My church is full of heretics

Last week, something happened that had never happened before: people read my blog (a lot of people!).

Outside of a handful of gracious friends and family members, my blog had remained relatively unread for the past three years. But something about my most recent post apparently prompted a whole bunch of shares (I’m guessing it was the click-bait title), because I had over 16,000 readers check in over the course of three days.

One of the side effects of this surprise boost in readership was a sudden onslaught of feedback, mostly from complete strangers. The majority of comments were supportive and encouraging, but not everyone loved what I had to say. The criticism that came back varied, but the most prominent and intriguing rebuttal went like this:

“Choosing a church because they treat you like family seems unwise. Shouldn’t your choice of church be based on the accuracy of the church’s theology, not on the strength of their hospitality?”

Unlike some of the less articulate critiques of my post, these comments really made me think. Was my reason for joining my church foolish? After all, good churches aren’t the only communities capable of hospitable acts; cults, gangs, and Klans can be just as welcoming to those in need of a family. If any community, regardless of integrity, has a capacity for hospitality, what makes my reason for joining my church compelling?

To be honest, I’m not sure I picked the right church, nor am I sure I picked it for the right reason. The point of my post wasn’t to recommend a process for choosing a church, nor was it a sales pitch for the Church of Christ. I was just hoping to offer an honest depiction of the journey that led me into this particular family.

That said, my reason for joining the Church of Christ still doesn’t seem so bad to me.  In fact, I’m convinced that it’s the primary—if not best—reason people join a church.

While I understand the “choose the church with the right theology” argument, it simply doesn’t resonate with my experience. I’ve never met anyone for whom theology was the initial, central on-ramp to church (they probably exist; I’ve just never met them). Everyone I know—from first-time Christians to church kids choosing churches as adults—joined their church because someone in that church loved them. Grandma took them to mass before Christmas dinner. Their college roommates invited them to small group. The church across the street bought them groceries when they were most in need. Someone sometime extended the welcome of Jesus, even before they knew the family that was welcoming them.

“People must belong before they believe” has become a sort of catch phrase among church planters and evangelists as of late. This observation is descriptive, not prescriptive; it’s simply true that for almost everyone, belonging comes before believing. Hospitality precedes theology.

More significantly, choosing a church based on its theology seems impossible because—and this is the point that I’ve wasted 450 words trying to get to—no church contains a single, homogeneous theology. Each church family is filled with theologies; within every congregation exists a widely diverse collection of beliefs and opinions about God.   

Take my church for example. There are all sorts of views on God, church, the Bible, and society in my little congregation.  If we took enough time and asked enough questions, we’d discover that no two people in our family agreed entirely on every theological issue. Each of us is the only individual in our church who believes exactly what we believe.

Which means that we all must be wrong about something (or at least all but one of us). Each of us holds inaccurate/incomplete views of God and God’s people. We’re all heretics.

This doesn’t mean that theology doesn’t matter to my church, nor does it mean that we have no theological agreement; the vast majority of our family shares a number of central beliefs and values (one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one baptism, one God, etc.). There is an expectation that every committed member of our family confess these core beliefs, and rightly so.

However, no one could choose our church because our theology perfectly matches their own, because there is no such thing as my church’s theology (at least not in the intricate, systematic sense that most Christians have in mind when they ask about my “church’s theology”). If there was, whose beliefs would it be based on? The elders’? The ministers’? Each of the members of our church leadership team holds beliefs that are unique to them. Imposing a complex, monolithic theological system on our family would compromise the integrity of each individual and stifle the work of God’s Spirit in our community.

So instead, we choose unity over uniformity. We’re convinced that our diversity is a strength, that our disagreements over truths draw us closer to the Truth. In our plurality of theologies, we embrace a single hospitality, welcoming strangers—even those strangers within our own family—in the same way God welcomed us while we were still strangers.

Hospitality may precede theology, but the two are not mutually exclusive. The hospitality that welcomed me into this family is central to the identity of our Father. It’s deeply theological.

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Mark Love: “Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ.”

One of my friends/mentors, Mark Love, has begun highlighting what he calls “signs that your congregation is growing in their participation in the life and mission of God.”

So far, it’s all brilliant.

In his first post, Dr. Love (yes, really) claims that a healthy, missional church will be typified by hospitality and diversity. Every word is worth reading, but in case you’re not going to take the time to read it all here, here’s a little snippet to get you thinking:

“Does your congregation do a good job of welcoming and involving a diverse range of individuals? You are participating in the new creation of God if you are living into Paul’s exhortation, ‘welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.’ The key here is ‘as Christ has welcomed you.’ The welcome of Christ creates a community where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.

Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ.

What do you think? Have you been a part of Christian community whose embodiment of God’s hospitality resulted in a multi-ethnic, mixed-income, and/or inter-generational family? If so, what did they do to cultivate that sort of welcome?

I’m guessing it took more than smiley people shaking hands at the door…

What I Got Wrong in my post about Women in the Church

Last week, I posted “Nerf Wars and Women in the Church,” in which I claimed that the church who fails to welcome women’s voices is like a person pretending half their body doesn’t exist, a self-sabotaging body that “can limp, at best, but will never run.”

Far more people read that post than I expected, and a number of women with whom it resonated reposted it (thanks Vicky and Sarah!). However, a few of my male friends disagreed with my perspective, causing me to rethink some of the things I said, and ultimately decide that I was  wrong.

I know I can’t take back what I said in that post, and there’s a lot that I wouldn’t want to take back. I still think that a church that cannot hear women cannot move effectively in God’s mission. I still think that acting like half the body of Christ doesn’t exist is shameful and absurd.  I still think that this is all vitally important and that if we ignore women, we ignore many of our clearest examples of the hospitality that created and recreated the world.

But, I do think one central element of my argument was clearly wrong: the Church is not actually like a guy pretending to have lost his limbs in a Nerf war. This metaphor suggests a level of intention and willful oppression that simply is not reflected in the average Christian male. Very few men purposely stifle the voices of their mothers, sisters, and daughters; although there are clear exceptions, most churches aren’t trying to drown out half of their membership.

When I was 16 and got up in front of my youth group and preached a sermon about why girlfriends should submit to their boyfriends, I wasn’t intentionally pushing teenage girls into unhealthy relationships with immature boys; I was simply trying to accurately apply my understanding of the Bible to my cultural context.

When I was in Jr. High and repeatedly told the skinny girl sitting next to me at lunch how fat she was looking, I didn’t mean to destroy her body image; I was just bad at flirting and hoped she’d give me her dessert.

When I was in college and said/watched things that objectified women, I wasn’t trying to empower the culture that sustains a thriving sex-trafficking industry; I was just “being a guy.”

Despite all the ways I’ve abused, oppressed, and ignored women throughout my life, I’ve never done it on purpose. And I sincerely believe–perhaps naively–that very few churches have either.

So the Nerf war metaphor doesn’t really fit. The Church isn’t purposely pretending half of its body doesn’t exist; it’s just… happening. The body of Christ isn’t playing pretend; it’s suffering from a severe neurological disease.

In particular, I think the church has developed hemiplegia, a rare condition that cuts off the signals leading to and from one half of a person’s body. Simply put, hemiplegics cannot move half of their body (think right or left, not top or bottom) because–neurologically speaking–the rest of their body just doesn’t recognize that the paralysed half exists. Individuals with this disease face extreme challenges when it comes to a variety of otherwise simple functions. But lack of mobility isn’t the only issue hemiplegics have to deal with; they are also uniquely vulnerable to certain dangers. When you cannot feel half of your body, your whole body is susceptible to harm.

And this is why I’m convinced that the body of Christ is suffering from this specific condition, because it’s increasingly obvious that many churches–Christian men in particular–really struggle to feel the pain many women experience. We’re just numb to it. That’s the only explanation I can muster for why well-intentioned, Jesus-loving communities can be so ambivalent to the plight of women in the world and in their pews.

That’s the other thing my previous post got wrong. By emphasizing the limited mobility of a church with no female voices, I’m afraid I neglected an even more urgent problem: a church that cannot feel the pain of its women will be powerless to stop that pain. And when half of a body suffers, the whole body suffers.

And the body of Christ is clearly suffering; we’re sick and in desperate need of healing.

Although I’m still hesitant to make any claims as to how this this healing happens, how our communities can regain both feeling and mobility in our entire body, it seems to me that God’s healing is always clothed in hospitality. When we extend God’s welcome to women–by asking to hear their stories, by eagerly seeking their advice, by refusing to lightly dismiss their pain, and by valuing their gifts and expertise–we’ll find ourselves recovering sensations long-forgotten and movement for which we’d given up hope.

Nerf Wars and Women in the Church

When I was 21 and a senior in college, my friends and I got together regularly to shoot each other with Nerf guns.

There’s no way to phrase that opening sentence that makes us sound respectable. We were grown men–with beards and everything–running around campus with toy guns. Our plastic pistols were modified to shoot through cardboard boxes, but everything else about our Nerf Wars was just the same as when we were seven years old.

The few rules were both specific and intuitive: shots to the head and torso were fatal, but shots to the arm or leg just disabled that particular appendage. So, if I got shot in the leg, I’d have to hop around on one leg as I ducked for cover. These rules–which, assuming you ever played guns as a kid, I shouldn’t even need to explain–often led to some pretty ridiculous moments.

One night, a particularly chaotic firefight resulted in my “losing” both my left leg and my left arm. Diving around the corner to avoid the flurry of foam darts, I found myself unable to stand up on my one remaining leg without dropping my gun. Further complicating the situation, my Nerf pistol required two hands to load. Refusing to give up the fight, I put part of the gun in my mouth and tried to load it with my surviving hand.

At that exact moment, a campus security guard entered the building to find me–an adult with 105 completed credit hours of college education–writhing around on the floor of an empty hallway with a toy gun in my mouth and my left limbs flopping limply at my side.

Suddenly, a reality that made perfect sense in one world became embarrassingly nonsensical in the presence of someone from another world (aka the real world). In the fantasy of our isolated Nerf War moment, it was perfectly acceptable to pretend that half of my body–which was clearly still connected and fully functional–didn’t exist. In fact, it was a requirement.

But the entrance of a stranger from outside our private little reality necessitated a change of rules. It would have been both shameful and absurd to go on ignoring the existence of my left side in the context of the real world.

Sometimes, I wonder if this is exactly how the “rest of the world” sees the Church, particularly regarding our posture towards women.

Women make up at least half of the body of Christ, and yet it’s not uncommon to attend a Christian gathering and never once hear a woman’s voice. We have our reasons, specific intuitive rules we’ve been playing by since we were kids. But I can’t help wondering if, to an outside observer, we look like a body writhing around on the ground with clearly functional limbs flopping limply at our side.

Now I know I’m talking about some rules which are based on passages in the Bible, passages that should be/have been carefully discussed in detail in other contexts. And I realize the Church shouldn’t adjust our practices simply to avoid embarrassment; in fact, identifying with the story of Jesus inevitably leads to behaviors that seem crazy to others.

But that same story is one in which women are repeatedly met with hospitality beyond–and often in defiance of–the social norms of their day. When women meet Jesus in the Gospels, they are welcomed in a way that gives them back their voice. They’re invited to sit at Jesus’ feet as disciples.  They’re sent back to their towns as evangelists. They’re embraced as prophets, pray-ers, and apostles. (All of this in the midst of a wider culture that understood women to be more akin to property than to people!)

It’s as if God’s entrance into our little word necessitated a change of rules. The fantasy of our isolated system, the rules that were once both acceptable and required, suddenly became embarrassingly nonsensical in the presence of someone from another world.

To be blunt–and a bit repetitive– it would be both shameful and absurd to go on ignoring half of the body of Christ in the context of God’s new world.

Silencing the messages of one half of the body is disastrous for the whole body. How can the left leg function properly if it remains unrecognized by the rest of the body? And how can the right leg do its thing if it’s never heard from the left? A church in which a woman’s voice is not welcomed is a church with incredibly limited mobility in the kingdom of God. It can limp, at best, but it will never run.

I wish I could say exactly how a church body should go about rediscovering its other half, but it seems to be a process that varies from one community to the next. In most contexts, it will not happen overnight. I’d like to think that at the moment Jesus walks in and finds us wriggling around on the floor, we’d stop acting like kids and stand up on both of our feet. But some rules are hard to shake off, especially if you’ve been playing the same game your whole life.

I do believe, however, that this process is central to the gospel of Jesus, because hospitality is central to the gospel of Jesus. A community that is inhospitable to women will find itself severely limited in its participation in God’s mission, largely because it has silenced many of its strongest examples of hospitality.

I’m eager to hear how this process is playing itself out in your community. If you’re a part of a church, in what ways has it been rediscovering its other half? How has the absence of women’s perspectives limited your church’s participation in God’s mission?

For my follow up to this post, see “What I Got Wrong in my post on Women in the Church.”