Chow Ping’s note: This piece was written for Progressive Malaysian Christians (PMC) and was published on the PMC Facebook page as a note.
In this TL;DR, I will attempt to summarise Jonathan William’s book “She’s My Dad”. However, I posit beforehand that I will not do the book justice, for it’s impossible to reflect the ethos of Jonathan’s journey in a mere 1000 words or so. Yet, please be patient while I try. Also, I will be quoting, like, a lot.
Jonathan Williams comes from a long line of influential Evangelical Christians. Both his grandfathers were pastors. His father, Paul Williams, directed a church-planting organisation named Harvest Network. Paul was also a pastor and speaker, often preaching to crowds of thousands at megachurches across America. On top of that, Paul was also the editor of a prominent Christian publication. He was- to put it simply- a superstar of the Evangelical world.
And then one day, Paul Williams decided to become Paula Williams. Actually, it didn’t just happenone day. It was a decision that emerged after long years of struggle and soul searching. Jonathan’s dad, Paul revealed the truth he had concealed for many years: Paul identifies as a woman. Paul was a transgender. And, he had decided to undergo gender reassignment procedures.
First, let’s talk definitions. “Transgender” means one’s gender, identity, expression, or role does not match the sex the person was assigned at birth. Just because one identifies as a transgender doesn’t mean that said person will necessarily transition into and live out their preferred gender.
Please do not confuse “transgender” with “transsexual”- they are not the same. Transsexuals are those who choose to physically alter their bodies through hormone therapies or gender confirmation surgeries. However, the term “transsexual” could carry negative connotations. People who fall into this category prefer the term “trans”.
There is also a common misconception that sex transition means a change in sexual orientation. This is inaccurate. One’s gender identity has absolutely no bearing on the person’s sexual orientation. For example, Jonathan’s father, who liked women as a man, continued to be attracted to women post sex transition.
Another confusing term is “transvestite”. A transvestite is a person who cross-dresses. Who wears clothes designed for the opposite sex. Many transvestites identify as straight men.
Here’s a note on transgenders:
“Researchers have come to a consensus that… (gender identity) goes beyond the reproductive body parts with which we’re born. These differences can be found in the white matter of our brains… In the brains of people assigned male at birth who identified as transgender females, they found that the white matter of their brains closely resembled female white matter… The same can be said of those designated female at birth who identified as transgender males.”
In other words, trans are not bullshitting when they say they “feel” more like a woman or man. In fact, doctors marvelled at how well Paula’s brain receptors responded to oestrogen. She was wired to be a woman all along.
Anyway, back to the story. No points for guessing what happened next.
Paul’s coming out induced the expected reaction from the Evangelical Christian world where “truth was still objective and given by the scriptures, which forbade grey areas of gender and sexuality.”
Paula got fired from her many positions. The Evangelical Christian world turned their backs on Paula. Some reached out with good intentions. But good intentions and noble calls are rubbish when the motivations are selfish.
“What the well-intentioned of the Evangelical community wanted for my father and me was secondary to what they wanted for themselves. They wanted to know that their anger was okay. They wanted to know that I wouldn’t enforce the postmodern narrative protocol that called for unconditional acceptance, but that I would stand with them in the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ ideology.”
All that drama landed Jonathan in a whirlwind of confusion and grief. He started drinking heavily. He fell into depression. At the point of Paul’s coming out, Jonathan had just planted a new church, Forefront Brooklyn, and depended on Harvest Network for financial support.
Paul’s transition set Jonathan on a long and winding journey that brought him to a point when he was ready for Forefront Brooklyn to become a progressive and inclusive church. But this was tricky. In the case for many other churches, their efforts to include sexual minorities had resulted in their own exclusion, loss of financial backing, and a lot of pain inflicted by the wider church community.
There was a glimpse of the turbulence to come when Jonathan’s intention to be inclusive was prematurely revealed. During her baptism service, a woman gave a speech that Jonathan failed to vet. She talked about the connection she felt to Forefront, her appreciation for its style and laid-back demeanour, etc etc. And then, she credited her girlfriend’s role in her faith… simultaneously revealing her sexual orientation – “she was gay – and not the repenting kind of gay either. She would be baptised and remain gay!”
Some people in the congregation stood up in the middle of the sharing and walked out. One parent rushed to the children’s area to pick up her kids before beelining for the door. More people got up and left.
As you can see, uphill slope.
When Jonathan eventually announced that the church would officially become LGBTQIA-inclusive, he did so by telling real stories about real people that have suffered from the toxicity of conservative church policies. He also raised the Biblical conscience of the church.
I will relay the rest of the book with excerpts, because my attempts to paraphrase Jonathan have been pathetic.
“The call toward authenticity is holy. It is sacred. And it is for the greater good. It was my trust in the fact that the truth sets us free that kept me moving forward though the road of trials, and it is what keeps me moving forward today.”
“While we’re debating the meanings of ancient texts, so many in the queer community are presently marginalised, hurt, and even dying for attempting to live out the truth of how they are perfectly created in the image of God.”
“To say Genesis teaches that God created people only male or female is to ignore the plethora of intersex conditions that exist in the world.”
On the interpretation of Bible verses, Jonathan said:
“Is it possible that God exists, that the Bible exists, along a continuum of human growth and consciousness? Is it possible that God is working toward a perfect and loving peace, and that God is doing it one small step at a time?”
“Is it possible that our scriptures are showing us a loving God, and that God is working within our worldview and consciousness to bring pure love and peace, to bring shalom?”
“So maybe, just maybe, the fact that God moves us to bigger consciousness slowly, in steps, instead of asking the impossible of us, shows just how loving this God is. Maybe the fact that God moves us step by step is God showing us the utmost grace. Maybe it’s God showing us the utmost love. Perhaps it’s God moving us toward the radical love and inclusivity that God so desires. And maybe we’re moving along the same spectrum in regard to gender identity.”
“The correct interpretation of scripture always comes down to how we love. The Bible was never intended to be our master, placing a burden on our back. It was intended to act like a servant, leading us to love God, others, and ourselves.”
“Is scripture a living and breathing work, or is it dead? If scripture is dead, then our church’s reasoning for inclusivity is dead with it. If our scripture is still alive, and if God is still writing God’s story, then is it possible that God has called us to play a part in reflecting the uncomfortable and radical inclusion we see through the scriptures?”
“We asked our church to imagine Christianity two thousand years from now. What would those Christians say about us? Would they find it appalling that we discriminated against the LGBTQIA community, in much the same way that we find the “spoils of war” (Deut 21:10-14 where women were treated as property) passage appalling now?”
“As Christians, we’ve spent way too much time with a vertical reading of our Bibles… we hang heaven at the top of our vertical construction. That’s where God resides, and it’s the place we attain – heaven. We’re on earth, a place often seen as broken and getting worse. For those who don’t measure up to the standards of God, we have a third tier – hell – which lies beneath our “broken” earth and is punishment for not looking upwards.”
“The vertical construction of Christianity invades our sensibilities until it becomes second nature to believe that there is another place above for which we strive – and one below, which we avoid at all costs. And what are the costs of avoiding the tier below us?… We line up beliefs and opinions designed to measure the worthiness of one who will ascend or descend, depending on their perspective. Finally, we create a meritocracy, designed to make our vertical construction exclusive.”
“The tragedy of the vertical construction of God and the scriptures is that relationships are no longer essential to the Christian ethic… There was no surprise at my father being let go from her position in her church-planting organisation. She threatened the very existence of Christianity’s vertical construct… one less box checked on their list of moral platitudes.”
Jonathans talked about Grace, a queer who worked in a sports-focused Christian ministry. When she came out, she was first belittled, then apologised to, and finally told that “the organisation does not believe that being gay is okay, and … she would have to ‘not live that lifestyle’”. She wrote that her loss of Christianity was “an outcome of the larger belief in the vertical structure of Christianity that simply disregards humanity in order to align with ‘right thinking’”.
Jonathan soldiered on, but not without a lot of pain and adversity. With regard to the growth he’d achieved, he said: “I now hold a faith that does not require the suspension of disbelief, deny common sense, or deny the whispering of my heart.”
As for Paula, she eventually found acceptance at Highlands Church in Denver, Colorado. Here, she’s free to exercise her God-given gifts. At Highlands, she’s valued for her expertise in church health and growth. The church embraced her and confirmed that she’s made perfectly in God’s image. Here, there’s vulnerability and safety. This is different from the faces of the well-intentioned.
Paula said: “…There are a lot of humans ready to embrace a Christianity focused more on right actions than right belief, on God as the ultimate suffering participant instead of God as the ultimate threatener, and a church organising for the common good instead of a church focused on its own self-preservation”.
Dear all, will we be that church?