That belief had put Oelschig, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Anniston, at odds with the church’s national denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).
In 2009, the ELCA voted to allow openly gay pastors living in “committed, lifelong and monogamous relationships” to serve as members of the clergy.
At Trinity Lutheran, the pastor, the church council and the 80-plus member congregation disagreed so strongly with that vote that they flirted with the idea of splitting with the national denomination. More than 140 congregations had already done so.
Ultimately, the congregation of Trinity chose to stay … for the time being.
In June, Oelschig was invited to speak at an ELCA senate convention, where he planned to call for the vote on gay clergy to be overturned.
“I meant to speak to that,” Oelschig remembered during an interview in August, sitting at a table just outside the church sanctuary. “By the time I got there — I can’t put a cognitive handle on it — but in front of God and everybody else, I said I thought we should keep it.”
The moment was liberating for Oelschig — and surprising to his congregation and the church council.
“We were shocked,” said Mike Anderson, council president and a lifelong member of Trinity, sitting beside Oelschig at the table. “He caught us totally off guard.”
That was just the beginning.
On June 8, Oelschig sent a letter to the congregation announcing his change of heart, and asking that others consider it as well.
The letter was read aloud in a Sunday school class — and some members got up and walked out.
Oelschig knew the risks of his pronouncement. “With all that,” he said, “I can’t say what brought me to that place, except that God, through the Holy Spirit, is revealing to me that homosexuality — in the context of the same thing as marriage — is blessed by God.”
On Sunday, Oelschig plans to preach a sermon titled “Your Pastor’s Struggle with Homosexuality.”
“It’s just time to air this all out,” he said this week. “I don’t believe we’ve done enough prayerful consideration about this issue.”
Oelschig realizes this could put him at odds with the church council, but concern for his job is not a priority right now.
“I’m worried about being true to myself and what I believe,” he said. “I have to be able to live with myself and my role as pastor.”
The emergency meeting
More states are granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The U.S. military’s policy on homosexuality — Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — is a thing of the past. Several mainstream denominations have voted to ordain openly gay clergy.
But the topic of homosexuality remains divisive in U.S. society and within individual churches — not only in Christian religions, but all faiths.
According to a 2010 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 42 percent of respondents favor same-sex marriage, while 48 percent are opposed. It is the first time in 15 years of Pew Research Center polling that fewer than half oppose same-sex marriage.
Attitudes are changing within churches, as well. The poll found that 49 percent of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics now support gay marriage.
However, only 20 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 28 percent of black Protestants support gay marriage.
In knowing people in committed homosexual relationships, Oelschig has seen a “purity of love and affection and devotion that to me brought the whole idea of the Spirit into life,” he said. “How could that be a sin?”
It’s a sin, said Anderson.
“It’s pretty clear that God doesn’t like homosexuality,” he said, alluding to numerous texts and passages in both the Old and New Testament. “Mostly what we’ve addressed is openly practicing homosexuals. If you’re gay and not all up in our faces, that’s really between you and God. … It’s the openly flaunting — ‘We’re going to do it and God had better just change his mind’ — that society is accepting of, that the council doesn’t agree with.”
In a letter of its own, the seven-member council of Trinity Lutheran Church stated that the ELCA “has moved away from the word of God as contained in the Bible as far as practicing homosexuals goes.”
The letter continues: “It is the policy of the Church Council to govern as best as we can in light of the Word of God, and exclude current popular moral standards where they conflict with God’s Word. We are thankful that we are all equal in the eyes of a loving heavenly father, but we also fear the wrath of a God who will not tolerate His Word being manipulated to suit human agendas.”
On June 26, Oelschig addressed the congregation. Standing from the pulpit, he talked about the parallels between the acceptance of homosexuality and those of other social movements, especially the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to which the church, “using countless biblical endorsements,” once opposed but has since come to embrace.
“There is precedent of God’s intervention in our lives,” he preached. “Why should homosexuality be any different?”
The reaction to Oelschig’s sermon was swift. Less than 10 minutes later, an emergency meeting of the council was called, and Oelshig said he was informed that “under no uncertain terms was the homosexual agenda to be preached from the pulpit.”
Tension was growing. Anderson knew he and the council had to act fast.
“We were going to have a revolt,” he said. “People were going to leave en masse if we were going to become the gay church of Anniston … at least that’s what a lot of people heard. It may not have been what (Oelschig) said, but it’s what a lot of people heard.”
Tim Skinner had been a member of Trinity Lutheran Church since 2003. He and his family have left the church over the issue of homosexuality.
“It’s a church we deeply love — and I’m talking in the present-tense,” Skinner said. “But I couldn’t stay there and be quiet. It went against my personal principles and my personal beliefs.
“As Christians, we’re called to have discretion. It’s not always popular — it sent our Lord to the cross — but we’ve got to make a stand. ”
As much as he defends the human rights of everyone, Skinner believes the Bible defines homosexuality as a sin and therefore cannot be endorsed by Christians.
“I understand (homosexuals) wanting to find a place to worship God, but we are all sinful and we all need God to save us from our sinful ways,” he said. “If we’re going to help someone with a problem, there has to be a benchmark; there has to be a standard. What we’re doing is telling homosexuals it’s OK to remain in their sin, and I, for one, cannot do that.”
That’s not to say Skinner doesn’t embrace the opportunity to defend his stance on biblical authority. “Thank God for adversity,” he said. “The same waters that drowned the Earth, floated the ark. If it does nothing else, this issue sends us back to the Word, and we can find out what it really says.”
Agreeing to disagree
The particular point that put the council of Trinity Lutheran Church at odds with its pastor was the parallel that Oelschig drew between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement. “Your words were hard to misinterpret,” Anderson said, turning to Oelschig, his hand gestures increasingly animated though his voice remained composed. “You said you would promote the ELCA’s gay agenda. That’s what set it off. What we heard was, ‘If you don’t accept the homosexual agenda, it’s the same as saying we don’t accept blacks.’
“We took it as a very hostile message toward us.”
The council’s response to Oelschig’s letter also left little room for misinterpretation in terms of its opposition to the ELCA’s — and by extension their own pastor’s — acceptance of gay clergy. According to the checks and balances system of the denomination, it is the local church council that approves and removes pastors.
“We the Church Council of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of Anniston, Alabama will not permit any openly practicing homosexual to hold a position of authority or control at our church,” the letter stated. “Our church only recognizes the marriage between one man and one woman. The Church Council will not allow the marriage rites of any same-sex union at Trinity Lutheran Church and will not permit the pastor to perform such rites off our premises.”
But that doesn’t mean that those who were outspoken against Oelschig’s announcement in any way hate homosexuals as human beings, Anderson emphasized. Rather, they simply cannot abide by what they view as a sinful lifestyle.
“We’re not a fire-and-brimstone, ‘let’s drag them all out into the street and stone them; you’re all going to burn in hell,’ type church,” Anderson said. “We haven’t been that way. Everybody sins. Homosexuality goes against God’s word, but that’s between them and God.
“For the church as a whole, it’s not a huge divide. We’d rather leave well enough alone. We just don’t want it in our faces.”
After the impromptu emergency meeting, Oelschig agreed that he would not preach the “homosexual agenda” from the pulpit or in Sunday school, and the council and the congregation voted to remain within the ELCA.
Emotions have cooled, and the issue no longer dominates the conversation at pot luck suppers.
Yet, for all the controversy, Oelschig has no regrets about what he said or how he said it.
“I thought it was mild,” he said. “I thought it was loving and in line with where I was, and I wanted the congregation to know.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
Where they stand: Religious groups on same-sex marriage
Here is an overview of where several religious groups stand on the issue of same-sex marriage. This list was compiled in July 2010 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
There is no universal Buddhist position on same-sex marriage. According to some interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings, one of the 10 non-virtuous deeds that lead to suffering is “sexual misconduct.” This term is generally understood to refer primarily to adultery. However, some Buddhists interpret the term to include homosexuality.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes same-sex marriage on the ground that “marriage is a faithful, exclusive and lifelong union between one man and one woman.”
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism)
Mormon theology stipulates that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” As a result, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not endorse same-sex marriage.
Although the Episcopal Church has not explicitly established a position in favor of same-sex marriage, in 2006 the church stated its “support of gay and lesbian persons and [opposition to] any state or federal constitutional amendment” prohibiting same-sex marriages or civil unions. Furthermore, in 2009, the church’s national convention voted to give bishops the option to bless same-sex unions.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The ELCA defines marriage as “a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman.” In August 2009, however, the church adopted a social statement on human sexuality that supports a wide diversity of families, including those of same-gender couples. While the ELCA has no official rite for same-gender unions, at its 2009 churchwide assembly, it voted to “allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
There is no official Hindu position on same-sex marriage. Some Hindus condemn the practice of homosexuality, but others cite ancient Hindu texts, such as the Kama Sutra, that describe homosexual behavior.
Islamic law forbids homosexuality, and the practice of homosexuality is a crime in many Islamic countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.
While the Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish movements support gay and lesbian rights, including same-sex marriage, they allow individual rabbis to choose not to officiate at the weddings of gay and lesbian couples. The Conservative movement, which as a whole does not sanctify gay marriage, allows individual rabbis to choose to recognize same-sex unions. Orthodox Judaism does not accept same-sex marriage.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, a position the church’s General Assembly reaffirmed in 2010. In 2000, however, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission — the denomination’s highest judicial body — issued a decision allowing Presbyterian ministers to bless same-sex unions as long as those ceremonies do not equate same-sex unions with marriage. Additionally, in 2004, the General Assembly urged state legislatures to give individuals in same-gender relationships the right to be joined in civil unions.
Southern Baptist Convention
In 2003, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a statement reaffirming its opposition to gay marriage. It called “Southern Baptists not only to stand against same-sex unions but to demonstrate our love for those practicing homosexuality by sharing with them the forgiving and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).”
United Church of Christ
In 2005, the United Church of Christ’s General Synod voted to legally recognize and advocate in favor of same-sex marriage. Given the autonomous nature of United Church of Christ churches, each congregation may adopt or reject the recommendations of the General Synod.
United Methodist Church
In 2008, the United Methodist Church’s top policymaking body reaffirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman. Additionally, the UMC’s Judicial Council ruled in 2009 that church law prohibits clergy from performing same-sex marriages. Thus, the denomination does not sanction civil union ceremonies conducted by UMC ministers or in UMC churches, despite appeals from some regional congregations and clergy that it do so. Hundreds of Methodist clergy have declared that they will ignore the church’s ban on blessing same-sex unions, and the issue is likely to be a focus of debate at the UMC’s General Conference in Tampa in April 2012.
Sexuality & Spirituality
• Just what does the Bible say about homosexuality
• Profiles in faith: Two are pastors. Two are married. Two were shunned. All are gay.