When I was a young man in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was a time of great social upheaval with a war in Vietnam that history has determined to be a horrible blunder and a civil rights movement that would bring a more just world into being.
The churches I attended did not encourage the work for justice that African-American churches were doing in the streets of America. They would not invite people of color into their fellowships but spent time worrying about what to do if the people they would not invite came.
At Christmas they called Jesus the Prince of Peace, but never said, as Jesus taught, “He that lives by the sword dies by the sword.” One would have thought that every church would have proclaimed the “release of the captives” in support of our African-American sisters and brothers, as Jesus did in his first sermon.
Instead, what I heard in this time of great turmoil was that God wanted me to get a haircut. As far as I can tell, the only Scripture about hair that applies is 1 Corinthians 11:14 15. There is far more Scripture that speaks of men who did not cut their hair–the Nazirite vow was no wine, no sex and no haircut. The church wanted me to fulfill the first two, but they changed the latter to “get a haircut.” All pictures of Jesus on the stained glass windows were with long hair and a beard, but the preacher, bald and clean-shaven, declared that long hair would destroy America.
Why did the church speak so foolishly? Why on earth was it silent about the real voice of its Lord that needed to be heard in a culture that was so horribly contrary to His life and teachings?
Today is also a time of great social upheaval. We are engaged in a war already seen as a mistake of monumental proportions because it has caused great instability in the place where the whole world is dependent for fossil fuel.
It is a time, as reported in the Greensboro News and Record, when the median income of the residents of Gilford County has fallen 21 percent in the last five years in spite of the soaring gross national product, which indicates that the rich are getting richer at a rapidly increasing rate while the rest of us have lost more than one out of every five dollars in real income.
Jesus is still called the Prince of Peace at Christmas and a few people still have a vague memory of His saying “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24 NRSV), but the public church is strangely silent on these real issues.
The church is again on a tangent–homosexuality. There are a few texts in the Bible that speak about homosexuality as a sin, but they are few and very far between. The strongest one is in Leviticus 13, but if we killed everyone who is condemned in that one chapter, we would be missing a bunch of people in church.
Keeping the Sabbath is mentioned far more often; if we were to keep what the Old Testament teaches, we would have to take a count of all who eat out, go shopping, work, play golf, watch or play football, watch or drive race cars on Saturday (Jewish Sabbath) or Sunday (Christian Sabbath) and stone them to death on Monday. Removing Sabbath-breakers from church fellowship would be far more understandable to any literalist than excluding homosexuals if the Bible is the test.
Many people who claim to be literalists literally believe what they literally want to believe. What if the test was the saying, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 6:1-5).
Maybe we could agree that “God is love.” Love is the power that overcomes separation. Maybe we could agree that God’s love is beyond our understanding, that He might love our enemies and, as Jesus says, He might accept into His Church all sorts of folk who are different.
I have been a pastor for 33 years, and I have never asked anyone about their sexual preference. Every Sunday we all take part in a confession of sins. I like to think that we are confessing pride, greed, envy or another of the deadly sins and, if so, that we do not have time to police everyone else.
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.