A Place in God’s House

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 18, 2010

All religions preach we are children of a higher being, made lovingly in his image. Yet when some of those children adopt a lifestyle that segments deem against the teachings of their faith, rejection follows. What’s left are angry voices asking the question do gays have a place in God’s house.

It is a debate that isn’t going away. In fact, the roar from the arguments increases almost daily.

The push for gay rights jumps out of the headlines across the nation as states allow same-sex marriage and the federal government sanctions medical rights for gays.

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But what happens when that debate enters the spiritual realm? When gay rights face off with religion? Then an already polarizing issue becomes a veritable battleground.

If there is a face to the issue of homosexuality in the church it could be found in the gray-haired cherubic visage of Gene Robinson, the openly gay priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church of The United States, whose elevation to the rank of bishop ignited a maelstrom of protest and rebellion among the conservative elements in his denomination.

It was in the early summer of 2003 when the Lexington, Ky., native was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Immediately parishes attempted to splinter off in outrage as just as many outside the denomination cried the ordination was Scripturally wrong.

Yet it is a crisis that faces not just one religious segment in our society.

As gays and lesbians continue gaining political clout, the issue of homosexuality divides churches of many doctrines and dogmas as congregations fight among themselves on what is the right path.

And the issue is not simply limited to homosexual clergy. Many solid churchgoers object to homosexual members in their congregation and to the concept of gay marriage, citing the traditional man-woman family unit as the only acceptable definition.

Homer Campbell, pastor of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Decatur, sees the issue in black and white terms, calling the homosexual “an abomination” in the eyes of God.

“They have no place in the clergy period,” Campbell said. “If they are born again, they will lose their homosexuality. They have to be born again before you can even be accepted into a church.”

Although the issue of homosexuality in the clergy is debated and embraced by many mainstream churches in this country, Campbell condemns those institutions.

“They are not going by the Bible,” he said. “They are going by what man wants, but not what the Bible says.”

The Rt. Rev Thomas Breidenthal of the Southern Ohio Episcopal Church is the spiritual leader of the Episcopal diocese of Lawrence County, of which Christ Church in Ironton is a part. Among the topics the bishop has written about is the issue of same-sex unions. He recently spoke with The Tribune from his diocesan office in Cincinnati.

“It has been a hot button issue both in the church and the country since the early 70s,” Breidenthal said. “It does seem to be an issue that raises deep feelings on all sides. I think probably the perceived attack on family values is where most of the energy lies.

“I think that is a misplaced concern but a real concern that has it viewed as a moral issue on all sides.”

Opposition to homosexual unions, the bishop says, comes about from those who view it as an attack on the traditional marriage.

“On the other side there are people who know gays and lesbians in deeply committed relationships,” Breidenthal said. “I know there are gays and lesbians like the rest of us attempting to lead socially responsible lives, to live normal lives.”

The bishop acknowledges there are passages in Scripture that are used to demonstrate that homosexuality is an evil, ungodly state, but he objects to that interpretation.

“I think many of us take very seriously the authority of Scripture and I understand the passages that would be cited to show the Bible is against homosexuality,” he said.

However, he contends that those passages are rather indictments against abusive behavior, not a gay lifestyle.

“Clearly the Bible opposes abusive behavior. It is about learning to love and respect the neighbor and love and respect God,” Breidenthal said. “Very often this issue is painted as between people who are religious and people who are not. What we need to do is to be able to sit down together so that we can give each other the benefit of the doubt. If we are people of faith, we have a duty to get past the emotion of it. We have to move past the anger to hear what the other person is saying.”

Yet it is just on those passages that many pastors and active church members place their argument, often citing Romans Chapter 1, Verse 27 as proof:

“And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”

“You have to deal with Pilates’ question, what is truth,” according to Pastor Tim Throckmorton of Plymouth Heights Church of the Nazarene in Franklin Furnace. “If you believe the Bible is true, homosexuality is defined as a sin. If you go outside the parameter of Scripture, anything is okay.

“If someone was practicing a ministry and they embrace the Scripture as true, they would have to go against what they believe is true to condone homosexuality.

“I would say that for the majority of evangelical Christians homosexuality according to Scripture is sin. When God created, he created man and woman. He didn’t create two men, he created man and woman.”

The Rev. Sallie Schisler, the vicar of Christ Church in Ironton, was at the General Convention that was held in Columbus when the decision to approve the installation of Robinson was made. At the time she was interviewed by a reporter with CNN about the decision.

“I told him then and I still feel the same way, decisions like this make a difference and are important, but often have very little impact on the day-to-day operation and life of a congregation,” Schisler said. “Frankly we’re more concerned about sharing the good news of Christ, establishing community, obeying Matthew 25 and keeping the roof patched. Our focus is on the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations, not exclude or extrude the other or others whom we meet. Welcoming the stranger to the feast seems Scripturally sound to me.”

Dana Knapp is the executive presbyter of the South Central Ohio region of The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) that takes in 26 congregations including those in Scioto, Lawrence and Gallia counties.

Right now the national church does not sanction the ordination of gays and lesbians to the ministry, but that doesn’t mean it is not an issue on the radar.

“It is not necessarily impacting churches locally, but it is still an issue the denomination is wrestling with,” Knapp said in a phone interview from his Columbus headquarters.

There are more than 11,000 congregations across the United States organized into 173 district governing bodies called presbyteries that make up the national Presbyterian church.

Any change in church policy must be approved by a simple majority of these presbyteries. Two years ago was the last time there was a national vote on the issue of the ordination of homosexuals. It was voted down, Knapp said.

“It was closer than at any time,” he said. “It does concern, but at this point since the denomination hasn’t taken any definite action to allow for the ordination of gays and lesbians, it is kind of a wait and see.”

Right now there are no openly gay members of the clergy of liturgical churches in Lawrence County, a predominantly rural, conservative community. So how would a gay pastor or a gay parishioner be accepted in this area?

“This is something if we had to face, I believe this congregation would be gracious to the individuals,” the Rev. Jan Williams, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ironton, said. “Talking about it in theoretical concepts is not where the rubber meets the road.”

Schisler understands the issue can cause such a crisis within parishioners that they believe their only option is to leave their church. However, she would counsel those that remaining with the church would become the more productive decision.

“When people feel they have to leave, it’s a decision that has to be respected,” Schisler said. “The Christian Church has survived 2,000 years of controversy and schism, but when people choose to leave, the dialogue about God’s kingdom and the nature of God’s reign tends to end the conversation. Fortunately, new voices join the discussion, but somehow, I think, Jesus would want us to stay engaged with one another as his followers to see how these shifting paradigms affect us and the world we find ourselves in.”