Social Issues, Theology

the pitfalls of the middle ground

I’ve been hesitant to write about this particular issue because it is, in part, a response to the church I attended with my partner for almost two years. What I’m going to write about today is the single biggest reason why we left that church, and one of the more frustrating things I’ve experienced in other Christian communities since. I haven’t wanted to write about this because I still value my relationships with people who attend, serve, and lead at this church, but I now believe this is a significant, wide-spread problem worth addressing.

First, some background.

I’d been attending for a long time when Handsome suggested that we go to the “Getting to Know Us” session held after the later Sunday service. Most churches have something like it– a way for new people to ask questions and get a feel for the beliefs and mission of the congregation. I wasn’t really keen on going– I felt that I was already familiar with what they’d present, and plus, we were friends with elders and pastors so if I had a question I could just ask them.

Eventually, though, we went, and a woman asked the person directing the session– one of the senior pastors– what their stance was on women in leadership. I perked up, because I wasn’t really sure myself, even though I’d been attending for a while. The pastor responded that women could serve as junior pastors (read: youth pastor, children’s pastor) and fill any other serving or staff position, but they could not be an executive/senior pastor or an elder. When she asked him why, his response was that forbidding women from being an elder or pastor was the “biblical” position, but that the leadership had decided to “take the middle ground” on other leadership positions.

I was grinding my teeth for the rest of the day. When I confronted another elder about what he’d said, the elder explained that the pastor should not have said that his opinion was “biblical,” and that taking a strong stance on anything was anathema to the vision of the church. They worked hard at creating an “open” atmosphere where disagreement is “welcomed,” that the elders did their best to guide the church by the motto “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

For a while, this was a position I liked. I was heartily sick of churches proclaiming that they’d discovered the One and Only Correct Theology and Way of Living, so being at this church was like a breath of fresh air.

Except, after two years, it became increasingly obvious that this church was not actually open and disagreement was not actually welcomed. Gay people were brutally condemned from the pulpit like clockwork every year, women who’d had sex were called “dirty shoes” and “used toothbrushes,” the pastor made jokes about abusing week-old infants, and complementarian messages about marriage and leadership were intrinsically endorsed (a woman could “speak” but they always said something about being “spiritually covered,” all the marriage sermons were complementarian, and the married small groups all used Captivating/Wild at Heart or other, similar books).

Anytime I raised a concern about one of these things, the same exact thing happened: the leadership would circle the wagons, defend their positions and protect the pastor from any criticism whatsoever. On one occasion, after the pastor had victim-blamed abused women for the third week in a row, my partner confronted him after the service. The pastor’s response: that “real attenders would know what he meant.” To my partner, who had served on the Sound Team, the Pit Crew, and as small group leader for three fucking years. He’d be at church at 5 or 6 am every single Sunday, and yet was not considered a “real attender” by this man.

We tried to stick it out for another six months after these problems really started rankling us, but it became crystal clear that the staff was not interested in feedback or criticism. We tried to convince various pastors and elders that their “non-position” on women in leadership was actually a position, but they didn’t take us seriously. They were invested in their “middle groundand that was that.

A year after we left, this came through my news feed:

A pastor friend of mine asked a question: do churches that become LGBT affirming see growth in numbers or decline in numbers? As a church planter and someone reading about being affirming this is important to him.

I was instantly seeing red, and suddenly, something crystallized for me.

The “middle ground” is a way for people who don’t really want to admit to being sexist or homophobic bigots to look and feel like they’re really Nice Christians™. The church we attended didn’t want to admit that their position is misogynistic, and they used “Third Way” and “Middle Ground” as a cover-up. This pastor friend-of-a-friend wasn’t genuinely interested in being affirming to LGBT people– he just wanted a popular, well-attended church and somehow sate his conscience while making bigots feel right at home.

See, this is what happens when you try to inhabit a supposed “middle ground,” when you try not to “take a position” on something that fucking matters like whether or not you’re anti-woman or anti-LGBT. Don’t want to take a position on exactly what is going on during Communion– sure, fine, whatever. Don’t want to get dogmatic about what exactly Revelation means? Have at it.

Think you can just skirt around patriarchy and homophobia? Not going to happen.

At the church we left, by “compromising” on women in leadership, the flashing-neon-sign of a message they’re sending their congregation is that being misogynistic is an acceptable position that can be supported by Scripture. By embracing a false “middle ground,” they are implicitly endorsing a view of the Bible that subjugates women while simultaneously telling us that women are not important enough to fight for– or even take a damn stance for.

This pastor fellow, if he decided to keep his mouth shut on being affirming (if, indeed, he actually is), is sending the same message: your homophobia and bigotry is welcome here. We will not confront your hate. Our “numbers” and “attendance” are more important to us than LGBT people.

Currently, this is also the reason why Handsome and I are not attending a traditional church (we do have our small group every week). The best I could absolutely hope for in this area is the local ELCA church where the pastor swears up and down that he’s affirming, but when I asked him what he’d do if a fellow congregant said something hateful to my face, he said “nothing.”

The “middle ground” is nothing more but a retreat into fear. It’s the concession that something else is more important to you than defending oppressed and marginalized people.

Photo by Ian Sane
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  • Have you considered trying out a Unitarian Universalist congregation? They have principals rather than dogma, (http://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles) and will not tell you what to believe, or who to hate. You can attend UU and remain a Christian, that’s no problem, they don’t mind. Some of the congregations are heavily christian, and others have christian subgroups (among others). UU is a good place for working out what you believe, and putting your life back together after leaving a fundamentalist religion, because there are usually a lot of other people there doing the same thing.

    • There isn’t one here.

      • Sheila Warner

        Not here, either. All conservative Protestants. I live in the middle of bigotry.

      • Dangit. Otherwise the most liberal denominations I can think of are things like the Methodists and Presbyterians, but way in the bible belt you might not have much success finding either of those, or they might be playing it conservative just to be safe.
        Given that, it sounds like your small group is your best bet for the time being. I’m so impressed by how far you have come from fundamentalism, I just wish there were more support available.

        • Brennan

          Speaking as a lifelong Methodist, I have the unpleasant responsibility of warning people to beware of UMC congregations, particularly in the South, where they tend to be significantly more conservative. The United Methodist Church is not (yet?) inclusive in its doctrine and pastors are routinely defrocked for performing same sex marriages. The exception is those that advertise themselves as part of the Reconciling Ministries Network. Those churches take significant risk by breaking with denomination leadership, so they’re not likely to be “inclusive in name only.” That being said, the denomination has been ordaining female elders for nigh on sixty years, now, so there’s that at least.

          • pl1224

            When it comes to affirming those in the LGBTQ population, isn’t the difference that churches in the United Methodist Church denomination are accepting and churches in the Methodist Church-Missouri Synod are not? If I’m not mistaken, the Missouri Synod Methodist Churches are more prevalent throughout more conservative states whereas UMC churches are found in more liberal areas, such as New England, where I live.

          • SamanthaField

            The UMC is not affirming, although more liberal than the Missouri Synod. They’ve defrocked ministers for marrying gay people.

          • The UMC is not affirming, although not as conservative as the Missouri Synod. They’ve defrocked ministers for marrying gay couples.

          • Brennan

            You’re thinking of Lutheranism. The largest Lutheran denomination in the US (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is officially accepting of same-sex partnerships and ordains clergy in same-sex relationships (though, as Samantha discovered, mileage varies). Meanwhile, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is vocally anti-gay.

            There are a few other versions of Methodism–the largest in the US being the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME)–but we haven’t suffered a schism over LGBTQ rights. Some would argue that we should, given the vast disparity of beliefs between the most conservative and most liberal UMCs. United Methodist Churches can be found all over, but they tend to be smaller and more progressive in liberal areas, while many churches in conservative areas follow the Evangelical megachurch model, complete with fire-and-brimstone preaching.

      • Even the Episcopalian church is… not always affirming. Many don’t realize that Episcopalian churches in the United States South have primarily fallen on the non-affirming side of the schism. Our most popular local Episcopalian church here made a huuuuuuge stinkface about it when the mainline decided to become LGBTQ affirming.

        I think it’s pretty common to have pastors afraid to piss off their conservative members. To be frank, with the way church attendance has gone, that’s most of their regular attendees at this point. It doesn’t have to be – but it is. I’m hopeful we’ll see a groundswell of change soon, but… I’ve been hopeful before.

        As another progressive Christian in a conservative Southern area, I just want to send my fistbump of solidarity when it comes to the “YES we’ve tried this, YES that too” problem.

        • Sheila Warner

          Fist bump here, too.

      • B.E. Miller

        Completely understand here. I’m in the Texas, which is sometimes considered the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. (Where they belt you with the Bible if you don’t believe like they do. ‘Cause God said it was okay.)

        Thankfully I’m in Dallas, which prides itself on being a modern city. We have a few UU churches, and even a gay church.

        Unfortunately, we’re also home to the church that blacklisted a member who had her marriage annulled. Her husband was a pedophile, and she got an annulment based the idea that their marriage was based on fraud.

        Their church reprimanded her, because how dare she get an annulment without asking for their approval first. A link to get you started, you can find more articles about it via google.
        http://www.rawstory.com/2015/05/dallas-megachurch-put-woman-under-discipline-for-wanting-to-leave-her-pdophile-husband/

  • *slow clap for infinity*

  • Sheila Warner

    I left the Catholic Church. The only gay affirming church near me is having internal problems. My therapist was a member, & she advised me not to attend. She actually drives from southern NJ where we live, to Delaware when she feels a need for worship. I was very involved in multiple ministries in my church for over 3 years. NO ONE befriended me. I remain with no church, and no group of any kind. Except for my married daughter who remains Catholic, everyone in my immediate family (except a far away sister) are hard core Fundies. I feel very isolated. I have no one, not even my spouse, with whom I can practice my very fragile faith. sigh

    • I’m really lucky because I have my small group. We’re tiny, but we take care of each other.

    • pl1224

      May i suggest that you try attending a Sunday service or two at your local Episcopalian church? Fifteen years ago, when I was in my early fifties, I finally summoned up the moral courage to act on my true, evolved beliefs and faith. I left the Catholic Church and joined the Episcopal Church. I was the best decision I ever made for the positive development of my faith and my spiritual life.

      May peace and blessings attend you wherever your journey leads!!! 🙂

      • Sheila Warner

        My therapist attended our local Episcopal church for years. She does not recommend it. Apparently it is in flux, with a shared pastor & not much going on there right now.

    • B.E. Miller

      Hugs. Wish I knew someone whom could help you out.

  • Kelsey Renee Ferneau

    What do you do in your small groups? I’d love for my fiance and I to start or be a part of one when we live together, but I’m not totally sure what we’d do every week. I just really like those intimate settings where I can discuss these kinds of topics with people and friends. Any advice on small groups?

    • We function a bit like a book club. We choose a Christianity/theology-related book (right now we’re doing Jen Hatmaker’s Seven, the last book we did was RHE’s Searching for Sunday) and read a bit of it each week and discuss. We pray for each other, and between each book we try to take a week or so off for game night/potluck and maybe a service project of some kind.

      We also talk about current events some, politics some, and we try to help each other out. For example, we have a kindergarten teacher, and she’ll bring laminated things that need to be cut out, or something like that.

      • KellyLynne

        That sounds awesome!

  • ReverendRef

    Bishop Tutu had this to say about the “middle ground” (well, actually, it wasn’t about the middle ground, but it most certainly applies):

    “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

    At some point we need to realize that taking the middle ground is simply a polite way to defend the existing power structures.

    • Erik K

      This. A hundred times, this. Indecision has always been a choice – often, it’s the wrong choice.

  • I’m so sorry. 🙁 There’s not really anything here, either.

  • I had a similar issue with the last church I attended regularly (for two years). The church was not LGBT affirming. I didn’t know for sure– I had never heard them preach about homosexuality (though afterwards there were a couple occasions)– until I went to the potential members meeting and it became clear. I had an hours-long discussion/debate with the assistant pastor. Essentially it came down to an essentials/non-essentials sort of compromise; I could continue to hold my dissenting position and still become a member, but the church itself wasn’t changing (would not accept non-celibate LGBT people, for example).

    I lived with it for a while until one day I was promoting the church at a community festival and a girl asked me if they were affirming, and I had to say no. I almost said, “but some of us are trying to change that,” and then realized that would basically be a lie because nobody in the church but me wanted it to be affirming (at least that I had found). Looking that girl in the face and telling her “no” was up there with the worst I have ever felt. That was when I realized there was no middle ground and by being part of that church I was effectively on “their” side. So I left.

    I loved so many things about that church. I still haven’t found another one, and I often feel depressed about it. But you’re right. The middle ground is a lie.

  • Jennifer

    Was this a Moravian church? That’s the denomination I grew up in, and that’s their motto (except replace charity with love). I’ve never heard it anywhere else before.

    The female pastor thing isn’t a teaching of the Moravian church (their catechism is like 2 pages long and really does only cover essentials), but individual churches may be more conservative than others.

    Incidentally, it’s why I stopped attending in high school. The church I thought was opening and loving became increasingly political, conservative and homophobic, which I tie to a post-9/11 climate and the anti-gay rhetoric in the lead up to the 2004 election.

    • notleia

      I want to say I’ve heard Methodists (UMC) use it, but UMC is a hit-and-miss sort of denomination and somewhat dependent on the congregation for tone. Which is probably why it’s one of the larger denominations.

      • Jennifer

        I just googled it and per Wikipedia, it’s the official motto of the Moravian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as well as some other smaller groups in Germany and Austria. Very interesting.

        • I’ve heard in a few places– first time I picked it up was at Liberty University.

  • RavenOnTheHill

    This is similar to the comments Martin Luther King made about white moderates in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail. When I talk with my political friends, we talk about centrists. The old hard-line Communist left complained about liberals.

    One has, ultimately, to take moral stands or one is immoral.

  • “We tried to convince various pastors and elders that their “non-position” on women in leadership was actually a position, but they didn’t take us seriously.”

    YES.

    The middle ground is an impossible place – it’s standing on air between two cliffs and declaring it just as solid as the land. I feel you, Samantha.

    I attended a local Presbyterian church for a while – fell out of it and need to start going again. Babies do that to you. But I searched for weeks on church websites to find a mission statement that DIDN’T include anything overtly political. In this part of the South, that’s pretty hard to do sometimes. I attended a UU church for a while, but it just didn’t work. The people were lovely, and I loved their community, but there simply wasn’t… Jesus there. In the people, yes. In the worship, no.

    I’ll probably end up back at that Presbyterian church. They were so welcoming to me, and they definitely made room for me in the pews and had a female pastor. She wasn’t the main pastor, but that wasn’t due to women not being allowed, simply that the senior pastor hadn’t retired, basically. It was so refreshing to see her preach one week that he was out of town.

  • Timothy Swanson

    The problem I think many pastors are faced with is that the people with the money and the power in the church – just like in society – are older white males with certain views that are not open for discussion. There would be serious consequences for rocking the boat on either gender roles or sexuality. I think *eventually* things will change when the Boomers die off. But I am not optimistic that there will be many non-crazy Millenials left in the faith by then.

    • Original Lee

      We are currently having problems with that in our current church. Both the senior pastor and the youth pastor are women. The senior pastor is the first woman senior pastor in the history of that congregation. The congregation has lost a significant fraction of the heavy-hitter donors in the last few years, allegedly because the senior pastor was “preaching politics”. I think they say that just to cover up that they’re mad the pastor called them on treating the church like a social club and hogging the ministry leadership jobs. But enough of them have left now that we will have a significant budget shortfall unless everybody else can step up their tithing a bit.

  • FredClark

    The “middle ground”: Allow women to be ordained as three-fifths of a pastor.

  • My church won’t technically allow female pastors either, *however* they are allowed to lead small groups. Mixed-gendered small groups. If preaching is technically teaching, why is it okay for women to be teaching men in that context, but not at a pulpit before a larger crowd? It’s such a cop-out.

    • Alice

      At my childhood church, a woman can talk about her mission work during the sermon or class time but a church leader has to sit onstage with her and ask her questions.

  • KellyLynne

    I’m sorry. Having to leave a church you like sucks. Since suggestions aren’t necessarily helpful, how about a virtual cup of tea?

  • KellyLynne

    I think you’re right about the middle ground thing, about people trying to play to both sides. And I agree that being neutral on issues like that is definitely siding with the oppressor and against the oppressed. The numbers game bothers me too, because it’s incredibly dehumanizing. Yes, obviously the church wants to attract people, but it’s not a business or a pyramid scheme.

    At the same time, I tend to think the middle ground is useful and necessary as a place to *pass through.* I used to be a fundamentalist, and I had to go from “being gay is a sin” through “I don’t know, but who am I to judge” to “love is love, and if God had such a problem with LGBT people, God would quit making them” and actively campaigning for marriage equality. That took years.

    So I wonder if there would be ways for a church to be “neutral” or “wrestling with the issue” that wouldn’t be essentially taking a side or stating that the issue doesn’t matter. I’m not sure. I think at a minimum, if a church is going to say “In non-essentials, liberty” then “don’t be an asshole” has to be an essential. Like, the supposedly “affirming” pastor who would be fine with someone harassing you over being bi—that’s very obviously taking a side, and it’s not the right one.

  • Trevel

    Possibly the best that can be said for the middle ground is that some pass through it on their way to the other side.