Exploring Hospitality Vs. Tolerance

Wendy VanderWal-Gritter – a Christian thinker, ministry leader, and straight ally – has long struggled with the dynamic tensions of being a person of faith who also embraces the gay community.

In her book Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Churchshe writes:

Tolerance often means a somewhat superficial acceptance of everyone’s ideas, beliefs, values, and practice. Differences aren’t really discussed. There can be a sense of coercion with the concept of tolerance, the feeling that it is being externally imposed. I encounter this when I hear the bitterness in people’s voices from within the Christian community whose experience of tolerance has been feeling forced to accept a certain political correctness and being part of systems that suppress true belief and opinion. Granted, some opinions ought not be publicly expressed because of the damage and hurt they would inflict on others. Nonetheless, resentment simmers when this kind of tolerance stifles the expression of deep conviction.

VanderWal-Gritter isn’t the only one concerned by a silencing tolerance. As someone who writes at length about homosexuality and faith, I am often caught between two equally powerful convictions: the desire to protect those who have been – or soon will be – wounded by the words of the Church (a desire that generates an insistence on tolerance) and the desire to create a space where frank, graceful conversation can take place on areas of disagreement. Both needs are real.

I think of my own example: in 2014, I suffered a mental collapse and was unable to engage with non-affirming Christians because the cumulative effect on my psyche was simply too great. I was too wounded, too angry, too lost in my depression and anxiety to engage in such conversation. I am thankful for the friends who nurtured me – who sheltered me from the toxic darts of the church. I needed a good, long soaking in the gay community, away from the burning light of traditional Christianity. I am now much healthier, because I allowed myself shelter from the ugly and invalidating words of those who would, with the best of intentions, undermine my humanity.

With such an experience, it would be easy to say that hard convictions about gay people should not even be voiced – that it is too dangerous, too ugly, too painful to the vulnerable. But I can’t say that.

The research of Moral Psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt, as summarized in his book The Righteous Mind, demonstrates that people in isolation almost never change in conviction: the intellect is, Haidt explains, nothing more than the press secretary of our intuitive President, who makes all the real decision. Our convictions will never change when we live in isolation from others who can influence our intuitive sense of the world.

In other words, for those of us who have a vested interest in creating a better world for LGBT people, isolation from those who disagree with us is not an option. Think of conviction as a sapling: without the nourishing presence of sunlight, it will never grow. That sunlight is conversation, community, and the influence of others who challenge our view of the world.This is why Harvey Milk’s powerful words are so prophetic: “Everyone come out!” When individuals know gay people, their intuitive sense of the world transforms, and the world is made better for all.

So two equally pressing needs present themselves to us: the need to protect the casualties of the church who have been driven to madness by being gay in the Christian world, and the need to still, somehow, cultivate connection with those with whom we disagree. In either case, Tolerance is toxic – it silences the victims or it silences those whose convictions can transform. It also cripples me, because how can I see my own blind spots if I demand silence from all who are different from me?

VanderWal-Gritter shows us a better way:

Hospitality, however, creates a very different environment. Hospitality welcomes the other, the stranger, the one who is different. But inherent in this welcome is the acknowledgement of difference. Instead of difference being superficially expunged, differences can be explored. Hospitality enhances our humanity as individuals and as those called into relationship with one another. Tolerance can flatten our humanity with its expectation of enforced acceptance. But such acceptance will rarely lead to embrace.

I will be the first admit that I often fail in expressing this hospitality – to everyone. Like many, I tend the see the world in black and white, a zero-sum game. I have swerved from one extreme of loathing all traditionalists and wanting nothing more than to silence them forever, to the other extreme of getting frustrated with my fellow LGBT siblings for how they have sometimes refused to engage in dialogue with those who disagree with us. I have called for absolute tolerance from LGBT people towards though who disagree with us, and I have called for absolute tolerance from the traditional world towards the LGBT community. I regret that this black and white form of toxic tolerance has hurt people.

But with hospitality, I am able to put down my weapons and my silencing duct-tape. I am now more capable of welcoming all to my table: those, like me, who have been so wounded by the Church that they need a safe and sacred place to rest their badly bruised souls, and those who are completely different from me, but who nonetheless deserve the respect of a listening, challenging ear.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Hospitality Vs. Tolerance

  1. I love this, and I love Wendy’s book.

    I have chosen to engage regularly in this public discussion of faith and sexuality for years now. I have chosen to dialog primarily in conservative Christian spaces. Not only do I want to understand the ever-evolving perspectives of traditionalists, I also want to advocate revisionist theology. I try to navigate those conversations with as much grace as I can muster (with varying degrees of success).

    I wholeheartedly endorse hospitality. I reject tolerance.

    The traditionalist doctrine is demonstrably harmful. Those who choose that theology, and theology is always a choice, do so with the carnage of their beliefs in plain view. It is as intolerable as misogyny and racism.

    I reject behavior verses orientation distinctions (you can be gay, you just can’t act gay) that reduce gay coupling down to a sex act rather than recognizing it as an expression of personhood. I reject beliefs that hold gay people in contempt – insisting that gay couples are immoral and inferior to straight couples and society would be better off without them. I reject “winsome” rhetoric* that is grounded in these toxic beliefs.

    I didn’t ask for my humanity to be put up for public discussion, but I know that discussion Is necessary if the church is going to become safer for the 14-year-old gay kid in the front pew. And as long as the discussion is happening, traditionalists should never be given a moral pass for their contemptuous beliefs or the manifest harm that flows from them.
    *”Winsome” is a newish buzzword for the “be nicer to the depraved gays” crowd like Preston Sprinkle or Andrew Marin.


  2. It is sad that within Christianity today we cannot be more tolerant of the differernces among us, and be more hospitable to others. Rather than take sides and be condemning of others we should take time to get to know one another and reasonably discuss our differences. I know we are not going to agree on everything and we will still have our differences, but it is the way we treat one another in those differences. In Christ we can be loving and accepting and treat one another with respect even when we see things in a different light. Jesus said to love God and love one another, he did not mean we always had to agree. So many times as Christians we feel we have to take a stand for our way of interpretation and belief or we think we are not being a good witness for God. That just is not the case. We can all have our personal interpretatiions and beliefs but we need to realize they may not be right. God will guide us to the truth in his time, but as we mature along the way we need to be kind and respectful to others who see things differently. Good article.


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