Gay Pastors, Female Clergy, and The Gospel

Quite a few friends have been sharing this story about the Presbyterian Church (USA) moving toward the acceptance of gay clergy on a national level. It was in my Facebook inbox today and, just a few minutes ago, it came to Gmail from my wife.

I don’t know enough about the wording of the PC (USA)’s resolution or about the nuances in any arguments for or against it.  I do know that I believe gay and lesbian Christians should be able to serve openly in ministry at all levels.  I won’t comment on the resolution, because I can’t.  But I will say that sexuality should not preclude someone from ministry.  Neither should the lack of external genitals.

See, my wife, who probably wouldn’t call herself a feminist if we equate feminism with a limited tableau of monolithic political and social narratives (yeah, you know we do), added an addendum to the link she sent me:

“meanwhile, many denominations across the country [my note: maybe half of US denominations] still don’t ordain women.”

Neither of us mean to equate sexuality with gender, and it has to be true that fewer groups ordain openly homosexual persons than ordain women.  But these things are related, aren’t they?  In most cases, the refusal to ordain women or to treat homosexuals with fairness, dignity, and grace, stem from a certain kind of biblical hermeneutic that deals with Scripture in very limiting ways.  Even if you believe that the Bible is the literal, accurate transcription of what inspired people heard from God, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you must believe that what God said through the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth is the same thing God said to the church, let’s say, in Rome. And, in fact, it isn’t.  In Corinth, women were to have precious little to do with church leadership:  even as the freedom they found in Christ to speak in a room of men was real, Paul thought its practice would scandalize the accepted gender roles of Corinthian culture at the expense of the Gospel.  (This is one of those times where I think Paul erred on the side of caution with devastating results).

But even if you think that Paul’s missive to Corinth came straight from the heart and mind of God, you have to wrangle with the fact that in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he acknowledges and praises the leadership role of the woman Junia, even calling her an apostle.  If you believe the letters to Corinth were from God, you probably believe the same about the note to Rome.  But if believing such also means you believe that these letters are also meant for all Christian communities for all times, you have something of a problem.  Which model is right?  Should the Roman apostle Junia really consider herself a complementary (subservient, rather than co-equal) child of God next to her husband simply because Paul told the church in Corinth (and Ephesus) to follow the societal and familial norms of their native cultures?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think you can hold this view even if you say you think the Bible is the literal word of God.

But what if Scripture is something more than that? What if it’s the testimonies of diverse communities seeking God over time and across cultures?  What if, as increasing numbers of Christians suggest, what was good for Corinth wasn’t good for Rome, and what was good for Rome in the first century AD isn’t good for churches in America now?  What if Paul was overcautious in Ephesus and Corinth, and what can that tell us about the story we find ourselves in now?

For too long, many Christians have used spot-checks here and there in Scripture to exclude groups from the radical equality and freedom before God that serve as the base of Jesus’ Gospel message:  The Kingdom of God is coming, and, in me, and thus, in you, the Kingdom of God is here.  This Gospel is for the margins and will be misunderstood and misused by people in high places, Jesus knew. The super-valuation of straight men in church leadership — and church life in general — is an enduring disgrace to our real witness and to the peace we claim in Christ.  It fosters sexism, homophobia, domestic violence, and a host of needless, tragic anxieties in men and women who haven’t been raised in contexts where the reconciliation of their doubts about supposedly Biblical gender roles and sexualities on one hand, and their deep longing for a relationship with the radically welcoming God of Jesus on the other, is encouraged or even possible.

People of faith, we must do better than this.  Christians, we need to take inventory of the times.  Consider the opportunities we have to speak the truth of human dignity to the power of a culture that bullies gay kids to the point of suicide, that even now demonizes gay adults, that in secular and sacred realms says girls should understand their roles are defined by their organs.  Consider the witness we have always struggled to bear, and have often borne too late: the proclamation that if we were all dead in sin before our lives touched Christ’s, so too may we all live under his radical care and in his radical kingdom.  So too are we equal before God, in whom there is no male nor female, Greek nor Jew, gay nor straight.  Please, friends, help us get this right.

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12 comments

  1. Thanks, Chris. You do get at it when you mention the “super-valuation of straight men in church leadership,” and I’d add that even those denominations that have accepted women and LGBT persons as pastors still have a long, long way to go. I’m on the cusp of leaving the path to the vocation for which I went to YDS (and blew nearly 20K for an additional Lutheran year), because my “welcoming” denomination of the ELCA hasn’t seen fit to get me even one interview for first call in 4 years (and that’s their job–I’m not allowed to seek out interviews). I’m thinking more and more that Tony Jones, et al., have it right. If the future of Christian denominationalism is going to continue to be exclusionary, let’s take things in another direction.

  2. I pretty much agree entirely, but want to clarify a bit. The old language did not preclude someone based on their sexual *orientation*, but on their sexual *activity*. The article you linked quotes it as [clergy must live] “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness”. Of course, there is a giant catch-22 there: if you want to be sexually active in a way that is approved by the church, you must be married to your sexual partner, and if you want to be married in a way that is approved by the church, your spouse must be a different gender than yourself.

    If they *really* want to fix this to allow homosexually active people to serve as clergy, it would make much more sense to just remove the “between a man and a woman” clause from the above and start recognizing and performing same-sex marriages. Instead, there is now no (official) reason that an unrepentant adulterer could not serve.

    The church that I grew up in is one of the hundred or so that decided to leave the denomination over the last five years. They claim it is a result of many growing differences between their beliefs and the direction of the denomination, but I suspect this issue is 98% of it.

  3. Well said. While I am a Catholic, I am not thrilled with our leadership. I’m not happy at all with my local church, but it’s literally within walking distance so it’s convenient for my family and I rather than driving a bit more to go to another church. A bit ago I read an article about how just because I am a Catholic, doesn’t mean I agree with leadership. My father (who went to Catholic school all of his life, who was in the Seminary before he met my mother, who’s mother died in a Catholic nursing home) even surprised me when he commented how it’s garbage that the Catholic Church does not even let the priests marry, let alone ordain women or gays. I realize that the leadership is still in an “old school” train of thought that it’s their way or the highway and this is what the Lord wants, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door. However, there’s the educated part of me that refuses to be told how to think, so I question their authority, and ask myself “well what if they’re wrong?” Catholicism is in my blood, so I don’t plan on converting any time soon, but I still question the leadership and hope/pray that some day they will accept women and LGBT as clergy. I think Reverend Lovejoy from “The Simpsons” put it best when he married Apu and Manjula, “Christ is Christ.” or in a broader sense, “Higher Power is Higher Power.”

    1. Thanks, Tim. I know quite a few Catholics who share these sentiments or are sort of coming to similar thoughts, and I really appreciate you sharing your experience and journey. And I LOVE that line from the Simpsons!

  4. Thank you for these thoughts! It’s always a blessing (a rare blessing unfortunately) to have male colleagues stand up and support female clergy. I appreciate it! Hopefully one day SOON all who are called will be able to answer that call!

  5. Proud to say that the United Church of Christ ordains women, men, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual folks for a couple of decades… and that many UCC pastors perform same sex weddings (one of the pastors involved in my own wedding is an openly serving Lesbian and my best man is openly gay). What has been interesting to me is that other mainline churches have been hesitent to do the same, often times citing a concern that local churches would leave the denomination for such progressive proclamations. Ironically, many of the mainline denominations, has seen declines in their congregation numbers and memberships. The UCC has seen the same, but is spinning off new churches in parts of the country that have no history of any connection to the UCC. These congregations love the radical inclusivity, the proclamation that “God is Still Speaking” and that the world needs churches that are relevant to the times so that others can come to know the love of God, understand that Christ died for our salvation and to be in communion with ALL the Saints in all times and places. The churches turn out Disciples that seek justice in our world. After all, it’s impossible to know Jesus and not want to do justice in the world. This is, in fact, the purpose of the church… Love, Salvation, Community. The sexuality or gender of the person who leads worship is irrelevant in today’s world (I would also contend that the educational degree of the person leading worship is also irrelevant, but that’s a form of elitism that seems to go unchallenged in even the most progressive of churches). I really do think that churches that continue to hold fast to exclusive leadership will find themselves to be less and less relevant as time continues. If the Bible holds the accounts of diverse communities across the ages trying to better know God (I like that Chris), in this age and time, sexuality and gender are recognized as tools to divide us and prevent people from coming closer to God. The churches that seek to unite us and bring us closer to God are the ones that will flurish… and God will be better served because of it.

  6. Well said, Chris!

    I was one of Amy’s freshmen girls in bible study her senior year (I was actually at your wedding!) and found myself in seminary after college and was recently ordained in the United Church of Christ. I like the way you talk so faithfully about looking at scripture through the lens of the time that it was written and also through the life that we are living in. Sometimes I think we find ourselves in a “the bible is the literal word of God” vs. “none of it’s true” debate – I’d like to think we can prayerfully find ourselves somewhere in the middle!

  7. Thoughtful post, Chris, I’m with you. And I agree with commenter “Geoff” – relevance to society is key in a modern changing world. Without relevance how can any message get through. Relevance is becoming increasingly the challenge for faiths across the world as technology and social media continue to have stronger influences on emerging generations. Without relevance some faiths and their splinter factions will be talked of mystically, as are Druids, in a 100 years time.

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