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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Regarding Generous Orthodoxy: An Open Letter to Brian McLaren

Dear Brian,

We’ve met a handful of times, but you don’t know me. The first time we met, in 2008 at a conference in Kansas City at Jacob’s Well, I introduced myself then blubbered through a thank you. See, when I read A New Kind Of Christian in 2000, while the youth pastor at a Baptist Church, it set my life on an entirely new trajectory.  After reading that book — and subsequent books of yours — multiple times, you became my spiritual father of sorts.

I met you again a couple months ago in Minneapolis at Solomon’s Porch, and even though I wanted to thank you again I refrained for the sake of my own pride; I didn’t want to cry again, but knew I would.

When I met you the first time, I was in the early, heady days of planting a new church that had sprung organically and unforeseen out of the tight bond of a group of friends. We read ANKoC together and it — along with Generous Orthodoxy — became the common language of our young church. In fact, your ideas were so important to us that when we sat around my dining room table discussing the core ideas that would give definition to our community, the idea of generous orthodoxy became core to who we are as a church.

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We are committed to historic, orthodox Christian faith as found in the Apostles’ Creed. We are committed to a generous orthodoxy under a banner of love and grace. As such, we commit ourselves to faithful reading and study of the Bible, finding new and creative ways to live out what it teaches.

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It’s been 8 years since we crafted that statement for our little church here in Peoria, and about 10 since you wrote the book. And I still deeply believe in a generous orthodoxy. I think it’s a sad statement about the Body of Christ that since the Protestant Reformation, we feel like almost everything is worth dividing over. There are a lot of great things I was taught growing up Baptist, but one of the ugly things I learned is that when you disagree with someone, you move away from them.

But I don’t think this is the way of Jesus. In fact, I’m more convinced than ever that tension and disagreement have always existed side-by-side in the church. Peter v. James, Paul v. Jerusalem Church, Paul v. Barnabas, James v. Paul…  Throughout the Scriptures, I see our church fathers arguing with each other over the nature of what it means to follow after Jesus. We’ve always had “disputable matters” (as in Romans 14) that have caused us to question our brothers and sisters.

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Over the last couple of months, our church has been engaged in a conversation over the role of LGBT persons in our church community. Some say that, of course, “generous orthodoxy” extends to the LGBT persons in our church, prohibiting them from nothing; others say that we can be generous, but this lies outside the lines of “orthodoxy,” and should therefore limit their participation in certains facets of our ministry.

And while we’ve always made space for gays and lesbians in our church, we’ve been intentionally ambiguous about the specifics. But it’s now time for us to address what “generous orthodoxy” looks like when it comes to the role of LGBT persons.

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Here’s what I see, Brian, that bothers me and it’s the reason for this letter. In some of the churches that I admire, who have moved to an “open and affirming” position, there is no generous orthodoxy, only a new orthodoxy. In other words, it feels like some have only changed their minds about what the Scripture affirms or denies, without maintaining the spirit of graciousness that I’ve seen modeled by you in your writing. And so a church “affirms” one group that was formerly ostracized but now tells another group they’re not welcome because of their beliefs.

And it’s not just churches, it’s people. It’s people who have changed their view on what the Scriptures condemn or allow and are now just as ungracious being “liberal” as they were when they were “conservative.” It’s like they’ve completely forgotten their own journey and the sometimes slow process of changing one’s mind.

So, my question is, even if we expand our “orthodoxy,” how do we maintain generosity? Even if we feel like God is calling us to accept people that the church didn’t used to accept, how do we maintain a spirit of generosity towards those who just can’t get there yet, and perhaps never will?

With Great Admiration,

Charles

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Okay, it’s doubtful to me that Brian McLaren will ever read this post. But I’m curious, what do you all think about the relationship between generosity and orthodoxy? What do you think about “orthodoxy” changing, as it does from time to time? What are some of the specific practices you believe a local church should employ in order to create a space of “generous orthodoxy?”

And even if you don’t want to engage in the discussion here, please drop me a line and let me know if this post is beneficial and thought-provoking. Over the next couple months, we’ll again be exploring the idea of “generous orthodoxy” at Imago Dei Church, and I’m intending, from time to time, to “spill” some thoughts over here to my blog.

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