Church Music and Gay Activism

In February, 2014, a story out of Indiana was picked up by numerous news outlets. As the story was typically told, a United Methodist congregation had rallied behind a dismissed gay choir director, and to show their support for him, had largely stopped attending the church after he was fired.

Six years ago, Adam Fraley began serving as the choir director for a United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Indiana. At first, Fraley did not admit to being gay, but his partner attended church services and one church member said, “it was obvious that he was gay.” Fraley has since admitted that he is an active homosexual. After six years, the previous minister left, and the interim pastor reportedly said he was not comfortable with an open homosexual having such a prominent role in worship. Fraley, citing a heightened work load, resigned from the choir director position.

Six months later, a new minister, David Mantor, was hired. The congregation's elected lay leader (analogous to a head elder) David Steele, told Mantor that the members wanted Fraley reinstated as choir director. Mantor at first agreed, but later changed his mind. “He [Mantor] wasn't comfortable with having [an open homosexual] in a leadership position as a choir director,” Steele told a local radio station. Steele offered to raise money privately to fund the position, if it was a monetary issue, but Mantor stated that it was “a moral issue.” Both men dug in their heels, and Mantor asked Steele to resign his leadership position and hand over his church keys. Steele refused, but a few weeks later the district superintendent backed the minister. The Steele family then dropped its membership and stopped attending, along with (according to Steele) some eighty percent (80%) of the other congregants.

But Dan Gangler, communications director for the Indiana Conference of the UMC, has denied Steele's and Fraley's contention that Fraley was not rehired because of his homosexuality, saying that the small congregation (membership ~ 130, average attendance ~ 35-60) simply elected not to have a choir, in part because there were only six regular choir members. “The position was not open. Mr. Fraley had resigned earlier in the year and the pastor did not think it wise to re-hire him since he already had once resigned from the position,” said Gangler. When I spoke to him, Gangler said that the press has gotten much of this story wrong, including the drop off in attendance, which had returned to normal within two or three weeks of Steele's departure.  According to the district superintendent, there is now “no change in attendance.” 

What practical lessons can we learn from this sad story?

First, decisions about the qualifications for—and disqualifications from—church office should be made in advance. Matters can be discussed dispassionately and objectively in the abstract that, once personalities are involved, will tend to be discussed with emotions running high. If criteria for a given church office have been established long in advance, it will be clear that they are not being made up, ad hoc, to thwart the ambitions or hurt the feelings of a specific individual. The Bible specifies the qualifications for positions such as elder/overseer (1 Tim. 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-8) and deacon/deaconess (1 Tim. 3:8-13) but does not list qualifications for church musicians. The church must establish these itself.

I prefer that music be provided by the members of the church. Church music is worship; it is praise to God coming from a heart overflowing with awe, love, and thankfulness to our Creator and Redeemer. (Psalm 95:1: “O come let us sing to the Lord, let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation”; Psalm 30:4: “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to His holy name”; Psalm 40:3 “put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise for our God”) If a church hires a bevy of outside, non-member professional musicians, it seems like the church is putting on a show or a performance for its congregants rather than worshiping with the congregation. But if Church music is organized, led and sung/played by the church members, there are two positive outcomes: 1) it is more likely to be an act of worship rather than a performance, and 2) unless church discipline has broken down, open homosexuals will not be providing the music.

I say unless church discipline has broken down. The principal passage on church discipline is 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul admonished the church in Corinth that a man who was having relations with his father's wife should be “handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” (v. 5) “You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral . . . Do not even eat with such people.” (v. 11) The standard of morality Paul enforced in that instance is from Leviticus 18:8 (“Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father”), so there can be no doubt that a violation of Leviticus 18:22 (“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable”) would also be grounds to “expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13), meaning to disfellowship him.

Homosexual conduct may be part of the former, but not the current, life of Christians. (1 Cor. 6:9-11: “Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who have sex with men . . . will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. 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.”) The current church manual lists “homosexual practice” as a reason for discipline. (Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, p. 62, no. 4).  Assuming church discipline has not broken down, when church music is provided by church members, it will not be provided by open homosexuals.

Please note that the issue is membership in the church, not whether musicians should be paid. There is no biblical prohibition on paying musicians. The Levites were paid from the tithe (Num. 18:21) and one of their duties was to provide choral and orchestral music for the sanctuary services; some 4,000 Levites were set apart for this purpose. (1 Chron. 15:16 through 16:42; 23:2 through 26:32) Today, the best practice for churches large enough to support multiple ministers is to have a full-time minister of music who, as part of his duties, will either personally direct the choir and/or play the organ, or recruit qualified church members to fill these roles. When a congregation has an ordained minister of music, and he is properly performing his duties, that should obviate the issue of having an open homosexual in the prominent role of organist or choir master.

Often, however, a church is not large enough to have a minister of music and does not have a membership base that includes an organist or potential choir director, so non-member musicians are often hired to fill these roles.  The pool of potential hires includes many homosexuals. One church musician told me that up to half of church organists and choir directors are gay. In a Washington Blade interview with organist Cameron Carpenter it is estimated that 70% of church organists are gay; In an article in the February 8, 2010, New Yorker about a prominent gospel singer who came out as gay, an openly gay female bishop is quoted as saying that perhaps 90% of gospel musicians are same-sex attracted. While the higher estimates of 70-90% given by homosexual activists are exaggerated, I think estimates of 40% to 50% are realistic.  (I recently learned that in February, 2008, a lawsuit was filed against a male choir director at now-defunct Atlantic Union College.  Four male students and one male fundraising consultant alleged that the choir director touched them inappropriately.  The suit was settled four months after filing, with no admission of guilt by the choir director or AUC.)

Given that homosexuals are overrepresented in the ranks of professional musicians, the question becomes, how does a church fill the role of organist or choir director without violating the standards and beliefs of the church? We should be trying to avoid a situation in which a hired musician ingratiates himself with the congregation, then gradually becomes increasingly open about being an active homosexual.

I hasten to add that most gays would not attempt to leverage a position as a church musician into an opportunity for gay activism.  They simply want to do a job they enjoy.  Historically, there has been a tacit understanding that any gay church musician would be closeted and would not talk or act in a manner that would cause discomfort to a bible-believing congregation.

What has recently changed is that many churches have begun to compromise on this biblical issue, rendering the previous understandings no longer operative. Given the large number of compromising churches, a homosexual today might reasonably expect that being open about his lifestyle will not cause difficulties for his church music gig. Hence, the congregation's expectations must be made clear at the outset.

The best practice would be to have a written employment contract for the church organist or choir director. This should specify the duties and expectations, as well as the salary, and should include a “morals clause” indicating that the musician is to uphold the biblical behavioral standards of the church, including the rule that sexual activity is limited to heterosexual marriage.

The wording of this clause should be approved by the congregation, preferably in a church business meeting. (All church members may attend and vote on issues raised at a church business meeting; this tool of local church government is seldom used, probably because unlike a meeting of the Church Board, which the pastor has usually taken care to pack with his supporters, the business meeting has a tendency to spiral out of the pastor's control.) A clearly worded morals clause in a written employment contract will clarify what is expected of applicants in terms of their personal behavior and deportment.

In cases where there is no written employment contract, the senior pastor, the minister of music, the head elder, or some combination of the foregoing, should make the church's beliefs and employment policies clear to the applicant. If the applicant is an open, avowed homosexual, he must be eliminated from consideration for the position. If the applicant is a single male who has not stated that he is homosexual, the church representative could state, “If you are living with a woman without benefit of marriage, or are in a sexual relationship with a man, we would ask you to withdraw your application for the position.” It should be made clear that if it becomes known that the person is violating this standard, it will be grounds for immediate dismissal.

There is no ironclad solution to the problem—a candidate might lie about his status or activities.  But making expectations clear at the outset will avoid any misunderstanding and eliminate most candidates who are not willing to abide by the standards.

Over a decade ago, the Mariners Church, a mega church in Irvine, California, with some 9,000 members, dismissed worship director Bob Gunn for homosexuality. The following weekend, senior pastor Kenton Beshore from the pulpit told the entire church why Gunn was fired. Gunn then sued Mariners Church and its board of elders, claiming that although the church had a right to enforce its standards, it did not have a right to defame him and deprive him of future employment opportunities after it had fired him. This argument was persuasive to an appellate court after an initial demurrer was granted. The church was then forced to expend additional thousands on discovery litigation to show that it had a policy—that, although unwritten, Gunn himself was aware of—of apprising the congregation when an employee was dismissed for moral reasons.

The takeaway is that not only must a church make its moral standards and expectations explicit, it must also establish and publish a post-termination procedure that includes who will be told what about a termination for moral reasons. This policy should be voted by the church in a business meeting and included in written contracts with hired musicians.

High quality church music is very valuable to Christian worship, but it must not be allowed to become an avenue of homosexual activism, a lever by which a homosexual can gain sympathy and acceptance for his lifestyle. Such an abuse of the office of the church musician can be avoided if appropriate practices are agreed upon and put in place in advance.