself with the Pharisees giving a whole bunch of legalistic rules that had no foundation in Scripture but everything to do with oral tradition. I think that's totally different. I would acknowledge how they're feeling. I would say, "It sounds harsh and actually it is. It is harsh. I'm sorry. But living for Jesus calls for sacrifice and all of us have to make a sacrifice in one way or another."
If I'm dealing with somebody who does believe in the authority of Scripture, the inspiration and so on and so forth, I would ask them this question: I'd say, "Could you please help me understand maybe one place in the Bible where God blesses a relationship other than the male-female relationship that he set up, between the Old and the New Testament?" Take it out of context if you want. Show me one area. Show me one instance within the Bible where God said, "'Hey, you know what? Same-sex relationships, that's okay." Just show me because you're trying to make an argument from silence and that doesn't work. You can't say Jesus didn't say anything about it so then it doesn't matter, because now you're saying what Jesus says is more important than what Paul said. I think that Scripture is equally inspired. That's where I would go with that. I'd be like, "Help me understand the male-female relationship then."
Scott Rae: Do you think that there's a need in our churches as a result of this to more forthrightly address a theology of singleness and celibacy, because in most churches I've ever been in, if you're not sort of married with children, that's the track that most people are on. Yet over 50 percent now of households are headed by single adults in America today.
Caleb Kaltenbach: I think that if there's a need to address the theology of singleness, I think the need is more from the practical aspect. The need is saying, "Hey, how do we walk alongside people that have made a difficult decision to live a celibate life out of their theological conviction?" How do we walk alongside them? How do we do that? Because many churches call to singleness, but they're not willing to walk alongside a person that's made that difficult decision to remain single out of honor for Christ. I don't think churches know how to. I think we need to help them know how to do that.
Sean McDowell: Caleb, last quick question. What's one practical thing that listeners can do to reach out lovingly to the LGBT community?
Caleb Kaltenbach: One practical thing?
Sean McDowell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Caleb Kaltenbach: I would say quit trying, and be empathetic. You may not be able to walk a mile in their shoes, but you definitely can walk alongside them. Everybody you see, to quote Plato, or whoever said it, is carrying a difficult burden. I think we need to recognize that in every person, and I think we need to be more empathetic.
Sean McDowell: Caleb, that's great advice. Thank you for speaking up on this issue with boldness, but with compassion, with thoughtfulness, and for being willing to share your story. It's been encouraging to me and we would certainly commend your books, Messy Grace, and God of Tomorrow, to our listeners. Thanks for coming on.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Thanks for having me.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture". Listen in next time as we invite Caleb back to continue this important discussion. To learn more about us and to find more episodes, go to www.biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.