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Can We Stay Together?

What unites Christians is far greater than what divides us.

I was recently involved in discussions among evangelical church leaders as to whether our churches could continue to work together. The focus was same-sex marriage, which seemed to us a convenient peg on which to hang broader questions of sexuality. The jury has not yet returned a verdict.

When I say these leaders were “evangelical,” what do I mean? Well, if you asked them what the Gospel is, all would say something like: “The Gospel is the message of the Bible, that God is making all things new through Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection. We are invited to be part of that new thing through repentance and faith, and then a life of discipleship in following Jesus.” In other words, these are not exactly theological liberals!

As the discussions unfolded, the arguments about scripture, history, truth and love seemed hauntingly familiar.

However, the realization slowly dawned on me that there were underlying issues which explained why there was no meeting of minds. Not that the difficulties would miraculously go away if we named those questions, but at least the naming might lead to a new understanding and respect among those who think differently. Here are five that occurred to me:

Creation

How does the new creation relate to the old creation?

“If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation.” But does that creation mean restoring things to the perfection they had in the first creation, or does the newness consist of God’s making something new yet different from the ruins of the old?

I have a tea set that was a wedding gift to my grandmother in 1904. When I got it, there was one broken cup, so I had it mended. As a result, I cannot now tell which the broken one was. Is that the nature of new creation?

But I have also come across the Japanese art of kintsugi, where broken pieces of pottery are repaired with gold, so that they are beautiful, but in a different way from how they were originally made. Is that what new creation does?

How we answer will affect how we respond to current issues of sexuality.

Culture

How do we distinguish accommodation from compromise?

“I have become all things to all people, that I may win some,” says Paul. Adapting to life in a predominantly non-Christian culture is an ongoing challenge. It takes time and experimentation to figure out the way forward.

For example, in general, African churches have insisted on monogamy among their converts. However, I once met a missionary who had spent 30 years among the Maasai, and who had come to believe that polygamy, far from being immoral, was actually necessary for the economic survival of the Maasai and should be welcomed in the Maasai church. Legitimate adaptation, or worldly compromise?

We too are missionaries in an alien culture and, inevitably, there will be disagreements as to what is legitimate adaptation and what is syncretism. Such things are not cause for division.

Theology and the Bible

How do we weigh specific scriptures over against broad Gospel themes?

In general, we arrive at our Christian convictions by reflecting on specific scriptures and then drawing broad conclusions. We try to formulate our theology by reflecting on all of scripture, of course. However, we know that in practice every Christian tradition has a “canon within the canon,” passages and doctrines which we regard as more key than others, and which provide a guide for interpreting the rest.

This is not a bad thing – in fact, it is unavoidable. By the grace of God we are all growing, learning and changing. This means that our theology is necessarily provisional: we are both human and sinful, and those two things limit our grasp of God’s truth.

As a result, there will always be a variety of theologies within the church, and we will attribute different levels of importance to specific scriptures accordingly. We may not agree with someone else’s interpretation, but we need at least to trust that they have come to their conclusions with integrity – and try to live graciously with the discomfort.

Experience

How in practice does our experience of life and people interact with our reading of scripture?

I often hear Christians of different persuasions say, “I know and respect professing Christians who are in same-sex relationships.” That’s experience – obviously – but we respond differently to that experience.

Sometimes people’s conclusion is, “This experience makes me wonder if there a legitimate way to try to reinterpret the relevant scriptures.” Others have the opposite response: “The Bible says same-sex relationships are sinful, so my positive experience of these couples makes no difference.”

The underlying question then is: How exactly do we relate our experience and our reading of scripture? There is no single answer. Clearly, in Acts 15, the apostles’ experience of Gentiles turning to Christ caused them to re-read scripture and realize they were not reading it correctly. On the other hand, there are times when (for example) we cling to scriptural promises of the love of God in the face of life-experiences which might suggest the opposite.

We need to challenge one another about the particular weight (or lack of weight) we give to experience in our understanding of scripture in any given circumstance. But it is often a spiritual judgement call.

Discipleship

What does it mean in practice when we say we live under the authority of scripture?

You may be familiar with N.T. Wright’s image of the five-act play. Wright says: suppose a previously unknown play of Shakespeare’s was discovered tomorrow. It is all there except Act Five. What are you going to do? Why not get together the world’s best Shakespearian actors, let them act out the four acts as Shakespeare wrote them . . . and then let them make up the last act?

How would that work? They would know they had to be faithful to the play as Shakespeare wrote it, but on the other hand they could not simply repeat lines from the previous acts. They would have to exercise what Wright calls “faithful improvisation.” The characters have to continue to develop, the arc of the plot has to continue, the style of the play has to remain the same (tragedy cannot suddenly turn into comedy), and so on.

Wright suggests this is where we are with the Bible. Much of the time, we cannot simply repeat lines from the previous acts of scripture, but we have to act with what fidelity we can muster in line with the spirit and direction of the text.

So what does “faithful improvisation” look like around questions of sexuality? Experienced actors are always going to disagree about when “improvisation” ceases to be “faithful.”

Conclusion

I am convinced we will never reach a resolution on questions of sexuality until we acknowledge deeper differences such as these. Once we do, I believe we will discover there is room for diversity of genuinely Christian opinion. Compared with the philosophies and religions around us in the contemporary world, what unites Christians is far greater than what divides us.

  • John P. Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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2 Comments

  1. John, thank you for. your thoughtful article. Love that CC has the courage to address complex issues.

    Perhaps there is an additional question to add to your valuable list of considerations.
    It goes like this: Normally, we fight to “win.” That is, we fight to defeat the opposition. Defeat is the key concept.
    If we could fight to “solve” our problems (rather than defeat our enemy) we would do far less damage in the process and thereby increase the potential for retaining positive relations even with our antagonists and (more importantly) with our own souls.

    The new category might be:

    PAYOFF
    What do I gain if I crush my antagonist?

    What is the profit if I defeat the whole world and, at the end of the day, I am bitterly angry and isolated? While it may be necessary and valuable to divide (or it may be possible to stay together) what do I see as the most important by-product of this conflict? Will winning give me what I need? What God wants? Or will I feel like the grade-five boy who proudly beat up a grade-three boy? Before engaging a self-destructive battle a wise person will count the cost and measure it against the potential benefit.
    Mainline churches, like the UMC, have concluded that staying together in bitter conflict is not sufficient benefit for the decades of hostility. Others seem to have found satisfactory workarounds (PCUSA, I hear, has a split-house to accommodate conservatives.) Is that the payoff we want?
    One thing we know is that the present problem-solving strategy of arguing and games-playing is ruinous to the churches.
    What profit do we have in continuing it?
    Wouldn’t a wise person choose another strategy?

    In any case, thank you for your thoughtful questions.

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