Note: The following article gives some background to City Classis’ recently approved Framework of Life Together (Link to Framework). Bill White (City Classis) is a planting pastor of City Church Long Beach. Here is one discussion on “Disputable Matters”. City Classis’ Framework will be discussed at the Regional SUMMIT April 17-18.
At the City Classis meeting in February, as we considered the weighty topic of how we could move forward given the theological differences among us surrounding human sexuality, a number of people brought attention to the need for more earnest, biblical discussion around what Paul calls “disputable matters” (Rom 14:1). Since I was on a team of leaders from our local congregation that spent 20 months looking at biblical passages about LGBTQ inclusion in the church, I offered to host a two hour bible study over lunch. Upwards of twenty elders and pastors gathered for a spirited conversation.
So here’s my take on how that bible study went, as well as the overall tenor of the classis meeting. Of course others might nuance it differently, but at least this is one window into that time together.
Like our classis, the room was more or less equally divided between those who would say they take a more traditional approach and those who would say they take a more progressive approach. To warm up and see if we could model the kind of dialogue that the Apostle Paul seemed to think was possible for followers of Jesus, we started off looking at a couple of key passages before we got to Romans 14. Could a real dialogue be possible between dedicated, passionate followers of Jesus who see things so differently?
We broke into teams to look at the best traditional arguments against LGBTQ inclusion from Genesis 1-2 and at the best progressive arguments in favor of LGBTQ inclusion from those same texts. The key was that each team had people with both perspectives on it. So a group of traditionalists AND progressives worked on the best traditional arguments, and a group of both progressives AND traditionalists worked on the best progressive arguments. Then, one of the progressives presented to the room the best traditional arguments, followed by one of the traditionalists presenting the best progressive arguments.
No straw men here! We weren’t taking pot shots, we weren’t throwing around putdowns like ‘homophobe’ or ‘low view of scripture.’ We were wrestling with what’s really there in the bible, and trying to sort out what it means today. There were plenty of questions and lots of clarifying, and mostly a lot of love and respect. People actually listened.
Wrestling with Genesis 1-2 from different perspectives…
After not nearly enough time in Genesis 1-2, we moved on to Romans 1 with the same procedure. We read the text out loud in our diverse groups and then dug in again and wrestled with the scriptures. The conversation was so rich that we all wished we’d had more time. It yielded references to Augustine, various Greek words, ancient Near East culture, modern science and fancy words like ‘etiology’ – and long lists on the board of the best traditional and best progressive arguments from that text.
(Aside: The arguments lined up quite similarly to those of the LGBTQ Study Team here at City Church of Long Beach. In case it’s helpful to review the best arguments from both sides, here is the blog I wrote afterwards summarizing our remarkable journey through that text as a blended group of progressives and traditionalists seeking truth together in scripture.)
The rest of our time in bible study was spent in the end of Romans, where Paul wrote vigorously to keep the church in Rome together in the midst of major disagreements. In essence, Paul describes a middle category of beliefs that lies between essentials and opinions. These beliefs are truly important, and yet sincere followers may find themselves understanding them differently because of how two or more biblical truths exist in dynamic tension. We worked and wrestled together to discern what qualifies as a disputable matter, what the limits are to not causing ‘someone else to stumble’ (14:20), and whether this applies to how congregations treat other congregations.
One of the things I found particularly helpful was agreeing together that Paul’s intent for using the disputable matters approach in Rome was certainly not to replace proper discipline nor to promote an “anything goes” mentality. It was to manage life together across theological differences where those in covenant relationship highlighted different emphases in scripture to the point of causing real tension.
In the formal business meeting, after more intense conversation, debate, and disagreement – all marked by great respect and love and, really, affection – the classis ended up overwhelmingly (84%) approving the proposal (included in this Regional Synod of the Far West newsletter) that stops just short of a disputable matters approach to LGBTQ inclusion in the local church. This almost-but-not-quite approach is meant to honor the request of a few congregations for more time for study and discussion.
Throughout all of these conversations, the most compelling insight for me and I’m sure for many others was simply that we began to model a disputable matters approach. I wasn’t articulate of it till later, but we were starting to live into the very thing we were talking about. Even as we discussed difficult passages like the creation narrative, Romans 1 and, ironically, the phrase ‘disputable matters,’ we recognized differences, we traced how those differences were based in scriptural understandings and convictions, and we continued in community together while having challenging but honoring dialogue. Not everyone agreed but everyone stayed in the room, and doors remain open for continued dialogue, debate, and growth.
Enclaves of Hope
As any number of commentators have pointed out, since the 2016 presidential election our country has become increasingly fractured and then deeply entrenched in their separate camps. Sadly, this seems to have been true in our gathered, denominational life as well. Yet there are some places where the borders are porous, where there is real progress being made in fierce and gracious conversations.
For example, I’ve heard that the most recent Rocky Mountain Classis meeting was marked by great dialogue around the three frameworks Rev. Eric Carpenter proposed to the Regional Synod for how to have these conversations. Also, Bruce Bugbee reported last month that the Regional Synod executives had their best connection ever and made deep commitments to better dialogue. Wes Granberg-Michaelson used the phrase ‘enclaves of hope’ in a Sojourners piece to describe just these phenomena. He was referring specifically to the City Classis dialogue around human sexuality, but I’m certain he’d say the same about the Rocky Mountain Classis dialogue as well.
In a local context, I can say that living together in honest diversity centered around Jesus is actually possible. As a response to the denomination-wide invitation of the past five presidents of the RCA, City Church of Long Beach started a group in 2016 as a venue for those who disagreed to gather around scripture, centered on Jesus, and to have have Spirit-led conversations about human sexuality. This January, that LGBTQ Study Team concluded, and the entire group (traditionalists and progressives and those in between) presented to the congregation our united perspective, which was a disputable matters approach.
In the two months since that Sunday, not a person has left our church. In those same two months, I and the other pastor at City Church of Long Beach haven’t had a single significant conversation with anyone in our congregation about questions of LGBTQ inclusion! It’s not that we avoid those conversations (we had anxiously prepared for them!) – they simply did not materialize. Instead, the congregation has focused on what God has been up to in our midst and in our community. We’ve had more conversions and baptisms than we had all last year, and we’re gaining ground in both budget and attendance. Conversation led to clarity, which led to consensus, which freed us for mission. Our radically diverse church (no one ethnic group or age group is a majority) has come to realize that the person of Jesus, the mission of God, and the leading of the Spirit are enough to keep us together.
On this journey with City Church of Long Beach and with City Classis, I’ve become increasingly convinced that our inclusion into the Body of Christ is constituted not by our assent to a set of principles but by Jesus’s own initiation towards us, as evidenced in our baptismal vows. This sacramental view of what it means to be part of the God’s family is not just theory. In these fierce and loving classis conversations about disputable matters and in other places all over the region, we are moving from theoretical discussion to lived reality. I am convinced that real dialogue and real partnership are still possible for those who disagree.