Homosexuality in the Pentecostal Church

Today I am participating in a Pentecostal Symposium at Princeton Theological Seminary organized by The Association of Charismatic and Theological Students (ACTS) organization of the school. The title of the symposium is Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Sexuality, Gender, and The Body in the Pentecostal Church. I am one of four panelist asked to speak in the first session: Homosexuality in the Pentecostal Church. Here are my opening remarks. 

Good morning. My name is Jonathan Stone. I serve as the Pastor of Discipleship & Evangelism at Westmore Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. And it truly is an honor to be here with all of you today.

When I was a seminary student twelve years ago I distinctly remember Stanley Hauerwas lamenting the state of this same conversation in the United Methodist Church. You can read the account in his book, A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity. From Hauerwas’ perspective he was thrown onto a committee that was divided right down the middle on the appropriate way that the UMC should respond to the LGBT community. That is, half of the committee desired for the church as a whole to be completely open and affirming, and the other half of the committee sought complete restriction.

This in and of itself is not what frustrated Hauerwas. Rather, it was the reaction that he received after days of hearing the same old arguments leading nowhere. Everyone wanted to discuss this big question of whether or not the UMC would say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the LGBT, whether they would be considered in or out. Since this debate appeared intractable Hauerwas suggested that they put that large question aside in order to address the other questions that surround the issue. Much to his surprise no one for either side was interested in these other questions. The committee disbanded and Hauerwas vowed that he was done with such conversations. I remember thinking to myself that I would probably never face that particular debate within Pentecostalism. Yet, twelve years later here we are.

The big question is essentially a theological one, and the key disagreements boil down to questions of hermeneutics. Since I am neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar you may not have many questions for me today. So, I’m going to say all that I can right now. (Ha!)

When I think of this issue I do not think primarily of the big question. I think of a person who sits in my office seeking pastoral care and struggles to tell me about their same sex attraction or gender confusion or homosexual activities. But my perspectives are shaped by more than these individuals. They are shaped by a variety of personal and meaningful relationships.

I am shaped by my brother who is openly gay, a member of the UCC, a Hebrew Bible Scholar at Chicago Theological Seminary, and a recognized voice in the field of Queer Theology. I am shaped by one of my former classmates who secretly lived a gay lifestyle in college and seminary, but later walked away from the lifestyle, became a licensed minister, and entered a heterosexual marriage to this day. I am shaped by my childhood friend who came out of the closet, acted on his orientation in a reckless way, passed away from AIDS at 28, and in the last months of his life became convinced that his homosexuality was more like an addiction than an orientation.

I am puzzled by the fact that we recognize the complexities of the human condition in every existential and ontological facet, yet continue to reduce the spectrum of human sexuality into two binary opposites—gay or straight. Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me you negate my existence.” Almost all of those that seek me for pastoral care are seeking me out of a confused existence, yet they are carrying with them an overwhelming since of pressure to squeeze into one of these two labels, gay or straight. One of my first objectives in pastoral counseling is to help that person understand that there are plenty of communities that will embrace whatever sexual identity they eventually claim, but that for now it’s important for them to recognize that they are neither gay nor straight, but confused. Confused people are hurting people. And it is my job to care for hurting people.

In other words, we have to slow the process down, agree to take our time. This way we can sit together and face their current reality in an honest way. From that point forward I am there with them, to celebrate with them, cry with them, and pray with them. As a pastor that is my job, my duty.

I get questioned about whether or not I am doing more harm than good by maintaining a restrictive position on homosexuality, about whether or not I am suggesting reparative therapy and whether or not that is a dangerous exercise. But I would ask those same questions to anyone who would tell someone that I am counseling that they just need to simply accept their homosexual identity. Some, like my brother, come to that conclusion. And although our perspectives are different nothing will ever keep us from loving one another, respecting one another, and embracing one another as brothers. Others, like my classmate, reject that identity and choose a heterosexual lifestyle. And some, no matter which path they choose, are faced with deep regrets later in life, like my friend who died tragically young. The point is that we have to care for people where they are at, and I believe that our false reductionism is hindering our ability to do that.

I am interested in caring for people in the midst of their experience, and I reject the idea that I cannot do that if I still consider the practice of homosexuality to be a sin. Furthermore, I am perplexed at why we would want to continue to split faith traditions over this issue when we now have plenty of open and affirming faith traditions that members of the LGBT can call their spiritual home. Finally, I am concerned that our insistence on focusing on the big question is keeping us from correcting some of the things that we have done wrong. When society treated homosexuals with such hatred that suicide was a common outcome the church should have been a sanctuary for those individuals. I believe that the LGBT should be able to honestly say of Pentecostalism that, “They tell me homosexual practice is a sin, yet they love me better than anyone I know.” That is my great hope.  And if members of the LGBT community are interested in working toward that I firmly believe that there is much that we can do to that end.

Part Two: Reflection on the Queer-Pentecostal Dialogue