Listening In: Caleb Kaltenbach

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with a man who was raised by three gay parents, Caleb Kaltenbach.

Caleb Kaltenbach has three degrees—all from Christian colleges—including a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary. He was the pastor of a fast growing evangelical church in Silicon Valley, California. You know, these are not the credentials that you might expect to find on the resume of a man whose parents divorced when he was a small child and who was raised by two lesbian moms.

In fact, Caleb’s biological mother came out as a gay activist soon after that divorce and took young Caleb to gay pride parades and other events all through his growing up years. However, when he was a teenager, Caleb had a sort of coming out of his own. He became a Christian and came out as a Christian to his two lesbian moms. Caleb will tell more of his story in the interview that follows. I had this conversation with Caleb Kaltenbach at the recent Q Conference held in the Nashville, Tennessee where Caleb was a speaker.

Caleb, welcome to the program. Here we are at the Q Conference. And you’ve spoken at Q before. In fact, one of your earlier talks at Q, you told the story of being raised by two lesbian, two moms. Is that what you would say? 

CALEB KALTENBACH, GUEST: Two moms and my dad was gay as well. Yes.

SMITH: So do you mind, some people may not know your story. You recounted a good bit of it in your book Messy Grace, but would you tell at least a condensed version of that story here?

KALTENBACH: Yeah, absolutely. When I was two, my parents divorced and they went into same sex relationships. They were professors. My dad stayed in Columbia, Missouri. My mom moved to Kansas City with a psychologist. Her name was vera and they became activists. And so I was raised by three gay parents. Two of them are activists. My dad was more activist oriented. I was raised in the LGBTQ community and I was really taught that Christians hate gay people. If you are not like them, they will not like you. And so I was raised with this whole idea that Christians are the enemy and, you know, they’re going to do horrible things to you. And when I was 16, I went to a Bible study and found Jesus, started following him. And I was so nervous, Warren, because at that point I had to come out to my three gay parents. Well, you, talk about in some of your presentations how, like you say, the Christians were the enemy and you had kind of good reason to believe that, right? I mean, when you went to you with both of your lesbian moms to these events, there’d be Christians there and they’d be saying pretty hateful, nasty, mean things, right?

KALTENBACH: Oh yeah. I remember this one pride parade I was marching in. At the end of this parade there were all these people holding up signs saying “God hates you,” “No room for you,” “Turn or burn.” And if that wasn’t offensive enough, they would spray water and urine on people from the parade who would want to talk to them. And that’s one of the times I looked to my mom, I said, “Why are they doing this?” And she said, “Caleb, they are Christians. Christians hate gay people. If you are not like them, they will not like you.” And I saw families ignore their young sons dying from AIDS. And here’s what I thought, Warren. And I was like, man, I never want to follow Jesus because if Christians are this bad, I can’t imagine how awful Jesus must be.

SMITH: But obviously you had — something happened. I mean, obviously, let’s stipulate for the record that it was the Holy Spirit. That none of us, you know, truly seek God without the spirit working in us. But God’s spirit used some people, used some circumstances and some situations. One of those was a family that, I guess, given your background from a progressive sort of orientation, they probably must have looked pretty square to you.

KALTENBACH: Oh, big time. Big Time. God used a couple of different families. My friend Greg and his family. Greg’s now a pastor out in Virginia. His Dad was the preacher at the church I started going to on Sunday night for youth group. God used a guy named John Weise, who’s currently the senior pastor at Southland Christian Church in Lexington. His family. His dad, Roy, helped lead me to the Lord. So did his brother Joe Weise.

Roy had the entire Bible memorized word for word. And so I remember I went to his Bible study and I thought, well, I’m going to prove this guy wrong. Yeah, right. And so yeah, obviously God was calling me and I just felt like there was this huge call on my life. As I said, I came out to my parents. Eventually they let me back in their houses. I went to Bible college and seminary. I’ve been a senior pastor at two churches, associate pastor at a church. And I just feel like God allowed me to go through those unique circumstances for such a time as this.

SMITH: Well, one of the messages, Caleb, that you’ve been bringing to the church is the idea of grace and truth have to be held in tension. That we really can’t compromise on either one. Can you say more about that?

KALTENBACH: Yeah. I usually use kind of a metaphor of a rubber band. If you hold a rubber band by one side and not the other and it’s just flimsy and it holds no weight. This is what it’s like if you just say, “I’m about the grace” or “I’m about the truth.” But if you hold the rubber band by both sides and stretch it, the power is found in the tension of the two. And there’s a name for that tension. It’s love. Love is the tension that we feel between grace and truth, between compassion and conviction. And Christianity, as you well know, Warren, is filled with tension. Now, there are black and white issues in Christianity. You know, there is a God and Jesus Christ is the only way, you know, the mission of the church is to make disciples, the glory of God. I mean those are all non-negotiables. The Bible is the inspired word of God. But there’s a lot of tension because we believe in one God, but the trinity. And people are like, “Well, I can’t explain that.” I’m like, “Well, help me, you know, because it’s tension.” How can God be all knowing and all powerful but hold us responsible. You know, that there’s evil that was defeated at the Cross and the resurrection not yet destroyed. Tension really defines our faith.

SMITH: Well, and you’ve been really, really clear that you believe that homosexuality is not God’s highest and best for us. That it is sin. That marriage should be between one man and woman. You’ve been absolutely uncompromising on those. But you also say that being uncompromising, being abundantly clear on those core issues, those core biblical issues, do not give us an excuse to treat others as if they are not made in the image of God, that they don’t have inherent dignity.

KALTENBACH: Oh, absolutely. I tell people this all the time that a theological conviction is never a catalyst to devalue another human being. There our theology should drive us to love people more, not less. Grace is for everyone. And that includes anyone. Even the anyones that might make us feel uncomfortable or that we may not like. And so I do believe 100% that God designed sex to be expressed in marriage between a man and a woman and any kind of expression of sex outside of what we see in Genesis 2:24, what Jesus quotes in Matthew 19 and 10, is a sin. But at the same time, it does not mean that that person has lost their value. Everybody has intrinsic value because everyone is someone God created and Jesus died for.

SMITH: Well, I want to talk to you or ask you how we do that, how we hold up the truth of the Gospel in an uncompromising way, while at the same time showing grace and love to folks. But before we do that, I want you to tell a quick story that I’ve heard you tell before about after you did become a pastor but before your parent — well, I don’t want to steal your thunder, but before your parents, you know, ultimately became Christians, which they did. Your mom came in and saw you preach at a church and what did the church do?

KALTENBACH: Well, this was interesting, Warren. I still think about this church and I laugh sometimes. I spend 18 months there. A town of 50 people, 25 of them were in the church. We were the largest church per capita at that time in the world. And I finally got my mom to come to church with me after about 18 months. And they were kind of cold towards her, distant. But then I thought, you know, it’s just new. It’s something that they’re not used to in the middle of Missouri. And so I ended up, you know, going back and the next Sunday getting ready to preach, and there are two elders waiting for me on the front doorstep. And they said, “Caleb, we need to talk to you.” And I said, “Okay.” And they said, “If you ever want to preach here again, don’t you ever bring somebody like your mom.” We don’t like those people. And I was like, “Man, I don’t like you.” And I don’t know that I would have responded that way today. But back then I was just really offended. And I said, “I quit.” And they’re like, “No, you can’t quit. We need you to preach.” And I’m like, “Well, you don’t want that right now.” Just out of all things. And they said, “No, we need a sermon.” I said, “You’re going to get one.” And so I preached a sermon on grace and truth and love and conviction. I walked out of there and I was like, “That’s not what the church is.” The church is really a mosaic of messy, broken lives that God unites together to glorify himself.

SMITH: So, Caleb, that experience that you had with that small church is powerful in part because it kind of gives us a model for how not to do things. You ultimately become the senior pastor of a couple of churches that became known for maybe how to do things, at least in part. I mean, nobody’s perfect. And then I’m sure you and your church weren’t either, but what were some of the things that you did? If someone, a church leader, a pastor, a deacon, an elder is listening to you right now and they’re convicted by some of the things that you’re saying, what should they do in their church? What should they maybe stop doing or start doing?

KALTENBACH: I would say a few things. I would say number one that leaders need to get good at looking in the mirror. I think the repentance should be a spiritual discipline. It’s something we should do daily. Repentance makes us better forgivers and more gracious and better Christians. And I think there’s a reason why Jesus included it in Matthew 6:12 in the model prayer, right? “This is what you should do when you pray.” When we look in the mirror, we have to put down the magnifying glass. If we’re not looking in the mirror, if we’re not repenting on a regular basis, it’s easier to hold up the magnifying glass. That’s the first thing I would do.

Second thing I would do is I would have a lot of conversations as a leadership team, whether that’s with your elder board or board of directors or staff here, executive team, whatever that is, you need to get good at having conversations.

Third thing is that leaders, Christian leaders not only need to be students of leadership and of Christian theology, but also of culture. We need to understand culture. I mean, Paul was a huge student of culture. That’s why he was able to hold his own against the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. He understood Roman culture. He was a Pharisee. He wanted to go to Spain. He was as much a student of culture as he was a student of the Bible.

Another thing that we need to do is we need to understand there’s a big difference between acceptance and agreement. Our culture today says that there’s no difference. That if you don’t agree with me in these areas and you don’t accept me. When I make the argument, we are commanded to accept people. Accepting someone means loving them where they’re at no matter what, no matter what they’ve been through. But that does not mean that I have to agree with everything that they believe. And so I think that the more that we realize that, the more than we realize that that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” I think that we will start making a difference in our culture.

SMITH: Caleb, I love what you just said, but I also immediately leap to some of the implementation problems with what you just said. So, for example, there are a lot of gay folks that not only require acceptance but also agreement and even beyond that active affirmation. That they would say that if you are not actively affirming me and actively affirming my lifestyle and actively affirming my beliefs, then no, you are not accepting me and no, you are not affirming me or you are not accepting me. So, how do you deal with folks like that?

KALTENBACH: I usually ask questions because I don’t know about you, Warren, but I find when people are mad at me, you know, not counting my wife, that’s a whole different thing. But when people are mad at me, they’re usually three or four questions away from really telling you what’s going on. Because usually what people are mad at is usually not what they’re mad at. They might be mad at that, but there’s something else. And so I’ll usually start asking questions. Like if somebody that I love says, “No, if you’re not agreeing with these areas, you’re rejecting me,” then I would say, “You know what? I am so sorry. Could you please help me understand how I’ve done that in the past? And I’ve known this about you? How have I retracted you? How have I excluded you from my life?” Because I think that in those situations you can’t logically converse your way through a reason because it’s not a logical conclusion for them. It’s an emotional one. So I try to ask a question that gets on an emotional level with them where I say, “Please help me understand where I’ve done that in the past.” Because in my head I’m thinking I’m pretty sure I haven’t done that. And if I haven’t done that in the past and I knew this, why do you think all of a sudden I would do this now? So I think asking questions and getting on an emotional level, I think that that helps to disarm people. 

SMITH: You know, there’s something else that you said that I want to ask you to say more about and that is this idea of love being the tension between grace and truth. I don’t have to tell you, Caleb, that this culture doesn’t have that definition of love. The popular meme on the internet is love is love. That gay love is just as good as heterosexual love is just as good as other kinds of love. Now, in the Christian tradition, we have a rich body of literature— C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, Augustine talking about loving the right things in the right way, for example. So we know that not all love is love and yet that is a powerful idea that has taken root in our culture. How do we talk about that in ways that are meaningful?

KALTENBACH: I think we begin with the tension of grace and truth. And the reason why we need tension in between things like grace and truth is because our culture right now, our society is being overtaken by false dichotomies one after the other. Where people think you only have a voice if you’re an extremist on this side or that side. And false dichotomies that we see in our growing in our society today, it creates extremism. It excludes people. It forces people into categories. We’re headed in a poor direction for our country. But when we have the tension in between, it gives room for a bridge. It allows people conversation and to dialogue, which you would think tolerant people would want to do. But it’s just not always the case, right? Unless you agree with me, then we can dialogue on what we agree on.

But dialogue happens when people have the freedom and feel safe enough to share ideas and opinions and thoughts and feelings. And so the tension when we allow that, that is a bridge, it’s strong. It unites people. It kills the false dichotomies. It’s huge and it’s love because we are giving people opportunity to be themselves. We are giving God room to do heart surgery because spiritual heart surgery takes time. And in our culture love is not love. Love is self-sacrificial. Love is I’m going to lay my life on the line so that I can add value to you. Love is you are more important than me. I mean, one of the things that I always tell my kids to say when they get upset during the day, you know, talking about God, I’ll say, “I want you to repeat this: He is greater than me. He is greater than me.”

If somebody cuts you off in line, “He is greater than me.” When somebody ends up, you know, mistreating you on the playground, “He is greater than me.” God is greater than me. I need to put this person’s interests, even if they’re mean, I need to walk away. That’s love. What we call love is not love, okay? It’s manufactured love at best and manipulation at worst.

SMITH: Caleb, I want to do a little bit of a lightning round of questions that I think you might have some insights about. You’ll often hear in the Christian church, “Loved the sin, hate the sinner.” When you hear that, how does that expression hit you?

KALTENBACH: I think it’s awful. I think it’s bad theology because number one, can God say that? Oh, absolutely. Okay. Can we say that? No, we can’t do that. It’s hard for us to separate the two. We can’t and plus God takes our sin very, very personally. So I don’t know how we can separate it. We can’t, okay? Sin is just attached to who we are. Second thing is, is that when you think about it, when I say that to somebody and they don’t think that what they’re doing is a sin, then in their mind, if I say, “Well, you’re struggling sexually,” and they don’t look at it that way, in their mind, I’ve just compared them or put them in the same category with Hannibal Lector or Gordon Gecko. And that’s not helpful. And so I don’t like it.

That’s why I say we need to say things like, “There’s a difference between acceptance and agreement or acceptance and approval or acceptance and affirmation.” I affirm the person. I may not agree with every life decision that a person makes, but I affirm the person.

SMITH: Another situation that we often run into in this culture is gay marriage and we might have a son or a daughter or cousin or a friend that wants us to come to their gay marriage. Would you go to the marriage of a gay friend?

KALTENBACH: I have gone. And the reason why I’ve gone is because it’s somebody that I care about. And I think there are two different ways of looking at this. There are arguments for not going and for going. And I respect people who don’t go and I made choices not to go at some times, but here’s a question that I ask parents or people when they have a good friend or their son or daughter or family members getting married. I asked them this question, two questions. Number one, if you don’t go, will it cost you influence with person who love? Usually the answer is yes. Then I asked the second question, what would you be willing to do to keep and build influence with the person you love? How far would you be willing to go to earn the right to be the first phone call they made when something goes down? Because especially when it comes to gay male relationships, they do not last long. Lesbian relationships are different. They’re based on emotional a lot of times. But a lot of young gay men are serial daters, just like a lot of young heterosexual men, who are single, are serial daters, okay. Relationships don’t last long. A lot of people crash—both single heterosexual and single homosexual. And so I’m like, I want the right, I want to earn what I can to be able to have influence because then in those moments when they turn to me, I can speak truth. I can guide them to Jesus. My words carry more weight with people, depending on the influence I have. If I have more influence with people, then my words are going to carry weight with them. If I say the right thing at the wrong time with little influence, it will do nothing. It will actually hurt the relationship.

SMITH: You know, Caleb, as I’ve already sort of spilled the beans, at some point in this process of you becoming a pastor and going on with your life, you get married. You’ve got a couple of kids and your parents start coming to the church that you’re pastoring at. Say more about that and how they came to faith.

KALTENBACH: Well, my mom’s partner died of cancer after — They were together for 22 years. She chose not to get treatment. She died in February of 2005. And in 2010 we moved to Dallas, Texas. And while I was there, my mom and dad separately from one another moved down there and they started attending the church that was preaching at. And I was shocked. First of all, I’d never lived within a five mile radius of both my parents at the same time since I was two. But then for them to start attending the church. And I was like, “Okay, you know what we believe about relationships and marriage.” And they’re like, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “Alright, come on over.” And as opposed to the church that my mom went to where they treated her poorly, this church, they treated her well. They loved her. They loved my dad. We had our weirdos. Every church does. And I tell people, if you don’t think your church does, then you’re probably the weirdo. And everyone is someone’s weirdo. But two or three weeks before we moved back to southern California in the summer of 2013, my parents both gave their lives to Jesus. And I asked them, I said, you know, “What was it?” And I was thinking maybe apologetics. I was thinking maybe a philosophical answer or theological answer. Silly me. This is what they said in so many words, “People treated us like people, not like projects. People treated us like human beings. They didn’t, you know, look at us as, well, there’s that lesbian, there’s that gay man.” And it’s so funny because I think some of the times, Warren, that Christians, we tell people—rightly so—your orientation, your sexuality is not your main identity. Your relationship with Jesus Christ should be your main identity. However, when we consistently look at them as the lesbian or the gay man or the transgender person, we see them first as that, we are doing exactly what we tell them not to do. We’re labeling them in that way.

And so when people treated them like people, again, it gave them influence. It gave their words more weight, and what they said to my mom and dad, it really mattered.

SMITH: Wow. Well that’s a very powerful testimony. And your dad you said has Alzheimer’s now and your mom, because of all of her messy history, has struggled with addictions. But to the extent possible, still following the Lord today?

KALTENBACH: To the extent possible. My dad very much so. My mom, she has cancer as well. And that’s a difficult relationship, but I still love my mom and I believe that she loves Jesus, but, you know, she’s got — She’s 76 now and came to Christ, it’s 2019 right now, so six years ago or almost six years ago. And so think about it, she’s got years and years of metaphorical demons she’s coming up against. And so I love my mom. There are issues. But yeah, I believe they’re pursuing Jesus to the best of their ability.

SMITH: Well, which brings us in some ways full circle back to this idea of Messy Grace because that would pretty well define those relationships. And also in some ways defines your ministry today, right? I mean, you’re no longer in a single church ministry, but you are pursuing a speaking and consulting career and now working with churches all over the country.

KALTENBACH: Yeah, yeah. I say messy grace because God’s grace isn’t messy, it’s perfect. But when his grace hits our perfect lives, it looks messy. And so I started a ministry, an organization called the Messy Grace Group, And basically what I do is I come alongside churches and I help them develop systems and processes and policies, that guard their doctrine, promote their values, but at the same time, it allows LGBTQ people to belong. I help them set up boundaries. I help them with difficult conflict situations. I help them have difficult conversations, create plans. Again, systems when it comes to small groups or assimilation because I believe that people find apologies as better in the midst of community rather than isolation. And so, again, it’s helping churches to engage culture, not to bow down to culture, to leverage it. So I’m working with like four denominations now, several churches. We’ve gotten a couple of Christian colleges out of lawsuits with LGBTQ students and gotten those students out of lawsuits with the college and kind of came in there. So that’s what I do right now.

(Photo/The Gospel Herald)

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