Thursday, November 29, 2012

what I wish our churches taught us...

From reactive to proactive. Where does your church land on this scale? When it comes to controversial matters like abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and hell, many tend to be reactive, which means most of the time they ignore such matters. And then when there’s a pressing reason like proposed changes to legislation, an adult club renting the building next door, or a Rob Bell asking questions about heaven and hell, they marshal their resources, preach sermons, picket and boycott, and tweet tweets which they sometimes later regret.

A current example of this is the response churches are giving to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. or the granting of same-sex blessings in Canada, where gay marriage is already legal.

Take my church, for example.

 At its recent meeting, our diocese held a vote to allow the bishop to give permission to priests who want to provide a blessing to same-sex couples who are in civil marriages. To say it another way, if a legally married same-sex couple asks the priest to give them a blessing, the priest must first ask for the bishop’s permission. Note that this resolution does not oblige any priests to provide such blessings; it simply gives the bishop permission to say “yes” if a priest asks. Now, the church we attend officially has a conservative view on marriage and was not pleased that the vote passed, in fact by a significant margin. In response to this, the leadership discussed the matter at the church’s semi-annual meeting, and will have a task group consider what response to make.

They also discussed it with the youth. And when our children came home from a youth day, one of them expressed that they didn’t know why the church was making such a big deal about blessing people who love each other when there’s more important things like KONY2012 happening in the world.

Some people might suggest that the leadership needs to do a better job of explaining how this really is a significant issue, and that the church should have been proactive in teaching its beliefs more clearly before a resolution like this one came up.

I would suggest that there’s a bigger picture that’s being missed here. And while it involves being proactive, it’s not about clarifying “what’s right and what’s wrong” before it becomes critical. It’s about perspective, respect for others, and God’s heart for people.

Here are four things that I wish pastors and others in church  leadership were teaching, with some recommendations for each point:

1.  The reality that God loves gay and lesbian people

Of course we are told in church that God loves everyone. When said generally like this, it is easier to forget this reality when we encounter people we don’t like or who are different from us. But when it is said with a specific people group in mind, it has more impact and is harder to ignore.
  • State clearly that God loves lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Repeat on a regular basis.
  • Affirm that Jesus gave his life for gay people and straight people and transgender people and everyone else.
  • Emphasize that loving our neighbours includes loving LGBT neighbours, relatives, and colleagues. Give a similar emphasis to other particular neighbours depending on current events, your city or neighbourhood, etc. For example, emphasizing God’s love for Muslim neighbours would be particularly helpful after 9/11. The goal is not to single out a people group, but to emphasize God’s love for people whom we might find it easier to ignore or hate.
Related to this is the concept that the self of the other person matters more than my truth. As Miroslav Volf says, “I may not sacrifice the other at the altar of my truth. Jesus, who claimed to be the Truth, refused to use violence to ‘persuade’ those who did not recognize his truth.” (Exclusion and Embrace, page 272).

2.  Humility when interacting with people who understand Scripture differently

Christians who love Jesus and believe in the authority of the Bible do not always agree on everything. This idea is a no-brainer when it comes to many things. For example, we do not typically question a person’s faith and salvation because they do not share our beliefs about infant baptism or the afterlife or because they have been divorced or believe that eating meat is sinful.

So why is it so difficult for us to believe that someone who supports gay marriage or same-sex blessings might actually love Jesus as much (or more!) than we do, and might also believe in the authority of Scripture? And why is it easy to write off those who have different views on difficult questions by suggesting that they do not value the Bible as much as we do?

In the recounting of what happened at the synod meeting, it was oft-repeated that our delegates were upholding the authority of Scripture and didn’t compromise the Gospel. While it was never stated that all those in opposition had given up the Bible, the message communicated to me was that those with different views were not holding to the authority of Scripture. (In this particular case, a few had obviously jettisoned the Bible. It is not clear where the rest of those who voted in favour of the resolution stand.)
  • As human interpretations are not infallible, be humble in approaching Scripture and in talking about your Biblical beliefs.
  • Affirm that people who love Jesus and believe in the authority of Scripture can have different interpretations of Scripture – including on the matter of same-sex relationships.
  • Acknowledge that Christians and churches all “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible they follow— even those that believe in the inerrant infallible word of God. They may even have good reasons for what parts are followed and what parts are not. But in any case, people who love Jesus and believe in the authority of the Bible will differ as to how they understand and treat different passages.
  • Do not use “We uphold the Bible” as a trump card in discussions.

3.  LGBT ‘r’ us

Before the synod meeting, someone shared a link for a video about “How Christians should treat homosexuals.” Aside from its content, the title in and of itself is a red flag, as it sets up these two groups as mutually exclusive. There are Christians over here, and there are homosexuals over there. Us and them. And this video is about how we should treat them.

The reality is that Christians come in the complete range of sexual orientations, just as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are found in the complete range of faith in Jesus from none to (as close to) 100% (as is humanly possible). So yes, a person can be gay1 and Christian. And yes, LGBT people are present in most churches, even if they are not open about their sexuality.
  • Do not talk as if Christians and LGBT people are two mutually exclusive groups.
  • Avoid using language and talking about same-sex-related topics in ways that other LGBT people.
  • Acknowledge that the body of Christ includes people of all sexual orientations. For example, one of the pastors referenced this at a public discussion when he spoke about our church having a few gay people and a transgender woman in the past. More such acknowledgements are needed, and also for the youth, one of whom recently indicated surprise when someone else said that there are gay people in our church.

4. People are more important than ideas (even theological ones)

To many people, matters of same-sex sexuality are abstract: they deal with them at theoretical, theological, and philosophical levels. For example, they lobby against same-sex marriage for religious reasons or for philosophical reasons do not believe that same-sex couples should get health benefits. Sometimes their objections are purely out of fear and prejudice. In any case, regardless of whether same-sex marriage is legal or couples get health benefits, there is no direct impact on them or their family, because they are not looking to be in a same-sex marriage and they already have health benefits.

What is easy to forget is that there are people in our churches and neighbourhoods for whom this is personal and part of their everyday life and being, people whom our attitudes impact and who feel the effects of legislation passing or not passing. Is “being right” worth hurting people for? Or, as an acquaintance put it, "is it so important to be right that alienation is an acceptable price?" I don’t think so.
  • Recognize that there are people “with skin in the game” for whom this is deeply personal and not just a topic of discussion or debate.
  • Be aware that the views which you express and the ways in which you express and discuss them have an impact on others, both gay and straight.
  • Keep in mind the family members of LGBT people – they also hear what you say and how you say it, and are sometimes in a difficult spot between their loved ones on one hand and conservative church people on the other.
  • Listen to the stories and experiences of LGBT people to help move yourself from theory to reality. If possible, do this by getting to know some LGBT people rather than just reading books or articles. This will help you to understand the impact of things you say and do, as well as revealing the stereotypes and assumptions from which you are approaching this.

Implementing principles such as these, moves the focus from intellectual ideas back to real people and from arguing about theology to loving one another. That’s what we are called to do, isn’t it? Love God, love our neighbours and love our enemies. That’s everyone. And trust that God’s Spirit is calling people to Himself, comforting and convicting as needed, and leading all of us into all truth.

What do you think? How is your church equipping you and your family to live and think in our complex world? How would letting these four ideas inform our lives and our words make a difference? What can you do as an individual or family to implement them?

1.   It is mostly straight conservative christians who assume that if a person says they are gay, that this refers to behaviour and that the person must be sexually active. For most people, gay and lesbian are descriptive terms -- they simply describe the direction of a person's attractions and tell you nothing about what that person thinks in general or believes about the Bible, whether they are sexually active, etc.


  1. Rob, thank you so much for this post. +Jane

    1. Dear Jane: thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment -- I am encouraged by it.

  2. Rob, great post. I think this is great for all to hear. I certainly think it helps to frame any discussion in a very positive and helpful way. It reminds me to love and remember the people involved.


    1. Thanks! That's what I hoped the article would do.

  3. "People are more important than ideas (even theological ones)"

    I've been reading a (fictional) account of the Exodus-time lives of Aaron and Caleb. What a heady time for the Israelites:
    "We just wanted to love each other freely since we thought Moses died" - Death by Plague, Sword
    "We want to be priests too - you know, closer to God" - Buried alive with spouses and children
    "We thought we could share with the people around us" - Death by Plague
    "We got tired and want to return to Egypt" - dead
    "I just thought a little something for myself would be okay" - Killed, with spouse and children
    "I'll just have a couple of idols, like my neighbours?" - dead
    "Moses shouldn't marry a foreigner, that's not right" - leaprosy
    "I'll just hit the rock, like before" - not allowed into the promised land

    For those in the New Testament, I remember one preacher suggesting we celebrate an Ananias & Sapphira sunday every once in a while.

    I think you're right though. But what is the balance between Love and Love? How does God's love for the Israelites fit into our lives today? Or does it?

    Quite possibly, it is that since we have the message of peace, we have to be even more open to remembering your message - more welcoming to all, more open to lbgt, more able to love. To live more purely, to live more welcoming, to live more holy lives. Not selecting what we think is right but trusting God more deeply.


    1. Thanks for your many thoughts and questions, AnonAlex. The last paragraph of what you wrote really resonates with what this blog is about.

  4. why the church was making such a big deal about blessing people who love each other when there’s more important things like KONY2012 happening in the world.

    I've got a question. If there is a concensus in Church that look at the collection of Scripture and think that homosexual sexual activity is wrong, then blessing it would say "we bless sin"... and then anything goes. It means that whatever you want to do - that is fine with us. Then in effect it is saying "What God wants doesn't matter to us. Only what people want." Then, we are greater fools because we waste so much time and effort on things like confession and eucharist and praying. When we could really just send our money and efforts to the UN or the Lions Club or whatever the 'cool civil movement of the day' is.

    But if we say that we can't bless an activity that is sinful, then at what point does a church remain part of an organization that does? I think there are those at said church who would say 'we were willing to stay when it was impersonal and only the national church organization, but now that it is the diocese, that is too mixed up for us'. Is that right? Does staying implicitly mean you agree? Is it because money is involved (and the donations then go to supporting the bishop and other churches that you think are blessing sin)?

    Sorting it out (quickly but thoroughly enough) is critical, so that you can get to the more important work of sharing the gospel.

    (Can I say, that it would be really cool if your kid went to share the gospel with Joseph Kony and the LRA?)


  5. The longer I am a Christian (or the older I get?) the more I realize that there are some specific truths that I can hold to without question, and a whole lot that we really don't know ... or doesn't matter in light of the truths? I think this post (and your blog in general) does a great job of pointing out the over-arching importance of love and respect.

    1. GC: That is very true... as children we are taught so many things in a black and white way, and then with maturity comes the reality that there are key truths, and then many things which we either don't know, or about which there are significant differences of opinion about, or which just don't matter in the bigger picture of loving God and loving one another.

      It seems that for some people, the older they get the more they hold on to everything they have believed since childhood....

      rob g

      p.s. thanks also for your kind words about the blog