How Should a Church Decide Whether to “Welcome and Affirm?”
In my immediately preceding post I asked whether men and women tend to approach the controversy over whether to welcome and affirm practicing gays into churches as full members and leaders differently and, if so, why. Here I will offer some thoughts about how a church (or denomination or Christian organization) that is not already “welcoming and affirming” should go about making that decision.
Often these matters are complicated by failure to make the issues clear. First, a church ought to be clear about what it is deciding. Many churches have no problem permitting practicing gay people, that is same-sex couples who are engaging in genital sexual intercourse or simulations of intercourse (let’s be blunt in order to make the issue clear) and who do not consider that sin, to attend and worship. The main controversy taking place in most churches that are facing it is whether that practice is, indeed, sin, and, if so, whether such people should be admitted to full membership with all the rights and privileges that entails including becoming candidates for church offices.
Second, for most churches that do consider such sexual activity sin, the issue is not whether homosexual sex (as described above) is a “special sin” but whether the persons engaging in it regard it as sin at all or whether they are determined to continue practicing it and defend it as not sin. In other words, most reasonable people in such churches would agree that gluttony, for example, is also sin but draw the line with people who are proud of practicing gluttony and defend it and refuse to recognize it as sin (and therefore seek to overcome it with God’s help and the help of the congregation). Very few churches are “welcoming and affirming of gluttony.”
Third, churches facing this controversy and decision ought first to discuss among themselves, and come to agreement, insofar as possible, what kind of decision this is and how it should be made. Is it a theological decision? If so (and I would argue it should be), what sources and norms should be appealed to? What weight do they carry?
So, just to be clear, the first decision is whether same-sex genital sexual activity is sin. The second decision, if it is sin, is whether people practicing it without considering it sin and repenting of it and seeking help to overcome it should be admitted to full membership and possible leadership. (Presumably if a church decides it is not sin, the decision about membership is thereby made.) The third decision is what kind of decisions these are and, if they are considered theological, how to go about making them.
As an evangelical Christian, I consider Scripture the supreme norm for all theological decisions. I also consider tradition a norm, but not equal with Scripture. In such matters tradition gets a vote but not a veto. Scripture gets a veto. But, of course, as we know, Scripture must be interpreted. I also consider reason and experience theological norms, but not with the same authority as Scripture. They are tools for interpreting Scripture and tradition.
It seems to me best in all theological decision-making to attempt to set aside personal bias, preferences, as much as possible and seek to interpret Scripture as objectively as possible—acknowledging all the while that this is never entirely possible and that the Holy Spirit speaking to a congregation ought to be a guide—when Scripture is not clear. (Presumably the Holy Spirit would not contradict Scripture.)
That means that both men and women ought to strive to set aside emotion, feelings, prejudices and personal preferences, and seek the “mind of Christ” on the matter through careful biblical exegesis and prayerful listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
That means that men and women ought to set aside, as much as possible and with God’s help, any homophobia that may hinder an objective examination of Scripture and hearing the voice of God. That means that women and men ought to set aside, as much as possible, feelings of compassion and desire for inclusion that may hinder an objective examination of Scripture and hearing the voice of God.
Part of this process, if it comes to the point where a congregation must decide, ought to be careful listening to both sides of the debate by hearing from thoughtful, reflective, devoutly Christian proponents of both inclusion and exclusion of practicing gay people with regard to membership. The church’s leadership should make sure that the best spokespersons for both sides are heard and that the strongest possible cases are made for the entire congregation to hear and consider. As Karl Barth rightly said, “He who knows only his own side of an argument knows little of that.”
Only after everyone is satisfied that the strongest cases for both sides have been heard should a decision be made by a vote of the ruling body of the congregation or denomination. The decision should not be made on the basis of sentiment or prejudice but on the basis of evidence from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Where Scripture is unclear, Christian tradition gets a vote. But reason and experience also come into play (in any theological decision) insofar as Scripture is truly unclear.
Now, if you disagree with this proposed method of deciding whether practicing gays should be welcomed and affirmed as full members with leadership privileges, please do not just say so—explain your proposed alternative. And do NOT just say (or suggest) that churches ought not to agonize over the decision but just “be” welcoming and affirming of everyone because that’s not going to happen. No church is welcoming and affirming of everyone without limitations or qualifications. If one is, it eventually won’t be when confronted with some applicant for membership. Please stick to what I am talking about here—how should a church that is not already “welcoming and affirming” of practicing gays go about deciding whether or not to become that when such a decision is to be made?