Faith Works 5-21-16
We Can Disagree Without Being Disagreeable
There are two passages of Scripture much abused these days by partisans of the right and of the left alike.
They're found in Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, in a passage about midway through, and I'll stick with the 1611 classic English translation for now; in 6:14 (KJV): Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And Paul adds at 6:17: Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord.
This counsel to the early Christian community in the worldly & cosmopolitan city of Corinth (think Vegas mixed with Manhattan), has been turned into a justification for congregational and denominational splintering, and I have to be honest: it's starting to tick me off.
Today, because of relatively sudden and startling changes in our cultural assumptions about sexuality and gender, faith communities (especially of a Protestant orientation) are going through major tensions over what traditional morality has to say about leadership roles in church life, how to teach our children and congregations about the right use of our sexuality in our personal and spiritual lives, and what provision and arrangements for differences and choices can be made in our organizational structures, let alone our buildings.
For a large chunk of the country and a great many churches, this is baffling stuff that has little to do with our own every day life. A good case can be made that almost every one of the subjects now in dispute about sex, marriage, and personal freedoms has an impact in any congregation, no matter how small or isolated (we think), if only we would open our eyes and see more clearly who our neighbors really are.
But it's also the case that there are many who would argue that some of these subjects are settled, with great weight of history and precedent and tradition behind them, and they should not be moved . . . and they cite Bible verses to support that.
Even as others speak of some traditions as standing on "the wrong side of history," greater acceptance of others being a value well supported by Jesus, and our need to affirm the personal rights and integrity of all . . . and they cite Bible verses to support that.
I won't resolve any of those issues in a few hundred words here. But I do want to address what I strongly believe is an unseemly hurry on the part of some to see to it that local congregations and national or global church bodies divide themselves up over such issues, with (again) both partisans of the left and of the right using one translation or another of "come out from among them, and be separate."
There's a purist perspective at work here, and I fear the church has caught a cold from the raging influenza of today's politics, sniffling about how we can only work with people who already completely agree with us. It began in political matters, was magnified by the "culture wars" of the Seventies and Eighties, and has now bled over into the doctrinal battles most evident in Protestant Christian bodies over the last two decades or so.
Paul was speaking in Second Corinthians directly to marriage, and how it can be dangerous to the believer to marry an unbeliever, and the logic of that he works out in the chapter in full. "Unequally yoked" can also be seen as any sort of formal obligation where your relationship, contractual or matrimonial, forces you to act against your faith, and avoiding that simply seems prudent.
But when that idea gets wound up in the phrase "separate yourselves from the unrighteous" (which, read it carefully in any translation, is not what it says), it turns into a belief that faithful living requires that you have no churchly relationship with anyone or any group with which you have disagreement, substantial or slight.
Which is, to use a theological term, hooey. In my own congregation, I am a Cubs fan, while almost all of the rest of us are Indians or Reds fans. Ah, but that's not about unrighteousness, I can hear some ask. Well, my retort would be that when you turn this into a need to keep your distance from any disagreement that has to do with the nature of truth, we have all sorts of points of departure, from sports to sexuality to the nature of authority. There are some church folk who think I should be able to just tell people what they must do, and would you believe it, but I disagree with them?
How can we continue as faith communities worthy of the name, even as our members have differences of opinion? I plan to return to this subject from a number of angles this summer. Please feel free to share with me any particular aspects you'd like to hear addressed.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; you can email him at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.