17 LGBTQ-affirming ministers face church investigations for signing belief statement


(RNS) — The Rev. Carma Wood didn’t become LGBTQ-affirming overnight. Rather, she said, it was due to the Holy Spirit’s prompting over several decades, not to mention personal experience, study and Scripture.

“I have found the primary emphases woven throughout biblical texts to reflect a radical inclusivity found perhaps most profoundly in the person and ministry of Jesus,” she told Religion News Service.

Now, Indiana Ministries — a jurisdiction of the Christian movement known as Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) — is investigating Wood, a retired Church of God pastor living in Anderson, and 16 other ministers for signing a statement affirming LGTBQ inclusion. Depending on the findings, the ministers’ credentials could be withdrawn.

“There is a strong biblical, theological, and ethical case for affirming same-sex partnerships, transgender identity and existence, and gender non-conformity as being fully compatible with Christian discipleship and the theological and doctrinal distinctives of the Church of God Reformation Movement,” said the statement, which was authored in part by Wood and has since gained more than 850 signatures.

The Rev. Carma Wood, top left, leads communion server preparation at Park Place Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, prior to her retirement. (Photo by Kim Butler)

The Rev. Carma Wood, top left, leads Communion server preparation at Park Place Church of God in Anderson, Ind., prior to her retirement. (Photo by Kim Butler)

Founded in the 1880s, Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), which resists hierarchies and therefore considers itself a movement, not a denomination, is often mentioned in relation to the city where it’s headquartered, to distinguish it from other groups. It is perhaps best known as the home church of Christian musician Sandi Patty, but the movement has a proud history of opposing racial segregation, championing women leaders and embracing the Bible alone as its belief statement.

Organized into nearly 50 jurisdictions throughout the U.S. and Canada, the Church of God — CHOG to insiders — claims a million believers around the globe.

The affirmation statement has roiled CHOG since it was released in May. As recently as 2014, CHOG’s General Assembly defined marriage as between a man and a woman and characterized homosexuality as a sin. 

“I think what’s happened in Indiana is a good-faith effort by Indiana Ministries to play by the rules of the credentials manual,” the Rev. Jim Lyon, general director of Church of God Ministries, told RNS by phone, referring to the rulebook for ministerial conduct. “They’re now in a process of trying to live up to what their understanding of those protocols are.”

Wood, 67, who retired in 2022 after decades as a minister, calls herself a “great-granddaughter of the movement.” In February 2023, after years of what she said was CHOG’s failure to take seriously members’ views on LGBTQ inclusion, she and five other longtime members founded ChogAffirm, a separate nonprofit aimed at fostering a culture of hospitality affirming of LGBTQ people.

Three months later, in May 2023, the ChogAffirm statement went live on its website, declaring that ministers and laypeople should be free to affirm LGBTQ Christians “in their lives, partnerships, and ministerial callings.” CHOG, it said, should repent for harming members of the LGBTQ community, and it referred readers to the website where that harm was detailed by many of the statement’s signatories.

The ChogAffirm site. (Screen grab)

The ChogAffirm statement is available on its website. (Screen grab)

In the following days, Wood said, most feedback was very positive. Responses from national and state leaders, though, “were a different story,” she said.

On June 1, Jeff Matas, state pastor of Indiana Ministries, published a statement saying Scripture consistently condemns “same-sex relations.”

“Moving from the orthodox biblical definition of sexual identity and marriage is a line we will never cross. Never,” he wrote.

In a Facebook Live address on June 9, Lyon, the CHOG general director, stated that ChogAffirm is “not in alignment with what the General Assembly has gone on record as stating is the position of the Church of God on sexual ethics.”

Then, in December, Wood received a letter announcing she was being investigated by Indiana Ministries’ Department of Ministries Services for her authorship of the ChogAffirm website. Others involved received a similar letter.

“It was heartbreaking,” said the Rev. Shannon New Spangler, who signed the statement. “I am Church of God. It’s not just a piece of paper for me, it is my family, it is my support group, it is my theological home,” she said of her credentials.

New Spangler, 44, sees no conflict between LGBTQ-affirming theology and the Bible, which serves as the movement’s creed, or with the movement’s beliefs and faith essentials. Instead, she views the ChogAffirm statement as initiating a vital conversation about the “belovedness of human beings.”

The Rev. Shannon New Spangler speaks during a service. (Courtesy photo)

The Rev. Shannon New Spangler speaks during a service. (Courtesy photo)

CHOG ministers have historically been investigated for moral failings, not theological incongruity. CHOG only began implementing a standardized credentials manual in 2019, Lyon said, and jurisdictions are still working out how to apply it. 

When asked the reason for the investigation, Matas said the signers had “self-disclosed their position and stand which are contrary to the beliefs commonly and historically held by the Church of God.” He added that because they committed to “positive action” toward its fruition, “The issue goes beyond personal belief into the issue of advocacy.”

ChogAffirm opposes what it views as a recent stifling of dissent within CHOG, which ChogAffirm says is incompatible with the movement’s principles.

“In recent years there seems to be a rise in more stringent parameters with regards to ordination and credentialing in the area of theological views about marriage and the official stance on LGBTQ inclusion,” the group says on its website. “The threat of punishment for expressing these views chills speech and has created a distorted perception of false consensus.”

In January, Wood met with an investigative team at Indiana Ministries’ office, and she’s requested a hearing, currently scheduled for mid-April. If Indiana Ministries revokes any ministers’ credentials, a new process allows them to appeal the decision to the national credentialing committee.

New Spangler, who received her investigation letter in February, responded with a letter of her own that invited conversation with Indiana’s Department of Ministries, but noted that “investigation” seemed to be an incorrect term because, she said, she hadn’t violated the terms of her credentials. The response to her email only acknowledged receipt.

The Rev. Jim Lyon. (Photo courtesy Church of God Ministries)

The Rev. Jim Lyon. (Photo courtesy of Church of God Ministries)

Part of what complicates the investigations is the movement’s close-knit community. Wood said that although she disagrees with state and national leaders, they are people she cares about. Lyon called the situation “stretching,” saying he loves the people who “have stood in their ChogAffirm space” and respects their voice, as he does the voice of Matas and Indiana Ministries as they navigate their responsibilities under the credentials manual.

In his June 2023 address, Lyon announced he would ask the Ministries Council, the governing board of the national office, to launch a task force to examine “the whole spectrum of human sexuality.” The Ministries Council authorized a seven-person team in March, according to Lyon, and will appoint the team and clarify its assignment in April.

“Our historic understanding of the Scripture, and its implications for human sexuality, I support that position,” said Lyon. “But our position sometimes has been shaded by our posture, which has not been good at listening or maybe understanding, or respectful.”

New Spangler said she hopes to continue being ordained in the Church of God and hopes the church will work to become a safe place for everyone. Wood added that whatever happens, she refuses to be complicit in any form of violence against the queer community.

“My ideal, and the church’s ideal is that ordination isn’t a piece of paper, it isn’t a process, it’s a calling affirmed by both God to the individual and the community,” said Wood. “Those are both intact, and then some, for me. And I have every confidence that that will remain to be true, even if my credentials eventually are taken.”

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