Heavy Burdens: A Review

Anne Witton
Reviews 3 mins
Found in: Church

Bridget Eileen Rivera, Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church (Brazos Press, 2021)

In Heavy Burdens, Rivera sets out to expose the assumptions, theological missteps, and practices that have harmed LGBTQ people in the past and still contribute to harm today. Rivera describes herself as a ‘lesbian who follows what’s known as the ‘traditional’ sexual ethic’ (p.17) and therefore lives a celibate life. However, she’s clear that the purpose of this book is not to argue for a particular theological position on the ethics of same-sex practice, but to explore how and why churches have harmed LGBTQ people and suggest some better ways forward.

Seven burdens

The book is structured around seven ‘burdens’ that the author argues have needlessly made life difficult and painful for LGBTQ Christians:

  1. A double standard around celibacy and an idolisation of marriage above singleness.
  2. Viewing LGBTQ people as pathological sinners.
  3. Viewing LGBTQ people as the ‘moral enemy’.
  4. A double standard on the complexity of the Bible around issues of sexual morality that affect straight people (divorce, remarriage, contraception etc.) while asserting absolute clarity on homosexuality.
  5. Stereotyping about what it means to be a ‘real’ man and a ‘real’ woman.
  6. Reducing LGBTQ people to being defined by their sex alone.
  7. Making questions of LGBTQ ethics a mark of orthodoxy that jeopardise eternal salvation.

The amount of research is impressive, and Rivera’s insights into how our modern approach to sexuality and gender has been shaped throughout history – including the history of the Church – are excellent.

The treatment of issues of sexuality is particularly strong, with a robust critique of purity culture, marriage idolatry, the ex-gay movement, and double standards on issues of sexual morality. She also highlights the damage done when Christians have treated sexual morality as a political issue with LGBTQ people as pawns in the culture wars. The distinction between homosexual practice and orientation is particularly helpful and Rivera exposes the Christian embrace of Freudian ideas about identity as having contributed to an unbiblical perception of LGBTQ people.

The discussions of gender roles, trans and intersex issues are the weakest part of the book and quite hard to follow at times. Rivera is very critical of gender essentialism, linking it inextricably to unbiblical gender stereotypes. Gender essentialism holds that men and women are fundamentally different due to their biology and she sees this as being entwined with the view that males should be powerful aggressors to whom weaker females should submit. I would have liked to see an acknowledgement of the view that many Christians hold – that biological sex determines gender but that doesn’t mean that men and women need to fit into restrictive stereotypes.

We may not agree with all of Rivera’s conclusions, but she raises difficult and important questions that we all need to wrestle with.

The book ends with a proposed way forward in which Rivera makes some compelling points and raises some vital questions. She uses the examples of disagreement on our understandings of baptism and communion to argue that there is scope for Christians to disagree on our understanding of marriage too (p.185). We might not agree with her that we can ‘agree to disagree’ about matters of sexual ethics, but her reasoning is important to listen to. She also makes some good points about churches needing to be family and do community well and to repent of mistreatment of LGBTQ people.

We may not agree with all of Rivera’s conclusions, but she raises difficult and important questions that we all need to wrestle with.

Context and scope

It is worth noting that Rivera is writing in an American context and British readers may find that their experiences are significantly different. The use of case studies to share personal experience is a welcome counter to the more theoretical and statistical sections. However, the case studies often feature quite extreme stories and horrific treatment which I suspect has been more common in the US than the UK. It would have been good to have them balanced with stories of LGBTQ people who have been supported well and helped to thrive in their churches.

The scope of the book means that some areas necessarily receive brief treatment and perhaps it would have benefitted from a tighter focus on sexuality rather than trying to tackle gender identity, trans and intersex issues as well.

The writing is sometimes quite scholarly and not immediately accessible, with some assumption of background knowledge, so I would suggest this is a book for readers who already have some familiarity with LGBTQ issues.

A helpful contribution

Probably the most helpful aspect of this book is its survey of the historical shifts – many of them in Christian thinking and theology – that have contributed to our modern understanding of sexuality and gender identity. It’s a much-needed book that will make us feel uncomfortable and provoke all of us to challenge our assumptions.

Whilst we may not agree with all Rivera’s conclusions, the questions that she asks deserve to be taken seriously for the sake of all the LGBTQ Christians in our churches and beyond.

Heavy Burdens is not an introductory book to faith, sexuality and gender identity, but it does provide a helpful contribution to the debate for the more informed reader.