I noted with interest Ian Paul’s recent blog post sharing some reflections on where the Church of England is in regards to its teaching document on human sexuality.
One line that jumped out, with reference to the pastoral implications:
“I didn’t visit the seminar on the Pastoral Advisory group, but was intrigued that the chair, Christine Hardman who is bishop of Newcastle, was adamant in the opening presentation to Synod that the group would be working within the current teaching position of the Church—and she emphasised this by drawing a rectangle in the air, and admitting that this would upset everyone, some because they were suspicious, and others because they were disappointed. A friend commented that, in the seminar he attended, the main thrust of the questions was ‘How can we get on with changing the teaching of the Church without losing too many people who disagree?’”
Wait a second.
‘How can we get on with changing the teaching of the Church without losing too many people who disagree?’
‘We don’t want to lose too many people’. ‘How can we change without losing too many people who disagree’? In both of these ideas, I think, there is something going on that is in direct contrast to the way of Christ. I find it fascinating. Jesus talks about loneliness and agility, about rejection, and built his earthly ministry (in terms of logistics and including people) on a small number of disappointing men. There is also the assumption that we will lose people, according to Jesus, to the call of family, for example.
Don’t believe me?
In Luke 14, Jesus is pretty clear about the cost of being a disciple, the cost of following Jesus, the cost of being part of the family of God. And it isn’t pretty:
“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.“
I wonder how that might preach in churches today. We wouldn’t want to lead people away from the people that love them, because of a greater love, would we?
People who disagree, surely, just need to get on board, to change their mind, to see where God is leading. Easy words to write, harder words to pastor.
My friend Steve Burnhope, a Vineyard pastor and gifted teacher/preacher, has written and presented a thoughtful paper posing the question ‘The ‘Elephant in the Room’? Responding to the same-sex relationships question without losing one (or other) half of your congregation’. Again there is an assumption, either practically obvious or rooted in fear, that saying something about this issue will cause schism. My paper, which I presented in a panel alongside Steve, was ‘“Stuck in the Middle with You” – Seeing and Following the Spirit, an exercise in Vineyard epistemology‘, where I suggested how the Vineyard (As an example of the church, leaning in to what the Bible says and also wondering what we can say in the world today) might say…
There are, I think, a number of quite important things to say. Firstly, as Ian noted in his blog post, it is highly likely that the average person in the pews is in one way or another not fully up to speed on the debate. I’ve been bemused by quite intelligent friends from across the spectrum getting very excited by the recent book ‘Undivided’ despite it saying very little new. There is a challenge; then, in the kinds of churches where the question is asked ‘can we change the Bible’s teaching on sexuality?’, that we haven’t been engaging with the fundamental issues of biblical interpretation and authority. My experience in a range of evangelical contexts is that this largely bypassed by the question of what (if anything) the Bible says about sexuality.
This first observation leads me to a second. At the local church I’m part of, we’ve been preaching through James – a great book with a lot of hard sayings for today’s church around preference/privilege/justice/healing and ultimately what the Gospel is. In the fifth part of this ongoing preaching series, Neil Woodward (one of our Senior Pastors) challenged us, through James 2:14-26, to consider whether we are following Jesus or following something else. This passage is brutal, but at the same time, absolutely essential:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless. Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
This passage is brutal, because it challenges us about who we know, and how we love them. The people we know and love – who we want to see as being part of our church – do we really know them? Do we want a large church of people who are attracted to what we do, or to be part of a smaller team, a family on a mission, that dares to challenge every part of our lives.
I’m not sure if James was addressing leaders, or if his epistle should be ignored because Luther didn’t like it. One thing I do think I am learning, however, is that leadership involves making hard decisions.
Leadership doesn’t shy away from speaking about the most complex and controversial issues for our culture and church today.
Leadership doesn’t pretend that saying something serious might involved losing people from a gathering who are not wholeheartedly pursuing Jesus.
Leadership decides to follow Jesus in a direction away from culturally easy/normative human relationships, and into a better way of being.
Leadership, simply put, at least in part, is making hard decisions.