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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

R.I.P. Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptists

It’s been a couple weeks since the death of Fred W. Phelps, founder of the “God Hates Fags” Web site and leader of the funeral-protesting Westboro Baptist Church.  His passing brings to my mind a number of times I’ve been questioned over the past few months about the ONA policy of my East Coast congregation, the United Church of Christ.  “ONA” stands for “open and affirming,” a position of acceptance toward our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered members.

UCC is, in effect, the polar opposite of the Westboros of this world.  We are decidedly NonFred Phelpsian.

“Do you go to that gay church?” a friend recently asked me in my social network world of Second Life (where I’m also an active member of a UCC ministry).  That’s an odd question, since being ONA does not make UCC a “gay church” any more than being handicapped-accessible makes our congregation a “disabilities church.”  Our openness to Latino members doesn’t make us a “Spanish church.”  Our acceptance of elderly members doesn’t make us a “geriatric church.”

We are, quite simply, the Church.

Whose Church?  Christ’s.  No other modifier is needed, although we choose by our name to emphasize that we find our unity in Him, making us a United Church of Christ.

“But what about the fact that the Bible condemns homosexuals eternally to the fires of hell?” some of my friends wonder at me.  And yes, I do consider these people my friends and my brothers and sisters in Christ, and I am pleased they are honest with me about their concerns.

I answer: “That’s not our interpretation of Scripture.  We don’t believe the Bible actually teaches any such thing.”

“But it does!” some of my friends insist.  “It’s right there in black and white!  How can you believe the Bible doesn’t teach that?”

And with that question, I step gently into The Talk.  I only offer The Talk to those who seem genuinely interested in knowing how we at UCC approach Scripture.  I try to initiate The Talk with the humility of spirit I imagine would be found in a 19th century abolitionist talking gently to a dear friend who insists slavery is approved by Scripture.

I present The Talk here in its entirety.  I’ve written it up as a script with some usage directions, the mental instructions I give myself while I use it and adapt it to the individual to whom I'm ministering.

The Talk isn’t an exercise in Biblical exegesis.  It’s conducted at a much more basic level than that, the core hermeneutics of how the Bible is approached as a work communicating the mind and will of God.  I take this approach not simply to avoid tedious disputes over the ungodliness of eating lobster and wearing mixed fabrics, but to drive home a basic fact: most ONA congregations approach Scripture in exactly the same manner as the vast majority of Evangelicals.


A Response to Evangelicals about Why the United Church of Christ (and other Christian denominations) Are Open and Affirming for the LGBT Community

((NOTE: Please feel free to use and modify this as a conversation guide for discussing UCC ONA beliefs with Evangelical friends.  The script is written in a manner that speaks to Biblical literalists, and it reflects the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”))


Why do we accept and affirm members of the LGBT community?  I would be happy to try to answer that.

As I answer, I ask a favor: Please listen to this entire explanation before responding.  It will require five uninterrupted minutes of your time.  It is the one courtesy I request, since you have sincerely asked for an explanation.

Is that a reasonable request?

((WAIT FOR POSITIVE RESPONSE.  IF AT ANY TIME YOU ARE INTERRUPTED, SAY SOME VERSION OF THE FOLLOWING: “I see you’ve started to comment.  Would you like me to stop the 5-minute explanation you agreed I could give?”))

Okay, then …

Yes, Scripture does have several passages that read as if they condemn all homosexual acts in all circumstances.  And yes, at first glance it would seem as if we of UCC are “ignoring” those passages.  We are not, however, ignoring them.  We are interpreting them for better understanding.  To help you understand what I mean by that, I will use three examples of an identical approach to Scripture – your own.


When you read the fifth chapter of Matthew, you see Jesus commanding you to pluck out your right eye or to cut off your right hand if either causes you to sin.  At no point do you consider that to be a literal command, despite the clarity of the words.  Instead, you immediately conclude that the Lord couldn’t possibly mean for you actually to maim or blind yourself.  You say YES, BUT … and you allow yourself an alternate interpretation of that verse.  At this point in my explanation, it isn’t important what you say after the YES, BUT.  What matters is that something in you, something in your mind and in your heart, immediately led you to reconsider any literal application of those words to your own walk in Christ.

Of course you have other words you think and say after YES, BUT.  You might have hunted down a Scripture that forbids self-maiming, and decided you must interpret Jesus’ words in light of that other Scripture.  You might have researched literary forms and decided some statements in Scripture are hyperbole or symbols.  But the fact is, you would never have started hunting for that other verse if you hadn’t had the YES, BUT moment.  You wouldn’t have been troubled enough to research literary forms if you hadn’t had that YES, BUT moment.

Where did that moment come from?  What made you step back from your customary literalism in order to rightly divide the Word of truth?


When you read the letters of Paul and discover the literal instructions that women are not to speak in church at all unless they are directly prophesying with their heads covered, and that certainly no woman is to be a church overseer, something within you immediately says YES, BUT and you begin to research and scrutinize and study to justify why you believe that a woman should be allowed to speak in a church or even lead one.  I am inferring you do that, because many Evangelical ministries have female teachers and prayer leaders and have had female pastors.  Likewise, when you read in Scripture that no man may remarry after divorce because that forces his wife to become an adulteress, and that no leader of a church may remain if his own house is not in order, something in you says YES, BUT and similar research and rationalizing begins.  Again, I infer you must think in this way because many Evangelical churches are led by divorced and remarried men.  So it’s clear that at least they, and very likely you, say in the heart YES, BUT and then work toward understanding God’s Scriptures in light of their (and your) own circumstances.

Again, I ask: Where does that YES, BUT moment come from?


When you read the second chapter of 1 Peter in Scripture, you discover that Christian slaves who are being unfairly beaten by their masters, their owners, are directed to take those beatings without complaint, because it is their “calling” in Christ (v. 21).  It probably dawns on you that this passage means that every slave who strives to be free of violence and abuse is, in light of the literal nature of these words of 1 Peter 2, in rebellion against God and in violation of that slave’s Christian calling, a rebel just as Satan was a rebel.  Every slave who is Christian … ancient slaves of Rome, American slaves before the Civil War, modern slaves pressed into sex prostitution … is to quietly take his or her abuse as an appropriate role within the kingdom of God.

Right now, if you are a decent human being, your heart and your mind are saying YES, BUT …


In the UCC, we embrace that YES, BUT moment by means of a single phrase: “God is still speaking,”  We even end the sentence like that, with a comma, to show our commitment to the idea.  When you as an Evangelical feel that YES, BUT moment in your heart as you ponder challenging Scripture, we would call it one of those moments when God is still speaking, the voice of the Spirit still within you.

Yes, Scripture records a demand for the silence of women in churches.  Yes, Scripture records a requirement that a church leader be a once-married male.  Yes, Scripture records the Creator as saying “I hate divorce.”  Yes, Scripture records a condemnation of homosexual activity.  Yes, Scripture records a call for self-maiming to escape sin.  Yes, Scripture records a command to accept unjust slave beatings as the slave’s Christian role.

For five of those six, you, as an Evangelical believer, heed your heart when it says YES, BUT. That is because in that heart of yours, God is still speaking,

We as UCC believers and children of God have that same reaction to all six of those six.

All the studied reasoning you have used to shed light on your five YES, BUT moments — considerations of cultural differences, appeals to other Scriptures, scrutiny of original Greek or Hebrew words, appeals to common sense and literary forms — whatever approach you’ve taken for your five areas, we have as well, and for all six areas.  We stand in agreement with you.  We affirm that yours is a sound, valid way to approach Scripture.  We firmly agree that the Spirit of God within you, the wisdom the Spirit puts in your heart when it says YES, BUT, is holy and noble and righteous.

I don’t ask that you come to the same conclusions we do.  But I do ask, with respect and as your sister in Christ, that you recognize that in these matters our approaches to the Bible are not different from yours.  My actual details for my opinions might not hold water for you, but the approach itself is one you embrace in your own life.  I will worship beside a homosexual believer just as readily as you will accept a divorced and remarried female pastor who rejects slavery.  Both of us must face Scriptures that seem to the unschooled eye to oppose our stances.  But in both of our hearts, God is still speaking His YES, BUT and growing us in the ability to rightly divide the word of truth.

Thank you for allow me to share those thoughts without interruption.

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Marana Tha,

Cosmic Parx


  1. Hi, David from the netherlands here.

    Normally i enjoy your blogs but this one disappoints me. There is a difference between a christian who might slip and backslide, but still calls it a sin and repents. Not calls it an accepted Biblical lifestyle. So when you accept those who live it out and do not repent, but call them self christian, as members you are directly ignoring the last part of 1 cor 5.

    And with the slavery example you made a sweeping generalisation. Not all of those forms you mentioned are the same or approved in the Bible.
    But would be punishable with death.

    1. David,

      Hi, and thank you for your opinion! As the post states, your conclusions would rely on an interpretation which we of UCC don't embrace. We approach that small number of Scriptures from a different viewpoint (or, as the post above explains, a viewpoint that is very much the same as millions of other believers, but which they have yet to apply to the rest of Scripture). I imagine your conclusions above would strike me as valid, too, if we did not apply that approach used by Evangelicals.

      My discussion of slavery was based on the literal wording of 1 Peter 2, a reading you embraced fully when I used it in a post last summer about the role of a wife in marriage.

      I hope all is well with you!