“It’s hard to hold fast to harmful views when you have to look someone in the face, when you have to see how the theology of your church is someone else’s cross to bear.”
I’ve never been much good at polite dinner-party conversation. There are very few things that come out of my mouth not related to politics and religion. At the last one I attended, I mentioned that I was in seminary, which usually results in uncomfortable conversations as I explain my “unorthodox” views and my commitment to social justice (which is apparently shorthand for communism) and LGBTQ rights, read as heresy. At least that’s often the case in this rural area on the northern border of the Bible Belt.
I could avoid such conversations, but I have an obligation to them. This is the purpose of what will total three years of graduate education, largely paid for by my denomination and private donors who thankfully and inexplicably believe that this is worth investing in. No matter how uncomfortable it may be to express unpopular views, I honor all those who have invested in me by doing so. This is what evangelism is. It’s not coercion. It’s putting in the hard work of cultivating convictions through study, community, prayer, and action – and then marshalling the courage to voice them.
Of the two ladies I had this kitchen conversation with, I learned that one was a fairly conservative Catholic and the other an evangelical that belonged to one of the few “megachurches” in the region. Mega here means high hundreds rather than thousands. For me, this particular church represents so much of what is wrong with popular Christianity.
It follows a predictable patriarchal model. Among the disturbing theologies I’ve heard espoused are that gays are to be “loved” into changing their sexual orientation. This church’s complementarian view of male-female relationships teaches that women are not equal but ‘helpers’ to men, as the book of Genesis identified Eve. This idea is conceptually deceptive as the Hebrew word for ‘helper’ used there is most often used to describe God throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s difficult to see how a direct comparison to God would imply a secondary role for women. In addition, the name Eve means life-giver while Adam means soil. It’s hard to imagine a more equal partnership or a more mutually dependent balance. It’s hard to believe them to be “real” people when thousands of years of biblical study has opened up the powerful symbols in this creation myth – one that expands as lore and contracts as literalism.
Insights like this are further proof that me and my ilk are “distorting the Word of God” by not reading it literally – which means reading it through a 21st-century contextual lens. If you want to talk about distortion, I could spend two weeks outlining how this so-called literalism is among the most damaging distortions of all. I visibly cringed when this lady mentioned the name of her church.
I’m not going to lie. Some of it is envy. While I was heading the children’s education program at my dying mainline church, I took my son to a big free fair this megachurch sponsored in a park. My son could not help but notice the difference between this extravaganza and the quaint Fall Fest I organized for our congregation. While they had more bouncy castles than I had ever seen in one place, we still had the shoestring-budget activities that our church had been doing since the forties, when once the whole community dropped in to bob apples. We were happy to have 10-20 kids come through, and so grateful for the few parent volunteers we could muster for half-hour slots.
In line for the bouncy fighting arena, my son asked about the disparity. I explained to him that they had a lot of money and members, but that they also teach that our pastor and I could not be ministers because we are women. They would also not welcome LGTBQ people into membership or leadership unless they changed who they were. He groaned. It is hard for us to imagine our congregation without our leadership – significantly female, gay, straight, lesbian, questioning, curious, and kind. To have someone tell us they shouldn’t, that this is somehow wrong, and to pin that on Jesus or the Bible… it’s hard to explain, but it actually hurts.
Once we invited this church to talk to our church about marketing. The words marketing and church together in the same sentence turns our stomachs. It smacks of reducing the gospel to a gimmick. But we should be smart and savvy with getting our message out, and we aren’t. The presentation by the earnest, charming pastor of this theological minefield was the topic of anxious, sometimes angry, congregational conversation for years to come.
Anyone was welcome to worship at their church and, in fact, their on-campus outreach was dynamic. They offered loads of freebies and cool brochures of cool young people living out grandiose spiritual experiences on mountaintops. This pushed their phenomenal growth and allowed for their enormous pole barn ‘sanctuary’ to rise. I put ‘sanctuary’ in quotes not only to be catty but to be precise. They do not use any religious language or icons in their worship space. These, apparently, scare people off – as does our confusing ancient rituals and peculiar vocabulary such as narthex (entrance hall) and doxology (short praise hymn). According to this man, anything out of the ordinary culture made the unchurched feel unwelcome. For evangelical churches that hold tightly to what they perceive as a historical bible-based faith, they seem perfectly content to throw out the communion table and replace it with a widescreen TV and praise band. It baffles us.
Besides their coffee shop, and the Sunday school rooms that rival Disney World, their marketing was finely tuned. I was glad that one of our female deacons who is wheelchair-bound was not at the presentation to hear him say that those who were disabled or even a little untidy were not allowed to be greeters or leaders in their church. Only those who looked what I might term “marketable” wouldn’t scare people off. I guess we hadn’t realized how fearful people were of church altogether. But if that meant barring anyone who wanted a leadership role from taking it, no thank you. If that meant selling off the pulpit that one of our elder member’s grandfather had hand carved, not a chance.
Further, membership in their congregation required signing a contract indicating that you assented to all the beliefs of the church. We were horrified to discover the process included handing over the family W-2s, so the church could be sure it was getting 10 percent of members’ income for their tithe. That must add up to a lot of bouncy castles.
So when this nice woman told me her church name, I bristled. I stated flat out that I could never agree with her church’s stances on female ordination, LGBTQ rights, and a host of other damaging theologies. She said she used to feel like I did before “the Holy Spirit changed my mind.” I wanted to say, “No, before you were taken in by a slick marketing campaign.” Instead, I told her, “And I believe the Holy Spirit has led me in another direction.” Then, trying to provide a polite “out,” I mentioned how regardless of our beliefs, no one tows the complete party line of their religions. Honestly, this is rare. There are fundamentalists of every stripe, but it would surprise people if they knew how many people who are deeply committed to their religious traditions veer off into unorthodox territory when pressed for their true beliefs. Still, I told her, churches like hers cut me to the core. And as much as I respect the Catholics, and especially Pope Francis, their same stance on women’s ordination leaves me out of the light.
I believe that I have been called by that same Holy Spirit to seminary, to a “life of contemplation and compassion” that I had no intention of choosing for myself. The road to here has been long and confusing. I have questioned every step. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel perplexingly pulled here. But like all the biblical heroes and role models, I’m so full of defects that I was bound to be called. I join a long line of misfits and miscreants, prostitutes and scoundrels, women and men, rich and poor, hot-headed Peters and doubting Thomases… a reluctant faithless rabble called by a God who apparently loves irony. Her church denies my right to be a leader in the church and even in my family, my right to speak the Word for a congregation or community, and my right to interpret the Bible outside of a literal framework. Christians who commit this last sin are worse than ‘unbelievers.’ Some have gone so far as to call us the anti-Christ.
I told her this in a torrent, one in which my anguish was clear. She melted. It’s hard to hold fast to harmful views when you have to look someone in the face, when you have to see how the theology of your church is someone else’s cross to bear. She replied, “Like you said, I don’t subscribe to everything my church teaches.” She paused. “I’m sorry my church makes you feel that way.”
Later I came back and apologized to her for my outburst. I was telling myself that anger is not great evangelism, but I’m not sure I was right about that. Anger often is evangelism. Sometimes, anger is the only evangelism we have. Anger at injustice is what fueled the prophets. Who do we really help by keeping conversation “polite,” if by polite we mean never rocking the boat? I certainly do not endorse the uncivil personal attacks that pass for debate in this country now, but I also won’t stand for the brand of “etiquette” that teaches us to keep our mouths closed, that grips our most deeply held values so close that they are strangled. I’m not sure this will win me many dinner-party invitations, but wherever I find myself, I will not be silent. I will not let any church or individual tell me I cannot be who God has called me to be, and I will not let any church or individual hold back anyone else in Jesus’ name.
Marleen Shepherd is a Master of Divinity student at Phillips Theological Seminary and has worked as religion reporter. Marleen is a progressive Christian and lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).