The problem of privilege at Elevation Church
Updated: June 16, 2016 at 11:18 am
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Steven Furtick is the pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C. Elevation is a church that exists “so that people far from God are raised to life in Christ.” They are easily the most well-known church in the Charlotte area with an average weekly attendance of 14,000. In their short history, they have consistently made headlines in Charlotte and nationally, sometimes positive and sometimes negative.
Recently, Elevation Church began a series about relationships entitled Meant to Be. As a young gay man who identifies as a Christian, I have lots of questions about singleness, marriage, dating, sex and love. I used to attend Elevation every week, so I know that Steven Furtick is a compelling speaker who communicates effectively. Theoretically, a series on those topics would be very relevant and helpful for me as a 21-year-old college student. However, as I tuned in online to watch, it quickly became clear this series was not intended for me.
A few minutes into the first sermon of the series, Steven Furtick admitted that his church often gets asked about their position on sexuality. Apparently, this is a common question about Elevation and one he seems to be tired of hearing. Furtick explained that their position is very simple. He quotes I Corinthians 7:2: “Each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband,” then repeats it patronizingly. He says it’s that easy — if you don’t have a wife, you don’t get to have sex. Then he moves on.
And that’s where I got concerned. I believe that message is deeply problematic for three reasons.
1. This message is clouded by privilege:
Not every person is having the same experience of life in this country or in the evangelical church. As a white cisgender wealthy heterosexual Christian man, Steven Furtick is always speaking from a place of privilege. That’s not his fault and there’s nothing wrong with privilege. But, it’s important that all people, especially spiritual leaders, recognize their privilege and acknowledge that not everyone has the same experience.
To Steven Furtick, I Corinthians 7:2 is a valid and complete theology on its own. He has a wife, so he gets to have sex. Plain and simple, right? But, it’s not that easy for everyone. I don’t have a wife and I will never have a wife. If I want to have sex, the answer is not for me to get a wife, because I have no physical/emotional/romantic/sexual attraction to women. So, that verse is a lot more complicated when it comes to my life.
Instead of acknowledging the complexity of applying the passage to all audiences, Steven Furtick chooses to view it only through the lens of his privilege. That makes for great rhetoric, but it does not meet people where they’re at. Unless Elevation wants to be a church only for privileged people, the narrative will have to change to include people outside the walls of inequality.
I believe checking our privilege is the Christian way. Philippians 2:4 encourages believers about “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” The body of Christ has to be a place where we consider and look out for those different from us.
2. This tactic erases an entire group of people:
Charlotte is a very progressive city for this region of the country. The city’s gay index actually indicates that Charlotte has a significantly larger percentage of LGBTQ people within city limits than the national average. We’re not talking about a small town with a few closeted individuals that go unnoticed. This city has a massive queer population, the second highest in the state. This year, Charlotte’s Pride broke a record with over 100,000 people in attendance. (Elevation can’t have missed this event because it has a campus on the same street as Pride.)
Steven Furtick has to be aware that his city is full of LGBTQ people. Recent political momentum all across the country and the ongoing discussions of human rights policy in North Carolina have thrown every citizen into this conversation.
To preach in a way that doesn’t even acknowledge queer people are there is at best confusing and at worst deeply offensive to my community. No matter what your intention is, you can’t erase people in sermons and expect them to keep showing up.
The evangelical church is certainly divided right now when it comes to how they love LGBTQ people, not just what theological position to hold, but how to apply it practically. All evidence suggests that this debate is not going away in the church anytime soon.
Regardless of our differences, I hope we can all agree on one point. Loving people begins by acknowledging they exist. Simple acknowledgement would seem to be a necessary starting point for love. The Golden Rule is still helpful in this discussion: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)
3. This message gives no real answers to LGBTQ people:
Steven Furtick acts like his theology is clear and obvious. He patronizingly asks the congregation to repeat after him, making it sound like anyone who doesn’t get it is mentally slow. Then he moves on like everything has been settled. The problem is, Steven Furtick gave absolutely no practical answers.
I am reminded of the believer’s question found in Scripture: “How then should we live?” If you accept Steven Furtick’s theology and believe that sex is always wrong without a wife, where does that leave you? How should a queer person view their sexuality? Is there any hope? What is the right course of action for someone in a gender or sexual minority?
Though Steven Furtick does preach to straight single adults about abstinence, he still offers them the hope of marriage, reminding them that sex is a wonderful gift in that context. But, while pointing straight singles to a healthy expression of their passion in the future, he has no solution for anyone who is not heterosexual.
Furtick leaves LGBTQ people with no answers and no hope, just the sense that something is wrong with them for missing the obvious. Christians are called to “encourage each other and build each other up.” (I Thessalonians 5:11) That means we do the work to find ways to address the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ believers and support them in any way we can.
If I sound angry in this article, you have picked up on genuine frustration and discouragement watching all of this unfold. I used to love Elevation. I tithed and gave and volunteered and invited everyone I knew, telling them it was the best church I had ever found. To this day, I believe there are dozens of wonderful people on staff and on volunteer teams there who have a big heart for people and for this city. I’ve even talked to staff members who specifically feel burdened to reach out to LGBTQ people and that is why I have hope in this situation.
Ultimately, this is not an article about a specific person, church, or sermon. This is about systems of oppression that Christians continue to participate in, usually accidentally. My goal here is to call us back to the liberating truth of the Gospel and the justice commanded by God over and over again.
I don’t want Elevation Church to fail. I desperately want them to succeed at loving people like Jesus. : :
— Stephen Lovegrove is the student director of Safe Zones at Winthrop University. He is also an Emerging Leader involved with Human Rights Campaign and Time Out Youth locally, and he is passionate about equality and justice in the intersections of sexuality and spirituality. You can find Stephen online at stephenlovegrove.us, where this commentary was originally published on Sept. 11, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
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