Divisions in the Springfield Church

I probably don’t follow local politics as closely as I ought. I met the council member who represented my zone of the city once. I will occasionally hear about stuff that the city council is discussing, and I vote regularly, but I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of the city. If the city had low blood pressure and an arrhythmic heart, I might not notice for a while.

But over the last two years, we’ve had a few really big issues come up that have been impossible to miss. There was the ordinance that allowed beer to be sold at movie theaters, and the ordinance to ban tobacco in or around businesses, and the debate about whether to let Wal-Mart build a new market on Grand Avenue. These were interesting topics, but not ones that had a lot of impact on me personally. I listened to passionate friends on the subjects and kept my opinions mostly to myself.

In 2012, though, the city passed a resolution to form a task force to investigate discrimination against certain sexual orientations or gender identities. Sometime shortly thereafter, they decided to send a survey to a bunch of churches in the area to see what they thought on this subject. The logic was that pastors can represent at least a bit of what their parishioners believe, and since we have a lot of churches and a lot of church attendees, it was a quick and easy way to query that community. If I recall correctly, of the pastors that responded, it was estimated that they represented something like 35,000 people.

When the surveys came back, our local NPR picked up the story and reported that something like 85% of the pastors were against passing any sort of resolution that would protect against discrimination in regards to sexual orientation or gender identities (in the future, I’m going to abbreviate this as LGBTQA for the sake of brevity), and around 65% were against passing a resolution even if discrimination could be proven to be happening.

More recently, I have begun to get emails from Christians Uniting for Political Action (CUPA), which is apparently an activist group of local Christian churches that is strongly against either investigating this sort of discrimination or protecting people from it. To be fair, I think the broad argument is that they feel that homosexuality is a sin and that an anti-discrimination ordinance of this nature would open them to lawsuits if they didn’t serve LGBTQA individuals the same as heterosexuals. So, for instance, if an LGBTQA couple wanted to get married in a church, or hired to teach at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, and they were denied, there’s a fear that the person would sue. This sort of thing gets tricky when it involves matters of faith… if you are the head of a church that is attempting to represent a religion that is predicated on being different, set apart, and holy like God is holy, and you have a very clear statement in your holy book that sexual immorality is bad, and homosexuality is sexual immorality, and then you have people wanting to be involved with your church who practice homosexuality… you may be obligated to deny them. And if a secular ordinance attempts to force you to include those people, even though you feel they are living a life opposed to your religion and beliefs, well that’s problematic. I understand their concerns, and I don’t think they are wholly invalid.

This debate about homosexuality and the church has been going on for a long time, and I’m still not sure where I fall in regards to it. My freshman year of college, I wrote a paper for my English class on the subject. I had only been Christian for about a year and a half at that time, and prior to becoming Christian I had a number of LGBTQA friends. I still did, actually, but I also felt that the church condemned that lifestyle. I didn’t really know what to do with this, so I mostly ignored it and continued to treat my friends the same way I always had. Since I didn’t grow up Christian, I was well familiar with being on the outside of the Church and the condemnation and bitterness that comes with that. If I am worthy of love, so are they.

I really struggled to write that paper. The church I was attending at the time–which is the church I converted in, and was baptized in, and had helped found–was very conservative and incredibly anti-homosexual. As far as I knew, Christianity was vehemently opposed to homosexuality. But I couldn’t write that down. I couldn’t explain it. I was stymied, and I struggled with the subject, and eventually I wrote what was in my heart. And what was in my heart was opposed to what the church had been teaching me.

So I wrote a letter to my pastor, and the associate pastor, and a bunch of other people. I sent this letter to over 60 people total. Only one replied, and while he was very kind, I don’t recall him having a whole lot to say on the subject. My pastor and associate pastor did not reply, our relationships grew more strained, and I eventually left that church.

Now keep in mind that I wrote that letter my sophomore year of college, or maybe during the summer between freshman and sophomore year, and it was prompted by the Missouri amendment to ban gay marriage. I was still wounded and angry from my youth, I hadn’t co-founded and co-lead a college ministry, I hadn’t studied the subject thoroughly, and I was still really working to figure stuff out. I haven’t re-read the letter yet to see how much of it I agree or disagree with, so I offer it now without comment to help provide some context about 19-year-old me.

And now I am 27-year-old-me. I have a bachelor’s degree in religious studies, and I’ve been regularly thinking about this subject for almost ten years.

I still don’t know what I think about LGBTQA individuals within the Church. St. Paul is pretty clear that when they aren’t members of the Church, that’s totally cool and we can hang with them. If they call themselves members of the Church, we shouldn’t speak to or even eat with them. That bothers me, and I don’t like it, but it’s what my Book says… except when I pray, I feel that the truth is more nuanced. As anyone who has studied the Pauline epistles academically and critically knows, Paul is a challenge to read and understand, as St. Peter points out on one occasion, and Paul occasionally contradicts himself because he didn’t know he was writing the New Testament. He was writing letters to churches in a particular context, and while those letters are invaluable in establishing our religion, it is dangerous to read them without also studying the context in which they were written. The Bible is complex, just like God is complex and humans, which are made in the image of God, are complex.

My gut, my heart, and my soul says, “Love people.” That’s easy enough to do as an individual, but where do I stand when it comes to administrating a church? Should I serve the sacraments to an LGBTQA individual, not knowing if that would imperil their soul? What if an LGBTQA individual wanted to be a worship leader or a preacher? I don’t know where I draw the line there, or if there is a line.

I’m reading a couple of books to try and figure this out. Brian Jacobson, with whom I co-founded that college ministry I mentioned earlier, recommended Scripture and Homosexuality: Biblical Authority and the Church Today. (Note that this book is available used for $0.01!) The other book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, was recommended by Krista Dalton, with whom I had a Mishnaic Hebrew class a few years ago.

So I’m going to work on that. I just realized that I haven’t gotten to my point.

The emails I get from CUPA are pretty antagonistic, and that’s what is really bothering me. They use phrases like “the true church of Springfield,” and talk about how they are being ambushed by sneak tactics from the city council and churches that aren’t affiliated with them.

I’m not affiliated with them, and I’m pretty sure my church isn’t either. I guess this means that, to them, we are not a true church. We are not true believers in Jesus. And I find this distressing.

I can understand the fear that these churches and organizations have about an ordinance that bans discrimination against LGBTQA individuals. Where I think it would be wrong for a state or federal institution to discriminate against LGBTQA (I’m looking at you, marriage laws), I’m not positive it’s wrong for a religious institution that isn’t accepting state dollars, at least within certain contexts (like those I mentioned above). But I really mean that when I write “I’m not positive.” I very well may change my position completely, and if I do, it’s probably going to be in the direction of passing an ordinance that bans discrimination.

The bigger problem I have is that the organizations that have these fears aren’t expressing themselves in a manner that is loving. They aren’t saying, “Our religious beliefs hold that to take communion while living in sin will doom one to hell, and furthermore, the one who knowingly gives the sacraments to a sinner such that they will be doomed will likewise be sentenced to hell, and that’s why we don’t want to serve communion to LGBTQA. We’re doing our best to protect them and ourselves–it has nothing to do with hate.” Instead, what I’m hearing is, “I don’t even care if they’re being discriminated against and hurt–the city council shouldn’t have any say in what we do. What’s more, all you churches that are on the side of those homosexuals are evil and wrong and not part of the real Church.”

That divisiveness is no good. We are explicitly bade throughout the New Testament to discuss these matters internally, not in front of the public courts and judiciaries, and to work out our differences. We are not to point fingers and undercut ministers. We are called to make disciples, to love our neighbour and God, and to serve the homeless, the widow, the orphan, and the sinner.

I have some reading to do. It’s going to take me probably another 9 hours to finish the book Krista suggested, and I would expect the one from Brian to take 3-5 (it’s harder to estimate dead-tree books, since Kindle books do the math for me and tell me how long they will take). I’ll follow this up in a few weeks if I have further thoughts.

For now, though, please give some thought to expressing your beliefs in a clear and positive manner. We are not called to hate.

Also, I’m preaching this Sunday and my sermon is titled, “The Gospel of the Parables.” I’m pretty excited, and I may post some quotes from it afterwards because they are relevant to this topic. I can summarize them real quick though:

Love people, and love God. And if your reading of the scripture leads you to actions that are not loving, you’re doing it wrong.

3 thoughts on “Divisions in the Springfield Church

  1. Step one for me is addressing the “plank in the eye” and “judge not lest you be judged likewise” ideas. If we’re going to use the bible as a weapon against another person’s sin then we need to deal with all the murderers first. (Raca, you fool!). I think the church needs to lead by example the way of repentance.

    We really can’t move forward until we deal with our sin first. Let’s talk about greed, and gluttony, and sloth, and pride. Let’s practice confession again. When a church can openly confess it’s own sin and ask for and receive forgiveness, then that church can begin to wrestle with homosexuality. Until such time, there is no one qualified to speak into this.

    And finally, we need to stop fearing. If we believe in a resurrection, what can our “enemies” do to us?

    Even as I write this the implication has to become clear. Not even the “bad” christians who fear can do any real harm.

  2. So, having engaged the CUPA folks a little, I can speak to some of their fears. I don’t think the church jobs are much of a problem. Any passable ordinance would likely exempt churches and religious organizations. To my understanding, they’re actually concerned about business owners being unable to refuse employment or services to LGBTQA persons. Part of me says, now wait… how is it Christian to fire somebody, or refuse to rent to them because they’re gay. One case in New Mexico, that the CUPA folks cite, really helps illustrate the difficulty. A Christian woman running a photography business refused to photograph a lesbian couples’ commitment ceremony. The business was taken to court, and ultimately lost.

    They argued, “Look, we would gladly photograph this woman, and her partner. We aren’t refusing services to lesbians. But photograph this ceremony would be to make it part of our expression, and to condone it, which we don’t.”

    The court ruled against them, saying that taking photographs is not, in and of itself, expression. The business didn’t have to display the photos- just show up, take them, deliver the prints, and be done.

    On the one hand, I sympathize with the Christian business. Artistic professions like theirs seem more personal. Why can’t the couple just get a different photographer?

    On the other hand, I can see the court’s point. They’re not being asked to condone lesbianism. They’re just being asked to treat them like any other member of the public. If you imagine businesses with “Straight Only” signs, you can understand why the court ruled the way they did. Part of having a civil society is living together and treating each other like equals, regardless of class, racial, ethnic, or religious differences.

    The question is, are we, as Christians, called to reject that aspect of civil society in the name of Christian morality? I’ve shared my thoughts on that on CUPA’s blog at http://www.cupasalt.org/?p=253&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=107. In short, I’d say ‘No’.

    In fairness to CUPA, they wouldn’t frame it that way. They’d say they’re protecting the associative and religious freedom of Springfield landlords and business owners. I can’t blame LGBTQA folks for asking the question, “Freedom to do what? Refuse to rent to me? Fire me, even though I’m a good employee?”

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