Personal Considerations Regarding Sexual Preference and the Church

by Ralph Sturdy

I am grieved that the 2004 Covenant Annual Meeting endorsed a policy on human sexuality that limits and judges the participation of homosexual persons in the life of denominational churches.1 I fear the policy was intended, at least in part, to cull out those who disagree. Some of my Covenant clergy brothers, suggest that if I can’t agree with them, I’d best find another denomination. I say to my brothers, “you can’t get rid of me that easily.” My Covenant blood runs as red, devoted, and committed to the Covenant as anyone’s—especially to the principle of agreeing to disagree, in love. Freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an American right; it is in the fiber of our Covenant forbears! Because I was not a delegate at the 2004 Annual Meeting and thus unable to speak to the subject, I decided to say what I think in writing. This may seem late since it is now 2007. However, this article has been “pending” with the Covenant Companion since 2004, I am taking the opportunity to express myself now in Pietisten.

As a teenage boy, I could not understand how a man would want to be sexual with another man. Through my teen and college years, I was nice to gays in face-to-face encounters but, like most boys of my generation, I didn’t make close friends with them. I told jokes about them when they were not in the room. “They’re different, you know!” was a common refrain. The Bible didn’t play a part in my dislike of this expression of sexuality. Rather, it was a behavior as foreign to me as speaking a foreign language.

As my vocation as a pastor unfolded, a number of deeply committed Christian men came to my office and repeated essentially the same story: “Pastor, I have known for as long as I can remember that I was different. I didn’t know what it was called. I came to know it as homosexuality. I prayed and prayed for God to make me a heterosexual like the other boys. I even went to places that promised me I could change if I followed their outlined course. I did as they instructed, but nothing changed.” I also encountered women who said essentially the same thing about their sexuality, that “they had been born that way.” A few women in lesbian relationships said they chose it after years of abusive sexual relationships by male family members. So, in my 50 years of experience as a pastor, I met no homosexuals who chose to be such with the exception of some female victims of male sexual abuse.

If a man is born gay, is it a sin for him to want to express his sexuality within a committed relationship? How could it be!? We could, if we were not so afraid, find appropriate, respectful terminology to fit homosexuals who find themselves in a committed and loving relationship. I want the church to take a positive, redeeming stand and be the place where these matters are worked out. And, I want those whose orientation is homosexual to be welcomed into the church…yes, the Covenant Church! Just the same, I believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

I have come to have compassion for the homosexual. Within marriage I have been free to and blessed to love, care, live with, and be sexual with my wife. This blessing from my church upon my sexual relationship as a married man is withheld by many churches from my homosexual sisters and brothers. Most churches say, “It is not sinful to be a homosexual. It is sinful only if you find someone you love and express that love sexually.” This closes the door to a blessing of that relationship.

Is this how we, the church, are to respond to the individual who said “yes” to God, and “comes out?” What do we say to the gay Christian person who was baptized as a believer and welcomed into the church? Are we going to be like the military and say, “Don’t ask, don’t tell?” The nature of this approach is: “You were acceptable as long as we didn’t know you were gay. Now that we do, you’re out.”

I have come to realize that I do not have to understand all things or people in order to accept them. I doubt I will ever completely understand all the dynamics of homosexuality. I am, however, called to love all of God’s creation and welcome anyone and everyone home in Jesus’ name. I believe God is calling us to a new day. One of the most important questions for a Christian heterosexual is, “How will I relate to gay persons?”

As I said above, I believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. I have friends who say I am knit-picking at this point. “Why not homosexual marriage?” they ask. I may be a bit one-dimensional, but I respond, “Because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” However, this does not end the conversation. Again I say, I want the church to take a positive, redeeming stand and be the place where these matters are worked out. And, I want those whose orientation is homosexual to be welcomed into the church.

As to Biblical authority, people often “pick and choose” which part of the Bible they apply literally and which they do not. For example, it seems that the Bible condones or supports slavery. Prior to and during our Civil War, denominations divided North and South based upon a literal understanding of this biblical proposition. In South Africa, Apartheid, the practice of the virtual slavery of Africans, was given Biblical and theological support for many years by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. No longer do most Christians, anywhere in the world, believe that slavery is justifiable and they no longer take the Bible literally on that matter. This is but one example. Meanwhile, outdated texts regarding homosexuality are held to literally. I think now is the time for us to take a different path in light of our understanding.

Why does the subject of human sexuality burn with such intensity in the culture and the church? I wonder why such vitriolic sentences and stances come from (especially) the evangelical community. I suspect this life-long and church-wide battle is born of fear. The human family seems to fear the unknown. I know when I began to get acquainted with gay people my fear decreased. They became persons to me. I discovered that we are much more alike than different. The major difference is our sexual orientation. In every other way we are “sinners, saved by grace.” Fear is a terrible thing. I am no longer afraid. My dad used to quote a little poem. This is my best recollection of it. “Fear made a circle that shut me out. Love made a circle that drew me in.” My desire is to draw an all-encompassing circle of inclusion!

I look forward to the day when people say this about the Church Universal and in particular, the Covenant Church once again. For the love of Jesus, let’s welcome everyone home!

1. See August, 2004 Covenant Companion and “Redefining the Covenant"" by Philip Keillor,” a three part discussion on the implications of the policy on traditional Covenant freedom in Pietisten XIX: 1 and 2; XX:1 or Pietisten.org.