Serving Two Masters: When Church and Justice Don't Agree

By Christian Piatt 11-26-2013

Methodist minister Rev. Frank Schaefer (not to be confused with Frank Schaeffer) has come up against what some might call a conflict of interest in living out his call as a minister of the gospel. Some might even call his experience a crisis of faith, but for Schaefer and his son, Tim, the struggles they have faced in recent weeks and months have yielded beautifully unexpected blessings.

Schaefer's troubles with the larger Methodist Church go back some six years to when he performed a wedding ceremony for Tim, who is gay. Although his son realized this would present Schaefer with a dilemma (the United Methodist Church does not allow their ministers to conduct same-sex marriages), he also knew that it would hurt his father deeply not to be asked to perform the ceremony, regardless of whom he was marrying.

The wedding was performed in Mass., where same-sex marriages are legally recognized.

Though it took some time, charges were brought against Schaffer within the denomination, and he has recently had his license for ministry suspended. He is now facing an ultimatum: either he has to renounce his support for the performance of same-sex marriages or he will be defrocked within a month.

But based on his comments to the church governing body assessing his case, it seems there is only one inevitable outcome. According to a recent Associated Press article, Rev. Schaefer said that the church “needs to stop judging people based on their sexual orientation. We have to stop the hate speech. We have to stop treating them as second-class Christians."

"I have to minister to those who hurt,” he said later in the article, “and that's what I'm doing." When asked if he would renounce what he had done in order to retain his standing, he answered plainly with two simple words: “I cannot.”

Rev. Schaefer has not always held such an affirming position as an advocate for LGBT rights within the church. In fact, according to a recent interview he offered on National Public Radio, he did not even know his own son was gay. It wasn't until he received an anonymous phone call from one of Tim’s friends that it came to light. Up until that point, Schaefer had followed and supported the teaching of the church, according to the Methodist Book of Discipline. But according to the caller, Schaefer’s son was struggling with his sexuality and was considering suicide.

Tim had prayed earnestly over the years for God to take his same-sex attraction away from him but to no avail. Having grown up in a church where effectively he was told that what he was a mistake, he felt he had nowhere to turn, including his church, his own family, and even God.

It was then that Schaefer's heart opened. It was clear to him in that moment that God did not create his son — or his sexuality — as a punishment, test of faith, or as some deviant cosmic mistake. It was who he was; it was who God created him to be. As such, Schaeffer felt convicted that it was his call as a minister and follower of Jesus to stand up for the rights of his son and millions of others marginalized by the institutional church because of whom they were born to be.

Christina Watson, who left the congregation where Rev. Schaeffer has served as senior pastor for 11 years, claimed that her family's departure could directly be attributed to Schaeffer's actions. "To me, it wasn't a good Christian example for ministers to say it's okay to break the rules of your church," she said in the Associated Press article.

This raises the important question of what it means to set a “good Christian example.” One has to question the assumption about whether following church law and doctrine supersedes the call to err on the side of love and compassion, and to follow the gospel commandments written deeply within one's own heart. And although Schaefer may not be a good Methodist according to his denomination's Book of Discipline, it seems inappropriate to charge him with setting a poor Christian example for honoring and participating in a ceremonial covenant between two people who love each other.

Unless he retracts his support for his son's marriage, Rev. Schaeffer will lose his standing in the Methodist Church, along with his job, by Christmas.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bibleand Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is calledPREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

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