David Gushee recently wrote a couple of blog posts noting how the issue of inclusion of sexual minorities in the church is redefining the evangelical landscape. It is putting the squeeze on communities to such a degree that it is permanently reshaping institutional and relational boundaries. Synod 2016 will feel that pressure.
I want to invite you to ponder the following. While this squeeze feels new, difficult conflicts like this aren’t.
Consider the obvious. We as a community claim the following:
- The Creator God became a human being.
- He was born of a virgin.
- He did miracles like healing the sick, raising the dead, stilling a storm, and multiplying food.
- He was crucified by Roman soldiers.
- He arose from the grave with new-creation-flesh that could enter locked rooms and eat.
- He ascended into heaven by flying into the clouds.
- He governs history from heaven.
- He will return to judge the living and the dead.
- He will remake the entire creation according to the pattern of his resurrected body.
After all of this we find questions of human sexuality to be an insurmountable stumbling block of faith?
I would like both sides to have some compassion for the squeeze Gushee referred to:
- We all know that our opinions are shaped by the communities in which we live.
- We easily and subconsciously embrace the beliefs of our peers and those we admire.
- We sincerely believe we’ve derived these positions from the Bible or our own powers of reason.
- Both sides assert their beliefs are nearly self-evident and the opposing beliefs reveal the ignorance or moral failure of the other.
These dynamics of a "sociology-of-knowledge" worked on believers in the early centuries of the Christian church as it does today.
What difficulties did that early church face by virtue of their cultures?
- Christian beliefs were contrary to observable common sense. Today we might call them “unscientific”. In the resurrection Christians claimed that Jesus continues to live even after he was killed. What does it take to believe in the resurrection when everyone around you KNOWS that dead people stay dead?
- Christian beliefs were held by virtue of special revelation. Christians embraced their “unscientific” beliefs by a string of recorded personal testimonies that were impossible to validate through immediate or repeatable observation. Christians could not reproduce for all skeptics what doubting Thomas could learn with his eyes and hands.
- Christian beliefs were offensive to the educated and refined sensitivities of the broader Greek culture. When Paul preached in Athens in Acts 17 he was mocked and derided by the leading minds of his day because the resurrection was not only unbelievable but also offensive.
- Christians were subject to unfair treatment and at times persecution. Christians were an offensive counter culture that often put them at a social, political and economic disadvantage.
Love your enemies, even the Christian ones. Today, by virtue of Christianity enjoying cultural dominance some of these sociology-of-knowledge dynamics have been reversed. It has been unprofitable and even dangerous to try to swim upstream against some Christian beliefs and customs. Christianity asserts that adversaries too are image bearers of God and even Christian enemies are to be loved.
Christians are often flaky. It is also true that Christian beliefs ask sacrificial things of all. Right from the start Christian performance of these asks were occasionally inspired but more often wobbly or betraying. Christians asserted that faithfulness to their Lord obliged them very hard things, like being obedient slaves to abusive masters, to caring for plague victims while sane pagans fled infection, and loving people who are ruining their lives especially when breaking bonds would be an easy way out. Christians were supposed to exemplify the kind of love and generosity towards their adversaries that Jesus modeled on the cross. Some fulfilled this call gloriously while many others flaked.
The Christian church has always had hardliners and accommodationists. After waves of persecution the early church was split over martyrs and flakes. Donatist churches wanted to draw a hard line against impure priests who gave over holy books to be burned. They wanted to preserve a pure church of those who didn’t crack. Conflict between Donatists and Catholics would be so intense new martyrs were made by Christian hands. It took the church multiple generations to get beyond this schism.
Where does this leave us?
- Christians have always been called to believe unbelievable things.
- Christians have always been called to love their enemies, even the close ones.
- There have always been flakey, wobbly Christians.
- The Christian church has always struggled with divisions.
What we are in the middle of now is normal. This is the work of the church. By these struggles and divisions the church has stumbled, learned and been purified. What we struggle with now will likely NOT be resolved or settled within any of our lifetimes.
May these observations impact our perceptions so that we do our work prayerfully, patiently, with gentleness, with generosity, with confidence and with kindness.