There are some tempests in coffeecups that need to be examined closely. I think Willow Creek Community Church is doing good things for the cause of Christ. I think they have great ways of ministering to people and challenging Christians to be better people. But I am concerned that their stance on gays and lesbians will cost them in the end because it doesn’t reflect God’s stance, and because it hurts families, and ultimately hurts Christ’s message to the world. Below I go through the recent Leadership Summit situation and try to find some answers within Willow Creek’s response.
Things were going fine for Willow Creek Community Church as they were the sponsor and host for a Leadership Summit in 2011 that had on its list of speakers CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz. Then Change.org sponsored a petition that asked Mr. Schultz to cancel his speaking engagement at Willow Creek based on Willow Creek’s past association with Exodus International, which promotes ex-gay conversion therapy. Willow Creek had dissolved relationships with Exodus International years ago, but not on belief issues, but moreso based on where the church wanted to focus its activity. They got a lot of heat for that from evangelicals and other Christians on the far right who saw their dissolution with Exodus International a sign that they were going soft on gays. Still, the petition mentioned that Willow Creek still had anti-gay messages of its own. They wanted Starbucks not to associate itself with anti-gay anything.
So Schultz canceled his speaking engagement at the Leadership Summit.
The World, watching, reported and discussed Willow Creek Community Church in a negative light. So, Willow Creek started doing damage control. They came out with a statement that said they were not “anti-gay” nor were they “anti-anybody”. In fact, they touted the hundreds of people with “same-sex attraction” that attended their church on a regular basis as proof they weren’t anti-gay. Just ask them, Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, seemed to say. They don’t feel unwelcome, he implied. He went on to say that his church challenges everyone to live up to the “sexual ethics” as presented in the Scriptures. And these are: “full sexual expression between men and women in the confines of marriage” and “sexual abstinence and purity for everyone else.”
The Video Response:
Of course, in the video statement below, he is on home field. He gets lots of hoots and hollers from supportive congregation members. It’s a safe place for Hybels to make that kind of statement. He gets to compliment them. He gets to tell them they are doing fine. He gets to re-brand them as the nice people they know they are. Who would question Hybels at WCCC? A whole room full of people who felt a bit stung by the media’s labeling them “anti-gay” give him clapping and happiness when they are re-labeled as not “anti-anything”, but welcoming of everyone–by the person who most needs to re-label the church, Bill Hybels, because of the bad PR he and his church are getting. It’s always nice to show your mother your artwork. You know she’ll love it. But she’s not the best critic.
My opening concerns:
Let me say that I don’t want to stop churches from progressing–even in baby steps–to a full realization and agreement with God on this issue–that gays are 100% equal to everyone else in the eyes of God and are certainly allowed full sexual expression with their partners. However, some churches seem to think that halfway is good enough—or even that the appearance of love will make it more palatable when they tell gay people to stay celibate.
This stops churches from progressing–and so I feel the need to say something to let them know that this is still not good. To say to someone, “We love you, but you are still less than us–by some accident of creation. We love you–but you are never allowed to have any of the privileges of serving the church or joys of companionship,” is not Christian.
Gays at Willow Creek Under WCCC definitions:
Hybels refers to gays at Willow Creek as those who have “same-sex attraction.” He might do this because giving them GLBT monikers would empower them too much, or he might be reflecting their own wishes as they struggle with something they don’t want to have as a label. And there are some gays and lesbians who prefer to be “Side B” Christians. This comes with its own challenges as a definition–mainly because evangelicals love that these folks already embrace a celibate lifestyle (of their own choosing). I find Side B has many problems for the rest of the GLBT community that should be addressed.
I’ve heard from friends who know gay couples that go to the church, and they say they don’t feel unwelcome, or that they have to abide by any rules. But when 8000 people strongly believe that you are off path–and they preach from the pulpit what Hybels says in this video, there is judgment present. It has an effect on a couple. (Having sat in a church that loved me but thought I was delusional for being gay and wanting to date—it’s a tremendous horrible pressure.)
A great article from the Marin Foundation, a bridge-building organization that seeks to pull together evangelicals and the GLBT community, gives Hybels a walk on this one–saying that his statement is pretty accepting compared to other churches. But even the author to this article admits that there are holes:
A former lay leader at Willow Creek was asked to step down when the church found out he was gay. “My personal experience was one that was not anti-gay,” he said, “but I wouldn’t say it was pro-gay either. Willow welcomes people, but they welcome gay people to the back row. I was asked to step down from my position, even though I hadn’t ever had sex. The same question—’How’s your celibacy going when you’re not married?’—was not asked of my heterosexual counterparts.”
Their proclamation in this video shows that their stance is one of outward welcome, and inward castration for gay and lesbian members.
How would a partnership or marriage survive constant scrutiny and judgment in a church? One group gets to have all of God’s blessings–another group has limits, and gets to hear statements like the one below made from the pulpit of a church that proclaims to “accept” them. At Willow Creek, gays can only make God truly happy if they never have sex, or if they have straight sex. God is “thrilled”, however, with all those straight people around them. I don’t know many couples who could take that kind of double standard. If we just numbered you off–and all the even couples got full acceptance, and all the odd couples got disappointment, challenges to change, constantly looking at the even couples who have everything–the pressure on a marriage, or on a person, would be tremendous. And these days, marriage is already under so much strain. Fifty percent of straight marriages don’t last. And the percentage is HIGHER if you go to a conservative church:
Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience.
George Barna, president and founder of Barna Research Group, commented:
“While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.“
My point is that gay relationships enduring a constant barrage of messages that say that they are less than God’s best, and that they should not be having sex, or a relationship, for that matter, would face an unhealthy environment with which to grow. Normally couples who attend churches can find themselves learning and growing in Christ through discussion and interaction with equals, all searching for answers in their lives, and serving, possibly finding leadership opportunities–but gay couples at Willow Creek would face a strong barrier to all of this. They would be seen as not having their lives “right” in the first place–and therefore, unable to grow or learn until they get that “straightened out.”
Listen to the video of their statement as if you were a gay person, or a gay couple, attending Willow Creek Community Church–how would you feel? If this were directed at straight couples, could you endure? It gets interesting at the 3 minute mark:
Willow Creek, and Bill Hybels, you are still anti-gay if you could answer no to any of the following statements:
1. If Gay Marriage was made possible through the entire United States, and their marriages were just as legal as heterosexual marriages, would you be able to change your statement? What happens when the US says it’s okay for gays to marry? Then churches won’t be so smugly inside the law. There will be a larger cultural battle between these churches and the US government. Not sure churches will feel so easy to hold a faulty viewpoint.
2. Would I be welcome with my partner to serve in the church, in any capacity, in the choir, being a chaperone on youth functions, serving communion, or leading prayer?
3. Are you letting youth know that they can live happy and fulfilling lives as gay people? Would my children be coerced, shamed or otherwise encouraged to become straight even if they are gay? Perhaps they would realize the double-standard in store for them inside your system. Then what? Will kids be told that they have miserable lives before them if they don’t change? Yes, just by listening to your sermons.
4. Is it possible for your church to leave the matter open for discussion by inviting speakers at your church that will speak to your WHOLE congregation on a Sunday morning, on TV, on being gay and Christian and dating and married? And the joy that God brings in their lives?
5. Would you allow teachers or speakers to promote a Biblical understanding of gay christianity that differs from your interpretation–even if they were Biblical scholars from Harvard?
6. If you discovered that you were wrong on your interpretation of scripture regarding gay people–and that they can have full sexual expression– would you change your stance?
If you answered no to any of these questions, you are still considering being gay a sin. You are still putting a dichotomy between attraction and dating/sex. This is not a dichotomy you give to straight people. You allow their attraction and their dating. By not allowing full expression of gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgendered folks in your church, you are a) setting up a double-standard for sexual expression based on YOUR interpretation of the Bible, b) you are not seeking as a church to know the truth on the issue if it does not match what you’ve found–so ongoing dialogue is over, c) you are denying the full expression of the Living Holy Spirit which still speaks today, and d) you are asking gays to shoulder a burden you wouldn’t give any straight person, because even straight single people can find love eventually and be brought into full-acceptance within the church–which means your stance purposely targets GAY people. Straight people, in your church, will always have hope.
I am sympathetic to those who are just coming out and trying to figure out the truth on this matter–but, Willow Creek, you don’t provide anything but your opinion on scripture. Certainly you are not giving gay people the dignity of being called “gay” or “lesbian” nor are you allowing them to read scriptural interpretation that differs from your own so they can make a real decision. As a church then, you are not allowing God to say anything that doesn’t match with your understanding–nor inviting dialogue that might reach a new understanding. There is no growth here.
I get that impression as well from the video–that gays are welcome to come and change.
Why your policies show an anti-gay stance:
Folks who disagree can’t openly challenge any of your “ideas” of scripture in your church–ideas that not every Biblical scholar agrees with, not every denomination agrees with. While other stances may not be universally agreed upon either in all denominations, this is a stance targeted towards ONE group.
Any gay person who started dating, who was affectionate in public with another person of their sex, who questioned the authority of your scriptural reading, who got married, who started telling others in the church that God had a fuller-idea for gays and lesbians, a different gospel than Willow Creek was pushing—would be corrected, argued with, coerced, silenced, ostracized, and eventually pushed out of Willow Creek Community Church. Is that not so? Could your church tolerate a Jesus with a new gospel?
It is not good for man to be alone
I believe your stance on scripture is dangerously in error. Christ never spoke about homosexuality. Genesis 2:24 is the verse you pull up to show God’s idea on marriage. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” It’s that “for this reason” that refers back a few verses. The more important verse that you should be looking at is this: Genesis 2:18– “It is not good for man to be alone.” The important thing to consider is that God had compassion on single people. He goes through every creature to find a suitable companion, but the suitable companion is another human being. In this case, it happens to be a wife. But you cannot say that God creates a wife for every man. Try that one on Sunday morning and see the response you get from people who are single in your church.
As we know the Bible is filled with lovable, accepted and affirmed leaders who had polygamous relationships, and prostitutes are lauded for their cleverness and included in Christ’s lineage. God never had a thing to say against the marriages of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, or many of our other patriarchs. Who they married was unimportant to their ministry, to their walk with God.
The truth is–who gay people choose to marry is also unimportant. Gay people are only dating and loving another person, which is a God-given impulse for all humans. I sincerely believe that God does not want us to be alone. Even Paul admits that you have to be called to be celibate–and that it is better to marry than burn. Celibacy is not your call to make. It is each individual’s choice based on calling, not on a blanket scriptural doctrine for a whole group of people. You would burden gays with resisting for their WHOLE LIVES this urge for companionship, and their sexual expression. I challenge you, as a church, to go without sex or affection towards your partner for five months to better understand what you are asking gay people to do. (don’t blame scripture on this–scripture doesn’t say it.)
While I applaud your dissolution of relationship with Exodus International, your stance with gays scares me. Instead of up front telling gays you are trying to convert them, you offer them incentives for good behavior. Love, acceptance, rejoicing. When Gays “choose” to become celibate or straight, they win the lottery at Willow Creek. Folks are overjoyed as much in their conversion as they are in the fact that they can use them as evidence against the current GLBT community which is simply asking churches for full acceptance.
Gays who follow your rules get to be token “happy” people who are living forced celibate lives. Not all celibates are forced–some take a vow of celibacy because God asks them to. Some, unfortunately, based on faulty scripture, take a vow of celibacy because they believe God doesn’t want them to “act” on their “gay urges.” When they “slip up” there is great shame and remorse and guilt and unworthiness that Willow Creek gets to be “magnanimous” and “forgive”. How Wonderful Willow Creek looks towards its gay people. By purposely keeping them hobbled, their kindness towards the disabled looks genuine.
This is why you, Willow Creek Community Church, are still practicing anti-gay policies. What’s worse is that you hide it in “acceptance” of people’s journeys, while you, yourself, are no longer on any journey. You are convincing others that to be Christian they can’t be fully human if they are gay. But you “love” them—and that love is so compelling, so desired by people, that they will deny themselves any personal happiness in order to keep the love of their church.
This is the most troubling stance that you could take—the appearance of love, the requirement of absolute lifelong celibacy. It is a false appearance. I would rather you reject gays so they know that God is not there at all in your church, so that they can find a loving church that does accept them. But by feigning the appearance of love (love without full acceptance is not love) you fool them into thinking that God is behind you. You make the gays that can’t contort themselves into something acceptable walk away from God. You cause gay people to walk away from God. Think about that.
I’m sorry, Willow Creek. I’m sorry, Bill. I know you want to love people–and I believe you are sincere–but you have become smug with your own humanitarian stance of being kind to a people who are, in your opinion, “condemned” to being alone and unloved by a partner for the rest of their lives. You are adopting gays as perpetual pets and spaying and neutering them in the name of God.
I don’t think 700 signers on a petition should have scared Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. I think understanding how deceptively friendly and dangerous and un-Christian Willow Creek’s stance towards gays should have scared him. And should scare us all. I sincerely hope, Willow Creek Community Church, that you will look again at your policies, and rethink your scriptural stance. It doesn’t have to be this way. Here is a wonderful resource that can help you be a welcoming and affirming church. And there are other resources that can give you a better understanding of how God sees gays.