Some time ago, I spoke at a church about the concept of generous spaciousness. It was a relatively small church plant made up of people from many different walks of life. It was a group of people who were really trying to experience a sense of true community together. They talked about hard things together ~ things like money and sex and power. They wanted to live the way of Jesus together, not just do a Sunday morning church service.
As with any talk I give about generous spaciousness, I am not there to promote a particular theological position. Rather, the point is to acknowledge that within the Christian community people who love Jesus and who wrestle with the Scriptures do come to different perspectives on whether or not it is appropriate for a gay person who desires to follow Jesus to be in a committed same-sex relationship. My focus is to talk about the incarnational postures of humility, hospitality and grace that enable us to nurture generous spaciousness in the midst of our differences. Generous spaciousness isn’t saying those differences don’t matter or are inconsequential. Generous spaciousness doesn’t mean there aren’t robust conversations about Scripture, hermeneutics, exegesis, tradition, reason and experience. But generous spaciousness recognizes that at the end of the day, each person within a community needs to own their own beliefs and values. They ought not be coerced. They ought not be simply expected to conform. That happens in a lot of churches I suppose ~ but the result is a much more anemic faith than the faith of one who wrestles to really own spiritually, intellectually and emotionally what they believe to be the best interpretation of God’s self-revelation of his will and purposes for his creation. Generous spaciousness recognizes that the individual is continually called into the context of community to wrestle and discern and pray and listen and wait with others in a shared quest to know God.
But more and more, our communities gather people from either differing or no church background. That means that people come with different interpretive starting points. Some position themselves as close to a “plain reading of the text” as possible. Others weigh more heavily historical and cultural factors. This difference alone can result in two very different perspectives on the question of faithful discipleship for gay people. Some have been educated in critical and higher level thinking, post-modern philosophy, and have a capacity and comfort level with deconstructing assumptions, considering opposite perspectives, and entertaining uncertainty. Some view any level of questioning or uncertainty as a sign of weakness of faith and obedience. These differences aren’t judgments on anyone’s character, competence or capacity, they are simply descriptions (simplified ones at that) of the complex ways we differ in how we process controversial matters and our faith.
If we cannot find a way, or at least a posture, from which we can emulate the way of Christ in our interactions with one another around the matters on which we differ, we will fail to represent the reality that we are called to unity in our diversity. We will fail to reflect the image of the Body of Christ, with all of its different parts. And we will fail to embody good news to a world that is perplexed by the enmity and infighting within the church.
These are my biases and my assumptions ~ and I recognize that others have different biases and different assumptions. For some people, the priority is not to learn to love and honour those with whom they disagree. Rather, the priority is to assert your interpretation of the truth and call anyone who deviates from it to repentance. The priority is the reconstitution of the new Israel, a holy people, a people determined to confront and root out sin. The priority is to defend an understanding of the authority of Scripture that claims to accept no deviation from the plain (or their preferred) reading of the text.
In my doctoral program I recently had an instructor make the observation that my pastoral concerns over-ride my participation in the Scriptural debates. I would agree. After ten years of much research and study, my finding is that there is both strong and weak exegetical and hermeneutical argumentation on both sides of the Scriptural debates. Rather than spending copious energy on theoretical sparring about doctrinal matters, I want to be present in the lives of real people, urging them to draw near to Christ. Because I know that, in the midst of all the complex imperfections of our ability to interpret rightly, when I entrust people to the living power of the Holy Spirit they will be best positioned to live in a manner that rightly embodies the truth that Jesus reveals to us.
So after I had been with this little church plant, I heard that there were some people who laid down an ultimatum to their pastors. They said that unless the leadership of the church clearly defined a stance against gay marriage, they would leave the church. The leaders were a little surprised. They had been building this community around dialogue, generosity, mutual submission, a willingness to tackle difficult and controversial matters, and a commitment to stick together through the inevitable up’s and down’s of doing life together. It isn’t surprising that the topic of homosexuality brought out intense responses (others in the community had a strong affinity for nurturing generous spaciousness and a deep desire that this church plant would embrace the tension of honouring people with different perspectives). What was surprising was the black and white ultimatum. The demand for their interpretation of orthodoxy. One of the pastors told me that they were not prepared to respond to the ultimatum ~ that in their own searching and wrestling, they were still in tension themselves. But one of the other pastors did feel confident about clearly stating a theological affirmation that precluded committed same-sex relationships as consistent with faithful discipleship. So, an exodus of folks was prevented.
But in the months since this all occurred, this particular situation has returned to my mind and heart many times. Generous spaciousness, in its desire to bring unity in diversity, sometimes ironically brings division. There is an assumption in generous spaciousness ~ and it is that living in tension, humbly acknowledging our diversity, is better than demanding, coercing, or leveraging ultimatums. There is an assumption in generous spaciousness ~ and it is that the wisdom of God is revealed through the power of powerlessness seen in the Incarnation. Demanding that our interpretation of Scripture is the only true and right one seems inconsistent with the wisdom of Incarnation. Incarnation doesn’t demand its own way, it strips privilege, status, and power to identify with. And in the very act of identifying with, there is an imputation of the goodness of God. The unclean is made clean. The unrighteous made righteous. The sinner made whole. This is the mystery of the atonement. Nothing we can do can make us right with God. Nothing we can do can make us clean, holy, acceptable, reconciled. It is entirely within the Incarnate One and his willingness to overcome the power of evil by choosing the mystery of powerlessness, the deeper “magic” (for you Narnia fans).
So when we recognize within ourselves that drive to persuade, promote or demand the exact, perfect interpretation (in our minds), perhaps that could sound an alarm bell to us. There is this tendency on all sides of these debates. But perhaps we could stop and pause and ask ourselves if the energy pushing us to the point of demanding uniformity of our brothers and sisters is actually the power of the Incarnate Christ or something else within our own fallible frame that is needing the security and safety of absolute conformity.
Perhaps, we could extend grace to the one who differs from us in the absolute confidence that God can be trusted to lead, guide and reveal Himself to us in his perfect way and perfect time.