Background: The Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality Report includes a recommendation to “encourage the churches to make use of the curriculum prepared by Pastor Church Resources (PCR), in conjunction with members of the committee, to help small groups study and discuss aspects of the committee’s report which may be controversial.”
You can learn more about this Pastor Church Resources tool, the Challenging Conversations Toolkit, here.
I want to take this opportunity to respond to one of the most important questions asked about our toolkit.
What’s the point of these “conversations?”
“Conversation,” along with its dreaded cousin, “dialogue,” prompt some concern when used in relation to synod’s recently released human sexuality report.
Some fear that “conversation” is merely a pretext to abandon truth or even neglect discipline, one of the marks of the true church. Some say that a process like this dangerously implies false equivalence between mutually exclusive options. Others say that a process like this will only elevate bigotry and harm LBGTQ+ people.
There is no question that there are risks associated with any challenging conversation. It is also true that some have used words like “conversation” and “dialogue” as justification for bad behavior.
But as a follower of Christ and pastor, I believe the risk of “conversation” is worth it. That’s because well-structured conversations, of the sort prompted by the Challenging Conversations Toolkit, are one practical thing I can do to begin to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).
Let’s be honest with each other: differing views on these issues may lead to division or schism in our denomination, our classis, and our congregation. Naturally, if such division happens, each side will argue that their side is preserving true unity while the other is breaking it. This pattern is almost as old as the church. But that doesn’t make such church divisions any less tragic.
In Ephesians, Paul is addressing a church dealing with differences that felt no less serious to the Ephesians than current questions of sexuality feel to us (almost certainly more serious). For example: how may non-Jews be part of the church? It’s hard for 21st century Christians to fathom how strongly the Ephesians would have felt about their different answers to that question.
Paul’s pastoral call to this divided church? “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
In his commentary on Ephesians, John Calvin writes that “humility is the first step” toward unity. That “rudeness, pride, disdainful language,” “quarrels, insults and reproaches” all come from the fact that “every one carries his love of himself, and his regard to his own interests, to excess.” I can certainly testify that behind my beliefs on these issues, it is easy for pride to take root. It is easy to drift from conviction to disdain; from confidence in my interpretation to reproach toward those who disagree.
I have strong beliefs about many of the issues addressed in the study report. I assume you do, too. I believe my beliefs are grounded in the witness of scripture. You probably do, too.
What can it look like, practically, to live into Paul’s instructions to a church divided this way?
A First Step, Not a Last One
Though I cannot speak to the end result, the first step seems clear enough: “bear with one another in love.” To define this forbearance, Calvin, in that same commentary, appeals to 1 Corinthians 13:4 “Love is patient, love is kind.”
This is where the Challenging Conversations Toolkit comes in. The toolkit represents a practical way to have this conversation in patient love.
At some point in the future, your council, classis, or synod may have to make a decision that will prompt a split of the church. It may be that these issues, and our differences on them, are too significant to overcome.
But until that time, what might it look like to make even some effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace? Not every effort. Just some. What might it look like to enter the conversation with both truth and grace? To enter with both strong convictions and deep humility?
Humanly speaking, I’ll admit it’s hard to be optimistic.
But I recall Paul’s word to another church. In Colossians 1, Paul boldly declares that in Christ, “all things hold together.” I know I can’t hold our denomination or your church together. I know I can’t yet imagine how we coexist.
But what if we could gather in the name and presence of this “all-things-held-together” Lord, put our trust in him, invite his Spirit and make an effort?
To learn more about the Challenging Conversations Toolkit, a five- to seven-session small group resource to help your church engage the Human Sexuality Study Report, visit the Pastor Church Resources website.