The denomination I belong to, the Reformed Church in America, currently finds itself in an anxiety-riddled conflict regarding same-sex marriage. Frankly, it’s tearing us apart — and it grieves me deeply at what might be lost. This is the denomination I grew up in, the church that baptized me, that heard my profession of faith, that recognized my call to ministry and ordained me. It’s home. But the current fight feels like a messy divorce where no one wins.
Last April, I was one of 74 delegates from our denomination who were sequestered in what has become known as “the worst summer camp ever.” Our task: to determine a constitutional way forward. This is a polity wonk’s way of saying we were charged with trying to save the denomination by finding a solution that would somehow appease the majority of people in the RCA. Despite the vast theological differences, the willingness to listen and extend charity to each other’s experiences and convictions was refreshing. But in the end, our proposal was rejected by the RCA’s governing authority, the General Synod.
The RCA has a presbyterian style of governance. Rather than having bishops who oversee churches, a presbyterian structure allows for neighboring churches to oversee one another. This allows for a deeply contextualized ministry absent heavy-handed, top-down directives from church officials. However, instead of trusting our polity to do what it is designed to do — empower congregations to contextualize ministry, discuss, discern, and discipline — our governing body engaged in politicking and behind-the-scenes use of social media to hold a line. Groups met before, during, and after General Synod — the highest assembly within the denomination, comprising elder and minister delegates — to plan their strategies. Instead of listening to the Spirit and to one another, members used groups chats via phones and computers during session discussions. The result was two measures that would amend our Book of Church Order and our marriage liturgy to clarify that marriage is between a man and woman. These amendments were then passed on to the local assemblies, two-thirds of which needed to approve them for ratification. About a month ago, they failed.
We now find ourselves with two active coalitions, one advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals and one defending “traditional” marriage. They’ve taken sides, drawn lines in the sand, and made official and unofficial statements to the nature of “If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.” As a moderate who tends to be theologically conservative and pastorally progressive, I find myself lost in the middle. My home has become a battlefield, my siblings enemies, and my place of belonging questioned.
I know I’m not alone. And I know our denomination isn’t the only one with battle lines drawn in the sand. Whether in a denomination or not, a large portion of the church is caught in the middle.
Contrary to public opinion, the middle position isn’t chosen because it’s easier. I agonize over the impact of my beliefs on individuals I have extraordinary friendships with. How do I reconcile my belief that people don’t choose and can’t change their orientation with my understanding of that Scripture teaches that marriage is between a man and woman? How do I remain faithful to my understanding of Scripture when so many feel pushed away from the Jesus I want them to know because of what I believe? While my study of Scripture has led me to certain conclusions, I appreciate that others have studied Scripture and arrived at different conclusions. Humbly, I must ask, “What if I’m wrong?”
This kind of humility is viewed with suspicion within many corners of the faith community. Rather than a virtue, it’s labeled as cowardice, evidence of a deficient faith. But for those of us somewhere in the middle, humility drives us to listen deeply, build relationships, and act as peacemakers in the midst of conflict.
It’s also humility that keeps me in the conversation. Our understandings of God were not handed down to us on stone tablets at Sinai. When we read the Bible — even as individuals — the meanings we make come to us through our already existing theological presuppositions and assumptions. These presuppositions and assumptions are not of our own making, but come through our communal life in the church, experiences, and personal interpretations.
We should also recognize that the beliefs of the church are not static. The church is constantly reexamining its beliefs. This is how a church that once supported slavery using the Bible can now be appalled by slavery using the same Bible. Unfortunately for those of us who hate conflict, the church, like us, will only examine those long-held beliefs when conflict flares.
Let’s examine this principle by using the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath as an example. While at the house of a Pharisee, Jesus deliberately heals a man on the Sabbath, forcing the Pharisees to wrestle with their beliefs about Sabbath. Now, Scripture is quite clear on the issue. No one was questioning if working on the Sabbath was right or wrong. Tradition had long decided that it was not lawful. Yet Jesus healed the man, forcing us to deal with a tension: Scripture clearly teaches that Sabbath rest should be observed and Scripture clearly teaches that those in need are to be cared for. In the story those two values compete with each other. At this point, there are three ways to respond:
- Hold to the clear teaching of Scripture and say that Jesus’ act of healing was wrong. The Sabbath is holy and should be protected from anything that desecrates it.
- Disregard the teaching of Scripture regarding both the prohibitions against working on the Sabbath and the holiness of the day. Treat the Sabbath no different than any other day.
- Hold the tension. Sabbath rest is clearly taught by Scripture and should be observed. Caring for those in need is clearly taught in scripture. Neither can or should be disregarded.
Clearly, the tension — not the absence of tension— was the way forward. Many use tradition as a reason not to enter this tension. In the same-sex marriage discussion, people cite 2,000 years of church history to support their suspicions of affirming theology. But this same history offers plenty of examples of healthy theological shifts that actually counter tradition. Healing on the Sabbath went against thousands of years of history. Replacing circumcision with baptism went against thousands of years of history. Even the Reformation went against 1,500 years of history, with the Reformers’ claim that they better understood the church fathers than the church did. History reveals that the church is always learning, always engaging in a re-examination of core values.
The temptation will always be to align ourselves with like-minded individuals, even within the church. Rather than living as covenantal community committed to trusting the Spirit to guide us through the discernment of difficult issues, we retreat into issue-oriented groups. While providing a kind of community, they are not covenantal. We claim some things are irreconcilable when Christ has told us he is reconciling all things to himself. We shut down the church’s imagination by saying proper interpretation of Scripture should happen in a clear, tension-free environment and that experiences don’t matter.
But that’s just not true. This Easter season I was reminded that Scripture did not convince the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah; rather they were convinced because of their experience with his resurrected body.
The Christian life is a life of creative tension. The enemy isn’t out there — it’s within each one of us. The enemy is my self-righteousness, my divisiveness, my fear, my pride, and countless other forces that woo me away from the spirit of the living Christ. To combat that I need a community filled with difference. A community that challenges what I know. Who pushes me on what I believe. Who fights with grace so that, together, we may grow up into all things Christ.
Most of my memories of home involve a table. Jesus has told us that, at the center of the house he is preparing for us, there is a table. What happens around that table will be the culmination of all that is holy. The table where we now gather, imperfect as it may be, is supposed to foreshadow that one. So I’ll sit there, with anyone who will sit with me, united in Christ and hoping in his redemptive love, for as long as we need to imagine a new way forward.