Long Form Interview: Caleb Kaltenbach

February 19, 2016

Recently christianaudio’s President and Publisher, Cory Verner, sat down with Caleb Kaltenbach to discuss his new book, Messy Grace.  They had an in-depth conversation about the Church’s relationship with the LGBT Community, a matter that is touchy to say the very least. Interested in what they had to say? Read on!

Cory: Hi Caleb. I appreciate you taking the time to do this.

Caleb: I appreciate you doing it, it means a lot, thank you so much.

Cory: No problem. I think it’s an important book. I read the book and was impressed with what you’re trying to do with it. It’s not an easy task.

Caleb: It definitely isn’t, but I think it’s sparked some conversation, some good conversation, so I think that’s important.

Cory: Yes,  it is an important conversation, it’s happening anyway, and I think it needs to be constructive. We need to do things differently than we’ve been doing them because obviously Christians, we aren’t getting the result we want, I guess to put it one way.

Caleb: Right.

Cory: Where did your sense of humor come from?

Caleb: I think I got it from my family; my mom has a pretty good sense of humor, my uncle had a pretty good sense of humor.

Cory: I laughed out loud a few times reading the book.  It’s a very engaging read.

Caleb: I think anytime you deal with a tense subject, humor helps, and when you look at Jesus, I think there were many times when he probably employed humor and there are things we read today in the Gospels that we probably don’t think of as humorous but they were probably humorous back then. But I think that humor breaks down walls and barriers.

Cory: I think you’re right, that’s a good point. If we understood more of the cultural context, we would see more of the humor. So your story is pretty incredible, and pretty unusual. For those who don’t know it, can you share a bit of it?

Caleb: Yes. When I was a young kid, about two years old, I was living in Columbia, Missouri with both of my parents. They divorced and both of my parents came out of the closet at the same time.  My whole life, I was raised in the LGBT community. My dad never had a monogamous partner but had relationships. My mom was with the same woman for 22 years. They were politically active and joined the local chapter of GLAAD. They ended up taking me with them to parties, camps and pride parades and I saw the worst of Christianity – if it was right to even call these people Christians, holding up horrible signs, spraying people with water and urine. I saw families abandon their sons in the gay community when they found out their sons had AIDS, and I couldn’t stand Christians. I couldn’t stand them. When I was 16 and in high school, I was invited to a high school Bible study, so I decided to go to be a ninja Christian, or a pretend Christian, and learn about the Bible and dismantle their faith.

I actually ended up coming to faith. Over a course of a few weeks, I not only came to faith, I decided to become a pastor. I came to the conclusion that God designed sexual intimacy to be expressed in the context of marriage between a man and a woman and also came to the conclusion that theological conviction should never be a catalyst to treat someone less. I told my parents that I was a Christian, wanted to be a pastor and what I believed about sexual intimacy. Basically to sum it up, it was a very rough time. The best way I can describe it is to think about how a gay teenager feels when he or she comes out to their Christian parents. I was a 16 year-old teenager coming out as a Christian to my three gay parents and that was extremely difficult.

Cory: And you had a similar result on the other side?

Caleb: Yeah. The rejection that they were hearing from Christians, they were giving to me in that moment. But I ended up going to Bible college and I came on staff to a large church in Los Angeles for 11 years. For 3 ½ years I was out of Dallas, Texas and returned to southern California in the summer of 2013 to lead Discovery Church, which is where I lead now. Discovery Church is in Simi Valley, California. For those three and a half years I was in Dallas, my parents ended up moving down there, separately of one another. My mom’s partner had died and they started attending my church. Two weeks before we left to move back out to California, both my parents gave their lives to the Lord. It was just a phenomenal event and it blew me away. That doesn’t mean we don’t have baggage; there is serious baggage there still. That doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, but I do believe that they’re saved. I think they are working through various struggles and issues and there is a lot of tension there, but that’s what happens when grace and truth collide, right?

Cory: Right. Let’s go back to some of the early stuff in your story. It really grieves me to think of how evil some Christians have been to the LGBT community.   I read the story of Hector and cried at the end… it just really, really impacted me. Short but powerful. In Messy Grace you write about the path forward that contains truth and grace – there is a huge tension there because you, in many cases, are trying to love and be with people, but tell them they’re wrong about something. What follows can be challenging. So can you talk a little bit more about Messy Grace and how you live in truth and grace in a relationship with someone who is gay and you’re close to? I have people like that in my life and I am interested in the truth aspect, because it’s not that hard for me to love them, but it is hard to bring up the truth, if I’m being honest. I struggle with that sometimes because I know it’s going to hurt them in some way, if that makes sense.

Caleb: Absolutely. I think eventually it will hurt people and unfortunately that’s the tension of grace and truth. Many people talk about this tension that you feel between grace and truth, where you love God, you love the Bible but you love your friend who might be living in a way that is not what God’s design is or maybe making choices outside of God’s design and you love them but you feel committed to God’s word and that’s why there’s a tension there. The reason why I call the book Messy Grace is not because God’s grace is messy, but because when you have God’s grace hitting our lives, it looks messy. We can’t figure it out.  There’s a tension there for us, but not for God. I mean, John 1:14-17 says that Jesus came full of grace AND truth at the same time, and for us there’s a tension because what we’re trying to do is live in this tension. Too often we’re trying to go to one side or the other. It’s easy for us to just be on the grace side or just be on the truth side. We’re on the grace side and we are committed to living in the tension where it pulls us closer on the truth, and if we’re on the truth side and we’re committed to living in the tension, it pulls us closer to grace. Here are some of the steps we need to take to get closer to that.

One: We have to realize that people have depth. And really when we think about the word “homosexuality” and when we use it, like when people say, “is homosexuality a sin?” Well, that word has so much baggage in our culture, right? I mean, I understand what the question is. But in our church we have people who are openly gay, whether they are single because of their biblical convictions or confused or pursuing a relationship or currently involved in a same-sex relationship. We have people who are all over the map.

For instance, I remember sitting down with one couple that goes to our church and another church. This lesbian couple sat down with me and wanted to talk with me. They had been together for almost 30 years. They were not sexually intimate anymore. They lived in the same house, but in separate bedrooms. And so…  is that a sin? The reason I say we need to learn to think deeper and why I say the word “homosexuality” has so much baggage is because I think we need to narrow down what we’re talking about. What I mean is that I believe that same-sex intimacy is a sin. Now, are there other aspects, like co-dependency, yes, but specifically in the Bible, the Apostle Paul and in the Old Testament and other people are talking about same-sex intimacy. So I think we need to really narrow down what we’re talking about. I know a lot of “couples” in same-sex relationships who are together and they aren’t even sexually intimate, Cory. So, again, where do you draw that line?  I think we need to learn that people are a mosaic of their experiences.

Cory: I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day, and he really did feel that if a person considers themselves to be gay, even if they weren’t in a relationship and were not intimate with someone, that they couldn’t call themselves a Christian if they were still referring to themselves as gay. This is really a prevalent view. I think many people hold to this view, and I didn’t really have a good argument to back up my feeling that, that person would be a Christian.

Caleb: The way I look at it, I understand what your friend was saying, but I also understand what the other person was saying. When a person says they are gay and/or identifies with the LGBT community, for them, it’s not as much about whom they have sex with. It’s about their feelings and their views on subjects. I mean, it’s almost become a philosophy of life. For instance, I remember a conversation that I had with my mom that kind of touches on what I just said. I remember before she became a Christian, when her partner was dying, she said, “You know Vera and I were not intimate the last several years of our relationship.” I said “But you still call yourself a lesbian.” And she said, “Well of course I do. That’s my community. I have relationships there. Those are the people that accept me.  I’m part of a cause… and people understand what I’ve gone through.”  And I said, “Mom, you just described the church.” And she said, “No, I didn’t. Why would I go somewhere that made me feel less about myself?”

And it really dawned on me that, for her, it was not really about same-sex intimacy, it was more about the community and relationships. And so, here’s the biggest mistake that a lot of Christians make, and it just comes back to your question about truth and it also touches on the first step I talked about in that people have depth. A lot of Christians think that the biggest part of identifying as LGBT is who you have sex with, and that’s just not true. It’s not true at all.

The average Christian will have someone who is gay in their life and they will think it is incumbent upon them to bring up Leviticus and 1 Corinthians and Romans and all of these passages and they may even throw in Genesis 19 and they bring up all this stuff and they just push it on this person. The person who is listening thinks, “You don’t know who I am, you don’t know my experiences, you really haven’t gotten to know me as a person. And ironically you tell me not to identify myself by my orientation. But you, without getting to know me … and by just focusing on this one narrow aspect, you identified me by my sexual orientation. The very thing you told me not to do, you’ve done to me.”  They walk away feeling rejected, but the Christian has made an easy mistake. We need to take the time to actually be people’s friends. We need to take time to get to know them. That’s the second step. We need to take time to get to know them. Not to treat them like a pet evangelistic projects.

Cory: You’re right. I completely agree with that because you can’t have a relationship and do that.

Caleb: No, and this is what I believe, and this has happened every single time, Cory. God will give margin for us to have conversations about holy living. I think difficult conversations are best had in the context of trust and a relationship. I think a lot of Christians make that mistake.

There is a third thing we need to understand when it comes to this. There is a difference between acceptance and approval. When I go out and speak and when I talk to other people about this issue, especially a lot of parents, they think, “Okay. If I accept my child and their partner over here, I’m saying it’s okay how they’re living or the life choices they’re making.” And I say no it’s not. There’s a difference between acceptance and approval. You know, I accept people in my church. Whoever you are, you should be able to come and walk in and sit and be a part of our church. But, I shake hands every week with people who make choices I don’t approve of. So I think we have got to understand there’s a big difference between acceptance and approval.

Cory: Well, let me ask you a little harder question. I think one of the harder aspects of this, is the Christians who identify themselves as gay and are in a relationship. I know that a lot of people just don’t believe that the Bible requires them to change and they have a philosophy… we know those arguments and we won’t bring them up here. But, are you more intentional, more aggressive, that’s probably not the right word, with these people who claim to be a Christian, to maybe help them take these aspects of the Bible more seriously? How do you deal with that?

Caleb: First of all, I think that people, because we don’t think deeply about this issue, we ask the wrong theological questions. For instance, I think a wrong theological question that people ask me a lot is, “Are people born that way?” And here’s my answer, Cory – I don’t care. I don’t think that matters a hill of beans. I think that when it comes to this matter, I’m not interested in the birthright. I’m interested in the Biblical worldview. I know people who have felt attracted since they were kids. They were not molested, abused, neglected, bullied or anything. And so, I’m not really interested in that. What’s important is what does the Bible say when it’s applied and interpreted in its historic and literary context.

The other question that some people probably talk to you about is can people be gay and be Christian at the same time? Well, again, I think there is a lot of depth to that question. For somebody who is in that type of relationship and they say well I’m a Christian but I’m in a same-sex relationship, do I eventually have a conversation with them? Well, yeah, if God gives me the margin… And for a lot of people I know who are in same-sex relationships, just like a lot of people I know who are in difficult circumstances, we have no idea what God is doing in their hearts. It’s not up to me to pronounce salvation or judgment on somebody. When you think about the parable of the prodigal son, the prodigal son when he was out in a distant country, he never EVER, ever stopped being his father’s son. That never happened. He was always his father’s son; continually his father’s son, and eventually he returned back. So we don’t know what God is doing in someone’s heart. We don’t know how God is crafting it. You don’t know how God is working things out. So do I think if I don’t see any fruit developing or if I don’t see any growth, am I concerned about that? Yes. But God has always given me margin to have conversations when I needed to have them.

What we try to do in our church is balance that tension of grace and truth, to walk in it. We try to create an environment where we don’t compromise the truth, but at the same time, we create space. We create opportunity for people who are in same-sex relationships and same-sex attracted to be able to come and attend our church, while carrying a difficult burden. Eventually those conversations are going to come, and sometimes they go well, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people get mad and leave. I had somebody do that the other day and you know what, that’s fine. I’m thankful. For the short amount of time I had in there where I was able to preach truth and the Gospel and that’s the most important thing.

Cory: That’s absolutely the most important thing. So how do you attract those people? Is it word of mouth? Is it something that you’re out there doing in your marketing? How does a church bring more people in and to have these conversations and these relationships?

Caleb: I love looking at all different types of churches and what they do, but I would say at our church, we work to be very intentional, as North Point would put it, to be a church that unchurched people love to attend. And that, in no way, shape or form, means that we are seeker-sensitive, it means that we are intentional in understanding that not everybody in our church is on the same path or at the same level. That there are some people who are further ahead, there are some people who are saved and just not interested in church and they’re coming but they’re just disgruntled. There are some people that love God and just don’t know a lot about the Bible and some who aren’t even Christian.

So we are so intentional about everything we do, from the songs that we pick, to our programming for every worship service, to my sermon and how I say things because when I look at the Bible. When I look at the apostle Paul, he was intentional when it came to people who were unchurched. I mean, you look at Acts 17 and he uses a lyric from a secular song to describe our relationship with God. In Him we move and live and have our being. He uses an altar to the unknown God. In 1st Corinthians 9 he says “I have become all things to all people so that I may win some.” And Jesus was very intentional when he was telling the parables. In Luke 15, it starts off at the beginning of that chapter saying there were Pharisees and there were sinners listening to him and He was intentional with what He said. So we are very intentional with everything that we say.

We’ve done a church survey two years in a row in May, and we have everyone in our congregation fill out a survey at the end of our worship service, whichever service they’re attending, and we’ve found that 40% of our service, on any given Sunday, is unchurched. This is defined as we are the first church they have ever attended or that they have attended in a while. I believe that is the intentionality that’s working, it’s not a specific ministry directed toward the LGBT community, but it’s just toward people because we have all types of people — we have gang members here, we have couples who are living together but not married, we have people who are single, we have people who feel like they don’t fit in, we have people who are LGBT, we have all types of people. Because we employ the same intentionality that Jesus and the Apostle Paul used.

Cory: So, who is this book for? I read it, I know you probably had several audiences in mind, but who is the main type of person who should read this book?

Caleb: So I say in the first chapter that this book really is for anyone, and it really is for anyone. But you’re right. There is a primary audience. The primary audience is the conservative Christian, or the evangelical Christian, that is having a really difficult time processing this. That has to live in this post-Supreme Court decision culture on marriage equality. This is a part of our way of life now. So, how do we reconcile that?

It’s for the conservative Christian parent whose child is going to come out to them and they have no idea and that moment when that happens … that can either wreck a relationship or it can really encourage the relationship. And you see the gay teenager suicide rate rising, and I think it’s because of a lot of shame and not understanding. It’s not intentional by anybody, but it’s because a lot of people have never been forced to talk through these issues or think through these issues until recently. And now churches really don’t have a choice. If they don’t deal with it, eventually they will become irrelevant.

Cory: You’re right, now is certainly the time to deal with it and a lot of it has been swept under the rug for a long time.  I find it interesting that even with your stance on truth and on the Bible and that you were able to reconcile with your parents and spend many, many years being very close to them and in a relationship with them and never compromising on the truth side. I think a lot of people would at some point just break.   I think that’s one of the messages of the book, right? We just keep going; we don’t give up.

Caleb:  One of the points I make in the first chapter is that love has no exception clause. Love doesn’t have an exception clause for your gay neighbor or anybody. Jesus says that in Matthew 5:38-48 and obviously this is taken into a huge level that we aren’t experiencing here, but love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, if someone pushes you to go one mile with them, go two. You see that attitude and you see what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4 about kindness, and what the Apostle Paul says in Romans chapter 12: 9-18, specifically 18 when he says as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. I don’t always see that kindness and that peace when it comes to this issue.

It comes to people engaging in a culture war that didn’t work. Culture is not something to be fought. Culture is something to be lovingly engaged. I look at Jesus, and Jesus had very firm theological convictions, but he also never shied away from spending time with people that the religious zealots never would, whether it was Roman soldiers or centurions, adulteress women, tax collectors, a party, allowing a woman to wash his feet, or even calling someone like Mary Magdalene into discipleship. I mean, Jesus did things that were so socially taboo and Jesus had deep relationships with people who were far from God.  And if Jesus had both, and if Jesus was able to do this setting an example of how we’re supposed to do it. Yeah. I look at Matthew 5:38, I look at Romans 12, I look at Ephesians 4, I look at what Paul says over and over again about how kindness is so important.

Barrt Corey, who is the President of Biola University, is coming out with a fantastic book that I just got done reading and it’s called “Love Kindness” and he just makes this plea for kindness in cultural discussions, and his main Scripture is Romans 2:4, which I love. And Romans 2:4 says it is God’s kindness that leads people to repentance. And if God’s kindness leads to repentance, how much more should our kindness lead people to repentance? But, we can’t do that if we ignore people, if we alienate people, if we want nothing to do with them.

Cory: Eugene Peterson had written a book, I think it’s called The Jesus Way. I don’t remember, it was many years ago, and it talked about the concept of us understanding Jesus as The truth and The life. We get our life from Him and we will one day have eternal life because of His sacrifice. We believe that He is the truth, He is God, and we have all these theological convictions. But Jesus as the way is a mystery to most Western Christians, you know, living life the way He did. Which is what you were describing. And really where I think we, as Christians in America, need to grow here.

Caleb: I agree completely and hopefully I didn’t go off on too much of a tangent. I really think so much of this has come from the intermingling of Christianity and American politics, which has produced American Christianity. I saw it when the Supreme Court decision came out. Did I agree with the Supreme Court decision? No, I didn’t. Was I somewhat bothered by it? Yes, I was. But I saw some Christians, and their reaction, and it was like their whole world fell apart. And I was just thinking to myself, “You know what? I love my country. I really do love this country. But, I’ve never been called by God, ultimately, to push forward American ideology. I was called by God to promote His kingdom. And I think we have created this brand of American Christianity which relies so much on politics, and eventually human institutions are going to fail. You know, God never will.

Now, are there political things within Christianity? Yes, there are. Faith in Christ touches every arena of life, whether that’s politics or family or personal relationships, or whatever it is, vocation. Your faith is going to touch everything. But we have tied American Christianity so much to our politics, and American politics is just mud-slinging, right? We’re already seeing it in this year’s election. We are seeing it with candidates today. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like a year from now.

Cory: Talk about a place we need kindness!

Caleb: Yes! So I think anytime you intermix Christianity and any kind of political government system, you’re not going to have that kindness and you’re going to lose the way that Jesus was talking about, that Eugene Peterson was referring to. That’s what I believe.

Cory: Well I appreciate the time and your willingness to get on and talk about this book, Caleb. I really do.

Caleb: I really appreciate you guys having me on. It was a real pleasure.


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