A religious symposium held Sunday on the Kilgore College campus dealt with a contentious issue in the modern church, at times sparking animated discussions.

The sixth annual symposium, which was inaugurated in 2014 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, was centered on the topic of Christianity as it relates to the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning) community.

The yearly symposia each focus on a different topic in an effort to increase understanding and connections between local churches and the public.

“Connected to the October 31, 1517 start of the Reformation, the Symposia series began in 2014 with the purpose of seeking a deeper understanding of one another in our various church communities,” read a pamphlet distributed to attendees who gathered at 3 p.m. Sunday in KC’s Devall Student Center Ballroom.

The majority of seats set out for attendees were filled when Pastor Ben Bagley, of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Kilgore, welcomed all to the event. In his opening remarks, Bagley called for civility and respect from the audience.

Terry Booker, KC’s dual credit coordinator and former instructor, began the event with a brief presentation.

“500 years ago, Martin Luther challenged the church to think and to examine itself,” Booker said.

“It was transformative but it was not simple, nor were the believers unified. We are heirs of that process and we are still challenged to think and to examine today. It’s still not simple and nor are we unified. This symposium challenged us over the last five years to focus on what we have in common and how we can build on that together.”

Booker commented on how much society has changed since his birth in 1950. As a student, he said, black and white students were still segregated and Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed as the result of his leadership of civil rights protests in 1956, the year Booker began first grade. He remarked on some of the biggest changes during that timeframe: people in the LGBTQ+ community are now more open about their lives and who they love, same-sex marriage has been legalized and the church is at the center of this cultural shift.

“How do we deal with a changing culture around us and an unchanging God?” Booker asked.

In his own words, Booker recommended those in the church treat those in the LGBTQ+ community, whether they are believers or not, with mercy and compassion while affirming their belief in the truth of scripture and their love for and holiness of God.

He posed three questions to a panel of pastors: Rev. Michele Goff of First Presbyterian Church in Henderson, Rev. Will Wilson of First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore and Dr. Glenn Young of First Baptist Church in Kilgore.

The questions inquired if the Christian response to the LGBTQ+ community should be similar to the Christian response to race, gender and poverty differences or if the response should be one of opposition to same-sex sexual behavior and that such behavior should continue to be identified as sinful.

Booker also asked the panel if a unity of fellowship with believers in the LGBTQ+ community should be allowed and if members of that community should be ordained by the church. Finally, he asked if church members can disagree on these issues while still remaining in fellowship.

The panelists took turns responding to Booker’s questions.

“My view would be the very traditional, very conservative view. That’s who I am. That’s what I believe,” Young said, after mentioning the panel included pastors representing a variety of viewpoints on the issues being discussed.

“I will say to you, God’s creation was perfect until marred by sin. Genesis 1, that was before sin entered the picture, before the Fall, God created us male and female, created us in His image. I think we are image-bearers of God and that’s important. I would say, as well, I often warn folks in my own congregation, homosexuality is not the unpardonable sin. It is, as I understand scripture, clearly defined as sin in scripture.”

Young added it was his duty as a pastor and a Christian to practice compassion and, in his view, affirming the biblical stance of the morality of same-sex relationships is part of his faith.

“I would say this: it is not compassionate for me as a minister, to hide my understanding from the ones I love. Nor is it compassion for me to hold it over their heads as a club. What you should expect from your pastor, from a friend, from a loved one, is love and honesty. That’s how we approach that.”

Young pointed to the legal consideration of homosexuality as a civil right as a turning point in the national dialogue on the topic. He added he did not see homosexuality as a civil right, nor does he see heterosexuality as such.

As a minister of the gospel, Young said, it is his responsibility to provide biblical counsel from scripture based on what the text says, “not necessarily what I wish it said.”

“I owe my people hope, rather than determinism,” he concluded, adding he worked to provide counsel rather than labeling those who came to him for guidance.

“I would say this: the Bible has described itself as a sharp, two-edged sword. I would suggest to you that a scalpel can provide healing in the hands of a skilled surgeon and can be very destructive in the hands of a madman. Because it is truth, it needs to be wielded with compassion and for good, not for bad, and I would suggest that to you.”

Young’s advocacy of a compassionate approach towards the LGBTQ+ community, based on a traditional understanding of scripture, was echoed by others on the panel.

Rev. Will Wilson related a story of a politician running for a Senate position who had friends who both supported and opposed a bill. The politician said he sided with all his friends, regardless of their stance.

“I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ demands such a spirit when we approach these conversations,” Wilson said.

“I say to my brothers and sisters who share a different opinion than me, I am more interested in maintaining the relationship than about winning an argument. As my brothers and sisters in the evangelical Presbyterian church say: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, charity. That’s how I approach this issue.”

Wilson described the issue of how the church relates to the LGBTQ+ community as “non-essential” to correctly following Christ compared to issues like the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ, which he said “are at the heart of the faith.”

“I believe that these discussions are non-essential and there is room for reasonable, charitable disagreement.”

Wilson cited the biblical creation story in Genesis to assert God created humans, male and female, to be similar yet also different. In his view, supported by the writings of the apostle Paul in Romans and 1 Corinthians, Wilson described relationships between men and women as “natural” and same-sex relationships as a “vice”.

“Jesus affirms the institution of marriage and does so, quite narrowly, as between a man and a woman,” Wilson said, adding that, if any members of the LGBTQ+ community wanted to become a member of First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore, “we would welcome them with open arms,” though he affirmed the institution of marriage as strictly between men and women.

Rev. Michele Goff agreed on some points with the rest of the panel but asserted the Bible does not categorize homosexuality or same-sex marriage in the same way it condemns other sins.

“I am here as an inclusive and welcoming pastor,” Goff said.

“If we cannot love our neighbor, who we have seen, how can we love God who we have not seen?”

Goff referred to a dearth of Biblical references to homosexuality as evidence it was not a primary concern for God or scriptural authors.

“While I would never claim to know exactly what God is thinking, I’m confident God is not worried about our sexual orientation. There are, maybe, six times that the word ‘homosexual’ comes up in the Bible and that depends on which translation you’re reading. I looked up some of the “clobber passages” (six Biblical passages commonly used to condemn homosexuality) in the King James Version last night and, in the list of vices that include things like man-stealing and whoremongering and adultery, it’s not there.”

She went on to point out that Jesus did not speak English and translating ancient languages make identifying single-word usage an inexact science.

“The Holy Spirit does move through scriptures but we have to look at the language. There are maybe six times that homosexuality comes up and there are about 50 or so times that adultery comes up and there are about 2,000 times that poverty comes up. So, Will and I are alike in thinking this is a non-issue.”

Unlike others on the panel, Goff said she had no issue with same-sex marriage within the Presbyterian church and said she believed human sexuality was a spectrum, not a binary.

“There is no one way to be a child of God. There is no one way to be a person. God created us unique. God created each one of us in God’s image. Presbyterian polity states that homosexuals can be ordained and it also states that marriage is a covenant relationship between two people.”

She pointed out this change caused division in the church but similar discord happened historically when the Presbyterian church allowed women and African-Americans to be ordained.

Following the panel’s responses, a short break was called before a question-and-answer session commenced.

An audience member, who did not wish to be identified or provide further comments to the Kilgore News Herald, posed the first question to the panel.

“All three panelists said, first of all, it was defined as a moral versus a civil rights issue. Is this a civil rights issue or a moral issue? I think the answer is yes, it is, but that dichotomy makes it seem as if it is one or the other,” he said, pointing out how Young described homosexuality as “not a civil rights issue” and how Wilson and Goff described the issue as “non-essential” and a “non-issue” within the context of biblical adherence.

“Is this a moral issue for anyone to include and empower and affirm the LGBTQ community within your own churches? Does anyone feel that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and that people do need to be included? Otherwise, we are not following Jesus’ disciples,” the man said.

“I’m not trying to say that it is not an important issue. I think the church has become distracted by it. I think there are much more important issues, I feel, that Jesus would have us to turn our attention towards,” Goff said.

“Not for me. Not if I’m cut out, then I don’t get to talk about the Trinity,” the man replied, restating his question about the scriptural issue of affirming same-sex marriages within the church.

“It’s important for me. For anyone to be included in the church, they need to be fully included. To say that we love you but we don’t love this part of you, that’s not honest to me,” Goff said.

Young also clarified he did not mean the issue of relationships between the LGBTQ+ community and the church is unimportant when he categorized sexuality as “not a civil rights issue.”

“As a pastor, what’s important to me is what’s important to the folks I’m called to shepherd. Some of those are within my church and some of those are without my church. Whatever the most important thing to you is, that may be different to me or different to the next person, as pastor I’m called to shepherd them in that direction,” Young said.

Wilson said he did not believe it is the job of the state to define marriage as between a man and a woman and he is in favor of civil unions.

“In the realm of the church, I believe that Jesus welcomed all people. I believe that before we pass judgment, before we condemn, before we call people out, I believe the first thing that we need to do is show love and welcome and grace because that’s what Jesus did.”

The man again restated his question, asking if Wilson personally considered the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church as important.

“Full inclusion in terms of church membership, yes. But, do I believe they should be in positions of leadership in openly gay relationships or marriages? No. Maybe that’s not full inclusion,” he allowed, saying he would openly welcome gay couples who wished to join his church but would not officiate a gay wedding.

“That’s not full inclusion, I guess,” he said.

Booker said his church was a congregational church, with no national board ordering its rules or practices. In terms of same-sex relationships and marriages, he contrasted this issue with people who have multiple partners or relationships.

“I would much rather two people make a commitment to each other and practice that monogamy than to go from person to person to person. That’s where I am. Whether that pleases God or not, that’s where I am,” Booker said.

He added the issue of ordaining LGBTQ+ people in his church was not an issue, as his fellow church members “believe in a priesthood of believers so everyone who is a believer is a priest of God.”

Other audience questions took a negative view of the church’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ people.

One man asked why homosexuality should be considered a civil right and if it should not be more accurately compared to drug addiction, prompting loud laughter from some in the audience.

Each panelist unequivocally said they did not equate homosexuality with drug addiction or anything of the kind.

Another audience member told panelists they had shared their opinions on the issue but asked them what they would say when they stand before God.

“What does God say about all this?” he asked.

“I intend to stand before God and when He looks at me, I fully expect him to say ‘My son, welcome to eternity.’ Because I think he’s going to see Jesus when he looks at me, not because of what I do or what I don’t do but what Jesus has done and the grace that He has given to me through his death and resurrection,” Booker said.

Young reiterated his position that scripture clearly defines homosexuality as a sin and said, if someone came to him with questions about scripture, he would “deal with it lovingly, but honestly.”

“It’s not that I’m denying what’s in the scripture. It’s that I’m trying to find a better way to treat people than a better way to cut people off,” Goff said.

“Remember, these are people with faces. These are human beings. That means my first approach is going to be to treat everybody with love and respect and with grace,” Wilson said, adding he went to seminary with gay people and was close friends with members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“For me…if I had a same-sex couple come into my office wanting pastoral counseling about marriage and wanted me to officiate at their service and use the liturgy that says ‘what God has joined together, let no man separate’, deep down in my conscience I could not do that. Because, as I read scripture, God’s creational intent was for there to be a covenant relationship between a man and a woman.”

He added it was not appropriate, in his estimation, to use an “argument from silence” to indicate Jesus’ approval of same-sex relationships, simply because Jesus did not directly address this issue in scripture.

Another audience member, who asked not to be photographed because she had taken steps to protect her identity after previous employers harassed her on social media, posed a question to the panel.

“How would you show love to people in the LGBTQ community, in your faith, not even thinking about grace or respect, but how would you show love to them and are you complicit if one of your people of your church is saying horrible things like that?”

“Each of us are bearers of the image of God and so, basic humanity, you are owed that respect. All of us are owed that respect. I show love by treating you as a human being and loving you,” Young said, adding that someone preaching hate would certainly be responsible for such damaging behavior and that truth must be preached with compassion.

“God’s word, I believe, is absolute truth, sharper than a two-edged sword. You can do a lot of damage with truth if it’s wielded in a less than loving way,” Young said.

Goff expressed a similar sentiment.

“As a leader, I believe it’s my responsibility to behave better, as best as I can. In our congregation, when I catch wind that something is being said, when it’s reported to me, it’s my job to address people as gently and lovingly as I can and explain why we don’t talk like that around here,” she said.

“I don’t think Jesus would have watched anybody be harmed and I don’t feel like I should either.”

“I would sort of echo what has already been said,” said Wilson.

“I think there’s no space for any follower of Jesus to speak words of hate or harm or disrespect. It’s just unacceptable. I think part of what it means to be modeling people of love and respect begins up here, it begins at the top.”

“I think that the gospel of Jesus Christ demands that the kind of hate and rhetoric that we see from some on the far-right is unacceptable.”

The exchange between panelists and one audience member, who said he and others in the LGBTQ+ community had been discriminated against, became tense at times. The audience member asked the panel to explain the stance of not affirming LGBTQ+ people as full members of the church while still claiming to love and accept them.

The panelists reiterated statements about expressing love which does not do harm and preaching their interpretation of biblical truth with compassion.

“We are diverse people. We are going to have diverse understanding. I think there is one truth and many perspectives of truth. We can use truth to harm each other,” Young said, adding the audience member may not affirm Young’s interpretation of truth but he did not consider the disagreement an attack on his perspective.

“As I said, from my 1950s, people have been hurt for a lot of different reasons. It’s one of the great regrets I have in our culture that we have condoned hurting, oftentimes in the name of God, and people have been hurt,” Booker said, as audience members pointed out the problem of suicides of LGBTQ+ people who feel rejected by the church and their families.

Pastor Bagley invited audience members to continue the discussion after the closing of the symposium with panelists.

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