My congregation is having “The Conversation.” For the past 18 months we have been in a discernment process to determine if we would become a “welcoming and affirming” church. In particular, we have focused on what the church’s policy will be about same-sex marriage. Will we allow couples to be married in the church? Will we support our pastors if they choose to perform these ceremonies in the sanctuary — or elsewhere?
Representatives from the church have served as a “guidance team.” Thoughtful and respected leaders, they designed the process we would pursue and have continued to prompt participation from the varied sectors of the congregation.
We have been deliberate and patient as we have sought to educate ourselves by listening to distinguished educators, ministers from other churches, and gay and lesbian persons. It mattered that LGBTQ voices be heard. Too often they are discussed as a problematic “issue” rather than persons who also bear the image of God.
We have studied Scripture, learned how other congregations made their decision, reviewed current science, and witnessed the personal experiences of sexual minorities. Our “town meetings” as a church have been cordial, if a bit guarded. Clearly, some folks just don’t want to talk about this reality and wish it would go away. Some have chosen not to participate at all.
We have not been eager to put the matter to a vote, which has been a wise strategy thus far. Now we have reached a new stage. Realizing that maximum participation is constructive, the team has sent an anonymous survey to every member.
A carefully crafted survey allowed respondents to express their perception of what is at stake for the church. As I worked through the survey, one question gave me pause. Will you remain in the church if a decision is made that you do not support? I must admit I gulped at that one. Some have said they would leave if the church declared itself welcoming and affirming. I have been rather dismissive of that approach, yet now I faced a similar conundrum. Will I be willing to stay in a church that makes a decision to preserve discrimination? When does conscience require one to “shake the dust” and move on?
Unity in the Body of Christ has never come easy, and more often than not, churches fracture when conflict arises. A long-standing myth is that members of congregations have to agree on every issue to stay together. There is a category called adiaphora, which means “matters of indifference.” Christian traditions have sought to delineate in their confessional statements what is essential for correct teaching (doctrine) and practice and what is non-essential, simply a matter of preference. Of course, agreement on what is adiaphora is rare.
Whether or not a church should consign matters of human sexuality to this category is contested. It might seem insulting to LGBTQ persons, for indifference in contemporary parlance means uncaring, thus further marginalizing them; or, it might suggest that sexual orientation or gender identity is only one component of fully-orbed personhood.
Our current conversation propels me to reflect on the massive challenges early Christianity faced as they sought to accommodate both Jew and Gentile in the same church. Somehow the most central marker of Jewish identity, circumcision, was put aside, and baptism became the sign of belonging. Persons who followed different dietary practices and did not eat together began to put their feet under the same table. Masters and slaves became brothers in Christ, and women founded churches and instructed men in the way of faith.
At times there was retrenchment, and patriarchal norms and legacy religious issues prevailed. And many times conflict spawned new expressions of the Jesus movement. Nevertheless, the evangelization of the Roman Empire continued apace, and the Christian narrative flowered in disparate cultures around the world.
A 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey finds that “in no U.S. religious group does a majority think it’s acceptable for businesspeople to invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays.” This signals a dramatic overall shift in attitudes about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ Americans in the past decade. Not surprisingly, white evangelicals ranked the highest (50%) in approving such discrimination.
My church is not alone in engaging this pressing matter of justice, and there are many perspectives among congregations affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. At times these ecclesial traditions have sought to preserve the peace by tabling any ongoing conversation. While this has had the effect of cooling the rancor, it has also demonstrated too much comfort with the status quo, callously disregarding the peril faced by sexual minorities. Thankfully, the CBF is moving ahead with the Illumination Project and, with a new general secretary, the ABC has the opportunity to re-open its conversation about its policy. My prayer is that both bodies will move toward inclusive positions — and that my church will manage to stay together.