We are bound to disagree over politics, not just in the culture but in the church as well. I bump into this reality all the time. One such occasion occurred in early 2009 when I had two very different appointments back to back. The first was with a leader in my church who wondered why we did not talk more forcefully about abortion and homosexuality. He wondered why we were more likely to speak out on trendy New York City issues like justice and mercy than to speak out and even act on the issues he was concerned about. He wondered why, for example, if we were prepared to sponsor a march against hunger, we were not also prepared to sponsor a protest in front of an abortion clinic.
I met next with a Christian graduate student at Columbia University. She told me that she had begun to drift away from Christian community because, as she put it, “I am beginning to find that the people I agree with theologically are the people I disagree with socially.” The issues for her were, interestingly, the same as those mentioned in my first appointment—abortion and homosexuality, but especially the latter. She was in a different place on those issues. She was not gay herself, but she had a number of close friends who were, and her love for them made her feel at odds, given her prior church experience, with the Christian community. She was confused about what the Bible had to say about committed homosexual partnerships, and she was struggling over what she would do if she became convinced that the Lord forbade them. We talked about many things—about the false choice the culture often presents (one either must completely accept the gay lifestyle or one must admit to homophobia), about the tendency in the evangelical world to elevate certain sins over others (homosexual sin over heterosexual sin; or sexual sins over other types of sin, like greed or gossip), about the fact that there are different legitimate strategies for nudging our culture in the direction of sexual health (California ballot initiatives being only one of them), about the difference between struggling with sin and embracing sin, and about the difference between homosexual inclination and homosexual behavior.
I came away from the second appointment thankful and perplexed (more later on my perplexity). I was thankful that this young person had felt comfortable talking to me, for I am “the church” by virtue of my role as a pastor. I could not help but think that she approached me because our church did not, in its public face, fit the stereotype that she had begun to react to. We were committed, as she discovered, to a traditional view of marriage (heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong unions), but we were also keen to keep our “front door” open, so that people like her and her friends would feel comfortable coming in for serious and honest discussion.
We are bound to disagree, not only over issues, but over which issues to “go public” on. Committed Christians, sometimes in the same church, sometimes in the leadership of the same church, can easily find themselves at odds with one another on these sorts of issues.
Such tensions arise not only between us but within us. I mentioned that I came away from the second appointment perplexed. The graduate student’s struggles reminded me of how confused people are, especially young people, even church-raised young people like her, about God’s way of wisdom when it comes to sexual matters. I found myself asking if our church’s relative public silence on the issue was in fact the best policy. Certainly it helped keep our front door more widely open than it might otherwise be. It certainly gave rise to an important and nuanced discussion with one particular person that might otherwise not have happened. But what about all the others out there? What about those in my own church who might need a lot more guidance than they realize?
How do we sort these (and other) matters out so that the church stays together?