Pastor (First Church, Anywhere, USA): Hey Derek! Good to see you. Listen, I want to tell you that I’ve read some of your stuff about churches becoming Open and Affirming.
Me: Yeah, I seem to be having those conversations quite a bit lately.
Pastor: I also see that you think our denomination [Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)] should declare itself O&A.
Me: Yes, I do.
Pastor: That’s not going to work.
Me: Really? Why is that?
Pastor: Congregational autonomy. Churches can do and believe just about anything they want. So, to say that our denomination is O&A is basically a lie, because we have a significant majority of churches that aren’t.
Me: So, just so I get this right: Are you saying that we should never make claims about ourselves as a denomination that can’t be demonstrably supported in the life of all congregations?
Pastor: Not all of the congregations. If that were true, you could never say anything.
Me: True enough. Then, how many of the congregations need to be on board before you’re comfortable making claims about our denominational identity?
Pastor: I don’t know that we should put a number on it—but at least a majority.
Me: Do you think that should apply to our denominational Statement of Identity?
Pastor: What do you mean?
Me: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.” Should we be able to say that about ourselves if we don’t always live up to it? Should we wait to say that about ourselves until we can be reasonably certain that it’s true for Disciples and Disciples congregations … at least a majority of the time? At what point, and based on what polling data were we convinced that it was theologically acceptable to allow women to become ministers? Even though it’s fairly clear that in practice, at least based on the hiring practices of a majority of Disciples congregations, as a denomination we don’t believe in women ministers.
Pastor: But, here’s where you’re missing the point: The Statement of Identity is not necessarily supposed to be a descriptive statement. That is to say, we don’t slap that up on our web site, claiming that this is true of all Disciples all of the time. We put it up there to show us who, according to our best lights, we ought to be.
Me: Ok. So, here’s my question: How is voting to say that Disciples are Open and Affirming any more a lie because it doesn’t represent all congregations than saying that “Disciples are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world?” Neither are true of all Disciples everywhere. Isn’t that false advertising?
Pastor: No. It’s an ideal, not an empirically verifiable statement of fact.
Me: But voting to declare ourselves O&A as a denomination should be?
Pastor: It’s not the same thing. We don’t want to mislead LGBTQ people by telling them that we’re O&A and have them come and find out we’re not.
Me: I understand that—and I think it’s a legitimate concern. But the church always has to deal with the issue of hypocrisy—saying one thing, but doing another. What happens if a person who’s been hurt by the church before wanders onto the denominational web site and sees this Statement of Identity and thinks, “At last, I’ve found a denomination where I can be safe. They heal people here; they don’t break them?” Then that person goes to a series of Disciples churches and finds out that in practice we aren’t always “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Don’t we risk alienating people by representing ourselves this way, when sooner or later they will find out it’s not always true of us?
Pastor: All right, but at least we can all agree in general as a denomination that we should be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world”—whether or not we always live up to it. We don’t all agree in general as a denomination that we should be “Open and Affirming.”
Me: But isn’t that what the second part of the Statement of Identity says? “As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.”
Pastor: “Welcoming” people to the table isn’t the same as “affirming” someone’s sexual orientation.
Me: I’m not so sure about that.
Pastor: You know what I mean.
Me: I think I know what people who disagree with me about this issue mean when they say it. But how does the average person reading our Statement of Identity know that?
That’s the point: If you say that we can’t honestly claim to be an O&A denomination because it’s not true of enough congregations, then you’ve seriously limited what we can say about ourselves as a denomination—since, we’re never in full agreement about much of anything. Moreover, we don’t have any metric in place by which we can measure when we’ve reached consensus—apart from “Sense of the Assembly Resolutions,” which is what many have said we cannot put forward on this issue because there’s not enough evidence to establish its veracity—a veritable ecclesiastical extravaganza of question-begging.
Additionally, if you say that we can’t claim to be an O&A denomination because it might mislead people by luring them into the church under the false pretense that we affirm their sexual orientation or gender identity—which they may soon find out isn’t necessarily true and by which deception they might be hurt—then we’re always in danger of false advertising and potentially harming people any time we hold out the vision of who we think God wants us to be … since we so regularly fail to live up to it.
“You are master of the straw man argument. You use this ‘conversation’ device to trot out easy arguments so you can knock them down.”
Fair enough. If the past is any indication, I’m sure I’ll get all kinds of email pointing out my failings as a logician, a theologian, and a human being.
But my point in all of this isn’t just to be right; it’s to struggle toward the truth. And the truth is that “We can’t say we’re O&A when we’re not” doesn’t settle the matter. It risks confusing different kinds of discourse. A Statement of Identity is at least as exhortative as it is declarative.
The question that our denomination will continue to contend with is the extent to which we can claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” that welcomes “all to the Lord’s table,” when in practice we defend a brokenness that excludes people from that table.