Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yes, but what do you teach?

Each fall a different set of students from Wheaton College (sometimes called the “Evangelical Harvard”) comes to study us at St. Paul Lutheran Church because of our “open and affirming” stance toward gays and lesbians. Needless to say, we offer the minority report on this matter in socially conservative Wheaton, so naturally we provide a valuable service for students needing to track down “the other side” for their research papers. (I do wish they would visit us more often for non-homework related reasons…)

This year, after I finished outlining about four different rationales folks in the congregation might be working with that have led them to a belief in unrestricted inclusion of gay Christians, as well as acknowledged continuing voices of dissent or discomfort in the congregation, one of the three inquiring students in my office, a young woman, asked, “Yes, but what do you teach?”

I admit I was a little stunned by her directness. She wasn’t asking what I believed personally; she was asking what I, as a pastor, teach to be true, and I had to stop and ask myself if I had somehow abdicated my duty by, in fact, not having really taught anything about “the church’s response to homosexuality” in the sort of top-down way she was suggesting. Mostly the other pastor and I both just give out tools for biblical interpretation and ethical reflection, and then facilitate conversation as the people have at it. So I said something to that effect, and then I think we were all a bit struck—or at least I was—with having unexpectedly hit on what is really a much more profound difference between us than our respective positions on homosexuality, namely, the question of how much authority a pastor is supposed to have and how he/she is expected to wield it.

Having spent a significant portion of my growing-up years in Evangelical Protestant environments and working in one now (contextually speaking), I believe this to be one of the most significant, if underappreciated, differences between how Evangelicals and mainliners operate. The popular understanding that Evangelical “Bible churches” are more committed to the truths of the Bible than their mainline counterparts is, if not a ruse entirely, highly exaggerated. What they are committed to most of all is entrusting their “teaching pastors” with the authority to determine and expound the Bible’s answers to whatever people want answered. Evidence abounds that this approach both attracts high numbers and exiles into the world an inordinate number of wounded sheep (not to mention a propensity for outright schism).

That said, we should be careful not to imagine this tendency only exists in one branch of the Christian family. In my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, it isn’t difficult to find congregations that are still following an inherited “Herr Pastor” model (probably not accompanied by much success retaining younger generations…), and there are significant elements in the church, for example, among the evangelical catholic block, that are longing for a stronger “teaching” authority—from pastors, but just as importantly, from bishops—to resolve the confusion over human sexuality, a confusion they perceive as being brought on by laity gone wild. Again, the deeper confusion here when Lutherans are found demanding more clarity on what “the Church teaches” is where this mysterious capital “C” Church is (Chicago? St. Louis? Wittenberg? The pastor’s office?).

Truly, one can justifiably lose patience on the other end, with a church full of moderators who don’t seem to be making much use of their seminary training. But I would rather err on that side any day. There is, of course, a better way of teaching that equips the baptized to humbly discover the answers, or something approximating answers, themselves. If the result looks like chaos rather than consensus, well, then let’s let God handle that—I hear God is pretty good at bringing order out of chaos.

Rev. Mark Williamson
Associate Pastor
St. Paul Lutheran Church
Wheaton, IL

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