Goshen News, Goshen, IN

July 15, 2012

UNDERSTANDING EACH OTHER: Q&A with Goshen pastors Andrew Wollman and Karl Shelly

About this series Throughout the past several years there have been many opinions shared about homosexuality within the community. This two-day series attempts to shed some light on where those opinions come from. — Editor


GOSHEN — In moments of doubt, many of the religious residents in our community turn to the guidance of spiritual leaders for ways to look at difficult situations.

Pastors Andrew Wollman and Karl Shelly, who have already weighed in on their opinions of homosexuality and religion in Pastor’s Pen columns (May 19 and June 23, respectively), as well as subsequent Letters to the Editor, answered some additional questions from The Goshen News in regard to their reasoning, opinions and applications in and out of church life.

Their responses follow:

Why do you think there’s such a big schism in Christian thinking toward the acceptance or opposition of homosexuality?

There are many reasons why Christians are divided on homosexuality; reasons that actually have nothing to do with that issue.

The root causes of the disagreement stem from different ways Christians understand Scripture, experience God’s spirit at work in the world, and trust advances in human knowledge.

How we think about these things sets up a framework to process the contentious issues of the day.

Homosexuality is simply the latest issue to divide Christians. Previously, the divide was over other controversial issues; like wealth, slavery and the role of women. But homosexuality is getting all the attention now, in part because cultural attitudes are shifting on this issue.  

In general, when cultural understandings shift, the church has a difficult time of it. Nearly all Christians — including me — would agree that the church should not blindly follow the movement of culture. In fact, in many ways, the church is called to be counter-cultural; to lift up God’s alternative vision. But examples like slavery and the emancipation of women remind us that cultural shifts can sometimes be a great blessing (and in both of those examples, progressive Christians were leading the way). So the church has to discern, and depending on one’s framework, that discernment can take us in very different directions.

Wollman: The simplest reason for this schism is simply one word: sin. Sin is like a cancerous cell, the further it goes, the more it spreads and corrupts and the more tenacious it becomes. And like cancer, the only hopeful solution is to cut it out.

By tradition, Sin is “cut out” through confession and absolution. The only way this can come about is if people actually understand homosexual behavior as a sin to begin with. Which means God’s law has to work on their heart. Those who ignore or reject God’s law, either refuse to believe or don’t know they’re infected, and therefore do not see the need for surgery.  

Historically speaking, all sins grew more and more acceptable as time goes by. Consider just back to the 1950s and 60s. Lucy and Ricky had to be shown sleeping in separate twin beds with a nightstand in between them, because anything more than that was considered too risqué. From there came two in one bed; then a short time later, the sexual relations being shown in that one bed, but under covers. From there, a little more skin showing, to now, complete nudity 24 hours a day on cable.

This is how sin works. Some in power find it acceptable, they find ways to justify their sin, and before we know what’s happened, our children are being tainted in every way imaginable, and God is sickened by our blatant behavior.  

Homosexual behavior is the same. It used to be called, “coming out of the closet” because things done sinfully are normally done “in the closet; in the dark; secretly.” Nowadays, homosexual people are claiming a minority status as if they were a race, and worse than that, we’re granting it to them. Now they proudly “come out” and tell the world about their orientation.

This has happened over time as all accepted sin happens. Get a few celebrities championing the cause, and before we know what hit us, everyone is brainwashed into thinking God is perfectly content with it all. People have exchanged “Thus saith the Lord” for “Thus saith Oprah.”

What specific scripture passages influence your opinion?

Lev. 18:22, Gen. 18:20-21, Gen.19, 2Peter 2:4-10, Romans 1:18-32, 1Cor.6:9-10.

While the above verses clearly speak of God condemning homosexuality, 1Cor.6:11 clearly says they can be forgiven. It is not the “unpardonable sin.”  

I am well aware of how people who advocate homosexuality creatively either change the interpretation of these passages or declare them no longer applicable to our culture and time. We simply are not free to manipulate God’s Word to justify our sin, nor are we free to declare it “no longer applicable” unless the Bible itself states as such.  

Shelly: Rarely do I think an individual biblical verse or two answers complex questions. That’s not how I understand the Bible or God works. Rather, those who want to be instructed by the Bible’s teachings need to discover its major themes, understand the ancient context of its stories and take its various writing styles (history, myths, letters, poetry, etc.), into account.

Still, it’s fair to say the following scriptures are some of those that stand out when I think about this issue:

• Acts 15 — the debates in the church between those who interpret scripture to keep people out, and those who heed God’s spirit bringing formerly unclean people in;

• Matthew 23:23 — where Jesus chastises those who are more concerned with legalism than justice and mercy;

• 1 Corinthians 13 — which celebrates the gift of love as the greatest gift;

• Acts 8 — where Philip baptizes a sexual minority into the church;

• Luke 15:11-32 — a parable of Jesus in which God exhibits compassion and acceptance, while another (the older brother) is fixated on others’ sins;

• Luke 6:36 — which identifies compassion and mercy as central to who God is.

What historical basis do you see for the various schools of thought toward homosexuality and religion? Is there a historical evolution in your church?

Fundamentalism — which can partially be described as a strict adherence to specific theological doctrines along with a very literal reading of scripture — has had a significant impact on American Christianity over the last 100 years. It generally shuns ways of seeking truth that are outside its framework. Therefore it has little openness to scientific, experiential, and interpretive inquiry. This mindset and its close ties to conservative political movements are one important component of today’s divide over gay equality.  

But the divide among religious people over how strictly and literally to interpret doctrine goes back to biblical times. Jesus had many debates with people who criticized him for not following their narrow understanding of scripture.

This kind of divide is found in all of the book-based faiths; Christianity, Islam and Judaism. As a result, some observe that fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims have more in common with each other than fundamentalist Christians do with modern Christians; because fundamentalists have similar approaches to understanding Scripture and Truth even though they are of different faiths.

Wollman: I believe I covered the historical basis in question No. 1. As far as the historical evolution in my church’s teaching, “No, and Yes.” In the Lutheran church itself, we are divided into synods — separate entities or bodies of churches. Mennonites have “conferences,” Lutherans have synods. In the synod I represent — the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod — there has been no wavering of thought in regard to homosexuality.

Certainly individuals within the Missouri Synod have caved to the societal pressure of acceptance, and as such, they should leave the Missouri Synod, if not be kicked out. But as a church body itself, our confessions have never swayed one iota in regard to this or any other major theological issue. We are the second largest synod. The largest synod, called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), embraces homosexuality, as well as a host of other abominable beliefs and practices. They are essentially Lutherans in name only. Our beliefs date back to the Book of Concord that was written in 1580, and we have never changed one belief that was established at that time in that book.

Our pastors in the Missouri Synod still swear to uphold its understanding of Scripture because we believe it to be the most accurate understanding of God’s Word.

Have the opinions in your church teachings changed toward sexual orientation over time? If so, how? If not, how have they held steady?

The second part of question 3 is, I believe, the same question here. So I revert to that answer for this question. The only thing I might add is to explain the “how” they’ve remained steady over time is nothing more and nothing less than the grace of our loving God.

Also, I should take some space to make it clear that contrary to some words that others have tried to put in my mouth, neither I nor my church “hate” homosexuals. We love them so much that we warn them of their sin in order to save their souls. Accepting their behavior is a form of hate that feels loving; this is where they have been duped.

Shelly: The experience of my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, is similar to many U.S. denominations. Our understandings about sexuality, gender, the role of women and sexual orientation have shifted over time, but not everyone within the denomination shifts at the same pace or wants to shift at all. As a result, there is lack of uniformity on many of these cultural issues.

The official position of my denomination is that “homosexual … sexual activity (is) sin” and that we are to be in dialogue “with those who hold differing views.” I am one of the growing number of people who have such differing views, and I look forward to the day when my denomination no longer equates monogamous sexual activity by anyone in a faithful, covenanted relationship, as sin.

Because I do not believe the word translated “homosexuality” in the English Bible speaks to what we know about same-sex sexual orientation today, I do not believe that “homosexual sexual activity” is necessarily sin.

No matter what your opinion, do you see any reconciliation in the future between homosexuality and religion (specifically Christianity)? With other Christian sects that think differently than you do?

Shelly: One of the things the Bible speaks about repeatedly is the importance of reconciliation. Reconciliation between believers who see matters differently is something I believe in and hope for even when it’s not clear to me how we’ll get there. Perhaps we Christians can begin by not demonizing each other; by not suggesting the devil delights with those who have different viewpoints, and God delights with those on my side.

I think it’s okay to have strong convictions (which I have), but there is a reason the biblical prophets urge us to be merciful and walk humbly with God. Few things do more damage to the Christian witness than to arrogantly cast righteous judgment on those with whom we disagree.

Wollman: I believe people have already begun to reconcile this issue, which is according to God’s Word, irreconcilable. I am told there is nearly an entire church in Elkhart made up of practicing homosexuals calling themselves Christians. I know there are many so called “Christian Churches” all around the country like this. They would tell you that Christianity and homosexuality is now reconciled. It’s false, of course.

As long as people stay true to God’s Word, there can never be a reconciliation of unrepentant sinful behavior. Such people are despising Christ and his sacrifice. He died for their sin, not so they could go on delving in it, but so they could repent of it and ask for strength to overcome it.

And even if a homosexual person struggles with this sin his or her whole life, as long as they are struggling with it, and admitting it is wrong, and repenting of it, and receiving forgiveness for their weakness, then they will be welcomed with open arms into heaven.

As far as other Christian sects thinking differently from mine; all the primary major denominations agree with our position that homosexuality is a sin. Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, Baptists, Presbyterians, a large sect of Mennonites, and even Pentecostals, who disagree with us on just about everything else.

The history of the church proves how Christians have always felt about this sin. The acceptance of it is relatively new in so-called “Christian” circles.

What would your reaction be if one of your congregation members came to you and said, “I’m homosexual."? How would you handle it? What would be your main concerns or approaches?

Wollman: My biggest concern would be for their soul. First thing I would need to determine is if they are repentant of their homosexual thoughts and deeds. If not, much time would be spent helping them come to a state of repentance and a prayerful life asking God to strengthen them when facing temptation.

If, by God’s grace, the person came to understand these thoughts and actions as the sins they are, then in our church we offer something called “Private Confession and Absolution.” It’s a time where I stand in the stead of Christ, hear their confession of sin, and absolve them in the name of Christ. I would probably ask to meet with them two or three times a month to see how things were going and see if there were any other ways I could be spiritually helpful.

The very worst thing someone from the church could do in a situation like this is to embrace their sexual preference and lead the sinner to believe God does not care if they live in this sin. Unrepentant sin sends people to hell for all eternity. There’s no sense in it when God has been so gracious to punish his Son on our behalf and ask us to rely upon Him for forgiveness as well as our strength and guidance.

Shelly: When people in my congregation tell me their story, who they really are, and how God is moving in their life, I am blessed. This is true regardless of whether their story includes being straight or gay. My main concern is with how they are living into the way of Christ, and how they are sharing that with the world.

However, with gay people, I often find that their story includes tales of cruelty inflicted on them because of who they are, sometimes by people who do this harm in the name of Christ. It is hard not to weep when I hear those stories.