The debate over homosexuality is one that some theologians say threatens to split congregations
Many seethe with rage and disgust at the thought of gays and lesbians in worship, in the pulpit and at the altar.
To a number of theologians and people in the pews, Scriptures are clear on those issues. Others say ancient biblical interpretations are in conflict with contemporary living.
The differences threaten to divide some denominations.
Grappling with controversy is nothing new for religious institutions. Today it’s homosexuality; a generation ago it was the ordination of women, and before that, whether to permit divorce. Slavery also sparked bitter debate, says Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School.
“Churches, as well as individuals, will need to decide if the issue is worth splitting up what the New Testament refers to as the ‘body of Christ.’ People of faith will need to determine if condemning gay people to lives of celibacy is more consistent to the central message of their tradition than welcoming a gay couple who are faithful to each other and both dedicated to lives of service to God,” she said.
And while differing views are discussed and argued, those with a personal stake in the outcome wait in limbo.
U.S. and Canadian courts are redefining homosexual rights, possibly to include marriage. President Bush’s decision to back a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman has only intensified the debate.
Despite varying opinions about gays and lesbians in religion, homosexuality continues to gain acceptance. This seems true in church, too, writes the Rev. David Mahsman, executive editor of The Lutheran Witness, a monthly magazine published by the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church.
In August, the Episcopal Church, USA, approved its first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. He is divorced, has two daughters and has lived with a male partner for 14 years.
After Robinson was confirmed, Gerald Kieschnick, president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, said: “While it is clear from God’s word that his forgiving love in Jesus Christ is constant for all people, this action nevertheless constitutes a momentous break from the Christian church’s 2,000-year-long understanding of what the Holy Scriptures teach about homosexual behavior as contrary to God’s will and the biblical qualifications for holding the pastoral office.”
Some conservative Episcopal churches, angered over the affirmation of Robinson, formed the Network of Anglican Communion of Dioceses to offer support to each other. And some individuals and churches have opted to withhold their pledges and contributions to the local diocese and the national church and instead give money directly to mission projects.
In June, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) will hold its General Convention in Richmond, the denomination will again be asked to approve the ordination of gays and lesbians as ministers and church officers.
The 2005 Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will be asked to decide whether it will ordain people in committed same-sex relationships and whether it should bless same-sex unions.
According to two New Testament scholars, the few references to homosexuality in the Scriptures are about social practices in biblical times and not about same-sex relationships as we understand them today.
While the New Testament says little about homosexuality, it has a lot to say about faithfulness and justice in human relationships, including marriage, the household and the community, said John Carroll, professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond.
“One of the big-picture issues is the way the broader biblical concern with compassionate care for the marginalized should affect the way we approach the specific and contested matter of the treatment of sexual minorities in the church,” Carroll said.
Jesus embraced those on the margins and was sharply criticized for it, Carroll said. “Many are asking today whether the church should respond to persons who are on the margins of life in the same welcoming way. It was not a popular approach in Jesus’ culture, to judge from the Gospels, and it should not be surprising that such moves of hospitality and welcome are controversial also today.”
Many people draw a distinction between welcoming sexual minorities as church members, entitled to the church’s nurture and care, and ordaining them to leadership roles in the church, Carroll said.
In Romans 1:24-27, the Apostle Paul mentions sexual relations between men, or between women, as contrary to nature and therefore as shameful. “Using this passage to single out gays and lesbians as sinners misses its point, which is that all people are sinful and in need of divine grace,” Carroll said.
Sexual practices are but one of many vices Paul condemns, Levine added.
Bishop Gerald O. Glenn, leader of the 2,500-member New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield County, holds a different view.
“As I read the Bible and as I interpret it, I think it is prohibited for a man to lie with a man and a woman to lie with a woman. . . . I am opposed to same-sex marriage. I see no justification, no biblical basis for it.”
Glenn said he welcomes all to New Deliverance, including gays and lesbians. “I’m not going to excommunicate anybody because they avow they are [of] this persuasion.”
While part of the message he preaches is that sex outside marriage – heterosexual or homosexual – is a sin, he said it is always possible for any sinner to be saved.
“Redemption is the key,” he said. “I tell my church: ‘You who are without sin, cast the first stone.’ We don’t cast the stone.”
Another New Testament passage, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, makes another reference. “In a long but selective list of sinful behaviors – all social or relational but only some involving sexual activity – Paul includes the two words ‘malakoi,’ which means soft ones, and ‘arsenokoitai,’ which perhaps means going to bed with a male,” Carroll said.
“As I understand this, Paul is identifying as sinful males stepping outside their natural role in society, whether by being ‘effeminate’ or by having sexual relations with men instead of women.”
Paul wasn’t talking about committed same-sex partnerships, Carroll said.
Much of the trouble gays and lesbians face in churches comes from “an ignorant and ancient mistranslation of the Bible,” says Tim Kutzmark, minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Community Church of Glen Allen.
He cited the use of “words in English like ‘homosexuality’ and ‘gay’ when what is clearly being talked about is gang rape and pederasty and prostitution.”
But much of the anger and emotion over gays and lesbians, in church and out, has less to do with the Bible than with traditional views about men and women, Kutzmark said.
He believes the same forces that resisted rights for women fuel opposition to civil rights for gays and efforts to constrain their role in churches.
“History is unfolding, and I think the direction is clear. It is just a question of how long and how nasty it is going to be.
“It’s been long and sometimes nasty for women, it is still long and nasty for people of color, and it may be that it will be a long struggle for gays and lesbians, too.”