The Fearful Church and the Loss of Our Prophetic Voice
In January of 2014, I revealed to the elders of New Heart Community Church that I no longer held to the traditional position on homosexuality that our church had long promoted. After initial conversations for clarity on my position, one of the elders asked, “Are you willing to keep this a secret?” To which I replied, “No.” He was afraid that my position would ultimately destroy our congregation. But I had come to a belief that the church had harmed LGBTQ people, and this needed to be told. This brought our church through a very difficult process which led to an eventual split five months later. Sixty percent of the church chose to become an inclusive space for LGBTQ people, while 40 percent chose to leave to plant a new congregation. And since New Heart was renting a multi-purpose building from a Baptist church, we were asked to vacate the premises.
Two months later, the Southern Baptist Convention sent denomination officials to tell us that we were no longer in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message. The Convention encouraged us to disassociate ourselves “quietly.” It became clear that church and denominational leaders had as their intention a desire to contain anything that would be damaging to the institution of the church and the denomination. My decision not to be silent and to speak prophetically about the loving choice we all had made caused a social media storm.
Recently, Eliel Cruz revisited the experience in a Sojourners magazine article entitled, “How Fear of Losing Funding Keeps LGBTQ-Affirming Pastors Quiet.” Along with others featured in the article, I know from personal experience that siding for the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church can be costly. Before I told the elders of my church about my shift in thinking regarding LGBTQ concerns, I had written in my journal the words, “Ministry Suicide.” Which meant that as a pastor of a Southern Baptist Church, expressing support for LGBTQ inclusion would probably mean my termination. I would lose my standing as a church leader in my community. I would no longer be asked to speak at churches, conferences, and camps. I would essentially be exiled. Fortunately, New Heart voted to transition towards inclusion, and I was retained as the pastor. But those decisions took a toll on the faith community and me—not only in terms of church membership, but also in terms of friendships, finances, property, reputation, and personal health.
In the second chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the money changers and tells them to not make his Father’s house into a marketplace (John 2:13-22). The Temple in Jerusalem had lost its purpose. It had become a money-making endeavor in the name of God. It had become institutionalized beyond functioning as a center for the gathering of God’s people, spiritual formation, and common worship.
But those in power were dead set on protecting the institution. Rather than being led by love for the needy and the outcast, they focused upon self-preservation and institutional growth. Thus, when Jesus criticizes the Temple for becoming a for-profit enterprise that had lost its ability to listen to oppression, he becomes a target—and inevitably will be silenced.
Later in John’s gospel, the chief priests and Pharisees call for a council meeting regarding Jesus. They are afraid that his presence will destroy their holy place and the nation. But the high priest Caiaphas proclaims, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:45-53). In essence, Caiaphas claims that sacrificing one man is acceptable if doing so safeguards a form of institutionalized livelihood that is only masquerading as religion. In his willingness to sacrifice the one for the many, Caiaphas could not be more different than Jesus, who argued it would be better to leave ninety-nine sheep behind in order to pursue one sheep that is lost!
Like the Temple in Jerusalem that lost its way, denominations, schools, religious organizations, and even the institutionalized church itself sometimes function less as true expressions of God’s people and more as money-making and self-preservation endeavors. Budgets must be met in order for salaries to be disbursed, mortgages paid, and buildings kept up. These institutions function on the premise of membership and financial stability. As a result, their leaders’ primary obligation often is to save the institution, and few are willing to risk the institution’s death in order to stand for what is right. Note: the issue is not that churches seek to be financially sustainable in order to enact the mission to which they are called. Things only become problematic when survival and growth are transformed into primary goals that obscure all other missional functions.
As a pastor arguing for LGBTQ inclusion in the church, I witnessed many trends and behaviors that are now being played out repeatedly in America’s political and religious arenas. I see many church pastors and Christian college presidents unwilling to take a stand against the harmful policies of Donald Trump. Even though these Christian leaders may be personally and privately opposed to the ideology of Donald Trump, they have lost the courage to speak prophetically, for fear that they will alienate a significant part of their base and lose the ability to meet their budgets.
Jesus shows us that in order to follow him, we must be willing to allow our institutions to die, if that’s what it takes to stand with those in the margins. We have to be willing to count the cost, to carry the cross, to love those who have been harmed by injustice. We have to be willing to risk our jobs and our reputations. If the leadership of the church is too afraid to stand up for what is right, due to anxiety over losing members and money, then we have lost our prophetic voice.
The Jesus of Matthew’s gospel described the challenge, and the blessing, of genuine solidarity with those on the margins this way: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). If we are not willing to risk it all—to give up our money, status, reputation, and beautiful buildings with state-of-the-art sound systems—in order to truly share the God’s love and justice, we cannot call ourselves faithful followers of Christ. That’s not easy to hear, I know. But my own experience has taught me that following Jesus is very often not a particularly easy path.