Today was Laity Sunday, when our pastor gets to sit with her husband in the congregation as the lay members run the service. I gave the sermon, using data from a book called “UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity… and why it matters”. Briefly, a survey of non-Christian youth (16-29 years old when it was published 5 years ago) revealed that nearly all of them describe Christians as anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical. This is not news to the gay community, of course, but this time the conclusion comes from careful research done by an evangelical Christian organization. The book has blunt advice about what Christian churches should do about it.
My sermon used this study to talk about what is wrong with the Christian response to homosexuality, what has been going on in my own denomination (United Methodist) toward acceptance of homosexuals, my own evolution on that subject, and where I want my church to go. Note, I used “homosexual” in this sermon instead of the broader term LGBT because most of my listeners wouldn’t have understood the latter term, but that’s what I meant. Continue after the squiggle if you want to know more, including the rise of “reconciling congregations” within the United Methodist Church.
UPDATE: Thank you for the excellent comments, both friendly and otherwise. I wish to call your attention to this comment in particular, which gives details of the extent to which John Wesley & his "Holy Club" both included and defended a homosexual man, despite hostile criticism.
A few weeks ago, the Gospel lesson was the passage where Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is. Jesus didn’t need to ask the disciples who people said they were. The answer would have been obvious: we are your followers, and people think so because we follow you around!
But it’s a relevant question today: who do outsiders think we Christians are? What words do they use to describe us? Five years ago, an Evangelical Christian group that does opinion research was hired to find out who outsiders think Christians are. They published the results in a book called “UnChristian”. They focused mostly on the outsiders age 16-29 (21-34 today). They knew that there were a lot of negative perceptions, but they wanted to know details so that they’d understand how to reach this age group.
What they found was disturbing. 91% described Christianity as “anti-homosexual” – not just opposed to gay sex, but hostile to all gays and lesbians. 87% described us as “judgmental”. And 85% said we are “hypocritical”. More than 2/3 also described us as too political, out of touch with reality, old fashioned, insensitive, and boring. Over 2/3 also said we were friendly & have good values, but the top results are anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical.
Now, it’s easy to brush this off by saying that these young outsiders aren’t interested in joining a church, don’t want the discipline of trying to live a righteous life, and have heard bad things about us from the media and other second-hand sources. But those arguments don’t work. Most of these young people have a lot of first-hand experience with Christians – and they cited it in the interviews.
For example, a single mother described how ready her church members were to offer advice on how to raise her son. But a lot of the advice involved reminding her that she didn’t have a husband. And most of them didn’t follow their own advice in raising their own children! That’s judgmental and hypocritical. She is no longer part of any church. Christians drove her away from Christ.
Worse, 80% of the young church-goers they interviewed also said that Christianity is anti-homosexual, and over half said we’re judgmental and hypocritical. So, this is not just a problem with how outsiders see us. I personally know three young people who left the church for precisely these three reasons. Of the three, one eventually went back to attending church. So far as I know, the other two have never been to church again since then.
The complaint about hypocrisy comes from the same reason that Jesus criticized the Pharisees: we say one thing and do another. That’s actually true of every one of us: none of us lives up to what we say we believe. But as the young outsiders see it, we’re just doing what everyone does: we want to make ourselves look good. That’s also what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing. The only solution I know is to be open about our flaws and weaknesses. We need to show the world that we don’t claim to be perfect people – we are people who need Christ’s love and forgiveness.
And that brings us to judgment. Many of us older than 40 believe that the way to show that we are Christians is through a righteous lifestyle. That generally means following lists of rules, which naturally leads to judging those who don’t follow the same rules. There are two problems with this. First, the surveys showed that the lifestyles of Christians really aren’t that different from the rest of the world, except in a few areas like owning more Bibles.
More importantly, rules aren’t what our calling in Jesus is all about. Jesus always put people ahead of rules. Jesus was willing to talk with anyone and respond to their needs. What matters is not telling people what’s wrong, but helping them in their situations. And though God’s judgment of their situation is always right, ours is not. When we judge people instead of caring about them, we drive them away from Christ. And we find ourselves doing what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for: placing heavy burdens on people’s shoulders, then not lifting a finger to help.
And that brings us to anti-homosexual. The book "UnChristian" was written by & largely for evangelicals, so the author believes that homosexual intimacy is a sin in all times and places. That’s still the majority view among Christians in general. But many Christians go much farther, believing that homosexuals are incapable of acting morally, that they are all part of a subversive movement, and that it’s best to avoid having gay friends, to stay clear of that “lifestyle”.
The study showed that majority attitudes among born-again Christians include that gay sex should once again be illegal, that gay teachers should be able to be fired, and that money shouldn’t be given to fight AIDS. As one pastor relates, during a plague in the 3rd century, Christians risked their lives to help those who were sick, and that message was not forgotten. But when otherwise healthy gay men started dying for no known reason in the 1980’s, the church self-righteously proclaimed God’s judgment. This message also, has not been forgotten.
Transforming this kind of hypocritical judgment – for we all are sinners deserving God’s wrath – is not easy. It requires changing fundamental attitudes and unquestioned assumptions. I grew up hearing and believing the same things about homosexuality that I suppose most of us my age heard. I don’t claim to have erased all of that from my heart as yet. But for me, the first step was recognizing, as Paul wrote, that it is not my right to judge the servant of another. In one of the stories in “unChristian", an Evangelical tells a gay friend, “It would be dishonest for me to pretend that I agree with or understand the path you believe is right, but I accept that you are free to choose your own life course.” That’s a good start.
For a Methodist view of this issue, we can turn to Pastor Adam Hamilton. In 2001 he published a book called “Confronting the Controversies”. It is the text of seven sermons he gave about multiple opposing Christian views of controversial topics. In the preface he wrote that “Thinking, compassionate and caring people of faith can hold opposite positions on such issues. That doesn’t mean that both positions are right, but persons on both sides… will likely have valid points to make in the debate.” For each topic, he presents the Biblical and theological arguments for two or more positions. Then he gives his own current position.
One issue that is NOT in the book is women serving as pastors. That’s a controversial subject in many denominations, but United Methodists settled it long ago. Still, I remember when sincere people would complain that Scripture clearly states that women cannot be leaders in the church. Of course, there’s also the place where Paul said there is no male or female in Christ. But that’s not why we have women as pastors. As our former Pastor Barbara Heber said to me, when God calls you to the ministry, you don’t reply “I can’t because I’m a woman:” you find a denomination that lets you answer the call.
Our founder John Wesley went through a similar transformation, first deciding that lay men could be preachers, then allowing women to lead Methodist Societies so long as they didn’t preach, and finally authorizing women to preach, on the grounds that God could not object to anything that is a blessing to his people.
I don’t know of anything John Wesley wrote about homosexuality, but I do know that as a young man he risked his reputation and got a lot of criticism because of ministering to such men in prison – at the time it was a serious crime. So clearly Wesley felt that God’s grace extended even to this despised minority – and so does Adam Hamilton.
In the final chapter of Adam’s book, he presents the arguments for and against same-sex intimacy being a sin. The argument in favor cites all of the Bible verses we’ve heard before. The argument against points out three main things. (1) We already reject many of the rules in the Old Testament, so why not reject the ones on homosexuality, (2) Jesus said nothing on this topic, and (3) Some Biblical scholars have concluded that the Greek word Paul used that we translate as homosexuality actually refers to the common Greek practice of men taking young boys as lovers.
Adam Hamilton’s own view in 2001 was that it’s a sin. To justify this view, he explained that human anatomy is clearly designed so that sex between men and women is more natural than any other combination. To me that sounds like saying that the natural way to get around is by walking upright on your own two feet. That’s great advice for most of us, but if your feet or legs or back don’t work that way, that advice is at best pointless, and at worst is a profound rejection of the nature of the body God gave you.
By then I knew that the science was pretty clear: some people are born without the ability to feel sexual attraction for people of the opposite sex, and with the ability to feel sexual attraction for people of the same sex. And for such people, it cannot be changed: it was genetic or part of fetal development, not a choice, and medical science can’t fix those things. If homosexual intimacy is a sin, their only choice is celibacy – which is a burden that many are happy to impose on them.
Many years ago, my wife said something that crystallized the issue for me. She pointed out that we as a society condemned homosexuals as promiscuous – but we did not allow them to form stable couples. In my limited observation, making the commitment to get married – and being accepted as such by those around you – is very different from just living together. But even that was often denied to homosexuals. It is still the case in many places that to be known as gay or lesbian risks social censure, loss of your job, or even physical danger. And it’s not as if heterosexuals are not intensively promiscuous, even married ones. So in this attitude we combined anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical in one nasty package. This is why I finally concluded that I must support gay marriage. How could I deny them what has been such a blessing to me? How could I impose that burden?
I don’t know Adam Hamilton’s views on gay marriage. But in 2005 he reissued his book with just one revision. After the chapter on homosexuality, he wrote to pastors that some day a gay couple may walk into their church and say that they are married. Adam wrote that whatever your views on homosexuality, you must accept them and minister to them as a married couple, because legally they are.
Since then, Adam’s views on this issue have gotten more complex. He has now served as a pastor long enough to have baptized numerous babies who grew up, were confirmed, and then came out to him as gay. It’s amazing how knowing people who are affected by a principle challenges our black & white assumptions. It encourages us to treat them as individuals, as Christ did. I think Adam’s view is now that even though heterosexuality is God’s normative plan, it may be that God provided a backup plan for gay people. So he is now no longer sure of the answer he was certain of for so long.
For this reason, last May Adam Hamilton co-sponsored a petition to the UMC General Conference (a world meeting held every four years). I’ll cite two key paragraphs: A significant minority of our church views the scriptures that speak to same-sex intimacy as reflecting the understanding, values, historical circumstance, and sexual ethics of the period in which the scriptures were written, and therefore believe these passages do not reflect the timeless will of God. They read the scriptures related to same-sex intimacy in the same way that they read the Bible’s passages on polygamy, concubinage, slavery, and the role of women in the church.
We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and, above all, we pledge to seek God’s will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who once said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” The final answer was “we may not”: the petition was voted down, 53% to 47%.
I want to close by telling a story about the son of a friend who attended our church for a brief time. Later he attended a praise service at another United Methodist church with my wife & me. Each week during the prayer time, a certain woman gave an impassioned prayer to save the church from the sin of homosexuality, to defeat the evil of gay marriage, and so on. I don’t remember what all she said, but I always responded with a plea that God would teach us all to love each other.
It wasn’t enough. You see, my friend’s son is gay, though few knew it. He stuck it out for a few weeks, and then he quit going. So far as I know he has never returned to a church. I feel that I failed him, though I’m still not sure what else I should have done. That woman’s judgmental words drove him away from God. Jesus said that it is better to tie a millstone around your neck and be drowned in the sea, rather than cause one of these children to stumble. I’m sure that woman has no idea of the evil her words accomplished.
And yet, this has been the ministry of most of the Christian church to the gays and lesbians among us for many years. But there are other choices. A year ago last July, my wife and I visited the church we attended when I was in grad school. We learned that it had become a “Reconciling Congregation”. Such a United Methodist church welcomes all people, explicitly including people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The goal of the reconciling movement is to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.
For today, I ask that we accept Adam Hamilton’s petition that we commit to disagree on the issue of homosexuality with respect and love. I ask that we reflect on the ways our words and actions may turn people away from God, and commit to love all persons as Christ loves them. I pray that this church may be a place of welcome for all God’s children. And what we pray here on earth, may God establish in heaven. Amen.