There is no way, short of a miraculous and full-scale changing of hearts and minds, for North American denominations to survive the homosexuality crisis. Denominations like the PCUSA, ELCA, RCA, UMC, and Episcopal Church will continue. They won’t fold their tents and join the Southern Baptists (though wouldn’t that be interesting!). I’m not suggesting most of our old, mainline denominations will disappear. But I do not see how any of these once flourishing denominations will make it through the present crisis intact.
And the sooner denominations admit this sobering reality the better.
Every denomination is different. The percentages on both sides of the issue and the official positions are not identical. But the basic contours of the problem are quite similar.
On one side you have liberals who want to see the church open its doors to the GLBT agenda. They want homosexual behavior welcomed and affirmed. They want to perform gay marriages. They want gays and lesbians to be ordained to church office. Liberals (or “progressives” or whatever-I’m trying to use neutral labels) see this as a justice issue. They believe conservatives are simply on the wrong side of history and that one day we will look at our traditional attitudes toward gays and lesbians like we look at old attitudes toward African Americans or our old attitudes toward women’s ordination. We will be embarrassed to see that we could have been so blind and bigoted for so long.
On the other side you have conservatives who want to see the church maintain purity and biblical fidelity. They want homosexuals to be loved and treated with respect. But they believe the behavior cannot be tolerated as Christian behavior. They see this as a gospel issue. They believe liberals are simply on the wrong side of the Bible and one day will be embarrassed to see how much we dishonored God by capitulating to our culture. To cave on this issue is not only to reject the plain teaching of Scripture, affirmed for two millennia of church history, but it says to people “peace, peace” where there is no peace.
In the middle are those who want both sides to get along. Maybe these third way folks are liberals willing to let conservatives keep doing their thing for awhile because they believe today’s conservatives will slowly evolve or die off. Maybe they are institutional loyalists who want to preserve the denomination at all costs. Maybe they consider homosexuality a relatively minor issue, one not worth fighting over and dividing the church over. Or maybe, as is often the case, those advocating for a third way are conservatives who don’t want to be the meanies who put up a fight.
These are the three main parties in this controversy-left, right, and center-and there is no way to make each of them happy. There is no way for mainline denominations to broker a compromise that everyone can live with.
Let’s say denomination XYZ adopts a full blown official open and affirming policy. Conservatives and many middle of the roaders will leave. How can they not? The denomination, as they see it, is calling “good” what God calls “sin.”
If the XYZ tightens up a conservative stance, the liberals will be livid. The denomination, as they see it, is telling their friends, their family members, their partners, and some of them, that they are not welcome any longer. The liberals could then leave, or, more likely, continue to fight or simply ignore the denomination.
At which point, the conservatives, if they are willing and able (and they are probably neither), can engage in case after case of church discipline, until the liberals leave or have been defrocked.
Apart from discipline, however, assuming the liberals continue to push against the stated position, eventually the denomination will just let them be and allow for what they technically say they won’t allow.
Or, before that happens the conservatives will say enough is enough and leave a denomination they believe is no longer reformable and no longer demonstrates the third mark of the church.
Third ways don’t work either. It may sound like a brilliant compromise to deploy another study committee, but this merely kicks the can down the road. It says “pass” on the crisis, only to push the crisis into someone else’s lap a few years later. The denomination must fish or cut bait. It must decide what it really believes. And if it decides to never decide but just keep studying, then many folks will conclude, rightly I believe, that the denomination’s de facto position is “let’s just agree to disagree.” This will be unacceptable to conservatives.
If denomination XYZ goes one step further and allows for a “local option” or puts homosexuality in the category of “conscience” this is a decision of its own. It says that homosexuality is such a minor issue or such an ambiguous issue that we shouldn’t take a firm stance. This too will be unacceptable to many conservatives. Over time, it will be unacceptable to liberals too, who would probably view such a “compromise” (though they might not say it out loud) as training wheels meant to help the denomination ride through a difficult time until the progressive position seizes the day.
Admitting the Obvious, Proposing the Unthinkable
I understand that many good Christians love their denominations deeply. I love mine too. I don’t want to see the RCA crash and burn, or fall apart. I recognize that many Christians are loathe to consider any option that involves anything less than staying together no matter what. They want to hope against hope that everything will work out and there will be some way for everyone to get along. But it is no virtue of Christian hope to trust God for contradictions. He cannot make circles to simultaneously be squares. We are not losing confidence in our almighty God if we admit that many of our denominations face intractable problems. We can’t “unify” our way out of this mess or press people to stop having mutually exclusive convictions for the sake of our institutions, pensions, or pride. The fact is there is no third way, no fourth way, no tenth way out of this controversy that leaves all the pieces in the same places they are now. Groups will split. Bodies will rearrange. Parts will realign. Maybe not this year. Maybe not on your watch. But soon enough.
So my plea is for these denominations to make a definitive stand. Make it right, left, or center, but make one and make it clearly. Insist that member churches and pastors hold to this position. And then graciously open a big door for any pastor or church who cannot live in this theological space to exit with their dignity, their time, and their property. Because sometimes the best way to preserve unity is to admit that we don’t have it.