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HOMOSEXUALITY AND RELIGION:

Interactions of Christians and homosexuals

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Incidence of homosexuality within denominations:

Members and leaders of some conservative Christian churches believe that they have few or no members or staff who are homosexuals. Evangelicals Concerned, a group which believes that there is no conflict between Biblical faith and a committed, monogamous homosexual relationship, believe the opposite: that gays and lesbians are as common within conservative churches as within the general population. Justice & Respect agrees . 1

There is really no way to collect accurate statistics on the prevalence of homosexuality within churches. Both members and employees would be reluctant to reveal their orientation because they would fear being expelled as a member or fired as an employee if they came out of "the closet". One interesting statistic comes from Love & Action, an Evangelical agency that ministers to persons with AIDS. They visited about a dozen Christian colleges during 1990 and offered confidential counseling to those who were struggling with homosexual feelings. About 4% of students signed up. They estimate the total number of such students to be at least 8%. Presumably they felt that only half of the gays and lesbians volunteered for counseling because of fear of being exposed and a lack of trust in the agency. Or perhaps they had come to terms with their sexual orientation and saw no reason to be counseled. These data would indicate that the prevalence of homosexual orientation might be significantly higher in Christian colleges than in the general population. 1

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Gay - Church relationships:

The relationship between gays and Christian religious communities has been largely negative. Some barriers are:

bullet Some religious folks mistrust gay and lesbian members of their congregations. They see homosexuals as trying to impose a gay agenda on the church in order to further their political goals of attaining equal rights. The look upon gays and lesbians as an issue, not as individuals.
bullet This suspicion is returned. Some gays and lesbians lump all denominations together - whether conservative, mainline, or liberal  - and see them all as the enemy.  Mark Bowman, once executive director of the Methodist's Reconciling Congregations Program, hoped that gay political leaders may begin to respect people of faith more and trust their insight.
bullet Some church members are not politically active in the community. Mark Bowman commented: "...people of faith need to realize that their religious witness goes beyond the church. A lot who are working in religious organizations see themselves focused only within their denomination, and we really have to understand that we have a larger witness beyond that and a larger responsibility."
bullet Some gays and lesbians remain firmly in the "religious closet." The Rev. Elder Darlene Garner, pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia (MCC NOVA) said: "I would encourage all of us to come out of our faith closets...There are those of us who are Gay who have been ashamed of  letting people know that we believe in God because of the pressure that we often experience from other Gay and Lesbian people...Gays who embrace religion are frequently labeled as identifying with the enemy."

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Welcoming/Affirming/Reconciling congregations:

Some congregations are identifying themselves as welcoming, affirming or reconciling churches. This movement started in the 1970's and has now grown to involve 943 congregations in ten denominations in 46 states, DC and five provinces in Canada. Participating congregations go on record as supporting gay and lesbians in their church. 

The Westminster United Church of Waterloo, ON, Canada is an affirming congregation. They added the following paragraph was added to their Mission Statement at a congregational meeting on 1998-NOV-22:

"...To create an environment of openness for all people. To affirm that all who seek to live faithfully regardless of ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, or social circumstances are welcome to full participation in the life of the congregation. To foster full opportunity for participation by all in the wider church, Church Council will be looking at changing our advertising, a service to celebrate becoming an affirming congregation, performing same sex unions, and developing plans for continued support of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the coming months." 8

A search program is available to locate nearby welcoming congregations. 2 As of 2000-MAR, the following programs are active at the denominational level:

bullet American Baptist Church : Welcoming & Affirming Baptists *
bullet Brethren/Mennonite: Supportive Congregations Network 
bullet Disciples of Christ: Open & Affirming Ministries (Disciples) *
bullet Episcopal: Oasis; In California; In New Jersey
bullet Lutheran: Reconciling in Christ Program *
bullet Presbyterian: More Light Presbyterians *
bullet Unitarian Universalist Association: Welcoming  Congregation program
bullet United Church of Canada: Affirming Congregation (no web site) *
bullet United Church of Christ: Open and Affirming Program *
bullet United Methodist Church: Reconciling Congregation Program

* These groups jointly publish "Open Hands: Resources for Ministries Affirming the Diversity of Human Sexuality" This is a quarterly magazine of 32 pages in length. "Each issue...addresses a particular theme regarding resources for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality. Each issue contains: insightful feature articles; worship and devotional aids; resources for study and ministry; news of the welcoming church movement. As a special feature, the winter issue includes the complete up-to-date listing of hundreds of welcoming churches in the U.S. and Canada." 3

The Reconciling Congregation Program's web site provides links to other denominational welcoming programs. 4 They also publish and distribute two books: "Claiming the Promise Bible Study: An Ecumenical Welcoming Bible Study Resource on Homosexuality."  One is a study book, the other a leader's guide. They "can be used for group or individual study. Planned for seven one- to two-hour sessions." 5

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Mainline Protestant conference on homosexuality:

Members of seven mainline and liberal Protestant denominations (the American Baptist Church, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church) organized a one-day conference on "Building An Inclusive Church: Loving each other when some of us in the family of God are not straight," for 1999-APR-17 in Minneapolis MN. 6 The planning committee was chaired by the Rev. Howard Johnson, a retired United Methodist clergyman, who commented:

"None of us officially represents our denomination and we aren't planning discussion specifically on the sticky question of ordination, but we are united in our concern about continuing misinformation regarding those in our communities of faith who are GLBT. It arises from condemnation and exclusion of GLBT persons of faith and the pain and sense of alienation this causes, not only to them, but to their parents, families and friends. The exclusion of any group of persons on the basis of stereotypes and flawed assumptions is contrary to the spirit and mind of Christ, and a destructive source of alienation within the entire community of faith. We believe that when we are not inclusive and loving to one another within the church, we, as the body of Christ, have no clear witness of healing and reconciliation for a troubled world. This event was planned with the deep conviction that we must be an inclusive church in order to be a faithful witness to the God whose love embraces us all."

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How denominations handle "The Issue"

The conflict over sexual orientation in the churches should be viewed from the perspective of history. There have been many similar intense moral, ethical, medical, and scientific debates in the past. Some battles have already been settled; others are ongoing. In each case, past experience shows us that:

bullet Liberal faith groups tend to be willing to:
bullet embrace new scientific findings quickly,
bullet ignore some portions of their sacred texts as invalid
bullet treat other passages in scripture as applying only to past eras or societies
bullet promote change within society.
bullet Mainstream denominations often follow the lead of liberals, but only after secular groups in society have generally accepted the new beliefs. i.e., they trail public opinion.
bullet Conservative denominations are frequently the last to change, and often take many decades or even centuries to shift their beliefs and practices.

One example is the ordination of women. Most liberal denominations have accepted female clergy for decades. The United Church of Canada started in 1936. Mainstream denominations followed: United Methodist Church in 1939; Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1956; the main Lutheran denominations in the 1970's. Many conservative denominations have not yet begun to study the question. In the year 2000, the Southern Baptists decided to no longer accept new female pastors. The same dynamic has been observed over such issues as slavery, racial segregation, and inter-racial marriage.

So too with the "homosexual issue" as it affects membership and ordination:

bullet Liberal denominations accept practicing gays and lesbians as members and clergy.
bullet Mainline denominations are in the midst of painful change. As "the issue" is hotly debated:
bullet the conservative segment of each denomination typically stresses various passages from the Bible that seem to condemn homosexuality as a sin. They express concern that their denomination continue to enforce minimum standards of behavior so that what they see as immoral people are excluded from ordination (and sometimes even from church membership.)
bullet Religious liberals within these denominations examine what they believe to be the real meaning of those Biblical passages -- that the Bible condemns homosexual activity which involves:
bullet Rape
bullet Ritual sex in Pagan temples,
bullet Prostitution
bullet Persons with a heterosexual orientation

The Bible also condemns sexual abuse of boys by adult males. But the Bible is silent on consensual, committed homosexual relationships. Religious liberals stress the various inclusive statements and actions by Jesus and St. Paul. They discuss recent scientific findings on the nature of sexual orientation. They conclude that homosexual and heterosexual activities are not in themselves either sinful or holy. Either can be a sin if they are done outside of a committed relationship, or if coerced, manipulative, or unsafe. They consider the inclusion of persons of all sexual orientations to be a priority concern. They see "the issue" as a fundamental human rights matter.

bullet Almost all conservative faith groups have not yet begun to consider changing their position on "the issue." A few individual Southern Baptist congregations have completed studies on homosexuality, and decided to become welcoming congregations. They were expelled from the denomination.

The experience of one denomination, the United Church of Canada may be a useful guide for those groups who are wrestling with "the issue." Delegates to their Victoria BC conference in 1988 came with negative beliefs about gay and lesbian ordination, but with a willingness to listen. At the start of the conference, only 28% of the church membership were in favor of gay ordination. The delegates listened prayerfully as some long-time gay and lesbian members of the Church described growing up in a denomination that rejects them because of their sexual orientation. Many delegates changed their mind. The final vote was about 3 to 1 in favor of homosexual ordination.

As long as the debate over including gays and lesbian in church life is treated as an issue, little progress can be made. Liberals will talk endlessly about fundamental rights and scientific findings on human sexuality. Conservatives will counter with favorite Bible quotations and warn against lowering moral standards for membership and leadership within the church. But, in our opinion, real progress can be made only when homosexuals are no longer seen as an issue, but as individual human beings. Some interactions can force church members to view gays and lesbians as real people. Acts like:

bullet allowing devout Christian gays and lesbians address church assemblies and describe their lifetime of rejection by the church that they love, or
bullet organizing a Shower of Stoles to show the large number of clergy that have been excluded from serving their denomination because of their sexual orientation, or
bullet the symbolic act of gays and lesbians holding open the doors of a conference assembly room so that all may freely enter, or
bullet taking the risk of "coming out" to friends and family. At the trial of Methodist minister Rev. Jimmy Creech, many of the jurors had been significantly influenced in the past, by knowing openly gay friends, family members, fellow students, etc. If those gays and lesbians had not risked revealing their sexual orientation, the jury's verdict probably would have been to find Rev. Creech guilty of misconduct for presiding at a lesbian union service.

Some members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) took an interesting approach to "the issue." They held a three-day retreat to exchange information on how members and meetings had dealt with it. (Quaker Meetings are local assemblies representing a group of congregations). They hoped to help individuals "search for guidance and unity on this issue." One technique used was to discuss those  passages from the Christian Scriptures that describe events of major religious change and conflict within the early Christian movements. Some of these were:

bullet Acts 5:33 where Gamaliel, a Pharisee, counseled the Sanhedrin on how to handle the new Jewish heresy: the Jewish Christian Church.
bullet Acts 10, which describes a vision, that Peter experienced. God told him to lay aside his Jewish practices concerning impure and unclean food.
bullet Acts 15 which describes the meeting between Paul, Barnabas and the Council of Jerusalem over whether Gentiles should have to undergo circumcision before joining the Jewish Christian church.
bullet Romans 14 which describes Paul's recommendations that members not judge each other over divergent practices. 7

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Theological questions arising from homosexuality:

There are some interesting theological questions that have developed as a result of scientific findings about homosexual orientation:

bullet A common belief taught by many Christian churches is that God plays an active and intrusive role in human affairs. He micro-manages every event in each person's life. Presumably, this includes the act of conception when a person's unique DNA is created. Now, genes have a large role in determining sexual orientation. This has been proven by various studies. If the tendency for a homosexual orientation is decided at conception, then why does God intentionally create so many homosexuals? What is His purpose for doing so? Can we reject a whole group of people as God has created them?
bullet Almost all denominations teach that God is all-powerful, and that He answers prayer. Yet the earnest prayers of many homosexuals to be converted to heterosexuality have always been ignored? Some devout gay and lesbian Christians have begged God for years to make them "straight" without success. Why is cure rate for reparative therapy, which attempts to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals, so low if God, the therapist and the client all want the person to be changed?
bullet If:
bullet homosexual orientation is a natural condition for a minority of people (just as heterosexual orientation is natural for the majority), and
bullet God has given to almost everyone the ability to love another individual and to seek to marry them, and
bullet God has stated that it is not good for a person to live alone (Genesis 2:18), then

should all people, whether heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual, be allowed to marry?

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Implications in Sunday school teaching and parenting:

If the conservative Christian belief is true, then it can be argued that:

bullet A homosexual preference is chosen by the individual.
bullet God hates homosexual behavior.
bullet A Christian must absolutely avoid homosexuality.
bullet The extremely high suicide rate among gays is caused by the unnatural and deviant homosexual behavior itself.

The obvious approach of Sunday school teachers and parents is to teach their children:

bullet to avoid any contact with information on homosexuality, in school, books, the media, the Internet, etc.;
bullet to reject  homosexuality as a valid, normal, natural sexual orientation;

in the expectation that they will grow up to be heterosexual.

This approach has one potential danger if the child grows up gay or lesbian. By the time that they realize their orientation, they may well have internalized an extreme hatred of homosexuality. They may have concluded that God rejects both homosexuality and homosexuals. They would probably have low self-esteem, suffer from depression and may well be be at a high risk for suicide.

If the liberal Christian belief is true, then it can be argued that:

bullet Evidence of a homosexual orientation develops before school age; it is not chosen.
bullet God loves diversity in gender, race, and sexual orientation.
bullet A homosexual orientation is as valid, natural and normal as is heterosexuality.
bullet The extremely high suicide rate among gays is caused by their internalized hatred of their sexual orientation that has been taught to them during childhood.

The obvious approach of teachers and parents is to:

bullet teach children about sexual orientation, both heterosexual and homosexual.
bullet teach children to accept homosexuality as a valid sexual orientation.
bullet counteract negative portrayals of gays and lesbians at school, at church, in the media etc.

in the expectation that they will probably grow up to be heterosexual. But if they turn out to be homosexual, they will probably accept their own sexual orientation in a positive light, as a gift from God. They will not have low self-esteem as a result of their sexuality. They would not be at a high risk for suicide.

This approach has one potential danger. If the conservative Christian belief system is correct after all, then the teacher and parent will have made no attempt to steer children away from homosexuality. By choosing to be gay or lesbian, the child's life will be made more difficult because of the hatred and discrimination directed against homosexuals by the rest of society.

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References

  1. Justice & Respect is a conservative Christian site that advocates "a just and respectful response to persons who experience same-gender attraction." See: http://www.npiec.on.ca/~scalverl/justice.htm
  2. A search facility to find local welcoming congregations is at: http://www.rcp.org/db_search.cgi?database=wminlist 
  3. "Open Hands" web site is at: http://www.rcp.org/openhands/ 
  4. The Reconciling Congregation Program's home page is at: http://www.rcp.org/welindex.html 
  5. "Claiming the Promise Bible Study" at: http://www.rcp.org/ctp.html 
  6. News release: "Mainline Protestants plan confab on inclusion of gays and lesbians." 1999-FEB-06. Web site is at: http://www.winternet.com/~rwhenn/inclusive.htm
  7. Report and questions on a Quaker "Retreat on Same-Sex Issues, 1996-MAR-15-17". See: http://www.quaker.org:80/pendle-hill/same-sex-issues.html
  8. Paul Warder, "Local church becomes an affirming congregation," at: http://www.thevoice.on.ca/Affirming.html 

Copyright 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-OCT-25
Latest update: 2000-OCT-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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