The United States is bitterly divided along what we now call red/blue, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat lines.
Of course, not everyone fits into those boxes, but enough do for the statement to be accurate. The mutual suspicion and social separation between the two camps is intensifying. As we prepare for the midterm elections and we see so many closely contested races — especially in “swing states” like Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Wisconsin — we are once again reminded of the divisions that afflict us. And when we hear loose talk of civil war and many threats of political violence, many of us tremble in fear that this country is headed for a conflagration that will make January 6 look like child’s play.
Churches (some of them, at least) are among the increasingly rare places in the U.S. where Red Team and Blue Team and Unaffiliated Team members remain in meaningful relationships with each other. These churches are sometimes called “purple churches.” In a society tearing along red/blue lines, such purple churches are playing a very significant political role simply by existing, by holding in community those who disagree in their partisan and ideological commitments.
It can be argued that any contexts in which red and blue America get together and stay together are very important. Look around for any such context — sports team fans, the military, and (some) businesses come to mind — and celebrate their very existence, because they help keep our tattered national tapestry from tearing apart.
In light of all this trouble, and if maintaining civil peace is a value worth seeking, leaders of purple churches arguably have not just an opportunity but a moral obligation to lead in such a way as to keep their diverse congregations together.
This might mean that purple church leaders should choose to preach, teach and program in ways intended to maintain the peace and unity of their congregations. Aware of easily flammable political divisions in their midst, they avoid going near the most sensitive subjects — or try to address them obliquely — or try, through the treatment of biblical texts and themes that challenge all members, to offer a transcendent word from God that does not fit current red/blue categories.
I am quite confident this is the approach many leaders of purple churches are indeed attempting. They may be doing so for pragmatic reasons, civic reasons or even theological reasons related to the priority of unity in Christ’s body.
“Vague preaching is fairly pitiful, really.”
But there are all kinds of problems along this path. Pastors can be lambasted (or lambaste themselves) for ducking important subjects that are explicitly addressed by Jesus or in Scripture. Oblique treatment of important subjects can be little better than not addressing the issues at all. Vague preaching is fairly pitiful, really. Trying to offer a transcendent word sounds nice but can become an excuse for avoiding messy subjects.
Ardent activists from both “sides” can place pressure on church leaders to take up what they consider to be important issues, and to do so openly and clearly. A specific news development in a given week can be so important that to fail to address it is to offend deeply some portion of the congregation — and, indeed, to fail in the Christian preaching/teaching task. Pastors might find themselves in a crisis of conscience over all the quiet evasion they are doing.
On the other hand, if Christian pastors take the plunge — if they explicitly, clearly, unmistakably address an issue on which their red and blue members differ, and especially if they are perceived as taking one side’s view — the exodus can begin before the sermon is over. One sermon on Islamophobia, or abortion, or gay/trans rights, or immigration, and the exodus can begin.
I have sat with pastors of large churches who told me of losing half or more of their congregation in a few weeks, usually with plenty of spleen on the way out. And, of course, I have spoken to many who lost their jobs for taking a stand.
This is essentially an unsolvable problem, because with either path important values are chosen while others are sacrificed. If we seek to preserve congregational (and civil) peace above all, we may sacrifice clear and explicit moral witness; if we seek to offer clear, explicit moral witness above all, we may sacrifice congregational unity — while creating yet one more monolithically blue or red outpost in a divided society.
As an ethicist, I know where I most naturally lean, but I have also been a pastor and felt those pressures in all their intensity from that difficult seat.
I don’t have an easy answer here. I do know that this is a wicked problem, and it is one reason why many pastors are heading for the exits.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
What the color chart teaches us about surviving in a ‘purple’ church | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
Concern for our nation at Bubba-Doo’s | Opinion by Charles Qualls
Divisions over abortion and other life and death issues: the problem is not purple churches | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
Why aren’t we better at differing? | Opinion by Charles Qualls