There is a tragedy happening within U.S. denominations and religious institutions that cripples the witness of the church in the wider society. Bonds of Christian fellowship are being torn asunder by the debate over the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church, creating untold pain and suffering for many LGBTQ people and others, while sharpening disunity in Christ. And all this is unnecessary, and unfaithful.
My own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, is embroiled in this debate. Sharp lines are drawn, with some congregations leaving and others threatening to do so. This spirit of divisiveness, with a readiness to break covenantal bonds without impunity, is new. In my 17 years serving as General Secretary, only two congregations — one very conservative and one very liberal — left our fellowship, over different issues. There must be a better way forward.
Last week I witnessed such a path in the meeting of City Classis, the first non-geographical classis (a collegial grouping of congregations) in the RCA, gathering churches focused on creative ministry in urban areas. As a retired RCA minister, I’m now a member of this classis. For more than two years, the classis has studied and reflected on the place of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. Clear differences are present. Some hold to a historic, conservative view. Some have made a commitment to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ persons in their life and ministry. Others are on a continuing journey. All engage the Scripture deeply in this process.
What struck me was the honesty, courage, and fidelity of those engaged in this difficult dialogue. They are deeply committed to supporting one another in their respective ministries, despite these differences. Maintaining their fellowship and shared mission is a priority. The classis is committed to engaging these differences in a spirit that does not divide.
At last week’s meeting, a “framework” for how the classis would proceed dealing with these questions was considered. In informal and formal sessions during two days, this was discussed with honesty, care, and integrity. It basically calls for recognizing the appropriate authority of congregations to make decisions, out of pastoral care, recognizing differing stances toward questions of membership, same-gender marriage, and congregational leadership. It concludes by stating, “We believe that maintaining the visible unity of the church in the midst of sincere disagreement is the most biblical way for City Classis to advance its mission and the mission of the Reformed Church in America, the most faithful way to listen to the voice of the Spirit in a time of divergent Scriptural interpretation, and the most effective way to bear witness to the ongoing work of Jesus.” This was adopted by a convincing margin of consensus.
But what impressed me were not just the words, but the spirit behind them. In my time as General Secretary, I met with each one of the denomination’s 46 classes spread throughout North America. And in my ecumenical experience, I’ve been in countless discussions of differences over human sexuality, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. What I know for sure is this: The broader church won’t reach agreement on this questions for decades. What is desperately needed are “enclaves of hope,” like what I saw in City Classis, which demonstrate the courage to go forward together in ways which demonstrate that these differences need not and should not tear asunder the body of Christ. Such examples are rare but should be celebrated as true gifts for the future of the church’s mission.
I know well the range and intensity of convictions on these issues across the church. But placing such differences at the center of the church’s life, making them definitional of faithfulness to the gospel and a rationale for erecting boundaries to basic fellowship in Christ, is a grave sin. Finding a better way forward requires a maturity that learns how to live honestly with difference for the sake of communion, common mission, and a resonant witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. This opens the church to address issues such as racial bigotry, nationalistic chauvinism, and economic inequality, which are the sources of society’s deepest and most damaging divisions.