I decided this past Lord’s Day to start a new custom on the blog, which is to write short pieces about gratitude and specifically things I am grateful for as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, which I dearly love, even if it is solidly third place for me as far as favorite holidays go after Christmas and Easter.
Last week I was talking with a couple friends about questions concerning the church’s life in a culture of political religions. When Christianity is in retreat, and the church is in exile, what does faithfulness look like? Here’s what was so delightful about that conversation, though I didn’t realize it till later: In trying to answer that question, I found myself routinely going back to things I was seeing and hearing in my own local church. That intensely local, deeply real experience of Christian community is the space out of which I write, think, and discuss these questions with other people.
So at one point a friend asked for biblical examples of faithfulness. My mind immediately went to the book of Daniel, which my pastors had just preached through earlier this year. One concept in particular, the idea of living under “empire time,” had been central to one of my pastor’s sermons—he told me he got it from James Jordan’s commentary on Daniel—and so I found myself talking about Daniel, accommodating where you and drawing lines where you must, and recognizing when you’re living in empire time.
Later on, a question came up about how churches can hold to firm principles without losing the centrality of Christian love. Is there a way to take clear public stands without becoming obnoxious, aggressive, or hostile to your community? Again, I went back to what I’ve seen in my home church.
Earlier this year, our city council in Lincoln passed a fairness ordinance concerning LGBT+ discrimination. The ordinance was quite radical in how it treated both “public accommodations” and what would constitute “discrimination” in those public places. Consequently, many members of our church opposed the ordinance and were also involved in a drive to collect signatures for a petition that would force the ordinance to a vote or require the council to withdraw the ordinance.
In talking about the ordinance, my pastor regularly came back to the idea that while our stance might lead to us being called all sorts of names locally, if we are living as we ought to before God, then the non-Christians who know us would know that those accusations aren’t true.
In other words, we need to take a stand on a particular issue because it is what Jesus calls us to do as he has revealed himself to us in Scripture. But the need to take a stand on that issue does not, somehow, wave away the broader call to Christian love, service of neighbor, and so on. It’s not only possible to uphold orthodox and to live a life marked by generosity and a concern for justice, it’s actually necessary.
My point isn’t to say my church is perfect. It’s not. We suffered the (sadly) standard pain and discord that most churches endured throughout COVID and into 2022. We had some people leave because we were too conservative and others because we were too liberal. That’s all true. Moreover, my church is no stranger to suffering—we’ve had two building fires and several fairly wrenching church discipline issues over the years. So none of what I said should be taken as some sort of naive, idyllic account of a local church.
I think many people in the church right now have come to believe that churches can be one of two things: You can have right-wing churches that are suspicious of justice issues and loudly orthodox on questions of sexuality and gender or you can have centrist or progressive churches that basically keep their mouths shut about sexuality and gender (or who are just revisionist on the matter) and are also engaged in public justice. These things are a package deal and you can’t have a church that is unapologetically committed to the biblical witness concerning marriage that is also a church engaged in justice issues.
I think the package idea is wrong. (It’s also an extremely white idea which ignores centuries of Black church history which suggest these packages are not inevitable or necessary.) I think churches can uphold God’s design for marriage and the family and they can also pursue justice without hesitancy, apology, or timidity. Mostly I think that because I think Scripture demands that we do that, and Scripture wouldn’t demand something of us that Christ won’t equip us to do. But I also find it easier to think that because I have spent 15 years in a reasonably healthy presbytery being led by pastors who genuinely love their brothers in the presbytery, who pray for one another, care for one another, and practice themselves the things that I see reflected in my home church.
And so this Thanksgiving I’m thankful for my home church, for the faithfulness of my pastors, and for the ways in which God has used and is continuing to use that church here in my hometown.