You Can Go Your Own Way (or, Why I’m Not Afraid of Schism)

It’s been a rough half-century for folks in the mainline Protestant denominations.  The numbers are undeniable.  We are smaller than we were in the 1950s and 60s.  Everybody seems to have a pet theory about why this is happening.

Extremists on one side are convinced that this decline in numbers is caused by fanatical adherence to superstitious dogmas that have been rendered irrelevant by philosophical, scientific, and technological advancement.  Extremists on the other side are convinced that the wrath of God is smiting our denominations with death because they have bowed down to the heresies of the modern world.  I want to say the same thing to extremists on both sides:

“Shut up and sit down.  This kind of talk isn’t helpful.”

While these voices tend to be the loudest, I find more often that they are in the minority.  Most folks in our churches identify themselves as moderates who tend to lean to one side of the spectrum or the other.

In spite of rampant conspiracy theories to the contrary, I find that most moderates on both sides are compassionate and intelligent believers who are essentially saying the same thing:

“I want to stay faithful to the core values of my faith, but I’m afraid that my denomination is becoming a place where I won’t be able to do that.”

We’ve all been through this before.  American mainline Protestant churches have split over the abolition of slavery, biblical literalism, the ordination of women, and (most recently) same-sex marriage.

My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which I will abbreviate as PC(USA), is currently wrestling with the recent creation of a group that calls itself the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).  ECO is a group that has come together out of its founders’ desire to have a denominational community with shared theological values and a commitment to evangelical mission in the world outside the walls of the church.  They believe the PC(USA) has drifted from its core theological roots and become too inwardly and institutionally focused.  They see the PC(USA)’s recent decision to allow for the ordination of non-celibate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people and this summer’s upcoming vote on same-sex marriage as symptoms of the larger and deeper theological problem.

Just to be clear about where I stand, let me lay all of my cards out on the table.  Those who know me or follow this blog will already know this, but I’ll say it again for the sake of any newcomers and first-time readers.  I identify as a theologically liberal Presbyterian.  I am a vocal advocate for LGBT equality in church and society.  I am not a part of ECO.  In fact, I probably represent much of what they think is wrong with the PC(USA).

The PC(USA) itself does a fairly good job at holding the middle ground in this debate.  They follow the example of Karl Barth and other Neo-orthodox theologians of the 20th century.  How do I know the denomination does this?  Because it frustrates folks on both sides.  Liberals think it’s too conservative and conservatives think it’s too liberal.

Liberals and conservatives have their own unique ways of vying for greater power in the decision-making process.  Liberals tend to invest in taking hold of regional and national positions of authority in the councils (formerly known as governing bodies) of the denomination.  They, in the tradition and spirit of historic liberalism, tend to put their trust (too much trust, I would say) in the amendment of large-scale human institutions.  The heroes of this bunch tend to be Moderators of our General Assembly and professors at our denominational seminaries.  In science-fiction terms, they see themselves as the United Federation of Planets (Star Trek).

Conservatives, on the other hand, love to cast themselves in the role of the oppressed underdog.  They see themselves as heirs of the American Revolution and the Protestant Reformation.  Their heroes tend to be the pastors of large and wealthy congregations.  They tend to idolize their pastors and demonize the denomination.  As one elder screamed (yes, screamed) during a recent meeting in our area, “The PC(USA) just wants more of our money so they can keep spreading their lies!”  In science-fiction terms, they see themselves as the Rebel Alliance, fighting the Sith-dominated Galactic Empire (Star Wars).

In reality, both sides are delusional.  The PC(USA) is not the United Federation of Planets and ECO is not the Rebel Alliance.  It’s pretty obvious to me that we’re essentially dealing with two different religious traditions under the roof of one denomination.  This leaves us with two options.  We can either: (A) Organize our denominational life together in such a way that leaves room for both parties to coexist, or (B) Peacefully part ways in a spirit that is consistent with our highest shared values.

As a liberal, I will primarily direct my critical comments toward the members of my own party.  But before I do that, I want to invite any conservatives and evangelicals to listen in and witness one liberal who is not a demon-possessed heretic that wants to invade your church, seize your building, fire your pastor, and force you into compliance with my wicked homosexual agenda.  Are you ready?  Let’s go.

I am a liberal who supports the creation of ECO.  My reasons for doing so are primarily biblical in nature.  I was reading Genesis 13 the other day, where the nomadic caravans of Abram and Lot are traveling together through the Promised Land, but have achieved critical mass in regard to the land’s ability to support both groups.  Conflict began to brew.  Abram then takes the moral high ground,

Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.

Abram even lets Lot have his first choice of the land.  There is a recognition that division is necessary, but a complete rejection of backbiting and contentiousness.  Here is an example of a person of faith who can declare “Separate yourself from me” and “we are kindred” in the same paragraph.

In the same way, our denominational landscape is being strained in the attempt to support both liberals and evangelicals.  It is clear that there are many among us who no longer wish for our caravans to sojourn together.  As heirs of Abram’s covenant, why can’t we do with each other what Abram did with Lot?  Who among us will take the moral (i.e. relational) high ground?

In this moment, I would call upon my fellow liberals to step up to the plate.  You have invested much energy in securing positions of power for yourself at the presbytery and General Assembly levels.  Use the power afforded you by those positions to walk like Jesus, who said,

You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.

I would venture to say that we should support the creation of ECO, let these congregations and presbyteries go their own way, and find a way to send them off with a parting blessing: their buildings, investments, and pensions.  Let’s leave a legacy that will provide an open door for reconciliation in some future generation.

Institutional division is not necessarily a church schism.  We can part ways and remain true to each other on multiple levels.  After Abram and Lot part ways, the relationship between them continues to grow faithfully.  Abram fights for Lot, rescues him from danger, and prays earnestly for his well-being.  Let’s learn how to do the same for each other.  Enough of all this backbiting crap.

Listen, we don’t really need their numbers and their money.  Their presence will not hold back the tide of mainline decline.  We are still shrinking, no matter what.  This is a subject for another blog post, but I see mainline decline as a good thing.

My point is that we might best guard the “peace, unity, and purity of the church” by allowing people to go their own way, even if we happen to disagree with where they are going.  We made a vow to guard the “peace, unity, and purity” of the church, not necessarily the denomination.  We should be careful to distinguish between the two.

Liberal Presbyterians: be ye not afraid of ECO.  Support its creation.  Send them off with a blessing.  Like Abram and Lot, let there be no strife between them and us; for we are kindred.

One Example of a Common Sense Liberal

Today’s post and yesterday’s (Why Liberal?  Confessions of a Recovering Evangelical) started as one, but my introduction mutated into a post in its own right.  Funny how that tends to happen when you’ve got ADD.

As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a monopoly on common sense and family values.  Liberals in both the political and religious realms have a justly earned reputation for being elitist and overly academic.  however, I think it’s time we got to work on correcting that, especially if we hope to engage with the hearts and minds of people off-campus.  I don’t mean that we dumb it down or reject the contributions of scholarship; I mean that we communicate what we believe in ways that are more simple and direct.

One person who is already doing an amazing job at this is an older guy in Georgia who owns a peanut farm, volunteers with Habitat For Humanity, and teaches Sunday School at his Baptist Church.  By the way, he is also a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and served a term as President of the United States.

It’s Jimmy Carter.

Say what you will about his presidency and policies (I have beef with both), but Jimmy, more than any other living president, embodies a sense of personal wisdom and human decency that is rarely found among national politicians.  Perhaps that contributed to the fact that he did not serve a second term.  My wife says that Jimmy Carter is living proof that personal integrity doesn’t always make for the best presidents.

This former-president’s most recent project is the production of a study Bible with his own notes and reflections on the text.  This may be a bit ambitious on my part, but I would hope that a project of this magnitude might find its place in history alongside the famous Jefferson Bible.

You can see and/or order Carter’s Lessons from Life Bible at Amazon.com by clicking here.

In order to promote this new publication, Carter gave an interview to folks at the Huffington Post.  I provide a link and invite you to read the interview as an example of one Common Sense Liberal Christian speaking his mind about the faith of his heart.  On a human level, here is an example of how one can be an open-minded, open-hearted, and faithful Christian.

Enjoy!

President Jimmy Carter Authors New Bible Book, Answers Hard Biblical Questions

Why Liberal? The Confession of a Recovering Evangelical

Several months ago, I put up a post on Common Sense Liberalism, where I intentionally began an effort to reclaim the term ‘liberal’ from its pejorative captors in the political and religious realms.  It’s all part of my personal effort to explore what it means to be a ‘liberal’ Christian in ways that transcend the polarizing animosity that is currently ripping our churches and state capitols apart.

If that’s the case, one might argue, then why not abandon the dualistic liberal/conservative language altogether?  There may well be a valid point in that.  However, I’ve chosen to self-apply this particular moniker, instead of the more current buzzword ‘progressive Christian,’ for three reasons.  First of all, it is used an insult.  Commonly accepted group labels like Quaker, Methodist, Unitarian, and Christian had similar origins as insults.  Personally, I don’t mind plucking this term from the landfill of language and bringing it back to life.  I’m a liberal Christian.  Double insult.  “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  (Jesus, John 15:18)

Second, I don’t think working toward peace, unity, and purity in church and society necessitates the elimination of all distinctions.  I think it involves holding those distinctions differently.  I don’t want to be a watered-down, lukewarm, non-committal, middle-of-the-roader.  I want to be a liberal Christian who understands what respect, decency, and amicable compromise mean in the midst of controversy.

Finally, I’ve chosen to retain the word liberal for personal reasons related to my own journey.  I wrote a Facebook post recently where I compared my relationship to evangelicalism to the relationship between a recovering alcoholic and social drinking.  Some people can be evangelical Christians and live sane, healthy, and balanced lives.  But, for whatever reasons, I cannot.  I’ve spent many years blaming evangelicalism itself for the spiritual wounds I obtained in my late teens and early twenties.  But I think it’s time that I also take responsibility for the ways in which I intentionally chose to sustain an unhealthy relationship with my theology.  I tend to give myself wholly to the things I care about, sometimes pushing past the point of reason.  In a subculture that supported biblical literalism, I pushed it to the extreme.  My friends and pastors supported me in this because they thought I was just “on fire for Jesus.”  They probably had no clue that I was actually nursing a pathological obsession that eventually bordered on the psychotic.  I still think there are many aspects of evangelical culture and theology that are worth criticizing.  However, it’s time that I stop casting them as villains and myself as victim in this story.  It’s time that I own my part in it.  I’m a recovering evangelical, not because evangelicalism is evil, but because I can’t handle it responsibly.

A Frame of Reference

Here’s an inspiring passage I found in on pages 19-20 in Douglas F. Ottati’s book, Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species (Geneva: 2006).

Will the mainline churches in America hold together or split apart?  Will liberal Protestants criticize the excesses and the idols of contemporary American culture but also remain open to the lessons and wisdom that nevertheless seem present in the wider society and culture?  Will liberal Protestants simply disappear?  Will the United States find positive, realistic, and responsible ways to exercise power in a multilateral world?  What shall we say and do about racism, sexism, and homophobia; about urban policy, transportation, and education; about matters of war and peace?  Can we ever become stewards of our natural environment?

These are among the important questions we face.  Nevertheless, for Christians and their communities, the more basic question is this: How shall we center a faithful witness?  The function of Christian theology is to help us answer this question, and I propose that we answer it in a single sentence: We belong to the God of grace.

Once we are clear about this, a number of things follow.  First, we live in assurance, refuse to set limits on the extent of God’s faithfulness, and refuse to exclude anyone from the scope of grace and redemption.  We then work for an inclusive church, support a ministry of reconciliation, and invite everyone everywhere to lay hold of the assurance and confidence that come with the knowledge of a gracious God.  Second, we acknowledge the human fault and, without losing hope, maintain a realistic attitude toward the present age and its daunting challenges.  Finally, we affirm that all people have worth, and we commit ourselves to public practices, policies, and leadership that respect persons, pursue equitable opportunities for the poor, and care for those in need.

We belong to the God of grace.  This simple confession will enable us to interpret the many threats and conflicts and issues and promises of our day in a definite theological frame of reference.

Common Sense Liberalism

I had a fascinating exchange with an old college pal this week.  I mentioned in an email that I self-identify as a Liberal Christian.

My friend responded, “So, what is a ‘Liberal Christian’? When I hear that, it makes me think it’s a code word for ‘Christians who think they’ve figured out how to be pro-choice Democrats, and still be in-line with the Bible’… Seems like they all listened to U2 also…”

While I’m not a registered member of any political party and my views on abortion do not conform to either pro-life or pro-choice platforms, I had to laugh at myself over the U2 comment.  They just so happen to be my favorite band… I guess some stereotypes are true!

After that, I proceeded to this gentle-but-long-winded long-breezed history lecture on 20th century Christians and biblical interpretation.  Unwittingly, I fell right into the two habits that most annoy me about Liberal Christianity: Negativity and Elitism.

Negativity

Have you ever noticed that we Liberal Christians spend a lot of time talking about what we don’t believe?  We don’t accept Young Earth Creationism.  We don’t think the Bible is inerrant.  We don’t believe eternal life depends on accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.  We read books with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (both of which happen to be good books, by the way).

Elitism

Along with our tendency to accentuate the negative, it’s also pretty obvious that our churches tend to be populated with college-educated, upper middle-class white folks.  We Liberal Christians pride ourselves on being better educated, informed, and enlightened than our Evangelical counterparts.  Just as some Evangelicals tend to hide behind walls of biblical literalism, Liberals tend to hide behind walls of intellectual superiority.  Even though none of us would put it this way, we consider ourselves to be the “one true church” because we have risen above the naïve superstitions of Catholics and Evangelicals.  Despite our claims to open-minded pluralism and tough-minded skepticism, we still claim to be the sole possessors of the “real truth” about Christianity.  Despite our lip-service to diversity, our churches tend to be pretty monochromatic.  Despite our passion for social justice, I once heard someone say about us, “They’ll bake a casserole for every cause but they won’t go to jail for any cause.”  Is this really the legacy left by the Underground Railroad, the Suffragettes, and Martin Luther King?

In response to these tendencies toward Negativity and Elitism, I’d like to see us develop an Affirmative and Common Sense Liberalism.

 Affirmative Liberalism

What do we believe as Liberal Christians?

First of all, we believe in freedom.  That’s what the word liberal means, after all.  We are free to make full use of our minds and hearts as we grow in our faith.  We are free to disagree.  There should be no litmus test of doctrine among us.  Sadly, this is not always the case in practice.  There are just as many mean-spirited Liberals as there are Bible-thumping Fundamentalists.  I once witnessed an Evangelical ministry candidate in my own denomination being publicly mocked in front of her colleagues by a Liberal pastor who asked whether she thought the Second Coming might involve Jesus returning to Earth “in a rocket ship.”  If I am free to question traditional doctrine, others should be free to accept it.  We should rejoice with those whose lives are changed, for example, by a charismatic “born again” experience.  We have every reason to believe that they have truly encountered the Spirit of the Living God.  The difference is that we also believe the same for Gandhi, Buddha, and anyone who has ever scored free swag from the Oprah Winfrey Show.  The mark of a truly Christian Liberalism is when we leave room for those who would not leave room for us.  Personally, I’m still working on that.

Second, Liberal Christians believe in graceWe are all created, connected, redeemed, and sustained by the absolutely unconditional love of God.  No one is exempt from this Good News, regardless of time, place, religion, or sexual orientation.  We are all equally God’s children.  Full stop.  There is no moral standard upon which God’s ultimate approval is based.  This does not mean, however, that there are no moral standards.  We believe in the fair and equal establishment of liberty and justice for all.  It is sometimes necessary to act decisively in correcting behaviors, protecting the innocent, or redressing grievances, but this does not involve a final condemnation or an ultimate devaluing of the whole person.  Human parents must enact discipline in order to shape a child’s character, but eternal punishment is inconsistent with God’s purposes as a loving parent.  What could make you subject your child to eternal torture without relief?  No one is irredeemable.  In short, everybody gets into heaven (if there is such a place).  Alas, Liberal Christians have often failed on this front as well.  One friend of a friend commented that, after leaving her rather Conservative Mennonite church for the United Church of Canada (a prominent Liberal denomination in the Great White North), she was disappointed to find just as much hard-nosed legalism among Liberal Christians.  The difference, she noted, was that Liberal Christians made her feel guilty about recycling rather than masturbation.  Whenever we are overwhelmed by either unfounded humanistic optimism or righteous indignation, we Liberal Christians should remember to keep this song in our hearts: “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”

Common Sense Liberalism

Watching certain candidates on the presidential campaign trail has reminded me how many people respond to folksy wisdom more than actual data.  Conservatives seem to have cornered the market on common sense while Liberals cite academic facts and theories.  I refuse to accept the necessity of this arrangement.  We too can make pithy bumper stickers.  We too can appeal to those beliefs and values that lie deep within the human heart and lead us toward a better world.  We too can quote the Bible to support what we have to say.  I’ll even do it in the good old King James Version:

  • “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” – 1 John 4:16
  • “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” – Matthew 25:40
  • “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” – Matthew 7:1
  • “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” – Matthew 7:12
  • “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” – Leviticus 19:18

Liberal Christians believe that God loves everyone.  We believe that all people are created equal in one human family.  We believe in fairness.  We believe in freedom.  We believe that God is a mystery so big that no one can fully understand.  We believe in grace.  We believe in justice.  We believe that diversity makes us stronger.

The term Liberal has become a dirty word in recent years.  It is used in the halls of Congress and churches to accuse, demean, and degrade.  I want to reclaim the term Liberal, especially as it applies to Christian faith.  There are no doubt others who will question my intellectual and moral integrity.  That’s fine.  They can do that.  I’ll try not to argue back.  This is just me trying to figure out what I believe and where I fit in the grand scheme of things.  I am a Liberal Christian.

“Here I stand.  I can do no other.” – Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms