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Listen and Learn (Session Two)

We’ve just wrapped up the first of our Session Two conversations. Tonight, I’m the one who came home with my head hanging and with some growing doubts about our ability to hold things together as a congregation. “We’ll probably lose a hundred people, you know.”

I’ve done everything I can to avoid this kind of negative forecasting, and I’m generally one of the more optimistic people in the room, so this is quite a shift for me. It’s temporary, I’m sure, which is why I sat down to do some writing tonight—to get it out of my system so I’ll be able to fall asleep.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

A hundred people is a pretty big number to wrap my head around. We’re not such a big church that it would take me all that long to figure out who had left; I’d know right away. And the sad truth is that I already have a growing list of likely candidates, primarily based on emails I’ve been receiving and conversations like the one I engaged in tonight.

We structured the night much the same as Session One, with four tables of twelve people. At the start, I reminded everyone that we were gathering like this in order to listen and to learn. I read from James 1:19-20, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

To emphasize the point, I shared a quote from author Tish Harrison Warren: “‘Dialogue’ is not a code word for ‘convincing the person you’re talking to that they are wrong and you are right.’”

I suggested we make a concerted effort to avoid the echo chamber where we only listen to people who think the same as we do, sharing again from Warren: “Listen to the very best, most compelling voices on the ‘other side’ of this issue from where you sit. If you think that there are not rational and compelling voices on the other side, the problem is with you.”

I presented a challenge that, if someone were to stop us on our way out the door and ask, Did you learn something new tonight? we should be able to provide them with an honest, thoughtful response. In this second session together, we would be talking about how we have interacted with the Bible over the years, and I explained how understanding our different starting points can go a long way in helping us appreciate our different perspectives. We heard from a professor in the Classical Studies department at the University of Waterloo who is also a member of our church community. He talked about “Sexuality in the Ancient World,” pointing out some of the unique challenges we have in thinking alongside the biblical writers when we live in such a different world than they did.

For the remainder of our time together, we would spend time reflecting on how each of us understand the Bible’s guidance on this theme and learning about the perspectives that others hold. Here is what I shared before we launched into our round-table discussion:

Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “There is nothing more important in the Christian life than the way in which we approach the Bible, and the way in which we read it…We know nothing of God and about the Christian life in a true sense apart from the Bible.”

This is a crucial conversation we’re having, not only because of the content itself, but also because of how it impacts our engagement with scripture as a whole. Every one of us approaches the Bible in a certain way, and to a large degree, how we approach the Bible will affect how we read it. In the survey responses we collected last fall, one of the questions we asked members of our community read as follows:

The Bible is God’s word to all humankind. It was written by human authors under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is the supreme source of truth for Christian beliefs and living.

Sixty-eight percent of our community strongly agreed with that statement, with twenty-eight percent agreeing. Only four percent either disagreed or were unsure.

We also asked, How important do you think it is for you to spend time reading the Bible?

Sixty-six percent of our community chose, “Absolutely essential, I cannot grow in life and faith without it,” while twenty-two percent chose, “A good idea, but not absolutely necessary,” and only twelve percent indicated “Unsure” or “Doesn’t matter.”

Now, before we can interpret what the words on the pages mean, we need to have an idea of where these words come from. In the early nineteenth century, Joseph Smith claimed to have dug up a set of gold plates on a hill in upstate New York, which he later translated into the Book of Mormon. I’ve always thought this story serves as a great example of what the Bible is not.

The Bible as we know it came together over the course of many centuries, with numerous authors, writing in a variety of genres, to diverse audiences, and was even written in different languages. The individual books themselves were collected and affirmed as divinely inspired by councils of church leaders over a span of many years, with the major writings being accepted by most Christians by the middle of the third century. The result is what scholar Bruce Metzger calls “an authoritative collection of books.”

But what does it mean when we say the Bible has ‘authority’? What we believe about the Bible’s origins and authority is directly related to the role it will play in shaping our thoughts and, in turn, our lives. As we discuss our views about how we read the Bible and what place it has in our lives, let’s also consider the place we’re actually giving it and what that looks like. Take some time right now to answer the following questions around your table:

What have you been taught about the Bible’s origins and authority? Has your understanding of this changed over time, and if so, how? 

The following adjectives are often used in reference to the Bible. Choose one or two that express how you read (or do not read) the Bible today: Authoritative, Inspired, Narrative, Inerrant.

(I continued with the following commentary after a brief time of discussion.)

When I was at the gym this week, I overheard someone refer to a passage in the Bible, saying “But there are other ways to interpret that.” To use an extreme, and yet at the same time quite common example, consider how reading the Bible informs popular US pastor, Frederick K.C. Price: “The Bible says that [Jesus] has left us an example that we should follow His steps. That’s the reason why I drive a Rolls Royce. I’m following Jesus’ steps.”

Clearly the Bible can lead us to different interpretations—but should it?

I like what Soren Kierkegaard has to say: “The matter is quite simple: The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

I definitely appreciate Kierkegaard’s willingness to challenge our motives head on, but I would balance that with a quote from Eugene Peterson’s book, Working the Angles: “Anyone who reads the Bible and isn't puzzled at least half the time doesn't have his mind on what he is doing.”

A couple of years ago, I attended a seminar on a pastoral approach to human sexuality where the presenter made a joke about “the four missing verses of the Bible.” Imagine if we could just get a little more clarity on a few key theological problems of our day! But would that truly solve any of the problems? We all bring who we are to the text, and so there will always be a measure of subjectivity; there will always be questions.

Someone came into our office last week after hearing that we were having conversations about same-sex attraction. “Isn’t the Bible clear?” she asked. There is no thirty-second answer to that question, which is why we’re having conversations like the one we’re having tonight.

In an article titled, How to Disagree...Graciously, author Gordon Smith writes, “Often I find that people want to make the Bible the final arbiter on our differences. ‘What the Bible says is what I believe,’ and the Bible ultimately decides which of us is right. This perspective makes sense, but only to a point. On these controversial matters we are interpreting the Scriptures differently, often very differently.”

In the words of Peter Steinke, “How we gather and exclude data are all connected to emotional processes. We gravitate toward information that coincides with our viewpoints and that promises to contribute to our survival.” With this in mind, several of the resources we’ve engaged with during the week have given us an opportunity to observe the different ways that people approach how the Bible speaks to the topic of same-sex attraction and Christian faith.

As we wade into these waters, I’d like us to try and conjure up an extra dose of empathy, which is the deepest form of listening. Think about it: what if one of the requirements for participation tonight was that you could clearly articulate a perspective you don’t hold on how the Bible speaks to this topic? Could you do it? Let’s try to keep that in mind as we prepare to dive into some conversation around our tables.

In the week leading up to Session Two, we shared a number of video clips and articles that participants were asked to preview before showing up for the conversation. We asked those who didn’t make the time to limit their contribution and take this time to listen to the reflections of others instead. We presented a couple of key questions to help guide the conversation:

What is something you learned from the videos/articles—something you didn’t know or an argument you hadn’t heard before?

How do you read what the Bible has to say about this topic? What factors are the most compelling to you when it comes to how scripture speaks to this?

Before the event even started, one of our Staff members pointed out to me how people seemed to be gravitating toward tables of people who were ‘like them’—mostly based on age and stage of life. It was hard to deny, but I was sure that by the time the tables were filled, things would balance out. I was wrong.

I was the first one to sit down at my table, and it wasn’t until ten minutes into the first discussion segment that I realized that all but one person at the table held a conservative position on the topic. The one hold-out held to a conservative position for his entire life, but was currently “in the middle”—trying to figure it all out, but possibly “leaning toward affirming.” One voice wouldn’t be enough to strike a balance, and the conversation ended up developing in a way where people were simply agreeing with other like-minded ideas. It’s not that we didn’t have some good conversation, but my awareness of how polarized the group was left me feeling like we were all wasting our time. And it didn’t help that I looked across the room and noticed a table full of people who could have helped balance things out—meaning, of course, that the very same thing was happening at that table, only on the other end of the spectrum.

Groupthink is a common enough phenomenon that I should be able to brush this off and realize that the next conversation they engage in will bring challenges and that there are still plenty of opportunities for dialogue moving forward. But are there? How much time do we have when people are already pushing hard for decisions to be made?

This kind of polarization isn’t who our church is, I thought. Why can’t people figure this out?

Since I had already done so much talking from the front, I tried to keep my contributions to a minimum. Besides, I was caught—I knew that our table needed some balance, but by providing balance, I risked giving the impression that I was much more affirming than I actually am. Sitting here tonight at my dining room table, polishing off a Skor Blizzard, it’s crystal clear to me that what I should have done was point out what was happening at our table and offer to provide some intentional kick-back. Maybe a disclaimer like that would have allowed me to be a little more forthcoming and would have avoided having people leave with the impression that I’ve landed somewhere I haven’t. If only I had done this before! But, of course, this is new territory for all of us.

Once the event officially wrapped up, our table picked the conversation up again and the opinions got even more pointed. I put a couple of challenges on the table, which I think are important for those holding a traditional view to keep in mind:

The first was in response to a line of argument that called on same-gender attracted Christians to live sacrificially, even if it was uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve heard and read about a fair bit from non-affirming voices, that Christianity is not about comfort and ease, but is about sacrifice and struggle. There’s no denying that; edit out the most challenging aspects of Christianity and you cut out its heart. “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” In a seminary class I took a few years ago, the professor suggested this phrase from Luke 9:51 was the axis that Luke’s gospel turned on. The activity of the first nine chapters all led up to that moment and the remaining fifteen chapters all flowed out from it. Jesus chose to walk the long road to the Cross—and so should we.

As the argument goes, if Christ didn’t avoid sacrifice and struggle, but “resolutely” walked straight toward it, then his followers who experience same-sex attraction should do the same. Yes, it would be challenging to go through life without a sexual partner, but who said the Christian life would be easy? And there’s definitely part of me that agrees with that—we must be ready to make even the most significant of sacrifices. But I pushed back with a question: “If we’re going to ask these believers to give up the comfort of a sexual partner, shouldn’t we also be willing to give up the comfort of having everyone in our church believe the same way about same-sex relationships as we do?”

It was a rhetorical question for the most part, although there were some gentle nods and slightly raised eyebrows indicating that it was a question that might require some more thought.

The second challenge I put out there was to consider just how important this issue was for our community. In other words, was this a central issue that ought to be definitive when determining an individual’s ability to participate in the life of the community, or was it more peripheral, and perhaps something akin to the “disputable matters” discussed by Paul in Romans 14? We didn’t really get too far into that conversation, in part due to my own hesitancy to wade in any deeper without spending more time reflecting on the passage I had just referred to off the cuff. I wonder if this might be the kind of approach we need to consider.

When my wife and I sat down to debrief after tonight’s session, she knew exactly how my night had gone: “Now you know exactly how I was feeling last week!” And she was right.

I’m going to call it a night now. Honestly, I’m not feeling any more hopeful than when I sat down to write, but I’m committed to leading our church on this journey regardless of how hopeless it might seem on a given day.


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