Why Christian? – The difficulty of having a Progressive Faith in a Conservative Tradition

I consider myself an orthodox Christian.

Not Eastern, but orthodox in the sense that I adhere to the essential core doctrines of Christianity, like the Trinity, Original Sin, two natures of Christ, the real resurrection, etc…

I also belong a Lutheran denomination (ELCIC) that allows same-sex marriage, ordains women and LGBT people, teaches its pastors historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship, and does any number of other things that many Christians consider heretical.

There is an inherent difficulty in operating in an orthodox and small “c” conservative faith tradition while adopting socially progressive ethics and post-modern scholarship. This difficulty has been churning in the back of my mind for months, and this week it is about to come to the forefront.

My wife and I are headed to the Why Christian? Conference hosted by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans. In preparation for the conference, Rachel Held Evans asked the question on her Facebook page “why christian?

And the question was asked in light of recent events in news: The hype around Kim Davis’ stand for “Christian values” in refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples contrasted by the photos of a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee washing up on a Turkish beach.

When fellow Christians are rallying behind someone trying to use the government to impose her beliefs on others in the name of religious freedom, how does one stick with this Christianity business?

When ‘Christian nations’ seem so passive about doing anything about the plight of refugees escaping violence because they are muslims, how do you continue to call yourself Christian?

By definition, Christianity is a conservative faith. No, not conservative in the political sense. Christianity is conservative in the practical sense. Christianity seeks to maintain, protect, promote and conserve the teaching, preaching and good news of God in Jesus Christ. Christianity is trying to bring the past forward – a conservative way of being. And yet, along the way Christianity has also conserved things like patriarchy, sexism, systems of power and abuse, bigotry and racism, judgementalism and close-mindedness.

Christianity has a lot of baggage to contend with, and our baggage is frequently getting in our own way. Our baggage is often the thing Christians mistakenly hold up and shout loudly to the world that this is what God – not just Christianity – is all about.

A common refrain among those who struggle with the conservative baggage has been to drop the Christian label in favour of “following Jesus.” And who can blame them? Considering the Christianity that is so frequently presented in the media and practiced so widely, or when Kim Davis or Donald Trump or Fox News is our spokesperson, we should want to say, “I am not with them.”

The Kingdom of God is Near - the Lion of St. Mark
The Kingdom of God is Near – the Lion of St. Mark

Ten days ago, I got a tattoo (insert joke – “a pastor walks into a tattoo shop…”). Getting a tattoo is a very intimate experience. For four hours I had to lay still as someone literally did artwork on my body. And yet, during those four hours I had an extremely familiar experience. My tattoo artist and I talked for hours about all the ways that Christians are judgemental, agenda-filled and often put off and offend unchurched people like her. Yet she didn’t find me that way.

My tattoo artist told me that I was not like any pastor she has ever met (well, not quite, as my wife spent an afternoon with her a couple of  weeks before me). I get told that a lot. When I meet with unchurched couples coming to get married, when unchurched families come to have a child baptized, or when unchurched families come for funerals they often tell me that I am not what they expected. Most unchurched people that I get to spend some time with tell me I don’t sound like the Christians on TV, or like their one friend who can’t stop talking about their megachurch pastor, or like their grandma who looks down on them for having tattoos, piercings, not going to church, living in sin or whatever else. I don’t sound like those other Christians because I am cool with questions, even encouraging of them, I share my doubts, and I even share my own frustrations about the judgemental behaviour of many fellow Christians.

Maybe this should make me wonder if I got Christianity wrong along the way? Is the way I practice it so uncommon?

It isn’t.

I have spent far too long studying history and theology in university and at seminary to not know that the way I practice Christianity is fairly consistent with the way it has been practiced throughout history. And most of the Christians I know approach faith the way I do.

Yet, despite the baggage that Christianity carries these days, despite the undignified death that Christendom is undergoing, despite the pop-culture caricature that Christians have become, I can’t walk away from the religion.

I am a Christian, even if Kim Davis gets to speak for me, or Fox News or even… heaven forbid… Donald Trump. 

And I am Christian because following Jesus means being a Christian. It means hanging out with sinners and other people who struggle with the baggage. With people who want to hold on to the baggage at all costs, or people who have been trying to toss it from the bandwagon since before they can remember.

Because believing in Jesus just doesn’t work outside of community. Because taking up our cross and following means we don’t get to avoid all the crosses in the world, but instead Jesus’ ministry happens right where the crosses are. The crosses of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, abuse, control and power.

Dumping Christianity to follow Jesus doesn’t jive with the God who put our baggage on, who literally became our baggage, who used our baggage as his flesh in order to come and meet us in the incarnation.

And of course our baggage, our flesh, made things much more difficult for Jesus, but that was the only way to reach us.

As much as I shake my head this week every time I see a Kim Davis news story scroll by on Facebook. As much as I get enraged when I read that Christians are rallying behind Donald Trump, or rallying behind Stephen Harper here in Canada. As frustrating as it is that the Christianity that is represented in the media is one I neither recognize nor practice.

But I know that this is not the whole story.

I know that the church I grew up in is full of people just like Kim Davis, and they have sponsored 3 refugee families over the past 15 years. In fact, churches are some of the most frequent sponsors of refugees. I know that the grandmothers who guilt their grandkids into bringing their babies to be baptized also knit quilts for Canada’s northern communities and brought sweaters by the truck-load so that Canadian Lutheran World Relief could send 70,000 sweaters to Syrian Refugees last winter. I know that church people who struggle with how fast world is changing and who long for the golden age of Christendom are also regularly volunteering at the soup kitchen, filling the food bank, visiting people in hospitals and old folks homes and are caring for the world in their own small ways.

But most importantly, I know that Christianity is at its best when it is practiced by sinners. Even when those sinners like to tell everyone outside the church that they are the sinners. Christianity is still for sinners.

Christianity, the religion with all this baggage, is also the means by which God meets our broken world and speaks words of promise, grace, and mercy. The baggage filled traditions of Christianity are the means by which God washes and claims us as God’s own, the means by which God feeds us with God’s very Body.

Christianity is the community where God transforms us from broken and flawed people into forgiven and whole. 

And as filled with baggage as Christianity is these days, I need it. We all need it.

Because we need God

and those promises

and that washing

and that food.

I can’t believe in Jesus alone, I need all these messed up people – Christians – to do it with me.


 

Why are you still a Christian? What are your frustrations with Christianity? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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21 thoughts on “Why Christian? – The difficulty of having a Progressive Faith in a Conservative Tradition”

  1. Let’s get this right, that Kim Davis cannot have her belief of faith. She uses government to force her beliefs on others. But this only works one way it seems because the LGBT Community is doing the same thing. They lobby that she should also conform to what they believe is right. Somehow you can say that it is ok for you to force someone to believe as you do if popular culture says it’s ok. Popular culture has forever catered to the base desires of humans and the nature of people is self. How many civilizations have fallen out of grace woth God and turned to their own ways? We are doing that now and you applaud it. How could God ever meant man to be with man? They are not compatible to multiply and procreate. Man chooses what’s wrong and justifies it in the name of love. Satan has used that tool since time began. If you have a good answer on how we take Syrian refugees safely around our families, then submit it to congress because there is an ugly stain growing over there called Isis. Does it seem at all possible that we could let in hundreds of murderers into our nation? Yes we must love on these people but we must also be wise. Your belief states that all is well and we must welcome all and just trust in love but they have no love for us and how to weed out the criminals just as the flood from the southern border? In the end of days, some churches are going to fall away from the truth and there are weeds among the wheat and we all know that satan sends false believers into churches to pervert the truth. If you are so accepting of popular culture in ypur church in the name of inclusion, I think you are a prime candidate for false teaching and being led away from the truth. We all know that one day for many, the Lord will say. Away from me for I never knew you.

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    1. Well Larry, you going to have to back up some of your assertions. Kim Davis is not a faith leader. She is not performing religious marriages, she is issuing state sanctioned licenses. What if instead of Kim, it was a Saudi Muslim man who worked at the DMV and refused to issue driver’s licenses to women? Is that okay? I doubt Mike Huckabee would be standing beside him at press conference.

      Additionally, have you eaten pork lately? Worn mixed fibres? Shaved your beard or head? Also abominations unto the Lord. You cannot hold to one abomination without holding to them all. Be consistent, or recognize that as people of faith we read in context. Also, Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality, but he did talk a lot about welcoming those who are different from us.

      The thing is, Same-sex marriage is now law in the US, as it has been for 10 years in here in Canada. And yet, not a single church has been forced to have a same sex marriage here, nor will that happen in the US. You are confused about the separation of church and state. Like I said, if a Saudi Muslim can’t deny driver’s licenses to women, Kim Davis can’t deny licenses to same sex couples.

      In terms of Syrians, I have no idea how many Syrians the US is taking, but I live in Canada. 40 years ago we sent cargo planes to pick up Vietnamese Boat People – 50,000 of them – and not a single one turned out to be a muslim. Our government committed to 10,000, yet has only allowed just over a 1000. Leaders of all stripes are calling for more, but the fundamentalist Christians who are in power are also racists and cannot alienate their base of voters in an election year.

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      1. Just as photographers, bakers and one set of small chapel ministers have come under heavy scrutiny, threats and lawsuits because they won’t take part in a gay wedding. Respectfully they declined the jobs but that’s not enough. They have to be demonized,fined, driven out of business instead of the client just refusing to go to another place that will serve them which there are many. It is just my belief that this ‘inclusion’ thing we all face now and is exactly how satan loves to pervert what is right. Yes, the Supreme Court cited this into law. They also answer to a higher court and God will judge them as to their belief that they can redefine marriage. It would seem to me in these days that anything that satan can pervert to use as a tool to discredit bible believing Christians is what is happening now. In the end of days, right will be wrong and wrong will be right. What does that mean to you? What do you think that would really look like?Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality. It is written clear in the Old Testament but very clearly written about much by Paul. Is one part of the bible valid and truthful because you want to believe it and another a lie because you do not want to believe it? We love all people sinners and saints. Jesus didn’t say anything about having four wives. Would you say that is acceptable? What aboutsex with animals? Is that acceptable? Jesus didn’t say anything about did He? Really, because by your words that He didn’t say anything about it that it must be ok with him. Do you really think he is supposed to address every single mandate of the human condition so that you will obey? Even when He tells us the truth and what to do, we still disobey. This is how people are. This is why He came in the first place because we have all fallen short and He filled the gap between us and the Lord. That’s why the saints came, to go forth and teach. Jesus knew very well who Paul was and who he would become and I imagine you’d have to obey his teachings just as much as Jesus if they were by Gods revelation. He told them feed my sheep but His sheep don’t want to hear the whole truth. As for the Muslims in America, there are already special exemptions for them because of their faith so that they can stay within their belief and not violate their religion. Just like with Kim, if she can’t fulfill her role as a public servant to all, she should move to another position and that’s what she has done. You quote from the Old Testament as so many do when they want to make our argument seem ridiculous. We do not live under the Law anymore. The law condemns. Those commands were to establish obedience whether we understand them or not and I know I don’t but Christ is the new covenant. We are under grace but not to use it for freedom to do as we please. You are the one confused about the church and state issue. That states that the federal government cannot force a person to follow a particular religion, neither can it deny a person the practice thereof. She did have to move to doing something else as a public service person and she did that. As to the Vietnamese refugees. Were they known for the car bombs, the suicide bombers and men walking into Christian churches and slaughtering them all with ak’s? Where they burning them alive? Who is doing all the violence against humanity right now? Not taking tens of thousands of Syrian refugees is just prudent for protecting your own people from insurgents certainly mixed in. You call it racists but I’m sure someone has to make hard decisions of denying access to these people to protect people in your own neighborhood. This is their first priority and I would you could appreciate that if it affected potentially your own family. If one of them was from the Taliban and set off a bomb in your neighborhood, would you be too happy about letting them in? You can never be sure which ones are honest, loving people and which are radical, hate filled monsters waiting for the chance to cut your head off. What about the Boston bombers? This religion has so many calling for them to randomly kill us so you team me how we will all be safe from this. So you tell me the great answer to help all of these people. Sorry about how long this is.

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        1. I think we may be coming at this from different perspectives, not to mention we are in different countries who have very different experiences with these issues. I hope that there was something helpful in my post for you and I will pray for you.

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          1. Pray for what? Me to see the light and water down the gospel to fit cultural norms? To omit some of the bible to someone You didn’t address any of these issure. Was I wrong? Is homosexuality not written as a perversion of what God created and the Lutheran church embraces and seems to celebrate this practice? Just answer this one question. How can you preach from the word of God as fact and yet let a gay minister lead other people? Are you condoning your spiritual leaders sinful practices and then saying they know the word of God enough to lead others? If a blind man leads a blind man, won’t they both fall into a trap? People of all sexual types should have access to the teaching of Christ but it is also written inlove AND truth and most of the time truth does not fit our personal preferences.

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              1. I haven’t had time Larry, I was traveling yesterday. Still don’t have time to thouroughly answer. But you are going to have to do better in showing me your point of view. I am a called and ordained pastor in the church of Christ. I have spent 8 years doing post-secondary studying history, theology and scripture, I have been serving for almost 7 years as pastor and I come from a long (500 year old) Lutheran tradition.

                You are going to have to show me how your American Evangelicalism Nation worship (something that has come into being in the last 50 years) fits within the historical church and how your views on scripture can be justified textually (that means Greek and Hebrew), contextually (that means history and culturally) and theologically.

                Because I know that the homosexuality that the bible talks about is about Ancient Near Eastern power relationships, about ANE understandings of cosmology and science, and about patriarchal cultural baggage that are not essential to the message of faith but are incidental to scripture.

                And I also know that every contemporary Christian (including you) has decided that some scriptural “abominations” are not valid, yet continue to hold up homosexuality as one.

                I know that this is about misogyny and fear, not about God.

                So Larry, bring your views on those terms and then we can talk. Otherwise, accept you are holding to something other than Christianity, the bible and The Trinity.

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                1. There is no better example of the kind of “Christianity” described in your post than Larry’s comments.

                  I’m not sure if you have this virulent strain of evangelical thought in Canada, but it terrifies me. The vitriol and hated are horrifying, and I have the misfortune of living in the south, where it’s amplified beyond measure.

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                  1. We do have some of “that” kind of Christianity up here, but it is definitely fringe. Canada is much more secular… Religion provides little impact or influence on public discourse.

                    But we do get a lot of US media… So we are exposed in that way. And it is scary.

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  2. Very thoughtful post, Rev. Reminiscent of Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel. I very much agree with you on the taking on our crosses, and think the Church could do a lot more mind and heart opening. While Biblically speaking, there are clear distinctions between right and wrong, it isn’t the Churches place to condem, neither should we encourage…but I think Larry covered that 🙂

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  3. Your post talks about sin and sinners but not about repentance or metanoia. Surely following Jesus is not about welcoming sinners in order to affirm them as they are since this is not what He did. Welcome everyone in order that everyone might become a new creation in Christ.
    If we grasp that point then we further need to have a standard of morality towards which we can aim and encourage others to aim at. A standard which we deduce by the use of reason combined with deductions which we can make from the content of divine revelation. In churches which, using the Nicene Creed, define themselves as Apostolic this standard is clear and has been for about two thousand years. If we say that the Church apostatised from the way of Jesus within the lifetime of those who knew Him but has now re-discovered what He really meant all these millennia later we sound ridiculous. If we say that the Holy Spirit which guided the Church in canonising Scripture and in formulating the creeds also guided her in defining morality then we will be truly professing ourselves to be part of a body which is one, holy and catholic and apostolic over both time and place.

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    1. I am not following the leap in your argument from being a new creation in Christ to needing a standard of morality. It sounds to me like you are mixing justification with sanctification.

      Surely you would know that as a Lutheran, I would never suggest that Jesus offer of grace to sinner has to do with either affirming or condemning on that basis. It is not our works that ears God’s love, nor our sin that prevents God from loving us, since justifying us by our works in not what Jesus does.

      You are setting up a straw man to suggest that the argument for marriage equality is that the church lost its way for 2000 years. It is very possible to hold to Apostolic Tradition and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of scripture yet still point out that the fundamentalist claim that marriage has always beens between one man and one woman is inaccurate and out of context.

      Beyond that, I think it is sad to reduce Christianity to a moral system and Christ to some kind of automaton moral judge. Christianity is so much deeper and richer than that.

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      1. The connection between repentance and a standard of morality is straightforward enough. Metanoia means a change of mind, a conversion, which implies changing from path A to path B. If we don’t know what path B is we can’t choose it or walk down it hence it requires definition. I do find it interesting that you persist in avoiding the word ‘repentance.’

        Your introduction of Sola Gratia is a red herring here. Grace is offered apart from our worthiness to receive it but it’s effect should consist of more than a verbal willingness to confess Christ, it should result in a transformed life. This is more than a moral system, sin actually interferes with our ability to know God, to love God and to serve Him and our neighbours. We need to strive to eliminate sin from our hearts to which end we need to know clearly the difference between right and wrong. For which purpose the Holy Spirit has continually been guiding the body of Christ these past two thousand years.

        By saying that the bits of tradition and scripture you agree with are divinely inspired but the bits you disagree with are man-made ‘patriarchal’ ‘sexist’ interpolations you are setting up the zeitgeist, acting through you as its agent, as the supreme arbiter of what is and isn’t an authentic part of the content of Revelation. It is surely setting up a moral system, harsh and judgemental, when you assume those who disagree with you to be bigots, misogynists and homophobes. The ‘you’ in this case is collective since no doubt you personally are more nuanced, as many traditionalists are also, but the trend towards an intolerant authoritarianism among liberals is rather disturbing and ultimately no better than that which it seeks to replace just with a different set of victims.

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  4. This is wonderful! I’m a member of the United Church of Christ and I just went to Pride with my church this past weekend. I also feel called to go into ministry, so this is very applicable to me. I struggle a lot with being a Christian but not being “one of those” Christians, because like you say, they’re still Christians and they still do good in the community. I suspect this will be a struggle I’ll always have, but oh, well… I just feel like there seems to be this paradox and you can either be a devout Christian or you can be liberal and I don’t see why you can’t be both. I feel very strongly about my faith and trying to follow Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I’m judgmental. It’s like, how do you reconcile your faith with the world around you, you know?

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  5. Can’t really figure out a really cool way to tell you how wonderfully affirming this post was. I am a Christ follower progressing out of decades of learned conservative thought, but still connected enough to my conservative past to cringe and want to lash out as millennials cluck their tongues and call every one not them fools. I expected that from you. You didn’t go there. I have nearly left the church, I don’t agree with conservative Christians and I can’t abide the smug treatment that I receive as an older Christian from progressives. I also can’t stand the way progressive Christians seem to latch on to every progressive issue, even when it doesn’t line up with kingdom values. Do you sense my frustration? It is kind of amazing that with the volume of blog posts I read that you’re the first to acknowledge me and those to the right of me as valuable to you. Sorry I rambled. But thanks for the word. Perhaps I won’t bail quite yet

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