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Why Welcome a Same-Sex Couple to Church?
Image: Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post / Getty
Gary Nixon, right, and Mel White, a gay couple, attend Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, VA. The couple (together for 20 years) has rented a cottage directly across the street from Falwell's church for a year, are are attending services there and getting to know the neighbors. While some people have called them sinners, others have brought over pies and cookies in welcome.

Imagine this no-longer-hypothetical situation: Matt and Alex Jones-Smith, newlyweds, arrive on a Monday morning in summertime to register their adopted daughter, Rachel, for Vacation Bible School at Maranatha Bible Church on Main Street.

What should be the response of the Sunday school superintendent?

  1. Provide directions to the nearest liberal congregation.
  2. Register Rachel for Vacation Bible School and then hand the couple Marantha Bible's statement of faith, including the part on human sexuality where homosexual behavior is condemned.
  3. Proceed with registration, and then ask the Jones-Smiths, legally married in the eyes of the state, to meet with the pastor to talk about baptism and membership.
  4. None of the above.

The Unbiblical Marriage

This week, Minnesota and Rhode Island became the 12th and 13th states to allow same-sex marriage. With the favorable U.S. Supreme Court rulings in June, there will be more same-sex marriages nationwide for years to come. The 2010 federal census estimated there are already more than 150,000 same-sex couples legally married or in legal civil unions. It reports some states experienced a 50 percent or more increase in households with same-sex couples from 2000 to 2010.

For generations, Christianity has encountered unions outside the one man-one woman Christian ideal. During the colonial missionary era in Africa, many Christian churches had zero tolerance for a new convert with multiple wives. If these men wished to be baptized, join the church, and follow Christ, they had to dismiss all but one wife.

But missionaries soon realized that this policy of zero tolerance created enormous hardship on abandoned mothers and their children. It also absolved the polygamous husband of providing for dependent children of his former wives, according to Sunday Agang, academic dean at ECWA (Evangelical Church of West Africa) Seminary, Jos, Nigeria.

Over time, indigenous churches developed more than one response. Some churches accepted the entire household of a husband who desired to become a Christian yet had more than one wife. Many churches, however, did not permit these new converts to preach or teach or lead in the church.

Yet, the goal of churches remained the same. Once a person accepted Christ, Christians invited the individual into joyful, church-based fellowship and a lifelong journey of discipleship and sanctification.

Welcoming, Not Affirming

Choice #4—none of the above—is the answer that best reflects the sense of confusion that many church leaders have regarding the most appropriate response to state-recognized same-sex couples.

But for churches committed to the biblical teaching about heterosexual marriage and compassion for all, is there a solidly biblical approach or model for churches to follow? As early as the 1990s, conservative Christian leaders began to welcome, but not affirm, the open involvement of people with same-sex attraction into church life. Along with a sincere welcome, tragically, too many times fear of disease (HIV/AIDS), public condemnation, homophobia, and pressure for behavior change through unproven and often harmful therapies overwhelmed any sense of welcome.

There is some evidence of progress. A new Pew Research Center survey found that less than 1 in 3 LGBT respondents reported feeling unwelcome in a place of worship. Even fewer reported that this unwelcome feeling occurred within the past 12 months.

Christians and the church can do much more beyond welcome. About half of LGBT adults surveyed report no religious affiliation. While the ones who did attend worship felt welcome, the Pew survey found that most LGBT respondents view major religious groups (Christians, Jews, and Muslims) as "unfriendly."

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Why Welcome a Same-Sex Couple to Church?