Can the Center Hold?

I've been thinking about this phrase from Yeats almost daily the last number of years as a pastor. He is using it in another context, but it's a question that is very relevant to church leadership, and one that remains unanswered. 

The question to me is, "can a local church center itself so profoundly in the gospel of Jesus that diversity in its body doesn't threaten to pull it apart?" Or, to state this in a slightly different way, "can diversity (ideological, political, exegetical, and theological) in a local church context become something that is seen as a given, even an asset, instead of something to be minimized?" 

These questions became very poignant to me two and a half years ago right about the time the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. I wrote here on this blog that Intowners would respond to this ruling in a variety of ways; some would be delighted, while others might have some measure of concern about what this portends for religious freedom or perhaps the moral trajectory of our country.

To me, this was simply stating the obvious - that we are a church that meets in one of the bluest of blue cities and that people here, even if they are church-goers, don't tend to think about cultural and moral issues in the same way that Christians do in more traditional "red-state" contexts. Intowners love Jesus and AND they love living in our very secular city. So, many people - though not all, were overjoyed that their LGBTQ friends now had the same rights and privileges with regard to marriage that they themselves possessed. 

Making this observation may have been fine in an of itself, but I was condemned online for not also indicating how Intown was working to correct this obvious spiritual deficiency. Setting aside the discussion about if, when, and how we should expect a nation-state to uphold any one particular religion's moral norms and marriage liturgies, the obvious implication of the pushback I received on multiple blogs (as well as in person) was that diversity on THIS issue was NOT to be tolerated.

Divergent views on eschatology? Sure. Mode of Baptism? Sometimes. Form of Government? Probably. Views of the Lord's Supper? Of course! But, if a church is to be faithful to the Bible and to their members' spiritual welfare it should monitor individual member's views on homosexuality and correct those who are out of line with the "right" view.

(Short aside: I think the expectation is that most of this "correction" will come from the pulpit as preachers point out the incompatibility of homosexuality with scripture. But, if a church's preaching content is shaped by the Bible, the times this topic will show up organically in the sermon text will be somewhat rare. And, if we choose to denominate homosexuality as obviously-sinful rather than wrestling with the text and asking whether malakoi and arsenokoitai actually mean what we've always thought, will there be anyone there to listen other than the already-convinced? A tree falling in the forest may make a lot of noise, but if no one is there to listen, it doesn't cause anyone to move.)    

No matter how robustly I may have agreed with my online assailants about the gospel, the core tenets of confessional Christianity, and no matter how desperately the need is for ecumenical cooperation in our polarized age, my unwillingness to surveil people's views on this matter and enforce some kind of uniformity at Intown meant that I was not to be trusted or cooperated with. Members and regulars at Intown received calls and emails from concerned parents and friends counseling them to leave.

What I considered to be a rather benign blog post was used as a weapon in the ongoing proliferation of the culture wars, as well as an instrument of further division in the Christian family. 

This sort of "agree with me or else" Christianity has deeply affected the way that average people in the pew parse out their differences. Issues that Christians used to kill each other over like the Lord's Supper are now seen as relatively minor intramural discussions while even the hint that someone might be re-examining their Bibles and taking a fresh look at the few verses that address homosexuality can lead to ecclesial inquisitions, the severing of familial relationships, as well as the ending of pastoral careers. 

This basically confirms to the watching world that the Church has no better way of talking about divisive issues than they do, so why bother? 

Perhaps this competitive and protectionist approach to theological discourse exists because we're predisposed by our political culture to see issues in right/wrong, us/them binaries. But, I think our conversations often tilt toward mutual exclusion because we're working from a faulty understanding of the church. As Americans we have a tendency to view the church as an institution that is there to underwrite our comfort and reinforce our current thinking rather than confronting us over and over with the scandal of the gospel and pushing us into the pain of the world as Christ's ambassadors. This is further complicated by the Protestant instinct to assign enormous value to the purity of the church and relatively little value to it's visible unity.  These factors keep our churches theologically and culturally-homogenous and virtually guarantee that a large part of the American church will continue talking about LGBTQ people rather than with them. 

Wherever we find ourselves on the specific exegetical questions about LGBTQ inclusion, shouldn't the church be the IDEAL context for difficult conversations rather than one of the most adversarial? Couldn't we, along with the Apostle Paul, assume a certain level of diversity in the church, and consider this is a strength for mission and community life rather than a disease to be eradicated? Shouldn't our relationships with our brothers and sisters sitting in the pew next to us be binding enough to not only survive exegetical differences, but compel us to pursue relational solidarity at just about any cost? What if we just decided to trust that those who see things differently than us are most likely trying to be faithful followers of Jesus just like we are? 

To me, these are far more interesting questions than "who's right and who's wrong?" The latter generally descends into people quoting decontextualized Bible verses to try and defeat their opponent. If we follow Jesus then we have to treat what the Bible has to say about human sexuality with utmost seriousness, and I would love to create a context where people could open their Bibles together and talk openly and honestly with one another about what it says and how it should be applied today. But, until we agree upon the terms of relationship and commit to a posture of mutual love and forbearance, conversations about LGBTQ matters won't be conversations, they'll be debates. And, these debates will create more heat than light and further hide the face of Jesus from the very people he seemed so intent on embracing.