(Note: I attempt to be respectful here and recognize the point of view of those whom I disagree with. I would like for this to be constructive criticism, not malicious criticism. However I don’t know how I would say what I said in a nicer way so I don’t know if I succeeded.)
Yesterday afternoon it hit the local news that East 91st St. Christian Church, one of the largest churches in the Indianapolis area, plans to cut ties with the Boy Scout troops which it has hosted. E91 (as it’s sometimes abbreviated) is the congregation with which I am most associated.
When I heard this news via a friend, the first thing I did was to check sources in order to try and get the facts for my self. I found the story on the Indy Star’s website immediately, as it was the top featured story on the front page for a period yesterday afternoon. The article referred to a statement made on the church’s website. I went to E91’s site though was unable to find the article without doing a Google search. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be a statement they are attempting to make loudly.
Not surprisingly, the news framed the story in a controversial way. The headline of the news story clearly states that this decision is based on the Scouts’ recent decision to allow gay youth. However, the announcement from E91 never mentions homosexuality. Now I think there is little question that this decision is based on the Scouts recent resolution, but I do believe that the way each story is framed does make a difference. To read the news article, I get the impression that E91 is more intentionally “giving the finger” to the scouts and homosexuals. On the other hand, when I read E91’s announcement, I had the impression that there could be more factors involved, and that the church didn’t wish to criticize the Scouts but rather exercise the option of switching support to another organization with which they feel more aligned ideologically.
So it appears that the leadership of E91 simply wants to be able to choose to no longer directly support an organization with which they disagree, but without criticizing that group. (The announcement actually says, “[E91] shares great appreciation for the ministry of Boy Scout Troop #910 and Pack #910 and for the rich history of the Boy Scouts of America.”) This is a legitimate desire. There are however several problems with it. As much as they may not want it to be seen as being a homosexual issue—even though that almost certainly at the crux of the decision—it is precisely viewed by most people as being about homosexuality. And as much as they may have wished it to happen relatively quietly, they have nevertheless made front page news regarding it. (Though for better or worse, with the Brickyard 400 this weekend, the story will likely blow by quickly.)
I believe I can make a fairly accurate guess as to E91’s thought process in making this decision. I can imagine how they felt somewhat torn, but how they just couldn’t get passed the perceived need to not support homosexuality. From knowing many people at E91 myself, I can say that many of them would want those who have a homosexual orientation to feel welcome to attend services (at least in theory). There is an ingrained desire to “love the sinner, not the sin”. So I imagine that they really want to be able to discontinue support of the Scouts without specifically condemning or rejecting those with a homosexual orientation. But in reality, these can’t be separated so easily.
No matter what E91 would like the Scouts decision to be about, E91 is now front page news, known as a church which rejects homosexuals. Is this what the church wants to be known for? Is this what the church should be known for? Is this what Jesus wants to be known for? Again, no matter how much E91 might like it to be something else, this is what it is. Though the news may have slanted the story from what the church wanted it to be, in reality, I don’t believe the real problem is in the reporting. No matter how the news presented this, people would perceive this as a rejection of homosexuals. And I believe they’re right.
It’s ironic. When the homosexual issue comes up among Christians, orientation and practice are often differentiated. When making this distinction, the general consensus is that it is the homosexual practice that is seen as sinful. It’s more difficult to say that homosexual orientation is sinful itself, just as it would be problematic to say that heterosexual desire is sinful. (Though there are no doubt plenty of people who think “homosexuality is a sin and therefore homosexual orientation must be a spiritual/psychological problem.”)
I think if anything is clear, it’s that the vast majority of homosexuals can’t change their orientation (no matter what you believe the cause is). There is overwhelming evidence to support this. Now as I understand it, the Boy Scouts resolution simply states that they won’t deny membership based on a child’s sexual orientation. So the irony is that, though I’ve often heard Christians make the distinction between orientation and practice, in this case they are rejecting the Scouts based on their choice to accept youth with homosexual orientation.
The message here is clear: it’s unacceptable even to have a homosexual orientation or desires. Again, no matter what E91 would like to think they believe about allowing homosexuals to worship with them, this is the message they are boldly proclaiming: you are not welcome. And I believe that this message is heard by many other non-homosexuals. The broader message that E91 is proclaiming is that you are not welcome if you are different and if you don’t fit within our narrow definition of “normal” and “acceptable”. The truth is E91 is uncomfortable with anyone who isn’t a middle class, heterosexual conservative. I believe this flies in the face of Jesus’ radical inclusion. The gospels take place almost exclusively within the context of conservative religious culture. And he was often accepting the “wrong” people (though not condoning their sin) while being most critical of the religious leaders for making an outward show of religion.
I believe this decision is harmful in another way. By rejecting people for who they are—not what they do—E91 is saying that it’s not acceptable to be anything other than their “conservative christian” ideal. They are condemning the person, not just their sin. This perpetuates the perception that it’s not ok to have problems. It’s not ok to be real, honest, and human. It perpetuates church being a place that you have to act, pretend to be a “good christian”. This behavior is precisely what Jesus condemned. Hypocrite was a term for an actor, or in other words, a poser, an impostor. Jesus doesn’t want people who make an outward show of religion and condemn others for not living up the their standards. This causes us to be less human and less truthful; it doesn’t allow us to be honest about our own imperfections. This keeps us from receiving help. We end up condemning ourselves for not living up to the standard we have created. Thus we become slaves to ourselves and don’t experience the abundant, fully human life that God intended.
I did mention earlier how the desire to disassociate with an organization over disagreements is legitimate. There is something I’ve noticed not only here but in regards to other issues as well, such as the debate about “modesty”. On one hand, you have people who are worried about potentially violating their conscious, compromising on something they believe, and/or potentially sinning. So they argue for a certain order of things. Meanwhile, on the other side of the issue, you have people who have been hurt, marginalized, ostracized—in other words, they have experienced real harm. Both sides may have some legitimate concerns, but between the two, the latter carries much more weight in my opinion. I believe we need to move to relieve the unjust suffering of certain groups of people. A theoretical, ideological, potential concern just doesn’t carry enough weight to veto justice in my opinion. What I see is the people in power using these theoretical, potential arguments in order to attempt to keep in control and maintain the status quo. At E91, to the best of my knowledge, the people responsible for the Scout decision (the elders) are all older, conservative white men—not much diversity of voices or opinion. So again, it looks to me like a matter of justice.
I’m not sure E91 understands their role in the community, or is losing that understanding. They simply shouldn’t expect everything which goes on in the building and in which they are involved to conform to the narrow ideal of “conservative christianity”. You don’t gain a voice in the community by excluding everyone who isn’t already like you. But E91 says it wants to find a more “Christ-centered” scouting group. To me this says they’re more concerned with maintaining their narrow conservative culture than they are with engaging the community. They have a fear of compromising integrity. But the integrity we need to have isn’t to condemning certain sins. We need to have integrity of character, of demonstrating the deep love of God for all people. This love of God deeply desires reconciliation, healing, and freedom. I think it’s great how churches often host AA meetings. What better place for someone to experience freedom than at church? Yet would E91 cut ties with AA for fear of promoting alcoholism? (Others have pointed out the inconsistency of making a big deal about homosexuality way out of proportion to treatment of other sins, so I won’t delve into it further here.)
Unfortunately, I believe E91 has botched a big opportunity. Now they are going to be known as much or more for who they hate rather than how they love. I am upset and ashamed because this reflects very poorly on Christ and all who follow him, not merely E91. I feel the church’s actions demonstrate what they actually believe, and are diverging from their rhetoric of loving people and engaging the community. They can decide to change their mindset and turn around to do good rather than harm, and I hope they do.
Update: Since I am aware that the Boy Scouts are an independent organization, I had the impression that the individual troops are independent as well. Therefore I believed that, for example, E91 simply allowed the Boy Scouts to meet in their building. However this is apparently not accurate. As I understand it now, E91 sponsors/charters their troops. Put another way, E91 wished to have a scouting program and previously chose to align with the Boy Scouts, using their brand. So in a sense E91 owns their scouting troops, yet their association with the Boy Scouts requires them to abide by the Scout’s rules. As such, the church increasingly felt that were actively supporting groups (the troops) which were by nature tied to an agenda different than the church’s. With this knowledge, E91’s choice is more understandable. I do stand by the rest of what I wrote.