One Painfully Tough Decision


Disclaimer: This post is almost certain to offend some folks on both sides of the LGBT issue. So, I ask for some latitude and respect on any comments you leave here or anywhere else you might interact with me. I love each of you and mean no harm or disrespect. Thank you!

As a spiritual leader, I’m asked to make tough, consequential decisions that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers while possibly send me away tar and feathered. But that’s the nature of the job. Effective leadership doesn’t allow anyone to play it safe by remaining in a cozy alcove of indecision or inaction. Inevitably, the leader must step up and show the way, regardless of the cost.

Late last week my office administrator forward me an unsolicited e-mail entitled “Church Question” that said the following:

Hi!

My name is ————- and I am working with www.gaychurch.org to find Christian churches that provide a welcoming and affirming atmosphere to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians.

I found your church email online posted by you and I was wondering if your church would like to be listed in our directory with over 5,000 other churches that have been a welcoming and loving Christ-like communities to GLBT Christians and their families?

Listing your church will help GLBT Christians know they are in a safe place where they can be full participants in the life of the congregation – just as persons who are heterosexual, married, divorced, single, remarried and so on.

If you are interested in being listed please reply to this email with:

(1) Church name

(2) Denomination

(3) Address including state

(4) Contact information

(5) Website address if you have one

At the top of the forward, my office administrator said, “Thought you should handle this one.”

Now for some pastors, answering this e-mail would be a cut and dry decision. Some would either click the delete button, or some would enthusiastically reply with their church’s information. But for me, it was the beginning of much thought, prayer, and conversation with the person who sent me the e-mail.

I work hard to make our congregation the kind of people who will willingly embrace, love, and disciple any person we meet, either in the neighborhood or in our house of worship. I strive to get our congregational heart beating in rhythm with Jesus’ who would go to any length to find, carry, and heal even one lost sheep, no matter who they are, how they live, or what they believe (Luke 15:1-7). Our reasons have nothing to do with growing our membership roles, impressing our denominational leaders, or proving our vitality. I lead us to fulfill Jesus’ command to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

With that kind of vision, one would assume that a church would want to get its name on every list, advertised in any possible publication, and be in as many different places and spaceschurch_gay_connector as we could, just so that we could demonstrate both by word and action our willingness to include anyone in the shared journey of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. So what is my hesitancy to sign up my congregation on Gay Church’s website?

To include my church’s information on Gay Church’s website, we must be a welcoming congregation with a specific understanding of the word “welcoming”. They state:

“Welcoming” means that the church does not view homosexuality in and of itself as a sin and therefore they would welcome and treat a homosexual person no differently than any other person who walked through their church doors seeking Christ.

It all boils down to the meaning of the words welcoming or inclusive. In the Church, speaking at least for my own United Methodist tribe, that is the practical side of the larger debate swirling around LGBT sexuality. There seem to be two different meanings of inclusive. For some, being inclusive of LGBT persons implies that we include both the LGBT person and their sexuality as normative and blessed by God. For others, being inclusive implies the welcome and participation of all people in church life while being clear to identify any sin, including homosexuality, as incompatible with biblical Christian teaching, requiring repentance, accountability, and loving support into a new way of life.

Personally, I feel hemmed in by the debate around inclusiveness, and I’m desperately looking for a really good set of Holy Spirit shears to cut myself free. I passionately love people, all people and want them in my life and ministry. I think my church only grows stronger with our capacity to love and disciple anyone. One of our strengths and challenges is our widening diversity.

At the same time, I love people enough to share the truth with them, sometimes with sensitive articulation, other times with a heavy hammer, all depending on the issue and the people I’m caring for. Having spent untold hours reading the Scriptures, praying, and dialoguing with a wide diversity of people, I practice the second form of inclusion mentioned above– welcoming all people into our church life while being clear to carefully, compassionately teach what is inside and outside of Christian teaching, including my firm conviction that homosexuality remains outside of biblical Christian discipleship. It’s not self-righteousness vindication. I find no particular joy in teaching this. I know it pains some people to hear it, but at the end of the day, I must remain loyal to what I know is true. Then, the next morning, I rise up determined to love my LGBT family members and friends even more than the day before, shunning any hint of judgment or condemnation of them as people made in the image of God. Jesus died for my LGBT neighbors and friends just as intentionally as he died for me. How could I love them and accept them any less as my own sisters and brothers, even in our disagreements?

So, I would have loved to include my church on Gay Church’s website, but it appears impossible, and that greatly pains me. On the one hand, because of my church’s understanding of human sexuality, we are not invited to include our church as “gay friendly.” On the other hand, some of my conservative members and leaders would be up in arms about our church’s listing because it would appear that we would be “condoning homosexuality.” Really? That sounds like the grumbling of the Pharisees and tax collectors. Was Jesus ever condoning anything except the sacred worth of all people by simply being in ministry with them?

Given the circumstances it looks like the decision to include my church on Gay Church’s website was made for us, at least by the website itself. Again, that was a deep disappointment to me. But as a pastor, I will not stop there. I will make the hard decision to press our church towards actively pursuing, inviting, welcoming, and discipling all people, regardless their sexuality or gender identifications. Loving people isn’t easy. Living in the truth and sharing the truth can be more painful still. But if I’m going to lead an authenticly Christ-centered congregation that lives by the love and grace of God, then we must break down the barriers we’ve errected between marginalized people and the Christ who died to save them. That’s exactly what Jesus did and is doing even now.

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20 Comments

Filed under Christian thought, church leadership

20 responses to “One Painfully Tough Decision

  1. “…my firm conviction that homosexuality remains outside of biblical Christian discipleship. It’s not self-righteousness vindication. I find no particular joy in teaching this. I know it pains some people to hear it, but at the end of the day, I must remain loyal to what I know is true. Then, the next morning, I rise up determined to love my LGBT family members and friends even more than the day before, shunning any hint of judgment or condemnation of them as people made in the image of God. Jesus died for my LGBT neighbors and friends just as intentionally as he died for me. How could I love them and accept them any less as my own sisters and brothers, even in our disagreements?”

    I am surprised at how well you worded this – not because I find you to be unwise (goodness, no) but because it is so difficult to put into words.

    Love is always the goal when we relate to people and there should never be joy or self-righteousness in dealing with unbiblical action (not to be confused with unbiblical ‘people’ – that’s not what I mean).

    Thank you for posting….

  2. Alan

    I support your decision and understand the struggle it takes. Idk, it’s when the person said that accepting meant that your church didn’t see homosexuality as a sin that would make me have to decline. I accept and love the people but most church’s beliefs are that homosexuality is a sin. Sadly all sin is equal and we are as sinful as them and it truly upsets e when people condemn them when they haven’t looked at themleves in the mirror.

  3. Andrea

    I struggle with this decision. One of the many
    reasons why I decided to come to a Methodist
    church (I was raised catholic) was because it f
    felt a bit more “open minded/liberal to me.

    While I respect your choice, I often find
    myself wondering, if sin is sin why does the
    LGBT issue always seem to be the biggest sin
    of all?

    • Andrea, I don’t know the answer to your question. I certainly don’t see it that way at all. The nature of debate around the issue has made it so hot-button, but really in my day to day interactions with LGBT persons, it doesn’t stand out to me anymore than anything else.

  4. Kelly

    Truth is truth and we cannot water it down no matter how “intolerant” that may make us seem as believers. We are called to love, and accept all people, but sin is sin. It is my hope as a body of believers that we would not step around any sin: lying, stealing, cheating etc. I think you did an excellent job answering this question. If they just asked us if we would love a sinner than by all means, but it cannot be called love if we do not demonstrate the Truth in God’s word.

  5. Alvin D

    Well articulated, Chris. I understand the vise you find yourself in—I find myself in much the same one within the ranks of my own fellowship. It’s the ‘hard decisions’ that mark us as real disciples, though, isn’t it?

  6. Andrea said, “While I respect your choice, I often find myself wondering, if sin is sin why does the LGBT issue always seem to be the biggest sin of all?”

    That’s always been a point of frustration for me as well. But I think that there actually is a pretty good reason for it. No, sorry. Not a ‘good’ reason, per se. But a logical one.

    Human beings are sexual creatures. It’s among our most basic qualities. “Male and female he created them”. While in a socially ‘advanced’ culture, we don’t think much about it in that way, I think we all have a sense that sexuality makes up a massive part of our being. I think that causes the issue to make a little more sense. When faced with the LGBT issue, on a subconscious level, I think it feels like an offense to something very very close to our core. Kind of like if someone moved out of the United States because they didn’t like the US and thought Canada was better. It would offend our sense of patriotism. Of course, that’s no a perfect analogy, sexuality is an issue that’s far more deeply ingrained.

    Secular entities have struggled and many are beginning to get past the topic in their own way. Just look at television and music.

    But the church, however, has the unfortunate chance to blame the problem on theology. And consequently making almost no progress in the ‘learning to love’ department. I think that is why the issue is so bloated in the church. While yes, it falls into contradiction with scripture, so does pornography and premarital sex and divorce and speeding in your car. Yet, though the church condemns it, it doesn’t usually blow up. I think that’s because the church’s response is not to the sin. The issue isn’t a response to the church’s theological stance on sin, I think it’s just a clever way of avoiding the issue and hence avoiding the opportunity to love, disciple and hopefully bring about repentance in a whole gamut of sinner’s lives.

    I agree with your conclusion Chris. I think you handled that in a really healthy way. So kudos. kudos. kudos. I think if anyone can help a congregation to learn to love in the midst of a messy social issue, it’s you.

  7. Willie

    PC I have mixed emotions on this. I have found myself questioning way too many things lately. From faith on down the list. I have many friends who are gay lesbein or bi sexual, and that to me does not make them a bad person and what ever they choose to do in their homes to me is not my business and I am not their judge. I respect your choice on this issue and I hope that some day we all find the answers to the questions of life. God Bless

  8. Bill

    Chris, as one that has had to struggle with a similar issue of this, I completely believe in what you have written. While difficult at times, we must stand up for the Word of God and not all will like what He has to say to us. The changing society does not allow us to alter Scripture to fit our changing culture and makes it more and more difficult as many churches now water down the Word to fit the times. Being open to all people is what God calls us to be, loving and caring while holding firm the foundation that He has given us. Well said.

  9. Your Aunt

    Why are all you people so hung up on sex – on both sides of the issue? My relationship is with God, period. Humans created religion and churches. God didn’t do that. Labels, labels….”little boxes”….not worth the time spent spinning. BTW – loving people is easy…living with them may be a challenge…but loving is very easy. If it wouldn’t matter to you who you would give food, shelter, comfort or aid to, then why is who they have sex with your concern? Bet ya anything, you have married heteros (more than one) who actively cheat on their marriage vows with at least one same sex partner or “lust in their mind and soul” for just that life. And you don’t know it – Far more important things to occupy your time with….

    • Allison

      I think what Pastor Chris is saying is that he would have the same response to cheating spouses who ask for “welcoming” in the way it was defined – that their unfaithfulness not be seen as a sin. And the same for someone who gossipped coming into the church and asking for their sinful habit to not be judged. And the same for someone who is selfish asking for their selfishness to be accepted not as sin. We all sin (Romans 3:9-12). So with a church full of sinners, we can all be loved as people trying to throw off the sin that entangles us while striving for Godliness. Christ came for sinners, but while He can love us in our sin, He can’t accept our sinful actions. So then, it doesn’t come down to being “hung up on sex”, it comes down to whether you agree with what the church believes the Scriptures say on the matter. If you don’t see homosexuality as sin, then of course you’re going to think it’s silly to talk about. I would encourage you to pray and seek God and read His word to make that determination. Because nothing is more important to occupy our time with here on this earth than seeking to know God and how He wants us to live so that His truth might ultimately bring us, and encourage others to the salvation that is found only in Him.

  10. I have to be honest and say that the United Methodist Church, at this time, is generally welcoming in the sense of being friendly and hospitable on a personal level (more on that in a moment), but not inclusive. I’m not familiar enough with your congregation to make a real assessment, but the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline pretty clearly lays out a clear position of gay folk as a separate, but equal (but still wrong) class, which isn’t inclusive. I feel like I’d be welcomed warmly in your services, but the elephant in the room will always be the presumption that the way I was made and the way I live are wrong, and that’s a huge, huge roadblock (well, that and me not actually being a Christian, but that’s a separate matter).

    That said, I think you’re a very thoughtful and well-informed leader of your flock, so I suspect it’d be a lively and rational place to debate, even though I personally find the evidence for homosexuality as a sin to be lacking. If there was a site that laid it out that way, to point out churches open to discussion, debate, and inquistiveness, I’d definitely suggest you opt in.

    Where I have a problem, though, is in the notion that I’m welcome in a church, but only if I’m willing to surrender what I know to be true to the opinion of the majority. I know for myself that my orientation is not a sin, and though the Bible isn’t the holy book of my spiritual practice, I also know that it’s being gravely misused to judge me, and so it’s hard for me to imagine a situation where I’d want to sacrifice my self-worth for acceptance, and it makes me question a religion that forces me to do so. There, of course, is the rub, and the reason why this is so intractable, I suppose. Coming from a family of Southern Baptists, I feel excluded in their company, and sad that who I am as a person is so much less important than the one currently in-vogue “sin” that I’m supposed to be repenting. I understand their reluctance to change, misguided or not, so we all just go our separate ways, which wastes the wisdom available on both sides.

    • Hey Joe, I want to thank you as a gay friend of mine for chiming in. I was wondering if you were going to do that! All depending on whom you talk to, you’ll hear that the UMC is either really welcoming or really not. Honestly, it really boils down to individual congregations.

      You mentioned that you thought you’d do well in our worship services but probably not anywhere else. That may be true, unfortunately for you and for us. It shouldn’t be that way, and again, that’s one thing I’m really trying to work on.

      Ideally, the Church needs to be a place where anyone could come, even with their differences. Where we disagree, we’d commit to “holy wrestling” (on par with Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok.) The goal would not be to hurt one another but to bless one another. I would love to be able to promise something like that for you, Joe.

      As for why people come to church, I don’t think that too many come looking primarily for self-validation. They come looking for God. And when they do, they find both validation and surrender. We all find that we surrender our whole selves to God, including our sexuality. Ultimately, it’s not up to me to tell you how and what you need to surrender. I’ve got my own ideas that are biblically based, but God would be the one to determine what you or anyone else would surrender and how to it.

      I think that when you or I allow our own agendas get in the way of forming authentic kingdom community, we limit so many possibilities. What I mean by agenda are our ideas and convictions that break down relationships between ourselves and God. So, if you come at each other with unmovable assertions about who each other are and aren’t willing to surrender ourselves to God and one another, then we have brokenness.

      Oh well, I’m glad we’re neighbors and friends, at least. That’s always a great start to anything else!

      • Yo Chris!

        Something that’s often hard for straight people to fully understand is how often and completely they do announce and validate their lives and how they relate to their intimate companions (sexual aspects included). Because there’s a novelty factor to the general public for out gay people, we’re told we’re flaunting, or putting out an agenda, or otherwise being narcissists by making ourselves known, but think about your sermons or your conversations with your congregants–do you mention your wife or your children? When you’re sensitized to it from being an outsider, it’s amazing how frequently heterosexuals refer to their mates, offspring, and by implication, their sexual intimacy. It’s used as a validation, a wellspring of commonality in a group, and a predictor of maturity, among other things, but when we do it, it’s taken as a red flag before a bull, even though we’re saying the same things you are.

        It’s that sensation of being singled out that makes people wary of joining a congregation, and the immunity of being there as a way of communing with God tends to fade away once everyone’s standing around the Fellowship Hall, eating cheese puffs and drinking ginger ale and sherbet punch. I felt it too clearly as my last family reunion, down in Georgia, when our family talent show morphed into a mini-revival in the hall, with everyone trotting out their kids and their wives and their praise choruses. There’s so many great stories there, and so much accumulated wisdom and wonder, but it’s just a system built to exclude, even when good people don’t set out to do so.

        The sticking point, and I’m sure it’s our biggest point of difference, is that I know for myself, first hand and without question, that Christians are wrong in calling who I am a sin. It’s not an assertion, it’s not about “behavior,” and it’s hard to argue without resorting to the most torturous kinds of rationalization.

        Every other sin that exists can be demonstrated to be deleterious by means other than mere statement, but the same thing isn’t true of same-sex intimacy. There’s nothing inherent in same-sex relations that can be demonstrated to be harmful to a person or a society without twisting logic and evidence into crazy new shapes. It’s highly debatable whether the Bible actually refers to anything remotely resembling same-sex relationships as we understand them today, but even if it were so, the proof of harm has yet to appear. People often fall back on the idea that we’d be extinct if we were all homosexuals, but that, for me would just validate God’s wisdom in choosing a remarkably consistent percentage of us for that life (mind you, I’m again speaking as an agnostic, not a theist). We’re told that we’re narcissists for not having children, which forgets our historical role as priests, artists, peacemakers, counselors, caretakers and so many more of the positions we’ve occupied throughout the history of our species.

        It’s hard for us to be on the outside, when we’re as willing and capable of being a part of a community as heterosexuals, and hard to understand why so many congregations that claim to be there for the glory of God take it on themselves to render the judgement of God instead of just delivering the good news. I think you’re doing good work already by just taking the time and putting in the hard work of deep thought on the subject, which your predecessor would have never done.

        Mind you, if we’re wrestling, it better be the Jacob match and not that Moses go-round, ’cause if Zipporah comes at me in mid-debate with a foreskin, I’m gonna run for the hills.

      • Joe, it would definitely be the Jacob match! :-) You know, single people often raise the same complaints that you do and can find it difficult to belong to a congregation for many of the same reasons you cite here. Again, I say that as a Church we need to love and embrace everyone for who they are, even if we can’t affirm the same things together. Like with you, Joe, it’s more important to love you and embrace you as a person made in God’s image than it is for me to make a statement about your sexuality.

        And on that last note, you’ll never find me using any of those sentiments or arguments in stating what I believe about the nature of homosexuality. In fact, I’m often embarrassed by the tone and rhetoric used by my colleagues in arguing against homosexuality by condemning homosexuals themselves. It’s painful to sit there and listen to it. On the contrary, my beliefs are founded upon biblical study and not out of any desire to suppress gays and lesbians. I’m not an overly argumentative person, so you won’t hear be debating the issue– dialoguing, yes, but debating, no. And even then, with the gay and lesbian friends and family members I have, it’s not a question of looking at them through the lens of their sexuality. I have an understanding of it, but I’m not going to let that interfere with my ability to love and embrace them, at least from my end.

        As far as my predecessor goes, so much of the difference between one person and another is tone and attitude rather than the mere substance of their beliefs. As far as this issue goes, I’m sure we have only subtle differences that might lead to some variant approaches to ministry, but I don’t feel the need to adopt an adversarial tone towards the LGBT community. I don’t know… I guess part of it for me is that I’m madly in love with people and find my life enriched by them, especially a diversity of them. So I’m going to be very careful to hold my convictions but to not hold them over people like a hammer. That may be naive, but oh well… I can say I’ve got people like you and Paul in my life, which I value more than theological arguments!

        Talk to you soon, Joe!

  11. June M. Fauber

    So, am I understanding you correctly in believing that you are NOT placing your church’s name on their website? If I am correct, I am in your corner. I was impressed by the way you expressed your prayerful thoughts. It was loving yet firm on your convictions. Better yet, it was Biblical. And, yes, I know of some who find loop holes in the way the Bible is written. I am in agreement with you. May God bless you for your convictions and continuing to grow disciples in His name and in His way.

  12. I truly admire your conviction and your gift of expression, and I respect your point of view, BUT…I’m sure you know what’s coming next. I know how incredibly difficult this subject is for you to come to terms with. I think you may feel obligated to stick to your interpretation of the bible, even though your heart and mind ache to feel differently because of your friends and relatives who are LGBT. You know, of course, that I CANNOT agree with you, and that I can’t go any further without violating your requests regarding comments. Someday we’ll all find out the truth about all sorts of things. Too bad it will be too late to make a difference NOW, when we so despirately NEED those sacred truths… Always with love, Mama

    • Well, Mom, convictions are truths we hold, regardless of feelings. If we lived guided only by our feelings, we would be without standards or convictions. My feelings, however, have tempered how I share and apply my convictions. And even in the tension of competing convictions, we are making a difference now through things like dialogue where different people can come to the table to understand, respect, learn, and see how to cooperate together for the good of the Church and the rest of creation, too. We live in a fallen world, yes. But if we’re open, Christ provides a way to bring this fallen world to reconciliation with its God. That’s part of what we’re doing right here, right now…

  13. Pingback: Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: We Must Do Better | Pastor Chris Owens – - Musings, Rants, and Reflections

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