The Thin Line Between Authority and Fear

By Lee Yates

I grew up in the Church. Not just any Church.
I grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It is what I know.

I am too young to have scars from the “restructure” era conflicts.
I have always understood my church as a denomination.

I am too optimistic to have felt really threatened by other “re-“ something movements.
I have always understood my church to be united at its core.

Now, I find myself scared.
And I know I’m not alone.

Listening to friends and family in the Church, I hear lots of fears expressed.
Fears of change
Fears of theological difference
Fears of lost identity
Fears of division
Fears of intolerance
Fears of apathy

So, what am I afraid of?

Confessional time….

I am afraid that my personal racism keeps me from non-biased theological reflection.
I am afraid that my fear of being racist also keeps me from holding true to what I believe.

I have been struggling with the issue of diversity.

My heart leaps for joy when I participate in an ethnically diverse event.
I know how hard it is to build trust and community across cultural lines.
Our work as a pro-reconciliation / anti-racism church has been transformative.
While we are no where near done with this work, I can see its powerful impact.
The Church I grew up in has changed!

Looking back, I give thanks for God’s open table…
The table that welcomed my mother and wife as ordained clergy.
The table that welcomed me as a youth, who many thought should remain silent.
The table that welcomes my children today.

It is this table that continues to call us to welcome others.

In that spirit, we have put amazing efforts into creating a diverse and open table.
In that spirit, we have tried to make sure every voice is heard and affirmed.

Now, when we celebrate the “Lord’s Supper”, it takes more colors than Lenoardo DaVinci ever imagined to paint our picture.

So, why am I scared?

I’m scared that our more diverse table has become less open.
I’m scared that the very openness that brought so many of us together is being lost.
I’m scared that the theological differences inherent in our diversity will forever change…

Oh crap! I just admitted to being afraid of CHANGE!!

This is where the conflict in my heart (and I believe in our life as Church) gets complicated.

What happens when our focus on diversity brings people to the table who do not hold the same values?

-Ordination of women
-Weekly communion
-Importance of education (faith and reason)
-Unity as a common vision

To me, these are not negotiable.
They are part of our historic, theological, and communal identity as Disciples of Christ.
They are told in our common history in the Stone-Campbell movement.

To others, these are still up for debate.

Don’t believe me?
Talk to those who interview candidates for ministry.

For me, this raises some important questions:

1. How do we navigate theological issues that divide us without making it personal, cultural, ethnic or stereotypical?

2. How do we move forward in our quest for unity with all God’s people without breaking relationship the rest of God’s people?

In realty, we have been wrestling with the second one for generations. Unfortunately our answer seems to have been division. In our quest for unity we have simply divided, leaving in our wake mistrust and disappointment.

And I’m back to my fear of CHANGE!

Some might think I’m just bashing the theological voice of our constituency groups.
That is not the case. I am so thankful for the gifts that diversity has brought us.

Disciples NEED to be reminded that the Spirit moves in unexpected ways.
Disciples NEED to be challenged to make passion and emotion part of their faith.
Disciples NEED to reclaim words like witness, testimony and evangelism.
Disciples NEED to be reminded that we are not a finished produce. God is still at work!

I am thankful for the gifts of our diversity.
I am also thankful for my fear of being a racist.
-Sometimes it makes me listen again to a perspective I want to ignore.
-Sometimes it makes me listen again to my own words and biases.
-Sometimes it makes me think before I speak.

I don’t want our Church to enter another time of division.
I don’t want our Church to loose the identity that means so much to me.
I don’t want to lose the diversity we have gained in the quest for more diversity.
I don’t want to stop seeking more diversity just because I’m scared of the conflict.

So, in my mind, I’ve boiled all this down to issues of authority.
-Traditional (OK, Caucasian) Disciples value the reasoned study of scripture.
-Others challenge us to respect tradition and interpretations of scripture it holds.
-Others challenge us to let experience of the spirit’s movement guide us.
-Others challenge us to hold tight to “no book but the Bible.”

While these differences might be evident in our ethnic groupings,
they are also seen in EVERY congregation!
We seem to work it out there (with varying degrees of success).
Why does it seem so overwhelming within our denominational family?

So, I come back to fear… my fear and yours.

To my friends with whom I disagree theologically:
I’m scared of your authority and feel attacked by it.
I know you also feel judged by mine and I apologize.

To my friends with whom I agree theologically:
I’m scared of your certainty in our authority and feel like you are judging others with it.
I know you feel confused by my lack of conviction and I apologize.

I’m scared.

I’m guessing Stone and Campbell had the same fears when they joined together.
I’m guessing the Christian Women’s Missionary Society had the same fears when they merged in with other mission bodies.
I’m guessing the National Convocation had similar fears as God led them into full union with the Disciples of Christ.

I think of the angel speaking to Mary, “Be not afraid.”
Yeah, right!!

So, what do I suggest we do about this tension?
What way forward do I recommend?
Well, I have LOTS to say about that… but… I’ll leave all that for later.

Right now, I just feel called to name my fear.
Right now, I just feel called to claim my fear.

Right now, I just ask for prayers, that an angel might greet us all and say,

“Be not afraid.”