The Dynamics of Mutual Submission in the Church

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  – St. Paul to the church in Ephesus

Over the past couple of months, at the church I pastor, we’ve been having a rather intense conversation. The way I’ve been framing it is this: “What is the church’s answer to our LGBT brothers and sisters in terms of how they are supposed to live?”

You can listen to the podcasts on our church website, but in short, we’re deeply indebted to the work of Ken Wilson and his book A Letter to My Congregation. In the vein of “3rd Way” thinking, (you can read about how Ken Wilson’s church does it here) our church recognizes this matter as a “disputable matter,” analogous to what Paul is addressing in the early church in Romans 14.

We don’t have all the particulars worked out, but we’re close.

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Because this series has been so significant, we’ve only been having one service on Sunday mornings in which I’ve taught. Then, in the second service time slot, we’ve opened the floor for conversation.

The reason for this post is because someone on our leadership team asked me to repost what I said to wrap up the conversation this past Sunday. I wasn’t part of the question and response. I had asked two people from our Leadership Team to field questions. But, I couldn’t help myself at the end; I just had to say one last thing.

So, this is a little awkward, quoting myself, but by request, here’s the transcription, with only minor edits:

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“I hope what you all hear is there’s lots more discussion to be had on this. I want to encourage you to continue to have this conversation. I think that the questions that you’ve asked the Leadership Team this morning are good and pointed and should be asked. I invite you and encourage you to ask every pointed question you want to ask of us.

In the space of Romans 14, here’s what scares me. There are some of us sitting here saying, “If the Pastor performs a marriage in this room, I’m leaving.” And there’s some of us that say, “If the Pastor does not stand in this space, in this room, and do a marriage, I’m leaving.”

I think what Paul was saying in the tensions between Roman 14:13 and 14:21 (and throwing in a little bit of Ephesians 5 here) is that we’re all supposed to be for the other side. The “conservatives” are supposed to be the ones saying, “I don’t want to put any obstacles in the way of you following Jesus. However you have to follow Jesus, my desire for you is for you to follow Jesus as best you can.” That’s what the conservatives are supposed be saying. Not, “How do I make sure my voice is heard?”

The “liberal” side is supposed to be saying, “If it’s going to cause problems in the body, I don’t have to get married here. I’ll lay that down. I’ll get married somewhere else.” Not, “I have to have that just like everybody else.”

The Scriptures are calling us to actually take the opposite side of what we want to take. That’s when the body looks beautiful. That’s what a good marriage looks like. It’s when we say to each other, “I don’t have to have my way in this, what do you want?” That’s what it’s supposed to be.

I feel like we fail sometimes when we go into our camps and we say, “I am not getting my way in this, and if I don’t get my way I’m leaving.” That’s where I think we’re missing it as a church. That’s where we miss the whole thing that Paul is talking about in Romans 14.”

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Just last night one of our leaders asked me, “Do you really believe it? Do you really think people can live like that?”

Truth is, it’s super idealistic to think that people — especially us rugged, individualistic Americans — are going to submit ourselves to anyone. Confession: it’s hard enough to submit to my wife and I’ve made promises to do so. (And I really, really, like her and making her happy is one of my most favorite things in the world.) So, at one level I’m really cynical that this will actually happen in the church.

But at the same time, it’s a beautiful picture of what the church might be. I have a wedding message that I’ve used for years called “The Beautiful Dance,” in which I talk about how the best dancers are submitting to each other, working with each other in harmony. Yes, that might be idealistic, but the romantic in me can’t let it go, and even if it’s hard, and even if I’m a bit of a hypocrite and even if I think only a few will actually do it, I’ll keep preaching the ideal. (Because that’s what we preachers do.)

 

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With Trembling Hands

Yesterday at church my hands were trembling as I stood up to teach.

I’m not a nervous speaker. When I used to pastor at a megachurch, standing in front of large crowds didn’t unnerve me in the least. And while putting on a microphone and talking about the mysteries of God and the universe, doubts, and abstract ideas like love, justice and forgiveness would freak most people out, it’s just the thing I do. No big deal.

Except for yesterday.

We’ve been having a tense conversation in our church for the last couple of months. We’ve been having a conversation about what the church should say to our LGBT brothers and sisters. And really it has been a conversation as we wrestle with the Bible, tradition, reason and our own experiences. (We’re not Wesleyans, per se, but we’ve always found the Wesleyan Quadrilateral useful in our deliberations.)

And so, since the beginning of the year, we’ve collapsed our two morning services into one service during which I teach, and we’ve set aside the second service time for conversation. We’ve welcomed people to ask questions and make comments, and every week during this series, I’ve walked away feeling so in love with these brave midwesterners wrestling with big issues.

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As the pastor, I probably think about these things differently than most. As pastor, it’s not about theoretical ideas about morality, but rather about relationships. And it’s not just about my own story and experiences, but rather the collective story and experiences of everyone in the church. Ken Wilson, in his excellent book A Letter to My Congregation describes it this way:

“The members of a congregation have a commonly held conscience on many, but not all, matters. A pastor stands at the crossroads of a congregation’s conflicted conscience. It’s a congested intersection, this place. Standing in the middle of it can be dizzying, frightening, awful, especially under the intense scrutiny that comes with religious controversy.”

And so, yesterday, as I prepared to stand up and say things that would challenge nearly every one of us, my hands shook in nervousness and anxiety.

Help me, Lord Jesus, to be faithful to the pathway you seem to be leading me down. Help me to say what I say with grace, humility and kindness.

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I’m a lucky guy. I sometimes hear stories of pastors who come into conflict with their congregation and lose their jobs. Or I hear stories of how parishioners leave a church angrily, “telling off” the pastor as they go. Yes, we’ve had a few of those, but not very many. The church I pastor is filled with kind, lovely people who, I believe, really believe Jesus when he says that everything hangs on how we love. Again, my experience is reflected in Wilson,

“Strangely, very few of you have actually asked me this question directly. Congregations learn to read their pastors. And many of you sense that I’ve been wrestling with this one for a long time. You’ve heard sermons that indicate a certain lean away from the traditional consensus, perhaps. I suspect that some of you haven’t asked me where I draw the line because you haven’t wanted to put me on the spot. Others haven’t wanted to situate me, your pastor, on what you may regard as the wrong side of an important moral issue. Or you may just be nervous for me, for us. In any case, I want to say: thank you.”

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I’m writing this on Monday morning. I feel emotionally spent. I could have spent the day in bed, which is why so many pastors take Mondays off. (They also tell us to never write our resignations on a Monday. Good advice!)

I actually don’t remember much of what I said. I don’t know if it’s this way for everyone, but there are times when I’m so “in it,” so focused on what I’m doing, that afterward I don’t remember the specifics. I’ve thought about listening to the podcast, but that sometimes leads to self-loathing. (Oh do I hate the sound of my own voice!) We’ll see how I feel in a couple days.

What I do know is that when I preach that kind of sermon, with that kind of emotion and intensity, I feel super-vulnerable afterwards. (I know from talking to pastors, musicians and other artists this is common.) I feel vulnerable because it’s not just a task I performed but, rather, I feel like I’ve given a part of myself to a whole bunch of people at once. And so, my tendency is to want to run and hide – to find any excuse to get to my office and close the door as fast as possible.

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In my younger years, I needed a lot of praise in these fragile moments just after the sermon to satisfy my fragile ego-self. But I’m learning that what my ego wants almost always leaves my soul feeling hollow. So I’m trying to learn to pay attention to my soul. My honorary-big-sister-even-if-she-doesn’t-know-who-I-am Liz Gilbert says,

“I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn’t even have language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.”

I would add, in addition to wonder, my soul also longs for intimacy. In that moment, I need connection with my wife, boys and friends. I need my most intimate friends to tell me, “You are loved.”

[This by the way, is the greatest gift a church can give to their pastor: the freedom to have their own intimate circle of friends, even if those friends don’t attend your church. Yes, your pastor should be friends with everyone at some level, but your pastor also needs an intimate space of people who can authentically say, “We will love you regardless of anything about you that is ‘pastor.’” Let your pastor have a circle of people to whom they can say, “I need something from you,” so they don’t need it from the congregation.]

After the service, my wife grabbed me in the center aisle and hugged me, and my good friend sought me out as I was trying to escape into my office and gave me a hug and reminded me that I’m loved. And my closest circle – the ones who know that I need them – tended to my fragile self throughout the day with texts and love. That’s what my soul needed.

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My hands were trembling yesterday before I got up to speak to these beautiful people that I get to lead. But there’s goodness here. I think I said some things to challenge all of us. And, to the best of my knowledge, I’m leading our church down the pathway that is right for us. It’s not easy. And there will be sadness and tears to come.

But we’re together in this.

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