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Implicit Faith?

My guess was correct. They hadn’t been in worship for many weeks. At least he had the decency to come see me rather than just drift away. He said they couldn’t be part of a church where the pastors held the views we did about LGBTQ people. Between the lines I heard lots of fear, especially about their almost-adolescent children. With pastors like us, who knew what their children might think or do or become.

He is a good guy, a solid, committed, and knowledgeable Christian. So I tried to engage him a little bit. “Of course, everything involves some interpretation of scripture—from worshiping on Sunday to eating pork to charging interest,” I said. “What do you do about slavery, divorce, wealth, warfare, women wearing jewelry?” I asked.

“We all know what scripture says,” he said curtly. He was having none of it.

Of course, a scriptural case for abolition or usury or divorce isn’t exactly equivalent to welcoming and affirming LGBTQ persons. But that isn’t why my disgruntled former member didn’t want to engage in a discussion about scripture. I think I caught him off guard. He had never fully considered other ethical parallels and now he just wanted to get out of my study.

His “no” to LGBTQ persons was a given, an automatic assumption. He held it because it was how he was raised, because he was uncomfortable and unfamiliar with LGBTQ people. His views on LGBTQ people was one part of a complete package of beliefs—beliefs promulgated by his parents, the books he reads, the radio station he listens to, the celebrity pastors he admires. To pull on one thread of those beliefs might mean that the entire set would soon unravel.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers railed against implicit faith. This was the notion that simple and uninformed people could say “My priest believes for me. Whatever he says, I hold.” Calvin and others rejected this. Every person must have their own meaningful understanding of faith.

One of the truisms in today’s debate in the church about LGBTQ persons is that traditionalists hold their views because of their strong view of scripture. Two open and affirming evangelicals, Jim Brownson and Ken Wilson, are willing to concede this point. But I’ve begun to wonder if like all truisms, this one isn’t entirely true.

Instead, many, many traditionalists hold their position with a sort of implicit faith—those in authority over them, those who have taught them, and those they admire hold this position, so they must as well. They never have really examined the scriptures. They simply suppose that it agrees with them.

Another anecdote: “I just can’t change my mind on this. Scripture is overwhelmingly clear,” a person declared to me with a stern brow and jutting chin.

“Are there particular passages that are especially significant or troubling for you?” I asked. “I know for me personally, Romans 1 was really big because it is within such a weighty theological conversation,” I added.

Now the person looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. I half suspect he doesn’t know Corinthians from Capuchins. “No, it’s just the entire Bible,” he muttered as he slipped away before his “scriptural views” were exposed.

Notice what I am and am not saying. I am not saying that no traditionalists engage or value the scriptures. Certainly, some do. And yes, there are some biblical scholars who hold traditional views. Still, increasingly I see that “scripture” is sort of a blank check that many traditionalists use. Their views are really a form of implicit faith—trust in authorities and a larger set of all-or-nothing beliefs.

On the flip side, another truism is that most open and affirming Christians are willing to cut corners on scripture in the name of justice and human rights. I suspect this isn’t entirely true either, but that’s for another day.

As for implicit faith, it too can cut both ways. I recall a Deacon from my congregation’s board speaking during an impassioned discussion about LGBTQ people. “They are our pastors, our leaders. They have graduate degrees. They are theologically trained. We pay them to study and pray and interpret on our behalf. We should listen to them.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • As a layperson who is also a historian, I have for a long time been aware of and interested in figuring out what and why we folks in the pew think, say, and do what we do. It is fairly easy, relatively speaking, to write history based on clergy and professors–they/we leave lots of records. Those of us in the pew, though, leave a lot less. And, as I catch at least some of your drift, it can get complicated. Implicit faith–but not only that. Or, as I find myself thinking and saying a lot, “It depends …” 🙂

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    I was thinking about what Doug (above) calls “Implicit faith–but not only that.” As somebody who came late to the progressive side of this discussion, I know that a lot of what I understood as I interpreted Scripture and wrestled with the issue was determined not so much by people in authority telling me what to believe, but people in authority, indeed my whole life until I moved out into the world, coloring how I believed. Is that part of implicit faith? Maybe . . . and yet who among us isn’t influenced by those things?

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks Doug and James, I think I hear you both having some misgivings about being too hard on implicit faith. Don’t we all hold certain things simply because our momma told us so? Is that all bad? Probably not. My intention was less to join the Reformers in assailing implicit faith, and more to point out that when many, many traditionalists say “scripture” it isn’t quite the case. If their views are built on implicit faith, I’d like them to recognize that, even if that doesn’t change their views.

  • Kim Van Es says:

    Thank you, Steve, for inviting us to examine why we believe what we do.

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