The Curious Case of a Sunday School Teacher

Here’s a case that came my way recently:

Benjamin serves in his church as a Sunday School teacher of middle school children. He is popular with the children and with the youth pastor. Benjamin has been at the church for several years, he’s been baptized at the church and is a member. He recently confided to the church leadership that he is a homosexual. Benjamin is aware of the biblical teaching on sexual activity and says he wants to live a holy life. He is committed to celibacy but is certain that he cannot change his sexual orientation. He asked the leadership for prayer and support as he pursues what he says is God’s call for him to be monastic. Meanwhile, George, a prominent elder in the church, says that he plans to leave the church unless Benjamin is removed from his teaching role. The situation has become known throughout the church. What are the church’s elders and other leaders to do?

I was surprised that almost all of the comments from the leaders were geared toward defending Benjamin, how to help Benjamin so he can continue in his role as a teacher and what should be done to rebuke elder George for his ultimatum.

Here’s a representation of the comments:

• What constitutes sin? Is desire a sin or is only acting on desire sinful?

• It’s obvious that elder George told the church about Benjamin’s situation. The elders need to rebuke George for gossiping about this.

• The church is a family, and not all family members are the same. We need to be tolerant and patient with one another.

• A substantial percentage of homosexuals cannot change, and we shouldn’t punish them for not being able to change.

• Why pick on homosexuality? I used to serve as a pastor at a church where quite a few board members had big problems . . . there were adulteries and divorces and re-marriages . . . all in the same church . . . and some of these people were on the board!

• Why should being gay be an issue? You don’t see people talking to others and saying, ‘By the way, I’m heterosexual.’

All of that makes powerful fodder for discussion. But begging for the asking are several questions that lead to important principles in church leadership:

• What are the most important concerns in the case? Is Benjamin's teaching role primary? Is George's role as an elder primary? No. The most important concern is the health and protection of the church. Whatever honors the Lord is best for the church. Even righteous, God-honoring decisions can lead to difficult consequences. The preferences and position of any individual are subservient to the health and protection of the church.

• If teaching is a role of esteem and influence in the church—and it is—then do we want Benjamin to teach the boys and girls in our church? I was surprised that no one stood on the conviction that an openly homosexual person—celibate or not—should not have a teaching role in the church. This springs not from a desire to persecute homosexuals, but from the conviction that homosexuality is a grave offense against the Lord’s natural order and is sinful according to the Scriptures. Benjamin should be cared for in the church and valued as one made in God's image, but giving Benjamin teaching opportunities is a different matter entirely.

• Is it right to single out homosexual desire for special rebuke? No, of course not. But people shouldn't be expected to respond normally to someone who confidently and publicly announces temptation toward sexual sin, such as, I desire to have sex with all of the blonde women in the church. I’m not acting on my desire because I want to be holy. Now, let me teach your children in Sunday School. Even the least discerning follower of Christ will suspect that that person has some serious problems, and that those problems aren't only about sexual desire. Yet, somehow, in this case, the church leaders gave Benjamin a free pass while they hammered George.

• Is leading in the local church a right for everyone who wants it or is it a privilege for those who are not perfect, but are qualified according to biblical standards? It’s strange that the leaders’ comments in this case were totally dominated by sensitive thoughts toward preserving Benjamin and by angry thoughts toward rebuking George. But why rebuke George? For the ultimatum he delivered? Sure, that’s a rebuke that seems warranted. We don’t know how the congregation became aware of Benjamin's situation, so George cannot be blamed for spreading the information through the church. But should George be rebuked for his energy to remove Benjamin from his teaching role? I don’t think so. Why? Because his conviction that Benjamin should not teach is easily defensible. George may have responded harshly out of anger, or maybe he’s just mean and small. Or maybe he’s afraid that the elders and other leaders will not do what’s required.

Among all the leaders who discussed this case, about 99 percent of their energy was directed against elder George and was protective toward teacher Benjamin. It struck me that many church leaders seem indoctrinated to tolerance and geared solely toward compassion so that they have no sharp edge of protection for the local church. Are they afraid of being accused of being small or harsh or narrow or phobic? Or are they so lacking in discernment that they don’t even know how far they’ve strayed from balanced strength? They may want to protect the church and many think they’re doing well by being tolerant and broad-minded. But church leadership ultimately is a privilege, and there are some sinful behaviors—and self-assured, public announcements of sinful temptations—that simply cannot be tolerated by those charged with protecting the church. In this case, the leaders’ sharp edge was turned to protect Benjamin and attack George, with no consideration of the church as a whole and the church's children in particular. The considerations needed to cut a path that was broader and deeper. That’s why good eldering is so difficult. Apart from abiding in Christ, who is adequate for these things?