Monday, September 23, 2013

Dealing with Controversy

Controversy is no stranger to the Church. Some would argue that God made it that way. However, how we handle controversy is key. Much of the Christian Church sings the hymn, They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love, but many of those congregations would not be recognized by love.

Back in July, our pastor was addressing various questions posed by congregants. One of the Sundays addressed how our congregation deals with controversy. It was one of the best sermons I've heard. Ever.

With the bulletin was a document entitled Controversial Issues and the Church's Ministry. Here is a copy (used with permission):
Controversial Issues and the Church's MinistryAffirmed by the Executive CouncilThe First Baptist Church of Redlands, CaliforniaAdopted on May 7, 2002 and revised on June 28, 2005 
Members of The First Baptist Church of Redlands like Christians elsewhere are not unanimous in their understanding of many social and personal issues. Several guiding principles therefore become important when considering controversial issues and the ministry of Christ's church. 
a) All people are received into the membership of The First Baptist Church of Redlands on the basis of their confession of faith in Christ and their commitment to support the ministry God has given us as a congregation both locally and globally.
b) Members of this congregation struggle with a number of personal and spiritual issues, and we humbly acknowledge that we all fall short of God's glory and are dependent on God's grace in every area of life. 
c) We all are challenged to study the scriptures using the best knowledge and interpretive principles available to us as we follow the leading of the Spirit, upholding as a congregation the historic Baptist principle of soul liberty in matters of faith and practice. 
d) The mission and ministry God has given our congregation is greater than any one issue. We must not allow the divisiveness of this age to divide the church, but (as Jesus teaches) trust God to separate the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). 
e) The ministry of Jesus stretches us beyond our comfort zones as we reach out into our community. We must, therefore, guard our hearts against prejudices and false stereotypes cast upon minorities in our society and instead base our perspectives on convictions that build community and trust.  
f) Everyone is to be treated with the respect due one for whom Christ has died. No one is to be abused or harmed by either words or actions. Disparaging remarks, unkind comments, and abusive behavior have no place in the body of Christ. 
g) When considering leadership openings all character issues are relevant and may be taken into account in any and every situation.
While I'm of course biased, I love this. There are so many things that could be said for each point, but the thing I appreciate the most is that this statement reminds us of our priorities. Rather than getting bogged down by the minutiae of theological debate, this perspective keeps us focused on the greatest commandment: Love God and love others.

This statement is more about character and identity than about doctrine, and I think that's what makes it so Christian. And so hard to live up to!

During the message, my wife leaned over to me and said, "Now, that's something I would like to see posted on the door by the sanctuary!" She was referring to a past congregation we attended where they posted a huge sign at the sanctuary entrance, stating, "As Christians, we believe..." with their statement of faith. This move was one of the last actions that let us know we no longer aligned with their vision. As I explained to one of their pastors, trying to understand their decision-making process of the sign, I didn't even necessarily disagree with the content. By putting something up like that, they were sending the message that only people who agreed with that long list (very little of which would be salvific, in my opinion) would be welcomed in that congregation as a Christian. That process is what I have a problem with. And our current congregation's above statement reflects exactly the opposite sentiment. We are here on a journey of life. And life throws a lot of curve balls of confusion. We will do our best to be faithful in word and deed, but how we go about finding and living out truth is critical.

As our pastor told me one of the first times I met him, "We don't want doctrine to get in the way of doing what's right." That in itself could be a controversial statement, but I agreed with it then and agree with it now. It doesn't mean we don't stand by right belief. But we don't use it to clobber others. The right thing to do is to love people. No matter what. That doesn't mean excusing behavior. But not excusing behavior also doesn't mean condemnation. Ultimately, this approach is using the Bible as the center of the Christian faith.

I've experienced our congregation to demonstrate that delicate, holy balance. I've heard that our pastor has been accused by other community churches of being "too loving." I can only pray I receive that condemnation some day. Frankly, it's the same one the Pharisees gave Jesus...

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