Presbyterian theologian strives bring gays back into the fold
The Rev. Dr. Jack Rogers was not always in favor of ordaining GLBT people to serve his church.
A life-long theologian and religious scholar, Rogers held very traditional views about the place of gays in the church. In fact, in the mid-1970s, when the issue of ordaining GLBT people to church office first arose for the Presbyterians, Rogers had argued against it. “It took some serious study and prayer to change my understanding,” he told SN&R.
Rogers, the author of a number of books, including Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church, will be visiting Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sacramento and Davis Community Church in Davis on October 3.
As a professor emeritus of theology at the San Francisco Theological Seminary and the moderator of the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA), Rogers has solid credentials to speak on religious issues. But he’s not without controversy. “There are a lot of people who don’t like me much,” he said.
The reason for that dislike is simple: Rogers’ study of scripture, and of the Presbyterian denominations’ church law and doctrine has led him to conclude that discriminating against gay Christians in the church is, well, un-Christian.
Rogers spoke with SN&R by phone from his home in southern California. His journey to acceptance of Christian GLBT people was a long one—and not necessarily smooth. “I just grew up in a conservative evangelical environment,” he said. That led him to a very traditional view of politics, human relations and Christianity.
His experiences as a student at Kent State changed his political attitudes, he said, and later, when he was a professor of philosophical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, his understanding of the place of Christian women in the church also changed. “But all that wasn’t enough to change how I felt about GLBT people,” Rogers said.
The change in his understanding of—and feelings about—the place of GLBT Christians in the church occurred as a result of being asked to join a study group on the subject. In 1993, the PCUSA called for a three-year period of study, hoping to put the controversy in the church to rest. Rogers participated in that group, thinking that it would provide an opportunity to clarify and reinforce the church’s traditional position.
Instead, “My studies led me to believe that what the Bible really said about homosexuality was very different from what I’d been taught,” he said.
Many evangelical Christians take the view that, where gays and lesbians are concerned, they should “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Such a view—based on literal readings of certain scriptures—results in conditional acceptance of GLBT Christians.
For gay Christians like Dale Howard, an elder at Sacramento’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, that conditional acceptance wasn’t enough. When he and his partner, Dr. Darrick Lawson, were looking for a church, they wanted to join one that accepted them fully, “a church that didn’t just tolerate us and let us sit there on Sunday mornings,” said Howard.
And that’s precisely what Rogers advocates in his book, lectures and sermons.
“When the PCUSA asked churches to study the issue of homosexuality and Christianity,” Rogers said, “less than two percent of the congregations did so. The prejudice runs that deep.” He believes, based on his research, that the church’s attitudes toward GLBT Christians are part of a larger pattern. “The arguments against inclusion of blacks, against inclusion of women,” he said, “were based on the same sort of reasoning. What it amounts to is that the church accepts the prejudices of society and then seeks justification for that bias in scripture.”
And Rogers says the justification just isn’t there.
But not everyone agrees with him. Like most of the major denominations, PCUSA is struggling to reach agreement. And, as in some other denominations, some churches are threatening to leave over what their members perceive as unscriptural actions.
“It’s a painful time for the church,” Rogers said, noting that the Presbyterians had actually split into northern and southern factions over the abolition of slavery, only to reunify later. “There’s a history of pulling out and reuniting over equality issues. This really is the parallel to the slavery issue and the issue of women’s ordination.”
Rogers found a pattern of the same sort of arguments that are now being used against GLBT people being used in each case. First blacks, then women, and now GLBT people are described “as ‘less than,’ as somehow predatory in a sexual way.” It is, Rogers suggests, part of an urge to maintain a hierarchy in which straight white men remain privileged.
Of course, since he is a straight white man, it might be in his best interest to support those arguments. But he’d rather have the contributions of gay Christians added to his church. “I am amazed,” he said, “and full of respect for the ability of GLBT people to maintain loving relationships in spite of the great stress placed upon them.” Those are the sort of people the church needs.
And that’s how Howard and Lawson came to serve Westminster. Howard says that many of the gay Christians he knows stay away from church “because we’ve all had such bad experiences.” At Westminster, though, Howard and his partner felt safe. They were welcomed “with the sort of commitment that we had never seen before.”
That commitment to inclusion held up even when the couple’s ordination caused controversy. “This church went out on a limb for us,” Howard said. “They said, ‘You’ve been called to do this and accepted the call, and we’re not going to let anyone stop you from doing God’s will.’”
Howard and Lawson are looking forward to hearing Rogers speak at their church. But then, they look forward to church in general. “It’s like having a big, loving family around us,” Howard says.
And that’s exactly what Rogers thinks church ought to be—for everyone.