Evangelicals Have a Sopranos Problem

gal 6

Thanks to wonders of Amazon Prime, I’ve been working back through the classic HBO show The Sopranos.  In re-watching the program, which follows the life of a mafia family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about US evangelicals.  Here’s why.

It’s no spoiler that a running theme throughout all six seasons is infidelity.  The protagonist, Tony Soprano, hardly makes it two episodes being faithful to his wife, Carmela.  The other guys in his “crew,” most of whom are married or have girlfriends, have a similar lifestyle.  There is even a formal institution for this: the gumar, a quasi-official mistress.  Most of the wives know about the presence of the gumars. Mrs. Soprano certainly does.  She admits at one point that she accepted the mistresses for years, though eventually – when the gumars come home to roost, we’ll say – she comes to regret that.  On top of all that, Carmela knows that Tony’s main office (and where the most senior crew members spend their days)  is at a gentlemen’s strip club operated by the organization, which also doubles as a brothel on occasion.

Contrast that with the way the Sopranos characters speak of and act towards  LGBT persons.  In a season four episode, Carmela gets into an argument with her daughter, Meadow, over the interpretation of a Melville novel.  Meadow defends her brother’s opinion, via a teacher, that one of the main characters was gay. Carmela loses it over this assertion, and makes some disparaging remarks about the gay “agenda,” in education and society.  But that is just a preview of what is to come.  Later on in the series, a minor character is discovered to be gay, and he has to go on the run in fear for his life.  The way the mafiosi speak about this colleague and friend after they discover his secret is so heinous it is difficult to watch.

The double standard reminds me of American evangelicals, in my own (UMC) church and elsewhere.  They have largely turned a blind eye towards adultery, divorce, pornography, and other sexual and relational questions, and yet have drawn a line in the sand over accepting gays and lesbians.  Moreover, they have the temerity to suggest that there argument is, on principle, a matter of Biblical authority.

But the Bible speaks just as clearly, if not more so, about adultery and divorce. The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?

Evangelicals have a Sopranos problem.  They have accepted all manner of compromise on the sexual ethics of the Bible and classic Christian teaching, and have now dug in their heels at the 11th hour.  Like Carmela, they have lived with gumars and lap dances for decades, but now their children are applying that same logic to gays and lesbians and they don’t want to hear it.

So perhaps rather than blaming the culture or media for this assault on their traditionalist sensibilities, American evangelicals should just look in the mirror.  They may not like the harvest, but it seems to me they are reaping what they have sown.

25 thoughts on “Evangelicals Have a Sopranos Problem”

  1. “…..if we are going to be true to our highly emotional stance against homosexuality as something God himself has declared not fit for the Kingdom…..we had better stop with our hypocritical charades and take an equal stance against all the others. Sexually immoral. What does that mean to you? Would that not include porn? How about impure thoughts? Yea, I think so. How about thieves? Would that include taking ANYTHING that does not belong to us? Even a stapler from work? Yea, I think so. How about greedy. Really now. Yea, I think so. How about drunkards? What about slanderers….gossipers? Read most blog threads if you honestly wonder if “believers” do this. What about swindlers? Any businessmen reading this? Have you ever……even just once?

    My point here is that the church (you and me) needs to put its whole self through the refiners fire and stop throwing just the gays into the furnace as some sort of burnt offering – our feeble hope that the smoke from their burning bodies will hide our own secret sins. Believe me, the stench in the air is not from their burning bodies, but is from our own rotting hearts. Please continue to read.

    Who are you serving? God? Or satan? No…really….do you know? We know that satan in the desert wanted Jesus to mistakenly believe that God’s protection of him was absolute, when it was actually relative to his faith in, and obedience to, God’s Word. We all love to proclaim our beautiful faith and proudly wear our faith badges for all to see, but what about obedience to God’s Word?

    Look, you can have so much faith that you will move mountains, but if you aren’t being obedient to God’s Word – you aren’t moving an ant hill.”

    From an essay entitled: “It Starts With You”

    1. I don’t know if it’s a solution, but my suggestion would be that conservatives would be taken more seriously on LGBT issues if they were equally serious about things that more directly affected them. It’s a matter of moral authority.

  2. The label “evangelical” often confuses me and this piece simply adds to that confusion. On the one hand, I think of myself as an “evangelical Methodist.” I believe in what I cal the “absurdities of Jesus”–i.e. the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. I also believe that Jesus is the only way to God and, as such, our only means of salvation. I believe that after accepting Christ, the Holy Spirit transforms our mind and spirit and leads us to life of holy living. I believe we are called to share this message with all people, but I reject any notion that the Bible is infallible. Perhaps that’s why I have no problem reconciling my “evangelical” beliefs with some of my more progressive stances.

    I’ve been advocating marriage equality since 2001. I was writing in support of the transgender community long before Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine. I long ago spoke out that Methodists need to work toward full inclusion of homosexual clergy members. I do wish more of my “evangelical” brothers and sisters would join me in the causes, but I also wish that “mainline Methodists” who may support some of these progressive stances would feel comfortable standing with me and singing “Victory in Jesus.”

    Am I evangelical? I think so, but maybe not by your definition.

    I do love the Sopranos references. My wife and I are actually rewatching the series now as well and just watched the “Billy Budd” episode you referenced on Monday. Great timing!

    1. Josh,
      Evangelical is certainly a loaded term. Any Christian in the Wesleyan family should be an evangelical in some sense of the term. Having spent much time around fundamentalists, it is not a term I am drawn to myself. But there are voices like you – Jim Wallis, for instance – who are both classically evangelical and progressive. Hope that takes away some of the confusion! Glad you liked the Sopranos reference. It is an excellent show.

  3. This is an odd thing for someone like me to say, but I’m going to respectfully push back on your assertion. Speaking as a gay man and a former evangelical, I have to say that they are just as concerned about divorce or adultery than they are about homosexuality. In my youth and college days, there was a lot of talk about how to be sexually pure and how not put yourself in dangerous situations with a woman (if you were a married man). I read a number of blogs by evangelicals and as much as they talk about homosexuality, they also talk about what they percieve as loose sexual standards as well.

    I think the belief that evangelicals have been ignoring other sexual sins is somewhat of a myth. That doesn’t mean I agree with their opposition, I don’t. But to say that they are hypocritical on this issue is the result of not paying close attention to what evangelicals are really thinking and relying on lazy assumptions.

    1. Dennis, I always appreciate friendly pushback. I had very similar experiences to what you name from my days among the Southern Baptists. I suppose I am thinking about my experience with UMC evangelicals today. If divorce, adultery, and LGBT “practice” (a terribly imprecise term from our BOD) are all – on the evangelical reading – forbidden by Scripture, why are they willing to extend grace for heterosexual failures but not LGBT persons? That’s where I’m coming from. Thanks.

      1. Well, I would agree with you there. Evangelicals are far more accepting of divorced persons these days, but they really haven’t yet been as accepting to gays (ie: allowing them to be members of a congregation, baptism, etc.). Bending the rules in one area and drawing a line in related one tends to damage ones witness.

  4. From a laity perspective, I would rather that we only allowed married persons to be ordained and that you would revert to being provisional if you were divorced. Being a full-time pastor of 100 or more sheep is too tough of a job to do by yourself without a support system.

    I do not believe that the real issue facing The UMC is whether we are appropriately “welcoming” to gays (or any of the rest of us sinners who while we are all persons of sacred worth are also in constant need of God’s grace) nor whether we will perform same sex marriage ceremonies (the judicial system is currently “ahead” of The UMC). The real issue is the status of gay non-celibate ordained clergy who wish to serve openly while retaining their benefits and privileges. They were not truthful during their ordination vows and violated the Discipline every day since. Local churches are already told that they need to not only accept (recently revealed situations in Western PA notwithstanding), LOVE and SUPPORT their appointed clergyperson regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, theological perspective, marital status, family (in)stability, etc.

    Using the language of “A Way Forward” we probably have many more clergy on “List A” than we have churches on “List A.” Is it fair to tell them that the rules have changed again? Openly gay non-celibate clergy are incompatible with guaranteed appointment. You can finesse everything else but that.

    1. The real issue is the status of gay non-celibate ordained clergy who wish to serve openly while retaining their benefits and privileges. They were not truthful during their ordination vows and violated the Discipline every day since.

      Hmmm…I’m not Methodist, but while a non-celibate gay person was not truthful the problem is if they were they would not be considered for ordination. Maybe the honorable thing is to tell the truth, but for gays who feel called to ministry we are put in an impossible dillema that is not of our choosing: tell the truth and never be considered for ministry and maybe kicked out of churches, or lie and be in violation of whatever church standards.

      Until six years ago, the Upper Midwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had a rule prohibiting knowing ordaining a gay person. I was under care in this Region and resorted to not telling the truth. Was I lying? Yes. It is wrong to lie, but what to do when you are left with no good options.

      For those of us who have faced these situations, we aren’t seeking to flout church law, but we don’t have much choice.

      1. I wonder if that would be worth pondering a bit more. To convincingly lie one crosses a line and believes the lie in order to make it believable. If you can so easily believe one lie in order to lie convincingly, you can believe any lie. You may think that the lie served your desire, but the only thing it did was put you in shackles and bondage. If God had given you peace about being a gay pastor, you would not have even considered lying as the means to become that pastor. God will never call someone into the ministry and then make it only possible to fulfill by lying. There is life and there is death. There is truth and there are lies. There is evil and their is good. Between each of these there is a line in the sand. On one side stands God. On the other side stands satan.

      2. All of us tell lies to get what we want. That is obviously a sin. We often rationalize it with “that was the only way.” But, we usually don’t bother to ask if we should get what we want. Unlike other denominations, The UMC has guaranteed appointment. So, once you are ordained, you are guaranteed a full-time job.

  5. I know that the topic has recently been focused on sexual sins, and homosexuality even more specifically. In fact, it has risen to the point where sexual sin has almost become the very definition of sin.

    I think this conversation is based on the premise that the people, from leaders on down, within the church today are “Christian”, and are the majority when in fact those from the leadership on down who are truly “Christian” is a very small minority. That minority has never wavered in its understanding of sin including sexual sins whether it be from a heterosexual person or a LGBT person.

    The tendency that people have of lumping all people who attend church as representing Christianity without any discernment is a grave mistake. It is especially troubling for me that even our church leaders do this.

    When Jesus said narrow is the way and few will enter, He was NOT talking about the entire world population. He was talking about the entire number who were seeking the way – the church population. What happens is that many will begin seeking “the” way, but when it comes right down to the death of the old self and ways, most fail, and instead devote their lives to seeking “a” way. A way that makes it easy to give grace to all the others who also failed. The problem for this majority of people is that the LGBT issue actually reveals that this majority has not found “the” way. Rather than dealing with this truth about themselves, they condemn the LGBT. This reveals without any hinderance the magnitude of the hypocrisy they live.

    Sadly, because of the actions of this majority of non-christian people who fill the churches, the world now sees the church and christianity as nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. And the world is right, in part, for this perception in that they do not have any kind of godly discernment themselves.

    The wide road is full of people allowing other people to stay in their sins. It is not grace being offered for heterosexual sins towards heterosexuals. It is a worthless pardon for their sin. It is man thinking that he is God and believing that he can determine which sins REALLY keep one from entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

    I think Drew’s exhortation that we take an honest look at ourselves in the mirror is most incredibly wise. Look, Jesus wasn’t being vague. Narrow is the way. And listen, because He means this. Few. Few. Few will enter.

    1. Duane, I don’t know about the “few.” I think we should witness and serve and evangelize as if this is the case, but I also thing we have strong Biblical and theological reasons to hope for more. Plenty of passages speak of “every knee” bowing before Christ; the Old Testament looks forward to a time when the earth will be full of knowledge of God “as the waters cover the sea.” As the old song goes, there is a wideness to God’s mercy.

  6. I can’t argue with that, Drew. You often bring a balance to my thoughts. I too find peace in the knowledge of that hope and that day. And yet today is today, and there is a reason we were foretold of the increase of hypocrisy, false doctrine, false teachers, and false prophets.

    Also in the Old Testament we find Israel, God’s people, often needing to be admonished for having strayed so far from God that He actually turned from them.

    But again….I do so much appreciate your gentle way of “reeling” me back in.

  7. 1. Spend a month at GSUMC and you’ll see that adultery, fornication, porn, divorce get A LOT more attention than homosexuality. That’s what’s in my office and so that’s what’s from the pulpit (or table-on-wheels as the case may be). So I feel precious little vulnerability to the Sopranos argument when it comes to SSM & the ordination of parntered and practicing homosexuals in the UMC (please tell me I just invented a phrase for the new Discipline!). I can’t speak for other self-avowed, practicing evangelicals, but I suspect it’s much the same.

    2. Mr. Creed Pogue — don’t TEASE us with Western PA innuendo; what happened there?

    1. Talbot, I hear you and I applaud your consistency. There was a time when debates in the UMC were just as hot about divorce as they are now about gay marriage and ordination. I wonder why were were able to stay with each other vis-a-vis divorce, but we may break fellowship over this? (And if it is all about Biblical authority, why aren’t evangelicals as mad about our compromise with divorce as they are about attempts to compromise on the LGBT question?)

  8. Great post.
    I think many american evangelicals do not see any problem with ranking various sins according to severity. “Nobody in their right mind would continue to affirm divorce or unfaithfulness when brought to the refiners fire,” I’ve heard it said. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is supposedly in a different “class” because individuals see nothing wrong with it. Therefore it might warrant more attention.
    The problems of this view are that you create a hierarchy of sin and hold a quasi-Pelagian view of human nature.

    1. Do you really think this is a case of “ranking” sins? I don’t hear any saying that unfaithfulness and divorce are against the Word of God. However, the issue with homosexuality is that it is being denied as a sin at all. There are no excuses that can be made for the allowing of sexual sins to continue in the church all these years, but denying any sexual sin as being a sin does warrant addressing in the church.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s