Few people are as synonymous with progressive Christianity as John Pavlovitz. Born to an Italian and Russian family in Syracuse, he was raised Catholic before studying at the Palmer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia and working as a youth pastor. After being fired from a megachurch in Raleigh, N.C., in 2013 — the head pastor told him he didn’t “fit in” — Pavlovitz took his ministry of inclusive beliefs to the internet.
Since then, his blog, Stuff That Needs to Be Said, has attracted a devoted following; his essays in support of the LGBTQ2S+ community, feminism, pro-choice and other social justice concerns have gone viral. Between his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, Pavlovitz has nearly a million followers. His most recent book, If God Is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk, was published in 2021. He spoke to Jackie Gillard.
Jackie Gillard: You’ve referred to yourself as a “religious mutt” in terms of denominational affiliation. How has your faith journey shaped your perspective?
John Pavlovitz: I felt a strong presence of God as a child being brought up Catholic, but also felt tension and fear due to God’s massiveness. I knew the Divine Creator was for me, but also knew, “Don’t anger God!” In adolescence, I saw a disconnect between my faith community and the teachings of Jesus; there was no embrace of humanity. I pulled away from religion until attending college in Philadelphia.
At that time, I lived in a diverse area. I worked for a catering company and didn’t realize then that the owners were a gay couple and that many of the employees were part of the LGBTQ2S+ community. I’m thankful I didn’t understand that back then. My theology was small, and I might not have taken that job due to fear and false stories I had inherited. I later joined a Methodist church to marry my wife, Jennifer — we found a faith community there. I volunteered with the church’s youth and realized I enjoyed guiding young adults through that turbulent time of life. I took on the youth pastor role and began seminary classes.
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JG: Tell me more about that shift toward inclusive theology.
JP: We moved to North Carolina to pastor a church I had hoped would be like the one we left in Philadelphia. Sadly, I came to realize that diversity wasn’t there enough for that church’s table to grow. Instead, I felt it shrinking. I felt conflicted between the person I wanted to be, versus what my church expected. Life began to argue with my theology and the fracture couldn’t be reconciled.
That tension between what I felt the teachings of Jesus were leading me to, and the pastor that I was expected to be, became profound. I was getting up every day and realizing I wasn’t speaking clearly.
JG: Why was that clarity important to you?
JP: As I started to minister, and to think about vulnerable, oppressed people, I realized that my lack of specificity was actually damaging them. In Matthew 23, where Jesus is confronting the religious elite and the power holders, his words are blunt, and could be received as really damaging. But he’s not offering those words to damage them, but because of his passion for people who are marginalized and abused.
JG: Why do you feel called to publicly question aspects of faith and the Bible — like God’s gender or the existence of hell?
JP: God is not intimidated by questioning. A faith community that makes it okay to ask questions is important. Ministry often prizes certainty; we are required to give messages that are important and thought-provoking, but also deliver them with great personal certainty. I don’t think that’s possible. Good clergy should also ask questions. I’ve been a minister for a very long time, but I’m not going to tell you what to believe, or decide for you. I’d rather ask questions for people to consider. I encourage my own kids to question anything and everything in their spiritual journeys.
JG: Beliefs in God as male and in the existence of hell often co-exist with a belief in the Bible as the literal truth of God.
JP: The Bible is not a book, but a library. There are 66 different books in the Bible that include poetry, historical records, letters and biographies of Jesus. They’re written for different reasons and in different times. Rather than a dictation of God, it’s more a record of different people trying to understand God. It’s also a record written by flawed people. The original authors were as human as we are.
JG: Last year, you experienced the diagnosis and removal of a benign tumour in your brain. Did this spur any change in your faith or beliefs?
JP: I saw the situation more as an opportunity for myself and others to be our best selves. I kept seeing the best in people: from medical workers all caring so well for me, to my social media audience — made up mostly of strangers — showing me the beauty of their community by sending me messages of love, prayers and well wishes. I don’t think God chooses to answer some prayers with rewards while refusing others. If we pray to God to heal and God doesn’t, what does that say about God or our prayers?
I wasn’t angry at God; I don’t believe God “gave” me a tumour for any specific reason. It was simply a space to live out my beliefs in real time. Yes, I prayed for the tumour to be gone, but I didn’t have any expectation my prayers would definitely take away all of the tumour.
JG: Of all the social justice issues you write about, which one causes the most backlash?
JP: Abortion is so loaded and seems to be very visceral. I’ve received threats where I needed to involve police, but I’ve also had less backlash than many women who say similar things. In my most recent book, I asked if we treasure all life fiercely and advocate for it passionately. I wrote: “Until many Christians find a pro-life ethic that is not bound by politics or preference, we’re not going to be able to fully embrace our calling to love all our neighbours, and we’re going to continue to put a barrier between the church and those who think humanity beyond the birth canal matters.”
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JG: What kinds of threats have you received?
JP: It’s gone as far as harassing my family and finding extended family members’ phone numbers. Mostly, it’s comments about my physical appearance or the fact that I’m going to hell — typical trolling behaviour. Often, that sustains me in a strange way, because it reminds me of what we’re actually dealing with. I want people to understand how indoctrinated people are to this kind of knee-jerk hatred, and what it’s doing to people.
JG: There’s a cost to doing this work.
JP: Initially, the cost was my ministry position and that connection to those communities and to that world. Since then, there’s been collateral damage in the sense of a heavy emotional toll. These aren’t just ideas that I’m putting out into the world; these words are the results of sitting with people, hearing their stories and having them reach out to me.
I consider myself more than a pastor or author or speaker; I consider myself a war correspondent because I get into what’s happening on the ground. People share with me. They give me proximity to their pain, and they give me access to their stories. And then I try to translate those and share them for people. Any risk or pushback I receive is pale in comparison to what vulnerable people are experiencing.
JG: In your book, you wrote about starting a “Church of Not Being Horrible.” What would that look like? And do you think people who are horrible are aware of it?
JP: I think people don’t realize when they’re being horrible. I wish faith communities could be more brutally honest — we need people to challenge us or we just all keep telling ourselves we’re good and think that’s enough. We need people to tell us when we’re problematic, to explain, “Here’s what is dissonant between our words and actions.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s July/August issue with the title “Expansive theology.”
Jackie Gillard is a writer from the Toronto area.
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