Barbara Wheeler

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC
Keynote Address- Friday Afternoon, November 7, 2003

Strangers: a Dialogue about the Church

Barbara G. Wheeler
President, Auburn Theological Seminary

(Barbara Wheeler and Richard Mouw presented prepared remarks and then responded to each other’s remarks and questions from the audience.)   

All of these [Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah] died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who are speak in this way make clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.- Hebrews 11:13-16

I am acutely uncomfortable—standing here, giving this talk. Partly, it’s the assignment, to speak about the church as it ought to be. The church is the theological topic about which I care most. I know that it is way down the list of what Calvin liked to call the heads of Reformed doctrine. He got to it in the fourth of four books of the Institutes, and it hasn’t advanced much in most people’s theological systems since. Indeed, many contemporary Christians think the church is dispensable, that God is more easily accessed outside the limits and constraints of church structures.

In my own salvation history, however, the church is central. My conversion experience occurred, not incidentally, in a church building. (Happily, I’m a liberal Presbyterian, so I don’t need to tell you anything more about that.) I was introduced to Jesus Christ by the actions as well as the words of his followers. I have grown in the faith because others have taken the time to teach it to me. Tom Torrance says that there isn’t any other way: in a tradition in which “the Truth is an historical person…, it must be communicated by other persons, in time. It is not something we can tell to ourselves.”(1)  And when my faith has flagged, as it does all the time, I depend on others—including some in this sanctuary and on this platform—to keep it for me. Perhaps God arranges exclusive assignations with some people, but not with me. In my case, it’s always been a group date. Given what I owe the church—in it and through it my life was saved—it seems cheeky of me to tell it what it should be like. It might be more fitting for the church to set the standard for me.

It’s not only the topic that daunts me this morning; it’s also the audience. Present in this room are two groups that have ministered to me in powerful ways in recent years. One is gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Presbyterians. The church has developed the bad habit of talking about this group as if it is a problem for the denomination. Let me address you directly. You have not been a problem for me. Quite the opposite: you have provided me with luminous examples of how to live a Christian life under adverse conditions—very adverse conditions. This denomination’s policies toward its GLBT members are restrictive to the point of cruelty. We tell many of you who want to offer sacrifices for the good of the church—countless hours of volunteer service as elders and deacons or a lifetime in demanding and low paid pastoral ministries—that your life choices are so much more sinful than the rest of ours that we’ve had to erect special barriers to keep you from laying your gifts at the altar. Our church’s teaching that all same-sex acts are wrong, no distinctions, has downright perverse effects. The more you conform to the practices the church blesses and honors for heterosexuals—public pledges of fidelity to another person, family commitment to the nurture of children—the less likely that you can be ordained and that you will be welcomed to work out your discipleship in most Presbyterian congregations.

Yet here you are, in this room, in this denomination, or eager to be, if only we had a place for you. You keep on witnessing to the truth of Christ in your lives. You keep on offering help that the church desperately needs but is too proud and stubborn to accept. You show us your anger—I take that as a compliment, a sign of trust. You keep on ministering, with tender compassion, to me and to many, many others who have the approval and privileges that have been denied to you. Your unselfishness lifts my sights. It makes it difficult, however, for me to lecture you about the future, because many of you live your lives better in the present, under far more difficult conditions, than I do.

The other group that makes me feel awkward and shy this morning is evangelical and conservative Presbyterians. Richard Mouw is here as their chief proxy, but others are present as well. I stumbled into the evangelical world by a kind of academic accident. Fifteen years ago, I decided to do some research in an evangelical seminary, not because I had any interest in conservative Christianity, but because some colleagues and I wanted to understand how the culture of a seminary shapes the ministers who are formed there, and culture is best studied from the outside. I could not have been more of an outsider if I had gone to do my research in Bali. I grew up in a home so liberal that when Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, I couldn’t believe it. In all my eight years, I’d never met a self-identified Republican—how could a party with no members elect a president? My liberal Catholic girlhood and liberal Protestant adult life were similarly sheltered. When I arrived on the campus of that seminary fifteen years ago, I knew very few evangelicals.

But I did have definite expectations for what I would find. They had been set by the liberal culture of which I had always been a part. I believed—I think this is standard on our side of the aisle—that the only reason anyone would choose to become or remain a religious conservative is lack of the psychological strength to confront the ambiguity and uncertainty of the world as it is. (I have since learned that evangelicals harbor a corresponding theory about liberals, that we are liberals because we lack the moral fortitude to confront the truth and live by it.) I also expected the evangelical conservatives with whom I would be more or less living for the next three years to be theological dinosaurs, mired in pre-critical questions long ago settled and forgotten by the rest of us. I had expectations, too, of what I would not find. I did not think that evangelicals would be either funny or fun. More seriously, I did not expect my faith to be enriched by what I saw and heard at the seminary I was studying. Indeed, I thought it would be severely tested by the things that were said and done there in the name of Christian faith.(2)

Now it’s true, Richard, that you, the one evangelical I knew fairly well when I started my project, didn’t fit this description. A guy who can drive a Dodge Dart without damage to his self-esteem has a lot of psychological strength. You know hundreds of funny stories, and you’ve got a searching, well-furnished mind. I assumed that you were the exception. I found out that you are not. Exceptional, yes: your intelligence, integrity and depth would be in any religious culture. But many evangelicals, in my experience, don’t fit those liberal stereotypes. In other settings, I have talked at length about what I have learned about evangelicals. I don’t have time to do that today, so let me summarize my findings in a few sentences.

I have discovered that you evangelicals (I’ll talk to you directly, too) are not, as a class, fearful and unstable, at least, no more than the rest of us. You do have some rather ruthless colleagues, and I confess I still find myself wondering what happened to them early on to make them that way. But I have met some of you who are much better than I am at looking at yourselves and the world with unsparing honesty and at changing your minds and behavior when that is warranted. Thanks to you, I’ve had to begin work on an alternate theory of why people become religious conservatives and stay that way. I’ve also learned that theology in your world is a mixed bag. The range is vast. Some of it is, indeed, fossilized debates that most Christians, even many evangelicals, don’t care about any more. But there is also lively theological conversation in the evangelical world that has reminded me how much gold there is in classic Christian tradition and how it still enriches all of us, including liberals. I have to admit, too, that I’ve had a good time, Richard, with you and your ilk. Among other things, I’ve learned a slew of good jokes about evangelicals.

But the biggest surprise for me has been that my experience in what is still for me a very strange religious culture has not shaken my faith; it has strengthened it. This is the doing of particular Presbyterians, first you, Richard, then others. Despite your best efforts, you have not changed my opinions. But early in each of the relationships that have become important to me, there was a moment–a sort of spiritual ka-ching–when we both knew, and knew that the other knew, that we were hearing the same gospel, loud and clear. I am not proud of the fact that, in every case, my evangelical friends spoke first, affirming my faith before I affirmed theirs. I’m not proud that I failed to take the initiative, but I’m grateful that they did.

I’m grateful, too, that a number of you have publicly affirmed the faith and sincerity of the liberals you know and respect, a risky act in your party, where some leaders like to stir up the troops by claiming that our party practices a different religion. One such public affirmative statement that I treasure personally is a nominating speech by Price Gwynn, a card-carrying conservative. He wrote it on my behalf when I faced conservative opposition in an election for a slot on a General Assembly committee. “Barbara Wheeler is a faithful follower of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Price said. “That doesn’t keep her from being wrong most of the time.” Just the point: the capacity to recognize each other as Christ’s own despite how wrong we are, about so many things, is proof that the gospel is true—it really does cut through our wrongness and other people’s. The fact that that happens strengthens faith. Because some of you evangelicals recognized me as a Christian first, however, or first had the courage to say so, I am reluctant to instruct you about how to be the church. You know how. You’ve shown me.

There is one more item in the catalog of factors that complicate any attempt to think together here about the church. Not to put too fine a point on it: the two groups I have named that have been the church so powerfully to me in recent years can’t stand each other. Of course there are exceptions. I am far from the only Presbyterian who has found faith and friendship in unexpected places. Generally, though, these two groups avoid and terrify each other. Each is deeply fearful that it and the wider church will suffer if the other gains any more power or prominence than it has already. What can I possibly say about the church in the presence of groups—many groups, for the alienation I have named is by no means the only one dividing this denomination—how to talk about the church when we are so deeply estranged from each other?

How about this? They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. What if we not only acknowledge the fact that we are strangers to others in our own denomination (according to my Greek lexicon that is the first sense of “confess” here, “admit”); but also affirm it—the second sense, declare it; and even praise the fact, give thanks for it—the third connotation of confess (Let us praise God…, confess God’s name [Heb 13:15])? Instead of denying our estrangement, or bemoaning it, or whining in good 21st-century fashion that it makes us tired, why not embrace it as a gift from God? How’s this for a model of the church that we are called to become: A company of strangers, who like Abraham and Sarah set out for a new place, because from a distance all of us, in our own weird ways, [have glimpsed the promises of God] and greeted them?

This image of the church as a band of strangers who accept our discomfort with each other as God’s way of moving us forward may seem grimly Calvinistic, the sort of thing that Garrison Keillor had in mind when he said that Presbyterians are those folks who think that having a good time with nice people in a pleasant place makes you stupid. The image certainly flies in the face of the best marketing advice about how to grow your church or denomination: create a warm, friendly enclave where like-minded people can find refuge from the tensions of contemporary life. A church something like that—or churches—is what the proponents of a cool, clean division of the denomination claim to have in view. (They are dreaming. Having just studied the bloody split of the Presbyterian Church in the USA in 1837 under circumstances not all that different from our own, I am certain that peaceful or gracious schisms are not possible.) But I suspect that even those of us who hate the idea of an outright split have a secret hankering for a church in which they, or at least the most irritating of them, won’t be around to make our lives miserable. If we hammer each other long enough with whatever weapon our side has at its disposal at the moment, maybe the other side will eventually be cowed into silence, give up or go away, and we will have an improved if not completely purified church that is much more fun to be part of.

I want to advocate an alternative: a tense, edgy, difficult church made up of zenoi, strangers, who cling to each other for dear life in the same chilly, rocky baptismal boat because we are headed to the same destination: a better country. If I had time, I think that I could make the full-blown ecclesiological case for a church of strangers; but for this conversation I’ll stay with three practical advantages: strangeness is better for us, better for the church, and better for the world than the warmer and cuddlier options. I will try quickly to convince you that these claims are true.

Claim one: A church that contains members who we think strange, even barbaric, is a healthier setting for us, for our formation as Christians. We like to think that a church of our kind, one that excludes those who believe incorrectly and behave badly by our lights, would be a better school for goodness than the mixed church we’ve got. It is not necessarily so. Familiarity and affinity breed bad habits as well as virtues. Richard has already confessed an unhealthy family pattern of conservatives: contentiousness. I have seen it with my own eyes. When I arrived on the campus of that evangelical seminary I studied, I had steeled myself for a lot of liberal-bashing that I would not be able to counter because ethnographic researchers are supposed to keep their personal views to themselves. I was surprised, and I have to say a little hurt, that the faculty and students in that school rarely mentioned liberals. There was a good deal of hostile theological rhetoric, but almost all of it was directed at other evangelicals. As Richard has written in The Presbyterian Outlook, if this denomination split, within minutes the new conservative church would be organized into warring factions. Aggressiveness is part of conservative religious culture; it’s both the secret of its effectiveness and its downfall. When other targets are not available, evangelicals tend to turn their aggressiveness on themselves with special vehemence. In one of our exchanges at Fuller, Richard pointed this out and told the audience that he hoped the church wouldn’t divide, because far more good could be done by him contending with people like me than by him beating up on them.

And what about us so-called liberals? What are our bad family habits? It’s not easy to generalize about “us.” The very fact that there is no one name we all want to be called on the non-conservative side of the church signals that we are a loose association more than a party with a platform or community with a culture. But we do hang out together, without those Other Presbyterians, and when we do we can be, in fact often are, smug. We tend to look down on our opponents. We are pretty sure that we are advanced and others outmoded. When everyone else grows up, we believe, they will look and think like us. You could say that our progressive openness to the world, which is where this sense of being ahead of the curve comes from, is the secret of our effectiveness and also our downfall. In my experience, we are less likely to slide over into snobbishness, when “they”—those we have defined as inferior—are in the room, some of them thinking as clearly and acting as maturely as some of us.

So if one reason for joining a church is to get help for living more faithfully, the strange members are important. They make us self-conscious, maybe less likely to display some of the uglier traits of our sub-group and perhaps more aware that if we want more righteousness for the church and all of us in it, we may have to fix ourselves as well as those others

Claim two: the Presbyterian Church will be better off—more productive and more faithful—if we strangers in it hold on to each other. This denomination has a lot of important work to do; and though we would like to see all of it accomplished our way, the fact is that none of the factions, including our own, has the capacity or the skills to do it all alone. Richard has named two of the projects that estranged groups in the church could profitably work on together. One is Christology, which is high on the agenda not, I think, because we Covenant Network types have stepped over an orthodoxy line that is clear and easy to draw, but because none of us is able yet to say clearly or powerfully enough who Jesus Christ is in this religious situation and this world. The version of the Christological debate that is most audible inside the church and beyond takes place at the level of bumper stickers: “Jesus the Only Sole Singular Way” on their vehicles; “Many, Many Paths to God” on ours. We can do better than that. Our various parties and caucuses have different kinds of specialized knowledge: liberals are practiced in learning as Christians from other faith traditions; evangelicals have expertise in nurturing and sustaining intense personal relationships with Jesus Christ. There are some in the church—women, gays and lesbians, racial and ethnic minorities—who have experienced what it is like to suffer at the hands of the civic and religious establishment. That is valuable insight into what it means to be the body of Christ, who had similar experiences. Instead of battering each other with our different perspectives on Jesus Christ, we might listen for what complements and corrects our own view in what others have to say about their knowledge and love of him. Perhaps, if we did that, we could represent him more fully and accurately to a world that doesn’t know him very well. I think that he would be honored if we pooled our efforts in his behalf

And what about the issue that brings us to a Covenant Network conference? Is there anything to be gained by working together to resolve it? Richard and I know from experience how difficult this is. We do agree about two preliminary but critical matters: we agree that the question of homosexuality is important—the church has to face it. We also agree that important as it is, it is not a faith-breaker. Each of us—correct me if I’m wrong, Richard—thinks that the other, seriously mistaken as the other is, is a Christian, and a Reformed one at that. But beyond that, we do not agree even about how to define the challenge God has placed before the church. You, Richard, think that God wants us to hold the line, to keep traditional—you would say, Biblical—rules of sexual conduct firmly in place. I think that God is doing something different: expanding the church’s understanding, not of sex in the first instance, but of a deep and pervasive Biblical theme, hesed, loyal love. I think that God is teaching this church, chiefly through the impressive testimony of GLBT Presbyterians, that to love another person with one’s whole being and to pledge one’s life for that person’s welfare is not a sin. Far from it: such acts of self-giving love are channels through which grace can and regularly does flow—no way they should disqualify people for church leadership. Over the last two decades, many Presbyterians, most of them theologically and temperamentally moderate and some of them conservative, have come to recognize that God’s blessing is available to all who commit themselves to love God more fully by loving another person truly. Richard, this is not capitulation to a libertine culture. This expanding understanding makes the church and us in it more, not less holy. This is, I am deeply convinced, the work of the Holy Spirit.

On this issue, Richard, we really are strangers, far apart and mystified about each other’s outlook and convictions. Shall we stick with each other as we, and the whole church, continue to struggle about these things? You have implied that we should. You’ve candidly admitted that conservatives often don’t speak fairly or respectfully of homosexuals, especially when they are not around. From that I conclude that you think you can make a more faithful case if you are engaged with them and their allies.

I think the reciprocal is true for us. We make a strong case: God invites GLBT persons into full membership, committed partnerships and church leadership on the same basis as everyone else. But we tend to leave it at that, to give the impression that inclusion is the end of the story. Of course it is not. God incorporates us into Christ’s body for a reason: transformation. Evangelical theology and culture place heavy emphasis on that next step. Our side doesn’t have to agree with conservatives about what God is seeking to change or redirect or squelch—namely, all same-sex impulses—or about who is first in line for change. (I suspect that God’s priority is the privileged and powerful, including in the present instance we self-indulgent heterosexuals who have full church and society support for the promises we make, yet still don’t keep very well.) But we can stand our ground on these points and still let the evangelicals help us balance our word to the church: inclusion and acceptance, but also metanoia and new life. Who knows? If evangelicals listen intently to the testimony of faithful GLBT persons, and if our side accepts evangelicals’ prompting to admit our need and desire to be renewed, maybe we can strive together for a church as just and generous—and holy—as God’s grace.

The last and most critical reason for all of us Presbyterian strangers to struggle through our disagreements is to show the world that there are alternatives to killing each other over differences. As long as we continue to club the other Presbyterians into submission with constitutional amendments, judicial cases and economic boycotts, we have no word for a world full of murderous divisions, most of them cloaked in religion.

In 1869, the two Presbyterian denominations formed in the bitter split forty years before came back together. Seeking, said their reunion plan, to create a church marked by “diversity and harmony, liberty and love,” both assemblies met in Pittsburgh, in separate halls from which their members marched to opposite sides of a broad avenue.(3) Their moderators and clerks then stepped into the street and met in the middle. They “clasped hands,” according to a contemporary account, “and amidst welcomes, thanksgivings, and tears, they locked arms and stood together in their reformed relations.” (4)

The last and most critical reason for all of us Presbyterian strangers to struggle through our disagreements is to show the world that there are alternatives to killing each other over differences. As long as we continue to club the other Presbyterians into submission with constitutional amendments, judicial cases and economic boycotts, we have no word for a world full of murderous divisions, most of them cloaked in religion.

In 1869, the two Presbyterian denominations formed in the bitter split forty years before came back together. Seeking, said their reunion plan, to create a church marked by “diversity and harmony, liberty and love,” both assemblies met in Pittsburgh, in separate halls from which their members marched to opposite sides of a broad avenue.(3) Their moderators and clerks then stepped into the street and met in the middle. They “clasped hands,” according to a contemporary account, “and amidst welcomes, thanksgivings, and tears, they locked arms and stood together in their reformed relations.” (4)

1) Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), xxxiii.

(2) The results of this study are reported in Jackson Carroll, Barbara G. Wheeler, Daniel O. Aleshire, Penny Long Marler, Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

(3) Minutes of the General Assembly, N.S. 1868, 508.

(4) Presbyterian Reunion: A Memorial Volume, 1837-1871 (New York, 1870), 275, 380; cited in Maurice W. Armstrong, Lefferts A. Loetscher, Charles A. Anderson, The Presbyterian Enterprise: Sources of American Presbyterian History (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956), 221.

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