The Mission of the Church: Sic ’em and Sock ’em OR Love ’em and Lead ’em

The custodian entered the sanctuary on Monday morning for his usual cleaning after the services of the previous day. As he came to the pulpit, he noticed that the pastor’s Bible and sermon notes were still there. Picking them up to take to the pastor’s office, he noticed the sermon had been on the general topic of sin. In the margin of those notes the pastor had written, “Point weak here, yell like hell!”

Those of us with evangelical backgrounds probably can relate to this story more than others. Those of us with evangelical backgrounds who are also gay Christians, in many instances, are probably saying, “That sounds like my church and my pastor and I don’t want to hear it anymore.” Many of us have heard more about the wrath of God than the love of God. From the womb we have heard about all the rules and regulations, the do’s and don’t’s, and the thou- shalt-nots ad infinitum, to the neglect of the gospel. “Stomping out sin” has been interpreted by many as the role of the church in our day. The approach seems to be to “sic ’em and sock ’em” through the manipulative power of guilt and fear. Certainly, sin, or “missing the mark” in our relationship with God, is a reality in all of our lives and we are well aware of that. For many pastors, though, obsession with “sin stomping” has made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” look like a pussycat. They are absolutely driven. And because of that many of us have been driven from the fold.

In the 1970s, celibate and 46 years old, I came out to my aging parents and shortly thereafter to a few close friends while simultaneously leaving the Southern Baptist ministry. At that time, to have come out within the church would have been tantamount to professional suicide. Since then, Southern Baptists have become more ultra-conservative but you already know that. In some congregations today, I would not have to commit suicide. I could be killed, and my “terminator” would be labeled a hero for Jesus. I cannot believe that to do so would be considered in any manner the mission of the church yet there are those who would disagree with me to the ultimate. They believe that the only solution to the “homosexual problem” is death.

Many still try to convince us there is no greater abomination before God than homosexuality, regardless of what the past 100 years of biblical, social and psychological scholarship have revealed to the contrary. Their argument is that it is only what the Bible says literally that matters. Upon coming out I became more of a Bible and theology student than I had been during all those years in seminary and in the local church ministry. Through the years since, I have pored over the Scripture, I have read countless volumes scholars have written dealing with the subjects of most interest to me and I have prayed with an intensity unknown in my pilgrimage prior to that time. I even subjected myself to therapy during my doctoral training so as to talk this out with an objective individual whose responsibility was neither to condemn nor to condone, but rather to guide me to a deeper understanding of that creation of God known as Ted Hayes. I concluded not only that I am not an abomination but that my sexual orientation is NOT A SIN!

Besides my Bible, four insight-packed volumes have done more to help me arrive at that decision than anything else. They are: “Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality” (particularly the chapter on homosexuality) and “Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture,” both by John S. Spong, “Embodiment” by James B. Nelson, and “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality,” by Daniel Helminiak. I encourage you to read the last three volumes in their entirety. Independently, each has concluded that if one is looking for a book that condemns homosexuality as an orientation, a phenomenon unknown until the19th century and, therefore, not addressed in Scripture, the search will have to go beyond the Bible. Indeed, the Bible condemns some abusive, exploitative and idolatrous homosexual acts just as it would condemn abuse, exploitation and idolatry in any sexual relationship, but nowhere does it discuss homosexuality as an orientation. If you are struggling with the idea that you are less than human because of the “sin” of your sexuality, you owe it to yourself to read these works.

Self-condemnation by gays stems from the fact that we have allowed ourselves to focus on the wrong voices. We have listened to the voices of those obsessed with the idea that “sin stomping” and oppression are the role of the church rather than listening to the voice of the Spirit. We have allowed them to convince us that we are the worst of sinners because we are not trusting our own “priesthood as believers” (Rev. 1:6, 5:10 and 20:6) and being guided by the Holy Spirit. We have allowed them in many instances to rob us of God. However, whatever it is that we perceive “they” have done to us, in reality we must blame ourselves for permitting them to do so. We could wallow in self- pity and never rise from the funk. We would do well to listen to Jesus who said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me. . . and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matt. 11:29) and “If you continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:31-32). This is your choice: listen to Jesus or to those whose narrow and obsessive teachings are designed to confirm their own biases, rather than confront them, as well as to convince themselves that bearing false witness against their neighbors no longer violates one of the Ten Commandments.

If stomping out sin is not the role of the church, then what is? Of Gary Comstock’s volume of essays, “Gay Theology Without Apology,” two in particular have influenced my thinking: “Exodus and Resurrection: Transforming Pain and Suffering” and “Lessons from Leviticus: Learning about the Misuse of Power.” I shall refer only to the first essay, but if you read no others, read those two. Comstock has arrived at what should have been obvious to all of us. He reminds us that there are two great events in the Bible, one each in both the Old and the New Testaments, upon which our lives as Christians are based and that straightforwardly and simply define the role of the church — past, present and future. In the OT, the event is the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, while in the NT it is the life, the ministry and the death and resurrection of Jesus. The writer points out that common to both, and central to each, is the reality that pain and suffering inflicted upon an individual or group of persons by another individual or group of persons is simply not acceptable. Each event is concerned with “overcoming and transforming pain, suffering and death. . . . [and] Yahweh’s frequent admonition and reminder to welcome the stranger because we were once strangers ourselves in the land of Egypt, and Paul’s persistent preaching of Christ crucified and risen, underscore that which is at the heart of the Bible” (p. 10). Comstock believes that the role of the church is not to be about the business of inflicting pain, suffering and death but rather transforming them into healing, liberation and life.

What Comstock has pointed out I, too, believe. It appears to me that he has succinctly pointed to the very core of what the Bible says. I find it amusing that those who would condemn us with “The Bible says,” or “God says,” (and, strangely enough, never what “Jesus says”) think that either of those utterances at the beginning of their diatribes legitimizes the remainder of what they have to say and lead them to believe the possibility of any rebuttal has been eliminated. What either of those clauses indicates to me is the likelihood of having a “fundamental, selective literalist” on my hands. Fundamentalists believe that the entire Bible is to be taken literally and is without error. A selective literalist is one who picks and chooses those passages of Scripture which s/he takes literally and which seem to confirm their own particular brands of prejudice. That same individual does not listen when you or I utter, “The Bible says.” We are allowed our own Spirit- led interpretation only if it coincides with theirs. Yet we have to read only two verses of Scripture (what Jesus said!) to quickly dispel the myth of their being absolute literalists. Matthew 5:29-30, part of what is called the Sermon on the Mount, tells us:

“And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell.”

I don’t know about you but during my nearly seven decades of life, I can count on the fingers of no hands the number of fundamentalists I have met who are one-handed and one-eyed for literal Scriptural reasons.

A little over a year ago I wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper in the town near the little village where I reside in New York. In it I mentioned that I was an ordained, former Southern Baptist minister, now retired. The pastor of the only Southern Baptist church (a tiny one with fewer than 35 persons in attendance the day I visited) in that town telephoned me, after having read it, inviting me to visit his church and worship with them and to come by and chat with him. I reminded him I already had been a visitor in his church and that he himself had come back to welcome me during the worship service. He did not remember.

Since newspapers recently had contained numerous articles regarding the initial Southern Baptist boycott of Disney, I told him that I would be glad to talk with him but I wanted him to know up front that I am gay. I told him I could not be part of a church that hated me and my lesbian sisters and gay brothers. After hemming and hawing for some time, he finally, and arrogantly, uttered the words, “Our church does not disapprove of homosexuals to the point of hatred but we do disapprove of your lust.” After I mentioned that my experience with many Southern Baptist congregations would contradict that statement, I talked with him for several more minutes and told him I would be happy to talk with him further face-to-face if he would read the three books by Spong, Nelson and Helminiak, recommended in toto earlier in this article. He deemed that a fair request and wrote down the titles and authors and said he would be back in touch. You guessed it. I never heard from him again.

Shortly thereafter there appeared a half-page advertisement in that same newspaper, concerning the “ills of society” that needed to be eradicated. Homosexuality was near the top of the list. That little Southern Baptist church was one of nine sponsors of that ad. I responded to what I considered the hypocrisy of the moment and wrote another letter to the editor in which I recounted my conversation with this very pastor who claimed no hatred nor animosity. I noted that Jesus had never mentioned homosexuality as an ill of society and called to the readers’ attentions that since Jesus had never mentioned it as a threat to the family and the fabric of society, that certainly must bear significance as to the unimportance of the issue in today’s world. A local lay preacher responded with vehemence to my letter and simply stated that, “Certainly Jesus never mentioned homosexuality! Everybody already knew it was wrong.” He wondered why I didn’t. Dr. Spong has pointed out that ignorance, no matter how couched in Scripture, is still ignorance. That lay minister’s comment seemed to give validity to Spong’s statement. It seems that many, many churches still have not found the true mission of the church — transforming pain and suffering into healing and liberation, but rather perpetuate the attitudes of the Pharaohs and of the Scribes and Pharisees in their arrogant inflicting of injustice.

But what did Jesus say was the ministry of the church? Besides stomping out sin, many churches are shouting to the world that because of the homosexual threat to the family, their role is to preserve family values, whatever that means. Is that the mission of the Church? We have all come from families and we cherish those roots. We and our companions are families as well and we work hard to preserve them and we strive with love to help each other attain the highest that God meant for us. But who is driving the wedge between heterosexuals and their homosexual family members? Who is driving homosexuals out of the church family? The answer seems apparent to me: many otherwise good people have been misguided into hating other people who are different. Is hatred of a group of persons who are different a family value? Did Jesus hold family unity so dear as they?

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth; I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matt. 10:34-37).

“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26).

If we are such a threat, why was Jesus never recorded as saying such? It would seem from these words that Jesus did not hold in as high esteem the family’s staying together at all costs as do the modern-day, self-appointed protectors of the home. Rather He says that WHOSOEVER follows Him and does the Father’s will is His family. And if His Father is LOVE (1 John 4:16), then that means you and I must reach out and love others with that unconditional love of the Father. Yet those other voices would deny you and me a place in His family. Since they have developed their own precepts, such as one cannot be gay and Christian, and have taught them as dogma, they have sought to exclude us from the promises of WHOSOEVER even though Scripture tells us that NOTHING or NO ONE can separate us from the love of God! Remember what Jesus said:

“. . . Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, [teaching as doctrines the precepts of men].’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-8). Brackets mine.

And what did Jesus say is the commandment of God? When asked what was the foremost commandment of all, he replied:

“The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31).

I believe that Jesus is also telling us here that we cannot keep those commandments unless we love ourselves. As long as we allow the “sic ’em and sock ’em” brigade to hold sway over us by the use of guilt and shame we can never love the persons God created us to be. We can never experience the fullness of the love of God until we have allowed ourselves to love ourselves.

Jesus Himself described His ministry (therefore, the church’s) by reading to those in attendance in the synagogue when He came back to Nazareth, “where he had been brought up.”

“. . . as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book, and found the place where it is written, ‘The Sprit of the Lord is upon Me, because he anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden. . .’ And He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'” (Luke 4:18-21)

The gospel, or the good news of the unconditional love of God for all, was to be given to the poor, the captive, the downtrodden. It is for God to determine what is and is not sin, not those who call themselves God’s children. It is not our responsibility to inflict more pain on any of our neighbors but rather to demonstrate the love of God. “God is love” does not say simply that God loves. It says that God IS love! If God IS love, then God cannot hate. The two words are antithetical — so far apart as to be, or to seem, irreconcilable. This is the mission of the church, not to inflict even more pain on those already oppressed but to love them while leading them to the bosom of God just as they are. Jesus tells us in Matt. 28:19 the Church is to make disciples. How will we know we are true disciples? Jesus says: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another”( John 13:35). The true disciple will come to the aid of and make certain that those who are sick, captive and/or oppressed are relieved of their burdens and the injustices heaped upon them by the modern-day Pharisee who, in arrogance, still clings to the prayer of the ancient one: “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are: extortioners, unjust, adulterers . . .” (Luke 18:11).

A lesbian Christian once wrote something (I don’t remember the source) resembling the following: “They do not hate us because of their fantasies of what we do in bed. They hate us because we are different. What is different cannot be understood; what cannot be understood cannot be controlled; and what cannot be controlled must be destroyed.” That is a powerful description of those who would further oppress us in the name of Jesus. However, in spite of this, Jesus reminds us as members of His church to be about the business of God and to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . . and just as you want men to treat you, treat them in the same way.” (Luke 6:27-28, 31) and “Be merciful, just as your father is merciful. And do not pass judgment and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you shall not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.” (Luke 6:36-37).

Jesus further reminds us to keep the faith: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and heap insults upon you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23). And further, He states unequivocally, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'” (Matt. 7:21-23). I sincerely believe that those who oppress us will not be in heaven. Theirs is not the God of WHOSOEVER. Heaven is where Jesus will be.

I believe that you and I must keep our eyes on the prize that is ours in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14) and that we must focus on what Jesus says rather than on the words of any other. Any retribution must come from Him and I cling to His promise of WHOSOEVER. When others would stomp you to the point that you begin to have doubts about yourself and your relationship with your God simply call to mind these words of the prophet Micah (6:8):

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?”

And remember to love yourself, God and your neighbor and that:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that WHOSOEVER believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Truly, “The Bible says,” lots of things, but Hallelujah, this is what Jesus says!