Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Church Divided

Our congregation is a member of The American Baptist Churches - USA, specifically the American Baptist Churches of Ohio. Baptists have been in America since almost the beginning of the European migration. ABC is one of the current day descendants of those early Baptist congregations, created after untold splits and disagreements - another Baptist tradition.

ABC is on a path to split again, unfortunately. The wedge issue is homosexuality - specifically the official stance the church should take on this matter.The Bible tells us that engaging in homosexual acts is sinful. As a Christian, that's good enough for me. I don't believe you can pick and choose which parts of the Bible are true. Not all of it is literally factual (e.g. the four Gospels offer differing accounts of the same events), but I believe it is consistently and comprehensively truthful.

I have a simple perspective about Sin. God desires for us to have deep and fulfilling relationships with Him and with all of creation. Sin (with a big S) is anything which causes and sustains separation between us and God, between each other, or between us and the rest of creation.Homosexuality is sinful -- no argument. But so are any of a myriad of other behaviors explicitly listed in the Bible. Why do some 21st century Christians feel this particular sinful behavior merits extra attention? (Read this for a humorous take on this question)Some have told me that a homosexual who repents and leaves that lifestyle can be accepted into the church.

But most won't, my teachers say, and their choice to continue a homosexual life cancels some of their rights in the church, including the right to membership. A homosexual can be accepted into a congregation only if he/she commits to a celibate lifestyle, goes this line of thinking.

So help me understand how this is different from divorce. No question that divorce is a sinful act. It breaks a couple, screws up their kids, and ends relationships with friends. The Bible says divorce is sinful. Here is an interesting analysis on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The writer cites the words of Jesus recorded in Matt 19:9, where He says that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. Presumably, as long as the divorced person remains remarried, the state of sinfulness continues. Isn't this the same as a homosexual continuing to live that lifestyle?

I don't know of any any divorced and remarried person who has been told that, if he/she initiated a divorce outside the exception noted in Matt 19:9, then he/she must leave the new spouse and return to the first spouse to end the sin -- before being allowed to join and enjoy full membership in a congregation. In fact, some congregations have a ministry focused on needs of divorced persons. Our congregation has many divorced members, some who have served in leadership. I don't know how many might qualify for the "unfaithful spouse" exemption, but I don't think any are asked either.

So let me make my feelings clear: I think it is hypocritical and wrong to treat one who engages in the sin of homosexuality differently from one who engages in the sin of divorce. There is no Biblical support, in my opinion, for an individual, a congregration, or a denomination to treat these two cases of sinfulness differently (or any other case of sinfulness for that matter). Sin brings pain and separation. We are all sinners. We learn to love God and fight Sin in a Christian congregation. Who are we to say who should be excluded?

There is a faction of folks within the ABC community who seem to have their sights focused on"the homosexual problem,", and have used language and legalism to draw a line in the sand for the purpose of forcing a confrontation. The language used is "Accepting and Affirming." They require the leadership of ABC/USA and every ABC region to enact policies stating that no church may "accept and affirm" homosexual behavior and remain an ABC church. If ABC/USA fails to adopt this policy, this faction threatens to withdraw from ABC/USA.

It may be time for ABC/USA to die. It certainly isn't functioning very well today. Churches who are members of ABC/USA would be free to join or form associations of like-minded congregations. In Baptist tradition, we will have split over differences and created multiple new organizations. Some will be made up of the strong, and others will be communities of the weak -- unable to sustain a national denomination when they're barely hanging on themselves.

Many congregations will just go independent. Again, the strong will thrive and the weak will continue to decline and die off. Maybe this is the cataclysmic event that forces our denomination to evolve into something more healthy.

Is this debate really over homosexuality, or is it just the issue the crafty politicians in our denomination have selected to use as the fuse to blow up ABC?

I fear it is the latter.

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