By Barbara G. Wheeler
This essay was published in the Spring 2012 issue of Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary. Posted by permission. You will want to read the whole issue, “The Church Faces Schism.”
Last year, the Presbyterian Church voted to remove barriers to the ordination of partnered gays and lesbians. As is often the case when long-contested matters are decided, no one is satisfied. Those who advocated the change know its impact will be limited. The new rules permit congregations and presbyteries to continue to exclude partnered gays and lesbians from leadership if they wish to do so, and many exercise that option. Those who opposed the change are afraid that it will force them to violate their consciences. Some of them hope to find refuge in separate structures in which theirs will again be the majority view. Many Presbyterians were not active as advocates or opponents, but having voted, they are distressed that an issue they are tired of discussing seems still not settled. Amid the continuing dissatisfaction and unrest, two strategies have wide appeal.
First strategy: Fight to the finish. On both sides, small but determined groups believe that their positions on sexuality, ordination, and marriage are what defines the faithfulness of the church. Sooner rather than later, they insist, the whole church must adopt the faithful position. Those who just won one round, now that they have majority support, are considering further steps to open the church to gays and lesbians. They know such measures may be divisive, but they are not afraid of alienating those they have defined as unfaithful. Other small but determined groups, comprised of those who lost the recent vote, are considering separation from a denomination they judge to have stepped off the path of biblical faithfulness. Some want to join other denominations, others to create a new one, and still others are looking for ways to “divide inside,” to create governing bodies of the like-minded within the same ecclesiastical frame. They know that their departure will cause painful ruptures, but they believe the faithfulness of the church hangs in the balance.
Second strategy: Forget about it! The “it” in this case is sexuality issues. From left, right, and center come proposals to stop talking about sex and to focus, instead, on the real purpose of the church: mission, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to a suffering world. Moderates argue that this can be accomplished within the denomination as it stands, if everyone adheres to the discipline of avoiding the sexuality debate. Some liberals and many conservatives think that the conflict can be quelled only if the sides separate in one of the ways described above. If everyone belongs to a governing body defined by its position on sexuality, there will be within each one general agreement, little need for discussion, and plenty of energy left for mission.
These approaches have some built-in problems. The first is based on the premise that there are only two buckets: faithful and unfaithful. More likely, there is a faithfulness spectrum. Some ideas and practices, are, indeed, better than others, and some are wrong. (I, for instance, am deeply convinced that it is dead wrong and deadly wrong to teach that all same-sex acts and relationships are inherently sinful. Others are convinced that it is dangerously wrong to argue that such acts are acceptable to God.) Wrong is quite a way down the faithfulness spectrum, but it’s not the most extreme pole. That is reserved for matters that have status confessionis: beliefs so deeply erroneous that those who hold them are infidels, not Christians at all.
The experience of most of us who get to know persons who hold what we consider very wrong views is that most of them are Christian. We share one faith, Lord, and baptism. Quite a few, in my own experience, are way more saintly than I am. Further, many of us hold our views unsteadily—we are closer to the middle than the end of the spectrum. In my time I have seen a lot of change. In my own case, on some issues I have become more open, on others, more orthodox. That change happened not because some person or group anathematized me as unfaithful, but because some person or group provided what Ron Heifetz calls a “holding environment” in which adaptive change can happen. If we want to see further change, we will continue to build cultures in the church that nurture changing hearts and minds. That calls for something much more difficult than fighting to the finish: it requires restraint. Ministry, one of my best students once told me after he had done it for a decade, means staying with people while their hearts change. It takes patience, sometimes holding back from the next forceful action while waiting for others to join in and catch up.
It is worth noting that the most serious damage we do when we adopt a binary view of faithfulness, labeling our convictions “faithful without remainder” and the other side “not faithful at all,” is to ourselves. We believe that our opinions are correct, but some of them may prove not to be. We know that some of our practices are unfaithful, at odds with our beliefs. It’s likely, then, that even if we could rid the church of the “unfaithful” whose views on sexuality are seriously wrong, plenty of error and injustice would remain. We would supply them. And because our opponents would be gone, the level of self-righteousness would be higher—it always is in homogeneous groups—and that would make the church even less acceptable to God.
The major mistake in the second strategy is the assumption that our teaching and policies on sexuality are not at the heart of mission. Discerning the meaning of the gospel for all of God’s creatures is the mission of the church. The case of GLBT persons is a version of that basic missional challenge that God has put on our plate in our time. What the church teaches about sexuality tells both individuals and the wider society who those persons are as they stand before God. Sexuality is a matter on which the church is required to speak, not an elective conversational topic.
So dropping the subject of human sexuality (whether by a self-imposed gag order, or by internal division into like-minded decision-making bodies, or by so-called gracious separation) is not an option. Our call is to preach the gospel as God has given us light to see it. Preaching and teaching have to be artfully done to be successful. The case must be made in the most persuasive ways possible, so that those who are still unconvinced might actually hear and consider. But in any case, we need to keep at it. Precisely because Presbyterians of sound faith and good character differ so vehemently on sexuality issues, we know God wants us all to stay deeply invested as the church seeks the mind of Christ in this matter.
The two strategies I’ve named are easy to market. Many people respond to the challenge to win at all costs, especially when they are convinced their cause is right and just. Many others hate conflict and can be convinced to pay a very high price for peace. Neither is the way ahead. The path before us is more difficult, and it won’t gather as much immediate support, but it will ultimately prove more satisfying for all of us who long to be the church. Our mandate is to teach the truth and to embrace our opponents, without giving up on either one. Not only do we not have to choose between these goals, but we can’t accomplish one without the other. The whole point of a church is to embrace others in their difference and finitude, as God has embraced us in ours, and to struggle together with them for the gospel, correcting each other in love. Only by sticking to our convictions and sticking with each other, inadequate as we all may be, can we hope to become anything like the body of Christ, given in truth and love for the life of the world.
Barbara Wheeler is director of Auburn’s Center for the Study of Theological Education; she was president of Auburn Seminary for thirty years. The co-author of Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools (Oxford Press), she consults widely on the future of religious leadership and religious institutions. She has served the church at the national level as a member of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Presbyterian Church.