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Essay

The Restrooms @ Synod

By June 17, 2016 2 Comments
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A few weeks ago Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post, made the following comment regarding the transgender issue and bathroom use on the PBS News Hour:

This is the kind of issue that is normally handled with culture norms, and people making compromises, and, you know, meeting real needs, because there is one here. People should be treated the way they want to be treated. That’s a basic norm.

But now we have both sides politicizing this, raising it to the highest levels of stakes, likely to go in the courts, way up in the courts, resentment, conflict. It’s turned into a culture war controversy. And we take issues like this that maybe people of good will could to some agreement on, and run them through this culture war machine of our politics, and then there has to be a winner and a loser, when, in fact, I think, on this type of issue, we have a long history of maybe reasonable people reaching accommodations in their own community.

“Reasonable people reaching accommodations in their own community.” Now this is good advice. The tendency of the Christian community is to blow things up into moral, doctrinal, or “biblical” issues, when in fact the driving force is political. We want to stake our claim to the so-called truth not because we necessarily believe it, but because we gain some sense of power or moral authority. Christian institutions are raising the flag of religious freedom and moral indignation on all sorts of issues: birth control, homosexuality, transgender, the blue pigmentation of pants… because it’s biblical? No – because it’s politically and economically expedient. Let’s face it—the Christian community has its own “cultural war machine” that is indispensable to maintaining the status quo, shoring up the base, and filling pockets.

What if we rolled up our sleeves and did the hard work of loving our neighbor? What if we made a point of doing what good people in our churches and institutions do all the time—make the best of difficult situations? No need for official policies or grand pronouncements—just quiet compromise and accommodation. All of our churches are gatherings of misfits with abnormal thoughts and desires. Doctrinally, we call this “total depravity”. It’s a negative term, and rightfully so. Yet, there’s an aspect of total depravity that should be comforting. We’re all messed up, we all have our issues. Some are much more obvious than others, and that’s part of the problem. Maybe we like the Christian cultural war machine because we’re happy the focus is on other people’s issues—by the way, when are we going to have a synodical committee address the love of money and rampant greed at the core of churches and Christian institutions?

Of course we need to discuss these things in community, taking issues of justice and grace just as seriously as we do sin and judgement. But how do we get back to “people making compromises” and “meeting real needs” without all the grandstanding and righteous indignation? In talking about the church in Corinth, John Calvin had this to say:

Among the Corinthians no slight number had gone astray; in fact, almost the whole body was infected. There was not one kind of sin only, but very many; and they were no light errors but frightful misdeeds; there was corruption not only of morals but of doctrine. What does the holy apostle — the instrument of the Heavenly Spirit, by whose testimony the church stands or falls — do about this? Does he seek to separate himself from such? Does he cast them out of Christ’s Kingdom? Does he fell them with the ultimate thunderbolt of anathema? He does nothing of the sort; he even recognizes and proclaims them to be among the church of Christ and the communion of saints!” – Institutes, IV.i.14.

There are real differences of opinion on important issues in the church that need healthy debate and discussion. I’m not convinced we need to agree in order to worship together, and we certainly don’t need to agree to begin the pastoral work of loving our neighbor. So let’s wave the white flag and call a truce in this silly Christian cultural war mongering. After all, when you really have to go, “any port in a storm” will do.

 

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

2 Comments

  • Jan says:

    The greatest of these is love.

  • Great Article, Jason. Thanks for sharing!

    As a delegate to Synod, one of the things that I was entirely frustrated by was people making way to big of a deal out of what we did. Or, perhaps, misunderstanding the scope of what we were trying to do. The issue at hand, that is, at the CRC Synod, was pastoral guidance for how Pastors should deal with same sex marriage. That’s it. Literally nothing else was included in the scope of our study or our conclusions. Obviously, the RCA Synod had a much broader conversation and I recognize that you at the Twelve find yourselves in, at least, those two worlds.

    Having said all that, I ultimately agree with what you said: war mongering is going to do incredible harm. Whatever our theological position, we need to love eachother and invite each other into an ever-deeper relationship with Jesus, where every part of our lives is on the table.

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