Can we imagine an “affirming” church tradition flourish and grow or has “providential deism” made divine irrational demands nonsensical?

Can An “Affirming” Church Tradition Be a Flourishing Church Tradition?

Many questions swirl around the debate over the church’s acceptance/celebration of sexual minority’s non-traditional relationships.

  • Does it honor God?
  • Is non-affirming unjust?
  • What’s the harm?
  • Does it violate God’s will as expressed in the Bible?
  • Isn’t this the church’s mission to liberate this oppressed?

When it comes to matters of church growth most church growth watchers see the move to “affirm” as a loser. For all the “accepting” and “welcoming” the move to embrace the LGBTQ community hasn’t brought the mainline churches a numerical or financial bonanza. This isn’t to say that you might not be able to find a congregation or two that on taking this step have grown numerically through either transfers or through evangelism. There hasn’t been anything written about it.

There have been some evangelical flagship congregations who had impressive histories of growth who then moved towards inclusion but I haven’t seen any studies on these congregations. Many of these churches are trying a “third way” approach. City Church San Francisco is at the beginning of their experiment. Mark Tidd at Highland Church in Denver was CRC but made this move a number of years ago. I’d love to see someone do a study on these churches.

My question about flourishing, however, isn’t really just about individual congregations, its about much broader church meaning both denominations and traditions. While have been a number of denominations and traditions that had women in leadership well before the second half of the 20th century, to my knowledge there are no broad church traditions that affirmed LGBTQ practices as a normal part of their Christian religious tradition. Sure there was plenty of “don’t ask, don’t tell” going on but no churches before World War II that know of flew the rainbow flag.

So that’s my question, can a rainbow flag flying church denomination or tradition flourish and thrive long term?

What do I Mean by Thriving and Flourishing? 

  • Demonstrate sustained numerical growth through biological growth, transfer growth and evangelistic growth
  • Develop theological distinctiveness that impacts traditions and denominations around them.
  • Crosses ethnic and national borders
  • Experiences revivals and has spurts of truly dynamic and miraculous growth
  • Develops institutions and scholarship that give the tradition or denomination staying power and influence.

The Challenge of History

On one hand we must say in all fairness that we might not expect an affirming tradition to have experienced a revival, thriving or flourishing as I described above. These ideas are new.

Deeply embedded in the current movement is an implicit narrative/theology/eschatology of progressive liberation that asserts that for whatever reason only now is the world blessed but the new insight that gender complementarity is inconsequential, non-normative and of no account when evaluating the morality of a sexual or marital relationship. The movement asserts that today we now can see this shinning new light which had been observed for all centuries and cultures before us. As I’ve written before that itself is a very large claim that really requires more than just a simple assertion or contemporary popularity.

We might rightly ask why no such movement has developed before now?

In the case of opening the doors into ministry for women which has ridden the same cultural wave there were a number of other signals albeit mostly minority ones.

  • Women leaders dot the Old and New Testament
  • A number of passages in the Bible talk about the giftedness and role of women in the church as women
  • A number of traditions had women in leadership positions within the Christian church predating the current cultural narrative of progressive liberation

The LGBTQ promoters don’t have these kinds of signals to show on their behalf. But, maybe this is the first.

Same-Sex Marriage Will Win Because There’s No Good Argument Against It

In the huge list of links I compiled after the SCOTUS decision one that stands out was Jonathan Chait wrote about it winning because there was no argument against it. This to me seemed right. It has become simply common sensical to say “of course gay couples are just like straight ones and it is only justice to regard them as moral and social equals.” This common sense position rings out through blogs and Facebook pages all throughout the land. Those in the church that want to stop this march of progress must justify the harm and oppression that the church has caused.

Before we get ourselves too worked up on a lather we might just take a moment and ask why we didn’t think of this earlier. This Atlantic piece does a nice job of showing how the same sex marriage movement won after being thrown out and laughed out of the law courts and the courts of public opinion in just a few decades ago. Barack Obama wasn’t in favor of same sex marriage in 2008. It lost a popular referendum in California in 2008 and Hillary Clinton, now champion of it only came into the light in 2013. If we’re looking for a revival outside of the church surely this one is it. There are a lot of people really upset that their neighbors are 10 years late to the party and are waiting for their apology.

If there is a God he must be loving and rational and surely he would not demand celibacy of LGBTQ persons. To think otherwise just seems wrong to a great many people, especially those who haven’t had years of believing it to be the other way.

Charles Taylor and Providential Deism

Pardon me if I take a momentary detour into some philosophy. When you experience a sea change like the one many of us have been on we should probably look at some deeper things. In Taylor’s book A Secular Age Taylor tries to track another sea change, the one where in 1500 in the West belief in God was axiomatic. Nearly everyone believed in God and did so implicitly. God was as obvious as for many marriage equality is now. That of course changed to where belief in God is for some today seemingly impossible and for others an achievement.

Taylor’s story is long but one of the stops on the way to contemporary secularity is the idea of providential deism. It is the notions that the universe fundamentally makes sense by design and that God intended the universe to be a hospitable place for us to enjoy. What is revealed in God’s “two books” Scripture and Nature are the mechanisms by which we can live God’s way and Nature’s way which are often one in the same. The “goods” that God through nature provides are increasingly “immanent”, within the “frame” of the world we see around us. I’m compressing Taylor a lot here but you can check out James Smith’s shorter guide to Taylor.

Since what matters is immanent, and since we can figure it out, it’s not surprising that, third, “the sense of mystery fades.” God’s providence is no longer inscrutable; it’s an open book, “perspicuous.” “His providence consists simply in his plan for us, which we understand” (p. 223). Mystery can no longer be tolerated.

Smith, James K. A. (2014-04-23). How (Not) to Be Secular (p. 50). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

All of this is behind (even if conveniently forgotten) our suddenly new sense of revelation at this new position inside and outside the church. If we can’t think of a reason why God would not prohibit what seems obvious to us then God of course didn’t have one and we must find other reasons why the church thought this or people thought this or something.

This then leads back to the point I began with, if what we have is either an antiquated reading of the text that must be set aside along with ancient cosmologies (I’m looking at you Gushee) or undeconstructed patriarchy or something in the text, then we should expect that in the future we should not only see fully affirming churches flourishing in the ways I described but also perhaps see God do wondrous things to disclose this new mystery.

Again, in all fairness, God can always do new things, and we really won’t have the answer to this question for a century or two but I think we will get an answer. What will happen, as with many church schisms is that we will see churches that go the affirming route and churches that resist it and in a few hundred years we’ll see who’s been flourishing and who isn’t.

What if Our Ideas of Providential Deism Are Wrong?

Now this sounds at least initially a lot less scary to us. If you say “what if we’re wrong about the Bible” that sounds scary. If “what if we’re wrong about same sex marriage” that sounds consequential, but what if providential deism is wrong?

Adventures in Leviticus

One of the most fun books I’ve ever preached out of was Leviticus. This book leads us to all the eye rolling of the archaic, petty, unattractive, God stereotypes many of us are trying to avoid. God is setting down all sorts of rules about food and clothing and women and slaves and most of it doesn’t make much sense. Preachers tend to glide by it with the setting aside of the ceremonial and cleanliness laws, with some New Testament warrant that other conservative evangelical scholars like Gordon Wenham are not so quick to sign off on. What if God is more mysterious than we suspect and the constructions that seem so obvious to us under the influence of our Providential Deism are not quite what we imagine.

wenham lev 18

What If Affirming Churches Wither at an Obvious Rate

I’m not a big fan at trying to discern the will of God by watching “the market”. Islam, the LDS, the nones and other groups that orthodox Christian don’t endorse are all doing pretty well right now in different places.

There may be “providential deism” reasons why affirming churches don’t do well right now despite their alignment. It’s been a church growth pundit truism for a long time that counter-cultural rigorous churches have outperformed churches that try to keep pace with every new cultural moral wind. Couldn’t an affirming church tradition have emerged and flourished prior to the cultural wave?

Will We See A Fresh Wind of the Spirit blow through the Affirming Community, Or is the church actually a liability? 

Part of what troubles me is that I find the narrative or theology of progressive liberation seeing the church more as an encumbrance or a foot dragger than a vanguard if progressive liberation is your central goal.

If a persons main goal is to secure equal political and social rights and status why bother with the church at all? Many I find who criticize the church do so from the outside and the interest they have in the church is their desire to use its networks as a way to promote the narrative of progressive liberation. It would seem that the legislatures and the courts are rally the locus of change needed and the churches are just an annoying, pesky group of holdouts that we’d love to see cave for symbolic reasons. We’d love to attend a service with rainbows and lots of LGBTQ people being affirmed and celebrated but do we rally have much interest in going to services to talk about other things? Aren’t these the central issues of our day?

Others would point to broader issues of poverty and justice but in some ways again the government seems to be both the central area of attention and the central avenue for hope. The “goods” we demand are imminent more than after-life or relational with respect to seeing God’s face affirming us. Is this a “providential deism” reason why providential deism itself is undermining the church as institution?

These are the questions I ponder as I watch the culture war rage and see the church involved.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to Can we imagine an “affirming” church tradition flourish and grow or has “providential deism” made divine irrational demands nonsensical?

  1. Leonard Vander Zee says:

    Paul, while I grant that “progressive liberation” may indeed be an aspect of this affirming movement, my experience also points to the fact that many supporters, LGBT and straight, take their position out of love for the church. I know many who are not “liberationists,” but traditionalists who cannot imagine their life without being embedded in the church as a community and an insititution. In their case it is inclusion rather than liberation that fuels theirs passion.
    As to the flourishing of inclusive churches, we will indeed have to wait and see, but I know my children in their 30’s and 40’s choose a church on the basis of inclusion.

  2. I appreciate this one a lot. Also appreciate what you had to say about tying this conversation to the culture-wave-riding women in office conversation of the 90’s. I wonder how much of this is tied to whether we make these decisions out of advocacy or for the sake of mission. Certainly, you could make an advocacy argument for WIO and for open/affirming, but it seems like the tip of the change spear is usually the advocacy people, not the for-the-sake-of-the-mission people. I tend to think “rights” and “advocacy” are a bad reason to make decisions in the body of Christ. Pure scriptural logic or pure emotion are bad reasons to make them, too (the two ends of these arguments). Like you, I want to give misisonal churches who are open/affirming or accepting of WIO like City Church SF some time to see how this plays out. But I’ll agree that the short-term returns aren’t great.

    Perhaps I’ll blog about this, but the other thing I just keep thinking in this whole conversation is: Right now, 90% of the people having this conversation at the Synodical level in the CRC were raised in a world where LGBTQ was perceived as abnormal/gross. What happens when I’m Paul’s age and everyone has been raised in a world where it is not only allowed, but celebrated. If we’re going down the slope eventually, I fear the toll these years of arguments are going to have on Christians my age & younger until we eventually reach the inevitable.

    One last thing: people are always attracted to fundamentalism, no matter how nutso it is. If you say something really strongly and really well, some people will join you. I think there’s always been an element of that in the North American Church – but especially here in the South. By nature, churches that allow WIO and/or are open/affirming tend to be less aggressive by nature.

  3. wendy says:

    Tim Otto has actually done some research on churches attempting to navigate some sort of third way / generous spaciousness. No big surprise, he found that the churches that are doing the best at this are also healthy and effective in discipling people. The reason I say “no big surprise” is that it takes a lot of maturity to navigate differences in a manner that continues to invest in unity despite diversity – even when it gets very hard.

    We will indeed need to see how affirming churches flourish. The “mushroom eaters” so-to-speak were mainliners who are generally in decline – and I’m not sure you can draw singular causation to their shifts on LGBTQ+ full inclusion. The “early adapters” however are more evangelical in nature (ie. I would say Highlands and City Church are both examples) and are often missionally-focused. In addition, in even just the last three years the gay Christian movement (largely made up of Evangelicals – because the mainline LGBTQ+ folks don’t feel the same kind of need for solidarity with other gay Christians because they are already in affirming contexts) has literally exploded. These recent developments will write new chapters in the quest to learn whether or not affirming churches will flourish. In the early days, there will be pain and division – but certainly there are many voices urging the church to find a way forward together even though there are interpretive differences (MennoniteUSA just passed such a resolution). Because I love the church and the movement towards full inclusion is a current reality – I pray for the church to flourish everywhere – regardless of where it lands on questions of same-sex sexuality.

    Mark – I appreciate your comment about fundamentalism ….. and not just in the south – just look at the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll’s “empire” in Seattle …… or Matt Chandler and the Village Church (course that is in Dallas – which I’m guessing, as a Canadian, that that is still considered the south?) ….

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