Last week I wrote a paper on John Wesley’s sermon, “Catholic Spirit”. It’s my favorite Wesley sermon because it argues so beautifully for unity in the church, a hobby horse I myself like to ride. Across lines of doctrine, practice and denomination, can’t we love each other as family? Doesn’t our devotion to Christ make us all brothers and sisters? “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart? Give me your hand!”
That’s all well and good. Every once in a while, though, my desire for fellowship breaks down. Now and then I see someone who self-identifies as a “Christian” and I want to say, with Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The most recent examples of this have surrounded the same sex marriage debate. There are Christians who legitimately disagree on the role of the state in sanctioning same sex marriage. There are Christians who disagree on how the church should minister to homosexuals. There’s room for that conversation to take place within the body of believers. But when a Christian pastor suggests putting all the “lesbians and queers” behind an electrified fence until they die, or when another pastor preaches that the government should be killing homosexuals, or when a crowd of adults cheers wildly at anti-gay propaganda coming from the mouth of a little child? People, I don’t think the word “Christian” means what you think it means.
I’m not sure you understand what the word “pastor” means, either, by the way.
When faced with that sort of behavior I do not long to sit down with the people in question and say, “Brother, in the spirit of Christian fellowship, let me share from my heart why I believe you to be mistaken.” No, I want to shout from the rooftops, “That pastor is not a Christian!”
While this might seem presumptuous, I suspect some of those folks would return the favor. It has been suggested before that I’m too liberal, too Catholic-friendly, too Arminian, too anarchist and too feminist to be a Christian. I guess we can add “homosexual lover” to the list, since I’d rather they didn’t die.
It seems to be human nature to split into “Us” and “Them”, to treat our opposites on any number of issues as the dangerous “Other”. I could spend the rest of my life waging war from within my subgroups, and many Christians do. On the other hand I could be a latitudinarian on every issue: no worries; nothing matters that much; it’s not worth arguing about. Wesley thought that was a terrible idea. It’s also impractical. How can I be a latitudinarian (that is a mouthful!) toward both my gay friends and the pastor who would like to see them dead? How can I say “Live and let live” to both sides of that argument? And if the “sin” of my gay friends somehow shuts them out of the Kingdom (an assumption I’ve heard often enough), why doesn’t the “sin” of the hate-spewing pastors even shut them out of the pulpit?
I seem to have more questions than answers these days. Wesley said that what unites us as followers of Jesus, even when we disagree passionately on many things, is our devotion to God and our love for our neighbor. In another sermon, “The Almost Christian”, he made a similar argument. The world is full of people who seem respectable and religiously observant and who show up at church often enough. But if they don’t genuinely love God as He revealed Himself in Christ, and if that doesn’t spill over into an active love for others, well, that’s not Christianity. The word doesn’t mean what you think it means.
(As an aside, I anticipate the usual response about those pastors loving the homosexuals enough to tell them the truth about their sin. Don’t bother with that. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to wish people dead and then pretend to care about them. You just don’t.)
I’m not trying to create an Other, not trying to divide the world into Us and Them. But sometimes we have to clear the field a little. If only for the sake of my own sanity, I need the word “Christian” to mean something. And so I’m borrowing Wesley’s ideas. Pastor Worley, you’ve failed the love test. Rev. Knapp, please go back to the gospels and find Jesus. Congregation at Apostolic Truth Tabernacle, you should be ashamed of yourselves. I don’t know what’s going on there, but it’s not church. Call yourselves Fundamentalists, Religionists, Old-Timey Bible Thumpers, but for the love of God, leave Jesus out of it. Somewhere along the way, you’ve all lost sight of what it means to be a Christian.