Sermon: Principles to Guide Us as We Respond to Gay and Lesbian People at Broadway

A sermon preached at Broadway Baptist Church, Louisville KY

April 28, 2013

Chris Caldwell, Pastor

Scripture text: Romans 14:13-23


Preliminary Thoughts

I have a lot to say on a complex topic, so I am going to get right to plowing and will have to forego this

Sunday the charm, the wit, the lofty language, and the humility you typically hear from me each Sunday. Two quick comments:

I preach from detailed outlines, not from manuscripts. I am making an exception this Sunday, and printed copies of the sermon are available in the foyer. These include small portions of the sermon I had to trim due to lack of time. A copy of the full manuscript is also available on the Pastor's Page of our website.

This Wednesday we will have a give-and-take dialogue on this sermon. I will say a bit more on the topic Wednesday night, and then we will have a moderated discussion so that you can express your thoughts and ask your questions.  But this will be a dialogue, not a debate.  It will be an exercise in listening to each other, not in convincing each other.

Clarifying Terminology

In this sermon I will be using the phrase "gay and lesbian people."  I am not using what is becoming common shorthand: "LGBT," which is short for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. While I have doubts about the accuracy of that word "community," I am steering clear of the broader label primarily because it adds layers of complexity to what is already a topic arguably too complex for one sermon.  Further—and you will have to remember this because I can't restate this every time I use the label—when I speak of gay and lesbian people in this sermon, I am speaking of people who are in a lifelong, committed, monogamous relationship. I believe the proper context for a sexual relationship is one that is covenantal in nature. By that I mean we have promised each other our fidelity.  I realize there are gay and lesbian people in sexual relationships where lifelong fidelity has not been promised. (Rumor has it there are "straight" people in such relationships, too.)  But I believe God expects of us all the same thing: To commit ourselves wholly and faithfully to another person if sex is a part of the relationship. I should note, however, that what I say would obviously apply also to a gay person who is choosing to be single or who is not yet old enough to be in a relationship.

But, if you came hoping for a sermon on "gay marriage," you are going home disappointed. That is not my topic. I am asking a very specific question in this sermon: How should we, as a church, respond to gay and lesbian who are part of our church or who wish to be? And I am not asking how we should respond to them at the water cooler at work or in the grocery store checkout line. I am asking how we should respond to them at church.

The primary focus of the sermon will be on how we should respond to people rather than a sermon that lays out how we should respond to "sides" of an issue. I will, however, in the latter part of the sermon, be honest with you regarding where I stand. And so I repeat yet again what I have said before, pausing to let you finish the two phrases with me: "If you have never disagreed with anything I have said from this pulpit, then one of two things is true: Either I am not... much of a preacher or you are not... much of a Baptist. Having said this, I recognize what a wise person said to me about what I might say in this sermon: I am not just another member of the church.  True. While I cannot claim to speak for you as individuals, it is unavoidable that what I say bears to some extent on our identity as a congregation and carries more weight than what the person sitting beside you in Sunday School might say.

Why this sermon?

So why did I decide to preach on this topic?  I have on occasion taken on some tough topics: divorce, addiction, divisive American politics, and suicide, to name four. I took them on for the same reasons I am taking this one on: First, I feel I have something to say worth hearing.  Second, I have a sense that we as a congregation can make a difference by how we respond to the issue and the people it affects.  There are also pragmatic and personal reasons for addressing this topic that will be apparent in what I say later in the sermon.

A Divisive Topic in the Early Church

Today we wrestle with a difficult topic which can quickly inflame passionate debate. We are not the first Christians to do so. In the day of the Apostle Paul, as the church was morphing from a group within Judaism to a distinct faith comprised of Jews and Gentiles, there were fierce debates regarding what was appropriate in church. Must a person be a Jew before they can be a Christian?  Must Gentile men be circumcised if they are to join the church?  These topics were as potentially divisive in their day as our hot potato topics are today.  As times change and cultures shift, as generations within churches come and go, potential fault lines abound. There is tectonic tension between a conservative and a progressive impulse, between adapting the gospel for a new era and preserving the truth of the gospel for all eras.

The specific form of this tension Paul addresses in our text is whether it is permissible for Christians to eat meat sold after it has been used in pagan cultic rituals: "meat sacrificed to idols."  Gentile Christians saw nothing wrong with this common practice; Jewish Christians deemed it an abomination. What's a church to do?  Paul tells them his opinion, but he does not say it should be normative.  He does not require them to agree with him or with each other.  Instead, he offers them guidance on how to deal with the reality of their disagreement. He encourages them to be true to who they are and their convictions, but he also encourages them to be respectful of others and their viewpoints, to consider the effect of their actions on fellow church members, and not to let a side issue detract from the core mission of the church.

Why didn't he take a stand for a doctrinally sound church and a pure witness by telling all to refrain from eating this meat? Why didn't he take a stand for an unhindered gospel by demanding that liberty reign?  In short, because of the nature of this specific disagreement. Paul sometimes challenged the church to move a certain direction.  In this case, however, he felt it was more important to learn to disagree without being disagreeable.  But neither was he willing to let a sleeping dog lie. He did feel the issue needed to be addressed, even if he did not think congregational consensus was required. When I think of a text to serve as a guide for us on this issue, this is the text I feel is the most appropriate.

Some might question my approach. Why this text? Why not a text that prohibits homosexuality?  Or, on the other hand, why not a sweeping claim of grace that calls us to a wider view of the kingdom of God?

I would offer two reasons.  First, with this issue I don’t think looking at specific verses gets you that far. Some on the more liberal end have tried to say that the Bible doesn’t really condemn homosexuality.  I do not find their arguments convincing.  Clearly the Bible condemns homosexuality as it understands it.  It also condemns the practice of women worshiping with jewelry on, as it understands it.  It condemns the practice of women worshiping with their heads uncovered, as it understands it.  In almost every case it endorses slavery, as it understands it. As it understands war, in places it endorses the slaughter of women and children as a part of battle.

Does that mean the Bible is not a helpful guide, that it is an old book we need to set aside as we work out for ourselves what is right and wrong?  It does not. The Bible also condemns stealing and drunkenness and injustice as it understands them, and there is no reason to argue those condemnations are any less valid today than they were thousands of years ago.  But when the church is confronted with a changing world, it has frequently wrestled with its traditions, and its scriptures, and asked the question, “In light of what we know now about our world, do we need to rethink how we view scriptures on this topic?” And so the church has rethought issues such as the role of women and slavery, just as they were rethinking the role of meat sacrificed to idols and the place of gentiles in the kingdom of God.

There is another reason I am not dealing with scriptural prohibitions, which is that my purpose is not to start a debate, but rather to open up a conversation.  Let me repeat that: My purpose is not to start a debate, but rather to open up a conversation. Well, you say, what’s the difference?  I’m so glad you asked. If the focus is upon verses that either rule out or rule in gay folks, then you have a debate. You quote the scripture and say, “Agree or disagree.”  “Let’s all choose sides.”  My purpose is not to ask us to choose sides.  My purpose is to say, “We need to be able to talk about this in a spirit of mutual respect and kindness.”

The Issue Today at Broadway

Okay, so what about the here and now? What about Broadway Baptist in the year 2013?  First, what is our status quo? We are a "Don't ask, Don't tell" congregation. Gay people have long been and continue to be part of this church, although never in large numbers. And our deal, not stated, but certainly understood, is that we are not going to discuss the issue, and we are going to be nice to each other, provided everyone is willing to remain discreet.

What results from our "Don't ask, Don't tell" approach?

First, this is a win-lose situation.  If you are conservative, you win, because silence or discretion is maintained out of respect for your views.  Nobody wants our church to run around condemning gay people, but by keeping the issue in the shadows, whether we want to admit it or not, there is a level of implicit condemnation in our current way of dealing with this issue.

Second, despite our heretofore "Don't ask don't tell" culture as a church, we are increasingly being forced by the culture at large to deal with this issue. On at least three occasions, at funerals, we have dealt with the issue of how to list gay partners in the list of survivors.  In each case, I have told the family it is their decision and we will respect their wishes.  On one occasion two partners stood together at the front of the church in the receiving line. To the credit of our church, not a single person has ever said to me a negative word about this extension of kindness to these couples.

Third, our stance has kept some people away from Broadway.  On two occasions I have been emailed by gay couples who went to our website, liked what they saw, and asked me if they could be openly gay in this church without potentially causing problems for themselves or the church.  In both instances, I told them of our "Don't ask, Don't tell" culture, told them many people would welcome them fully into the church, but told them I could not guarantee an absence of problems for them or the church if they were "openly" gay within the church. Both couples thanked me for my candor but declined to visit.  Also, we have lost members over this issue. One very fine member, eight years ago, told me he loved Broadway and its people, but that church was the only place he could not be open about who he was, and that he needed to go a more open church.

Fourth, many, although not all, of our youngest adults struggle with our "Don't ask, Don't tell" approach. My older son, Carter, who is studying theatre at the University of Evansville, and who had many gay friends in high school and now again at college, has real problems with our church and the posture it has maintained. Not all young adults would agree with him, but both grapevine information within our church, and polling data in the culture at large would indicate his view would be widely held by most young adults.

How Then Do We Respond?

I propose we follow three principles. These principles are printed in your worship folder. Importantly, they are in priority order:

We will respond in Christian kindness.

We will acknowledge the reality of our congregation’s diverse views.

We will not make congregational pronouncements.

Before I walk back through those in more detail, let me just say this: I don't feel I am proposing anything new for our church. This is not some radical departure; in fact, I would say it describes how we normally function on issues where we disagree.

Principle One: We will respond in Christian kindness.

We will put people over policies. We will put personal feelings over personal opinions. We will err on the side of grace. We are saying, “When in doubt, kindness.”

This kindness principle applies in two ways.  First, it applies to our response to gay and lesbian people in our church or who come to our church. We are taking the approach we have applied at funerals, and we are taking it a step further.  Following this principle removes doubt about what we will do in what, heretofore, has been an unclear situation.  Namely, what will we do if a gay couple walks down the aisle and wants to join together and be introduced together, not as a way of making a statement, but as a way of being honest about who they are?  Following this principle means I am saying in advance what I have always known I would do in that situation. Knowing this has always been a possibility, I decided I would do what I do with every other couple who joins:  I tell you who they are, I tell you they are a family, and I ask you to join with me in affirming them.

But the kindness principle extends in another direction, and that is toward people with whom we disagree. Let's be honest, the further to the left or to the right you are on this issue, the harder it is for you to stomach the views of those who disagree with you. Well, it’s a tough break for those on the far right or far left of this issue, but we are saying, nevertheless, the expectation is kindness toward those to your left or your right, whichever the case may be.  Kindness is expected of everyone, gay or straight, conservative or liberal.

This leads to the second principle.

Principle Two: We will acknowledge the reality of our congregation’s diverse views.

Unlike Presidents, pastors don't have polling data.  But here's my best guess. Ten years ago, if you had drawn an artificial line right down the center of this issue and forced people to pick a liberal or conservative position, my guess is our church would have aligned 60/40 in a conservative direction. As we all know, our culture's views on this are shifting, and I think they are shifting at Broadway, too.  Now I would guess the percentages are probably reversed, with our people being perhaps 60/40 in a more liberal direction. Principle two simply names the reality of our various opinions and says it is a part of who we are. If you want to be in a church where 95% of the people agree with your view--be it liberal or conservative--then we are saying you are not going to find that here.

Following this principle means the next time a gay couple emails me, in some ways my answer will be the same, inasmuch as I say to them, "Well, we don't all agree on that issue, so you might as well know that going in. You can be openly gay and you will be met with kindness, but if you are going to be unhappy knowing some folks respectfully disapprove of your sexual orientation, then this may not be the church for you."

An important point: This principle tries to avoid simply reversing places in our present Win-Lose situation. Our church culture has said to our gay and more liberal members, "Please don't talk about that."  I don't want to replace that with a culture that says, if you are in a more conservative place, "You can't say that."

We live in a culture of shouting matches. We live in a culture of much heat and little light.  When dealing with a sensitive issue, therefore, the first inclination of many is to rush to prove they are right and to prove someone else is wrong.  And people will buy tickets for that, or at least tune in to see it.  A less entertaining, but far more productive approach, is for two grown-ups to say, “Well, at the end of the day we might not agree on this issue, but let’s see what we can learn from each other.”  This, my friends, is at the heart of the beautiful thing known as Broadway Baptist Church. We are capable of this, even on difficult subjects like this one. We can model this for other churches and for our culture at large, but we cannot model how to talk about a subject if we pretend the subject doesn't exist, or if we pretend we all agree even when we do not.

Principle Three: We will not make congregational pronouncements.

We have guiding statements as a church, which let others know about important issues on which we have a consensus.  Principle three says that we will not pretend we have a consensus when we do not. It also says we will not violate the conscience of a significant portion of our congregation by claiming to speak for them when we cannot. When an issue is important, and when we have a consensus as a church, we reserve the right to speak as a church.  This is true on every issue, and this guiding principle does not abrogate that congregational right, but it does say we are nowhere near consensus on this issue and therefore will not pretend otherwise.

Are these principles perfect?  I am sure they are not.  But I believe they honor who we are as individuals and as a church, and I believe they allow us a path to honor God even as we disagree. On a more pragmatic note, they also keep us out in front of a potentially divisive issue.  You may wish I had not preached this sermon. You may wish I would handle it differently than I will when a gay couple comes forward to join. If so, I do hope you will ask yourself this: What if I never preached on the issue and instead allowed us to float along?  And what if I had not clarified how we should respond to a gay couple?  My plan may not be perfect, but I am confident it is better than no plan at all.

If you want to know what it looks like to face this issue without a plan, all you have to do is replace Louisville with Fort Worth on our stationery.  Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, is a sister CBF church in many respects. Cecil Sherman and Steve Shoemaker have been pastors there.  A few years ago, having followed a "Don't ask, Don't tell" course, the church came unglued when some gay couples asked that they be listed as families in the upcoming pictorial directory.  Now I am not gossiping by talking about this.  It is public information because the church dispute was covered in Baptist news services and the Fort Worth papers. With no guiding principles, the dispute immediately became intensely personal and emotional.  Many people left the church over this conflict.  Only in the past year or so has the church begun to regain its footing.

Or, we could try handling this like the Presbyterians. Appoint a national study committee, have them offer their thoughts, and then take a vote of the membership. Ask your Presbyterian friends how well that has worked for them.

I do not wish to be coy with you. I am trying to lead us as a congregation. I want us to follow these principles and I will work to use my influence so that we do. In doing so, I am leading in a way that is atypical for me. I didn't ask a committee to study the issue, and I am not suggesting we have a debate on the merits of these principles. When it comes to how we respond to gay people and to each other, I am being directive, almost parental, if you will. And I am doing this because, having looked at how other churches and denominations have handled and mishandled this issue, I feel strongly this is the best course for us.

But as I move now into explaining and weighing opinions on the issue, and stating my own opinion, I adopt a different posture. At one point in the New Testament Paul says (I am paraphrasing.), "Now all the other stuff I have been saying is of the Lord, but this next part is my personal opinion, so take it for what it's worth."

What Are Some Conservative Views?

Before I share my views, let me lay out the terrain of opinions.  I don't like the vague labels "liberal" and "conservative," but for convenience sake, I will characterize the views which follow as "conservative."

The first view I would call, "Hate the sin and shun the sinner."  This view says that no gay person, be they discreet or not, has any business being in a church.  I reject this view for a host of reasons, but perhaps it suffices to say I reject it because it is wholly inconsistent with who Jesus Christ was, how he lived, and what he taught.

A second conservative, but more enlightened view, is what I heard Professor Wayne Oates espouse when asked about gay and lesbian people one day in class at Southern Seminary.  He acknowledged that he believed homosexuality was a sin, but he scoffed at the notion of singling out that sin as worse than others. He made a passionate case for loving and accepting each other in this club of sinners called a church, and he spoke of his personal respect for and friendships with gay people with whom he worked at the University of Louisville.  His spirit reflects what I believe is overwhelmingly the spirit of those within Broadway who espouse a conservative view.

Why do people hold to a conservative view on this issue?  When one speaks of committed monogamous gay and lesbian relationships as "sinful," why?  Some conservative stances are rooted in a philosophical argument.  It contends that same-sex sexual relationships contradict the order of nature. This view typically adds that these relationships are destructive of the fabric which binds cultures together. This philosophical case against same-sex relationships alleges that same-sex relationships are intrinsically harmful and/or destructive, if not to the people in the relationship, at least to the society as a whole.  It is often said in a gentler way than I just put it, but I think it must be admitted that this is the core of the philosophical case.

A conservative position often made in tandem with the philosophical case is that the Bible prohibits same- sex relationships.  As I have already indicated, I believe the heart of the issue is not whether there are biblical prohibitions against same-sex relationships as they were known and understood in the Bible's day; the issue is what weight we give to those prohibitions in light of what we know today.

There is a divide in the conservative camp on whether being gay or lesbian is "chosen" or instead is beyond one's control. Despite very strong evidence to the contrary, some hold to the view that being gay or lesbian is a choice. Others acknowledge that one's sexual orientation is beyond his or her control, and therefore the orientation itself is not sinful. The sin, however, is acting on that impulse.  In essence, this view embraces gays as a part of the church, but calls gay and lesbian people to a life of celibacy.

Now I don't have time in this sermon to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of these conservative views, and neither is it fair for me to be judge and jury on these views by stating them in my own terms and then critiquing them. I have laid them out here for two reasons.  First, so that you who hold conservative views know I do not see you as a bunch of bigots with hateful attitudes, which is how a conservative view is often portrayed in our culture.  I have portrayed all but the most extreme of these conservative views as nuanced positions that aim for as much love and mercy as the view will, with integrity, allow.  Second, I want those of you with more liberal views to hear what your more conservative brothers and sisters in Christ are saying, at least as I would try my best to characterize it.

What Are My Views?

You need to understand an important assumption for me in how I do theology.  I place more emphasis than some people do on the role of one's personal experience and on the lessons God has taught us through human history after the biblical period. One can build a theology from "above," by beginning with certain biblical principles and then working at building a coherent view of life and reality that conforms to those principles.  Or one can build a theology "from below," by beginning with experience and the questions it prompts, and then turning to the principles of scripture to help make moral sense of difficult and important issues. That is how I tend to do theology, which is why my personal experience with gay friends and my understanding of what I take to be the best of science are so vital to the conclusions I draw.

What then have been my experiences and how have they shaped by views?

I grew up in a Baptist family.  Most of my growing up years were on the north end of Nashville, in Goodlettsville.  It was a conservative place, and because I was a serious athlete, the macho side of Southern culture was also a big part of my world, which means slurs and jokes about gay people were a daily occurrence in my world.  I never heard my parents say a critical word of gay or lesbian people, but then again I never heard them say anything on the subject. It just was not discussed. I have a Bible from my teenage years. In the back is a quote I wrote down one year at youth camp: "If God had wanted there to be homosexuals, he would have created not Adam and Eve, but Adam and Steve."  As a young teenager, that seemed pretty clever at the time.

In 1985, my mentor's son contracted AIDS in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.  I went with my mentor to a meeting of volunteers trying to respond to what was happening. Despite assurances from the medical community, there was a lot of hysteria about AIDS in these early years, and many churches were telling people with AIDS, including babies who contracted AIDS, to stay out of churches.  Many preachers were saying AIDS was God's judgment.  Many families denied life-long partners access to the hospital rooms of their loved ones, and some pastors were refusing to perform funerals for people with AIDS.

Meanwhile, I was the only straight person in a group of about twenty men and one woman who were trying to help people who were receiving what was in effect a 12 month death sentence. There was not yet any government funding for caring for people with AIDS, and so these men volunteered their time and their money.  I came to realize that about half of them were active in church, although most were discreet about their sexual orientation at church.  I did not get involved in this AIDS work because I had liberal views toward gay people. I did so because I loved my mentor and because I was embarrassed by how churches and Christians were acting.

And so there I was, regularly gathering in a room full of gay men, with a whopping case of what is known as "cognitive dissonance."  By that I mean these men were not doing a good job of conforming to what had heretofore been my understanding of what being gay meant or what gay people were like.

And so, over a course of years, I wrestled with the issue of the ethics of same-sex relationships.  I read a great deal. I examined the issues of science. I studied what the Bible had to say.  By the time I arrived at Southern Seminary a few years later, I had already moved a long way in a liberal direction, but I still wasn't sure exactly where I stood.

One day I made an appointment with my seminary theology professor, who at that point did not know me very well.  I said to her, "I would like your permission to write my research paper on a topic not listed in the syllabus: the ethics of homosexuality."  Mind you this was in an era when newly installed fundamentalist members of the board of directors at my seminary were watching faculty members like hawks and were eager to find grounds to fire them.  And so my professor began looking nervous when she heard my topic. She interrupted me and said, "Well now, Chris, before you say anything else, let me just say that we professors don't need to know everything there is to know about our students."  I wasn't exactly sure what I was supposed to say to that!

During seminary, my best friend Michael came to terms with how he would reconcile his Christian faith and his sexual orientation. He did so in part by talking with me. In Daytona Beach I again worked closely with many gay people as a board member with an AIDS agency. The day after 9-11, members of the agency's staff happened to be having a mini-retreat in one of our church conference rooms.  I did not want to impose my faith on them, but I stopped by to let them know we would be having a prayer service for our nation at noon if they wanted to attend. I have seldom experienced a thankfulness for grace more palpable than what I saw on their faces when I extended the invitation. Enthusiastically they thanked me for including them and they all came to the service and prayed and cried with the rest of us. That day has sometimes haunted me as I have kept my views to myself as a pastor.

Well, I have reached certain conclusions, and they are held humbly, but firmly.  Here they are.

I do not believe one's sexual orientation is a choice. Can this be "proven"?  I suppose not, but the best of science argues for my view, as does every single conversation I have had with gay and lesbian people down the years. Now sexual experimentation is a different subject, but when it comes to sexual orientation, I believe firmly it is not a choice.

Furthermore, I do not believe God would hold a person morally responsible for something beyond their control. Is being gay therefore like alcoholism? Is it something that is beyond one's control but which is nevertheless destructive behavior one should not engage in? Is the answer that gay people are not culpable for their desires, but culpable only for their actions? Should we require celibacy of gay and lesbian people? Because I have not seen a qualitative difference between committed gay and straight couples, or gay or straight parents, I do not hold to this view.  I do not see gay or lesbian relationships as intrinsically harmful or destructive, and I do not believe God would want therefore to impose celibacy on gay people. I do, however, believe God expects all of us, gay and straight, to express our sexuality in monogamous relationships based on lifelong fidelity.

Some of you might wonder why I have chosen now to share these opinions with you.  I began considering preaching on this topic over a year ago, and nine months ago I made up my mind to do so. As for why I have taken ten years to speak candidly on this subject, on the days I feel good about myself, I would offer words like “patience” and “wisdom” and “discernment.” There are other days, however, when the word “cowardice” has come to mind.

Before offering a few thoughts on where we go from here, I have a personal favor to ask of those of you who hold more conservative views.  I know it is hard for you to hear your pastor say he disagrees with you, and I know it will at times be awkward, perhaps even painful, for you to hear some of us speak more openly about our liberal views or speak more openly about people we love who are gay.  My request is this: As we continue trying to be sensitive to your views, please be sensitive to how painful it can be to feel you should remain silent about someone you love who is gay.  My nephew is gay.  His name is Dylan, and he is a committed Christian.  His middle name is Christopher.  His mother, my sister, gave him my name. The name "Christopher" means "One who bears Christ."  And Dylan does.  I love him. And I am proud of him. All the members of my family, including my parents and my sister's family, feel as I do about Dylan.

I am proud to be the pastor of a church I am trusting will henceforth be a place where Dylan and people like him can be who they are, knowing that not everyone can embrace everything about them, but knowing nevertheless that they will be embraced even if they are open about who they are.

What Next?

My goal for us is to break the silence and come together around reasonable guiding principles.  But I do not want us to get “bogged down” in the issue.  I am sure it will continue to come up from time to time, but I do not believe it should be a "core issue" for us.  Core beliefs must be something on which there is a consensus. A church's identity must be built on consensus issues. This is not a consensus issue for us and it would be unwise to try to make it a key part of our identity as a church.

What about more specific issues related to this subject?  I have tried today to put up some guardrails, but it is beyond my pay grade to draw up a map. We will have to work these things out over time, and by "over time" I mean years, and not weeks or months.  As we do, we will follow these three principles the best we can.

Thank you for listening to a long sermon. I look forward to further conversation Wednesday night.  My contact information is in the worship folder if you want to talk with me one-on-one.  May God bless us as we do what churches do--and what pastors do--try to follow God, the best we can.