Wednesday, August 24, 2016

When Doctrine Hinders Mission

A woman called me a couple days ago. From the sound of her voice I would guess she is an older woman; she said she had attended worship, and she had a question for me about the congregation.

“What does your congregation believe about homosexuality?” she asked.

Earlier in my career, I would have hemmed and hawed a bit, trying awkwardly to figure out where she was coming from with her question. Was she “friend” or “foe?” Was I about to be the target of a homophobic lecture again? Was she going to unfairly associate me with the “official” denominational stance and chastise me for being so unjust?

But the time for hemming and hawing has long past, so I just answered her question honestly.

“I can’t speak for the entire congregation,” I said. “Some people here would like full inclusion of all people, and some think being gay should disqualify you from getting married. It’s a pretty diverse group. But as for me personally, I’m on the ‘full inclusion’ side of things. Meaning, I do not believe a person’s sexual orientation should disqualify them from getting married, or from getting ordained for that matter. And I know that there are quite a few who are on that same page.”

Her response made me smile. “Good,” she said. “I just couldn’t be a part of a church who didn’t include all people. I’ll be back!”

Our mission, church people, is non-negotiable. It is a given that our mission is to make disciples, meaning reaching out to offer people a relationship with God through Jesus as a part of a Spirit-filled congregation. And what is it that those disciples do once made? No less than “transform the world.” However you phrase it, our mission is to help people become followers of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake.

And so we talk about “the mission field,” which is a rather impersonal and businesslike way to describe the people I named above. We have other operational words like “unchurched” and “target demographic,” which are also helpful in encouraging us to forget that there are real actual people living real actual lives with whom we are called to live in real actual community. Nevertheless, whatever term you use, we are talking about people who are not a part of a church, for a variety of reasons.

Of that group, the overwhelming majority does not believe that being gay should disqualify you from getting married, not to mention impact how you are treated in the world in general. This isn’t my opinion; poll after poll backs this up. Or said another way, most “unchurched” people are like the woman who called me this week: they simply could not possibly be a part of a church that did not include all people.

So let me say this as clearly as I can. Pastors, congregations, and denominations who are opposed to marriage equality and who do not ordain people who are gay are stumbling blocks to the mission of the church. When the doctrine of the church excludes people based on sexual orientation, it makes it more difficult to accomplish the task given us by God.

Yes, it may very well be that people already in the church are opposed to fully inclusive marriage and ordination, but that isn’t the point, is it? The point is, the people we are supposed to be reaching are not.

I know the counter-arguments. “We would be condoning sin, and we just can’t do that” is one of the most common. The reasoning is this: Yes, all people are sinners, and all are welcome in the church. But we are supposed to stop our sinful ways and live like God wants us to. If we welcome and marry same-sex couples, we are not only not stopping the sin, we are approving of it.

There are a lot of people who believe this, and they are not hateful, they are not homophobic, they are loving and faithful and all that.

(To be sure, there are a lot of Christians who are absolutely hateful and homophobic, but I’m not talking about them today. Nor by the way am I addressing the “Scriptural authority” argument, as I have before.)

Thus for many the issue becomes the visibility of the perceived sin. For many Christians, a same-sex couple is an unavoidably visible representation of what they believe to be a sin, and they just can’t get around it. Of course, it is naive to believe that EVERY sinner stops sinning when they find Jesus, but for most of us you can’t really see it.

And so, the mission of the church is hindered. An enormous stumbling block is placed between thousands of people and a life-giving relationship with God, simply because some Christians are confronted with the evidence of one specific act that they believe to be a sin, and they can’t handle it.

For those of us who do not believe being gay is a sin, this is infuriating. I know how much my relationship with God has meant in my life, and I want more than anything else to share that with others. It makes me angry when something gets in the way of that happening, and it is embarrassing that what is getting in the way also happens to be the official doctrine of my denomination.

How many people are there in close proximity of our church building who are just like the woman who called me this week? Hundreds, no doubt. Thousands, probably. People are seeking a connection with the divine, a connection that fully embraces the whole self, all that makes a person a person, including one’s sexual orientation.

And yet many are never going to seek that divine connection as a part of a church, simply because the church’s mission is being compromised by the church’s doctrine.

But … some will. One did this week, in fact. And when she called, I was honest with her. And she said, “I’ll be back!” Thanks be to God.


RevBarb said...

Very clear and well said. I agree completely. I'm not sure the denomination, as it is now, will. Thank you for standing up for the human rights of all people.

Anonymous said...

It is sad to see someone like yourself represent Christ's Church. You are so deceived into believing that you are reaching people with the Gospel, when the Gospel of Christ includes the doctrine of repentance(Mark 1:15, Acts 2:38, 17:30). Homosexuality is a sin (Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). While you may think your open mindedness is leading people to the cross, in actuality in your blindness you are leading them into the ditch (Matthew 15:14). You will be held accountable to God for all the souls you led astray and failed to warn against the danger and destruction of sin (Ezekiel 33:8). This includes most particularly your own family and your congregation who look to you for spiritual leadership.

"And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works." 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 NKJV

Cynthia Astle said...

Superb post, Andy. Picking up for United Methodist Insight. Thanks!

Corinne Basmaison said...

To me, God is Love. Pure Love. Unconditional Love.
I've tried to live my life according to one simple precept. "Love thy neighbour as thyself".
Who am I to judge the way someone loves? I leave any judgment to God.
I truly believe that if everyone focused more on how to improve their own life instead of trying to suggest, too often even dictate, how others should lead theirs... the world would be a much more peace-filled place.
You know, the whole straw in their eye and all...
I'm probably one of those Christians who got weary of organised religion and the way it too often is used to push judgment and hate. I'm typically that person this minister is writing about.
In your eyes, I'm probably headed for hell. But I'm not afraid of death. Pure Love and pure light await us.

By the way, what are you afraid of? Why not use your name?

Kyle Bridgman said...

When she comes back to a wonderful church that is welcoming to everyone, what will she be shown from God? Will she be appeased with what her itching ears want to hear to feel comfortable? As you have said in your mission, first she needs to be introduced to God and as your mission says, connected with God so that he can begin to lead her through the Holy Spirit and it sounds like you agree. The first priority is to help her to accept the supremacy of God and his compassion for her as His child so that a lifelong relationship can develop. It sounds like she is not approaching a relationship with God in that way, but that she is using the church's views on the practice of homosexuality as a litmus test for whether she will listen or not. The things of this world are foolishness to those who do not know God and I understand that you are trying to re-orient her to a God-centered view of life. It is difficult, however, to take a question about "living a Christian life pleasing to God" when you are trying to make a first contact with someone whom you do not know whether they are committed to submission to the will of God. Your response that many people have differing views was correct and that you cannot speak for what everyone believes. I think that up to that point you were still addressing her question openly for the purpose of gaining the ability to share with her and connect her with a relationship with Almighty God. But in the end, God is God and no matter what our opinions are about the feelings of others, we must give in to the best understanding of what God wants and make that the final answer. If she approaches you first with the request to be given the final answer and you are not allowed to walk her through a relationship with God first, it's time to share with her the truth of scripture and pray for God's compassion to draw her to listen and come to church anyway. These are such trying times and I appreciate your search for truth and how to share it with your congregation. Praying for the Lord's guidance for you Andy and you shepherd your flock.

Maureen McNeil said...

After a lifetime of being "anti-gay," then being called into ministry in my forties, I began to pray in earnest, "Dear Lord, please give me some sign or admonish me in some way if I have wrong thinking about gay people, or any other marginalized groups that I have helped to marginalize." I prayed this for at least 5 years to no avail. Then one morning at 3:00 am, my son called me to tell me he is gay. Forgetting all about what I had been praying, I layed awake for a week trying to figure out how to make my son not gay because I knew if he was, he was in danger. Then I finally woke up to the realization that God had indeed answered my long prayed prayer. Anonymous, if you can do no more than throw Scripture at those of us that you see as evil, you are a part of the problem. Other than legally, there is no judge of human behavior here on earth, so please don't act as if there is. In the past two and a half years, I have been near death twice, but here I am. These experiences have only reinforced my belief that God expects us to treat all his children in the same way, with dignity and justice. Here is my very favorite Bible verse from Micah 6:8, "....And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." Peace, my friend.