I’m honored to introduce you to my friend and former coworker Bekah McNeel. Bekah is an author, journalist, and podcaster (check out our episode together here!) who works tirelessly for those on the margins to have their voices heard and to bring about real change through the power of storytelling. I asked her if she would be willing to share with us her perspective on raising kids in affirming theology and modeling allyship as a parent. Read her wisdom here and then read her book, Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down: A Guide for Parents Questioning Their Faith, which covers many more topics relevant to this community.
By Bekah McNeel
I knew before I had kids that we would be an affirming family. My own childhood in the Presbyterian Church (PCA) had not made room for queer family, friends, and neighbors, but my heart always had. Dutiful, obedient, and fearful, I regurgitated the arguments when pressed, but in my heart, I always felt a tug, a tinge of sadness, a little gap growing between the dogma I’d accepted, and what I knew love required.
Even before I reconciled the law and the Spirit in myself, I knew I would not be able to put my children in the same position—to make them choose between loving others and defending doctrine or social positions. It wasn’t just the LGBTQIA community I wanted them to freely love, but people of color and people of different faiths. In big and little ways, I’d heard the Bible weaponized against people who were not like me, if not against their personhood, at least against their social well-being.
My journey toward affirmation—full-throated, unequivocal affirmation—is also the story of how I am raising affirming kids. I document that journey more broadly in my book, Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down (Eerdmans, 2022), but in this post, I wanted to get more specific about the stepping stones that have carried my children and me forward on the issue of gender and sexuality in particular. I’m not comfortable saying this is THE way to do it, or the way YOU should do it, because how we raise kids and manage our own deconstruction/affirmation depends on the cards in the hand we were dealt, spiritually speaking.
These stepping stones have helped me as I navigate the streams of parenthood and deconstructing a queerphobic religious tradition. They do not form a linear step-by-step pathway from nonaffirming to affirming. Like rocks in the river, my family hops back and forth between them when new dimensions of sexuality and gender challenge us, and we learn what it means to be more affirming, more loving. The stepping stones are always there to revisit when old fears and “whatabouts” pop up, as they often do for those whose formative spiritual experience was stringently nonaffirming.
I hope these stepping stones provide some help, a place to land for a moment, for others navigating the stream.
Stepping Stone One: Relationships
No matter how affirming we become, the most meaningful stepping stone will always be relationships with people who are not like us. When I first tried to deal with the gap between love and dogma—my early 20s—my motivation was to keep my queer friends and family in my life and welcome more relationships with Christians and non-Christians.
By “keep in my life” I do not mean that I refrained from formally breaking a relationship once a friend had come out, as though my friendship was a status that I alone could give or revoke. Intimacy is a two-way street, and for someone to want to stay in my life in a meaningful way, I have to treat them how they want to be treated. “Keeping in my life” meant continuing to offer a safe, loving, reciprocal relationship. Engaging their stories and dilemmas and longings with curiosity and solidarity. If I got weird and theologically rigid every time my cousin wanted to talk about a boyfriend, he would feel alienated, and soon would not want to share life.
I have had to repent of the times in my early 20s when I was compelled by my ministry job to “speak truth”—usually to younger women in the ministry. I’d bought the lie that to love them meant to guide them back to orthodoxy. It makes me sad to remember those conversations, because I know they must have felt like rejection. Even in the moment, my heart would ache not over “their sin” but over the pain I myself was inflicting. I grieve the fact that I did it anyway.
But outside the ministry job, in places where people weren’t asking me to reconcile my beliefs and my relationships, things were changing quickly.
At 26, I married someone who worked in a normal office, not a church, and realized how ensconced I had been in my homophobic community and how little room that had made in my life for anything but straight people. Choosing schools, neighborhoods, and activities in the general population—places not defined by homophobia and hell-avoidance—increased the religious, racial, and sexual diversity of our friend group and continued to shine light into the darkness of the breach between love and doctrine. We continue to pursue that kind of diverse, open community with our kids, welcoming people whose beliefs and families look different from ours, and let our love for those people lead us to the next stepping stone.
Stepping Stone Two: Spirit
As a child and young adult, I’d been taught that belief was the most important thing, the criteria by which I would be judged. But given how mysterious and ironic Jesus often was, and seeing how corrupted my beliefs had been by cultural, social, and political positions, I found my church’s version of orthodoxy harder and harder to defend, especially when it showed up in the world like exclusion and cruelty. It felt like pouring water on the Spirit—the Spirit that was celebrating with those who celebrated, weeping with those who wept. I felt joy and harmony when I would follow the Spirit’s expansive internal guidance to weddings, voting, protest, and vocal support for LGBTQIA rights. As Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
If pressed throughout my late 20s and early 30s, I could not say that my position was biblical or orthodox, though I was reading and exploring affirming theology. But the fact that I was choosing to own and live affirmation anyway was important. It placed love in the lead, instead of subjecting it to arguments and intellectual debate. It’s really important to be clear on this: it is not the same as being “accepting but not affirming.” It was the decision to be affirming without waiting for the knots tied by my church upbringing to fully untangle. It was a deeper decision to stop putting boundaries around love, and to walk away from the trash definition of love that still allows the church to exile queer people and people who disagree with it. This would end up reshaping my entire theology, but at the time it just freed me to love my queer friends and family publicly without caveat or distortion.
We do this with our kids as well, ask first “what does love look like?” They know sometimes it means protest, sometimes it means celebration, sometimes it means standing up for others. They don’t need us to defend this biblically, because they have never known a Christianity that would not affirm queer identity. But to do a good job of advocating and affirming with those who do believe God is opposed, it helps to have words to explain, which nudges me to another stepping stone.
Stepping Stone Three: Words
To fully love my friends and family, I would have to find the words for an affirming theology, because the people trying to deny their rights, their healthcare, and their inclusion in the family of God like to argue.
I also want to give my kids some good doctrine, something to lean on when they encounter the still-prevalent homophobia of our society. They’ll have good examples and data from their life, but I want them to have a faith that aligns with that.
So I did the work. I started by trying to argue the few “clobber verses” used by Christians to exclude queer identity and love from the family of God. It can totally be done—plenty of biblical scholars have done it. But for me, the clobber verses weren’t my only collision with biblical inerrancy, and the final untethering of my mind, the unwinding of those knots tied so tightly in childhood, would not come until I had reached a different understanding of how Scripture actually works, what the Bible actually is, and the role of the Holy Spirit in applying ancient words to modern times.
I’m more comfortable saying, now, that the writers of Scripture were doing their best to understand God and to live as God’s people. They were telling stories and catching glimpses that are helpful to us today as we do the same. But they didn’t always go as big and inclusive with God’s kingdom or God’s values as they would in the future (Hello, Gentiles! Hello, women! Goodbye, slavery!). I understand the role of canonization better, what is lost in the institutionalization of religion.
So when I am talking to myself, that part of me that still brings up old arguments; this is the doctrine we discuss. When I talk to either “concerned” evangelicals in my life or to my own kids, I don’t have the burden of biblical inerrancy hanging over my head. With those who want to argue, this quickly changes the debate—and frankly, makes them more concerned for my soul than my social positions. With my kids, it opens up more conversation, another stepping stone, one specific to raising kids. While the other stepping stones help me deal with my internal work, and then my public-facing affirmation, the fourth stepping stone is specific to the work of formation, something parents are called to do with their children.
Stepping Stone Four: Conversations
When I was a kid, anything other than cisgender, heterosexual identity was sinful. Simple. No discussion necessary. But when you do away with that simplistic write-off, things get more complicated. We have to help our kids work out their own identity, understand the world they live in, and process the differences between people as something that is not “good vs. bad” but beautifully complex.
Some have argued that if they grow up not hearing anything bad about queer identity, then kids will be automatically affirming, and they won’t struggle to come out themselves if they are queer. I think we have to be explicit, because the world is explicit. I think kids process differences in not-always-prosocial ways and they need guidance. But that doesn’t mean they need “the talk.” I think it means lots of little conversations in the context of our hops back and forth between the other stepping stones: relationships, Spirit, and words.
At dinner one evening, my cousin and his husband welcomed questions from my kids about how a family worked with two dads. There was no question of whether it was okay, but there were practical questions. Was it possible to have babies? How did they know whose shoes were whose? My cousins, who have been together for decades, consented to answer these questions in the genuinely curious spirit they were asked and were gracious when my kids acted like kids. We coached them as well, helping them understand the difference between curiosity and judgment. It was uncomfortable, but there was love there to get us through.
When our friend came out as nonbinary, we talked to our kids about the mechanics of their identity, the pronouns, the ways gender might be expressed. We did this before our friend joined us on a family vacation, knowing that it was most loving if we did the explaining ahead of time. It was confusing at first for the kids. But since we have taught God as neither male nor female, there was no question of right and wrong. Just adjustments.
Learning these things in the context of relationships—not as abstract “some people”—has been helpful, because they are learning more about people they already love. We also discuss the queer characters in books and movies and ensure that we are doing our part at home to answer questions that could be hurtful or uncomfortable for the people in our lives. We also try to be wise when our kids need to understand that not everyone loves the LGBTQIA community. If they don’t understand this, they will not be able to be in true solidarity with people whose rights are still very much contested. (We live in Texas, so I mean, like REALLY contested.)
But there’s a difference between bringing our kids into a doctrinal debate—to deconstruct something that was never constructed for them in the first place—and preparing them to advocate for love in their unjust world.
When I’m talking to my kids about the rainbow flag in our neighbor’s yard, I’m really not concerned with what arsenokoitai means. We talk about all the people we know and love who are represented by that flag. But when my daughter wanted to wear a “free sister hugs” shirt with a rainbow flag on it to a Christian event, I went ahead and told her that there would be people there who might ask her questions or challenge her. I let her decide if she wanted to take on the advocacy that day and offered to help her figure out what she would say in response, starting with love.
Thanks, Bekah! More resources for parents can be found on my Queer Christian resources list.