Demonstrators call for equal rights for gay persons, Hollywood, California, June 1970.
Disciples General Minister and President Kenneth L. Teegarden prays during the contentious 1977 General Assembly.
Disciple Cheryl Breiner was ordained in 1982. Her standing was revoked after she revealed she was a lesbian in 1996. Her standing was reinstated in June 2007.
Disciples pastor Dennis Sanders (center) has been open about his sexual orientation with his regional minister. He is waiting for a call to congregational ministry.
Disciples scholar D. Newell Williams says the Apostle Paul had no concept of a mutual, committed same-sex relationship.
Robert Cayton, who serves on North Carolina's commission on ministry, says clergy should live according to "New Testament standards" — including Paul's instruction to remain celibate outside of marriage.
In 1977, a Baptist peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, became the 39th president of the United States. We said goodbye to Elvis and hello to Luke Skywalker, and disco icon David Naughton danced through hayfields and urban streets asking, “Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?”
And gay culture began making its way into the mainstream. Less than a decade after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, the Village People topped the charts with “Y.M.C.A” and “Macho Man.” Riding the tide of liberation movements, gays and lesbians asked for acceptance on their own terms and drew attention to inequalities in a predominantly heterosexual society. Mainline denominations, which had established themselves as supporters of human and civil rights, struggled to respond.
The year also marked the first time the Disciples’ General Assembly dealt with issues tied to homosexuality. Four business items, including one calling on the Assembly to prohibit ordination of gays and lesbians, were on the docket that October.
A study document prepared by the Task Force on Family Life and Human Sexuality of the Division of Homeland Ministries ignited open hostility. The study, a result of 18 months of research and compilation, revisited the 11 biblical texts relating to homosexuality in light of current biblical scholarship and scientific and psychological research on human sexuality, outlining possible implications for the church. The Assembly approved the document for research and reflection, but the debate was divisive.
On the ordination question, the Assembly decided not to decide. The resolution was referred to the Task Force on Ministry of the General Board, which developed the denomination’s Policies and Criteria for the Order of Ministry six years earlier. Noting that regions bore responsibility for providing counsel to ministers and congregations in matters such as ordination and licensing, the Assembly called on the task force to consult with regions and regional commissions on ministry and report back to the 1979 General Assembly.
Then General Minister and President Kenneth L. Teegarden sent a survey to all regional commissions or committees, and learned some interesting things, according to Disciples historian D. Newell Williams, president of Brite Divinity School and the denomination’s current moderator.
“None [of the commissions] reported knowingly ordaining gays and lesbians, but they also made it clear that they did not inquire about this issue,” Williams says. Many also said they did not to intend to ordain homosexuals. But when asked if they wanted the general church to establish criteria, “No, they absolutely did not,” Williams recalls.
The task force stopped short of a clear-cut “yes” or “no.” In its report to the 1979 Assembly, it recommended that regions continue to be responsible for nurturing and certifying candidates for ministry. While acknowledging that homosexuality is a “complex phenomenon” and that discerning God’s will is “a continuing process,” the task force said, “Recent studies have not convinced us nor the Church at large that the ordaining of persons who engage in homosexual practices is in accord with God’s will for the Church.”
After the 1977 and 1979 Assemblies, some regions continued with no official policy regarding sexual orientation. Others took their cues from the task force and adopted policies barring gays and lesbians from ordination.
Today there is no single answer to the question, “Where does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stand on the issue of ordaining gays and lesbians?” Instead, there are answers for each region of the church, plus the General Commission on Ministry, which confers ministerial standing to general church staff. Although many regions’ policies are similar, the effects of these policies on congregations and individuals are unique. They speak to the difficulties of trying to preserve the unity of a denomination held together by a covenantal polity, while taking seriously the church’s role in raising up and receiving all people summoned by God to the vocation of ordained ministry.
Called into ministry ... and out
Cheryl Breiner grew up in Utah in the 1970s. She sensed a call during high school, but didn’t know that women could become ministers. So she became a social worker. After a stint in the Peace Corps, Breiner realized she needed to take her calling seriously. She aspired to work as a pastoral counselor. Then a youth ministry internship with Denver’s Broadway Christian Church led her to consider a calling to congregational ministry.
“Concurrent with finding my call I realized my sexual identity,” says Breiner. “I very prayerfully considered the criteria for ministry at the time and didn’t see a conflict, though I knew most people would.”
She was ordained in 1982, moved in with her female partner, and went back into social work, but maintained her standing with the Central Rocky Mountain Region. In 1989, she accepted an interim ministry position with a church.
In 1990, Colorado’s regional assembly passed a resolution barring openly gay or lesbian people from being ordained. A few years later, Breiner wrote to the committee on ministry, revealing her sexual orientation. In September of 1996, her standing was revoked.
Why did she write the letter?
“My relationship is important to me; being who I am is important to me,” she says. “I don’t see a conflict between loving a woman and loving and serving God.”
After losing her standing, Breiner stayed involved with the Gay, Lesbian, and Affirming Disciples (GLAD) Alliance, but was only marginally active beyond the local church, avoiding regional events.
What does the Bible say?
Like many Disciples regions, North Carolina has no policy barring gay men or lesbians from ordination. But after a period of conflict, the region is only now moving to a place where civil discussion can happen, says Regional Minister John Richardson.
Richardson empathizes with those who wish the region was more open. He encourages the use of the “Listening to the Spirit” discernment materials developed by a denominational task force to help Disciples answer the question, “What is the gospel message to our church as we relate to gay and lesbian Christians?” As regional minister, he also tries to reach out to conservative Disciples, who are suspicious of anything that looks like an “agenda.”
So Richardson has a rule: He’ll only talk person-to-person about his views on gay persons in the life of the church. And he’s found a faithful conversation partner in Robert Cayton, a Disciples minister serving two churches in eastern North Carolina. Cayton’s views represent a large portion of the region, Richardson says.
Cayton serves in regional leadership, including the commission on ministry. Richardson encourages the commission to ask candidates any questions they feel are important, including questions about sexuality.
A self-avowed biblical literalist, Cayton believes that clergy and laity ought to live according to “New Testament standards” — including the Apostle Paul’s instruction to remain celibate or have sexual relations only within marriage.
Unlike conservatives who dismiss being gay or lesbian as a lifestyle choice, Cayton allows that genetics may determine sexual orientation and gender identity. But rather than signaling God’s intention within creation, Cayton reads these forms of genetic diversity as part of the biblical fall. What matters, then, is whether a candidate for ministry “acts on that preference.”
“If an individual said they were not living the biblical revelation to the best of their ability in this area … I could not feel comfortable voting on them to be ordained, licensed, or have standing,” he says.
Cayton is cautious about overstepping his role as a minister by singling out gay persons, whom he believes God can change, noting, “My responsibility is to preach the truth, live the truth, and let God take care of the hearts and minds and lives of others.”
A lifelong Disciple, Cayton has never felt that his views were unwelcome. But he resists the notion that Disciples need to work through their differences of opinion on this matter.
“The issue is not what I believe, or what anyone else believes,” he explains. “The issue is what the word of God says.”
Campbell, Stone, and beyond
Like Cayton, Newell Williams sees scripture as normative for Disciples. But, he points out, Alexander Campbell recognized the impossibility of reading the Bible apart from interpretation, and so developed a system for interpreting scripture.
Campbell believed that understanding scripture’s original context is part of interpretation. For Paul, homosexuality was closely tied with exploitation of slaves and youth in the Roman Empire, and the apostle had no concept of a mutual, committed relationship between two persons of the same gender, Williams says.
Regarding ordination, Disciples founder Barton Stone would probably object to the use of doctrinal standards established by a church assembly as a test of fitness for a ministerial candidate. The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, signed by Stone and five fellow ministers when they broke with Presbyterianism, “says the living presbytery, the human beings gathered together with a candidate — in our world, that would be the committee on ministry — is to determine whether they hear the voice of Christ speaking in that candidate, and should allow no written standard to replace that,” Williams says.
Williams serves on the Southwest Region’s committee on ministry. Not to be overlooked, in his view, is the congregation’s role. A committee or commission on ministry spends only a few hours getting to know a candidate, but the congregation vouches for a candidate’s “moral, spiritual, and intellectual gifts to represent Jesus Christ to us,” Williams notes. “Implicitly, our practice has been that … until we know otherwise, we’re going to assume that our congregations are not sending forth candidates that are not fit for ministry.”
But if a region explicitly prohibits the ordination of gays and lesbians, a congregation’s task is more than sponsorship. It means deciding to challenge existing standards, or to ignore them.
Don't ask, don't tell
Dennis Sanders grew up in predominantly black Baptist churches in Flint, Michigan. He heard ministers preach against homosexuality even as he was discerning his own sexual identity. It wasn’t until his twenties that he came out to himself. Now in his thirties, Sanders married his partner, Dan, last year.
When Sanders moved to Minneapolis 12 years ago, he joined a Disciples congregation. What drew him to the denomination was its appreciation of theological diversity and the importance of communion every Sunday.
He had been discerning a call to ministry and enrolled at Luther Seminary. Around that same time, he discovered the Upper Midwest Region had a policy against ordaining gays and lesbians.
Sanders and his pastor decided he would keep quiet through the approval process. “For the most part, no one asked, and I didn’t tell them anything,” he recalls. He was ordained in 2002.
A few months later, Sanders told his regional minister that he was gay. Since then, most people have been accepting. "I have even met people who would frown on the ordination of [gay] persons, but they have been respectful.”
He pastored a new church, but its efforts to reach the gay community didn’t get off the ground. Now, he’s reflecting on that experience, doing supply preaching, and waiting for another ministry opportunity.
“I don’t know if the ordination was as hard as the other side — as trying to find a call,” Sanders observes.
The region has other openly gay pastors, says Sanders. “It’s kind of an odd thing because, in practice, there is some acceptance. But on the books there’s still something here that says, ‘We could take away your standing, or just not ordain you.’”
Therein lies one problem with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, says Stephen Sprinkle, associate professor of practical theology at Brite Divinity School and author of Ordination: Celebrating the Gift of Ministry (Chalice Press, 2004), a study of the ordination practices and theology of denominations in the Free and Reformed Church traditions, including Disciples. Sprinkle oversees Brite’s field education program. He deals with seminarians from more than 30 denominations, most of which won’t ordain gay persons.
As an openly gay and ordained Baptist, Sprinkle knows the dilemma. First, “if a person does come out — at least to me — I want them to know what they are facing,” Sprinkle says. “Secondly, it’s not up to me to make the choice on what they need to do.”
Whether they decide to be upfront about their sexual orientation or to keep silent, “it will not be cost-free,” Sprinkle says.
For Disciples, who trace participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ to baptism, even “don’t ask, don’t tell” presents an interior theological conflict, Sprinkle says. “(Disciples) want to say that all Christians are part of the mutual ministry of Jesus Christ, but some baptized Christians, because of personal characteristics, are disqualified and should not be admitted to the process of ordination.”
Gay and lesbian clergy and seminarians “believe in a better church than they know,” Sprinkle says. They know how many gay people have been harmed by the church. “And yet they keep on saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ still answers more of the questions they have than any other source, and they are not about to turn loose of it.”
A few Disciples regions have become sort of “safe havens” for gay clergy. The Northwest is home to the first “open and affirming” congregation, Seattle’s Findlay Street Christian Church. Northern California–Nevada has been an “open and inclusive” region for more than a decade. The region completed a two-year study prior to adopting the moniker — a compromise on the “open and affirming” designation churches use to be intentional about welcoming gay persons.
Regional Minister Ben Bohren acknowledges that "the decision was uncomfortable for some churches then, and remains uncomfortable today. But these churches have remained an integral part of the region's ministry due to Disciples' covenantal relationships," he says.
If a congregation is looking for a minister and doesn’t want to receive profiles from gay candidates, they can ask not to. So far, all of the churches that have called openly gay clergy are the open and affirming ones. But in these congregations, the majority of members are straight. “They are diverse in age and ethnicity. Some are longtime Disciples, others are new Disciples,” says Bohren. And in congregations with heterosexual clergy, gay persons often serve in lay leadership.
The “open and affirming” designation “needs to be what we say about who we are in general,” Bohren adds. “It needs to be about anybody who walks in the door receives radical hospitality.”
The next generation
Leadership development is one of four tenets of the Disciples’ 2020 Vision. The denomination emphasizes the importance of supporting future leaders, especially those exploring a call to ministry. Many in the next Disciples generation were born after the contentious 1977 General Assembly. They grew up in a culture that is increasingly accepting of gay persons and open about sexuality. While not all young adult Disciples agree, most respondents to an informal survey on the Disciples’ young adult listserv believe the denomination should ordain or license all qualified persons who are called to ministry, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
For now, the issue remains divisive, although there are signs of change. The commission on ministry in Dennis Sanders’ region, the Upper Midwest, voted last year to appoint a task group to review its policy.
A few years ago, Cheryl Breiner was invited to participate in a discernment group in the Central Rocky Mountain Region. There, she met a person with conservative views who was loving and compassionate toward her. The group “was just a huge part of my healing process,” she recalls.
In 2007, the region updated its policies and criteria for ministry, taking out the prohibitive language. Last June, Breiner’s standing was reinstated. She is grateful that her parents, both in their 80s, were alive to see that happen. “I think it was a very healing moment for many people in the region,” she says.