Polls reveal there has been a huge shift in American attitudes toward gay marriage. One recent Gallup poll cites a shift of Americans having crossed the symbolic 50 percent threshold and up to 58 percent approval in 2010. Presbyterian minister Murray Richmond is one those Americans who changed his mind on this issue and his testimony was published last week in an article titled, “I Preached Against Homosexuality, But I Was Wrong.” This minister’s story is particularly poignant because he reveals some of the underlying pressures he was under in his church to preach against homosexuality and homosexual relationships.
Richmond formerly believed that no one “could be a practicing homosexual and a Christian. The Bible was straightforward on this issue. It all seemed incredibly obvious to me.”
But looking back the minster now says:
“I see how much my own opinions had been formed by the fact that I was representing a split congregation. Our church, like so many, was divided. And while the people who believed it should be accepted were not going to leave if we maintained a position of non-acceptance, those who felt it was a sin would bolt in a heartbeat if we ever allowed gay clergy or gay marriage. If they bolted, half our budget would go out the door. I knew the issue could tear the church apart.”
Then he added:
“What I didn’t realize was how it could tear apart the people in the church as well.”
In 2005 Richmond left his parish ministry to work as a hospital chaplain. Free from the constraints of a congregation, he was able to “spend more time actually looking at the biblical texts that deal with homosexuality”. As a result of studying the passages that generally get appealed to in this debate, he has since “done a 180 on the topic.”
The communities that we call churches are supposed to be controlled above all by love. Love and grace should be inherent. We are “to love our neighbor as we love ourselves” (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus identified this single Levitical command as the key to understanding the rationale behind all the others. This was the hermeneutic tool he provided to help his followers negotiate their way through moral debates about Old Testament law. This suggests that when trying to determine why an Old Testament law was given and what its relevance is to a modern Christian, two vital questions must be asked:
— What HARM to neighbor was this command intended to PREVENT?
— What GOOD to neighbor was this command intended to PROMOTE?
And though Leviticus 19:18 was not all that popular in the days of the Old Testament, it is the verse from the Torah (or first five books of the Bible) that is the most frequently cited in the New Testament. It’s a summary and a fulfilling of the Law that was repeatedly referred to by Jesus, Paul and James.
But the murky little truth of the Church is that we are not in the love and grace business. Not really. Too often we’re in the business of bringing in the people and the tithes, and as Murray Richmond learned, we are largely adverse to most things that hinder this goal. Ministers, likewise, are in the business of keeping their jobs. And people and organizations have traditionally been notoriously prone to withdrawing support from those who show open-mindedness to the issue of homosexuality and homosexual relationships.
The heartrending result of these disordered priorities is that gay people have suffered at the hands of — of all things! — their churches. The one place on this earth where grace, love and fairness ought to be the theme of life for them. No one I’ve met in church actually wants to be cruel, unjust or unfair in their treatment of their gay brothers and sisters. But their minds are so conditioned that when they are non-accepting to gay people and their relationships, their minds tell them that all they are doing is rejecting sin.
Conservative evangelical scholar Lewis B. Smedes, who for 25 years was professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, maintained that “the Church’s treatment of homosexuality has become the greatest heresy in the history of the Church.” Smedes went on to say, “It’s a living heresy because it’s treating God’s children as if they’re not God’s children.” He added, “It isn’t just that the church is making a mistake; it’s doing a great wrong.”
But as Upton Sinclair once wisely noted, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it.”