Domestic partner issue – A rationale for response
NEW FRONTIER SPECIAL SECTION
EXCERPTED FROM A PAPER WRITTEN IN SEPTEMBER 2001
By Phil Needham, Colonel –
EXTENDED BENEFITS AND THE SALVATION ARMY: PERSONAL REFLECTIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
“We should be ashamed of how we’ve allowed this issue to divide us.” (A newly commissioned captain at NSSE, August 2001)
Once again the Western Territory, and soon the other American territories, must face the issue of extending health benefit access to the domestic partners of employees. In San Francisco (1997) we decided not to agree to the extended benefits. Now the issue has reappeared in Los Angeles and Seattle, where similar ordinances have been enacted. The likelihood is that the trend will continue and eventually reach the council chambers of every major city and most smaller ones.
What should we now do? What is the decision in this matter that is most consistent with our theological/ethical positions, and most importantly, with our Biblical faith? What is the decision that fully takes all the components and dimensions of the issue into consideration in reaching a final resolution? A decision that ignores key issues that impact, or are impacted by, that decision is not a good decision and, in the case of a matter with ethical implications, is not really an adequate ethical decision.
After considering all the theological, moral, missional, and practical dimensions of this issue, I have personally come to the conclusion that the right thing to do is to extend the option to purchase medical coverage for “one legally domiciled adult” in the employee’s household, whether spouse or another adult.
I invite the reader to consider the key questions, which have been raised with respect to the issue, and the answers to which I have been led.
WHAT IS OUR MORAL POSITION ON HOMOSEXUALITY?
Our position on homosexuality, stated simply, is that we do not condemn a person because he or she has a homosexual orientation (Orders and Regulations for Soldiers, 1987 edition, pages 49-50), but we do hold that same-sex relations (homosexual acts) are contrary to God’s intention for the sexual life of human beings. (See our “Position Statement on Homosexuality” below.) The criticism of most, if not all those opposing extension of benefits is that offering them to domestic partners is tantamount to endorsing homosexual acts and is therefore a violation of our moral position on the issue.
In order to be consistent in holding the non-extension position, one would have to show that The Salvation Army does not otherwise offer support of any kind to help people who violate our Salvationist moral convictions. However, the benefits we make available to the spouses of employees “support” many, many relationships characterized by immoral acts that violate most of our position statements. Furthermore, our substantial array of social services often and unavoidably provides support for relationships and behaviors that violate our position statements. We do not ask people to pass our morality litmus test before we give them help. Christian compassion is not conditional. Agape love requires nothing in return which, ironically, is why it has the power to bring about real change in the recipient.
Similarly, we should not (and we cannot legally) withhold standard benefits as a discipline for egregious behavior. If someone is employed by The Salvation Army, benefits are given as a right consistent with our policy for all employees, not as a reward for those employees whose personal and domestic lives conform to the pattern of our own views on sexuality and marriage.
As we all know, what we have called the “traditional family” is no longer typical. Adult dependents come in a variety of categories. If our extended benefits are designed to enable our employees to see to the needs of their dependents, then they must be extended to a wider range of adults. I conclude that the extension of needed benefits to any adult dependent of an employee does not in any way constitute an endorsement of particular moral aspects of the relationship between the employee and the dependent.
WHO IS DRIVING THIS AGENDA FOR EXTENDED BENEFITS?
The question that is being raised by many Salvationists as well as by some of our evangelical supporters is whether extending benefits would really be a concession to those with whose views we do not agree.
I think that the issue for us is not how someone else frames the issue, but how we do. I support our framing it within our own moral context and not conceding the framing of this and other ethical issues to others. Our frame of reference is the Kingdom of God and its moral values. The primary teacher and moral framer for us is Jesus.
We therefore frame the issue the Kingdom way: in the context of Jesus’ teachings and Kingdom values. First, with Jesus, we have no enemies, only the Enemy. We neutralize our enemies with love (Matthew 5:39-44). We do not deny them their needs.
Second, nor, on the other hand, do we endorse their apostasy or sinful lifestyle. When we help the apostate “enemy,” we must not aid and abet the Enemy. We must not agree to the “enemies'” self-degrading and ultimately damaging way of life, but we must accept their freedom to go that way (freedom of choice is essential to our theology). We must be able to love without agreeing.
Third, if the contracts in question required us both to extend benefits and issue a statement of corporate policy endorsing homosexual activity, then we could not agree: we simply cannot abandon a moral position on which we feel Scriptures are clear. But the issue in question is not one of extended endorsements; it is one of extended benefits.
TO WHAT EXTENT IS THE GAY LIFESTYLE THE ISSUE HERE?
Some have expressed a view that extending benefits constitutes an endorsement of the gay lifestyle. This view must be sustained by proof of consistency. In other words, if the provision of access to benefits is denied a gay partner of an employee because such support would signal endorsement, then the same criterion must be used in deciding whether or not to offer access to married spouses who engage in practices that violate other moral positions of The Salvation Army. You cannot have it both ways without being morally inconsistent: either deny access to all partners who violate our ethical positions, or, do not use our moral positions as qualifiers for access. Clearly, we cannot do the former realistically or legally.
WHAT IS THE LEGITIMACY OF OUR EXTENSIVE SOCIAL SERVICES IN LIGHT OF OUR SALVATIONIST MISSION?
Some hold a view that the Army’s inordinate involvement in providing various and sundry social services has distracted us from our spiritual mission. I agree that we should be doing only those social services that are consistent with the mission. But I am convinced that our social services are an amazing mission field the Lord has given us, a mission field that is integral to our unique Salvationist calling. I also believe that he wants our congregations to be involved in that mission field. One of the most significant steps we can take in unifying our Salvationist mission is for our corps (our soldiers) to become personally involved in community service ministries.
I would also argue that the primary rationale for abandoning our involvement in any social service should be that we feel we cannot provide service in a way that accomplishes our mission. Hence, we should not jump to conclusions about terminating a social service ministry that is meeting needs in Christ’s name and transforming lives, over an issue that has nothing to do with those outcomes. If the program is fulfilling the Lord’s mission, why would the Lord want us to withdraw for non-mission related reasons? Before any decision for withdrawal is made, this question must be answered.
I am not opposed to abandonment of any service or ministry when we have prayerfully and thoughtfully determined that it constitutes a diversion from our mission. And I’m thoroughly opposed to abandoning any service or ministry, or contracts supporting them, before that determination has been made.
DOES OUR PARTNERSHIP WITH GOVERNMENT INEVITABLY LEAD TO THE COMPROMISE OF OUR MISSION?
Some feel that the Army should never have entered into contracts with government. In a secular democracy, government’s goals are not spiritual; in fact, we cannot even assume that their goals are not in conflict with our Salvationist mission.
Dr. James Read’s “White Paper on Partnerships Between Governments and Faith-Based Organizations” provides a very helpful perspective on this question. He points out that in partnerships, the parties may have differing missions or agendas. The core ethical challenge, says Read, is to determine whether the terms of the partnership would require either party to jeopardize its integrity. He says:
“The mere fact that different partners in a joint project have different purposes and aspirations does not make the project unethical so long as (a) each partner’s purposes are morally acceptable to their own, and (b) each partner is held sufficiently morally accountable for its contribution.”
If government is looking for private agencies that are well equipped to meet a community need for which public funds have been assigned, then there is no reason why The Salvation Army shouldn’t bid for such contracts so long as: (a) the Army has the experience and expertise to meet the need, and (b) it will not be required to compromise its values and its mission in doing so.
Theologically, we must guard against an arbitrary separation between ministries that are spiritual and those that are social. Such thinking reveals a false
dichotomy between sacred and secular, a dualism that is heretical. We Salvationists believe that all of life is sacred and that every act is a potential sacrament.
IS THIS ALL ABOUT MONEY?
Some hold that those who support extending benefits to a domiciled adult other than a spouse are doing so only for the money. In other words, there is no higher principle, no spiritual motivation here. This view assumes no primary interest in the people served.
Besides being a rather uncharitable and judgmental attitude toward those on the other side of the argument, this view becomes more and more unconvincing the more you play it out. When someone is motivated by money, he’s usually attempting to get richer. Who, pray tell, is getting richer through these government contracts? Our salaries remain modest, including the salaries of those who are employed in our government-funded programs, and the salaries of officers are totally unaffected by government contracts.
Having failed by that route, the critic of compliance could then argue: “You want the money to build a social-service empire. “If government money brings anything organizationally, it is more work, bureaucratic headaches and, by the way, greater capacity to serve people in Christ’s name.
I think the real issue that rightly ought to cause Salvationists concern is the possibility of a divorce between our social and our spiritual ministries. Our Salvationist theology, however, does not allow us to separate sacred and secular. There is a spiritual assumption and meaning to every social action, and there are social implications and imperatives in every spiritual truth. Therefore, a divorce is, a priori, impossible. What this means, then, is that the more our social work is left on its own, unconnected with our Salvationist and spiritual convictions and our corps congregations, the more it is vulnerable to the influence and governance of other world views.
Now the obvious answer to this state of affairs is to hire social work professionals who align with our holistic mission. This would help. But I am convinced that it is not enough. Most of our social workers face a dilemma. They are being asked to address the multiple needs and profound disadvantages of far more people than they can possibly adequately help in life-changing ways: they need an army. Many of our corps congregations also face a dilemma. They are too disconnected from the hurting, suffering world of their community: they need a mission.
I strongly believe that the greatest, and only, hope for the reunification of our Army is the hands-on, compassionate involvement of our congregations in our community services. When there is a strong caring connection, those services will better reflect our spiritual convictions, and as such, will provide more life-changing help.
IS THIS REALLY AN ISSUE OF EMPLOYEE BENEFITS?
A few have said that the claim that extending benefits is driven by concern for the rights and benefits of our employees is a contrivance. If Army administration is really concerned about employee benefits, then why don’t they address employee matters that affect all employees?
This is a fair observation. A minority would benefit, and if the benefit were extended only to “domestic partners,” an almost negligible number would benefit.
It might therefore be argued that if the Army extended benefits, it would not really have been motivated to help any employees in this matter. The consideration of extending benefits arose only when some new local government ordinances required the benefit. It is certainly true that the Army did not consider the extended benefit prior to the issue raised in certain city council debates. The extended benefits issue has forced us to consider the more diverse configurations of the households of our employees (not to mention soldiers and officers) and to look more closely at whether our dependent coverage access sufficiently addresses the realistic and real needs.
TO WHAT EXTENT CAN OUR EMPLOYEE BENEFITS BE CONSTRUED AS AN ENDORSEMENT OF THE CHRISTIAN MODEL OF MARRIAGE AND FAMILY?
Some feel that in providing access only to a married spouse and children, we are endorsing and supporting the Christian model of marriage and family life.
It is hard to conceive how this is so. Is “the Christian model of marriage and family life” endorsed and supported, say, by a husband of an employee who beats his wife and children regularly and whose marriage has no more credibility than a piece of paper containing the requisite endorsements for a legally recognized union? But we would, by existing policy which no one is questioning provide access to coverage to that person. If extending access to the benefit to spouses of employees constitutes “endorsement” and “support” of the relationship, then we have endorsed and supported many, many relationships that were characterized by lovelessness, suffering, violence, abuse in many forms, and a legacy of untold damage to the psyches of those who grew up in such family settings.
Access to medical benefits for the spouses and children of employees was never intended as an endorsement of a Christian understanding of marriage. It was intended as a support to the dependents of the employee. Over recent decades, things have changed at home. Now, both spouses often work, each having coverage provided. Furthermore, traditional families are no longer the statistical norm. Employees may have another adult dependent in the household a parent, a grandparent, another relative, a handicapped adult child, a friend of the same or opposite sex who for whatever reason (unemployability, mental dys –
function, employment by a company with no medical coverage, self-employment with modest income, etc.), a live-in person who cares for the employee’s children and tends the house while the employee is at work, and, yes, a domestic partner.
Given this change, and given the fact that access to medical benefits was extended to the spouses of employees on the premise that they were dependents, and not as some kind of active organizational support for traditional Christian marriages, I must conclude that the provision of access to this benefit in no way is intended to endorse or support Christian marriage or family.
DOES THE DECISION WE MAKE ON THIS ISSUE IMPACT OUR LEGAL STATUS?
It has been argued that extending benefits to gay partners, because it goes against our official ecclesiastical position statement on homosexuality, jeopardizes our status as a church in this country.
I cannot conceive how our legal status as a church could possibly be jeopardized by an ecclesiastical decision we make after taking into consideration all of the theological, ethical, missional, and practical aspects of the matter we are deciding. Can you imagine government interfering with our internal decision-making processes to prove that a particular ecclesiastical decision is inconsistent
with our theology? The First Amendment and its clear implications preclude that from happening. The decision not to discriminate in one particular case or issue does not mean we have forfeited our right to discriminate in general. Furthermore, in my view, the arguments and rationales I have advanced in this paper show a far broader consistency between extending benefits and both the scope of our ethics and the desired ethical outcomes.
WHAT, THEN, ARE THE MORAL DIMENSIONS OF THIS ISSUE THAT SIMPLY MUST BE TAKEN INTO CONSIDERATION?
Some are saying that there is really only one moral question to answer here: Can we Salvationists support a homosexual lifestyle by extending benefits?
In order to make an authentic moral choice, we must look at all the moral aspects of the issue, as well as the moral implications of the choices we are considering. Not to do so, I suggest, is not to make a credible moral choice. To omit all but one moral dimension of an issue is to erode the ethical foundation of the final decision.
What are the moral dimensions of the issue itself?
First, there is the support which extending benefits will give to other adult dependents of employees, which will include, in a few instances, gay partners. One could argue that extending benefits to a same-sex partner is to send a message that the Army now recognizes the legitimacy of those relationships.
But is this claim really true? Just as we would not argue that our compassionate assistance to a gay couple in need of our services does not constitute support of their lifestyle, so I can hardly see how providing access to health benefits to an existing employee’s domestic partner constitutes an endorsement of their relationship. The support is for a person, not a relationship, and it seems very far-fetched to claim that a homosexual relationship will be either initiated or further preserved because this benefit was available for purchase. Hence, I do not think that the claim for extended benefits advancing a lifestyle that we oppose is sustainable.
Second, what I think is a more helpful moral dimension of this issue is the question of human rights. In a Western country that has sufficient wealth and medical technology to provide basic health care and coverage for all its citizens, failure to do so seems to me to be immoral. Unlike other Western nations where health coverage is provided by government, in this country health coverage is provided through one’s employer, or is accessible for purchase (through the employer) for a family member. If there is a moral compulsion to provide adequate health coverage to all citizens, then the coverage availability offered by employers must be sufficient to include not only a dependent who is a dependent spouse or dependent children, but also a different dependent adult of the household where there is no spouse.
I submit that the provision of access to health coverage to any one legally domiciled dependent adult in an employee’s household is a greater ethical priority or compulsion that refusing to do so based on a perception than such provision would be seen as, or would constitute, endorsement of homosexual lifestyles. Because the God we serve is more compassionate than condemning, more inclusive that exclusive, and because the Army in which we serve places greater emphasis on loving people than on sitting in judgment on them, I choose to support the inclusive action of extending benefits. I cannot conceive of the God of agape love saying to us: “Yes, provide needed health care access to these sinners, but not to those.”
Do I support the gay lifestyle? No. Do I think that refusing to provide access to benefits to a gay partner of an employee will serve to alienate us further from gays in general and confirm further the perception by probably most gays that Christianity is not for them? Yes. Is it possible to extend benefits without endorsing the gay lifestyle? Yes. (Government contracts requiring the extension do not require the contractor to endorse domestic partnerships.)
The second reason I say “Yes” is a more important missional reason. It is not particularly Christian to say “Yes” to extending a benefit to someone when there is mutual agreement about moral issues. But it is particularly Christian to do so when the person we are extending the benefit to knows that we strongly disagree on an important moral issue but that compassion overrules the disagreement. Let’s first consider whether or not the decision would have consequences that are morally undesirable.
Assuming that an increasing number of government entities will enact ordinances that require extended benefit provisions by contracting (funded) agencies, not providing these benefits would mean significant loss of our capacity to minister to people in Christ’s name. We would be abandoning a significant part of the mission field God has given us; we would be abandoning a significant number of people, and many of the agencies that would take over those services would not represent Christ and would have no spiritual ministry. Furthermore, in many cases, loss of government funding spells the death of larger configurations of services than what the government funding alone makes possible. Hence, one consequence of a decision not to extend benefits is the Army’s withdrawal from a significant part of its mission field.
The argument has been put forward that if we really have faith, God will provide the needed funding to replace lost government funds. That argument holds only if a decision not to extend is, in fact, what God clearly directs us to do. We certainly don’t want to be in the position of tempting God that is, of making a decision we think is right without adequate prayer and without thorough consideration of all aspects, issues, and implications, and then asking God to prove us right by performing miracles. If our decision is the best one, then we should not be suggesting to God how He is to make our decision work. He will provide us with the resources He knows we need. (Incidentally, in San Francisco, after the decision was made not to extend benefits four years ago, the loss of the government funds [$3.3 million] was not made up with new money from other sources.)
A second consequence of a decision not to extend benefits is employees losing their jobs. Now, eliminating employee positions for any number of reasons, including the loss of funding for a program, is a part of administrative decision making. But I wonder how convincing the “ethics” of that decision is when the person making the decision on the basis of ethics is not himself paying the price for that decision but is forcing other people (the employees in the government-funded program), most of whom have no relationship whatever with the issue in question (domestic partnership), to pay the price, or be the “sacrificial lambs” for his high morality. A decision not to extend benefits may be a right decision or a wrong one, but it is certainly not a moral one if the one making it doesn’t lay his own security on the line for having done so.
WILL THERE BE DEFECTIONS?
It has been claimed that we will lose officers, soldiers, friends, and supporters if we extend benefits, and we will gain enemies. This could well be, but if extending benefits is the right thing to do, then we should not be held hostage by those who threaten to defect or attack. The decision is not ethical if there is not a willingness to pay a price for it; it is then only a convenient decision. The decision to make the right choice should not be influenced by the consequences.
Of course, the prospect of defections saddens us deeply. We do not want to lose those dedicated Salvationists who may feel strongly that extension of benefits is morally wrong. To those Salvationists I would say the following:
I have not always agreed with ecclesiastical decisions made by “Army administration,” but I will not leave the Army because of those disagreements. So long as I agree with our Army’s mission, its doctrine and ethics, and the integrity of most of its leaders, I will remain a Salvationist.
The specific ethical principle that the prospect of extended benefits seems to violate for some Christians is that of the required celibacy of those with a homosexual orientation. But the ethical principle itself is not at issue here. The disagreement relates to what the most ethical ecclesiastical decision is relating to whether or not to extend benefits to a group that includes gay partners. The disagreement is whether or not such extension is consistent with our moral position on homosexual relations, not the ethical principle itself.
Whatever view one has on whether or not extending benefits violates our position on homosexual relations, we are agreed on the basic ethical principle. If any Salvationist chooses to defect because of a decision to extend benefits, he/she would be taking that drastic step based, not on an essential principle, but on disagreement over one particular ecclesiastical decision and whether or not that decision intolerably violated the principle.
My own prayer is that with this decision, those who disagree will understand that what makes us all Salvationists is not our agreement over every ecclesiastical decision, but rather over the central core of Biblical teaching, the Army’s calling and mission, our basic theology, and a Christian ethic that is strong on both principle and compassion. It is over these matters that we should decide whether to be together in fellowship and mission.
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During the course of writing this paper, I became intrigued by the realization that we Christians embrace a faith based on “extended benefits.” “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). While we deserved no extension of benefit from God, while we had no moral right to receive favor from God, He gave us the greatest Benefit possible.
Our own lives have been transformed by this undeserved Benefit. What that transformation means on a practical basis will take us a lifetime to work out, but what is clear is that we have now become extenders-of-benefits to others. We have begun living and acting like Jesus. We give without expecting anything in return (Matthew 5:40-42) that is, without placing conditions on our generosity. Within our resources we give to the person who has need (Acts 2:45; 4:35; Ephesians 4:28; I John 3:17). And we, the reconciled, become ministers of reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:14-20). We preach, teach, and live the gospel of Extended Benefits that are beyond all comparison (“the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus,” Ephesians 2:7), benefits that come not through works (what we deserve) but through faith (what God undeservedly gives us and we joyfully accept). We ourselves become extenders-of-benefits, ministers of reconciliation, ambassadors for Christ. We tell people that what they don’t deserve is available in Christ, and we live lives that demonstrate that undeserved kindness.
Let those who feel that a homosexual partner of an Army employee does not deserve our medical benefits be at peace. We have it on good authority (Scripture) that extending undeserved benefits is the business we Christians are in, the business that will change the world.
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The Salvation Army’s Position on Homosexuality
The Salvation Army holds a positive view of human sexuality. Where a man and a woman love each other, sexual intimacy is understood as a gift of God to be enjoyed within the context of heterosexual marriage. However, in the Christian view, sexual intimacy is not essential to a healthy, full, and rich life. Apart from marriage, the scriptural standard is celibacy.
Sexual attraction to the same sex is a matter of profound complexity. Whether this is the result of genetics, environment, or some combination of both, attempts to deny its reality or to marginalize those of a same-sex orientation have not been helpful. The Salvation Army does not consider same-sex orientation blameworthy in itself or simply a matter of the will. While some Christian believers witness to a reorientation to heterosexuality, this has not been the experience of all.
Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.
Likewise, there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse.
In keeping with these convictions, the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation. The fellowship of Salvation Army worship is open to all sincere seekers of faith in Christ, and membership in The Salvation Army church body is open to all who confess Christ as Savior and who accept and abide by The Salvation Army’s doctrine and discipline.
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Approved by the Commissioners’ Conference , May 2001 [IHQ July 2001]
Scriptures: Genesis 2:23-24; Leviticus 18:22; Mark 2:16-17; Romans 1:26-27; Romans 5:8; I Corinthians 6:9-11; I Corinthians 13; Galatians 6:1-2; I Thessalonians 4:1-8; I Thessalonians 5:14-15; I Timothy 1:15-16; Jude 7