Future Faith: Challenge Eight: Defeating Divisive Culture Wars

Bonds of relationship, though tested and at times painfully frayed, proved strong enough in the end to endure. Would that be so in the church as it deals with the tensions of same-sex relationships…

A Divisive Issue

In our present time, no issue has become more divisive than same-sex relationships and the role of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church.

The Reformed Churches in the canton tried to address the challenge of same-sex relationships, which had arisen in some more urban congregations as a pastoral issue. After much study and reflection, they decided that covenanted relationships of a same-sex couple (not a marriage) could receive a blessing if the couple, the pastor, and the congregation were willing and desiring to do so. If, on the other hand, a pastor and their congregation were opposed to such a practice, they could abide by those convictions. Nothing was imposed—only an option was provided.

Congregations today no longer look primarily to denominational offices for information, direction, and ministry resources.

Because of growing congregational autonomy, there’s increased resentment and even resistance to funds that are required or expected to flow from local churches to “headquarters.”

In a word, the trend today is that congregations, rather than denominations, know best.

Suddenly, denominational ties, which seem to be of such questionable merit, are made so paramount that an act of blessing by one jeopardizes the loyalty of another a hundred or a thousand miles away.

Global Complexity

During one presentation, the famous German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, now ninety-one, gave a moving presentation on the General Council’s theme, “Living God, Renew and Transform Us.” Three younger women theologians from the Global South were then invited to make responses. And while Moltmann didn’t directly address the question of same-sex relationships, Nadia Marais from South Africa did. A brilliant young theologian now teaching theology at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, Marais is also ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church. Describing “a church in the spirit of Mary Magdalene,” she spoke passionately about how our Reformed understanding of God’s saving and liberating grace compels us to accept the gift of those whose sexual orientation differs from the majority:

It is . . . unthinkable for a church in the spirit of Mary Magdalene to withhold grace from our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, our bisexual friends and transsexual family, our intersex sons and transgender daughters—those who belong with us to the body of Christ . . . not only because it is an injustice, but also because it is a betrayal of the very grace that calls the church together. – This is from the text of Nadia Marais’s unpublished remarks at the WCRC General Council in Leipzig, Germany, on June 30, 2017.

Later she told me that many in the church keep wanting to say that faith depends on grace plus something else, like a specific understanding of marriage. Or in the acceptance of apartheid, it was grace plus a specific understanding of race. But it’s only grace.

Moreover, when this lifestyle is “exported” to the Global South, it is often described by church leaders as another form of Western colonialism trying to impose a foreign way of life on their cultures. Thus, the controversy over same-sex relationships gets subsumed in the ongoing narrative of the legacy of colonialism, in which the West attempts to impose social and cultural values that are foreign to the traditions of their societies.

Conquering the Divide

Defeating these divisive wars in the life of the church is imperative for world Christianity’s future vitality.

What is it that makes this difference so threatening? And why should this question determine the boundaries of Christian fellowship?

Answering those questions requires (1) honesty about faith and culture, (2) honesty about the role of politics in the church’s discernment of moral issues, and (3) honesty about the diversity of faithful biblical interpretation.

It’s not coincidental that several African church leaders who affirm same-sex relationships, such as Desmond Tutu, are found in South Africa, which has constitutional protections for gay and lesbian persons and is the only country in the African continent that has legalized same-sex marriage. Again, this doesn’t diminish the courage and integrity of voices like Bishop Tutu’s, since the church in South Africa remains divided on this question, but it does point to the importance of one’s cultural and political context.

Evolving cultural attitudes and political movements continually raise questions requiring fresh biblical and ethical discernment on social issues.

The plea here is for honesty from all voices in the church about how culture inevitably shapes and influences the convictions that are brought to the controversy over same-sex relationships.

Overcoming the divisive, alienating conflict spawned by this difference requires reflective honesty about the constant dance between culture and faith in which we all are participants.

Defusing divisive culture wars in the church over same-sex relationships will likely require shedding the secular political models of debate that all bring to this controversy. Any church body taking up the discussion of same-sex relationships must seriously consider how to alter its internal organizational culture and methods of decision-making. Fortunately, models for doing so exist, with a history of exploration and practice.

Discerning Together

A growing body of literature and experience has been developing over the past twenty years exploring models for transforming the decision-making style and culture of church bodies.

Further, it takes such changes in the culture of decision-making and discernment to create safe spaces for the voices of gay and lesbian persons within those communities to speak and to be heard with open hearts rather than judgmental attitudes.

Defeating divisive culture wars in the church over same-sex relationships requires honestly recognizing a diversity of faithful biblical interpretations on these questions. Presently this controversy is often framed as between conservatives who take the Bible seriously and liberals who just ignore the parts of the Bible they don’t like, emphasizing instead human experience, science, or other factors. Such a framework is wrong, dishonest, and injurious on many counts.

discussion guide

 

  • What are some of the subjects that have been divisive, both in culture and in the church? What examples does the author give?
  • In what ways are the global church and some faith communities in the Global North and West not in agreement on certain cultural perspectives? How does that affect the way we interact in the church?
  • The author suggests that defeating divisive wars in the life of the church is imperative if world Christianity will have a vital future. Do you agree or disagree with this? Why?
  • In what ways does the author suggest we must be “honest” as we work on breaking down barriers to Christian fellowship?
  • How and where do we find common ground, even as we hold differing views? What is the most important thing or belief that holds us all together as Christians?
  • What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?

 

 

Previous posts can be found here:

Challenge One: Revitalizing Withering Congregations

Challenge Two: Embracing the Color of the Future

Challenge Three: Seeing through Non-Western Eyes

Challenge Four: Perceiving the World as Sacred

Challenge Five: Affirming Spirit-Filled Communities

Challenge Six: Rejecting the Heresy of Individualism

Challenge Seven: De-Americanizing the Gospel

For more on this, please support the author and buy his book at Amazon or Fortress Press. I do not receive any compensation for this summary.

Future Faith: Challenge Six: Rejecting the Heresy of Individualism

For any community to thrive, there must be more members who can say “me for the community” than those who say “the community for me.”

The deeply imbedded sense of individualism, accentuated by the political framework of modern liberalism, corrodes attempts to strengthen bonds of community, whether in church or society.

Me for community or community for me

That simple contrast—me for the community versus the community for me—captures the heart of the dilemma facing modern Western culture and, by extension, the expressions of the church that are sustained in its midst.

Modern Western culture freed humanity from oppressive, authoritarian rule governing thought, religion, and political structures. The role, rights, and agency of the individual became paramount.

One agrees to the obligations of belonging to a wider community to guarantee and gain certain individual rights and freedoms.

In the famous words of John Donne, “No man is an island, entire unto itself.” We live together in essential networks and webs of social cohesion and interaction.

Philosophers like Ayn Rand took individualism to such extremes that selfishness became a virtue, dismissing altruism and self-sacrifice and advocating a radical laissez-faire capitalism free of any government interference.

Think, for instance, of the famous line in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It was a political way of saying, me for the community, rather than the community for me.

Pew Research Center posed this question to Americans and Europeans: “What’s more important in society, that everyone be free to pursue life’s goals without interference from the state, or that the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need?” Fifty-eight percent of Americans cited that an individual’s freedom was most important, while majorities in European nations felt the opposite.

Life organized around “me” at the center is constantly reinforced.

Biblical faith and community

That assumption is, in fact, foreign to Christian faith. Put simply, it’s an unbiblical, alien concept.

Throughout salvation history, God’s action has focused on creating a people faithful to God’s love and purposes for the world. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people are invited to become members of this community based on God’s grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Much of the New Testament is devoted to explaining to, exhorting, and instructing those who follow Jesus what it means to live together as a community, experiencing the gifts of the Spirit, and demonstrating the unity and reconciliation that is God’s gift.

The metaphor of existing together as one body powerfully highlights the intrinsic interdependence of every member with one another.

Another frequent metaphor for the church in the New Testament is the family.

The goal is to become incorporated into a community that is the vehicle for God’s transforming work in the world. The goal is not to find one’s individual happiness and affirm one’s individual rights. Therefore, Christians are always beckoned primarily to say, “me for the community.” That’s what it means to be claimed by God and participate in God’s ongoing transformation and redemption of the world.

The Christian journey always has an inward as well as an outward direction.

Christian faith is intended to be personal. Most definitely. But Christian faith is not intended to be individual. There’s a difference. We are addressed personally by God.

However, one’s transforming, personal encounter with God’s grace and love destroys the illusion of individualism.

views of reality

Dietrich Bonhoeffer led one of the “underground seminaries” of the Confessing Church in the 1930s, before it was closed by the Nazis. There he established practices to build the life of Christian community through prayer, meditation on Scripture, and identification with the most vulnerable in society.

life as relationships

The Cappadocian Fathers (including Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory Nazianzen) of fourth century eastern Turkey finally turned to a word from Greek theater, perichoresis—circle dance—to describe the foundational quality of God’s character: relationship and communion. In the beginning was relationship.

Individualistic self-indulgence will always search for threads of religious justification and blessing, particularly in the crazy patchwork quilt of American Christianity.

the power and promise of community

A thirst for community, however, among both rich and poor persistently endures.

starting with community

A popular African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” offers a glimpse of how togetherness is valued over individualism in African cultures.

“Ubuntu” is that “a person is a person through other people.” This means that one can never conceive of their own identity as an isolated individual. Rather, personhood can only emerge out of relationships with others. Our humanity, in fact, is not embedded in our individuality but bestowed upon us by others. That’s how linked we are in bonds of communal belonging.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning cleric from South Africa, helped export the concept of Ubuntu in his writings. “A person with Ubuntu,” wrote Tutu, “is open and available to others, affirming of others . . . knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole, and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished.”

“Liberation Theology” attempted to reconstruct theology by seeing the world and reading the Bible “through the eyes of the poor.”

Drawing as well on themes of solidarity within the political currents of the continent, such communities incarnated the conviction that the power of the gospel had to find its starting point in communal life with one another.

The power and promise of grounding faith in community that is so prevalent in global Christianity challenges US congregations to seek a transforming vision of future faith that is not based on the heresy of individualistic Christianity.

discussion guide

 

  • What do you think of Jean Vanier’s proposal that for any community to thrive, “there must be more members who can say ‘me for the community’ than those who say ‘the community for me’”?
  • How does the world around us, and sometimes even the church, organize life with “me” at the center?
  • From what biblical examples does the author draw in the perspective of life organized around community? What benefits are experienced “in community”?
  • How does God’s nature itself lead us toward community?
  • What examples of both individualistic ministry and community-based ministry are given in the chapter?
  • How can the power and promise of grounding faith in community, which is so prevalent in global Christianity, sharpen your faith community’s life together?
  • What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?

 

Previous post can be found here:

Challenge One: Revitalizing Withering Congregations

Challenge Two: Embracing the Color of the Future

Challenge Three: Seeing through Non-Western Eyes

Challenge Four: Perceiving the World as Sacred

Challenge Five: Affirming Spirit-Filled Communities

For more on this, please support the author and buy his book at Amazon or Fortress Press. I do not receive any compensation for this summary.