I couldn’t believe my ears. Fred said, “I believe every sin listed in Romans 1 remains a sin today. I just don’t think one of them is being in a committed same-sex relationship.” What?
That was a comment Fred Harrell made to a group of pastors and seminary students in March of 2015 at a denominational training in San Francisco. I had never heard anything like it. By this point, I had heard plenty of people say they didn’t think that gay relationships were wrong, but Romans 1 was never part of that conversation – it was avoided awkwardly or dismissed as irrelevant, or perhaps the whole idea of sin was said to be obsolete. But to pair a clear affirmation of sin’s relevance while approaching Romans 1 unflinchingly from the progressive side, well, that was a new approach.
Fred Harrell and Ken Korver are the lead pastors of the two largest churches (City Church San Francisco and Emmanuel Reformed, respectively) in our part of the denomination, and they differ on how they think the church should relate to LGBTQ persons. Ken stood up the day following Fred’s comments and shared passionately about how he saw Fred’s perspective as flawed. In Ken’s words, “the perspective that Fred is taking is not a biblical perspective.”
I was familiar with Ken’s approach (I had worked for Ken for fifteen years, and we’d had some conversations about his perspective), but I’d never seen Ken in a dialogue like this. For me, it was a gift to be able to listen to the two of them together – rarely have I seen civil conversation between people with such different perspectives. That was the first of three conversations I’ve been a part of with Ken and Fred.
The second conversation I witnessed was also in San Francisco, where, in October 2016, they were on a panel of denominational leaders addressing different ways of looking at LGBTQ issues. Again, they were not in agreement. But they were sitting about 10 inches from each other, and there was an obvious rapport and respect between the two. After that conversation, I wasn’t sure if the two of them could stay in the same denomination (although I hope they can). But I never doubted that they both loved Jesus and submitted to God’s word and that they both believed the other to be a true Christian.
The third conversation with Fred and Ken took place in Long Beach as part of our Study Team. Because of the distance and schedules, we couldn’t get the two of them here on the same day, but we hosted each of them for an afternoon with the Study Team to hear their personal stories of connecting with LGBTQ people, their theological journeys, and what they perceive God saying about these issues.
There are certain assumptions that Christians often make about those who disagree with them on these matters, and having Ken and Fred here was so helpful to clear the air of those judgments.
Often, progressives dismiss traditionalists by saying, “Well, they don’t know anyone who is gay so of course they think that. They are just homophobes.” Ken put that idea to rest. He’s got tons of friends who are gay and has led groups with gay men for decades, caring for them, and journeying with them spiritually. In fact, I just spent some time recently with a man who was in a group led by Ken way back in the 1990s, and although he sees the scriptures differently than Ken, he has nothing but positive things to say about how gracious, supportive and kind Ken was to him and the rest of the men in that group.
Often the traditionalists judge the progressives as not dealing with scripture honestly or deeply. Fred couldn’t have been better at addressing that issue. He easily can jump between the Greek construction of arsenokoitai to the New Testament context for eunuchs to the strengths of Webb’s ‘redemptive movement hermeneutic.’ Fred knows his stuff, and he’s clearly not avoiding the Bible. In fact, he holds his progressive perspective on LGBTQ issues because of the Bible.
I’m grateful for Ken and Fred taking time out of their schedules to help our Study Team discern the leading of the Holy Spirit. I’m grateful for those who have gone before me in thinking about these things and are willing to share their perspectives.