With the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in favor of marriage equality last week, it was expected that clergy across the country would begin to express their opinions.
Bishop TD Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas, offered remarks about marriage equality and a Christian response here:
Bishop Jakes’ remarks may seem like a respectful way to address the issue, but they aren’t. There’s a pervasive idea that speaking about issues calmly with respectful language somehow sanctifies the troubling rhetoric that is being delivered. As a friend put it, there’s a heavy element of “nice nasty” that’s present in Jakes’ remarks.
Jakes starts by telling his congregation that Christians shouldn’t “lose their minds” in regards to the Supreme Court ruling. To paraphrase his words, the Church shouldn’t be concerned when “the world” does what it tends to do. He notes that the Justices were dealing with the rights that are given by the Constitution. He goes on to mention that the Justices weren’t debating Romans 1 and First Corinthians when deciding this ruling. This is a hint into where Jakes will ultimately end up. The New Testament books of Romans and 1 Corinthians contain lynchpin scriptures for people who are opposed to same-sex relations. Certain words and phrases function as dog whistles in church contexts, sending a rallying call around certain ideas that are understood but not spelled out directly. Mentioning Romans and First Corinthians as he did is a coded way of pointing the parishioner toward an understanding of same-sex sexual activity as sin. Jakes has stated previously that he thinks scripture “condemns” sex between people of the same-sex in an interview with Oprah in 2012, but it wouldn’t have been smart to be direct in a broadcast that was aired to millions. The COGIC backlash involving Andrew Caldwell is instructive in this case.
Bishop Jakes upholds the idea that the traditional way of reading the text will automatically lead to his particular understanding. This is not true, as many faithful people who read the text come up with different ideas about every subject the Bible presents. In a seminary class I once took, a classmate said, “I take the Bible literally, and the Bible literally does not condemn gay people. They aren’t speaking about what we are discussing today.” There’s a multitude of ways to view scripture. Those diverse interpretations are a major part of why we have so many denominations today.
Jakes also makes the assumption that things would be better if people became “real Christians.” For Jakes, it appears that a true Christian is someone who shares their faith. If more Christians evangelized, and not segregate themselves from people who aren’t like-minded, Christianity would spread. The statistics available concerning Christian perception in this country would suggest otherwise (Read this Barna Group report here). People know what the Christian message is, and they perceive it to be one of hate and intolerance. They hear and understand, they just don’t want what’s being offered.
Lastly, Jakes makes a comment about the Bible toward the end that may well be the most concerning portion of the remarks. He says, “But I must warn you, God does not judge you by the Constitution. He judges you by the Word of God. So while the Supreme Court is looking at the Constitution, you better search the Scripture.” He continued to say, “This blessed old book is still good, it’s still right anyhow.”
This remark is a veiled threat. Given the context of the sermon, people who don’t agree or live by Jakes’ biblical understanding of sexuality are in danger of being judged by God. To suggest that judgement is the appropriate response to Jakes’s perspective of sexuality—a perspective that is highly debatable at best—is cruel, regardless of how well-meaning it sounds. Scripturally, Jesus does discuss the threat of judgment, but it is frequently to those who abuse children or people he loves (Matthew 18:1-6), hypocrites (Mark 7: 1-13), and people who ignore the most vulnerable in society (Matthew 25:31-46). Saying “God said it” doesn’t absolve anyone from the responsibility of the stances they take. God isn’t making the declaration; you are. Damnation and hell are some of the most violently used concepts in Christian thought, and they are often used by people in power to threaten others toward their point of view. Rarely is biblical wrath directed at the modern day equivalents of the ones who receive the threats in scripture. This needs to change.
Jakes relies on the idea of the church being separate from the world to justify placing LGBT people and their issues on the back-burner. It’s not something to “lose his mind” about, which is a nice-nasty way of saying that LGBT issues aren’t worth Christian effort to fight for. This is where he, and many others, make a critical error. Separating the church from the world will not remove LGBT people from the church house. We are everywhere, including in the pews of his church when he was giving this message. We are ministers, deacons, trustees, and ushers. We participate in the life of the church in such an ingrained way, that our removal would be immediately noticed. There are affirming churches and clergy who praised God when the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. Are they not Christian? There is no clean place to cut down the middle. A break away from the LGBT community wouldn’t sanctify the church, it would splinter the church into even more pieces than it is right now.
Bishop Jakes does what many do, function under a cloak of civility to push anti-LGBT message. He’s savvy enough not to use buzzwords that will not attract the same level of scrutiny and critique that others do when they engage in anti-LGBT speech. It’s time to begin noticing this, and holding our leaders more accountable for the ideas they present, as well as the consequences they produce for others.