On “Church Clarity” and the Cost of Staying Put

A few weeks ago a website called Church Clarity launched. Their stated goal is to encourage churches, primarily evangelical ones, it seems, to be upfront about their policies regarding LGBTQ members. If, for instance, some churches will hospitably “welcome” LGBTQ members but not allow them to serve in leadership roles or receive Communion, Church Clarity wants those churches to own up to that policy on their websites so that potential members can see ahead of time what they’re getting into. As their own website indicates, they’re developing a database that offers “scores”:

The Church Clarity database scores churches on how clearly their websites communicate their policies. Currently, we are evaluating clarity of policies regarding LGBTQ people. To begin, we’ve published a selection of evangelical churches in America. The goal is to compile a comprehensive database of as many churches, especially evangelical ones, as possible.

When I first got news of the CC site, I felt immediately uncomfortable with it, but I wasn’t quite sure why. After all, I’m gay, and I know firsthand the relief that clarity from church leaders has brought to me. When I first came out to an elder at my church, to hear him say with zero equivocation “Your experience of same-sex desire does not disqualify you from living a Christian life” took a dismaying weight of uncertainty off my shoulders. And when, subsequently, I heard my pastors give a lucid statement on what kind of sexual behavior Christianity was asking of me — sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, and all of us, regardless of marital status, are called to chastity — I was spared the task of trying to decipher hazy theological obfuscations. (As Eve Tushnet has nicely put it, “I’m not sure it’s wise to [speak] as if all the church is asking is for gay people simply to be nicer.”)

On the flip side, I know, as well, how demoralizing a cagey, hem-hawing refusal to offer clarity can be. I remember once talking with a Christian leader — a seminary professor, as it happens — who told me that, given the sheer volatility of the debates swirling around Matters Gay, he hoped never to say a word about the issue whether in public or private. Lucky you, I found myself thinking. Some of us don’t have the luxury of sitting this debate out. We actually have to figure out how we’re going to live with desire that isn’t heterosexual. Living with a lack of clarity is a luxury some of us can’t afford.

But, after a lot of reflection, I still remain discomfited by Church Clarity, and the reason, I think, is to do with my larger worries about the state of our divided churches, perhaps especially in contemporary America.

Everywhere I turn, whether to the so-called progressive Left or conservative Right, I feel as though I’m watching my ecclesial nightmare scenario play itself out. Given current trends, I see a future where we Christians allow the terms of the culture war to decide with whom we get to maintain fellowship and with whom we must cut ties, with the result that we’ll all go about choosing a church based on political affinities so that we can avoid sharing pews with those whose views we find repugnant. On my especially pessimistic days, I think that we’ll all end up in churches of one, like the early Baptist Roger Williams, unable to agree with anyone but our own selves.

On the conservative Right, there are certain voices that seem to suggest that to go on worshiping with those who adopt what they (and I) believe to be a wrong view of sexual ethics is tantamount to apostasy. And certain voices on the Left are happy to return the favor, arguing that to go on worshiping with those whom they believe to have a wrong view of sexual ethics is tantamount to fomenting hatred of LGBTQ people and a denial of LGBTQ personhood itself. Cynically, I imagine a world in which each group logs on to a website like Church Clarity to find churches whose convictions align with the ones they already hold so that they can avoid their respective heresies (and heretics).

I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness and urgency of the issues involved here. As someone who holds a “traditional” view of what Scripture teaches about sexuality and marriage, I worry all the time about the inroads “affirming” theology has made in the church. I view that theology as a grave departure from biblical truth, and I think it ultimately harmful to spiritual health, both individual and corporate. If being a Christian involves bearing witness to the truth, then, as Robert Jenson asks, how can those of us “who defend the necessity of what used to be called marriage join in moral witness to the world with those who do not?” How I can maintain fellowship with churches and individual believers who promulgate erroneous views of sexuality is a question that regularly keeps me up at night.

And I know the same is true from my “progressive” friends: How can LGBTQ believers be expected to attend churches that refuse to honor their marriages as “true” ones, that treat what they believe is part of their Christian calling as sin, that may even deny them Communion as a result of their marital status? Or if they are allowed to receive the Eucharist — reluctantly, as it were — how can they be content with such tolerance, pretending that the full-throated affirmation it leaves out doesn’t sting? As Willie James Jennings has recently said, “[G]ay marriage must be celebrated just as strongly, as loudly, and as intensely as any marriage of disciples, because what begins in civil toleration when touched by the Spirit of the living God becomes joyous and extravagant celebration” (italics added). For someone of that conviction, it’s hard to see what it might look like to maintain unimpaired ecclesial communion with those who stubbornly refuse to celebrate.

Feeling the weight of these questions, I find myself picturing a future in which we all just retreat into our siloed churches and denominations, pronouncing mutual excommunications over our shoulders as we go. And I confess I don’t have a clear alternative path to recommend.

But in the wake of perusing the Church Clarity site, I’ve found myself returning to an older essay, called “Staying Put,” by the Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner addressed to his fellow “conservative” Episcopalians urging them not to leave the Episcopal Church even though its witness to the biblical truth about human sexuality is, at best, greatly mixed.

In the first part of the essay’s practical portion, Radner outlines some of the benefits of staying put. Those of us who are “traditional”—or Scriptural, as we believe—on homosexuality but who choose to stay rooted in the increasingly progressive Episcopal Church may find that we have opportunities to grow in Christlikeness and teachability, to seek to manifest the truth (“You can serve as the conscience of your church,” as a wise priest once told me, “stewarding what you understand to be the teaching of Scripture and the Catholic faith and reminding your fellow Christians that it is a teaching with coherence and power and is not easily dismissed”), and, just maybe, to become instruments of reconciliation.

From there Radner goes on to discuss how might one stay put. Begin by vowing to stay, he says. Then continue struggling for the truth. Be prepared to accept suffering. Try to presume the best about your ecclesial opponents. Maintain communion. Submit to the church’s order. And finally, Radner counsels, be open to correction, adding — hauntingly — that “we cannot hear God’s prodding and correction unless we are physically bound to those who would speak hard things to us.” Being open to correction need not entail any waffling in one’s convictions, but it should entail a willingness to be instructed by the lives of those we believe to be in the wrong. Radner puts it this way:

While it is hard for me to believe that there is some new truth yet to be revealed about, say, sexual behavior that will overturn the basic traditions of the Church’s doctrine, nonetheless we must acknowledge the possibility of still learning something we did not know before on the matter. And where else shall we learn this than with those who challenge us about our exhausted outlooks? A pertinent analogy is the experience and understanding of something like witchcraft, the debate around which in the seventeenth century led not only to a critical reassessment of the parameters of its practice and meaning, but also, interestingly enough, contributed to a fertile burst of exploration and insight into the physical sciences…. The basic teaching of the Church concerning the existence of the evil one and of evil in general did not change. But because of these debates, Christians now approach the question of witchcraft very differently and much more circumspectly than in the sixteenth century. That is surely a blessing. Similarly, there is every reason to hope that God might lead us into some greater light around the issue of sexuality even in our era, a hope that properly demands an embodiment in patient listening and discussion, none of which need constitute an abandonment of our basic teaching.

I also find myself thinking of a similar sort of piece by my friend Eve Tushnet that I would commend to my progressive brothers and sisters for their reflection, even as I continue to ponder and pray about Radner’s counsel. Urging sexually active and partnered gay Catholics who dissent from the Church’s sexual ethics not to leave the Catholic Church in search of some “affirming” Christian community, Tushnet writes:

If I’m serious about having gay couples coming to church, about discipleship as a journey, and about removing stigma against all gay people including those in sexually-active relationships, we’re going to need to renew our understanding of not receiving Communion. I think I was really lucky to read all those table-pounding 20th-c. Cat’lick writers, your Waughs and your Greenes, because they helped me to see something humble and honorable in kneeling by yourself while everybody else goes up to receive. They helped me to see how much faith and devotion is embodied in that humiliating, ambiguous place, where you know you need to be in church even if you can’t imagine or accept complete fidelity to the Church’s moral law. I’ve had to be there, and it was awful at the time but I look back on the person I was then with a lot of compassion. I think having (literary) models of people who stayed in church when they couldn’t receive helped me to stay, and to hold on, to stay closer to Christ than I would have otherwise.

This is really a subset of all those posts about how we need to revive the role of the “Bad Catholic.” Being a bad Catholic can be very, very good for you; it’s a sign that you accept the Church as something (someone, our Mother) outside you and bigger than you, who gives your life its structure even when you can’t/won’t live entirely within that structure. (How many tears are shed because it’s so hard to tell can’t from won’t….) Being a bad Catholic means being assessed by the Church–accepting Her view of you, even if you accept it wincingly or ironically or in confused exhaustion, “Master, to whom shall we go?“–instead of judging Her. Her judgments of you will be more merciful than yours of Her, anyway.

You only get the spiritual benefits of being a bad Catholic if you take the “bad” part seriously. If you minimize the gravity of sin you lose the reminder it brings of our dependence on God; the more trivial the sin the less humility is provoked.

There’s obviously a danger of provoking self-hatred instead of humility by talking this way, but the literary figure of the “bad Catholic” calls up compassion and identification rather than judgment in readers. Maybe you should show the same compassion to him when he’s you.

Perhaps, contrary to all current-cultural common sense, being a theological “progressive” should mean staying put in a “non-affirming” church where even your basic convictions about who you are can be scrutinized and potentially revised in light of the gospel and where your identity as an LGBTQ person may force those around you to confront their too-simple prejudices and facile “solutions” too.

And just maybe, also contrary to all contemporary common sense, being a theological “conservative” should mean choosing to stay put in an “affirming” church or denomination where your life of holiness and love and Scriptural fidelity may be a sign of contradiction and a witness to truths that may yet be recovered.

I don’t pretend either option isn’t (quite literally, in the root sense of the word) excruciating. But if one of those options is what you choose to embrace, I doubt that websites like Church Clarity will do more than offer some forewarning of what your particular cross might involve.

20 thoughts on “On “Church Clarity” and the Cost of Staying Put

  1. Thanks for your continued cross bearing and Christ following witness. I’m a hetero trying to stay in an “affirming” fellowship (they mostly don’t call themselves a church, and it isn’t in their name) wherein I am praying that my “life of holiness and love and Scriptural fidelity may be a sign of contradiction and a witness to truths that may yet be recovered.”

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  3. Nice piece.

    I too have misgivings about the website, as it assumes a certain validity to our current socially constructed models around heterosexuality and non-heterosexuality.

    I’ve been working in China for most of the past month. While I was there, I ran into an economist who specializes in the relationship between gender and economics. We got onto the topic of LGBTQ issues. She noted that the Chinese don’t really have a concept for homosexuality because they don’t have a concept for heterosexuality. There are people who prefer same-sex relationships to opposite-sex relationships. And there’s some recognition that that preference may be partly rooted in biology. Even so, the Chinese don’t see such preferences as emerging from some kind of binary construction of human sexuality. She also noted that such relationships often blur the lines with friendship, as they are almost exclusively egalitarian and center more around social and emotional commitment than sexuality. In fact, sexuality often does not play a prominent role in same-sex relationships in China, and the parties to such relationships usually resist describing their relationships in terms indicative of marriage. In most cases, the word used to describe a same-sex partner echoes more of friendship than marriage.

    Human sexuality is amazingly complicated, and tends to defy the kind of binary categories that we have adopted in the West. The Chinese recognize that opposite-sex pairing is normal, but they get there without imposing the strictures of heterosexuality onto such relationships. And the same goes for same-sex relationships. Electing to enter into such a relationship is not necessarily a declaration of homosexuality.

    My primary objection to something like Church Clarity is that it perpetuates the notion that the Western new-Freudian framework is the exclusive framework for discussing these issues. I spent some portion of my formative years living in Japan. In that context, I faced little social push to adopt a particular socio-sexual identity. When I returned to the US, I found it odd that American guys invest so much time and effort into performing certain rituals associated with heterosexuality and proper gender-role presentation. I was further shocked by the degree to which evangelical churches accepted these performances as “natural” and necessary.

    Westerners often fall guilty of trying a bit too hard to create rules to describe everything, Asian cultures are better at recognizing that life is often complicated and that it’s better not to impose too many rules into otherwise complicated matters. Thus, instead of determining what our attitudes are to homosexuality, perhaps the church would be better served by questioning whether homosexuality is even a useful concept.

    • Hi,
      I kind of hate to be so briefly and meta-critical of your comment, but it seems you have very little to no knowledge or understanding of the historical context of what you are calling “western” concepts of marriage and sexuality. The “binary” concept is so completely embedded in and inherent to the Judaio-Christian and biblical traditions that your lack of knowledge of it doesn’t allow you an adequate perspective on what the issues are. Chinese culture, and other non-monotheistic traditions may have a wide variety of beliefs and practices but they have no revelatory value for those who believe there is a God who has made known his will and desires for guiding our beliefs and practices.

      • Richard,

        As an initial point, that’s simply “fake news.” It’s well established and well documented that the binary construction of sexuality was invented in the late 19th century and popularized by conservative Freudian social theorists in the early and middle decades of the 20th century. Those are the verifiable facts.

        As a further matter, I advise you to find something more useful to do with your life besides serving an internet troll and seeking to derail discussion among Christians who reject heterosexuality as biblically mandated. Notably, most bloggers who promote your views are quick to ban commenters who don’t hew the party line. This website and other queer-friendly blogs where you frequently comment do not have such policies. But that’s not an open invitation to trolls like you who are simply using that opportunity to bully and silence people who actually struggle with these issues. Get a life.

      • True. But at least we’d be getting to a more useful discussion.

        There’s nothing inherently wrong with committed same-sex relationships. As Wes has documented in his book, vowed friendships between persons of the same sex were once quite common. The current position of conservative churches, which is to cast shade on all forms of committed same-sex relationships, is an overly broad prohibition. And while I agree that the model of such relationships popularized in the West may fall short of Christian virtue, that model is hardly necessary or exclusive. There are countless other narratives along which committed same-sex relationships could evolve, not all of which are necessarily counter to Christian ethics.

        I think same-sex relationships are probably here to stay. There is a lexicographic issue as to whether we call such relationships “marriage” or not. My preference is that we not, although many opposite-sex relationships–even in the church–stay true to the conjugal precepts of marriage. After all, many Christian marriages today follow a narrative more akin to committed opposite-sex friendship. Throughout history, about 15% of people in most societies have opted not to marry. The exception to that is the West in the latter decades of the 20th century, when society began to attach a social stigma to the decision not to marry and have kids. But that’s changing. Those who don’t want to settle into domestic situations generally don’t. And they often find that same-sex camaraderie among other such people to be more fulfilling. The church ought to be helping such people (which includes me) develop narratives for fostering Christ-honoring committed same-sex relationships, rather than eschewing the category altogether in favor of an exclusive and narrow promotion of the “nuclear family.”

        The church’s failure in this stead is often what leads non-heterosexual Christians out of the church and into the worst elements of the gay scene. They don’t go there out of choice; they often go there because there’s no in-between alternative. Consider the Nashville Statement. The statement said nothing that hadn’t been said before, except that it included an express disavowal of the SF approach. To what end? There’s a persistent (and evil) program within conservative Christianity to force those of us who reject heterosexuality to have few choices, namely, the choice between conforming to neo-Freudian heterosexual norms, remaining lonely and isolated in the church, or finding fellowship among the sexual anarchy of the gay clubbing scene.

        I’m a conservative Christian. Even so, I see nothing in Scripture that forbids committed same-sex relationships, so long as those relationships don’t include certain sexual elements. Then, again, one could say the same for opposite-sex marriage. The church has no business binding people’s conscience on matters of adiophora. The “nuclear family” does not define the outer periphery of what is biblically acceptable, even if it may remain commonly practiced in Christian communities. The church should only forbid that which is clearly sinful. And I’m unpersuaded that all forms of committed same-sex relationships are necessarily clearly sinful. Thus, the church has no business prohibiting such relationships. Rather, it should be in the business of actively working with couples to develop social narratives for committed same-sex relationships that conform to Christian ethics and challenge the anal-sex-centric view of such relationships promoted by the broader culture.

  4. It’s fairly obvious that CC will be, in part, a bully platform. They can get away with using an absurdly weak claim of harm caused (having to wonder where a church stands on LGBT inclusion) to justify their campaign because all of the cultural momentum is on their side and they know full well that conservative churches will find it increasingly difficult to defend the historic Christian sexual ethic in the public arena (hence the CC focus on website information).

    They could have created a database of affirming churches to help Side A Christians find an inclusive church but they didn’t because they intend to “shame” non-affirming churches.

    The “harm” claim will be used over and over again in the coming years to support similar pro-Side A campaigns. I’m doubtful as to whether LGBT Christian activists actually believe the harm BS they spout but if anyone challenges these claims, they immediately play the offended or victim card – which they know gets them a large amount of sympathy from people who think Christianity is all about leading a pleasant middle class life.

    • I find that using quotes around a word like harm is rarely helpful in these discussions. We could just as easily put them around your word bully. If you don’t believe someone’s claim to have been harmed, please either have an honest discussion with them about it or keep it to yourself rather than publicly dismissing someone else’s lived experience.

      • I didn’t dismiss an individual’s claim to have been harmed – so I don’t see how I can have that honest discussion with them. I was referring to rhetoric used by activist groups like CC.

        From the CC website: “No person should have to wonder the limits of their “welcome.” The vulnerability entailed in investing into a community is difficult enough — LGBTQ+ people should not have to constantly worry about when the other shoe is going to drop”

        “Having to wonder” is a low bar for harm.

        And who doesn’t have a lived experience?

      • I expressed my misgivings about CC above. That said, I do believe that it’s useful to have a rubric with which to distinguish between churches that are purely homophobic, and those that are open to more nuanced approaches, such as those promoted by the SF dialogue.

        I grew up in the PCA and still maintain some connection to the denomination. Most church leaders I know in the PCA have a view on these issues that is more consistent with the SF approach, and would even be open to considering some measure of vowed friendship. But they will only express such views privately, and with promises of confidentiality. Moreover, they are generally unwilling to challenge homophobia in their own churches.

        I finally left the PCA because I was tired of such chicanery. Too many church leaders are talking out of both sides of their mouths. If their churches were forced to take a homophobic stance on paper (or on a website), they would immediately lose a number of white-collar professionals from their membership ranks. After all, surveys of PCA members find that about 40% have no objection to homosexuality. I suspect that that 40% is concentrated among white-collar professionals whose giving covers much of the church’s budget. Meanwhile, if the church were forced to take a more nuanced approach, they would lose a certain number of middle-class families that fill the pews and take on a lot of the voluntary work around the church.

        Ultimately, this issue will probably remake evangelicalism, largely along social class. Churches that serve a predominantly middle-class contingent will maintain a fairly homophobic stance, and will lose some number of white-collar professionals who won’t want to be associated publicly with homophobic institutions (and who may have to sign “corporate values” statements that otherwise preclude membership). Churches that serve a predominantly elite contingent will take a more nuanced stance, lose some number of middle-class families, and become extensions of the meritocracy’s winners.

        And while I have my objections to the CC approach, it does address a need. Evangelical pastors need to stop talking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue. If this website forces them to stop doing that, then it’s a limited good.

      • As a follow up, I do think that this serves some useful need.

        As a non-heterosexual (homoromantic asexual) person, I wish that there were more avenues available for me to connect with other non-heterosexual Christians who fall somewhere between Denny Burk and Matthew Vines on these issues. If something like this forces some churches to make an express rejection of homophobia and to commit to open dialogue on how we can develop practical Christ-honoring social narratives suitable for non-heterosexual people, then it’s a good thing. Right now, there’s virtually no safe place to have that discussion. The affirming folks don’t want to have it because they are largely invested in normalizing same-sex marriage on the secular culture’s terms. And, sadly, the non-affirming folks are often too invested in opposing the affirming folks that they never get around to challenging homophobia and carving out an alternative. This website is a decent start at splitting that difference. But I can’t worship at a website. I need to be plugged into a church community. And I need to be able to figure out how to find churches that have people like me, namely, people who have nuanced and qualified objections to the affirming approach, but who reject homophobia as evil and sinful.

        I have my misgivings about the affirming position. But they’re nuanced and qualified misgivings. In fact, I think that many members of the affirming camp have good intentions. I think that they’re naive in assuming that the culture’s hyper-sexualized approach to same-sex relationships can fit easily within a Christian ethical rubric. Instead of taking the laboring oar and doing the hard work of exploring what committed same-sex relationships may look like within a Christian ethical framework, they’re naively giving credence to a subculture that, IMO, undermines Christian faith. So, while I have my objections to the Vines-Lee program, that hardly means that I have any common cause with folks like Denny Burk, Wayne Grudem, Rosaria Butterfield, or Tim Bayly. My objections to the Side A approach are wildly different from their objections, It’s clear what the Side A position is. The Side B lacks such clarity: It’s simply a grab-bag of people who object to the Side A approach for any variety of reasons, ranging from those who have mild misgivings about tactics to those who are all-out homophobes. In other words, Side B is simply “not Side A.” If we’re going to be a real benefit to non-heterosexual people, then Side B has to do better than that.

      • Oh I greatly admire Rosaria Butterfield and Denny Burk – although I do live and attend a church in a part of town that is shaped by elite values.

        Quote: “It’s clear what the Side A position is.”

        Like the secular LGB community, I think Side A allow a small group of self-appointed activists to promote a clear(er) set of values. There probably are some Side A Trump supporters but I very much doubt they would feel welcome at a Reformation Project conference! Side B doesn’t have an activist contingent and so it appears to be more disunited.

      • Side B is disunited because it doesn’t represent a defined position. It’s simply a grab-bag of people who disagree with the Side A position for any variety of reasons.

        I would probably qualify as Side B because I don’t believe that the church should simply accept the culture’s narrative for committed same-sex relationships without qualification. But I don’t see where I have much in common with the likes of Burk et al.

      • Butterfield and Burk are clear on sin and I salute them for that. Generally speaking, Side B wants to dodge that conversation (or equate it with a discredited Side X).

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  6. Haven’t we been here before on other questions, at least in Protestantism? Some people think remarriage after divorce is acceptable, whilst others consider them adulterous if there was no marital infidelity (I’m in that second camp – Scripture is clearer on the matter than it is on homosexuality, at least). Yet this matter never comes up much (remove the beam from thine own eye…). Should I fellowship with people who affirm the validity of such marriages, when I consider couples in such marriages to be committing adultery?

    I find it interesting that Denny Burk is the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, given that members of that group have taught the eternal subordination of the son, and he may or may not believe it. Homosexuality may or may not be a first order error, but trinitarian heresies certainly are.

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