Culture Wars: A Southern Test Case

Several days ago a group of Southern Christians declared war on homosexuality in metro-Memphis.  Taking out a full-page ad in the local paper–The Commercial Appeal–the group listed the majority of texts from the Bible which speak about homosexuality.  The ad ended with an extended quote purporting to contain threats from a radical gay and lesbian group against the children of this country.  The material in the ad was presented on behalf of Memphis Churches of Christ.

Some groups praised the ad.  Some protested it.  It was called hate-speech.  It was championed as truth.  ”They finally showed their true colors!” some shouted.  ”They finally took a stand!” some commented.  Letters to the editor piled up on both sides.  A local TV station ran a story on it.

I was given the opportunity by the Commercial Appeal and the local NBC affiliate to speak about the ad.  I wrote a brief article (about 340 words–copied below) in which I 1) explained that the ad did not come from Memphis Churches of Christ (virtually no congregation in the area knew anything about it until it was published), 2) proposed that if a Church of Christ were going to spend thousands on a full-page ad, there were plenty of better options for the topic of the ad, and 3) urged readers/listeners who were genuinely interested in knowing what area churches thought about same-sex attraction to contact a church leader directly.

It turns out that the ad was written by a handful of individuals.  And the shocking quote used at the end was taken out of context (the quote is actually a group saying, “Here’s how people often look at us…here’s what people think we are saying–but we aren’t!”).

My article brought relief to many.  It brought disdain from some.  Friends and strangers shared testimonies of gay family members/friends who had left churches because they were treated as second or third class.  Others wrote or called calling me to repent, claiming I was doing the devil’s work, and urging us to remove “Church of Christ” from our church sign.

The events provide an interesting test-case for how churches/Christians address moral issues within the culture.  While I must confess that I’m still “in process” on this test-case, the following are some of my anchor-points:

First, churches/ Christians can’t demand that outsiders behave in Christlike ways and believe in Christlike things before the outsiders are allowed to experience any concrete sign of belonging from us.  This behave-believe-belong model seems to contract most cases in Scripture, especially in the Gospels.  Jesus seems to provide a belong-believe-behave type of model.  We first build relationships of love and earn people’s trust, then we move into issues of belief and behavior.  I once read an even better interpretation of Jesus’ ministry from Phyllis Tickle: belong-believe-become.  We demonstrate love and care, we move into issues of belief, and then we invite people into a process of becoming–a process none of us have finished.

Second, as friend Leon Sanderson is noted for saying, “Jesus loved sinners–and sinners loved Jesus.”  The amazing thing is that genuinely sinful people enjoyed being with Jesus.  They crowded around him.  They wanted to be with him.  Could the same be said of us–do the people considered most sinful in our society long to be with us Christians?  Do they experience joy in their hearts when they think of spending time in our churches?  My guess is they don’t.

Third, Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery is still paradigmatic.  Both Jesus and the religious leaders agreed that the woman’s behavior was wrong.  But how they communicated this truth varied greatly.  The religious leaders went public with her sin and demanded complete change before any sense of acceptance might be shown.  Jesus went private and risked his life and reputation for her before addressing her lifestyle.  The religious leaders offered only condemnation.  Jesus offered transformation.  The religious leaders spotlighted one sin and ignored others (After all, where was the man?  It takes two to transgress.)  Jesus focused on the woman as a human, not a monster.

Fourth, the problem with culture’s view of sexual issues is not that they think too highly of sex, it’s that they don’t think highly enough of sex.  God has the highest view of sex.  His is the most liberated and least repressive view of sex.  The Bible’s boundaries regarding sexual behaviors and sexual thoughts exist in order to protect the remarkably precious gift which sex is.  It seems that the church’s message to the outside world about sex is almost always negative.  But God has good news to share about sex as well.  If we are going to say something to the culture about sexual issues, let’s share it as good news.

Fifth, we need to wrestle with our role in the world.  Jonathan Storment has written thoughtfully in a recent blog about whether the church has a role in judging/condemning what’s taking place in culture.  This is a missional identity question we need to answer carefully.

How about you?  What are some anchor points for you when it comes to culture wars?

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[Posted on News Channel 5's website and published in the Commercial Appeal 11/3/12]

On behalf of Memphis-area Churches of Christ, I’d like to say the following: disregard anyone claiming to speak for Churches of Christ.

Several days ago a full-page ad appeared in the Commercial Appeal. Its author indicated that the ad was presented on behalf of area Churches of Christ. The flyer claimed to present the view of these congregations regarding same-sex attraction.

Ironically, Churches of Christ are non-denominational. That’s a religious way of saying we have no formal superstructure, no official bishops, representatives or the like. For one person or group to claim to speak for Churches of Christ is a bit like me claiming to speak for Memphis when I vote next Tuesday. My vote speaks only for me. Each congregation in Churches of Christ speaks only for itself.

Anyone familiar with the history of non-denominational groups like Churches of Christ would know it would be a miracle to meet with the nearly ninety congregations in metro-Memphis and bring them to agreement on a written document like the Commercial Appeal ad. We’ve fussed over things much less significant (of course, we’re not the only group to do so). No such meeting took place. No such miracle was recorded.

Churches of Christ, and other Christian congregations in the U. S., have the perception of being repressive, exclusive and intolerant. Young people are leaving institutional Christianity by droves. There’s not an ad, no matter the author, that can adequately address these concerns. And, by the way, if I were going to take a page out in the Commercial Appeal, I’d probably speak of the transforming love of Jesus for all.

So, if you’d like to know what people in Churches of Christ think about an issue like homosexuality, don’t look for an answer in the paper. Visit a minister or elder at a local congregation. Go to lunch. Have coffee. Talk one on one with a real person. Who knows, you may just be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Sincerely,

Chris Altrock
Senior Minister
Highland Church of Christ

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  • JRay

    Thanks Chris! Appreciate your gracious, loving response on this one.