A life-long Lutheran, Mary Wolfe was a regular at Faith Lutheran Church in Chico. She grew up firmly rooted in the faith, as her grandfather was a missionary for the Lutheran Church.
For eight years Wolfe attended Faith Lutheran and was a part of the church’s evangelism team.
“I just care about people coming to the Lord,” said Wolfe. “We came up with ways to bring people to church and remain with us.”
But two years ago Wolfe left Faith Lutheran’s flock. That’s when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which Faith Lutheran is a part, voted to open its ministry to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional workers living in “committed relationships.”
The ELCA’s resolution was also committed to allowing congregations to “recognize, support, and uphold publicly accountable life-long monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
That was too much for Wolfe, who took her prayer book to Redeemer Lutheran Church and its Missouri Synod view that homosexuality is a sin.
Others joined her, forming an exodus from Faith Lutheran Church. While some remained in the Lutheran faith, others scattered to different denominations.
“We picked up a couple of Lutheran families the same way,” said Peter Hansen, the rector at Saint Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church.
A similar tale transpired at First Baptist Church after the Rev. Ted Sandberg, writing in the church’s newsletter, congratulated a lesbian couple on their marriage.
“Four people left because of that,” said Sandberg, who calls homosexuality in the American Baptist Church “a hot-button issue because so many people feel so strongly, especially those who are anti-gay.”
First Baptist does not take an official stance on the issue, but even neutrality is not enough for most fundamentalist and other evangelical churches, whose members believe the Bible is clear that homosexuality is a sin.
Gay Christians call them the “clobber passages”: six scriptures in the Bible that they say orthodox churches use to clobber their lifestyles. (Please see sidebar.)
These scriptures—such as Leviticus 18:22, which in the King James version reads, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination”—seem unequivocal in their condemnation of homosexuality.
But pastors of gay-affirming churches, like Jim Peck of the Congregational Church of Chico, say these six passages don’t tell the whole story.
“There’s more to the Bible than just these passages,” he says. “On the question of sin, the Bible teaches all have sinned and no sin is more sinful than any other.”
Sandberg says all Christians pick and choose which biblical passages to take literally.
“We don’t cut off our hand or poke out our eye when a hand or eye causes us to sin—even though Jesus himself said to do so,” Sandberg explained,
“No one takes the Bible literally,” he said, adding that churches should encourage strong relationships regardless of their sexual orientations.
Peck says the Bible is a complex book that requires a lot of study and attention to understand.
“We have to remember the way we understand people and human sexuality is very different from how the ancient Israelites understood it when Leviticus was written over 2,500 years ago,” he said, “or how the early Christians understood it 1,900 years ago, when the New Testament was being written.”
But Hansen says such treatment of scripture can be a kind of verbal gymnastics, avoiding definite commands in order to arrive at another version of truth.
“These are called ‘clobber passages’ only because they’re so clear and unambiguous,” he explained. “Some passages I have wished weren’t there, because they convict me.”
But conviction, says Hansen, is not necessarily a vice.
“Condemnation may be [a vice]—as we are not to condemn any human soul,” Hansen said. “That’s God’s job, and an unenviable one.”
Peg and Reg Schultz-Akerson, married co-pastors at Faith Lutheran Church, lost some parishoners when their mother church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, decided to ordain gay and lesbian ministers, but have gained others.
One of the people I interviewed was Brian Kraemer, a 47-year-old Christian who spent 16 years struggling with his homosexuality before finally coming to accept it. He believes God loves and accepts him as gay.
“Well-meaning Christians, using passages from the Bible as their defense, have argued on the wrong side of other social issues,” said Kraemer, mentioning slavery, women’s rights and interracial marriage.
“I’m convinced that in the near future, Christians will look back and say, ‘How could we have been so judgmental about same-sex love?’ ”
Joining Kraemer on two of the programs was Father Hansen, who listened closely to his story and was touched by it while remaining fervent in his belief that homosexuality is sinful.
“I can only uphold scripture,” he said. “And this is what I’m taught.”
But Hansen is careful not to throw stones. “I get nervous to stand on my pedestal and tell somebody their lifestyle is demeaning,” he said. “All of us are walking through a minefield of our own weaknesses.”
Donald Jordan, the pastor at Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church, agrees.
“As I deal with sinners in the congregation, it doesn’t matter what the sin might be,” he said. “You fill in the blank when you confess that I have sinned against God.”
Every Chico pastor contacted for this story and who believes homosexuality is sinful shared those sentiments, even Tim Ruhl of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, who campaigned aggressively in favor of Proposition 8, the measure that successfully banned gay marriage in California and is still being battled in the courts.
While Ruhl is unwavering in his belief that homosexuality is a sin, he’s equally compassionate for the dozens of gay men whom he’s ministered.
He has a vivid memory of one encounter. It happened in Room 323 at Enloe Hospital, where a 23-year-old gay man was in the final stages of AIDS. The young man shared his story of lifelong loneliness that led to his first encounter with homosexuality four years earlier.
As Ruhl tells the story, the young man wept in his arms and, with tears rolling down his face, said that no one had ever accepted him.
“I said there was a man who will accept him,” said Ruhl. “His name is Jesus.
“I’ll see that man in heaven one day. All of us will go to heaven as sinners.”
Still, the schism remains. While churches that call homosexuality a sin open their doors to everyone—all sinners are welcome, they say—gay Christians will ultimately be put into an environment that believes—and at times preaches—that their lifestyles and very natures are decreed sinful.
Joe Rogers is a gay Christian who attends and works at Chico State. The so-called clobber verses have made it difficult for him to be a Christian. “Because there it is,” he said. “It’s spelled out in black and white.
“There were periods of depression,” he explained. “How do I cope with my faith, which I believe in very strongly, and yet accept my sexual orientation, which for me was never a choice?”
Rogers adds that a long-overdue conversation is needed between two communities “that have been butting heads for years.”
If such a conversation were to occur, Rogers would point out other verses in Leviticus that are seemingly ignored.
“Leviticus outlines a great deal of behavioral codes for Christians and Jews, including such things as that gentlemen shouldn’t shave, that clothing woven of two materials should not be worn, and no eating of shellfish,” he explained.
He wants to know why his behavior is singled out.
Surprisingly, many conservative clergy in Chico agree.
Pastor Richard Hoyt of Community Church of God in Chico says the Bible mentions three sexual sins—fornication, adultery and homosexuality.
“Unfortunately, what’s happened is that there’s so much fornication and adultery in the church that we just throw up our hands,” said Hoyt. “So it’s like now we’re going to take a stand on homosexuality and put a stop to something.”
Four people left the Rev. Ted Sandberg’s First Baptist Church after he, writing in the church newsletter, congratulated a lesbian couple on their marriage.
Still, as Father Hansen said, “It’s not good to be on opposite sides of a big tall wall of silence and casting slurs at each other.”
Jesse Kearns, the pastor at the gay-affirming First Christian Church in Chico, says these slurs are still being said: “I hear high-school kids say, ‘Oh, that’s so gay.’ ”
But the slurs are hurled in both directions.
Pastor Hoyt says it’s a misnomer to be called homophobic merely because of his sincere belief that homosexuality is a sin.
“I don’t have a fear of homosexuals,” said Hoyt. “I just believe it’s a sin.
“If I say gossip is a sin, no one calls me a gossip-ophobe.”
If the church has a fear of the gay movement, it’s of the future, as some orthodox ministers see homosexuality coming toward their church doors like the Trojan horse.
“Today, Boy Scouts are boycotted for not allowing gay scout leaders, AIDS is a deadly disease with its own civil rights, and the redefinition of marriage … is about to radically change all of society if we keep staggering back from the increasing demands of gay groups,” Father Hansen stated. “It is not unreasonable to be apprehensive if, as in Canada, a religious leader may not legally express his opposition.”
This is an area of agreement among many gay-affirming pastors.
“I think the government should stay out of the issue altogether,” said Kearns. “Clergy shouldn’t be an agent of the government.”
But the issue of homosexuality and sin is fraught with other types of fear.
Ruhl says bomb threats he received because of his efforts to stop gay marriage were taken very seriously. “The bomb squad was sent to my home and my son’s home to do their sweep,” he said.
One member of the clergy is reluctant to speak out too loudly about his opposition to homosexuality because his family’s business has a large gay clientele.
Another North State minister who believes homosexuality is a sin won’t share his true beliefs, fearful of repercussions from his liberal church hierarchy.
“Perhaps when I retire from my job, I’ll speak out,” this minister said.
Maintaining civility in these conversations is virtually impossible in the outside world. But even church leaders have to bite their tongues.
One who is unafraid to speak his mind is the Rev. Jerry Maneker, a retired professor of sociology at Chico State and an ordained Christian minister.
Maneker posts a blog online called “A Christian Voice for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights.”
He compares gay rights to the civil-rights movement of 50 years ago. “In 40 years we’ll be wondering how it was possible that we could have prevented gays from full participation in the life of the church.”
Maneker goes further. He blames the church for contributing to the high suicide rate among gay teens, stating that ministers who preach that homosexuality is sinful, or who remain silent amidst homophobic rhetoric, have “blood on their hands.”
He says clergy—no matter their tone or earnestness—who preach that homosexuality is evil engage in hate speech.
“There are different degrees of hate speech,” Maneker said. “But ultimately these ministers give permission to whack-jobs to feel free to kill and bash gay people because they think they’re doing God’s mission.”
Conservative ministers were dismissive of Maneker’s claims. One pointed out that under Maneker’s reasoning, no pastor could preach against any sin prohibited in scripture for fear that someone would feel guilt and commit suicide.
In an e-mail one wrote, “I’d rather let them [Maneker’s statements] sit there and exemplify the unreasonableness of his position.”
Redeemer Lutheran was one of the churches that took out a newspaper ad highlighting the ELCA’s decision to ordain gay and lesbian members.
For the first time, a majority of Americans support gay marriage. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released March 18 found that 53 percent favor the right of gays and lesbians to get married; only five years ago the number stood at 32 percent.
The Obama Justice Department said it will no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, although House Republicans vow to preserve the law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
There has been acceptance of homosexuality even among traditionalists regarding job discrimination. “When I get on an airplane, I don’t care if the pilot’s gay or straight or whatever,” said Hoyt. “I just want him to be able to fly the plane.”
But it becomes more complicated when a school teacher wants to take part in a gay and lesbian community center or wants to be a scout master in the Boy Scouts.
Despite his differences with its teachings, Rogers, the Chico State employee, says that Christianity has been painted with a broad brush of intolerance and hate.
“In society we’ve begun looking at Christianity as this evil monster that it is not,” he said.
But is there a cost that gay-affirming churches pay when they come out of the closet, so to speak?
Peck says publicizing his pro-gay views has had no ill effects. The council at the Congregational Church in Chico, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, supports his decision to speak out.
And the congregation as a whole voted in 1995 to be an open and affirming church.
“Our stance is well-established already,” said Peck. “I don’t expect to lose any members.”
Peck’s small church—about 100 members—is already aware of his view.
But for other gay-affirming churches the question of homosexuality and sin can cause real damage.
Faith Lutheran Church, which is led by the husband-and-wife pastoral team of Reg and Peg Schultz-Akerson, lost many members because of the ELCA’s announcement that it would welcome gays into its ministry.
Those members left in firm conviction of their beliefs, but also with hurting hearts.
“Many expressed sadness over having to make this decision,” said Peg Schultz-Akerson, “because they loved being a part of this ministry.”
For the record, the ELCA and Faith Lutheran welcome all Christians regardless of their view on homosexuality. “We honor one another to agree to disagree,” said Schultz-Akerson, who believes homosexuality is not a sin.
While there are certainly other factors that may have caused Faith’s congregation size to drop, an advertisement published in the Chico Enterprise-Record that highlighted the ELCA’s decision to ordain practicing homosexuals didn’t help matters.
Jordan, the pastor at Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church, along with several other Northern California Missouri Synod Lutheran churches and pastors, sponsored the ad and offers no apologies.
“We did it to distinguish the differences in Lutheranism because the general public isn’t very aware and we found a lot of ignorance,” said Jordan. “We also did it because we are compelled to confess the truth of our Lord and His Word.”
While the ELCA’s stance on homosexuality has cost Faith Lutheran some members—many of whom were active and generous, Schultz-Akerson said—others who agree with the church’s position are finding an inviting home.
“People disagree within their own family on this issue,” said Schultz-Akerson. “But all of them are welcome to the table of the Lord.”
There’s a definite evasiveness that seeps through this discussion. Conservative churches fear being labeled homophobic and intolerant, while gay-affirming churches worry that their pro-gay stance could cost them members.
Father Richard Yale, rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, says the issue has cost him members from both sides of the aisle.
“The issue hits closely in the life of the Episcopal Church and closely in the lives of people I love on both sides,” said Yale. “That’s why there’s reluctance on [the part of] some churches to call it a sin.”
Kearns counts many gays and lesbians among his flock at Chico’s First Christian Church but says some of his congregants believe homosexuality is a sin.
“This upsets people on both sides because folks who are passionate about the issue want validation,” Kearns said. “But there are bigger issues to deal with, such as reaching out to the lost, feeding the hungry, and fulfilling Christ’s mission.”
But does part of fulfilling Christ’s mission include defining sin? And what exactly is sin?
The answers to those questions depend on what scriptures are read and how one chooses to interpret them.