Posted by: Renee | December 10, 2013

The Sins of a Church

by Renee Sappington

I’ve put off writing this blog for a while because I wanted to make sure it wasn’t based on a knee-jerk reaction to the church trial results for Rev. Frank Schaeffer of the United Methodist Church. On Nov. 20th, Rev. Schaeffer was given a 30-day suspension and ultimatum for keeping his ordination status. What is he “guilty” of? Officiating the marriage ceremony between his son and his son’s male partner – of blessing and celebrating the love and commitment between two people. In fact, while the jury found him guilty of disobeying one rule in the denominations’ Book of Discipline, he was actually honoring other parts of the Discipline – like the parts that say “all people are of sacred worth” and “the church is to be in ministry for and with all persons” – not exactly minor details to be overlooked. The leaders of the Church have once again strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel. They have overlooked the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness – and shut the door of the kin-dom of heaven in people’s faces. They would do well to read the words of Jesus to the church leaders of his day – like the indictments in Matthew 23 that I just mentioned.  For unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, we will surely not enter the kin-dom of heaven – also words from Jesus.
Or consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. When I think about it, all the sermons I’ve ever heard preached on that story quickly dismissed the actions of the priest and Levite – their willingness to ignore the suffering of the man beaten on the side of the road – to focus on the goodness of the Samaritan who was filled with compassion and did all he could for the beaten man to heal and live. Perhaps we have dismissed the sins of the priest and Levite to our own demise – for they focused on minor purity laws over the more important laws about love. Sounds way too familiar. Maybe it’s time for all church leaders to take a long, honest look at their ministry and hold themselves accountable for the folks they ignore that are lying beaten, bruised, and dying on the side of the roads they walk. And many will have to admit some of those folks have been beaten and bruised by the church leaders themselves. What Schaeffer’s trial makes sadly clear is that the United Methodist Church is so broken (as are some other denominations), that we would have actually put the priest or Levite on trial if they had stopped to help the man suffering on the side of the road, and no doubt we would certainly crucify Jesus all over again. Make no mistake, the Church is responsible for its role in the discrimination and oppression of LGBTQ persons (and all marginalized people throughout our sordid history) inside and outside its walls. Such mistreatment has led to bullying, violence, rejection, self-hatred, and suicide, not to mention causing many LGBTQ persons to walk away from God because they mistakenly think the Church actually speaks for God.
Now, we all sin. And while we are to have compassion for all, we’re not to make excuses for harmful or complicit behavior. Let’s name it for what it is, and not just in our progressive circles and to progressive audiences, let’s name the sin from the pulpits of our churches – for all to hear. Let’s be clear and speak truth to power — it was a bishop that told the Schaeffer trial jury to focus on one rule in the Discipline while ignoring the rest of the book. It was a group of bishops that recently encouraged charges to be pressed against other clergy who have officiated same-gender wedding ceremonies (charges that would lead to tens of thousands more dollars being spent on trials – money that could be much better spent). It was a number of bishops who asked a retired bishop not to officiate at a same-gender wedding he felt called to do — basically asking him to put his vows to the institution above his vows to God. And it was a bishop who wrote a letter to the Boy Scouts of America asking them to not lift their ban on gay scouts because it might hurt the membership rolls of both institutions. All of those bishops are leaders of the United Methodist Church.
The sins of those leaders trickle down to those they have authority over – clergy who feel their hands are tied by denominational policies that would threaten their livelihood or their congregation’s stability (read status quo) if they break them. The best sermon I’ve ever heard about the predicament many clergy find themselves in was preached by Rev. Vicky Flippin as she told the story of Paul and Silas in jail.  She shares honestly and prophetically: “The police ordered a jailer to keep Paul and Silas locked up. And the jailer followed orders…As a UM clergy person, there is something about the jailer I understand. In a way, I used to be him. I used to follow orders, even if it did harm. I used to say to people, I believe God loves you just as you are, but I have to follow orders. I have to chain you in this back room of the church where you can wait patiently, separate and unequal, until they decide to liberate you. Now I am not the violent bigot and I am not the corrupt police, but I understand the jailer.”
And here many of us LGBTQ persons sit, with our prison doors and chains loosed by God, but we remain in the cell in hopes that the jailers can be saved and release us of their own accord. Many have done so, but this blog is about the many who have not. It’s not as easy to say, but the sins of the silent supporters are real, too. Paralyzed by fear of conflict, many of our progressive clergy and church members remain silent, ignoring and sometimes undermining the voices of the activists and prophets in their midst.
It’s not what I like to do, but I have chosen to focus on the sins of the church in this blog and not move on to the times we’ve gotten it right, because I believe we need to sit with the sin long enough to be convicted and repent.
God, help us.

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Responses

  1. Very powerful Renee…and a very belated, but no less heartfelt congratulations.

  2. Thank you once again Renee for saying it so much better than I ever could!

  3. Thanks for sharing- never heard that take on Paul and Silas, but very intriguing, and convicting.

  4. Thank you for fresh looks at an extremely difficult situation in our church. Oh, I do pray we will not have a split. We belong to a reconciling church. Thank you.

  5. Very true and heartfelt Renee…you’re passion on the subject is merited and deeply felt! Such an incredible writer you are!


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