A few weeks ago, I sat down for a beer with a fellow pastor. Actually, I had hard cider- he had the beer. The pastor is theologically conservative and sees me- a gay pastor with an orthodox theology as a bit of an enigma.
We had a very good discussion talking about church and life and where we might agree. I had the opportunity to share why I am this odd duck. There is always a bit of uncomfortableness in breaking bread with someone who disagrees with you, but it was a good time and I hope to do it again sometime.
The interesting about my experience is how rare it’s becoming. The church is in many ways polarizing in the same way the American public is polarizing. There is less that brings people together. In many mainline denominations, you have liberals doing one thing, while conservatives do another. Each side views the other with suspicion if not downright hostility.
Middle judicatories try using various tactics to bring people together. But the fact is most of them are gimmicks and the two sides go back to arguing over time.
As we look at the mess that’s taking place in Washington, it would help to have some background. Up until the 90s, work rules in Congress were such that the entire families of a Representative or Senator would move to DC and set up shop. This allowed for more mingling with persons from another party, which in turn made for law based on compromise. When the work rules changed, you had Representatives fly in on a Tuesday and leave Thursday/Friday. Families now stay back home and there is little to no time for people of opposing views to gather socially. As the institution of Congress waned, we start to see the rise of various outside groups that benefit from a hyper-partisan Congress.
Something like that has happened within churches. Denominational bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) are deteriorating, while outside affinity grow in power and influence. Liberals stay with liberals and conservatives with conservatives. The end result is that we stare at each other accusing the other of being unfaithful to God.
As a gay man, I’ve been involved in the arguments concerning the role of gays and lesbians in the life the church. While I’m still working for inclusion of LGBT persons, I have grown weary of not engaging the other side, of only seeing them as “bad” people and not trying to listen to what they are saying. I’m trying to learn why a conservative believes the way they do. I’m not going to change my mind, but I need to know why they believe something because I might find out points of agreement.
This past summer, an evangelical Presbyterian mused about the recent selection of a Transgendered person as the director of More Light Presbyterians, the LGBT group in the PC(USA). Jodi Craiglow wanted to be angry, but realized the anger wasn’t there:
I’m SUPPOSED to be writing a thesis right now. In fact, it’s due at the end of this week, and I’m only about a third of the way done with it. The problem is, that story has been gnawing at the back of my head all day, and I won’t be able to concentrate on what I need to do until I work through my thoughts. So, I figured I’d share them and see what happens. I know that, by all rights, the news of a transgendered Presbyterian taking the vanguard in advocating for LGBTQ issues in the denomination should make my little conservative soul writhe in agony. I should be ANGRY, darnit!
But that’s the problem… and that’s why I’m probably going to get in trouble for this post. I’m trying to get mad — and I can’t. I search my heart for righteous indignation, and time and again only come up with sacrificial love. Do I agree with the lifestyle that Alex is holding? No. Do I believe that God calls us to uphold the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman? Absolutely. Does that give me license to spew vitriol and drive even more nails into the body of Christ? For the love of God, no.
I’ve thought and prayed and thought and prayed, and what I keep hearing is, “I love Alex. And you should, too.” Yep, there’s sin in Alex’s life — but there’s plenty of it in mine, too. And for me to say that my sin is in any way less severe or makes me any less deserving of eternal condemnation is to set myself up as the arbiter of moral righteousness, a job that makes me quake in my boots just to think about. God created Alex — and for that matter, all the folks over at More Light and Covenant Network and all those other affinity groups that I’m supposed to be at war with — fearfully and wonderfully as bearers of His image.
Does that mean that I’m going to spend every waking moment with the people with whom I disagree? Probably not. But, at the same time, I dare not retreat off into my little evangelical ghetto, surround myself only with people who think exactly the same way as I do, and complain about all those “liberals” (who, incidentally, I’ve never actually met) who are ruining my denomination. If Jesus had only spent time with those who agreed with him, the incarnation never would have happened. My sins would have never been purchased, and I’d have had to exist in eternal separation from the Source of Life. Who am I to suggest a different course of action than the one espoused by my Lord and Savior?
Issues can and have divided congregations. They tend to create gaps between people. I don’t think we can avoid that there will be times when we will disagree with each other- when a gap appears. The problem comes when we don’t try to build a bridge and reach out to the other.
It’s not easy trying to close the gap. It’s far easier to stay in our respective ghettoes and it’s far more comfortable. Except, I don’t think Jesus calls us to be comfortable. We are called to stand in the gap and work towards building bridges.
I hope to have more occasions to share a beer with someone from the other side. God seems to do awesome things in those liminal places.