Palaces of the World: Belonging and Welcome in the Liberal Church - Part 2
Written by Kendra Thompson
It was not by accident that I ended up in the progressive church. I was raised conservative evangelical. As a late teen, I sensed a call to ministry and felt I had nowhere to go. Initially, I found respite in the liberal mainline. But, in the end, their welcome was fragile and not for me.
Why would I say this? I haven’t told my story here to condemn sinners. That would be hypocritical, for I am a sinner, and daily I lean on God’s mercy and pardon. Instead, the purpose of this narrative is to explain that sin, left unrecognized and unconfessed, runs rampant and causes harm and collateral damage. I’ll identify here three types of damage I witnessed in the liberal mainline: unclear definition of sin, lack of confession, and presuming to welcome without grace.
In the churches I worked in in the past several years, we didn’t discuss the parameters of sin. Sermons and teaching moments focused on social action almost to the exclusion of personal growth. This harms the church because we cannot earn our salvation. But sometimes we behave as if our work for justice absolves us of sin. It cannot.
Another thing I witnessed is that the practice of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness was seasonal at best. One result of this, paired with unclear definitions of sin, is that unkind or even hostile behavior becomes an accepted norm. When we aren’t receiving God’s forgiveness and sharing it with one another in Christian love, we run out of gas, so to speak. We cannot create this on our own.
And this leads right into the third piece of “damage.” In my experience, when we attempt hospitality manufactured out of human strength not from the deep well of God’s grace, it is not lasting nor authentic. When we choose to opt for “progressive” alternatives to grace, we often do so at the expense of gospel freedom and without God’s sovereign blessing. To borrow the words of Rosaria Butterfield, “When we try to be more gracious than God, we put a noose around the other person’s neck.”
At some point, predominantly in the western church, we started pardoning grievances that are not ours to absolve. We were never meant to be the Lord himself; but instead, following biblical directives, we extend Christ’s love in the world by means of servant discipleship. In recent days, the progressive church has cheapened this. We started absolving sins before they were even confessed. This is not the role of God’s children, and it is harmful when we begin to think it is.
Around the same time that I sensed a call to ministry, my middle school brother came out as gay. I became vigilant on our behalf. There had to be a faith community that would have us both. As for my brother and the church, I was guilty of the sin I describe above. Saddened by the exclusion he felt and agonized on behalf of the tough journey he seemed to be on, instead of pointing him to Christ, I think I tried to over-advocate for his inclusion as if I were his savior. I now see that was a terrible mistake. And it didn’t advance any progress, either. The welcome I thought I was extending to my brother was a gift he didn’t care to receive. While I was a faithful Christian seeking church fellowship and God’s guidance in my life, my brother was not. He didn’t want to embrace his Christian roots. He was on an intentional sojourn away from them.
I share this story about my brother because I learned (and am still learning) a lesson from that experience. I think some Christians feel remorse for the extreme exclusion of same-sex attracted members in the past. There are narratives of harm, abuse, and unnecessary excommunication because of fear of this strand of sin. But the solution is not to become our own confessors; instead, we seek the Lord in prayer – confess our sins to him, receive absolution from God himself. This is not a gift we can give ourselves.
And sometimes our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters don’t want the gift of confession and absolution, don’t want to be a part of the Christian church. While the invitation is always open, and vigilance is important here, the solution does not involve changing our Christian worldview to make room at a table for individuals who are not hungry for the feast spread out before them.