Below the Belt: Dr. Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
In the matter of marital and pre-marital counseling, I always had a rule – three counseling sessions only – the man, the woman and the couple. If more than three seemed to be required, I referred the couple to a professional outside of the church I was serving. There are several reasons I came to this particular rule. Early on in ministry, like many starting off, I wanted to help people and thought that I could do so by talking people, including couples, through their difficulties.
I soon learned that very often I could indeed help the couple, see them resolve some of their issues, and then, they would leave the church and go elsewhere. It was simply that having talked to me about intimate secrets in their relationship, they no longer felt comfortable sitting in a church where the pastor knew what they had done, who they had slept with, the intensity of their arguments or even that they had decided to get married because of a pregnancy. Additionally, with extended pre-marital counseling, issues often arose in discussion that indicated that the impending marriage might well be a disaster. Sometimes, they would come to the conclusion on their own and, other times, I would be stuck wondering how much I had the right, obligation or duty to say. No matter how it occurred, it seldom worked out for the good of the church or my heretofore good relationship with the couple!
So, I arrived at my rule – three counseling sessions only – limited involvement.
This had the added advantage of not becoming intimately involved with any person in the congregation in discussions that might touch upon sexual issues. This is simply wisdom in terms of pastoral counseling. Over the course of the past forty years, however, so many of the issues have changed. In my early twenties, most of us were looking at the possibility of a single, last forever marriage that would have the storybook ending – “and they lived happily ever after”. At our thirty-fifth anniversary a few years back, my wife and I tried to come up with how many of our friends had reached that goal. We came up with two other couples (one of which is now getting a divorce). Most of our married friends had been divorced at some point (some more than once) and remarried. Often we had to follow the mantra, “remember to be nice to the new wife/husband”, so as to maintain relationships with old and trusted friends. We also learned not to delve too deeply into the often sordid or embarrassing reasons for the divorce.
It is accepted wisdom that 40% – 50% of marriages fail. In recent years, that percentage has dipped slightly, but it is uncertain as to whether this is owing to the stability of more recent marriages or to the reality that many couples simply live together without benefit of marriage. Moreover, other issues of sexuality have come to dominate our discussions in a remarkably short span of time. Gay, lesbian and, now, transgender identity have come to the forefront of national, as well as, denominational politics. Same sex unions are now the law of the land. Gender identity is now openly debated and discussed. Male and female roles, or the lack thereof, are in transition. Meanwhile, churches and, indeed, the culture at large, have become fractured and fractious as these issues, one by one, are discussed openly in the national media.
Now, beyond anything else, I am a church historian, both by disposition and training. As such, I am unwilling to overturn two thousand years of Christian teaching and moral theology to suit the whims and currents of secular society. At the same time, I am reminded of the Roman Senate locked in debate in the forum as the Goths and Vandals were already pouring through the gates of the city. Their debate was consigned to irrelevancy owing to the reality that had already fallen upon them.
Furthermore (and I think we must admit this) we have been remarkably tolerant with some issues and intolerant with others. Generally, we have been very tolerant, especially in recent years, with regard to divorce and remarriage in the Church. Most of us can even name a number of Christian leaders and pastors in this category. Also, many churches have essentially adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to couples living together without benefit of marriage. (Although the identical address on the marriage license is a good clue.) I’m not saying this is right or wrong, I’m simply stating the reality. Yet, we often do this because we can see ourselves in the young couple living together, or in the troubled marriage of a friend or relative. We hope and pray that with the passage of time, their circumstances and conduct might change. They are like us and, therefore, we treat them as we would wish to be treated, with respect, understanding, tolerance and forgiveness. When, however, we turn our attention to a gay or lesbian couple, (much less someone struggling with gender identity) we find ourselves viewing “the other”; that is, they are not like us. Moreover, even though Scripture speaks often and compellingly regarding marriage, faithfulness (and in some cases, divorce), we will “soften” those passages for those who are “like us”, allowing time for change and/or forgiveness. For those who are “not like us”, however, a small number of proof texts (some misapplied) are at the ready, with few exceptions for age, time or circumstance and, so, often, we are seen as being hypocritical.
All this is to say, I’m tired of the “below the belt” issues that are increasingly dominating our Christian discourse, discussions and debates. Moreover, we must admit, there is much in the discussions, on both sides, that verges on the salacious and the voyeuristic.
Yes, I recognize that activists on both sides of the issue are outspoken. On both sides, things are said and written with the intent to provoke a reaction. For myself, I would not feel comfortable, for the reasons stated above, in a pro-active LGBT congregation. Nor, however, would I feel comfortable in a congregation in which anti-Gay activism was the order of the day. Additionally, I would not feel comfortable in a congregation in which the complex issues of marriage, divorce, and sexuality are placed as the main tenets of the faith, outpacing and overshadowing Christ’s love and Christ’s forgiveness As with marital and pre-marital counseling, we might consider placing some limits on our involvement and even our supposed expertise in such matters, not only for our own sake, but more especially for the sake of the Church and those people who come to us simply seeking a new life in Christ.