The ministry web site, ChurchLeaders.com, reported news of an unfortunate event in Colorado, and then asked the provocative rhetorical question: “How would you have handled it?” After a little thought I decided I would take a stab at taking the question, taking it beyond the mere rhetorical, and actually trying to answer it – albeit purely hypothetically.
Here’s the situation:
Pastors of a church in Lakewood, Colo., halted a funeral service in their church for a lesbian woman on Saturday, January 10, because the tribute video the family prepared showed photos of the woman kissing her partner. Fifteen minutes after the service was to begin, lead the pastor canceled the event when organizers would not edit the footage out of the video. Mourners, which numbered more than 150, then re-loaded the casket into the hearse, gathered the flowers and proceeded across the street to a mortuary, where the service continued.
Whether this account gives sufficient accurate details, I do not know. Assuming that it does, I still think I would have reacted differently than the pastor of the church. But lingering questions also make my response conditional.
First, I would want to know if the deceased woman was a member of the congregation or not. It would make a difference. I am assuming that she was not, since there is no mention of any connection with the church. And what is stated would seem to suggest she was not; that this was simply a business arrangement the church had with the local funeral home.
New Hope Ministries was chosen for the memorial service because of its location – close to where Collier and her friends grew up, friends said.
So my first thought is that, to the degree it us up to me, I would not likely have voted to approve the service at our church in the first place. However, since the service had been approved, I am uncomfortable with the decision of the pastor to stop the service in progress.
Someone might be curious as to why I would not have voted to approve the service in the first place. Perhaps there may even be an assumption of my motives – whether one would be inclined to agree with or chafe at those presumed motives. But my answer is in one sense simpler, and in another more complex, than might be assumed.
I would not have voted to approve the service, not because of the sexual orientation of the individual, but simply because it would require an unusual circumstance for me to vote to use the church building for a service for someone with no connection with the church. I would not say never, but rarely – and only with very good reason. This is both a practical and communal issue. Practically, funerals and weddings take a lot of manpower. I would prefer to respect the time demands upon the deacons of our church, and our other volunteers, and not embrace a service for mere commercial reasons. If, however, it is someone who is part of the church family, well then I think every reasonable effort ought to be made to honor the person and support the family.
Would sexual orientation have any effect on my decision? No, not really. At least not to do what the pastor in this situation reportedly did.
I will clarify what I mean. I hope any church I pastor would be open to men and women who struggle with same sex attractions (SSA). Each of the churches I have served in the past has had some who struggle in this way, and the size of the present congregation I serve would make it surprising to me if we did not have at least a few among our number who have this struggle. The fact that some people struggle with SSA should be no more surprising in a church than a church having among its numbers those who struggle with alcohol, or pornography, or judgmental critical spirits. We are all broken is some ways, it is only a matter of how. If it is a question of the death of someone in our congregation struggling with SSA, I would be no more hesitant to celebrate the life of that individual – in our sanctuary, if that was his/her desire – than I would anyone broken in some other way; and I would be no more inclined to mention his/her struggle than I would to highlight the personal sin-struggle of any other. So the issue, for me, is not SSA.
Of course my rationale assumes that the individual recognizes his/her SSA as sin – no greater, no lesser than other sin. This does not seem to be the case in the situation reported. An emphasis of embracing a lifestyle contrary to what we believe the scriptures to teach seems to be evident in the way the family chose to celebrate the life of the deceased. At least that is what the video would seem to imply.
To me this raises another question. Assuming that this church had a standing arrangement with this funeral home, I wonder if the pastor, or some other representative of the church, ever tried to speak with the family, to share where there may be a conflict of a value – the churches fidelity to the biblical standard of marriage, and the family desire to celebrate a partner in the non-traditional marriage. The reason that is a question is because I suspect most people, conscious to the raging culture war, would want to be sensitive to others to reasonable degree. In other words, if the pastor had spoken with the family in advance, explaining the church position on gay marriage, and that therefore the video that they wanted to show would be problematic for the church, it is quite possible the family would have chosen to hold the service at the funeral home from the start. Few reasonable people, wherever they side in the culture war on this issue, want to cause problems for others. From what is reported about this family, and how they responded to their eviction in the midst of the service, I see no reason they should not be considered among the reasonable. (Yes, they came back and picketed a few days later. But I suspect the way things were handled may have a lot to do with that.)
If neither the pastor, nor any other representative of the church, had spoken to the family about the issue, and they simply allowed the service with no communication, then abruptly interrupted and evicted, I think the fault lies with the church leaders. On the other hand, had the church spoken to the family, and had the family even implicitly agreed to be sensitive to the concern and position of the church, but then violated the agreement, then that would be an entirely different matter. In such a case, I would be sympathetic to the pastor. It would have been essentially a violation of the contract. for which almost any venue might halt proceedings. However, there seems no evidence to suggest that this was the case, and the pastor almost certainly would have mentioned it. Thus I still find the pastor and church at fault.
Some conservative readers might still consider the pastors actions to have been correct. Perhaps the image of Jesus overturning tables and driving the money lenders from the Temple courtyard comes to mind. That the pastor stopping a God-dishonoring activity from the sanctuary was warranted. My primary dismissal of this argument is that if the church is concerned about external activities polluting their facility, the church should not be contracting out their building in the first place. But since they did, and since it appears they failed in their due-diligence, that the fault lays with them. As such I think they should have allowed the service to continue and, if they feel compelled, make necessary changes for all future events. In the mean time, they should have let their contractual “Yes” be “Yes”. If they feel any sin had occurred on their premises, they should own it, and repent of their own failure before God. By contacting out with the funeral home – whether for money or for barter – they had in a sense defined their own sanctuary as a public meeting hall. Their actions only compounded the matter.
Finally, someone may wonder if I believe churches should refrain from allowing outside groups to use the facilities. My answer is No; or at least not necessarily. Our church allows several ministries, and a few neighboring home owners groups to use our building. In a couple weeks our building will even be turned into a shelter to house the homeless. I don’t think I could be more pleased! But our church, especially our Deacons and Elders, recognize that our building is an edifice that primarily houses our ministry. It is not the building itself that is sacred, but what we do when gathered there. So far as I know, no room in our building was ever consecrated to be used for the worship of God alone. In cases where this is the mindset, however, where the sanctuary – or even the whole building – was promised to be used for only one purpose, I would be inclined to encourage that the oath made to God ought to be fulfilled.
Whether the pastor in this case is a good and faithful man, I have no idea. Whether he is or not, I am inclined to believe that a series of his own mistakes led to this unfortunate situation; and his final actions only compounded the problem. The folks at ChurchLeaders.com posted this as a case study, suggesting that these kinds of problems are certain to become more common in the coming days. Whether in will become the norm to be in such conflict with the culture or not, Christians and Christian leaders would do well to be true to their word, and to be quick to admit their own mistakes – taking the heat when necessary. I believe this will honor God, who is always true to his word.