Conversation with a Pastor

I thought it might be of interest to BTG readers to engage a recent email conversation I had with a pastor. This is a second letter from him that I then inserted my responses into. I’ve modified it a bit to conceal identifying details.

Dear Wendy, Thanks for responding to my letter. Maybe we can continue our conversation just a little longer. You say that you want to have a posture of learning—from answers to questions. I’m good with that—but then again—only up to a point. In the end pastors and counsellors still have to provide “guidance”. Guidance assumes some kind of norms , order. Again, salvation is the restoration of creation (order). This is not works righteousness. Nor is it some legacy of the “Enlightenment and modernity‘s reductionistic understanding of truth.” This is simple Biblical teaching. Sinners (people who consciously, deliberately disobey the Bible) must be called, led, invited to repentance—and certainly they need to know what repentance looks like.

WG: I agree with the need to call people to repentance – though I have to ask how consistently pastors actually do this. Are we calling those who are addicted to consumerism – in direct contradiction with Jesus’ call to sell what we have and give to the poor – to repentance? If so, how? Or in the sexual realm, do we call those addicted to internet pornography to repentance? If so, how are we doing this? Your word of “deliberately disobey the Bible” begs the question – “How do we read the Bible? Who’s interpretation are we deliberately disobeying?” For example, the pacifist might believe the just-war individual is deliberately disobeying the Bible. The one who believes and practises only adult baptism may believe that others are disobeying the Bible when they baptize infants. This isn’t trivial – for we both know Christians used to kill one another over these kinds of convictions.

While I understand that conservative Christians believe the Bible to be absolutely clear in it’s condemnation of homosexual behaviour – the reality is that there are many, many Christians who disagree – based on their prayerful study of Scripture. So in our insistence that the Bible is clear – do we then presume to judge that all the other Christians are deceived? Not really Christian? Just mistaken? If they are mistaken, deceived, or not really Christian – what does the call to repentance look like? Where does humility fit into the mix as we call fellow brothers and sisters with different convictions than we have to repentance?

For those who take Jesus’ call to sell their possessions and live in solidarity with the poor seriously, what would it look like for them to call all the other Christians who live comfortably in their privatized wealth to repentance?

It certainly does not look like chaos. In that sense I do not understand yet what you mean by “control to chaos.” What do you mean by that? How is that good?

WG: In our efforts to control one another’s thinking, belief, and practice we open the door to: pride, superiority, anxiety and fear ….. and we may well take things more into our own hands than entrusting them to the leading and work of the Holy Spirit. (Note: I would not equate “control” with calling people to repentance.) “Chaos” for me refers to the messiness we experience when people experience the kind of community where there can be honesty and authenticity. Where we all acknowledge our utter brokenness and ongoing failure to live in the fullness of identification with Christ. In this kind of vulnerability – it isn’t about controlling one another – but relationally entering the reality of the messiness of our lives, allowing the Spirit to work amongst us and in us, receiving gifts from one another – that are inevitably tinged by our brokenness and flesh.

But truly, how many of our churches actually live in that kind of reality – that kind of authenticity? Or are many of our congregations places of great control – where people present a calm, orderly, face at church – and we show one another how “together” we are ….. but people are silently screaming inside.

You wonder where practicing gays fit in the church. If my understanding is right, in my tradition everyone is free (invited) to attend public worship. Here they “encounter the word” and “experience” something of the Holy Spirit. I know no church (at least none in my tradition) that would bar gays (practicing or not) from at least attending public worship.

WG: This may be true in theory – but my question is would a gay couple actually FEEL welcome. If two women came in holding hands, sat closely together in church (as I’m sure the heterosexual couples in your church do) – would they feel a warm sense of hospitality – or would they feel the immediate discomfort of other church members? There may be reasons for discomfort …. Parents wonder how they will talk about this with their young children …. Other assumptions are made ….. Uncertainty rises ….”What do they want? Why are they here? Will they create an ‘issue’ of this here?” etc.

But the reality is that while we may not bar gay people from attending – we can quickly drive people away by our discomfort and anxiety. I KNOW this is the case in many churches in your tradition – because I’ve sat with gay people who have told me about their experiences.

Full membership, however, is for those who publically confess Christ and promise to live according to his Word. This practice has a long history in the church. Of course, no one is perfect but members agree that they should strive to direct their lives according to the Bible. Pastoral care for such members must be applied carefully, cautiously, lovingly and patiently. I know no pastor (at least in my tradition) who jumps at the gun to put any member (who lives in sin) immediately under the official steps of discipline. Such steps are applied only when we seem to get no where with pastoral care–and it’s apparent that the holiness of the church, the person’s salvation and God’s glory are all at stake.

I sense an aversion however on your part to ever resort to discipline. To you it smacks of control. Actually, I sense that you have an aversion to ever saying to someone, “That is completely wrong. You must not go there.”

WG: I think you’ve gone too far with your “sense” to the point of assumption here. Have you been in my office with me as I’ve looked married Christian women in the face who are entangled in emotionally dependent and sexually involved relationships with other women and told them that they are fundamentally addicted and blinded to the infidelity and idolatry of their involvement?

So here is my question then: For what sin would you ever place someone under the official steps of discipline? Is discipline ever an option for you? In your paradigm is it conceivable to put a practicing gay person under discipline? Is it ever an option? When is it an option? (I know you can’t do that; New Direction is not an ecclesiastical organisation. But in your theology –can/should the church ever do that?)

WG: You are correct that I am not an ordained pastor functioning within the structures of a church order the way you are as a pastor. So these remarks are made given the reality that I am not bound in the same way you are.

As I look at methods of church discipline I am struck by how inherently broken they are. They are not applied consistently. And they do not, I fear, actually produce the results they are supposed to. In our individualized, post-denominational context – expelling someone from an assembly means one of two things: they will either simply go to another church or they will stop going to church altogether – in which case they may continue in the faith in a privatized manner or simply walk away from faith. If I read Paul – particularly the discipline situation in Corinth – he seems to be deeply concerned for the restoration of the brother. I am not convinced that a church discipline system that expels people in our current context does anything to promote restoration. It may protect the purity of the church (although given our inconsistent application and the incredible amount of under the radar stuff going on – I highly doubt this) and I suppose one could argue that it brings glory to God ….. but I find the entire system to be far removed from the original intention of such discipline as Paul would have experienced it in his cultural context – where expulsion carried very different weight and meaning and had a very high probability of leading to restoration.

A story: a young man played guitar in the worship band of a church. It was discovered that he was gay and had been prostituting himself to other men to earn money. He was immediately removed from the band but told he could continue to come to worship in the church. The band had really been his only connection …. And with this decision he drifted away from church. Did this bring glory to God? Did it protect the purity of the church? Did it foster restoration to wholeness for this young man?

I have to submit to you that I believe that embrace rather than exclusion would have been a more Christ-centered form of church discipline in this case. What did it cost the church to remove him? Essentially nothing. What would it have cost the church to embrace him – provide mentors, employment, transition support etc. etc. ….. a great deal. I think “church discipline” in this case was simply the easy way out – and the result is a lost boy.

In our context – where privacy, individualism is the norm – church discipline may need to consider embrace rather than exclusion. This embrace can never be coercive –and the individual may walk away from such embrace – but if church discipline should be about the restoration of people – I think we need to look really hard at models like the Mennonite “circle of support”.

Would I ever apply discipline to a gay person? If they were a follower of Jesus and member of the church: Absolutely. Sexual addiction that the person is refusing to address – despite tangible connections to support and resources being made available. Sexual infidelity which they keep justifying and where there is no repentance. Reckless sexual behaviour that endangers themselves and others. Promiscuity on the part of a single person. But again, my idea of church discipline is engagement and accountability not simple exclusion. (It should be noted: the scenarios I describe above would apply exactly the same in situations where the church member was straight.)

In terms of other sin ….. I often say that it isn’t that the church should care less about sin – it is that we should care more. I am very sympathetic to Wesley’s model of communal, mutual discipleship and accountability. I think we should be much more transparent with one another – more confessional with one another – inviting others to hold us accountable – for a whole host of areas in which we struggle, sin and fail.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want this to be a big discussion about discipline. And I don’t want you to think that I’m some big disciplinarian. I’m not. (: In my almost 20 years of ministry I have very (very!) seldom resorted to official steps of discipline. I agree with you that the conversation should be about “the nurture of real people’s journeys with Jesus Christ.” My point is that we can only do this when pastors and counsellors know what they are doing, when they know where the boundaries lie, when they know what is acceptable—and what is not. Down the pastoral road the church needs to faithfully, carefully, patiently, lovingly lay out wh