The son of televangelists Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye Bakker would surely have been forgiven if he had decided to shun religion for the rest of his life. But while Jay Bakker lost his faith and became an alcoholic in the wake of his parents' scandal, the 35-year-old is now a self-described "evangelical punk preacher" whose church meets in a Brooklyn bar called Pete's Candy Store. He spoke with TIME about his book, Fall to Grace, and his controversial stance urging full acceptance of gays and lesbians in Christian churches.
Are you surprised that you ended up in a ministry?
In some ways. For a while, I got really disillusioned with the church and I thought that I might just join the Peace Corps. It felt to me like the church was sending an intolerant message It's our way or the highway. When I realized it didn't have to be about that, that there was pure acceptance in Christianity, I decided to go back with the hope of making church a safer place for folks.
Your book is about the concept of grace, something you say we hear and sing about but don't really understand. What's the difference between grace and love?
It's realizing that you're accepted completely. By God and by others. For me, grace gives me the ability to love people and love my enemies. Martin Luther King and Gandhi are people who really had grace. It gives us that ability to love beyond our comfort zone, which is something that's hard.
What you've described sounds straight out of the Gospel. And yet you say it's a controversial idea.
Yeah, it's funny because even before I became a gay-affirming pastor, I was getting in a lot of trouble at churches by preaching grace. We've made Christianity so much about morals and dos and don'ts. It takes away the power of guilting people and threatening them when you say, "The truth is, you're accepted just as you are." Christians are known more for what they're against than what they're for these days. So many pastors make religion about works and deeds and laws. That creates tension, but it also takes away the responsibility to go beyond just following rules. There's no consequence when I don't. But, of course, the consequence is the homeless person who continues to go hungry. Or the people who continue to die halfway around the world.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is maybe the most famous Bible story about grace. Is the problem that too many people think they're the good son?
[Laughs.] I think we're really called to be the example of the father in the parable. He says, "You're both my sons," and calls them both back. That's a great example of grace, the idea of calling us all together. Unfortunately, we don't know if the oldest son ever comes in or not at the end of the story. We all have to be willing to sit down at the same table, even with people we may be tempted to believe don't deserve God's grace as much as we do.
I love the phrase "clobber Scriptures" that you use to describe verses that get held up to condemn certain people or actions.
Those clobber Scriptures are the seven or eight verses people use to say that homosexuality is a sin. I feel they've been abused and people have purposely ignored the context of when they were written.
Still, some Christians would say, "We'll welcome gay and lesbians, but they have to go and sin no more. That's what Jesus would do."
Then you're not loving and accepting folks where they're at. I had a friend who was a really active and involved member of a church, and he had been struggling with being gay. And one day he came out. They told him he couldn't volunteer at the church anymore. It was sad to me because I felt that church was a great match for him, and yet who he was was a deal breaker for them.
The debate over gay rights is often seen as an issue that will fade away because younger people are more tolerant of it. But you say some of the fiercest opposition you got was at Christian youth music festivals.
If it was just a generational thing, then the answer for gay-affirming Christians would be to just start youth churches. But that's not it. There's this church in Seattle that has thousands of people, many of them young. But they're not gay-affirming; they don't even let women preach. One of the most popular churches in New York City for young Christians doesn't fully welcome LGBT people. Then you look at the Lutherans the ELCA [Evangelical Lutheran Church in America] said just a few years ago that they allow gay couples in relationships to be on staff and serve as pastors. They're not exactly the youngest denomination in the world. Some of my biggest critics are people my age and younger. Legalism is still alive and well in the church because it seems to make sense. It's "Work hard, do good, and be accepted by what you do, not who you are."
Did you make a decision to be a gay-affirming congregation?
I definitely made a conscious decision five or six years ago. We had a guy on staff back then who was dealing with his sexuality and I just said, "I can't tell you what your convictions are, but you're welcome to work here no matter what happens." Now we're a completely affirming church. I went from not knowing where I stood on the issue to performing a gay wedding the first day it was legal in California. Within a week, all my speaking engagements for a year got canceled. Our major donors pulled out and I had to let all five of my staff members go.
I remember talking to my parents about it at the time. They were really worried about how other Christians would react. And we still haven't gotten our support back to where it was before. But it was worth it. I sleep really well at least as it comes to that issue. The church is slowly and surely coming around. And that requires a lot of grace and patience.