In September, Bishop Ken Carter visited the Iowa Annual Conference and helped us to have a holy and grace filled conversation about leadership, change, mission, and the elephant in the room: human sexuality and the lives of LGBT persons.
One of the pieces I really appreciated is that he was careful to note that the macro level questions we have as a denomination shift when we turn to the micro or local church level. Especially when we consider ethos and practices. Using Acts 15 (The Jerusalem Council) he shared how the experiences of individuals who received the Holy Spirit (namely Gentiles), caused the church to think more about whether practices like circumcision were what defined the followers of Jesus. How should leaders interpret law in light of a shifting missionary field? What is essential and what can be laid aside? What can be let go of for the sake of the gospel… for the sake of making new disciples? There is a big picture missionary focus to these questions, but there is also a very pastoral and personal shift that occurs in the local church.
It is the local church pastor who determines readiness for membership. It is in the lives and experience of individuals that we start to ask: is the Spirit moving?
A great example is how John Wesley believed that the scriptures were against the preaching of women, but he believed some were “under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit” and near the end of his life ordained Sarah Mallet and Sarah Crosby as Methodist preachers. Because of that personal experience of the Holy Spirit, ethos and custom were set aside. It wasn’t a shift for everyone… it was a micro-level change.
As Bishop Carter continued the conversation, he talked about how our current division needs a healthy dose of patience. He used Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares to describe how we long for a church full of people like us and are tempted to purify the field and kick out everyone who doesn’t agree with us. As he shares in point 6 of this blog post:
I would encourage Christians who cannot accept gays and lesbians, in orientation or practice, to place the judgment of them (and all of us) in God’s hands. As the Apostle Paul asks, “Who is in a position to condemn?” (Romans 8) And I would encourage gays and lesbians to be patient with their brothers and sisters in the church who have not walked their journey. This is not a justification for continued injustice. And yet it is also true that sexuality itself is a mysterious, complicated and emotionally-charged subject, and rational conversation and dialogue will emerge only if those who disagree come to the table hearing the admonition of James: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1).
But, I wonder is if this is another place where there is a difference between the macro and micro levels.
And I ask this question knowing that Bishop Carter has stated that patience “is not a justification for continued injustice.”
On the macro level, denominationally speaking, patience and understanding and agreeing to wait it out and disagree in love makes some amount of sense. I find my heart there on many days – wanting us to find some way forward together, knowing it will take time.
But then I turn to the micro level, to the local church level, and patience feels very different.
It feels different because I hear stories of young men and women being kicked out of their churches or homes because they are incompatible with Christian teaching. I hear stories of shame and abuse. I hear stories about bullying. And telling these individuals to wait and be patient isn’t an answer.
20-40% of homeless teens on the street in our country are LGBTQ.
LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers.
Do they have a place in my church, your church, or not?
For some of these youth (and adults), our wrestling with ethos and practice is a life or death issue.
Some local congregations have decided that they can’t be patient any longer. They need to firmly and unequivocally state who they are. Either way.
EVERY local church needs to wrestle with this question, just as the micro level conversation had to happen about women preachers or circumcision. In our midst are people this impasse affects, people we might not even recognize yet, and maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat while we wait for wheat and tares to grow is no longer an acceptable answer in the local church. Our decisions, to stand in one place or another or to not stand anywhere at all impact the life and calling and discipleship of individuals who sit next to us.
They need to know if they are welcome or not… so they can embrace their discipleship in that place, or shake the dust off their feet and hopefully find another home.