Chicago Tribune, "Willow Creek Welcomes Gay Rights Advocates"

by Manya Brachear

Can the terms gay and evangelical coexist? More evangelical Christians are trying to grapple with homosexuality without straying from traditionally held views that same-sex relationships violate God’s word. A private conversation between leaders of a gay-rights advocacy group called Soulforce and Willow Creek Community Church on Sunday could mark a significant turning point.

The meeting was part of Soulforce’s American Family Outing, a tour of six influential mega-churches around the country between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Jeff Lutes, executive director of Soulforce, said he envisioned the tour shortly after last year’s deaths of Revs. Jerry Falwell and James Kennedy, icons of the Christian Right. Soulforce was founded by Rev. Mel White, a gay evangelical pastor and former ghostwriter for Falwell.

"There is a growing awareness that many of the leaders of the evangelical community are getting older and even in some cases are beginning to talk publicly about what will happen when they’re gone," Lutes said.

At the same time, some contemporary evangelical leaders are demonstrating new attitudes. Rather than preach about divisive issues such as homosexuality, they tend to focus on more positive messages about humanity as a whole, Lutes said. Though the approach is friendlier, he said, it fails to address how Christians should treat gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender families.

Rev. David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, a Baptist college in Atlanta, said Willow’s welcome reflects this new attitude.

"Younger evangelicals … are embarrassed by the hard line against homosexuality that has come to dominate the public stance of the evangelical right," said Gushee.

"They do not believe that homosexuality is a [or] the major social problem and do not believe that the major ‘family values’ issue is homosexuality."

Conservatives say the immorality of homosexuality is spelled out in the Old and New Testaments. They hang their argument on seven verses in Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, Corinthians and Timothy.

Those who advocate acceptance of gays assert that many of those passages refer to same-sex behavior acts in the context of idolatry, prostitution or violence. They say the Bible does not speak to homosexuality in the context of long-term committed relationships.

Churches that accept gay and lesbian members are referred to as welcoming and affirming congregations. That is not a term that applies to Willow and many other evangelical churches.

Betty Schmidt, a longtime elder at Willow Creek, said pastors there simplify the argument by pointing to only one verse, Genesis 2:24: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."

"Traditionally Christians have founded their basis for human expression for sexuality … going back to that model," she said. "That is not a stretch for anyone who adheres to God’s word."

Willow Creek offers two ministries for gays and lesbians. "A Safe Place" caters to those who are "struggling with same sex attraction" and wish to remain celibate to honor what they believe Scripture teaches. "Someone I Love" counsels families who are grappling with how to accept a gay relative.

Though Willow’s Web site offers links to clinics that profess they can alter sexual orientation, Schmidt said that is not the church’s mission. If a gay or lesbian Christian wants to join Willow, they must believe that same-sex behavior is a sin and try to remain celibate. The same is true for anyone who might be engaging in sinful behavior, Schmidt said.

"We’re very … welcoming of anyone who comes to the church and is seeking and struggling with whatever it is," Schmidt said. "There’s help in God’s word and help in community and linking up with other Christians."

But welcoming was not enough for Mary Lou and Bob Wallner who returned to Willow with Soulforce on Sunday after leaving the mega-church in 2002. As members of Willow for eight years, they hosted a Bible study in their home for gay Christians and tried to persuade elders and pastors to reconsider the church’s theological stance.

"We realized we could not worship at a place that did not affirm monogamous gay partnerships," Wallner said. They later moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they are one of only a few heterosexual couples in their church.

What do you think? Should gay and lesbian families be free to call themselves evangelical Christians?