To Dream the Ecclesial Dream: Making Demands on the Liberal Church


We yearn to have companions
who travel by our side,
strong friends to call and answer
with whom we are allied…

These words from Dosia Carlson’s contemporary hymn “We yearn, O Christ, for wholeness” (sung to the tune of “O Sacred Head”) keep running through my mind as I contemplate my feelings of alienation within the church. We’ve had a good debate on this blog about the shortcomings I perceive in the conservative Christian approach to religious knowledge. But I felt exhausted and alone after this discussion, and so many others like it, whenever I’ve tried to widen the lens beyond the usual proof-text battles over homosexuality. Are Christian progressives and postmodernists failing to step up to the challenge of advancing religious philosophy of knowledge beyond the tired old rationalist/supernaturalist debates of the 19th century? What would make the liberal church a radical church?

Beyond “Inclusion”

The liberal churches’ pastoral response to marginalized groups has been stronger than their theological response. The Episcopal Church, for instance, has shown leadership in appointing women clergy at all levels of authority, and in rolling back discrimination against GLBT clergy and laypeople. But apart from rebutting traditionalists’ interpretation of certain Bible verses to the contrary (“women keep silent in churches” and the like), we haven’t developed a positive Scripture-based ethic to replace conservative sexual mores.

To begin with, the concept of “inclusion” can’t bear all the weight we place on it. Postmodernist gadfly Stanley Fish, a professor of law and literature, has written many books urging progressives to flesh out their substantive values and proclaim them fearlessly, rather than hiding behind procedural values that give the false appearance of neutrality. “Inclusion” is one of his favorite targets. Every community has boundaries, implicit or explicit, to exclude those values and behaviors that the community simply cannot tolerate without jeopardizing its reason for existence. When we dodge conflict by pretending that there are no boundaries, we are also evading the accountability of a communal discussion about where those boundaries should be.

With respect to the status of GLBT Christians, the liberal church would welcome them unconditionally, while the conservative church would say that they have to acknowledge and work on correcting their sinful tendencies in order to be members in good standing. But why do we disagree?

Is it because we can explain why gender nonconformity and same-sex intercourse are not sinful according to Scripture? If so, have we articulated principles of responsible interpretation, so that our departure from the apparent meaning of other Biblical proscriptions does not degenerate into a free-for-all?

Is it because we don’t consider Scripture authoritative, or at least not more authoritative than reason and experience? The same question applies, as well as the question of whether we have made our religion irrelevant.

Or do we take the lazy way out and invoke “inclusion”? Here is where it gets knotty. Because there must be–there should be–some instances where the liberal church would put moral conditions on inclusion. Pedophiles, sexual harassers, “johns” who purchase exploited and trafficked women, perpetrators of domestic violence, maybe even adulterers. Economic exploitation could also come in for criticism if the rights and wrongs of the situation are clear enough (e.g. sweatshop labor, human trafficking).

I don’t mean that these people would always be banned from church or denied communion, though that might also be necessary. But at the very least, the church would publicly deem those behaviors unacceptable, and press sinners to repent and reform. (When was the last time you heard the word “sin” in your liberal church? Just asking.)

As it is, we flip back and forth between the rationales that “Jesus welcomed everybody” and “Jesus didn’t condemn homosexuality” as if they were the same. They aren’t. Jesus didn’t actually welcome everybody. He called some behaviors sinful, and he said that some sins were serious enough to be incompatible with the kingdom of Heaven. Whether we understand that as a statement about the afterlife, or about the kind of society he wants us to create here and now, the point is that our concepts of inclusion and tolerance owe more to Enlightenment philosophy than to the Bible.

Another, theologically more important, pitfall of the inclusion paradigm is that it keeps the church’s power in the hands of the human heterosexual majority rather than conceding it to God. It shouldn’t be about whether we are convinced to let gays into “our” church. It’s about universal access to the Holy Spirit. It’s about humbling ourselves and problematizing our privileges so that we learn to view any type of group-based domination as a historical accident rather than a divine right.

We need this level of spiritual formation in the liberal church. Jesus calls us to rethink the worldly understanding of power. We don’t foreground this issue enough, except in generalized anti-war sermons and charitable appeals. It should be brought into our personal lives as well.

Inclusion is an important concept, but it’s not the whole of our faith, and it doesn’t solve every problem.

Sex After Patriarchy

Monogamous love matches between consenting adults represent our modern ideal of marriage, but this norm doesn’t come from the Bible, and in fact you have to look hard to find examples. In addition, the diverse marriage patterns approved or uncritically represented in the Bible include several that we’d recognize as oppressive today: e.g. a woman forced to marry her rapist, a widow forced to marry her brother-in-law, or a male and female slave paired off by their owners. Reports from survivors of polygamous sects suggest that this arrangement also carries an unacceptable risk of exploitation and neglect of women and children.

Apart from opening up modern marriage to same-sex couples, does the liberal church have anything to say about gospel norms for sexuality? As St. Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.” (See parallel translations here.) The liberal church hasn’t given us any resources for discerning what is helpful. In today’s chaotic and hypersexualized culture, that’s serious neglect of the flock.

For instance, why is monogamy the only Christian option? Would Jesus disapprove of the honestly negotiated open relationships that quite a few married gay male couples enjoy? I really don’t know, and I’ve never been in a church that took the initiative to shape this conversation.

Conservative Christianity focuses on lists of acceptable and forbidden acts, with too little regard for the quality of the relationship within which they occur. Husband’s penis in wife’s vagina is presumptively God-approved. Anything else needs a special permit. Once we reject this legalism, though, how do we assess that relationship? Does sex have to be tender and egalitarian? What about role-playing and BDSM? Married, LTR, or one-night stand?

We are long overdue for a discussion about the qualities of character that Jesus wants us to cultivate, and how our sexual habits can build up or damage that character. The late Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” uses specificially Christian concepts like Incarnation and Trinity to depict an ideal sexuality that integrates body, mind, and spirit. Despite th
e Catholic Church’s problematic assumptions about gender and sexual orientation, we can learn a lot from this project.

The liberal church is still reacting so hard against sexist and homophobic stigma that we are afraid to suggest any limits on sexual self-expression. This lapse is not cost-free. It imposes collateral damage on the children of casually formed and dissolved sexual pairings, and on adults who need guidance to recognize that they’re reenacting traumatic patterns.

From Liberal to Liberators

“Why don’t they just leave?”

Outsiders often ask this question about victims of intimate partner violence and adult survivors of child abuse who remain in contact with the abuser. These interrogators need to be educated about the brainwashing, learned helplessness, and fear of losing one’s entire social world when the relationship is terminated. Go now and read a complete explanation on the survivor website Pandora’s Project. I’ll wait.

Liberal Christians are prone to the same insensitivity toward our conservative brothers and sisters. We get angry at women and gays in patriarchal churches for apparently colluding in their own oppression, or we dismiss them as stupid. We flatter ourselves that rape culture and abuse-enabling myths are confined to right-wing institutions, whereas the average Baptist wife and mother looks at the sexual brutality and relationship chaos of modern America and decides, not irrationally, that she is safer in a community where at least some men recognize a duty to protect her and her children. The preachers of patriarchy encourage these fear-based compromises by implying that women who are not modest and submissive are asking to be raped, as last month’s dust-up over Douglas Wilson and Fifty Shades of Grey demonstrated.

Feminist bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, linked above, and Grace at Are Women Human? wrote thorough refutations of this abuse-enabling theology. But the liberal church, as a whole, hasn’t devoted nearly enough resources to identifying this heresy wherever it appears, and providing compassionate support to conservative Christian women whose own religious leaders are covering up abuse.

When we say “Why don’t you leave?” we are basically asking hundreds of thousands of Christians to join the Witness Protection Program — to turn their backs on their family and friends, the music they love, the culture they know best, the beliefs that carried them through tough times — and become New England Unitarians. There’s a lot of nourishment that conservative churches provide, which we don’t consistently offer.

For instance, members facing serious illness can be comforted by a robust public affirmation of the power of prayer to work miracles. Spouses struggling with temptation to cheat, and teenagers confused by their overpowering new urges, benefit from collective reinforcement of moral standards and the wider time horizon that their faith suggests. Conservatives say that Jesus is alive and actively caring for us, not just a good moral example from history. He bears us up in our weakness and forgives our sins; he doesn’t only command us to share our abundance. Let me tell you, when I’m drowning in anxiety and grief, I need the Lord of the Storm, not a Nobel Peace Prize winner. People in crisis will be loyal to the religion that brings order out of chaos, even at the cost of some personal freedom.

The liberal church’s avoidance of the topic of personal, relational sins (as opposed to economic and collective political ones) can actually make victims feel less safe. “And such a one was I…” The replacement of “Truth” with “true for you” removes the standard against which we can begin to judge our abuser’s behavior. Didn’t she already try to make us believe that reality was whatever she wanted it to be? We survivors need communally agreed-upon facts and moral values, in order to name our secret trauma, hand back the shame, and dethrone the god-like accuser in our head.

We liberal Christians can’t coast forever on the sins we don’t commit. We should become active allies of Christians who are entrapped by a distorted version of our shared faith.

And let it begin with me.

3 comments on “To Dream the Ecclesial Dream: Making Demands on the Liberal Church

  1. Scott Jackson says:

    Good questions, Jendi. I think you are right that the progressive churches need to tackle the question of power more explicitly in their theological and ethical discourses. As you obviously know, there are resources available to help with this — liberation theologies of all kinds, feminist theory, Marxist theory (not to scare off your readers). I’m not suggesting theological ethics needs to be subservient to any theoretical framework or ideology, but some of these tools might be more serviceable for a revisionist Christian ethics of sexuality than mainstream liberal language of “tolerance” and “inclusion.” Tolerance language might be more relatively adequate in the public sphere — say in the marriage equality debate — where a more minimalist moral framework is desirable. But Christian faith needs something more substantial, more radical. I’d suggest Christian teaching about sexuality needs to be rooted in a model of discipleship that flows from a vision of the Kingdom of God as the paradigm for human community and flourishing. We need to be able to answer more boldly why we are here at all. This conception of discipleship must be about more than giving a religious/spiritual legitimation, let’s say, to the UN Millennium Development Goals, as worthy and as valuable as such collective endeavors may be. But I’m still in pretty vague territory, and I’m not sure how this vision of the kingdom would relate to traditional claims about Christology, the Trinity, etc.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    YES.

    Scott, have you attended progressive Christian churches, Episcopal or otherwise, where this liberationist paradigm was operating? Where are they? How can we replicate this in our local churches?


  3. Scott Jackson says:

    My rhetoric above was highly strung, but you’ve invited me to make it real.

    I would tend to think in terms of small communities (fewer than 50), something on the base community model. Essentials would include a non-hierarchical structure with an open deliberative process, regular table fellowship (very, very important), probably some common liturgical life – with daily prayer and perhaps communion, and real commitment to specific projects within the local community (projects, especially, that require regular person-to-person interactions with the poor). Something definitely “postliberal” or “postevangelical”, depending on one’s community of origin.

    Turns out I’ve described a Catholic worker house. You might want to take a look at St. Francis House (an Episcopal CW community). Or perhaps some sort of neomonastic experiment. There are all kinds of such things out there now. Also there is good stuff to learn from the Gregory of Nyssa congregration in San Francisco, I believe. There was a Gregory-influenced parish in Providence where Sara was involved, but it was shut down by the bishop of RI.

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