When I was nine years old, my father divorced my mother. Now, that’s not an uncommon occurrence in the lives of many young people. What made the situation unique – at least for the mid-1970s – was that my father was a Southern Baptist preacher. In the Southern Baptist tradition, divorce as a mortal sin – if Southern Baptists can be said to have such a classification for sin. Divorce was something that was just not done.
After the divorce, my father never again held a pastorate at a church. I remember him preaching from time to time at tent revivals, but he would never again lead a congregation because of his indiscretion. That has changed in many evangelical circles. Divorce is still frowned upon, certainly – but churches have made accommodations for the modern marriage, which includes divorce and remarriage, often multiple times.
But, there was a time when divorce was one of the biggest, most horrible sins you could commit. These days, it’s accepted – some churches even have divorce support groups to handle the reality of messy human relations. It’s no longer whispered among the little old ladies as the newly divorced and remarried couple walks past them on Sunday morning.
These days, the biggest sin one can commit in the church is the sin of being a homosexual. The word is still whispered in most evangelical churches, usually as the music director walks down the aisle to take his seat behind the piano or on the dais. Perhaps the day will come when the evangelical church no longer whispers the “h-word” and will, instead, treat homosexuals as they do the divorced – accepted but scarred in some way.
For now, though – Tony Campolo, an evangelical leader with a left-leaning streak – says the evangelical church has little to offer gays and lesbians:
Evangelical author Tony Campolo says he believes the Bible prohibits same-sex erotic behavior, but he doubts that God wants gays and lesbians to endure lives of loneliness.
The Rev. Campolo says that while the Roman Catholic church has convents and monasteries where homosexuals can live in community with others, he and other evangelical Christians can offer little more than prayer or therapy that usually fails to produce a successful re-orientation.
Hate to tell you, Tony, but gays and lesbians figured that out a long time ago. Why do you think that one of the fastest growing religious categories is “none”? Not that those people are not spiritual or religious – many of them are according to Pew’s latest research poll. Instead, they simply see evangelicals for what they are:
“…many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money.”
Rev. Campolo is not finished, however. He goes on:
Campolo accuses his fellow evangelicals of being quick to condemn homosexuality, which Jesus doesn’t mention in the Gospels, while accepting divorce and remarriage, which Jesus did condemn in most cases.
He suggests that all three are sins for which Christians should offer grace and compassion.
Now, I’ve got to give props to Rev. Campolo for the things he gets right – like his support for the hate crimes bill currently wending its way through Congress. His wife, Peggy, is light years ahead of him on LGBT issues however. I see her frequently at LGBT conferences, standing with groups like Soulforce, and fighting for full inclusion of LGBT people in church and society. Tony and Peggy disagree over the sinfulness of homosexuality – but they remain together in love – and obviously in acceptance of one another, despite their differences.
Tony, however, continues to live in this untenable place that so many people find themselves in when they dedicate themselves to seeing homosexuality as inherently sinful – trying to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” Just like in divorce – branding someone a “sinner” because it’s believed that God frowns upon some aspect of their lives – is completely dehumanizing to the individual – something that Jesus worked his entire ministry to undo.
As long as there have been marriages, there have been divorces, and the Old Testament has a rule about that:
When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house [Deut. 24:1,KJV].
In an article in the Christian Century, Robert G. Sinks points out that this law favored only one party in the divorce – men. Jesus sought to correct the situation with his decree against divorce:
With divorces so easily available to men, abuses were bound to occur; a woman’s position was exceedingly vulnerable. A wife might be summarily stripped of both status and security through an arbitrary decree delivered by her husband. The rigor of Jesus’ opposition to divorce can be interpreted as arising from his desire to defend women against the ravages of such dehumanizing treatment. His resistance to divorce may have been directed more at its shabby abuse than against the principle itself.
Jesus makes both divorce and remarriage an act of adultery – an act of betrayal by both parties. Perhaps he hoped his hard line would protect women by making it more difficult for a man to turn his wife out into the cold, hard world. Either way, Jesus sought to put a human face on the situation. Instead of putting a wife out like you do a pregnant dog by the side of the road – Jesus wanted people to think more deeply about their actions, and perhaps find reconciliation.
As anyone with five minutes of real world experience knows, however, divorce is a much trickier topic than that. Sometimes divorce is the best thing a couple can do for one another. Sometimes divorce is necessary because of abuse or other situations that make the relationship unhealthy for one or both partners. Divorce is often a necessity.
Drawing a hard “no divorces” line dehumanizes people – it tells them that even if they make a mistake they must live with it – make the best of it – for the rest of their lives. They cannot start over – they cannot pursue another relationship that might make them happier and healthier.
In much the same way, the evangelical church is saying to gays and lesbians, “Yes, you may well be born this way – created this way by God – but you simply cannot live that way. You cannot practice that ‘behavior.’” In short, God has made some sort of genetic mistake and because of that you cannot pursue a relationship that might make you happier and healthier. Instead of being seen as human beings in search of the ultimate fulfillment that an intimate relationship with another human being can bring, evangelicals insist on seeing gays and lesbians as “sinners” in need of healing, but even Tony Campolo knows that so-called “ex-gay” therapies do not work. In fact, there are new revelations that the Masters and Johnson studies on successful “conversion therapies” were based on lies!
Just as the church’s hard line on divorce proved untenable in the real world of messy relationships, eventually the evangelical church’s stand on the “sinfulness” of homosexuality will also fall. Until then, Rev. Campolo refuses to complete the love he says he has for gays and lesbians by pushing for their full acceptance. Instead, by his statements, he simply appears to be shrugging off gays and lesbians – raising his hands in a gesture that suggests, “Sorry, wish we could help you but we can’t. We have nothing to offer you. We’ll pray for you, though.”
Rev. Campolo is right – the evangelical church has little to offer gays and lesbians – but as long as it continues to shun and dehumanize the outcast, the forgotten, or the marginalized – polls will continue to prove it has little to offer to anyone else in the world.