Just days after the city of Collegedale extended partner benefits to its employees in same-sex relationships, a troubling post began making the rounds on social media. Kat Cooper, the Collegedale detective at the center of the partner benefits story, revealed that her family had been cast out of the Ridgedale Church of Christ for supporting her. The news finally broke in mainstream media on Wednesday in a Times Free Press story that was also widely distributed through social media.
The reactions of Tennessee’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community ran the gamut from anger to declarations of "I’m not surprised" to speculation that "Maybe they can find a congregation that accepts their family now." One commenter decided it was the "best thing that could have happened" because now the family would be rid of that church.
In my view, the "best thing that could have happened" would have been for the congregation to embrace the family and stand with them in celebrating their victory. My guess is that is probably not something the family expected but might have wanted. Or maybe they just wanted to be left alone.
But could it happen? Could a congregation in a socially conservative religious tradition embrace a family with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members? That is a question that interests me. I think it can and does happen, and that means Ridgedale Church of Christ could have made a different choice in its pastoral response to the family.
The Church of Christ, like Southern Baptists, is congregational in its governance. In other words, all the power to make decisions lies in the congregation. They do not have to check in with a bishop, a district superintendent, a presbytery or a denominational structure. Other congregations in the same tradition can refuse to recognize them, but they are free to follow the truth as they discern it.
I think this incident at Ridgedale Church of Christ is going to give many socially conservative congregations in Tennessee pause, which could lead to a time of reflection and real discernment. I know there are already members of similar congregations saying to themselves, "We wouldn’t have kicked the family out."
Such events mostly play out quietly in the lives of congregations, but this time, everything is out in the open for public inspection. The public conversation is serving as a sort of mirror into which few congregations get the chance to look, and I bet a lot of the members don’t like what they see. Some will no doubt become defensive and explain that they are simply standing for truth against sin and are facing calumny from a hostile world. But many will begin to see that there is nothing courageous about standing against a mother supporting her daughter who is just trying to get health insurance and other benefits for her partner. Others will ask deeper questions like whether the Bible really condemns loving, committed relationships of people of the same gender. Still others will wonder whether their fundamental core values of love and redemption conflict with what happened in Ridgedale.
These critical questions and the passage of time, in which younger, more inclusive leaders begin to fill pulpits and pews, will bring changes to socially conservative congregations. Many are already calling for a timeout in the culture wars, an important step on the way to embracing families like Kat Cooper’s. In the meantime, it is profoundly sad that another family has been ripped from their community of faith for embodying the family values of love and support.
Chris Sanders, acting executive director, Tennessee Equality Project
The opinions expressed in this editorial belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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