Wedged: The LGBTQ Issue Is Dividing The Church

The issue of LGBTQ rights is a true wedge issue that will indeed divide us in the church.

The Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America both hold their annual synods this week. Both will be discussing same-sex marriage. Will we recognize and be able to admit we are not of the same mind? Will we be able to have the much-needed pragmatic conversations about how both sides of this issue can go our separate ways before we destroy each other?

 

You probably have already made up your mind about same-sex marriage. You’ve probably had people try to change your mind about it and had to stand up for your position. Whatever your thoughts on same-sex marriage are, this topic is extremely volatile.

In this article, I will not be attempting to argue for LGBTQ rights (the “inclusive” position) or biblical marriage (the “traditional” position). I simply want to suggest that this is a true wedge issue that will indeed divide us. The conversation needs to shift from trying to convince each other to a pragmatic discussion of where we go from here.

A fellow Christian Reformed Church (CRC) minister once asked me why I would make such a big deal about being LGBTQ inclusive. No matter what, my congregation is not going to change their mind. Why can’t we just let local congregations decide and agree to disagree? If only it were that simple.

The CRC had a long showdown over ordaining women to the offices of minister and elder in the 1990s. In the end, Synod 1995 decided that there were two valid biblical positions on the topic and that we can agree to disagree. But LGBTQ sexuality is not women in office. My minister friends in the Free Methodist and Wesleyan churches tell me there are no calls for changes in sexual boundaries in their denominations, even though both have ordained women for over a hundred years. The same Calvin Seminary professor who wrote the book on the two valid biblical positions on women in office says of same-sex relations, “The issues are very different. One is about the church order, the other about the moral order.”[i]

The inclusive position and the traditional position come from two very different theological systems. Listening to each position is like listening not to two different ball games but to two different sports. The inspiration of Scripture has very different meanings. “Love” seems to have two different definitions. But one of the most critical differences seems to be the concept of identity in Christ.

One view says LGBTQ is a basic human identity to be embraced in Christ, and it says to celebrate the sexuality that God gave them.[ii]

The other view says LGBTQ is a case of mistaken identity to be yielded in Christ, and it says to celebrate the new identity in Christ that God gave them.[iii] (I have a same-sex attracted friend who avoids the term “gay” for himself because, as he says, his basic identity is in Christ.)

The moral fabric in these two views clashes sharply. They are inherently offensive to one another because each violates the other’s deeply held convictions.

If it is the case that LGBTQ is a basic identity and my preaching and counseling on the topic is that people cannot act according to who they are in Christ, then I am not just being insensitive. I am tying up heavy loads for the shoulders of others. I am shutting the kingdom of heaven in the faces of others. I am a Pharisee. I am one of those to whom the Bible says, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33)

Does a Pharisee belong at the pulpit in Christ’s church? Is there any real unity in Christ with a Pharisee?

Perhaps we are all Pharisees to some extent, acting contrary to our stated beliefs or adding unnecessary rules. But isn’t there a difference between someone who is a humble Pharisee who wants to change and a confident Pharisee who stands on his or her own truth and claims it’s God’s?

This topic has split three major denominations already: The Episcopal Church (U.S.A.) in 2008,[iv]the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2009,[v] and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2012.[vi] The fallout is still felt in all three of them in 2016.[vii]

Even when we strive for unity under two different moral fabrics, it doesn’t work.

Case in point is the United Methodist Church.

The official position is that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”[viii] They have debated homosexuality at every General Conference since 1972. Their most recent gathering was in May and the tension is only growing.

They had the usual protests, such as over 160 demonstrators lining the sidewalk outside in a silent protest, some with signs saying “It’s time” and “Why exclude us?” and “Self-avowed practicing queer clergy.”[ix]

In another protest, several writhed on the convention floor hog-tied to illustrate their captivity to church disapproval.[x]

Frank Shaefer, a United Methodist minister defrocked for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding, compared the church’s stance to bloody times in history: “I have to tell you it was a very painful process that sort of reminds of the inquisition, medieval tactics of the Church, of the witch burnings in our country here.”

If preaching that same-sex sex acts are sinful is comparable to forced confessions of heresy under torture and burning people alive, then what shred of unity do we have left? Both sides are simply living out their own convictions of what is right and good and true.

Another speaker, a psychiatric social worker who works with LGBTQ teens and adults who’ve attempted suicide because of opposition in their communities says, “So, I’m calling out the United Methodist bishops and saying it’s no longer suicide; it’s homicide. I ask them, ‘How do you sleep at night knowing you are killing our children?’”

In the inclusive view, preaching that same-sexual relations are sinful is not just insensitive but can even be considered homicidal and open to the charge of killing children.

Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey, a board member of the LGBTQ-advocacy group Reconciling Ministries Network, promised increased church trials for disobedience to the Book of Discipline’s sexual ethics. “We will refuse to obey. The church better have a lot of money in its bank account.”[xi]

The inclusive side is living out its principles of inclusion and cannot stand by while people are excluded, but what toll does this take on a church? This internal bleeding of finances over people operating under different principles is a house divided and devouring each other.

Like it or not, we are wedged.

To the extent that we are principled people and not wishy-washy in our convictions on these matters, we will be ineffective and divisive. Our churches will turn into two-headed monsters that bite and devour one another. We will constantly be hurting and offending one another until we can acknowledge that regardless of who is right or wrong, we are not of the same mind.

The Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America both hold their annual synods this week. Both will be discussing same-sex marriage. Will we recognize and be able to admit we are not of the same mind? Will we be able to have the much-needed pragmatic conversations about how both sides of this issue can go our separate ways before we destroy each other?

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[i] “Not Like Women in Office,” by John Cooper; Calvin Theological Seminary Forum; Fall 2015, p.5-9. http://www.calvinseminary.edu/wp-content/uploads/Forum-October-2015-Copy.pdf (retrieved June 5, 2016)

[ii] For just one example of this view, see Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pg.45.

[iii] For just one example of this view, see Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant, 2012), pg.24.

[iv] The Anglican Church in North America formed on December 3, 2008 out of the Common Cause Partnership when dissenting conservatives from the Episcopal Church USA over gay rights and Bible interpretation adopt a constitution.

[v] The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted on August 21, 2009 to allow gays and lesbians in same-sex relationships to be ordained. After the vote, the conservative Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform), which had been officially recognized by the ELCA, severed ties with the denomination and declared itself an independent Lutheran organization, announcing in November that it was working on forming a new church. August 27, 2010, the North American Lutheran Church is organized.

[vi] On May 10, 2011, the Twin Cities Area presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) became the 87th presbytery and deciding vote on Amendment 10A to remove the constitutional requirement that all ministers, elders and deacons live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” In January 2012, disaffected Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders unveil The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) – later changed to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians – for those wishing to split. But not only conservatives departed. On May 12, 2012, the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church says PCUSA not LGBT-welcoming enough, switches to the more LGBTQ-friendly United Church of Christ. In May 2013, membership statistics would show that 2012 was the PCUSA’s greatest decline in its history, down 5%.

[vii] In the case of the Episcopal Church, on January 14, 2016, the Anglican Communion votes to censure them for the next three years, suspending them from voting and decision making. The effort was unsuccessful at achieving unity as bishops of Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria announce they would not participate in the upcoming Lusaka meeting.

[viii] United Methodist Book of Discipline 304.3

[ix] “Methodists postpone debate of gay issues that could split denomination,” by Emily McFarlan Miller; Religion News Service, May 19, 2016 http://religionnews.com/2016/05/19/united-methodists-create-lgbt-commission/ (retrieved May 20, 2016)

[x] “United Methodist Sex & Gridlock” by Mark Tooley; Juicy Ecumenism, May 19, 2016 https://juicyecumenism.com/2016/05/19/united-methodist-sex-gridlock/ (retrieved June 5, 2016)

[xi] “LGBTQ UMC Group’s Busy Day at General Conference,” by Chelsen Vicari; Juicy Ecumenism, May 16, 2016 https://juicyecumenism.com/2016/05/16/gay-umc-groups-busy-day-general-conference/ (retrieved May 17, 2016)

Rev. Aaron Vriesman a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and is the Pastor of the North Blendon CRC in Hudsonville, Michigan. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.