Sunday, July 17, 2011

All the Other Kids Are Doing It

As Presbyterians struggle to figure out the longer term ramifications of our new willingness to be open to full participation by gays and lesbians, there's liable to be some wrangling and worrying about the impacts this decision will have on our connectedness to other strains of Jesus folk.  In particular, there's gonna be worrying about how that decision will impact our fellowship with other Christians, particularly those who live and worship in the Global South.

Along those lines, recently read an interesting article written by a conservative Presbyterian expressing exactly those concerns .  Dr. Ken Bailey was writing for Presbyterians for Renewal, one of the various groups within the denomination that presses for a return to traditional values as a way of revitalizing our faith.

The core argument being made by Dr. Bailey was that American Christianity, and particularly American denominational Christianity, is no longer the defining majority in the faith as a world movement.  This is quite true.  Christianity is far more dynamic and growing in the Global South, in Africa and Latin America and certain portions of Asia.  In those regions, Christian faith also manifests itself in a far more socially conservative form.   For American conservatives, this is viewed as validating a more conservative approach to the faith, rather than as an indication of the socio-cultural dynamics of the societies in which that faith is articulating itself.

Dr. Bailey's argument, from that foundation, is that the Western church is a "mouse" and the church in the Global South is the "elephant."  By choosing to be open and inclusive to gays and lesbians, the "mouse" is acting under the false presumption that it still defines what is Christian, and should be aware that it is jeopardizing its relationship with the broader fellowship.

I get this argument, and understand Bailey's concern.  I don't want to force a disconnect with African and Latin American brothers and sisters, as there is much that we have to offer one another in Christ, and many ways we can serve each other.  A few thoughts, though.

First, by electing to be open to gays and lesbians, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is only defining the terms of our own fellowship.   These terms are not established randomly, or driven by social forces extrinsic to our faith.  Our desire to be inclusive is formed by a fundamentally biblical understanding of what it means to be a child of God, and from a radically orthodox understanding of the nature of sin.   It does not mean we have abandoned covenant principles as radically defining our relationships, or that we reject fidelity as a central ethic for our lives together.  It just means we're in a different place, one that we witness to honestly from the heart of a Christ-centered faith.

Second, that there is not commonality between us on this issue does not a priori mean that we cannot find commonality.    There is so much in the Gospel upon which we can agree.  The entirety of the Sermon on the Mount comes to mind, as does so much of the teaching of the Apostle Paul.  If we're together on core principles, together on the central ethics Jesus taught and equally willing to give his teachings authority over our lives...well...then there's common ground aplenty.

Third, it is perfectly acceptable for those in a minority to disagree with the majority.  Many churches in Africa and South America still struggle with women in leadership as a defining issue.  Some African Christians still see sorcery and witchcraft as a major societal problem.   We do not for a moment have to be defined by that majoritarian view, and certainly not in the context of our own fellowship.  Dr. Bailey takes this desire to "fit in" with others in the Global South to some rather interesting ends, up to and including suggesting that being inclusive to gays and lesbians might jeopardize interfaith relations with conservative Islam.

We shouldn't include gays and lesbians, because it flies in the face of conservative Muslim interpretations of the Qu'ran?  For a conservative Christian, this is a rather interesting argument.

Whichever way, I think those who are committed to inclusion have both the right and the responsibility to articulate their position, and to do so without either fearing or demonizing the majority.   That we are providing a minority report, and significantly so, only heightens our responsibility to remain gracious and firm in our witness.