Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Georgia pastor's 'gay' revelation tests his congregation

Jim Swilley 
is senior pastor at an ' evangelical-
Pentecostal-charismatic' megachurch 
in Georgia.
Jim Swilley is senior pastor at an ' evangelical- Pentecostal-charismatic' megachurch in Georgia.

I heard a reporter on NPR interviewing Bishop Jim Swilley, the senior pastor at a Georgia megachurch called Church in the Now.

Swilley, 52, has been preaching since he was 13. He's a fourth-generation minister in what he described as the "evangelical-Pentecostal- charismatic" tradition, a man who relies on the Bible for his truth, a father of four.

He was discussing the admission he'd recently made to his family and congregation: Swilley said he's gay.

Later, I listened on the Internet to an extended version of NPR's interview and also watched a video of Swilley coming out to his congregation.

He offered his revelation voluntarily, it seemed. He and his wife had divorced, but she had continued to minister alongside him. She didn't out him. She had always known he was gay.

He wasn't caught with a male prostitute or young parishioners.

"I wasn't, as they say, living on the down-low or anything like that," he told NPR.

With his congregation, he was more pointed: "I've been celibate the majority of my adult life."

But he needed those he cared about to understand he had been gay from birth. For decades he had fought against his sexual orientation, prayed to overcome it, tried to cast out what he thought were literal demons — all to no avail.

"I just wasn't real, you know what I mean?" he said. "It's like to me at this point and my age, this isn't about me even finding somebody. It's about just telling the truth about yourself."

What I found even more revealing were others' reactions.

His children and parents supported him, he said, while several churches he oversaw as a bishop severed their affiliations with him. In his home congregation, some members walked out during his admission; others lined up afterward to hug him.

One of his staff members resigned. The guy said he couldn't work with a gay pastor.

Swilley told him, "Well, buddy, you've had a gay pastor for the last 20 years."

Having spent my life as an evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic, I recognized all those responses. In such situations, people from our tradition face dilemmas that outsiders tend not to understand.

We're taught to believe and obey the Bible. But the Bible itself seems of two minds.

It says homosexual behavior — although perhaps not an orientation toward gayness — is sinful. It also tells us that we're all likewise sinners of some sort and that none of us is in a position to judge anyone; it tells us to love our brothers and sisters unconditionally.

It lumps homosexual acts into essentially the same category as gluttony, temper tantrums, divisiveness, divorce, lying, cheating in business, fornication, fantasies of heterosexual adultery, drunkenness, wavering faith, selfish ambition, unforgiveness and greed.

Most of us find ourselves somewhere on that list.

We have as many gays and fat people and doubters and fantasizers as any organization on Earth, religious or not, because the Christians sitting in our pews are human beings.

Mainly, we just pretend those issues don't exist among us.

You think Swilley had been gay since childhood and no one suspected? Come on.

But it was OK as long as he didn't talk about it. What freaks people out is when someone has the gumption or bad taste (take your pick) to point out the obvious.

Wait, it gets more complicated. When any particular human frailty becomes too prevalent to ignore, we agree it's not a sin anymore. We're selective about what we condemn.

For instance, the New Testament says a lust for riches is idolatry.

Today, living in a capitalistic society in which most Christians strive for an ever-fatter paycheck, we've decided greed is a virtue. We've incorporated it into a health-and-wealth theology in which Jesus himself yearns for everyone to hit the Powerball.

Then there's divorce. Swilley has been divorced twice, but apparently no one broke fellowship with him over that. It's too common.

I'm not against evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatics. I am one. Believe it or not, the movement's virtues outweigh its contradictions.

Most of us aren't intentional hypocrites. We're more confused than disingenuous.

We have a laundry list of behaviors and thoughts our Bible tells us are not in our best interest or in God's perfect plan. We trust that Bible.

Yet we find ourselves surrounded by people we love who fall short of the scripture's high ideals. And we find ourselves, too, possessed by a few demons.

We're supposed to call a sin a sin. We're also commanded to accept everyone.

It's no wonder various people react in different ways when someone like Swilley takes his stand. They don't know what they're supposed to do.

I decided long ago that if I was bound to err, I'd err on the side of mercy and grace. I'd have stood in that line waiting to give Swilley a hug.

But that's not to say I don't understand those who walked out. They acted from fear. They were doing what they hoped was right, even though I might think they were wrong.