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 what is clear for struggling Christians. And somewhere down the road the church must make clear what the consequences are of unrepentant sin. Even parents do this for their children; shouldn’t the church do the same? Chaos is not the message we bring. We preach shalom. True shalom is when we believe in Christ and live according to his will.

WG: Agreed. The reality is, however, that Christians do come to different conclusions about his will. For example, some who are divorced feel very strongly that they should not remarry in obedience to their understanding of Scripture. Others after a divorce feel a freedom to pursue getting remarried. We live with this kind of diversity every day in most of our churches.

Some people may well be twisting Scripture so that it will justify what they want to do. And if this is the case, correction and teaching and guidance ought to be offered. But how do we really know this is the case? We only really know it as we journey together, search the Scriptures together, pray together, listen to the Spirit together. After this kind of process, there may still be difference in perspective – and there may need to be a parting of the ways because the paradigms of belief are incompatible – but it won’t be simply writing the other off as “not really caring about Scripture or God’s will” because they will have discovered genuine faith, genuine care for Scripture, genuine commitment to submitting to the Lordship of Christ. I guess my question to you Pastor – is if you have had that kind of experience with a gay Christian – or are you speaking out of theoretical certainty?

There are people who believe I sin when I step into the pulpit to preach. Of those, some think I have just disregarded Scripture and when I preach I’m just doing it because I want to – and fundamentally I don’t care about obeying and submitting to God’s will. Others acknowledge that I deeply care about Scripture, seek to live my life in submission to the Lordship of Christ, and step into the pulpit with reverence and fear – compelled to obey what I believe God has called me to do. They still disagree with my preaching – but they don’t assume I’m doing it for frivolous, selfish reasons. Some of those will choose to be present when I preach – others don’t. This is hurtful for me at some level – but I respect their convictions and in the Spirit of Christ I want to honour them and give space for them to live consistently with their convictions. I would never try to force them to change their convictions so that I would feel better.

I have met gay Christians who are partnered who are deeply convicted that this is God’s expression of grace to them in a broken world. I may not fully share their conviction – and at times may have very robust conversations with them about this matter. They may well wish that I would fully land where they are – and I might pray they would land where I am – but we see Christ in one another – and live with the messiness of both unity in Christ – and significant disagreement. I could hammer them with calls to repentance …. But as I listen to the Holy Spirit and prayerfully seek guidance in how to relate to these friends, that is not what I sense God asking of me. They know what I believe – I don’t need to keep pounding them over the head with it.

If my friends who have sold everything to live with the poor – just kept pounding me over the head with a call to repent of owning private property ….. I would experience little of the richness of their relationship with Christ in our friendship …. And likely we wouldn’t be friends very long. Rather, in the course of our friendship, I see Christ in them, I see him care for their needs, I see their intimacy with Christ, their freedom, their joy ….. and over the course of our friendship I am drawn to be less tied to my possessions, to grow in generosity, to live more simply, to respond because I have seen God’s great grace in them. That I think is the fruitful model of relational engagement – that ultimately leads to more conviction and growth in another.

Struggling Christians deserve this message. I believe struggling Christians desire this message. If faith and obedience is not what New Directions is about—then what really is the point and purpose of your ministry?

WG: Is faith and obedience reduced to one aspect of a person’s life? Or is discipleship and sanctification a life journey which encompasses our whole life? Is faith and obedience our work – or is it a gift from God to us? We meet people at every possible point in the journey – many who are post-Christian or completely non-Christian ….. calling them to faith and obedience in regard to their sexual behaviour without regard for their whole life and journey would be completely inconsistent with God’s concern for them as a human being called to be in reconciled relationship with him.

There are people who connect with New Direction who are struggling to know how to live out their faith and their sexuality with whom we have very deep and robust conversations about faith and obedience – because that is the appropriate conversation to have with them at that point in their journey.

If the suggestion would be made that the point and purpose of New Direction should be to make sure that gay people who love Jesus never have gay sex ….. I would respond by saying, “What a sad, limited, shalom-less kind of mission that would be.” Our point and purpose is that every person outside the heterosexual mainstream, through friendship (ie. an experience of true community) with other Christ-followers, would have the opportunity to find themselves more deeply immersed in the life of Jesus and would be encouraged and challenged to continue to move forward in that journey towards maturity in faith. Such maturity in faith obviously encompasses obedience and submission to the Lordship of Christ – but this is so much more wholistic and all encompassing than simply the area of their sexuality.

In response to my responses, this pastor wrote saying,

“Dear Wendy, Thanks for your lengthy response to my latest email. I appreciate you taking the time and energy to respond to my thoughts, questions and challenges. I could respond to your latest email but it’s probably time to bring our conversation to a closure. Maybe I will end with these final comments. You bring up many points that I do agree with. My biggest difficulty remains though that your approach is slowly sliding into side A. I don’t see what will prevent you from going there. I agree that life is messy–that pastoral care is messy (I’ve been at it for a long time now), but to make things less messy I think it’s good and wise to stick with those Biblical norms that have been very clear for the entirety of O.T and N.T history. Homosexual practice is unbiblical. My thinking remains that we should stay well within the boundaries (and pastoral care perspectives) of side B. That would be my advice to you….for what-ever it’s worth. (: Thanks again for our conversation. Blessings!”

(Note: for those unfamiliar with the terms: Side A would affirm covenantal same-sex partnerships. Side B would affirm celibacy or faithfulness in mixed-orientation marriage for same-gender attracted people.)

How might you have responded? Have at it in the comment section. -WG

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