The Scarlet Letter by Tobias Matteson
A little mainline church down south got advice from a consultant several weeks ago advising them to develop official statements that include rules for who can and cannot be a church leader. The consultant hammered out six or seven pages of suggested guidance that boiled down to two basic policies. First, church leaders must be chaste and celibate if they aren't married. Second, if married, church leaders must be faithful to their spouses and not engage in extra-marital affairs.
Woven throughout the document is the usual verbiage about loving the sinner and hating the sin, and imprecations not to behave scandalously if you happen to be in an irregular, that is to say, non-sanctioned relationship. The document goes on to recommend that members of the church treat the homosexual and the adulterer with love, compassion, fairness, and as fully dimensional people who are more than just a sexual preference. I can see how this recommendation makes sense in the case of homosexuals, but I have to wonder about a church that would extend love, compassion, and fairness to me if I brought a hooker along some Sunday morning instead of the wife.
I don't have any trouble with churches establishing rules. That is, in fact, one of their main lines of business. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, clearly allows homosexuals to be priests, bishops, Cardinals, and even Pope for that matter, as long as he is chaste and celibate. Similarly, fundamentalist churches have more rules than say, the Unitarian Universalists, but a few less than the Muslim Brotherhood or the Chabad-Lubavitch Jews. Fortunately, and at least in this great country, people who believe in nothing, or everything, and all things in between, can find a church home with rules acceptable to them.
Where the problem lies was summarized by Chesterton: "The problem with passing an important law is not that the law is unimportant, or that it is not lawful, but that every important law is father to a thousand little laws." And so it is with the "chaste and faithful' rules here.
Although the consultant's guidance about who can and cannot be in church leadership positions has as a main element encouragement for respectful and equal treatment of the variety of sinners who might show up, and says that it treats homosexual and heterosexual sin as the same, it obviously applies different rules to the two groups. Homosexuals, for example, cannot be meaningfully--that is to say legally meaningful--faithful, and cannot engage in extra-marital sex, because they cannot be married (in Arkansas) and consequently cannot, except under certain circumstances, meet the chaste and celibate rules.
Heterosexual relationships are exempt from such extra-legal examination. But should they be? Let's look at just a few of the little laws that must necessarily be in play if heterosexual and homosexual sinners are treated equally.
First is the case of a single, older man. How do we know that he is chaste and celibate? Do we take his word for it? Of course, we can't take his word for it unless we ask him. Does this mean that every candidate for church leadership must be questioned about their sexual practices?
And how are chastity and celibacy defined? If I am chaste and celibate since Tuesday does that make me eligible for leadership on Saturday? Or, is a longer period of time required? How long is long enough?
Second is the case of a couple of old lesbians who have lived together for years. Say they got married in that den of inequity, Massachusetts, but have retired to Arkansas. They have been faithful to one another and have no extra-marital affairs. Not that it matters anymore: their Massachusetts marriage is companionate and their Arkansas arrangement is the same: they have been chaste and celibate for years.
Are these ladies eligible for church leadership if they are so honored? If, horror of horrors, a member discovers their Massachusetts' marriage, will their leadership be revoked? Will they still be treated with love, compassion, integrity, fairness, and not defined by their sexual practices however distant and remote from the moment?
If I am a divorced man and left my perfectly good first wife for a neater, greener second wife, and thus have no compelling reasons for my early behavior except lust and willfulness, can I be a church leader? Under what circumstances? If I feel bad? Guilty? If yes, to what degree should I feel bad or guilty? Who will judge the extent to which I have reformed? How much "reform" is enough?
If I am a married woman and aspire to teach Sunday School how can my faithfulness to my husband be verified? Do I need to call witnesses? Who is an eligible witness? Who will evaluate the character of the witnesses? Are they eligible to be, well, eligible?
These examples may seem far fetched. They are not. Churches great and small have created acid tests for membership and leadership for as long as there have been churches. The particular document described at the beginning of this piece was a consultant's well-meaning attempt to help a congregation deal with "what to do" if a gay or lesbian became active in the church. All the words and all the paragraphs about heterosexual sin and sinners is simply cover for the main idea. If I am wrong, then members of that church should prepare to have their sex lives closely watched and evaluated. It isn't the important laws we have to worry about. It is all the small ones.
Frankly, I recommend that churches have no policy on the matter. That is not to say that sexual behavior does not matter, or that sin can be overlooked. But there are better ways. My church, for example, evaluates members and their leadership potential within the context of the relationships that develop among members; show up to work at enough fundraisers and enough Sunday mornings, and you're in.
If a member isn't qualified for leadership because of their sexual preference or sexual behavior, we love and respect one another to discuss the matter face to face. We don't need a policy.