Bringing the truth of Scripture into discussions of marriage and sexuality can be messy, to say the least. Navigating these potentially messy conversations can be complicated and it helps to have a guide like our guest, Caleb Kaltenbach, from his new book, Messy Truth. Join Scott and Sean as they interview Caleb and draw on his consulting experience with other organizations that are wrestling with these issues.
About our Guest
Caleb Kaltenbach (Talbot graduate), is best selling author of several books including Messy Grace, which chronicles his fascinating personal story. He is a former pastor both in California and Texas, and founder of the Messy Grace Group, where he helps churches love and foster community with LGBTQ individuals without sacrificing theological convictions. He is frequent guest in national major media outlets and has been a guest on Think Biblically on several occasions.
Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture, the podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.
Scott Rae: We have today as a guest our good friend, Dr. Caleb Kaltenbach. He's been with us on the podcast several times in dealing with matters of the church and sexuality, and connecting meaningfully with the LGBTQ community. You might be familiar with him from his very popular, very widespread-selling book called Messy Grace, which is a bit of his own personal story about how he got involved in this area.
We want to focus on ... We'll hear a little bit about that in just a minute, but we want to focus on a new book that he has out called Messy Truth, subtitled How to Foster Community Without Sacrificing Conviction. So, Caleb is a former pastor, a Talbot grad. Now works in consulting and speaking and writing. He's consulting with churches and other Christian organizations about how best to navigate this space with the LGBTQ conversation. So, Caleb, welcome. Great to have you with us. You're always a treat to have on, so we're so glad you could be with us.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Well, thanks for having me. I love both of you guys and love Biola Talbot and what is happening there, so thank you for what you guys do.
Scott Rae: You've been with us on several occasions. You've told the story of your upbringing. You also told it in your book, Messy Grace, but for our listeners who are new to us and new to you and your work, tell us a little bit about what kind of family you grew up in and how it impacted you.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Sure. My parents were both university professors and in Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, and they divorced when I was two years old. And both of them went into same-sex relationships, and that's basically the environment that I was raised in, raised by my mother and her partner until my mother's partner died 22 years later of cancer. And then my dad, he was also in same-sex relationships, but never a monogamous partner like my mom.
My mom and her partner were activists, and I just grew up hating Christians, because I believed that Christians hated gay people. Then I joined a Bible study to learn how to disprove the Bible, and that worked out real well because I became a Christian, and then I ended up coming out to my parents as a Christian and going to Bible college and seminary. And later on at the ages of 69, 70, my mom and dad actually gave their life to the Lord. So, it was just a tremendous example of God's grace, and which is why I do what I do now, because I feel like I've kind of experienced both worlds, the LGBTQ community, and also the Christian community as well.
Scott Rae: Now, Caleb, you also described in your book, Messy Truth, you described that you had some tough church experiences early in your Christian life too. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. I remember taking my mom to a church that I was preaching at back in the day when I was in Bible college. It was a town of 50 people in the middle of Missouri. 25 of those 50 were in the church I was preaching at on the weekends. I think we were the largest church per capita in the nation at that time. We had half of our town won for Christ.
And so, my mom finally came there after I had preached there for 18 months. The next Sunday, she didn't come with me, but when I showed up at the church, one of the elders at the church said, "We want to talk to you," and I said, "Sure," and they basically said, "If you want to keep preaching here, don't ever bring somebody like your mother again."
Scott Rae: Wow.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Caleb Kaltenbach: And so, that was the day when I quit that church, and I was like, "I want to go somewhere and I want to be a part of a church that is not concerned about messy people, and even sees their own mess before identifying the mess in other people's lives."
Sean McDowell: Caleb, from the moment I met you, these kind of experiences you're describing have clearly formed your ministry, but rather than being kind of angry about it, I think it's motivated you to be that much more gracious, but also wise in navigating these relationships. And whenever people ask me, churches, Christian schools, universities, "Who can help us navigate some of these laws regarding LGBTQ issues?" I always say, "You got to talk to my man, Caleb Kaltenbach."
Tell us what you do with these different organizations and why navigating this area is just so complicated today.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah, absolutely. I help churches develop systems and processes that will honor their theological convictions and their values, but also allow LGBTQ individuals to attend church, to get involved in small groups, and even to serve in some places. Because ultimately, people find and follow Jesus better in community than in isolation.
And I do similar work for Christian colleges and seminaries. There are three, two Christian universities right now that I'm working with on a monthly basis, and then one Christian college, that are going through the ringer with some of their former faculty, current faculty, and students. And so, I'm helping those Christian universities, those institutions, to be able to hold onto their theological convictions as well, and understanding what the law allows as far as lawful discrimination and the application of their theological convictions to their admissions policies and employment practices. But then also, how can they create room and really minister to sexual minorities, or students who feel like they're sexual minorities, on their campus?
I really feel like this is a complex issue for churches and Christian educational institutions and really Christians in general for a couple of reasons. Number one, I think anytime you have a society and you have God's program, there's going to be a clash between the two. You just can't help but notice that. In his latest work, Carl Truman, in his book, The Rise and Triumph of The Modern Self, he talks about second world and third world points of view when it comes to moral morality. And he talks about second world individuals being people where their morals are based on their faith and their morals transcend this world right here, but people in third world moralities and people that have that view, their sense of morality is based on themselves. And so I think in our society, just naturally, because of our sin nature, our self will always be the foundation for where we want to place our morals, and I think we really have to work to try to put our morals and base them in Christ. You're always going to have that clash.
I think the second reason why we have this so-called clash is because there's really a failure to acknowledge the deep nuance that exists when it comes to conversations about faith and sexuality. The Bible might be clear on what it says about sexual intimacy and affection, but the Bible itself acknowledges the deep nuance of humanity in every single individual, and our fallen nature, and just everything that we've experienced. So, I think that a failure to acknowledge that nuance really creates a lot of problems.
Scott Rae: So Caleb, let's be just crystal clear about this. The Bible's message on sexuality is really clear. It's in traditional marriage between one man and one woman, sexual intimacy only within the context of that view of marriage. But that the application of it in a fallen broken world is what's so messy, right?
Caleb Kaltenbach: 100%.
Scott Rae: Because truth in and of itself is not messy. It's the application of it.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Right, right. And truth can look messy. Truth can feel messy. I think you even look at Jonah, in the end of Jonah chapter four, and he's upset when he gets confronted with the truth that God loves people, and God is willing to give people as many chances as He can to repent and come to faith. And that is a truth. That is grace, but that's also a truth, and truth can look and feel messy, even though truth is perfect and pure and enduring from God's point of view.
Scott Rae: Now, Caleb, since we talked last, Christian institutions are facing a new pressure in the Equality Act. I think the jury's still out on whether that's going to pass all the way through the Houses of Congress, but President Biden has vowed to sign it if it does. Tell our listeners just briefly, what is the Equality Act about and how do you think that will impact Christian institutions?
Caleb Kaltenbach: Well, the Equality Act basically, in so many ways, amends Title VII and Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that basically amends it to include gender identity and sexual orientation under protected classes. The Equality Act also basically strips away any power that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 has in protecting religious institutions from implementing rules and policies about gender identity and sexual orientation that go against their theological convictions, and the Equality Act is extremely troubling because of that.
There are some good things in the Equality Act that definitely need to happen, but the negative far outweighs the good, and this has been something that has been in front of Congress since the early '70s, about every other year, every three years or so. And it's going to continue to be in front of Congress again and again. I personally don't think that it will pass the Senate unless something changes with the filibuster, which is highly unlikely.
But here's why churches do need to be concerned about this. Number one, eventually it will ... I mean, if it keeps going like this, eventually it will pass the Senate. Number two, I was working with one church that will remain unnamed where they're in a city, and the city council passed an ordinance in so many ways that replicates the Equality Act. So, now they're having to deal with the implications of the Equality Act on a city level, which if you've done any work in churches whatsoever, you know that the city can get up in your business as much as the federal government.
And so, I had to meet with that church not too long ago and sit down with them, and they're a fairly large church, one of the top 10 largest in the nation. And they're asking questions like, "Okay, what does it mean to be a public accommodation? What does this mean for our bathrooms?" Because they've already had city workers coming in and seeing what they're doing at this particular campus. And so, the aspects of the Equality Act can find themselves in other bills on the federal level, state level, but especially on the city level.
And so, the point for us is not to come at this from a point of fear and reaction, but to think ahead strategically, intentionally, and empathetically, so that we can put ourselves in the best position to leverage wherever we are in society for the gospel.
Sean McDowell: Walk me through, maybe, some of the most common things you're doing with churches, or even with Christian schools, some of the first two or three things you say, "You've got to change this and adapt this," that seem to bubble to the surface.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. Yeah. With Christian schools, it's a lack of resources for LGBTQ students. It's the lack of the school being willing to consider some kind of a student gathering or student club for lack of a better phrase. Even if it's underneath the guise of the school itself, I've found that when a school has very little resources or very little margin for students to be able to share with others and find support that there's going to be a big bubbling crisis there. So, that's a huge aspect that I've seen time and time again.
Sean McDowell: Hey, let me jump in on that one. Let me jump on that one real fast. A place like Biola, there would be a club for students with same-sex attraction to talk, to share, to find support. That'd be very different than a club that says, "We're here to promote LGBTQ ideas." Is that what you mean?
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yes. Yes, thank you.
Sean McDowell: Make that distinction for me.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. Thank you so much for clarifying that. That's exactly what I mean, a place of support and a place to be able to share, not a place for a cause or a movement to start. It's not a place to promote ideals that are contrary to the university or college's values or doctrinal statement. So yes, absolutely, 100% that's what I meant. Thank you for that distinction.
When it comes to churches, I've found that churches really miss the boat if they don't have places within their body of believers, within that local church, for people to serve, even if they don't believe in God. And what I mean by that is that I really think that serving and volunteering is a new way of engaging people, especially in a society that is so focused on justice.
A friend of mine named Jud Wilhite, who is the senior pastor at Central Church in Las Vegas, and it's a huge church, about 18,000 people. They took the lead in Vegas when the MGM shooting happened at the MGM Grand. And when that happened, they really mobilized their adult small groups to go out into the community and to serve families of people who were killed, workers at the MGM Grand, people who were hurt. They even had small groups drive to other nearby states to go check in on people.
And whenever a big catastrophe like that happens, or chaos, people want a way to respond, and so people started calling the church there and they said, "Hey, I'm not a Christian," or "I don't go to your church, but I want to help. Can I join one of your groups?" and they said "Yes." And during that time, just because people were joining their groups that were going out into the community, they had one of the biggest spiritual and conversion growth periods that they've ever had, not because of what was happening in a main worship auditorium, but because of what was happening relationally in those small groups.
And so part of my argument is, is I believe that if churches really decide where their boundaries should be and what they hold dear theologically and so on and so forth, that there should be room for people to be able to volunteer, because that's just such a great way to engage on church people and unbelievers.
Scott Rae: Caleb, I'm thinking maybe a little bit more broadly culturally. We hear this all the time that lots of people believe that Christian organizations, they're just simply on the wrong side of history when it comes to sexuality and marriage. I think it's fairly widespread in the broader culture that the belief that eventually all of them will change their views, since many of them have already. How do you respond to that particular argument?
Caleb Kaltenbach: I would respond to that argument a couple of ways. First and foremost, I would say that people made that same argument after Roe vs. Wade passed, even some time after Roe vs. Wade passed. And you still have this statistic that seems to hover around 60% in favor, 40% not in favor, or even sometimes 50/50, 55% and then 45%, or whatever you want to say. You still have this whole element where it seems to be divided somewhat evenly. And even those statistics I wonder about, because again, that's ignoring a nuance. That's creating an either/or option of false dichotomy, almost. And again, I'm pro-life from birth through death and so on and so forth. But my point is that the way those questions are worded some of the times that people feel like they have no other choice rather than to answer the way that would make them seem like they are pro-choice.
Now, if you take this and you apply this to gay marriage and sexuality and so on and so forth, number one, so many people say, "Well, 70% of the American populace is in support of the Equality Act." Okay, well, I'm willing to bet that about 99% of those 70% of people have not even read the Equality Act. They don't even know what's in it. And who wants to be the person that says, "Yeah, I don't support the Equality Act." I mean, who wants to say that? We're all paranoid that the government's watching us and Steve Jobs is still watching us from somewhere on our Apple phones, so who wants to be the person to say that?
The other thing, I would say this, is that when people say, "Hey, you need to do this, or else you're going to be left behind," they fail to recognize the nuance that people experience between theological views and civil views on the same issue. There are a lot of people, more and more that I talk to, who say, "Well, same-sex marriage is legal, so I think that if somebody wants to get married to somebody of the same sex, they should have that right, because it's legal. But theologically, or my biblical belief is, is that people shouldn't do that. And so that's my biblical belief, but if it's legal, people should be able to have that right." And there's no space in any of those polls for people to share that nuance.
Because I think that for a lot of people there is that nuanced view of, well, I want to support what society says and the rights for people to be able to do that and to have benefits. But then on the other hand, I have my theological view. And so, there could be the fact where we'd be on the wrong page of history. But honestly, I know that you guys aren't, and I'm not either, really concerned about that because I really do believe in what God says about the marriage covenant and that relationship, and I think that there's a lot more nuance than what people would admit.
Scott Rae: Yeah. The early church was clearly on the wrong side of the culture in the first century on most things.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. Oh, oh, and those polls would have been 90%/10%, right? Come on.
Sean McDowell: Caleb, I get emails, I get calls, just asked regularly of parents whose kids are coming out as LGBTQ, people whose friends ... and they're just clueless how to respond. And they want to maintain the relationship, but they also want to be loving and stand on principle. You maintain that having convictions on sexuality doesn't mean betraying people who may be close to you. How do you navigate those two things?
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. Thanks for that question because I think that's important. I think that it's super important for a lot of parents today. I get a lot of those same questions, Sean, and I know Scott does too, and that hits home for a lot of us, because everyone knows someone, or everyone knows someone who knows someone. So, that really impacts all of us, and any time you have a face associated with one of the letters in the sexual minority acronym, LGBTQ+, all of a sudden, it's not just a bunch of letters, it's a bunch of people, and I think that's important for us as we develop empathy.
So I would say this, that first and foremost, we need to acknowledge the reality that individuals have, because I think I've said this before, and I think I've said this on this show before, that there is a difference between acceptance and agreement. Acceptance is about loving people where they're at no matter what. It's about walking with them, like Jesus asks us to go the extra mile. We may not be able to walk a mile in somebody's shoes, but we can walk miles next to people. And then on the other hand, we have agreement, and nowhere does the Bible say that we have to agree with everybody's decision, everybody's relationship, everybody's job occupation, everybody's life choices, and so there has to be that differentiation between acceptance and agreement. When you don't have that differentiation, you know that you're dealing with an extremist.
And so I think we need to make that differentiation, because here's the thing. For most people, when they come out, they know that you're probably not going to be excited about it. They know that you're probably not going to agree. The deeper, more burning issue in their heart is, are you still going to remain in my life?
Sean McDowell: That's right.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Is this going to change anything? And that's where I say it shouldn't change how you feel about someone. Now, depending on the cases, depending on the situation, maybe there are more boundaries. Like if you're a parent and you're dealing with a young kid, I don't know the kid's relationships. I mean, that's a whole nother conversation. But in and of itself, Paul says in Romans 13:8-10 that loving your neighbor fulfills the Old Testament law, which sounds really good on the surface. And I love that, but it also makes everything even more binding, because think about all the ways that we don't love our neighbor on a daily basis, on an hourly basis.
And so, that's where I say that loving people really doesn't have a ton to do with my view on marriage. It doesn't have a ton to do with my view of sexual intimacy or affection. I can disagree with people on those things and still love them, because my love for another person is not reliant on any of those theologies. My love for another person is reliant and empowered by my relationship with Jesus Christ.
Scott Rae: Caleb, let me take this a step further if I might, because we want to be able to accept people where they are. And I think that distinction between acceptance and agreement is crucial because culturally, those are being fused today, I think, in some very unhelpful ways, but we also want to inspire people to follow Jesus at the same time. So, how can a church or a Christian institution acknowledge the realities about an LGBTQ person's life, their same-sex or bisexual attraction, their pain from church experience, a number of other things, and inspire them to follow Jesus well at the same time?
Caleb Kaltenbach: Yeah. Well, I think number one, we have to treat people like anyone else. Like I say in some of my sermons sometimes when I talk about this topic, "You need to treat people like Homo sapiens." And there's always a pause in the audience where people kind of look offended, and I'm like, "Listen, Homo sapien means human being." And depending on the state where I'm in, I'll make fun of the state and say, "I don't know if you've learned that here, but Homo sapiens is all of us, right?" We need to treat people like people and we need to love people. And so that's first and foremost there.
Nobody's your special evangelistic project where you can try out your new evangelistic moves on them. You've got to just love them and develop a good relationship with them and earn the right, build enough influence in their life to earn the right to speak into their life so that when life hits the bottom of the barrel, you are one of the first people that they text or call, and you're able to speak into their life in that moment. That's when your words carry the most weight.
One of the questions that I talk to churches about when they're really considering how much they really want to get involved in this, a lot of them are asking the wrong question instead of the right question. The wrong question is, "What's at stake if we end up engaging the LGBTQ people in our community or in our church?" That's the wrong question. The right question is, "What's at stake if we don't engage the LGBTQ people in our church or in our community or in our school?"
Sean McDowell: Love it.
Caleb Kaltenbach: "What's at stake if we don't?" That's the main question that we need to be asking, and the answer is, "Everything." The answer is, "Their lives." The answer is, "Their spiritual lives." The answer is, "Their eternity." The answer is, "The potential that they have of being a follower of Jesus," and I think that's tremendously important.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I think we concur. That's critical to frame it in that way. Caleb, one final question for you. When it comes to the future of Christian organizations and LGBT issues, what is the one thing that you are most worried about, and the one thing that gives you the most hope going forward?
Caleb Kaltenbach: The one thing that I'm worried about is how the liberals of the 1980s and '90s are more like the moderates today, and the liberals of today are more progressive. And when I say liberals, I mean socially theologically liberal. And I'm not trying to cast dispersions, but I'm saying that the progressives of today are acting a whole lot like the cultural fundamentalists of the 1980s and '90. And that concerns me a lot, because I feel like they have become the very people that they swore that they would never be.
But what gives me the most hope is how much I see Gen Z students and Gen Z kids, and even kids like mine who are in middle school who are younger than Gen Z, how much they love Jesus and how much they love people. And there's a real dedication for Jesus. That gives me the most hope.
Scott Rae: Wow, this has been super helpful, Caleb. And I guess if among our listeners, if you're a pastor or involved in church leadership, in leadership in a Christian organization, and want someone to help you navigate these issues, both Sean and I, I think, would agree that Caleb Kaltenbach is one of the top two or three go-to people in the country on this. So Caleb, if people want to reach you to talk further, to engage your services, to consult with their organization, how would they best get in touch with you?
Caleb Kaltenbach: Absolutely. I have two websites. One is my ministry website, which is messygracegroup.org, and then my personal website is calebkaltenbach.com. You can go to either one of those and find me there and I'd be happy to talk with you.
Scott Rae: Great. I think that's really helpful. And I want to also come in to our listeners. Your latest book called Messy Truth, which is about maintaining community and maintaining convictions at the same time in this area where it is so challenging to do so at the present time. So Caleb, thank you so much for being with us. As always, super enlightening, super helpful stuff, and may the Lord bless your ministry in working with churches and other Christian organizations in the months to come.
Caleb Kaltenbach: Thank you for having me.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online bachelor's program in Bible Theology and Apologetics. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more about that.
If you enjoyed today's conversation with our good friend, Caleb Kaltenbach, and about his book, Messy Truth, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thank you so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.