I have a friend—let’s call her Gwen—who is searching for a new church. This is a popular pastime in Tulsa. Church-hopping is an artform for many here in T-town. But Gwen is looking for a good reason. The church she was attending moved to a new location further away from her house. So I talked with Gwen about the church I attend, inviting her to come visit if she wanted to.
“Are you open-minded?” she asked. “Are you inclusive in who you accept?”
I knew why she asked those questions. Gwen is in a same-sex marriage. But she also wants a church that teaches the Gospel, not just a motivational message. I immediately told her that of course, we would gladly welcome Gwen and her partner. Then I mentioned this to several friends at my church, friends who have been walking with Jesus for many years. To my surprise, these friends seemed less than excited to welcome a same-sex couple to our church. Oh, they said, they’d be welcome to visit, but as far as becoming part of the church, involved in small groups or helping with the kids, well, that would have to wait until they repented and were “delivered” from homosexuality.
A line was being drawn in the sand, a line that was clearly delineated and expected to be observed.
Softball is an American function of midwestern churches. Various denominations are represented in softball leagues, so it is not surprising that in addition to three Baptist churches in a church league in St. Clair, Missouri (about fifty miles west of St. Louis) and two other evangelical churches, St. John United Church of Christ fielded a team. That is until recently. The pastors of the three Baptist churches said they would no longer play St. John in the recreational league. That church’s crime? Using too many ringers? The St. John clean-up hitter suspected of steroid use? No. St. John United Church of Christ hired a bisexual pastor. At that, the Baptists decided they wouldn’t play them any longer. St. John then withdrew from the league so as not to cause any dissension.
“Three congregations said they were uncomfortable playing our team because I am their pastor and I am an out bisexual person,” said the Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell, 27, “which is surprising because I don’t even play.”
“We believe that God’s word speaks clearly about boundaries, and that lifestyle is outside of those boundaries,” the Rev. Ben Kingston, Bethel Baptist’s pastor, said Tuesday from behind the backstop.
Darnell, fresh out of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, came to St. John to replace its previous pastor in October, but it wasn’t until two weeks ago that the Rev. Johnny Dover, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church and the league’s commissioner, heard a rumor that Darnell was gay.
“I called their coach and asked if it was true,” Dover said.
Dover, Kingston, and the Rev. Wyatt Otten, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, decided their teams could no longer play against a congregation that had deliberately called an openly bisexual man to be their pastor.
“We call ourselves a Christian softball league,” Kingston said. “And if we call ourselves that, we want to be that.”
[You can read the whole story here.]
A line drawn in the dirt just behind home plate.
Let me say this right now. Read this carefully. I’m going to boldface this so you don’t miss it.
Homosexuality is a sin. The Bible makes this clear.
And sexual sin does carry more weight than, say, gossiping, due to the way God has made us humans. Our bodies cannot be separated from our souls and spirits. When we sin with the body, it affects us in very deep ways. Sex is sacred, and the wrong use of sex can hurt many. There is a difference between saying “I sinned by eating that extra chocolate bar” and “I sinned by sleeping with my neighbor’s wife.”
Allowing a sexual sin to fester can be damaging to a church. Paul dealt with this directly in his first letter to the Corinthian church. I know this is a long passage (the whole fifth chapter), but I can’t find anywhere to edit this.
I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. 2 You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship.
3 Even though I am not with you in person, I am with you in the Spirit. And as though I were there, I have already passed judgment on this man 4 in the name of the Lord Jesus. You must call a meeting of the church. I will be present with you in spirit, and so will the power of our Lord Jesus. 5 Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.
6 Your boasting about this is terrible. Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old “yeast” by removing this wicked person from among you. Then you will be like a fresh batch of dough made without yeast, which is what you really are. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us.8 So let us celebrate the festival, not with the old bread of wickedness and evil, but with the new bread of sincerity and truth.
9 When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. 10 But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that.11 I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.
12 It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. 13 God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5, NLT)
So there is a definite difference between dealing with admitted non-Christians and with those who have declared themselves Christians. I know it’s the hip, emergent, socially-correct thing to be totally inclusive to any and all, but that was apparently not Paul’s way of dealing with such issues.
My question is this: Where do we draw the line in the sand?
How much should an openly gay person be allowed to participate in the church? Can they sing and worship the Lord? Can they partake of communion? Should they be allowed—not solo, but with one or two others—to help in the nursery? (Let me clarify: No one should be allowed to be in with a group of children by themselves.) At what point are we to put a person out of the church because of their sexual orientation?
Then we need to go on from there. What about a couple living together outside of marriage? Let’s ask the same questions about such a couple. What about a registered sex offender? Should that person even be allowed in the doors of the church?
Obviously these are difficult questions to answer, and I don’t expect us to solve this dilemma easily. There are no easy answers. Yes, I know Gwen’s question—“Are you inclusive in who you accept?”—is a loaded question. It carries the weight of her agenda with it. But it’s a question that needs to be answered.
Does that line in the sand extend all the way to whom we spend time with in recreational activities, such as softball? Would you quit a church bowling league if you found out one of the members was gay? Could you join in with a book club that meets at a church if one of the other readers was a lesbian?
The most important thing to consider in all of this is where is Jesus standing? This is not about culture wars or morality. This is about becoming more like Jesus.
Jesus drew in the sand when confronted with a woman caught in a sexual sin. We don’t know if he was writing words or drawing pictures, or if he just drew a line. But in his words that followed, it seems he was inviting all—the woman who sinned, the judges, and those ready to carry out the sentence of death—to come over to his side of the line. And that is the good news.