At a recent retreat with seasoned priests and ministers where I was an attendee, I asked the group their perspectives on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender inclusion in their respective denominations. I said, “I know some pastors who are able to speak prophetically about LGBT inclusion from the pulpit, and their congregations are vital and growing. But I know of more pastors who cannot because their congregations are afraid of the topic.” The overwhelming response I received from these faithful servants was the caution about limiting God to “one issue”. They warned me of the error of preaching or speaking out about LGBT inclusion in the church.
Over and over again I see the fear of faithful followers of Christ becoming “one issue” Christians by addressing LGBT inclusion. And why not fear this? Walter Brueggeman said it like this on the radio show, On Being:
…”a poetic preacher always has to try to find another way to say it. I’ve recently been thinking more and more that it’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an issue. They don’t discuss abortion, Panama Canal or anything like that. And I think what they’re doing is they’re going underneath the issues that preoccupy people to the more foundational assumptions that can only be got at in elusive language. Very much the institutional church has been preoccupied with issues… …And when we do that, we are robbed of transformative power because then it’s ideology versus ideology that does not produce very good outcomes for anyone.”
The risk of entering into today’s politics in God’s eternal church is tricky business. It can “date” God’s eternal message and limit our ability to hear God’s voice. We can become proponents of ideology instead of God’s loving transformation. And one none of us should take it lightly.
So why should the church care about marriage – or specifically same-sex marriage? It is not an eternal question. It surely it is one that pertains to this century in the Western world and hardly a question that will transcend time. There are more sacred questions we all confront which need direction from the church. These are questions like: Why do bad things happen to good people? Where does evil come from? How can we learn to live together in love?
I see a lot of reasons why we Christians and the church writ large should be talking about marriage and fairness for LGBT people. For me, one reason came from a stranger I met while I was serving as hospital chaplain. He was a Presbyterian man whose wife was in critical care. While talking about his church, which is arguing about LGBT clergy, he said, “A better question than whether we allow LGBT ministers to have congregations is whether we allow them to live in sin. The rules should be the same for gay and straight people. That is what we should be discussing –not whether they can be ministers.”
Another reason comes from another stranger who was not a Disciple. She was getting married and wanted to use a Disciple open and affirming church for her straight wedding because of her gay friends in her wedding party. This decision to begin her life with her husband displayed an integrity about both of them and a life modeled around their friendship. And it underscored, for me, the importance of hospitality to all people from the church that can foster hospitality for all people outside the church.
Those are good reasons the church should care about marriage. But the main reason I believe the church should care has little to do with pragmatic ways to reach out evangelistically or close loop-holes in church ecclesiology. For me, my passion for this writing project comes from going through the motions of getting married personally. My wife and I had a small wedding in Washington, DC this past fall. We “tied the knot” as far as the federal government was concerned. We even used a chapel of a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation for our little ceremony. It was extremely meaningful to hold my wife’s hand while we became “one” in the eyes of the state and God. I felt a tingle go through my body – like a surge in electricity that made us one.
We are now gearing up for a bigger public ceremony as we affirm our marriage with our entire family and close friends. It was during our pre-marital counseling session with a man who is a good friend, retired pastor, and counselor that I realized why it matters the church cares. During the last session, he said to us, “You both have my blessing. I think you are a great match.” While I have no question that God brought me together with my wife, hearing him say that warmed my heart. How much bigger would it be, I thought, to have a blessing from one’s church community? It is no small thing to feel a blessing from the church or from a Christian pastor if you are in a same-sex relationship. And one does not have to go far to know the value of the support needed of marriages in our culture where the divorce rate is nearly fifty percent.
And that is the main reason I think the church should care about marriage. It is always a risk for a pastor or a church to speak out on an issue that is confined to a time or place. But the reality is that if we are not applying our understanding of the scripture to our own context, then we are surely not following’s God’s heart or Jesus’ teaching in our world either. I pray for patience for myself for churches that are afraid to speak. I know that God is still speaking – despite our fears and despite our misinformation. But my prayer is stronger for those whom the church is hurting: the nameless couples who do not feel the support from family or church, the people for whom the church is only a symbol of a closed-door rather than love, and the people for whom the message of self-loathing is preached to and accepted. The fear of being a “one issue” Christian or a “one issue” church will always be out there. But for me, the fear of people not hearing the good news because of the din of judgment from Christian brothers and sisters is the better one to fear.
Why do YOU think the church should care about marriage?