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Out of the theological closet

Posted: October 14th, 2016 | Cover stories, News, Top Story | No Comments

A local pastor’s journey viewing the Bible through a different lens

By Joyell Nevins

Be brave!

Because you’re a child of God.

Be kind!

Because everyone else is, too.

That is the benediction of every service at Sojourn Grace Collective, a progressive Christian church located on Oregon Street in North Park and co-pastored by Colby Martin. Who would have thought that a message offering love, kindness and respect to everyone could be met with animosity?

Yet Martin has been fired from other churches — twice. He’s been harangued on social media and berated by other clergy.

That negative activity will likely not be stopping soon, either, with the recent release of Martin’s new book “UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality.”

People on the outskirts, however, whom for many different reasons have been ostracized — sometimes because of their sexuality — by religious society, sometimes by society in general, have embraced the young, committed pastor. They have found love and acceptance with Martin, his family, and his new church.

“This is what makes us come alive,” Martin said of he and his wife Kate. “Helping people see that they are loved by God. That they have meaning and purpose and value.”

 Pastor Colby Martin's journey of acceptance and understanding of the LGBT community put he and his wife Katie through heartache but led to eventual redemption in San Diego. His new book shares that story. (Courtesy Colby Martin)

Pastor Colby Martin’s journey of acceptance and understanding of the LGBT community put he and his wife Kate through heartache but led to eventual redemption in San Diego. His new book shares that story. (Courtesy Colby Martin)

A faith flip

Martin didn’t start out with that attitude. He was born and raised in Oregon in a Baptist-style church. When he was 10 years old, his parents divorced. His mom stayed connected with the church world, but his dad was shunned. Eventually, his mom took them to a more welcoming congregation, but an imprint was made in Martin’s heart.

“It planted seeds that the church could simultaneously be the safest and most dangerous place,” Martin said.

His own conversion came when he was 17. Martin was participating in street ministry with his youth group during a summer conference when he realized that he didn’t have what he was sharing to others about.

“I came back to my room and just started weeping,” Martin said. “I felt like the biggest fraud. I realized I was at a fork, one of those moments with massive implications. I could either keep going with this life where everything was about me, or I could make a choice to have a life where I lived for something bigger than myself.”

Martin chose to live for something bigger than himself and dedicate his heart and life to follow Jesus. His zeal and bend toward intellectual study took him to train as a pastor at Western Baptist University.

His study within what he deemed a “conservative theological framework” became focused on “being right.” Martin was a self-described “answer man,” the guy who had the pat answer to every question — and if he didn’t actually have the answer, he admitted he probably would have made one up before admitting he didn’t know.

Then a book came across his path, while reading a Time magazine interview with renowned author and progressive pastor Rob Bell. Bell identified the book, “A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey” by Brian McLaren, as a major influence. That book soon set Martin on a journey of deconstructing his faith — not losing it, just reevaluating what that word means — and realizing that having the “right answer” was not the ultimate goal.

coverHe began to peruse books outside of his “narrow evangelical world” and study the Bible through a different lens.

“Faith is the turning of our heart and head space to the light, to the truth,” Martin explained. “It’s about how, not what, you believe.”

This quiet quest continued through graduation, marriage and becoming a new worship leader in Arizona.

“It was simultaneously terrifying and totally liberating,” Martin said. “My most inner self thought that God wouldn’t be happy with me [if I didn’t have the right answers]. But then I thought, ‘what if the God we’ve been following is so much more deeper and wider than I understand?’”

Martin began to believe that God didn’t discriminate at all, not on the basis of skin color, gender or sexuality. He was increasingly conflicted at the attitude of the church as a whole towards the LGBTQ community.

The problem was that his then-spiritual environment was not a safe place to discuss these questions. His “internal convictions” were not meeting his “external reality.” Plus, Martin shared that the front he felt he had to wear created a stumbling block in developing true relationships.

That is until Sept. 21, 2011.

Martin remembers that to be the exact day of another of those “massive implication” moments; the day President Obama officially repealed the military policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Martin shared a news article about the repeal and posted “I’m glad this day finally came” on his Facebook wall shortly before he went to bed.

He woke up the next morning to a litany of antagonistic comments on his wall, mostly from members of the church where he served. Some were alarmed — others outraged — at the idea that Martin could be a spiritual leader in their evangelical church and be “pro-homosexuality” or “advancing the gay agenda.”

Martin was taken aback by the intensity of the responses. He was even more shocked when he walked into work and his head pastor asked him to take the post down.

“One of the pastor’s mantras was ‘there is no room for discrimination in the Kingdom of God,’” Martin explained. “It turned out there was an asterisk on that statement.”

Martin did take the post down, but the cat was out of the bag and not going back in. Two days later, Martin was called in for a meeting with the church board (all older men, he notes now). He showed up at that Friday meeting with a 10-page letter and a copy for each board member.

The letter described Martin’s heart for the church and the people of the church, his record of service, and his theological beliefs on homosexuality, using Scripture and how he felt it had been misused. The letter was basically what he now refers to as his “coming out of the theological closet.”

A close friend and pastor told Martin ahead of time that if he read that letter to the board, it would be his resignation letter.

As it turned out, the pastor was right. Martin was asked to “take the weekend off.” Then the following Tuesday, he was given a letter of termination.

Martin (left) with his staff at Sojourn Grace Collective , a progressive Christian church in North Park. (Courtesy Colby Martin)

Martin (left) with his staff at Sojourn Grace Collective , a progressive Christian church in North Park. (Courtesy Colby Martin)

Moving beyond the hurt

Martin and his family went home to Oregon to regroup and he said it took him two years to heal from the blow. They “went dark” — didn’t post a lot on social media, didn’t go after the members of the church. Martin said he and his wife were surprised and hurt by how few people reached out to them during that period.

Six months after the termination, Martin started to share the how and why of his beliefs online, a series blog posts that later became a video series examining what Martin had heard referred to as the “clobber passages” — six specific verses or stories in the Bible that are used in condemnation of same-sex acts and same-sex couples.

Often in discussion with friends and foes, Martin found they would bring up these passages, such as Romans 1:26-27 or Genesis 19, as if Martin may have missed them in his study of the Word of God.

He unraveled them in “UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality.”

“I’ve written this book in part, to show that myself, and others like me, have surely not missed any verses,” Martin wrote in the introduction.

Martin notes that many Christian supporters of homosexuality have a tendency to bypass Scriptures like those. But referencing the old camping song, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” — that’s refrain is “we can’t go over it; we can’t go under it; we’ve got to go through it!” — that is Martin’s view on how to confront the issue.

“[The Bible’s] still a beautifully inspired text,” he said. “We have to go through it.”

A new step in the journey

The next church Martin worked with brought his family to San Diego. The congregation had an openly gay head pastor and was considered “progressive” in their faith. The good part about this church was that Martin and his wife felt they could take down the walls they had put up in Arizona and really connect with those around them.

However, this church still had many unhealthy aspects within the leadership and the culture. Martin wrote that his “pastoral self, the part that chases after the abundant, flourishing life found in the Spirit, was stifled.”

There were conflicts and a clash of values between him and the leadership as to “What it meant and what it looked like … to shepherd people.”

As he and Kate worked out their exit plan to quietly leave the church a few months down the road, they experienced a deja vu: Martin was again brought before the board of elders and again asked to step down from his staff role.

This time, however, Colby and Kate had a community of relationships — people they had worked with and invested in — people who reached out to them after the termination.

That initial week, the couple had a “what are we doing with our lives” moment. They were living in a house with four kids without a backyard, one bathroom and no bathtub, and Martin had just been fired from the second church in two years. Should they run back home to Oregon? Consider a new career path?

In another defining moment, Kate looked around and said to her husband, “I choose relationships over a backyard and a bathtub.”

So they called a few of their friends and said, “Come on over on Sunday — we’ll have coffee and food and just hang out.”

That group grew from 12 to 20 to 60, the Sunday meetings took on more structure, and the Sojourn Grace Collective was born: “Sojourn” because they view faith as a journey and not a destination; “Grace” because it’s such a gift to just be alive; and “Collective” because they’re all in it together, he said.

The fellowship of Sojourn Grace Collective pose together in front of their progressive Christian North Park church on Easter Sunday. Martin is shown seated, lower left. (Courtesy Colby Martin)

The fellowship of Sojourn Grace Collective pose together in front of their progressive Christian North Park church on Easter Sunday. Martin is shown seated, lower left. (Courtesy Colby Martin)

“The default is, you belong,” Martin said. “The table is big enough for everybody. Everybody’s in, baby!”

The Martins and their Sojourn leadership team have worked to create a safe place where there are no contingencies on the love shared.

“It’s still people, it’s still messy, there’s still relational conflict,” Martin said. “But it’s a safe place where you are loved and accepted — and that’s the truest thing about you.”

And by the way, their new home has two bathrooms, a bathtub and a backyard.

Get the book, meet the man

Martin is hosting a “San Diego Release Party” for a special book signing and reading at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21 at Union Cowork North Park, located at 3919 30th St. The evening will include food, drink and live music from Girlboy and spoken word from Nate Howard.

Visit sojourngrace.com or colbymartinonline.com to learn more about the church, the book or Martin himself.

“UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality” is available for purchase on Amazon.

—Freelance writer Joyell Nevins can be reached at joyellc@gmail.com. You can also follow her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com.

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