The other day, I played a game with myself called “what if.”
What if a married couple came to your church because they’d heard about it via postcard in the mail or through a web search? Imagine they come in, two small children in tow. They worship among the other people in attendance. They bring their kids to the children’s ministry or Sunday school or junior church. Suppose they like what they hear: the Sunday sermon is meaningful, the praise music is uplifting, and the people seem genuinely friendly. Their kids love their class and begin to make new friends. This family decides to settle in, remaining in attendance for six months. They decide the time has come to join as members.
Pretty common experience in many churches, especially those on a steady trend of growth. I know that at most churches, people would be thrilled with a new family becoming a permanent part of the congregation. It would mean more people attending, the possibility that this family might reach out to their friends, family, and neighbors. It would mean the chance to see their kids grow up and hopefully integrate into the life of the church. It would mean more people to pitch in and help out in the ministries of the church. It would mean a chance to make new friends. Everyone wins, right?
Just not if the couple happens to be two women or two men.
I live in a place where marriage equality is the law. So a married same-sex couple might actually be legally joined. For that reason, we need to start asking ourselves what we might do as a church in a situation like the one I described above. It’s possible that a couple might attend a church unaware of that church’s position on homosexuality, even if the church appears conservative in other ways. I attended a church for ten years, and never once heard the pastor give a sermon on the subject.
In a church that holds to a certain reading of Scripture, there are usually prohibitions (written or not) against membership when a person is actively engaged in something the church specifically teaches as sin. That means that an unpartnered gay person would likely be allowed membership, provided he or she remained celibate. A gay couple would probably be allowed to continue to attend church, but would not be offered membership. In some churches, membership might be extended to one or both if they were to end their relationship and commit to celibacy. So that brings up the question of what to do if the couple I described seeks membership.
There are a number of possibilities, all of them fairly grim and not particularly loving:
- Refuse to allow the couple membership, but let them know they are welcome to continue attending. That might be an option, but it would severely restrict the ways in which that family could serve in the church. Many churches have policies prohibiting people from participating in certain ministries unless they are members. Besides, would you want to keep going to a church that wouldn’t let you join officially? You might as well just…
- Ask them to leave. Pretty rude, considering they’ve been with you several months. Still, at least it’s honest. But unless you are giving them the name and address of a local affirming community, you have no assurance that these people will ever set foot in a church again. And if you choose not to do so (because you’re kind of self-righteous?), are you saying God has given up on them? If you’re in the business of helping people find Jesus, that misses the mark. Besides, we’re talking about people who have a six-month history at the church. Kicking them out would really hurt. So maybe you…
- Tell them they can be members if they break up. I suppose there are people who might have considered that to be some bizarre sort of solution before same-sex couples could legally marry. Nowadays, that couple can’t just split up. They would literally have to divorce, which introduces issues such as alimony, child support, and custody. And seriously, what kind of heartless jerk does that to a family with children anyway? Plus there’s the problem that we don’t do that with other couples who are not married under “Biblical” circumstances. I’ve never heard of anyone being asked to divorce a spouse because they had had an affair and then married each other. Well, as a last resort I suppose you could…
- Shun the family or refuse to serve them in any way unless they “renounce” their sin. What part of “love” wasn’t clear? I’ve never seen ignoring anyone work as a means to salvation. This ends up in the same place as bullet point number two.
So what are we going to do in that situation?
See, the problem here is that whole “live the sinner, hate the sin” thing. It allows us to separate people from their behavior, but it denies the fact that there is more to people than their behavior. It allows us to imagine being gay as something people do as opposed to someone they are. It lets us think “those gay people” are doing yucky things with each other that we don’t like, and keeps us from seeing two people who have built a relationship, a marriage, a family, and a life together. It prevents us from understanding that there are children who could be hurt, not by their parents’ “sinful lifestyle” but by our condemnation.
It could happen. A church web site proclaiming the congregation to be “Bible-believing” or “conservative” or “traditional” might say something about whether or not a married same-sex couple would be welcome (probably not). On the other hand, many mainline churches could be described with those words, yet are in fact affirming. A warm welcome on their first visit might indicate the future of the relationship with that church. But a lot of people would be reluctant to openly reject anyone right away, even if they felt uncomfortable. Would it work if someone were to simply pull the family aside, explain things to them, and turn them loose? I don’t know. I suppose it might ease the conscience of the people at that church, knowing they were honest right away.
Real life, real people, are complicated. We can’t just wait for a situation to occur before we know what we’re going to do about it. That leads to panic and ends up with too many people being hurt. I think it’s time to face the facts that even though an awful lot of churches might like it to, marriage equality is not going away. Any church that isn’t affirming needs to decide what will happen when the inevitable occurs and a family walks through the doors looking for a church to call home.