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WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

 

2023 is a fraught moment in which to take up the question of LGBTQ rights in a Church of God context. The past decades have seen an overwhelming shift in favor of support of same-sex marriage rights, with approximately 50% of self-described evangelicals opposing a hypothetical overturning of the Obergefell decision, and more supporting anti-discrimination laws  against LGBTQ people (1). A growing number of biblical scholars and theologians in recent years have revisited the traditional arguments against LGBTQ affirmation. However, this is also a moment of grave and escalating threats against trans people and their loved ones, particularly at the state level, part of a reactionary movement against the very concept of LGBTQ rights that is making rapid inroads in Evangelical churches. 

 

Of course, the Church of God is not a straightforwardly Evangelical church, and it is difficult to obtain data on the views of its members regarding LGBTQ affirmation. The official policies against such affirmation and the fear surrounding open discussion have made it challenging to gauge informed views. When one side of a discussion is threatened with punishment for simply acknowledging the existence of faithful LGBTQ Christians (for just a sampling, see #faithfullyLGBT), the conversation becomes distorted and the appearance of consensus becomes questionable.

 

In light of the situation, there are three concrete reasons we believe it is important to make this public statement. 

 

First, the Church of God's approach to dissent on LGBTQ affirmation goes against the core values of the Church as a reforming movement. The Church is founded in a historic objection to creedalism, and values congregational polity and the role of the Spirit in discerning truth through dialogue. It has historically supported a range of convictions on ethical issues, such as military chaplains and conscientious objectors. We strongly oppose the use of credentialing and belief statements, threats to ministers’ livelihoods through revocation or ordination, and potential threats to congregational property through conditional deeding to enforce unanimity on the issue of LGBTQ affirmation, especially during a time of intense theological and anthropological debate on the subject.

 

Second, there have been harms to ministers and lay people in the church who are themselves not LGBTQ but have experienced threats or reprisals simply because of their willingness to admit a difference of perspectives. A 1979 General Assembly resolution states, “we stand opposed to any instruction in our church-sponsored institutions or the use of curriculum material which accepts homosexuality as either normal, desirable, or Christian.” A 1993 updating of this resolution modifies that language to opposition of “instruction which endorses or promotes homosexual behavior as an acceptable alternative or Christian lifestyle.” This opposition has been codified more recently in a credentialing requirement to affirm the Church of God’s theological positions “related to racism, LGBTQ+, women in ministry, and other concerns,” a frankly offensive grouping.  Ministers on church staffs have been silenced and threatened with their jobs for sharing their beliefs, not only from the pulpit but even within their social circles. Non-ordained university professors have been investigated and removed from teaching positions—not even ministry courses, but sociology courses.  We must respect individuals and congregations' freedom of conscience on this issue.

 

Third, and most importantly, there has been grievous harm to LGBTQ individuals in our churches. Numerous people, including dozens of our initial signatories, share stories of discrimination, persecution, othering, psychological harm, and financial harm due to being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. This includes children who have left the Church of God at the first possible opportunity, to distance themselves from the shame and lack of acceptance they experienced, as well as individuals who remained committed to the Church of God for decades. These individuals were often seeking ordination and service as pastors in the church, only to later come out to themselves or to be outed by others, and be forced out of jobs and congregations they loved simply due to an unacceptable sexual orientation. Ending this stigma and harm is our greatest motivator.

Why is this being taken up publicly rather than through ecclesiastical channels or in private? Is this a new concern in the Church of God?

There is a decades-long history in the Church of God of LGBTQ-affirming clergy and laity seeking to engage in dialogue with national leadership concerning the understanding of the church’s relationship with the LGBTQ community. These efforts have gone through appropriate routes and have upheld a high standard of respect for both leaders and protocol within the General Assembly and Church of God Ministries Council umbrella. The response of national leadership and non-affirming sections of the church has often been dismissive and at times demeaning to those who have attempted to speak on behalf of the LGBTQ community. 

 

A summary of those engagements includes: 

 

  • A 1980 “Open Letter,” which initiated the removal of an accomplished Anderson College professor of Sociology from teaching a family and human sexuality course because of his teaching that included the concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation.

  • Following a forum of 60 participants during the 1993 CHOG Convention, a proposal was made to the General Assembly resolving that “the 1979 ‘Statement Against Homosexuality’ be rescinded and that a special task force be appointed to make a three-year in-depth study of homosexuality.” The faithful pastor making the proposal was actively booed by GA attendees and received what has been described as “derision and less than brotherly love” from the GA floor. Instead, the 1979 resolution was, once again, affirmed and expanded.

  • The previously mentioned proposed resolution requesting a task force and in depth study was revisited with CHOG leadership in June 2015, September 2015  and June 2017 through correspondence with the General Director and Church Ministries Council. Though there is indication that there was a follow up conversation in response to the June 2015 correspondence, there is little evidence that the correspondence or conversation led to pursuit of the suggested task force or study.

  • Correspondence has been sent to the national headquarters requesting dialogue and offering current information and perspectives with regards to people who identify as LGBTQ including letters dated: December 1995; September 2015; June 2017; June 2019; and October 2022. Responses have been respectful but limited to restating the content of the 1993 GA resolution that “homosexuality is a sin.” The request for more dialogue and study seems to have been ignored or denied. 

  • In June 2014 at the North American Convention in Oklahoma City, a proposal was made to the GA to provide clear directives to chaplains and other clergy reinforcing the Church’s position toward heterosexual-only marriage, with leadership later confirming that Church of God pastors could lose their credentials if they officiate or host a same-sex wedding. Over 100 members voted to continue discussion with many members still standing in line to speak in dissent, but discussion was closed by majority vote, with the proposal passing.

  • Initiated by CHOG national leadership, in April of 2016 a Roundtable on “Sexual Ethics'' was held in Vancouver, Washington. Anecdotally, we are aware that there was a positive engagement representing a variety of perspectives. The paper that was supposed to have been produced reflecting the content and takeaways from that forum has not come to fruition.

  • National leadership has shared with us that there is current work on an updated version of the 1993 resolution. We are also aware that there are similar efforts being made at a state level. There is no indication these updates will result in a shift to an affirming view. While full inclusion is the voice and practice of the Statement team, it is hoped that the revised resolution will at least produce a statement that urges harm reduction and recognizes the range of views that are held within the Church of God Movement.  

 

These are examples of the long-held pattern of a voice of allyship running parallel to the institutional voice demonstrating the range of views represented in the Church of God and the diminished recognition of this diversity of view.

 

In addition to these examples is another area of concern. In recent years there seems to be a rise in more stringent parameters with regards to ordination and credentialing in the area of theological views about marriage and the official stance on LGBTQ inclusion. There is also evidence of increased threat of punishment of clergy and lay leaders in some churches for expressing views of allyship and inclusion. These attitudes have produced punitive actions in some pockets of our constituency and promote a fearful environment among faithful leaders and clergy. The threat of punishment for expressing these views chills speech and has created a distorted perception of false consensus. Instead of the ongoing working out of our salvation in community where devoted followers engage a variety of interpretations, we have contributed to the creation of an environment of  secrecy and silence. In doing so we have worked against ourselves and against the very gospel the current resolutions claim to protect. 

 

The team responsible for the Statement affirms their commitment to working through their own congregations and being accountable to their community of faith. Nevertheless, they have observed that past attempts to address this subject on a national ecclesial level have been ineffective. As a result, they have taken the initiative to create a more public document.

Why does the statement sometimes specify “LGBTQ Christians”? Why not all LGBTQ people? 

First and foremost, LGBTQ Christians exist. This is an empirical and demonstrable fact, regardless of official Church of God statements that would require us to say the opposite. There are places in the statement where we specify LGBTQ Christians, because that is relevant to the specific change being advocated. Many conservative Evangelicals like to say that “there is no such thing as a woman pastor,” because, to them, that is the plain and clear teaching of scripture. To say there are no gay Christians is a parallel act of rhetorical disregard.

 

In some places we specify LGBTQ Christians or LGBTQ believers, while in others we refer to all LGBTQ people. God loves all LGBTQ people, Christian or not. God calls all people, LGBTQ or not, to repentance and faith. The Church of God has historically reserved baptism for those who make a positive statement of repentance and belief. We make no objection to this expectation, only we hold that there is no differentiation between the call to repentance for a straight person and a gay person, a cisgender man or a transgender lesbian. God is not a God of favoritism, yet God is attentive to the oppressed and marginalized, and gives grace to the humble.

How can you claim that the Bible is the Word of God while also claiming it leads to LGBTQ affirmation? 

To its great credit, the Church of God has always recognized the complexity of biblical interpretation and application. In a 1921 article in The Gospel Trumpet titled “How Did God Inspire the Bible,” Russell Byrum writes that “the bulk of the Bible was given by God through men” and that any true theory of inspiration “must allow for both the human and the divine element in the producing of the Bible.” The interpretive act is made more complicated by the need to synthesize its ethical teachings, and translate its applications cross-culturally, which requires identifying what elements (if any) are culturally specific and what elements (if any) are universal across cultures. Various approaches to this identification are known as hermeneutics. 

 

Among Biblical interpreters, there are disagreements at both the exegetical level (what does the Bible specifically mandate and forbid and for what reasons) and the hermeneutical level (how should the mandates and proscriptions of the Bible be carried into new social contexts) on a variety of issues, LGBTQ affirmation looming large. The writers and initial signatories of this statement do not advocate any particular line of argumentation but have nevertheless arrived at similar conclusions regarding both the centrality and authority of the Bible sitting comfortably with—or even absolutely requiring—LGBTQ affirmation. The point of this statement is not to make the case for this conclusion, but simply to demonstrate that for many of us this is the case. We include a resources section for additional opportunities to learn about pro-LGBTQ readings of scripture.

What if I don’t agree with the statement? 

We intend this Statement to support a spirit of disagreement communicated in love with respect for a range of views. The writers hope that renewed study of scripture, digging into recent and past scholarship, sharing of story, and dialogue in the context of communities of faith are encouraged by this effort. The Church of God has a history of navigating a variety of opinions on many subjects while maintaining a commitment to relationship through Christ. Inherent in any vibrant faith community is an open quality that encourages the talking out of issues in response to new information and lived experience. We acknowledge the reality of a range of views on this subject. 

 

The official stance of CHOG in relationship to the LGBTQ community currently works in opposition to an open path of dialogue. Pastors and laity who are allies find themselves feeling the need to live out a conviction of affirmation in secret for fear of punitive action. People who identify as LGBTQ experience shame and denial of their deepest sense of self by church leaders often causing individuals to leave the church and worse, to question their faith to the point of walking away from a relationship with God. The preference for silence and secret-keeping is a habit that has caused deep pain and countless casualties of Christian community. What a tragic comment on the Church! 

 

Might we find common ground among the range of perspectives to reverse such threats to clergy and laity? Can we agree as Christ-followers that we want to create communities in which all are welcome and supported in their faith journey without bias of any kind? We strongly urge a spirit of unity amidst diversity moving forward.

 

In his book That We May Be One, Dr. Gary Agee (who, to be clear, was not involved in the crafting of this statement) describes an insightful context in which hard conversations representing a range of views may be conducted. He cites these postures of unity amidst diversity as priorities: the posture of humility, the posture of listening, the posture of introspection, the posture of self-awareness, the posture of transparency, the posture of a holy curiosity and the posture of relational endurance. How might we use this road map for conversation to engage in effective conversations toward growth and understanding? 

How can we repent for the harm we’ve done? 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Every person, leader, congregation, and agency has had its own particular history, and repentance will consist in both facing and reversing that history. A necessary first step for widespread repentance is reversing official policies that threaten to punish pro-LGBTQ pastors and congregations. That step is not in itself repentance, but is a necessary precursor to enable repentance to occur.

JUNE 2023 RESPONSES TO CHOG MINISTRIES

( DOWNLOADABLE PDF FILES )

The "Heart in Hand" logo

BOLD: It's well past time to be bold.
modern: this is today. this is now.
multicolor: diversity. no two souls are alike.
hand: We are all created in the image of god.
hollow heart: the hole in the church. Christ's sacrifice.
white heart: purity. honesty. truth.
cuff base: we stand on solid foundation.
upward reach: to god. to higher sights.

STATEMENT AUTHORS

"A Statement of Conviction" was written by the below list of individuals, mostly from in or around the Anderson, Indiana region and all shaped by the Church of God Movement. Many of us currently or have formerly worshiped at Park Place Church of God in Anderson, but this is not an official statement or the official position of Park Place. We welcome input and feedback.

CARMA WOOD
(she/her)

Carma is an ordained minister of the Church of God. She is a graduate of Anderson College with degrees in sociology and early childhood education, and a Master of Theological Studies from Anderson School of Theology. She is co-founder of Mountain Park Community Church in Phoenix, Arizona and has most recently served Park Place Church of God, Anderson, Indiana as Pastor of Worship and the Arts. Her maternal great-grandmothers were founding members of Church of God congregations. Carma serves as catalyst and convener for the Statement team.

GAIL JOY SMITH

(she/her)

Gail was raised in the doctrine of the Church of God and has a graduate degree in social work.  She has served the church in many capacities including Sunday School teacher and interim youth pastor. Gail has served and worked alongside the LGBTQ+ community in a wide range of organizations including: the Board of Directors for the Indiana Youth Group which serves young people 12-24 who self-identify as LGBTQ+; the National Steering Committee with PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians & Gays); and she and her husband sponsored a college age support group for those who identified as LGBTQ+ with a focus on spirituality and homosexuality.  Most recently she has worked with and been inspired by transgendered teens, cultivating a passion and new understanding that has deeply touched her life.

NICHOLAS STANTON-ROARK
(he/him)

Nic is a graduate of multiple Church of God affiliated universities, with a degree in Pastoral Ministry from Mid-America Christian University and a Master of Theological Studies from Anderson School of Theology. He has held volunteer and staff ministry positions at multiple Church of God congregations, and for the past several years has taught the Faith & Justice Sunday school class at Park Place Church of God in Anderson, Indiana. Nic serves the Statement team as web content editor.

KAREN SOETENGA 
(she/her)

Karen is fourth-generation Church of God and daughter of an ordained minister of the Church of God, now deceased. She is an Anderson University graduate with a degree in social work and worked for Warner Press, publishing company of the Church of God, for ten years. Karen shares life with multiple LGBTQ+ family members. She currently serves the City of Anderson Department of Economic Development and is an active participant in the congregational life of Park Place Church of God in Anderson, Indiana.

CHRISTIE SMITH STEPHENS
(she/her)

Christie is a fourth-generation daughter/woman of the Church of God, and an Anderson College graduate with a degree in sociology/social work. As a part of Church of God congregations, she has taught Sunday School, been a youth leader, served on committees, spent years in outreach ministry and led national conferences. A co-founder of a social service agency providing shelter and advocacy for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, she is an activist for non-violence, equal rights and opportunity, justice and respect for all people. Christie is a writer and a poet. Park Place Church of God has been the church of her heart since she was three years old.

ARTHUR KELLY

(he/him)

Arthur, a third-generation member of a Church of God family, is an ordained minister of the Church of God. A graduate of Warner Pacific College, he has served the college in various roles including professor, department chair, and executive vice president/provost of WPC. Following his work at WPC, he served Warner Press as adult curriculum editor, book editor, and managing editor; the National Board of Christian Education as adult and family ministries coordinator; and Church of God Ministries in book and curriculum publication and as part of the Congregational Health Team. During that time, he taught adjunct courses at Anderson University. Arthur has been an active member of Park Place Church of God, Anderson, Indiana for a total of 20 years.

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