The Black church may have created a role that warrants reconsideration.
I want to pose a challenge to all of our readers. I’ll give $100 to the first person that can find the phrase First Lady or First Gentleman in Scripture as it pertains to the Church. If my wife knew I made this promise, she’d probably have me sleeping on the couch tonight. But I’m just that confident it doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as a First Lady or First Gentleman when it comes to the Word of God. They are fabricated, idealistic titles that have invaded Black church culture. I’ve written previously about my disgust with the term on A&E’s show “The Sisterhood”, which closely followed the lives of a group of women who deemed themselves First Ladies. But this week, I think it turned into some righteous indignation (which is a good thing, I think). It’s table turning time.
But let me start with a brief history lesson. The African American pastor has, as long as I can remember, always held a distinguished position in the Black community. In my hometown, you can talk about Black teachers, Black politicians, and other Black public figures. But you bet no dare “put your mouth” on the man of God. There’s that “Touch not mine anointed…” (see Psalm 105:15) thing going on there (a passage of Scripture that’s butchered from a contextual standpoint, by the way). The Black pastor enjoys certain privilege in the Black community. He has a nice parking space at the church, drives a nice vehicle (used to be a Cadillac), and gets fed well.
Enter the first lady. Because of the royal treatment of the black pastor, many of their wives benefit from fact that they are married to the shepherd of the church. Over the years, in the Black church, she has come to be known as the First Lady. As with any title, there are certain privileges that accompany the role of First Lady. Reserved seating is a no brainer. In some instances, she sits in the pulpit with her husband, while in other instances she is front and center in the pews. Depending on your context, an oversized hat may be involved. In that setting, nobody, I mean nobody, wears a hat larger than the church’s First Lady. That’s disrespectful. Regardless of context, certain things are expected of a First Lady. She’s to be supportive, highly visible, elegant, a prayer warrior, and, where children are involved, a great mother. That list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of how Black culture has carved out a clearly defined role for preacher’s wives.
Yesterday I saw something related to the First Lady concept appear in my Facebook Timeline (because Facebook Timelines are basically our news sources these days). I checked out this picture of a pastor celebrating his third anniversary with his spouse. Honestly, my first thought was, “Is this real?” So I did what any sensible, intelligent person would have done. I googled the church. Sure enough, the church existed and the Pastor and his spouse just celebrated their third anniversary. The wording on the original flyer is what got my attention. The pastor’s spouse was referred to as the “1st Gentleman” of the church.
If you haven’t already figured it out, this pastor has a partner in a same-sex relationship. As such, that partner has embraced the role traditionally seen in the Black church in the context of heterosexual marriages—The First Gentleman. And this is not an anomalous occurrence. There are other First Ladies and Gentlemen out there in same-sex marriages helping lead churches. Look, I’m not here to argue the merits of same-sex marriages. That screams red herring and will distract from the main point I’m making here. Well maybe I will say a few words. First, there’s no scriptural support for same-sex marriages and, as a minister, I wouldn’t officiate a wedding involving one. As “radically inclusive” as we make Jesus out to be, Scripture is very clear about this issue. The fact that Jesus never condemned same-sex marriages in Scripture doesn’t automatically mean He condones the behavior. There are no specific teachings from Jesus or “red letter” passages on bestiality, pedophilia, or polygamy either. And no, I’m not making a direct comparison between those activities and same-sex marriages. I’m just saying that absence of teaching doesn’t mean that Jesus would condone certain human behavior. Trust me, this is huge and is something the Black church has to process and deal with in the coming years. According to a site dedicated to the community, there’s at least 7,100 documented gay-affirming churches. Some of them are led by pastors who themselves are in same-sex relationships. So there’s an active subculture in the Christian faith that has adopted the practices of the Black church. Among those practices is the adoption of our church leadership structure—including First Ladies (and now First Gentlemen).
But when folks adopt practices that are flawed in the first instance, I think the best approach here is the address those practices in their original context. So the main point I want to make here is that the Black church can’t keep hijacking cultural practices and slapping them in the church setting without seriously considering if we’re missing the mark. Can we eulogize the terms First Lady/First Gentlemen already? Like, for real, for real. Yes, 1 John address the “elect lady“. But scholars can’t even agree if the author is addressing a female leader in the church or the church as a body (Scripture often uses feminine terms to describe the church). Either way, there’s NO WAY we should use this text to excuse our canonization of First Ladies or First Gentlemen when it comes to church practice. Part of the reason we have so many problems in the black church is because we covout titles. That’s the antithesis of the Gospel message. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Christ himself took on the form of a servant. Paul, himself, hated titles (see Philippians 3). James, Jesus’ own brother (who could have plugged that fact in his letter), calls himself a term most Christians wore as a badge of honor in the first century—a servant. Does the New Testament address bishops, elders, deacons, and other leaders? Of course it does. But are we faithful to Scripture when we create our own structures, slapping titles on folks that don’t exhibit the accompanying fruit (oops, did I just say that)? Maybe, we should be less worried about titles and degrees and more concerned about worship on our knees. Many in the black community joked about worship-like atmosphere in the white smoke announcement of the Pope this week, but in reality we go to churches and worship our leadership weekly—including the First Lady and First Gentleman. The harsh reality is that if we don’t seriously think about making changes our places of worship will become museums with artifacts rather than places of transformation and change. And that’s a scary thought.
The unresolved drama surrounding Bishop Eddie Long and his alleged misconduct with four young men in his congregation raises serious questions about clergy abuse and matters of sexuality in the Black church. But are we ready to be honest? Three scholars respond.
One of the top religion stories of 2010 was the controversy involving Bishop Eddie Long, in which four young men filed civil suits against the Atlanta megachurch pastor accusing him of sexual misconduct and manipulation. When the story broke last September, it generated a variety of responses, but two recurring themes were the issue of clergy sexual abuse and the unofficial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward homosexuality within the African American church, which was heightened by Long’s outspoken preaching against same-sex relationships.
As UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist remarked last year, Bishop Long is innocent until proven otherwise, and it is not UrbanFaith’s intention to pass judgment one way or the other. The case is scheduled to move into mediation next month. In the meantime, however, we asked three leading Christian scholars to share their perspectives on the larger themes that this scandal has raised for the Christian community, and especially the Black church. Their remarks reflect their own opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of UrbanFaith.
CHERYL J. SANDERS: We Must Confront Clergy Abuse
Because I have not heard of any clear statement from Bishop Eddie Long admitting or denying that he committed the sexual acts alleged by his four young accusers, I can assert neither his guilt nor innocence with any degree of certainty. However, I am convinced that religious leaders and congregations can learn some lessons from the crisis that has arisen as a result of the highly publicized charges against him.
The first lesson is to be aware that clergy sexual abuse can occur in any congregation. Awareness empowers us to be proactive about creating and maintaining safe sacred spaces for children and adults to worship and grow spiritually. It includes offering age-appropriate instruction to our children and teens about how to identify and report inappropriate sexual acts.
Second is the importance of setting boundaries. We cannot assume that everyone who participates in a faith community is automatically equipped and motivated to maintain proper boundaries. How many of our congregations have developed and published guidelines and policies to safeguard interactions between adults and children during church activities and trips? When it comes to sexual harassment and misconduct, it is essential to show everyone where “the line” is before anyone crosses the line.
The third lesson is that our congregations must exercise vigilant stewardship of the physical well-being, mental health, and spiritual potential of our young people. This requires a commitment to do everything in our power to prevent sexual molestation. If it does occur, we have an inescapable obligation to administer discipline to the offender and offer healing to the victim. The issue here is not homosexuality per se, and this scandal brings neither “homophobia” nor hypocrisy to an end in the black churches. Can we develop viable structures of accountability to check those pastors, teachers, counselors and mentors who would gratify their own sexual desires by preying upon the vulnerable young people entrusted to their care? If not, then we would do better by our children to shut our churches down rather than to support and defend their abusers in complicity with crimes against God and humanity.
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders is Professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University and the senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C.
HAROLD DEAN TRULEAR: Sex in Its Proper Context
Sexual immorality is dirty.
I offer this as a social scientist who, with Margaret Mead, argues that “dirt” is “matter out of place.” Our yards and parks consist of dirt, but they are not “dirty.” Rather the soil is in place, therefore we pronounce them clean. But if a discarded newspaper covers the soil, the area is “dirty,” not because of dirt, but because of the presence of the paper strewn about. Sex is not dirty, but sex away from its proper context is.
Sexual immorality is sinful.
Much of our revulsion to practices like adultery and homosexuality, and hence the silence of the Black church, reflects our sense of dirt, not sin. The emotional energy exerted toward reviling the “dirty” points to a desire to avoid the “out of place.” Sexual sin is dirty because it is sex out of place, whether fornication or adultery. But the incongruity is even more pronounced when two persons of the same gender engage in sexual activity, because one of the two is “out of place.” Hence, as with all repulsive reactions, we either rail against the dirt or turn our heads.
Sexuality is fragmentary.
One’s sexual behavior never fully defines one’s personhood, therefore to call someone a “homosexual” can only identify a portion of who they are. And, likewise, male heterosexuality can never fully define someone as a “real man.” True manhood and womanhood flow from the Imago Dei, and not from sexual practice. Persons can never be fully defined by, and personhood can never be fully achieved by, any type of sexual behavior.
Jesus transforms dirt to medicine — redeeming that which is out of place.
Jesus sets us free from sin — the sin which separates us from God.
Jesus makes people whole — sending His Spirit into every aspect of an individual life.
Jesus does not throw away or suffer revulsion from dirt; He transforms it. Jesus does not couch sin in terms of cognitive development; He names it and heals it. Jesus does not lift sexuality and sexual behavior to definitive status; He, as part of the Trinity at creation, blessed humanity with it to express union in a manner consistent with His union with the church.
Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D., is an ordained American Baptist minister and an Associate Professor of Applied Theology at the Howard University School of Divinity.
RANDAL JELKS: The Black Church Needs to Be Honest About Sexuality
Black Christians must fess up and acknowledge that human beings are sexual. Sexual intercourse is a reality. Intercourse is a biological mechanism for procreation and a
pleasurable desire. Like all things, sex can become deviant. By deviant I do not mean same-sex relations, I mean sex can be used to satisfy needs for power, control, and status. By not having frank discussions and theological reflection with Black congregants, biological urges and sexual desires take on a greater place in the imagination of Black Christians than is healthy.
Here’s the problem. Historically, sex was used against Black people. Let’s just think about it for a moment. Slave owners could sexually abuse and rape a slave woman without recourse to the law. The justification for this use of power was the notion that slave women had uncontrollable libidos, proverbial “hot mommas.” After the Civil War, Black people sought to legalize their relationships through marriage, a civil benefit that slavery did not permit. These new marriages attempted to give Black women legal protections that they did not have against powerful and abusive men. Following the war, sex was used in post-emancipation America to justify lynching. A chief justification for lynching was the rapacious nature of Black men, even though a question of property ownership underlined most lynching. Sex and sexuality justified abuse of both black women and men. As a result, many Black men and women tried to suppress their sexuality. They hid their sexual behaviors behind middle-class mores, lest there be another justification to subjugate Black lives.
This attitude should also be placed in another historical context of evangelical Christianity. The evangelicalism that Black Americans adopted and transformed served to give a conflicting outlook about sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. This theology, while promoting fidelity, also promoted a level of prudery about sex that most rural people never had. Attitudes about sex as Black people became urban were supposed to be restrained and only acceptable among married couples. Sexual desire was chastened by calls for “purity,” especially among young women, but purity did stop people from cavorting. The rates of sexually transmitted diseases were terribly high in Black communities long before the advent of the civil rights movement. The evangelicalism that Black people used as a tool of middle-class respectability could not hide the fact that churchgoing people had desires and were acting upon them then as they do today.
Sex or sexuality is not mechanically or psychologically pure. We know this from psychology, anthropology, and biology. Therefore, it seems incumbent on Black Christians to discuss sexuality that happens inside and outside churches in a more thoughtful theological way.
The angry preachments that condemn same-sex relationships are the same ones that are completely silent about the disastrous rates of HIV/AIDS killing Black communities today. This is quite ironic, because the mythic Black church — the liberating Black church — was suppose to be a community where all Black people could find loving freedom and equality as children of God.
Randal Jelks, Ph.D., M.Div., is an Associate Professor of American Studies with a joint appointment in African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He is also an ordained clergy person in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and a founder and co-editor of the blog TheBlackBottom.com.