June 23, 2019

Homosexuality in the Church

Passage: Romans 12: 1-2

Synopsis: There has been a sea change in our understanding of homosexuality in my lifetime. My first encounter with the question of homosexuality in the church was when a seminary professor brought it up in class in the 1980’s and advocated for creating a space where the moral character of monogamous, same-sex partnerships can play itself out. I did not know at the time that this would be an issue that would follow me throughout my pastoral ministry and that I myself would come to affirm the sanctity of loving and faithful same-sex marriage.

There’s been a sea change in our understanding of homosexuality in my lifetime. In the traditional Mennonite community where I grew up, it was spoken about in whispers. Most Americans thought homosexuality was a deviant pathology. We thought it was an obsession that people couldn’t control, akin to alcoholism.


In this environment, homosexual people congregated in certain neighborhoods and socialized in gay bars. Police often raided bars and places where they gathered.  This came to a head in 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City. Gay people resisted arrest, fought back, and began a mass protest that was pivotal in beginning the gay rights movement.”


The American Psychiatric Association had listed homosexuality as a pathological psychiatric disorder and only changed that it 1974. There are horror stories of procedures psychiatrists used in attempts to cure homosexuality. Among them were repeated electric shock treatments and even lobotomies.


Our attitude toward homosexuality was now slowly beginning to change. A big part of that change was the recognition of different sexual orientations, that our designation of male and female is more fluid that we had recognized, and that there’s a biological basis for sexual orientation. None of this is completely definitive but different studies all point in this direction. More on this later.


My first serious encounter with these questions was when I was a seminary student in the early 1980s and my New Testament professor George Brunk III brought it up in class.  I was shocked but really respected George and listened carefully to what he had to say. He said it was a two sided problem. On one side, the Bible doesn’t say much about homosexuality but everything that’s said is negative. In addition, it was considered to be sinful throughout church history.


“On the other side,” according to George, “there are persons who show evidence of sincere faith, the fruit of the Spirit, and love for the church who find no essential conflict with entering same-sex, life-long, faithful relationships. It’s the clash of these realities that calls the church to the serious work of discernment.”[1]


George said that we need to own this ambiguity and not cut ourselves off from our traditional understanding but that we also should not use that to stifle the process of discernment. He concluded:

The church and society need to create the space within which the moral character of monogamous, same-sex partnerships can play itself out. . . This is nothing more than the freedom that God has extended to the human race at the price of a messy history. It’s nothing more than the freedom our Anabaptist predecessors asked for, but did not receive, to demonstrate the possibility of a new way of being the church in the world.[2]


A lot of water has gone over the dam since the 1980s. Even people who hold to the traditional view now acknowledge that there’s a biological component to homosexuality and that there’s such a thing as different sexual orientations. They, however, insist that same-sex marriage is against God’s created order and that homosexual people should remain celibate.


Some things have become clearer in the past several decades. We now know that at least 3-5% of males and 1-2% of females in any society are homosexual. It’s even more complicated. Some of us are bisexual and transgender. More uncommonly, some of us are born “intersex” with ambiguous sexual organs and parents don’t know which gender to designate to their child.[3]


We know that homosexuality tends to run in families. While we have not been able to identify a “gay gene,” DNA studies have identified the general location where such a gene must reside. Other studies have shown a connection between fetal development and homosexuality. Finally, there’s some evidence that the brains of homosexuals may be different from those of heterosexuals.[4]


While none of this is definitive by itself, a clear pattern begins to emerge indicating a biological connection to sexual orientation and gender identity. I’m confident that we will gradually learn more about this. More importantly, the church is gradually recognizing that the moral character of monogamous, same-sex marriage can be good. Let me share some of my personal story.


This became an issue when I was the pastor of Shalom Mennonite Congregation in the 1990s. My co-pastor was a caring woman who drew in people on the margins. Soon a lesbian couple began attending our church and our conference told us we would be expelled from the conference if we accepted them as members. Then the conference began reviewing my co-pastor’s pastoral credentials because of the issue.


This got intense! I still carry the scars from some very heated meetings with our conference and some agonizing congregational meetings as we tried to figure out what to do. Part of the fight involved another church, which was expelled from the conference over the issue. We eventually decided to withdraw from our conference and join another more accepting Mennonite conference.


I paid a personal price. During that time, I was also teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and was denied a long-term contract because this had made me too controversial. I don’t have many regrets about that but it certainly factored into my later decision to leave EMU and take an assignment in India.


This issue kept following me and became more personal when our son Steve and daughter Sara were both home from college for Christmas and told Ruth and me that they had something they needed to tell us. They were so serious and asked us to sit down. We had no idea what it was. Our daughter then told us that she was dating another woman.


My first response was disbelief and denial. This couldn’t be happening. There was, however, never a question about loving and supporting out daughter. Even so, it was hard on all of us as we struggled with our personal feelings and fears. We kept this secret from our extended families and Sara’s elderly, plain Mennonite grandparents who we thought would not understand.


That was especially hard for Sara. Today, I’d do it differently. Keeping secrets is not good. Some of our plain relatives recently surprised us when Sara’s aunts and cousins lovingly embraced her at a family funeral. Sara has been a wonderful, gifted, kind daughter who’s so affirming and supportive of us as her parents.


The issue then followed me here when I became a candidate to be our pastor. Our church is part of Virginia Mennonite Conference, the same conference that my former church had left. I was leery about this and the conference people I met with were also hesitant. How would this work? The issue now was no longer about having LGBTQ people as church members because they were no longer insisting on that. To me this was a big step in the right direction; it made it possible for me to come back. The new edict was that pastors had to promise to not perform a same-sex marriage. I told them that it wasn’t my decision to make; it had to be the decision of our church.


I took it to our church council and asked them what they wanted me to do. After an awkward silence, Margie Van Nostrand, who was on the council at the time, volunteered, “Sure, we can agree to that. If we ever want someone to perform a same-sex marriage, we’ll have Mel Schmidt do it.” Mel was the retired pastor who had served here with me as an interim pastor for one year. John Kliewer, who was the council chair, thought it was a good solution and everyone agreed. So I told the conference that we had agreed that I would not perform a same-sex marriage and they then accepted my pastoral credentials.


Afterward, during my regular Tuesday lunches with John, he occasionally brought it up, “Earl, we should never have agreed to that.” I told him that it didn’t matter.  We’ll cross this bridge when we get there. Sure, we had punted the issue but I really didn’t want this matter to be at the forefront of my ministry here.


Now, our conference is struggling with their policy of not allowing pastors to perform same-sex marriages. Two churches have recently left the conference because their pastors would not agree and the conference responded by revoking their pastoral credentials. Another large church is also in a process of changing their conference affiliation because of this policy.


I’m told that our conference is now working to change it’s policy to, instead, have it become a congregational decision rather than a conference decision. I like this because I truly believe it’s something that should be decided in congregations where people know each other and can make more informed, caring, and wise decisions.


There’s been a huge shift in opinion on same-sex marriage in our country. As recently as 2004 a majority of 60% were opposed and today a majority of 61% support it. Churches have been at the forefront of this change, including the younger generation in more conservative evangelical churches. No other shift in opinion on a social-cultural issue has ever been so dramatic.[5]


This takes me back almost forty years to when I was a young seminary student and George Brunk III advocated for providing the space where the moral character of same-sex marriage could be tested. We still live with this ambiguity and equally sincere Christians can still disagree but we now know so much more.


Ruth and I are so thankful for the loving and vibrant home that our daughter Sara and her spouse Heather have created. It’s a nurturing home for their active two little boys Oscar and Reuben. How can we say this is not good? We’re so much looking forward to going to California and spending time with them next week.


Sara’s high school friend Michelle Burkholder also came out as lesbian when she was a young woman. Michelle and her spouse are now active members of Hyattsville Mennonite Church where Michelle is part of the pastoral team. She was recently ordained as a pastor by the Allegheny Mennonite Conference.


Michelle’s father Owen was the conference minister of Virginia Mennonite Conference during our time of troubles. I had walked into his office one day and told him that our church was leaving the conference. His response was that we can’t do that and I informed him that we could. I had done my homework. As a strange coincidence, neither of us knew at the time that we were both the fathers of lesbian daughters. We have been able to maintain our friendship through it all.


This has been a journey. It’s not like we have it all figured out or ever will. Still, I have every confidence that we’ll gain new understandings of relationships that embody Jesus’ love ethic of being responsible, mutual, caring, and loving. Sure we’ll get it wrong sometimes but then we backtrack and start again.


God’s Spirit guides us in this journey as we listen to God’s word, draw on the wisdom of our church tradition, learn from scientific studies on human sexuality, and walk with the experiences of our LGBTQ sisters and brother and their families. As Paul told the church in Rome, we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern what God’s will is—what’s good and pleasing and mature (12:2).


[1] George Brunk III in To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality (Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2001), 301

[2] Ibid, 303.

[3] Veronica Meade-Kelly, “The biological origins of sexual orientation and gender identity,” (Los Angeles: Medical Press, 2015).

[4] “Biological basis of sexual orientation,” Stanford University News Service (03/10/95).

[5] Samantha Schmidt, “In a short span, opinions or gay rights have flipped,” The Washington Post (June 8, 2019): A1.

1 Comment

  1. Ed Wilde

    Enjoyed this sermon. Glad to hear of the progress being made in churches with which you are/have been associated . The touchpoint you made on biology is something more pastors need to understand.

    Thank you!


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