Julie Atwood scheduled the funeral of her son, Julion Evans-Capers, at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida. This was the church where she was baptized as a child and several of her family members still attended. Then the local paper published her son’s obituary, including the fact that he was married to a man. So many church members were upset by this news that the day before the funeral was to begin, the pastor called to cancel. The family was at Julion’s wake, standing next to his casket, when they received the news.
Pastor T. W. Jenkins later explained to a reporter, “Based on our preaching of the scripture, we would have been in error to allow the service in our church. I’m not trying to condemn anyone’s lifestyle, but at the same time, I am a man of God, and I have to stand up for my principles.” The church’s decision has generated international headlines, most of them highly critical.
It seems to me that the family would have known of the church’s clear stand on homosexuality, and could have informed the pastor of the deceased’s sexual orientation beforehand. Likewise, it seems the church could have reached out to the family in a more personal and empathetic way. But here’s the larger question: How should churches respond to requests by same-sex couples for funeral services and other ministries?
It’s hard to imagine a more divisive question. Anything I say short of a full endorsement of such requests will be labeled homophobic by some. Anything I say short of a full rejection of such requests will be seen by others as endorsing homosexuality. This is an issue we cannot avoid and should address biblically and proactively. Here are my thoughts.
First, there is no biblical precedent for this issue. There are no same-sex marriages in the Bible, or funeral requests on behalf of someone who was homosexual. Every time the Bible addresses marriage, it describes it as the union of heterosexuals. It is sometimes said that Jesus was silent on the subject, but he clearly described marriage thus: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife'” (Matthew 19:4-5).
Second, conducting the funeral of a homosexual person is not necessarily an endorsement of homosexuality. No pastor will ever conduct the funeral of a sinless person. As a pastor, I’m sure I conducted many memorial services of people who had unrepented sin in their lives. Jesus ministered to people who committed a wide range of sins, from adultery (John 4) to theft (Luke 19:1-10) and other public failures (cf. Luke 7:36-50). Of course, he always sought to move people from their sin to his grace.
It seems to me that a pastor could do the same at a funeral. He would make it clear to the family beforehand that he would make a statement at the service such as, “Our church is honored to host today’s memorial service. We do not want you to see our decision as an endorsement of homosexuality, because it is not. Rather, it is an expression of God’s grace to us all.” The pastor could then explain how God can transform any life.
What are your thoughts? Please share them in our comments section. And know that God’s grace is greater than any sin. After listing “men who practice homosexuality” among the sins plaguing Corinth, Paul added: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9, 11).
Where do you need the sanctifying power of Jesus today?