Amazing. . . that I could agree wholeheartedly on strategy with someone whose beliefs I find unacceptable. But then, this is an amazing, reorienting time for Christians.
Barbara Wheeler, a respected seminary educator who has worked diligently with others to find a solution to the paralyzing conflict in the Presbyterian Church (USA), recently offered her analysis of the state of the denomination. She sees two prevailing attitudes in the church, both of which are unrealistic and miss opportunities to apply the gospel. The first attitude is among those, on both extremes of the debate on sexuality, who are determined to win at all costs. The second attitude is held by those who want to avoid the topic of sexuality and just get along.
Wheeler rightly maintains that sexuality is too fundamental to life to push to the side. We have to keep talking about these issues because the well-being of marriages and families is at stake. And going our separate ways, or bullying people until they leave, neglects the hard and necessary work of persuasion.
So, where does that leave us? Wheeler and I take opposite views on same-sex behavior, but I affirm her proposal for how to work through our profound disagreement. She writes,
“If we want to see further change, we will continue to build cultures in the church that nurture changing hearts and minds. That calls for something much more difficult than fighting to the finish: it requires restraint. Ministry, one of my best students once told me after he had done it for a decade, means staying with people while their hearts change. It takes patience, sometimes holding back from the next forceful action while waiting for others to join in and catch up.”
I have to smile as I read her proposal, because she glibly assumes that if her fellow liberals exercise restraint, people like me will eventually “join in and catch up.” That last phrase is condescending to the max, but I choose to overlook it because, from my opposite side of the church, many of my friends, equally condescending, would like liberals to join in and repent. So, let’s admit that on both sides our impatience tempts us to inflammatory language.
But I don’t want to lose sight of the main thing Wheeler presses for: continued, respectful engagement. Since I really believe in her approach, I’ll let her have the last word.
“Our mandate is to teach the truth and to embrace our opponents, without giving up on either one. Not only do we not have to choose between these goals, but we can’t accomplish one without the other. The whole point of a church is to embrace others in their difference and finitude, as God has embraced us in ours, and to struggle together with them for the gospel, correcting each other in love. Only by sticking to our convictions and sticking with each other, inadequate as we all may be, can we hope to become anything like the body of Christ, given in truth and love for the life of the world.”