From the Archives: On Differences in the Church

woman holding prayer beads

Published on January 15, 2015 on sarasmanyhats.ca.

A bit of a longer post, with a pointed message on unity that I believe can be summed up in this quote:

Jesus Christ asks us to interpret ourselves, and each other, with the same hospitable, good-hearted diligence that we grant to him. He offers the truth not as a thing but as a way, an opening on the path between the spirit and the letter of the law. Between pushing for precision and exactitude in matters of faith and practice, and knowing when to leave well enough alone. Between a practical and loving tolerance and the insidious voice of sin speaking in our hearts, offering us a self-justification for our harsh judgment of other people. A way between an anything-goes morality and a rigid, unforgiving moralism. A way of forbearance…
~ Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace

So (for)bear with me here. I am going to be paraphrasing or quoting directly from a book I’ve been enjoying called “Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith” by Kathleen Norris. And if you find this post seems to be aiming at you and you know me personally, I can only hold up my hands and say, hey, you know a blogger now. I have too long not been writing. I gots things that have got to come out, yo.

It’s been over five years since Bill 18, the Manitoba’s anti-bullying legislation passed into law. In my area in southeast Manitoba, this bill was hotly debated and produced publicly-aired, strongly worded views on either side. Google “Steinbach bill 18” if you want to see what went down.

I don’t want to go backward or debate. But there are still so many I know personally, and so many in the local church in my area, who are struggling with, I would say, exactly the same types of issues. Church leadership across many denominations are handing down, or trying to hand down, more firmly worded “statements of faith” or creeds or rules of discerned morality for how we are to live our lives.

I am thankful for my own group of believers, where leadership has still overtly supported an individual’s ability to discern for themselves the meaning and context of scripture. From the pulpit, I’ve had it drilled into me that God communicates with me; learned teachers are great and God-ordained to lead and preach, but God Himself communes with me and that holy relationship takes precedent as I learn, and love, and try to knowledgeably and sensitively practice the presence of God in my daily life.

I’m a feeler more than a thinker. But living with a thinker has rubbed off on me in many ways. Either direction your personality more naturally will fall is not bad or wrong, but deserves to be given consideration and encouragement toward balance. I digress.

I’ve written before about my different views in the church. As I’ve explored my beliefs, discussing them with others, I’ve often wondered, “It is fine that we can explore these differing views together and acknowledge our different conclusions. It is good that we can see that others doing Christianity differently is not necessarily wrong and that their way of doing things can be effectively life-giving to others. It is nice that we can say these things about them. But why can’t they say the same about us?” And, yes, I have laughed at my own musings upon the subject of unity that ultimately only illustrate how truly unintentional division can be.

It is easier to feel justly divided than to authentically strive for unity.

From a social media marketer’s perch, I draw your attention to social media, but I’ll try not to get stuck there. For the negative news media always catches more attention and garners more clicks and comments and shares than the positive news media. It is simply more captivating. It is simply more psychologically satisfying to feel a rush of indignation. It is biologically wired into us. Note that any child seeking attention will grasp that negative attention, while negative, is still attention. Stimulation that is negative is still stimulation. And we so crave stimulation these days, and acceptance. Re-sharing articles or commenting along with the other indignant masses online produces the social acceptance and attachment we crave. When we are utilizing and referring to healthy practices it is called attachment, and when we are attracted to practicing patterns of ultimately negative consequence, it is in danger of becoming addiction.

And we’re back.

To entrench oneself in a fight, to battle alongside others for a cause, makes you feel safe, affirmed, and alive. To live open to change, to the possibility that you could be wrong, and to the evolution of your character and identity, is the real scary thing. That’s why so many people don’t do it. But it’s the only healthy and loving way to live. It’s how God calls us to live. That’s why I can’t be quiet. That’s why I’m asking more people to do it.

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Norris’s book has captivated me and I’ve been chewing on it, chapter by chapter. Today I got a heaping plateful of content down in one gulp and I was inspired to reflect. I’m trying to stay true to the little voice that says to write this out – for the sake of the way my own brain processes information, for the sake of my calling that says to write, for the sake of the art of writing that is nothing without an audience.

So I’ll begin with this spoonful: Norris says, “In my experience, much if not most intolerance is at base a stupefying ignorance rather than a deeply rooted conviction.” And now you are caught up in the words “intolerance” and “ignorance” as if their opposites, tolerance and education, were the real dangers in the world. Deep breaths. Chew. Stay open. Let’s move on, readers, because Norris goes on:

What often appears to be intolerance is, I believe an ignorance so thorough it amounts to innocence. … Because the word ‘homosexual’ makes for good headlines, outsiders have been slow to comprehend that for many Presbyterians, the issue presented in the media as a new battle about homosexual clergy is in fact an old conflict over basic church polity; that is, to what extent a central authority can tell an individual Presbyterian congregation what to do. …

…it is local congregations that decide who is to be ordained for the ministries of the church. These lay ministers are chosen at the local level from the congregation and are asked to serve because they have already incarnated the love of Christ in ways that have touched people and enhanced the life of the church. …

…in churches with a more highly centralized power structure, a list of what will automatically bar people from church ministry may be more easily drawn up and enforced. For us, there is always a tension between being faithful to the greater church and to church tradition and allowing the Spirit room to breeze through the church at the local level. In the past, this tension has erupted into conflict over whether slaveholders could be ordained to church office, or divorced people, or women. And people of good faith came down on both sides of each issue. The issues change, but the central struggle over church polity remains the same. And, while sexual issues have taken precedence of late, it could be otherwise. Someone might propose barring from the church’s ministries, for example, people who are employed by large banks or corporations that they consider to be evil, having racist or economically rapacious business practices.

In Mennonite-land, tread lightly upon discussing matters of “rapacious business practices” lest you offend those who believe good Biblical stewardship extends to the many-shades-of-grey efforts toward saving a dollar and avoiding taxes. Small dig there. #sorrynotsorry

Let’s come back to, “And people of good faith came down on both sides of each issue.” I will not be going into debate over the locally, deep-rooted issues like homosexuality, abortion, or – what is still an ongoing point of contention in this nook of Canada by my complete bewilderment – women in positions of teaching or leadership. People of good faith can come up with many well-stated, Biblically-supported arguments for many types of issues facing how to live well in church community and in society at large.

I will not debate, but I will present an interesting position as Norris herself walks her readers through a well-researched reflection on the reality of homosexuality existing in the church for centuries.

Monasteries can’t help but reflect their time and place, and during the 1970s, when more homosexuals began coming out…, the same thing happened in monasteries. … Christian monks have existed for close to eighteen hundred years, almost as long as the church itself…, working, eating, praying, and enjoying (and sometimes enduring) recreation together, every day, often for fifty years or more. … The person you are quick to label and dismiss as a racist, a homophobe, a queer, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a bigoted conservative or a bleeding-heart liberal is also a person you’re committed to live, work, pray, and dine with for the rest of your life.

The relative invisibility of homosexuals in our society–the fabled “closet” that so many have lived in for so long–has made it possible for large numbers of people to remain remarkably ignorant of homosexuals as ordinary human beings, let alone to begin to comprehend that homosexuality may simply be one of the basic orientations that is genetically hardwired into the species homo sapiens, and that it often takes people a good deal of time to sort out where on the continuum their sexual orientation falls.

How do they do it? They know, as one Anglican nun has put it, that their primary ministry is prayer, and that prayer transcends theological differences. They also have the wisdom of St. Benedict, who at the end of his Rule points out that there are two types of zeal; one which is bitter and divisive, separating monks from God and from each other, and another which can lead them together into everlasting life. Employing scripture (Romans 12:10), he defines this “good zeal” as acts of love…

It may be helpful to know that Norris, herself, is a Benedictine oblate, who is acutely acquainted with the culture of close-quarters-Christianity and modern day monastic community living. If anyone can identify the realities and challenges of living in unity with others and put forward a position that promotes a reasonable and loving way forward for society and church-goers, she can.

[Polarization] is risky business in a church congregation. … The brittle and divisive climate within the contemporary Christian church has forced me to take more seriously the value of forbearance as a Christian virtue. A conscious forbearance of the sort that Jesus demonstrates so amply in the gospels, and Paul exhorts us to in his epistles. Early in First Corinthians, for example: Judge nothing, be stewards of the mystery. … It may be that with good care…unity grows supple enough to withstand the demands for strict uniformity that so quickly produce division.

I believe that where local congregational life is concerned, it is best to give the Holy Spirit all the room we can, because the Spirit has a way of reminding us that what we think is right–even what we think the Bible spells out as right–is not necessarily letter-perfect in the sight of God. If God did not choose to work in ways that confound us, grace would not be amazing. It would not be grace.

Christians believe that Christ himself is behind the mystery of whatever unity they maintain, and they find in this a sign of hope. … I respect [this] humility. … For…Christ is still present in…community, and in the church. In the Gospel of John, when the disciple Thomas mistakes Jesus for the way to an abstract and certain truth, Jesus quickly sets him straight saying “I am the way, the truth and the life.” And here, it seems to me, is the life of the church–any Christian church–as it struggles to interpret the scriptures, and the Word of God himself, in a life-giving way. Jesus Christ asks us to interpret ourselves, and each other, with the same hospitable, good-hearted diligence that we grant to him. He offers the truth not as a thing but as a way, an opening on the path between the spirit and the letter of the law. Between pushing for precision and exactitude in matters of faith and practice, and knowing when to leave well enough alone. Between a practical and loving tolerance and the insidious voice of sin speaking in our hearts, offering us a self-justification for our harsh judgment of other people. A way between an anything-goes morality and a rigid, unforgiving moralism. A way of forbearance…

In Amazing Grace, Norris’s chapter on Forbearance includes the story of a woman from her church coming up to her after she had been speaking one Sunday morning. The woman, obviously right-leaning, told the left-leaning Norris outright that she did not hold the same position on homosexuality or other issues as she did. But this did not stop the woman from recounting, with grief, her own church community’s struggle with differing theological interpretations.

“All of this came up in my church,” the woman said, her eyes beginning to fill with tears, “when a woman who was an elder became a lesbian, and I thought we should remove her from office. But,” she added, weeping now, “she was well liked, and I was told by someone I thought was my friend, ‘You don’t love enough.'” … This woman had been terribly wounded… It was my turn to be shocked. It sounded like the kind of remark that is made in the heat of the moment, and in many…churches the heat has lately been on high. Many hurtful things have been said.

I cannot count the times when I’ve had friends, on either side of an issue, express confusion and hurt to me when they’ve been on the receiving end of reproach or judgment because of their beliefs. And I believe the way I’ve responded when asked, “but what do YOU believe?” has at times left friends with more answers than questions.

I’ve called it diplomacy, but I see it is something much bigger now. I don’t want to divide. I don’t want to alienate anyone or send a message that you or your thoughts and views or very identity are not wanted or loved. Threatening separation from community will send us attachment-needing humans into resentment, or conformist behaviour, or depression, and I don’t know which is the worse outcome. But I won’t be party to it. My calling is different.

It is shown that if you spend more time with people who are different than you, it produces empathy. The worst/best/most incredible part about spending time with people who are different than you, is that you encounter more areas of grey, different reasoning for different decisions than you would have made. And you realize you have to stop putting people with different viewpoints in a box, that you have to stop putting other viewpoints in a box. You cannot possibly paint people or issues as black and white without discounting their humanity and withholding empathy and love from them.

I ask you, if you spent as much time alongside your community members or fellow congregants as monks spend with other monastics, praying, singing, working and playing, would it become more important to you to debate or to live well alongside each other in love? If you spent less time self-affirming in the algorithm-controlled version of what you see and like on social media? And let’s not pretend your views are not isolated in other ways – by what news you read or watch, who you go for coffee with, what books you read, who you stand beside at your kid’s sportsing games, who you stand beside at church or going to town council meetings with…

If you align yourself to live more openly, more lovingly, do the rules need to be so articulated beyond a basic creed to love God? Did Jesus not come to denounce zealots and fulfill the law in the name of freedom and love?

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:36-40 New International Version (NIV)

I’ll leave it there for now. I’m OK if this sparks more questions than answers. I’m comfortable with grey and am starting to think it’s my colour.

I’d even courage you to try some grey on today.

Peace.

Now I’m going to leave you with a real brainteaser. At the end of a blog about the church, I’ll ask you to watch a video by an atheist. Comedian, actor, writer, musician, composer, lyricist and director, Tim Minchin, gave this commencement address and I liked it. He is a skeptic and an atheist and he speaks truth. And he’ll make you laugh. Lighten up. Set aside six minutes and watch this:

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One thought on “From the Archives: On Differences in the Church

  1. I enjoyed your post friend. I like that you are reading that book it seems like a smart one.

    The church gets involved into peoples lives about certain personal decisions. The thing is we are supposed to be supportive of each other (The majority of the time the church is succeeding at it).

    If we are going to socially like or dislike things, we should remember, we are not the creator, and as long as its not hurting anyone, it is good.

    If the creator approves or disproves of homosexuality as an example, he can easily push forth the result to his desire. The evidence is, homosexuality happened for the first time, a long time ago, and our Creator has not enforced any ban on it that has stopped it completely.

    Based on that evidence, whether he prefers one way or the other, his decision appears to be of a choose for yourselves attitude.

    Another example, me, I prefer that we be honorable that we even have women. If every man (I am a man so I say it from my perspective) were homosexual, women and child birth would not be honored and that does not seem good or loving.

    Love is supposed to (And does) go beyond bodily form, love is a permanent team.

    Even though I prefer that heterosexuality win the argument so both genders are honored properly and in that we then are the evidence that God was wise to create 2 genders, I don’t seek to go command others what to do in their own homes.

    Quite honestly, Im happy to have a friend, if that friend is hetero or homo, well, their still a friend, and their sexuality is not going to be the major factor of our friendship.

    I’m not their boss, even if I were to have the biggest church on the planet, if God himself didn’t tell me to disprove of it, id keep my personal opinion personal, and honestly if he were to tell me to enforce something, I would have quite the complaint to being any kind of enforcer because it is not my desire to be superior to the other creations I love.

    For a creation, it is more difficult to be loved by other creations if held as a superior force.

    While we are equal we are not competing in which way will cause enmity.

    I believe in equality and fairness for all of his children.

    In the bible there is a verse mentioning their is a Queen of Heaven, and as God is King it is a obvious remark he has been married. With God as the creator that then indicates the Queen of Heaven to be the first creation. As the two of them are married they are a personal team with more time together than any of us, and as for my vote I am satisfied having then 2 leaders even one a creation because it is actually a benefit to us other creations having a secondary leader that knows much about what it is to be a creation and can help sympathize with us.

    Having 2 leaders who have a similar mind, yet also minds that uniquely love us, well, it is a miracle.

    We should have as much good equality as possible, after all… once again God did command to us creations “Do not covet thy neighbor” which is basically telling us not to bully our creational siblings.

    I appreciate your post very much and well, that is my thoughts on anti-bullying. I hope you enjoy my comment, have a good night.

    P.S. I followed your site, and wish you success. We also have a WordPress site, it is a free ancestor appreciation club called “We Love The Oldest Parents” our motto is “Call them God or Goddess, they’re still our parents”.

    The club is for every religion and we offer free and entertaining content. We are openly inviting you to help us show our Oldest Parents some love. Any name you call the Oldest Parents by is good.

    Please give us a peek and if you enjoy it, feel free to follow, much love.

    http://www.welovetheoldestparents.com

    Like

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