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We’ve had a pair of gay marriage posts this week on the Member Feed [Editor’s note: Curious? Join!], and there have been a few comments along the lines that Christians focus all their anger on gays, and similarly comments about the easy forgiveness of heterosexual sexual sins. These comments bothered me, but I don’t want to hijack those threads.
In the 20 years or so since I’ve been an active member of congregational churches (yes, those of you doing the math, I started when I was about 10 years old; being a voting member is a matter of salvation and understanding of the doctrine through baptism, not age), and I’ve seen sexual sins brought up a number of times. Almost always heterosexual, and almost always aimed at fornication and adultery (with the balance being about how married people should have sex more frequently).
I’ve generally attended the closest Southern Baptist Church whose website didn’t trip a heresy alert, but in college I was Assemblies of God, and I’ve also spent some time in Methodist and Presbyterian (evangelical) congregations.
I’ve seen two pastors removed for affairs, both straight. I’ve seen a third pastor step down for the (I still think bad reason) that he made a habit of meeting with women not his wife alone -but still in public. There was agreement it was a problem; the disagreement was whether the problem was scandal or impropriety, and we had to revise the bylaws after that one. Those are the only pastors I’ve ever seen forced to leave a pulpit.
I’ve seen two — maybe three — people disciplined by the church. The pastor spoke to them and asked them to change their behavior or find another church. I only know about it because I knew the people involved — well, through my parents — and in all cases these were people carrying on affairs with other church members (who I presume were also taken aside).
I have had a pastor, not removed, who made it known, in the context of a sermon about marriage, that he will only officiate a wedding ceremony if the couple is living apart. There was, in fact, debate on this point, with some in the congregation arguing that it was far better for the couple to be made honest, and with others arguing that marriage — like communion — can’t be taken while stained with unrepented sin.
The single biggest fight I’ve seen was among the Assemblies of God, on the question of whether a woman who had married young, and foolishly, and then divorced, could hypothetically remarry. The pastor said she could not, and while the congregation wasn’t thrilled with this response, they couldn’t come up with a rebuttal that the congregation could support.
On the other hand, I have had a church whose pastor was divorced and remarried, and — while there was some debate on the matter — few thought it a disqualification (though all agreed his situation was regrettable, the consensus was that his testimony and witness on the topic were good).
Divorce ministries, and questions about how to treat divorcees — whether and under what circumstances they should be encouraged to remarry — are common in the churches I’ve attended. Similarly, the question of whether and how to encourage the youth (from high school up into the late 20s or early 30s) to wait until marriage has been a puzzle. There’s no debate on waiting until marriage, but there is on whether young people should they be encouraged to marry early, within the church, or wait until after college, or something else?
One of the Bible studies I was in actually asked to dissolve and join other classes because they didn’t want to be the “singles, out of college” group, they wanted to be “adults.” And while there wasn’t much debate on the point, the question of how to treat single adults remains. Can they be deacons or elders (in some churches, the answer has been no, in others it has been merely hypothetical)?
Moreso than most organs of society, churches have been required to reckon with the wreckage of family and divorce over the last 40 years. I don’t know that they’ve always done a great job of it. It really is a hard question: how do you hold people to a high standard, correct sin, and teach righteousness in a society that legally and socially runs in the opposite direction. Divorce is, of course, the hardest one. It’s only allowed in the case of adultery (though we’ve often extended it to abuse and abandonment through some slightly creative hermeneutics), and even then preserving the marriage is considered preferable, and not every congregation agrees on remarriage afterwards. But the courts don’t care about our laws: they just print the divorce certificate, and then the congregants want to know why that isn’t enough. It spreads to everything, though.
Jim Manzi said in his book that “maybe the socons are right, and the wheels really will come off the wagon…” and, having watched the past 20 years, I am bewildered and a little infuriated at his choice of future tense. Rising numbers of frustrated young adults who can’t figure out how to be full adult members of the community that prizes marriage and parenthood, and can’t figure out how to love and marry, and speaking only for myself, unreasonably resent the attempts at help.
I’d feel better about our libertarian contingent’s mad dash to freedom if they spent more than a rhetorical minute facing up to what our society has done to itself for 40 years, and then insulting the people who actually deal with it every week by insinuating all we care about is the gays.