published Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Gay acceptance tests limits of tolerance for some in the Chattanooga area

Conservative pastors say this is a fight they didn't pick. Rather, society carried its culture wars right into the sanctuary.

But the churches aren't wavering.

For many mainline denominations, the hard-line stance on homosexuality hasn't changed in centuries. Because giving ground here would be more than just a practice in tolerance. It would be a turn away from scripture, a rejection of God's design for man. To them, standing firm against homosexuality is a matter of answering God's call to shepherd the flock.

"We don't set our teachings by polls and popular opinion," said Hixson Presbyterian Church Pastor Robert Johnson. "Popular or not, we stand in what we believe is a truth."

But for those who value both traditional Christian beliefs and the rights and acknowledgement of gays and lesbians, such dogma can be troublesome.

The Ridgedale Church of Christ came under fire -- and reaped praise -- this week for confronting the family members of a gay detective, whose case to the Collegedale City Council eventually made the Chattanooga suburb the first city in Tennessee to offer benefits to same-sex couples. The church told Kat Cooper's relatives they must repent or leave the church because of their support for Cooper's marriage to another woman.

The family, which had a decades-long relationship with the church, chose to leave. The story of the church's action and the Coopers' decision struck a nerve across the country, among conservative Christians and gay-rights advocates alike.

This clash of traditional Christian views with the contemporary movement toward equality and acceptance is likely to only ramp up: Gays and their supporters aren't willing to just quietly abandon the church and many churches are unwilling to compromise their deeply held beliefs about human sexuality and marriage.

That tension is testing the limits of tolerance on both sides of the argument.

"There is definitely an agenda that's being pushed," Johnson said. "What the culture wants is not for Christians to be tolerant. What they want is for Christians to abandon their traditional faith."

But others see the church as waging a war on homosexuality, choosing a politically expedient viewpoint on a hot-button issue.

"I view it as a total prostitution of the church," said Ron Goetz, a vocal supporter of gays in the San Diego area. "They've prostituted themselves on the throne of political power. To be invited to presidential prayer breakfasts -- it's just so seducing. And people have just bit, hook, line and sinker."

Goetz's family left a Charismatic United Methodist Church some 12 years ago after his son, a sophomore in high school, came out as gay. A virgin at the time, his son was told he could no longer participate in the church's music program, Goetz said. So the family found a more welcoming church.

Goetz closely follows the gay rights movement, especially as it relates to parents and family members of gays. He heard about the Chattanooga story after a gay advocacy group posted it on Facebook. While it's one of the most extreme religious stances he's heard of, he said it's not unusual for gays or family members to feel ostracized or unwelcome in many congregations.

"We hear about this kind of stuff all the time," he said.

But being welcoming is a tough charge for churches that condemn homosexuality. Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College in Charlotte, said churches should soften their judgmental rhetoric in favor of a more redemptive approach. But that doesn't mean they should give up any theological ground.

"I think ... you have to do the very difficult thing of hating the sin and loving the sinner. That's what Jesus has commanded us to do," Land said. "Jesus loved homosexuals. Jesus died for homosexuals. But part of the revelation of his word is that the homosexual relationship is not a relationship that is approved by God."

It's the same stance the church takes with adulterers and those who have premarital sex, said Land, the onetime head of the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics and religious liberty commission. He has roots in Chattanooga: He was married here, and briefly served as an interim pastor at Red Bank Baptist and Brainerd Baptist.

As a father, Land said he would not turn away a gay child, but he would make his disagreement known. He said such a stance is growing increasingly unpopular with society, though it's in line with hundreds of years of thinking by Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

"So when you have a society saying not only will you tolerate this behavior, but you must affirm it as normal and healthy, then you are forcing conservative Christians -- Catholic and Protestant -- to make a choice between evolving social mores of a culture and what they believe is divine revelation from God and their moral convictions," he said.

But some Christians think it's time the church evolved on the issue; that biblical references to homosexuality aren't applicable in today's world.

"God and Christ welcomes all people," said David Brown, pastor at Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ. "And it's up to us to do the same."

Brown's is a liberal church that offers an "open and affirming" culture for gays. He takes issue with conservative Christians' literal interpretation of scripture regarding homosexuality. After all, the church once used the Bible to defend slavery, he said.

"We somehow changed on that one," Brown said.

Brown said churches can't treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens. Instead, they must be fully welcomed and integrated.

"To be a Christian means to grow in the faith," Brown said. "It doesn't mean to be stuck in the past somewhere in old traditions."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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