Essay

When You’re Right…

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thumb_Camera 053_1024What do you do when you’re right and others just don’t seem to get it?

When agreeing to disagree just won’t work for you.

And you know what I’m talking about here, whether you’re part of the majority side or a minority opinion, or the extreme minority of one, when you are right and you know eventually others will come around to see it your way if only given time. With more experience and probably further education, they’ll get it…

But here you stand; you can do no other!

God’s will be done, and CERTAINLY God is on your side.

They will see that your choice for the new lobby/narthex carpeting makes better sense all along. It’s more durable with a more inviting colour scheme!

Seems I’m being facetious, but I’m not. Local churches have divided over things less weighty than this. Sisters and brothers in the faith, siblings in the household of God have had their unity in Christ ripped asunder over just such matters. This ought not be so.

What I wonder is if we can see how easy it is for the body of Christ to fall into crass division over trivial matters, then might we learn from such observations and experiences of our own behaviours and communal practices towards one another that when we have obvious difference over greater concerns that it is precisely in how we live into those differences that the Gospel is at stake? To be sure, I do not mean to diminish our very real and significant differences, nor to equate the substantial importance (even of life and death consequences) of such concerns—for example: human sexuality and gender identity, women’s reproductive health, Black Lives Matter, to name but a few—with the colour of the carpeting. But I’ve been wrestling with the tendency both personal and in the church to polarize everything into camps of us and them, often on the false binary of liberal and conservative. Can the church offer a different way of being, a Christian way, that allows for our struggles and conflicts to be handled and lived out differently in light of the redemptive work of God in our lives? Dr. Jim Brownson probably asks it more succinctly in a recent post here on The Twelve:

But I am inviting those who may favor the recent actions of the General Synod of the RCA to think about what it means to be a church that proclaims not only God’s law, but also God’s grace. What does that mean, with respect to working with people where they are, even if that location is not where you believe God ideally wants them to be, particularly in a context like ours in North America, where the culture is in a very different place from the stated position of the church?

Obviously much of my wrestling comes in reaction to the recent proceedings of the Synods of both the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church but the questions have been around from well before now. Can we be congregations of both/and not because of wishy-washy theologies or cowardly practices of church discipline, but because we desire to live into the challenges our world faces and the lives and faith God gives us and those around us? Do our churches have to be made up of people who all think the same?

Let me be more direct and give an example: you need only be mildly paying attention to know that human sexuality is a big concern in some parts of the church right now, and especially in our Reformed denominations. It has become of such concern in the wider Reformed Church in America that our most recent General Synod actually entertained a recommendation “to explore and articulate the options and consequences within the RCA for grace-filled and orderly separation over time, should the different perspectives regarding human sexuality keep us from remaining as one…” Fortunately, that recommendation was defeated. But the conversation around it and other actions of General Synod and indeed, most of our conversation around human sexuality—and let’s be clear, we mean particularly homosexuality—establishes that the RCA is divided between two groups: a group that understands homosexuality to be at odds with God’s Word and a group that wishes to welcome AND affirm all people including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The debate is set up as though these two sides are vying for a position of power to ultimately get there way. But the thing is, that which causes me to wrestle about the Gospel identity of the church, is that the church simply isn’t made up of just these two sides! To do the work of the church as a debate in this manner misses the point of being the church to begin with.

Do not misunderstand me, I believe God’s Word is very clear. And our creeds and confessions support it. The witness of scripture is and the testimony of the church is one in which I am moved to agree with a particular movement within the Reformed Church who say: Compelled by the inclusive love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, I envision the day when people of all sexual identities and gender expressions are fully affirmed in the life and ministry of the Reformed Church in America. I think this is part of the Gospel, that when God so loved the world, God actually meant it. As a follower of Jesus and especially as a Minister of Word and sacrament, I promise to walk in the Spirit of Christ, in love and fellowship within the church, seeking the things that make for unity, purity, and peace, always ready, with gentleness and reverence, to give an account of my understanding of the Christian faith. Trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for strength, I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God. This is the Gospel we’ve been called to.

But I also get that I have fellow Minister friends and colleagues while attempting to live out the very same Gospel do not arrive at the same welcoming and affirming place I do with the LGBT community. Hey, it actually took me time. And if you look at the history of the church as well as our various cultures, it might be a while until we’re all in agreement. And so, we as fellow ministers of God’s word must continue “with gentleness and reverence, to give an account of [our] understanding of the Christian faith” at times even to one another. And then there are actually ministers who fall into neither an affirming or an un-affirming camp!

But here’s where the rubber really meets the road, and where my original quandary really plays itself out: it’s the same way in my local church! If the RCA attempts to, contrary to our polity and theology, somehow force everyone to be in lock step about this really important concern, well I’m not sure what my local church is suppose to do? I know that I have people in my congregation who very much agree with me. And I know that I have people in my congregation who very much do not. But mostly, in the list of the top things that concern my congregation, what General Synod debated and fought about aren’t really priorities. Not that it doesn’t matter! It does, vitally! We wish to welcome everyone. (And we really do try to do that.) And we share the Good News that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling the world to Godself, making a new creation, and even inviting us to become minister of God’s reconciliation, calling up into relationship with God and to follow Christ. (And we really do try to do that.)

And sometimes we find ourselves really struggling with what that means and how to do it. And occasionally we disagree adamantly. But I can’t help but think that that is precisely where the Gospel is lived out, where Christ’s Lordship is truly not only spoken about, but experienced.

And perhaps in generations to come they can look back and see both how silly we were and how they might learn from their past.

4 Comments

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    I certainly needed to hear these words today. Thank you for saying it so well.

  • Recent events at our Synods give little ground for hope, especially the CRC Synod, which was invited to take a modest step forward but instead moved significantly backward, with a specific directive that gay couples who join CRC churches are under discipline until they repent and promise never to engage in intimacy. This was never stated in earlier reports (though perhaps it was implied.) And yet . . . I draw hope from my own congregation, I live in a region where the general election is just a formality because the Republican primary was all that mattered (and where a once-broad and inclusive Republican party has been hijacked by anti-government zealots). I am a member of a very homogeneous congregation, slanting toward conservative, with many members who were born into the CRC 70 or 80 years ago.

  • (continuing previous comment because I couldn’t post it whole)
    And yet some recent adult education sessions on how to relate to gays and lesbians in our churches and families have been remarkably open, free from sloganeering, respectful of different perspectives. I’ve heard no one say “you don’t belong here, you’re a homophobe” or “you don’t belong here, you’ve been taken in by gay propaganda.” This gives me hope that the CRC Synod decision will turn out not to have been a step backward — that isn’t what the study committee wanted, and I’m not sure it’s what the delegates really wanted either — but only a sign of confusion and uncertainty about how to move forward.

  • Jill C. Fenske says:

    Thanks for this excellent piece Tom! It reminds me of an essay by Walter Brueggemann entitled “The Fearful Thirst for Dialogue” in his book Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church. I am convinced that in a world where “monologue” is paramount, the church’s witness can be one of dialogue and thereby hope.

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