It’s inevitable that Australian Pentecostal Churches will welcome gay and lesbian Christians. Let me say that again. It’s inevitable that Australian Pentecostal Churches will welcome gay and lesbian Christians.
When I first made that statement to a church leader in 2005 he laughed. ‘That will never happen’, he replied. At that stage I had nothing to base that statement on except two things.
- A faith in a God that can transform His people and that His church so they can be as He intended; a place of love and acceptance not condemnation and judgement.
- A faith in Pentecostal people. I’ve been involved in Pentecostal circles for four decades now and in essence I know that they are good people, not evil. They may not always have got it right but my belief is that in the end sanity will prevail re sexuality as it has about numerous other issues. (see below)
I firmly believe that the question is no longer a matter of ‘if’ Pentecostals will welcome GLBT people, but ‘when’ and ‘how’. I keep reminding church leaders, who are prepared to dialogue with me that it’s about how we manage the change. What can we learn from other denominations that have made the shift successfully as well as those who are splitting at the seams, like the Anglican Church? What aided the transition? What created polarisation and caused the damage?
A substantial number of people in Pentecostal congregations now believe that homosexuality is a sexual orientation not a sin. I’ve spoken to or received emails from so many people who have gay men or lesbians as friends and relatives and know, without a shadow of doubt, that homosexuality is not a ‘lifestyle choice’. They would not expect them to change who they are and it’s offensive to them to even consider such a thing.
Australian Church Life Survey Reveals the Shift
Traditional teaching about homosexuality within Pentecostal churches in Australia was quite simple: it’s a sin, demonic and lifestyle choice. Pentecostal people, like mental health professionals in the 50’s & 60’s, believed that homosexuality could be cured or healed. It’s not that long ago that if you asked anyone in Australian Pentecostal churches these two questions the answer would be a resounding, non-equivocal NO.
- Should homosexuals be appointed to leadership positions in the church on the same basis as heterosexuals?
- Should homosexuals be accepted as members in the church on the same basis as heterosexuals?
In 2001 a survey was conducted by the National Church Life Survey, across a number of denominations, to gauge congregant’s attitudes towards homosexual people. In that survey, when asked anonymously, 21% of Pentecostals said YES to the first question and 54% said YES to the second question. Things are no longer as they were.
Australian Pentecostal Churches Will Embrace GLBT People
A Little History about Pentecostalism in Australia
Christianity in Australia was imported initially from England and Europe. The buildings, style of worship, rituals etc were from a different culture. Whilst this flourished for a while, these churches and denominations are mostly in decline and congregations aging; the average Australian, particularly youth, finding them irrelevant to life in the 21st century.
One of the themes of my preaching in the 80’s was the need to create a unique breed of Aussie Christianity that was not influenced by Europe or the US. Nowadays there are many growing and successful movements within Pentecostalism in Australia including Hillsong, Christian City Church (C3), The Edge, Planet Shakers and Christian Outreach Centres. Australia now has many mega-churches. Whilst the Pentecostal style of worship is not everyone’s cup of tea it seems that they have tapped into something that many Aussies relate to; the vibrancy of a rock concert and the energy of a football match. The uniqueness of these expressions of Christianity are currently getting global attention and people come from other countries to learn from their success.
The Way We Were (8 things that no longer exist)
If you can find someone who was a part of the Pentecostal movement back in the 60’s they will tell you exactly what Pentecostal Christianity was like then. It was basically a holiness movement that had little more than cult status; frequently put in the same basket as Jehovah Witnesses.
I set foot in my first Pentecostal Church, Petersham Assemblies of God, in 1969. This is the way things were then.
- Everyone dressed conservatively as this was considered a sign of holiness (ie being separate from the world). Men wore suits to church
- Women wore hats. The bible says it is shameful for a woman to have her head uncovered.
- No jewellery or makeup. The bible says dress modestly and not adorn yourself with jewellery. Women who wore excessive makeup were called Jezebels or considered harlots.
- Women were not allowed to wear slacks or jeans as that was men’s clothing. The bible says that you can’t wear the opposite genders clothes.
- Long hair was out for Pentecostal young men. The bible says that demons came out of the pit of hell with faces of men and hair of women.
- No tattoos or piercing. The bible banned them.
- Any form of music apart from Christian music was banned. You couldn’t listen to the radio or buy a pop record.
- Later on rock music was considered demonic and some even preached that secret messages had been implanted in the music which could be heard if it was played backwards.
- Anything that sounded contemporary at all was conforming to the world. This included folk music.
- Worship Style:
- Services were extremely conservative formalised and structured. Although Pentecostals felt that they gave liberty to the Holy Spirit to move and they were not like traditional ritualistic denominations, an unwritten liturgy still existed.
- Only hymns and simple repetitive choruses were sung
- There were usually two or at the most messages in tongues and then the interpretation. The bible gave clear directions about the use of the gifts of the Spirit in church meetings. This only happened in the morning service as the evening service was a gospel service for the unsaved and the bible once again gave clear directions about such displays in front of non-believers.
- In most churches the only instruments were piano and/or organ. Introducing drums could be enough to split a church over the issue.
- After the charismatic movement of the 70’s & 80’s some within the Pentecostal world wanted a more vibrant and expressive style of worship. This issue nearly divided the Assemblies of God. The main issue being whether people were allowed to dance in church and should singing extemporaneously in the spirit be permitted.
- No one was allowed to go the cinema. It was called the SINema.
- At church camps men and women swam separately. The bible says that it was not good to cause your brother to stumble by placing temptation in front of them.
- Going to dances was banned. This was ‘worldly’ and the bible said to not put yourself in a vulnerable position of temptation and two people holding each other closely could incite sexual arousal. It was also considered pagan and tribal and therefore demonic. When Moses came down from the mountain he found the people worshiping a golden calf and they were dancing.
- The Sabbath (Sunday to Pentecostals) was meant to be a holy day. Therefore you couldn’t play sport, go to the beach, watch TV or even read the Sunday papers.
Everyone abstained totally from any form of alcohol (even in cooking). The bible says not to be drunk and one glass could be the first step on a slippery path to debauchery. The Australian Christian Churches (ACC, formerly the Assemblies of God) conference this year removed the statement in the ministers’ code of ethics that they must abstain from all alcohol or they would lose their credential. Most Pentecostals these days don’t see a problem drinking socially but not excessively.
- No real social action programs such as working with the unemployed, homeless or the poor. This was considered to be the work of missionaries in foreign third world countries. It was never really done as an act of charity but with strings attached. Eg you must attend this service, hear the gospel, then we’ll feed you.
- Indigenous Australians were ministered to on missions and expected to reject their culture entirely and adopt a western holiness lifestyle.
- No programs that dealt with important life related issues such as mental health, personal development, leadership, sexual abuse etc. This was the Holy Spirit’s job to sort these things out.
- Congregations were basically white Anglo-Saxon. Today though congregations are multicultural and many ethnic churches exist.
- The Role of Women:
- Although there were many women preachers and church planters in the early days (1930’s) of Pentecostalism in Australia, over a few decades it had become totally male dominated and patriarchal.
- Women were not allowed to preach. The bible says not to let a woman teach of have authority over a man.
- Women were not allowed leadership positions. The bible says that women are more susceptible to spiritual attacks as demonstrated by Eve in the Garden of Eden.
- The expected role was very much that women are to bear children, be housekeepers and submit to their husbands authority
Today 26.41% of credentialed pastors are female (up from 24.6% in 2006). It’s a growing trend. 5.74% of senior pastors in sole leadership are female (5.09% in 2006). Pastor Melinda Dwight (Imagine Church Melbourne) was the first female to sit on an Australian Christian Churches (ACC) national board and the first women to be elected to a State Executive. This year (2009), Pastor Donna Crouch (from Hillsong) was elected to the ACC National Executive. Some believed this would never happen.
- Once divorced you could never remarry. The bible says so. Some wouldn’t ever get divorced because of the shame and remained in dysfunctional or abusive marriages.
- Those that did divorce either left the church or remained in the congregation living with a sense of shame and were often treated like lepers.
Realising the previous stand of divorce was impractical and caused unnecessary suffering; the ACC Executive began amending its policy on divorce. This year (2009) it was formally passed. Even though there is a gospel record of Jesus saying there are never any grounds for divorce, the ACC has allowed it on the grounds of adultery and abuse. This has separated Australian Pentecostals from many of their brothers and sisters in other countries.
There’s much more I could talk about, but I think you get my drift.
If we were able to transport a Pentecostal from the 60’s into the morning service of your average Pentecostal church today they would be horrified. It would be totally unrecognisable to them and they would believe that the movement had lost its way. Within the space of forty years the Pentecostal world in Australia has evolved and shed every single one of these things I’ve mentioned above. The verses that created the culture, practices and beliefs are still there in the bible but the old interpretations are now considered irrelevant. Some Pentecostals in Australia have realised that the six passages in the bible, assumed to talk about homosexuality, were written in another time and culture and not talking about same sex orientation as we know it today. This has not happened to the same degree in other countries. There is something about our unique Aussie culture that has contributed to these significant shifts.
So if there is any denomination or Christian group in Australia that has the potential to evolve, transition and re-invent itself then it’s Pentecostals. What has occurred in a few decades in the Pentecostal world here has not happened in other areas of Christendom for centuries.
The recent message preached by Pastor Rob Buckingham ‘Real Christianity – the accepting Church’ at Bayside church in Melbourne is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only is the message a global first, the entire congregation gave him a standing ovation at the conclusion of the message. Bayside is to be congratulated for their courage in being the first to say “Bayside Church is a place where everyone is welcome. We believe that God loves everyone and that He sent His Son Jesus to bring salvation (through His death and resurrection) to all of humanity. A study of the life of Jesus clearly reveals His love and care towards those who are often marginalized by the rest of society. Bayside Church welcomes GLBT people to find God’s love and grace and to worship Him freely within our community.”
The gay press welcomed the news warmly.
First Bayside, then another church will take the step, then another, then another, till we reach the tipping point and an entire Pentecostal denomination welcomes GLBT people.
My belief is that Australia will lead the way with this issue. For many of us though it can’t come soon enough because every day we wait people suffer unnecessarily and lives are lost through suicide.
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