Browsing Tag

in essentials unity


On “Different” Churches: You’re Actually Not

A little while ago I reached out to my followers on Twitter to ask if they’d stopped attending church and why. I was flooded with replies over the next few days, and many of the answers I received were heart-shattering. In the midst of that conversation, the Twitter account for Highlands Fellowship church jumped in, inviting me and another woman to their church because they were “different,” and linking both of us to a promotional video.

I decided to give this Highlands Fellowship PR person the benefit of the doubt and watch the thing, titled “What Three Words Would You Use to Describe Highlands Fellowship?” It made me chuckle because the church Handsome and I left last year asked us to be a part of a similar video, where they asked us the exact same question. We decided to bet on which words would appear– I chose “open” and “friendly,” he went with “loving” and “non-judgmental.” We laughed so hard because lordy did we nail it.

I also ended up e-mailing back a forth a couple times with Tim– the PR guy– which I won’t go into, but our private communication really didn’t go much further than what he’d said publicly: that Highlands Fellowship was supposedly different because “most churches are tradition and religion. We are relationship with Jesus and love.”

Which … that statement continually boggles me. It’s definitely far from the first time I’ve heard this sentiment– my mother’s license plate bracket reads “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord,” one of my favorite jokes as a middle-schooler was “want a taste of religion? Lick a witch,” and then there’s that “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus” spoken word poem that went viral way back in 2012. This whole “we’re about having a relationship with Jesus, not just following a religion” thing is the exact and total opposite of “different.”

I’ve talked about my problems with this bait-and-switch approach to the “it’s not a religion it’s a relationship” concept; it’s impossible to argue that all the bedrock elements of Christianity– things like the Eucharist, baptism, or conversion– are anything except religious, and trying to ignore that is ridiculous.

But I’ve seen these attempts by (usually) non-denominational, mainstream evangelical churches to distance themselves from “all those other churchesfor the bulk of my life, and it loses me every time because they’re not different at all.

If you look at the “what we believe” section of pretty much any non-denominational church, you’re going to find an overwhelming amount of homogeneity. They’ll probably pay some sort of lipservice to “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” and then go on to affirm all the ways evangelicalism looks exactly like fundamentalism (inerrancy of Scripture, penal substitutionary atonement theory, eternal conscious torment model of Hell…) and many will turn out to basically be “Secret Baptists” with emphasis placed on Baptism by Immersion as the First Act of Obedience.

I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last six years with the church staff of these Different Churches™, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that what they mean by “different” is that they’re still sexist, queerphobic, and racist, they’re just going to hide it. They’ll take their bigotry, slap a coat of Nice and Non-Threatening paint on top of it, and continue on with business as usual. There’s a big show going on about how “open” and “loving” they are, but absolutely nothing will have changed. Unfortunately, all these Different Churches™ have learned is that being honest about what they believe makes people justifiably call them bigots and that makes them feel like they may not be Nice Christians™.

But, Different Church™, I’m not going to leave you hanging; if you actually want to be different, here’s my thoughts.

Be Serious about “In Non-Essentials, Liberty”

What could this look like? I think it looks like having a diverse array of speakers (people of color, women, queer people) who routinely introduce topics like the different ways of understanding Atonement theory, from christus victor to moral exemplar, or who introduce your congregation to Open Theism, or who talk about the alternatives to Inherited Sin like Pelagianism, or the extremely varied ways people see the afterlife, from the Eternal Conscious Torment model to Annihilationism.

Stop Maintaining the Oppressive Status Quo

A pertinent quote here is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The baseline of our American culture is racist, queerphobic, ableist, and misogynistic; systematic oppression is the lifeblood of our economy and our religion has trafficked in it for centuries. Most Different Churches™ ignore this reality, skirting around it, preferring to think of these things– if, indeed, they think of them at all– as something that happened Before, but isn’t a problem now.

The problem is that our unexamined bigotry means that we spend every day reinforcing it. If you’re not actively fighting against these systems, then you’re just flowing along with the rest of the river, one drop of silent oppression among millions of others. You need to confront sexism, queerphobia, ableism, and racism wherever and whenever it turns up in your church.

Actually Bother to Try Being like Jesus

If you look at the actions Jesus took during his earthly ministry, you’ll find a pretty amazing pattern: he did things. Lots of things. Physical things. He healed people. He fed people. Yes, he taught, but the bulk of what he did was form relationships with people who weren’t like him, who didn’t agree with him, who even actively opposed his work and did something to make an actual, real, physical change in people’s lives. Take the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats seriously and go out and do something. Worship services and preaching are great, but as a ministry they look barely anything like what Jesus did. Learn to actually take care of each other– if someone in your congregation doesn’t have all their needs met, who are having trouble buying groceries or paying rent, then you are absolutely not doing your job as a church, end of story.

I get why you want to be “different.” I get why you feel the need to try to put some distance between you and the people who’ve given evangelicalism such a hateful reputation, why you want to put so much importance on “relationship” and “love.” I applaud that, I do– but you’ll never be truly different unless you honestly examine what got American evangelicalism here in the first place.

Photo by Idibri
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